One day in 1977, Mark Knopfler and John Illsley visited an art gallery run by a friend in London’s West End. “We just couldn’t believe the stuff that was in this gallery,” Illsley recalls, “bits of string, bricks piled up in a comer, garbage cans strewn all over the floor.”
During the ride home to their apartment in south London, Knopfler sat in the back seat of the car, scribbling furiously. “We got to the flat,” Illsley explains, “and he stayed writing in the back seat. So I went upstairs and made myself a cup of tea. Thirty minutes later, he finally came in. ‘I just finished this song,’ he said. And that was ‘In the Gallery,’ ” Illsley says. ” Illsley says. “He wrote the whole thing between Shaftesbury Avenue and Deptford.”
Mark Knopfler — singer, songwriter, guitarist and undisputed captain of Dire Straits — still works with the same intensity and single — minded devotion to his craft. The group has long been a superstar attraction in England, Europe, Australia and Japan. Now, the smash hit “Money for Nothing” has given the band its first Number One album in America; Brothers in Arms has already sold 2 million copies. But Mark Knopfler has rarely been seen in public without a guitar around his neck since he founded Dire Straits in the summer of 1977 as a vehicle for his evocative country-and-blues-rooted songs. Offstage, his life seems to be an endless succession of Dire Straits recording sessions, film soundtracks (Local Hero, Cal, Comfort and Joy), production assignments (Bob Dylan, Aztec Camera) and guest appearances on other artists’ records (Van Morrison, Bryan Ferry and Steely Dan; “Private Dancer,” recorded by Tina Turner, bears his copyright).
“Even now I just go up and look at my guitars sitting on the side of the stage,” admits Knopfler, 36, idly chewing on a guitar pick before a recent New York show. “I’ll hang out at Rudy’s Music Stop down on Forty-eighth Street when I’m in town, just to be around the instruments, just looking at the damn things.” (New Dire Straits guitarist Jack Sonni used to work at Rudy’s.)
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When Knopfler talks about his music, he often seems at a loss for words. Running a hand through his receding brown curls, he interrupts his sentences with thoughtful pauses. His arctic-blue eyes are often cast to the floor, as if the next word is written on his shoe.
Yet his mind certainly works in Cinerama and his guitar often speaks in tongues. Knopfler’s 1983 soundtrack for the Bill Forsyth film Local Hero conjures up vivid images of the Scottish Highlands with its pensive melodies and the solitary sigh of his guitar. His lyrical soloing on Dire Straits, the group’s 1978 debut album, resonates with animated echoes of moaning cotton-field blues, Nashville plucking and gutsy Sun rockabilly. His singing is a smoky mumble, but it renders his rich lyric portraits of young lovers (“Down to the Waterline”) and jazzmen (“Sultans of Swing”) with seductive intimacy.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1949, Mark Knopfler is the son of a Jewish architect whose communist sympathies forced him to flee the fascist regime in his native Hungary. When Mark was about nine years old, the family moved to Newcastle, in the north of England. At fifteen, he got his first guitar. Not long after, he cut his first record in a London studio, an unreleased demo of an original song, “Summer’s Coming My Way.”
Knopfler worked for two years as a cub reporter at the Yorkshire Evening Post and, after graduating with an English degree from Leeds University, was a lecturer at Loughton College in Essex. In April 1977, he moved into a London apartment shared by his younger brother David and bassist John Illsley. With the addition of drummer Pick Withers, they became Dire Straits.
The pressures of the group’s sudden success — they got BBC airplay with a demo of “Sultans of Swing” and had a record deal by Christmas 1977 — eventually ripped the band in half. “David was under a lot of strain,” says Illsley. “Mark felt very responsible for David and didn’t quite know what to do. But once Making Movies was out and David had left, it seemed to lift a tremendous strain. Mark felt very freed.” Withers also quit, in 1982.
With his second wife, the former Lourdes Salamone (he was briefly married during his university days), Knopfler splits his home life between apartments in New York’s Greenwich Village and London’s West End. But he isn’t seeing much of either this year. The current seven-member Dire Straits is in the middle of a mammoth world tour that will not end until next April.
Do you go into training for a tour of this length?
Oh, yes. I warm up on the rowing machine, and then I lift weights. You have to, or you’d be exhausted. I don’t run — running’s boring — but I’ve always loved sports. I played a little football [soccer] when I was young, but I only started getting strong when I was seventeen or eighteen.
The thing I like most about sports is hand-eye stuff, which I guess connects with playing guitar. I’m crazy about motor racing. I figure that if I didn’t know how to play a note and didn’t have any music in me, that’s what I’d like to do. ‘Cause that’s an occupation guided by a very simple rule: Don’t fuck up. It’s always struck me as being very much to the point.
It’s obviously a rule that you apply to your rock & roll affairs as well. You’ve worked for your success in a very quiet, businesslike manner.
What happened with us is we became so successful quite quickly that we gathered up as much power as we could for ourselves. I would say that the vast majority of what you see is voluntary. I mean, you won’t see us doing jingles for radio stations. I keep the making-music side of it as the main thing. Everything else is peripheral.
Was stardom something you actively pursued?
Oh, no. That’s a byproduct of a love affair with a guitar and wanting to be in a band and make music. I always wanted to be in a band. I used to draw pictures of bands when I was a little kid in school. I used to draw pictures of guitars all day. I used to go and watch a guy in the woodwork room making a guitar, just so I could hold it. I pestered my dad for years and years until I got a cheap imitation one. It was a red imitation Stratocaster. He bought it for me on my fifteenth birthday. It cost fifty pounds, which was a lot then.
Were your parents musically inclined?
They can both sing in tune. My father tried to teach me piano and violin. He tried the piano when I was six, but I wouldn’t bother reading the music. I would just play by ear, and as soon as it got difficult, I was in trouble.
But then I heard my uncle Kingsley play boogie-woogie when I was about eight years old. That was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard. Those three chords, the logic of it. So I just used to slam out boogie-woogie on the piano, drive everybody nuts.
How did you do with the violin?
I was about thirteen. I could get great-sounding notes out of it, but don’t ask me to read music. I tried the saxophone a couple of years ago, but it’s so much tied in with reading that it’s impossible for me. I go by my ears. I can’t relate music to those dots.
I found out more about music in the past few years just by studying chords. You learn them the same way you do words. You hear a long word and you know what it means just by its usage. Your vocabulary increases. The same way with chords. I can recognize music now that I couldn’t have four years ago.
What was your first band?
It was just school friends playing at somebody’s house. Then we played a couple of school dances.
When I left university, I went down to London and got in this band called Brewer’s Droop. I was with them for maybe two months. They were sort of an obscene R&B Cajun outfit. Brewer’s droop is something that you suffer from when you’ve been drinking too much and you can’t get it up.
They actually had a deal with RCA that was just falling apart when I joined them. But I did a bunch of gigs with them. That was my first taste of playing on the college and big-clubs circuit. I did a little bit of recording with Brewer’s Droop at Rockfield Studios. I don’t think any of it ever came out.
After that, I just starved to death, basically. It got pretty tough until I got hold of this teaching job that saved my life. Then I had a band called the Café Racers, which was the name of a kind of motorcycle, not a particular make, just a customized street bike. We played around the pubs and the college where I was teaching.
You also worked as a journalist, even dabbling in music criticism.
A girl I knew, her big brother was a newspaper reporter, and I thought, “Oh, he seems to be having an interesting time.” I started out with nine pounds, eighteen shillings and three pence a week [about $23.75 at the time].
What sort of music did you review?
Local bands, some of the big bands that came to town as well. The last story I ever wrote for the newspaper — on the day that I left — was the death of Jimi Hendrix. I was in the press room at Leeds Town Hall,’ cause I’d been covering the courts all day, when the news editor came in and said, “Hello, lad, Jimmy Henderson or Jimi Hendrix or whatever the bloody hell he’s called died. Did you know him? Well, we haven’t got any time. I’m putting you straight onto copy.” I was stunned. I don’t recall what I wrote. I said some stuff, left the paper and got drunk.
How did you get back into rock & roll after you quit teaching?
It’s amazing what I’ve done to get into bands — hitchhike up and down the country with a heavy electric guitar, getting on buses with two guitars to go up to an audition. I remember once hitchhiking home up to Newcastle on Christmas Day from the other end of the country, the snow all around, nobody on the roads, with a guitar and a bag, standing in the middle of nowhere. You’ve really got to want to do it.
For me and John, in the early stages of the Dire Straits thing, there was a collective willpower that went into it. If you’re a lazy son of a bitch, you’re just going to sit around and complain ’cause there’s nothing happening. We weren’t.
Your songwriting has undergone a major shift in recent years, from the evocative, atmospheric quality of “Wild West End” and “Down to the Waterline” to the simpler, more direct verse on Brothers in Arms. What inspired that change?
I’m not saying I’ve had it with ambiguity or that things can’t be multilayered. I’ve just become more drawn to writing those kinds of songs, where there is no problem in terms of who’s singing what. If I listen to Willie Nelson sing “Blue Skies,” it always strikes me as great, very simple and direct.
Sometimes it’s better to go for the big, broad, beautiful statement rather than start getting involved in all this ambiguity. I think “Born in the U.S.A.” is a classic example. Even Reagan can come in and invoke the spirit of Springsteen and couple him with Rambo. Bruce is trying to say, I think, that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with loving your country, and there’s nothing wrong with good citizenship. But the meaning has been taken and distorted by outsiders and used for their own purposes. I certainly don’t want Reagan coming on to my songs and using them. I’d certainly have something to say to him about it if he tried, too.
The layers of irony in “Money for Nothing” have certainly confused people.
I got an objection from the editor of a gay newspaper in London — he actually said it was “below the belt.” Apart from the fact that there are stupid gay people as well as stupid other people, it suggests that maybe you can’t let it have so many meanings — you have to be direct.
In fact, I’m still of two minds as to whether it’s a good idea to write songs that aren’t in the first person, to take on other characters. The singer in “Money for Nothing” is a real ignoramus, hardhat mentality — somebody who sees everything in financial terms. I mean, this guy has a grudging respect for rock stars. He sees it in terms of, well, that’s not working and yet the guy’s rich; that’s a good scam. He isn’t sneering.
How did you write “Sultans of Swing”? John Illsley says that on an early tape you made of the song, it actually had more of a lilting, country-and-western feel.
It had a completely different musical thing to it. I wrote it on an acoustic guitar. Then when I started playing it on the Strat, it came out different, just because I was using a different guitar.
I actually saw a jazz band one night in south London. It reminded me that whenever a band plays something like “Creole Love Call,” you realize how beautiful that music is. It’s important to listen, to know about that music. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Ellington or a traditional jazz band or Roland Kirk who plays it. It’s fine music.
What about “Tunnel of Love,” which is more complicated in terms of its length and arrangement?
It’s in different sections, but there’s a kind of logic to it. It seemed like it needed that breakdown section in the middle with the drums, trying to convey the big swinging movement, the screaming and the noise. It all stems from extending an idea. You can use circus music as a device to put you there, where there’s a smell and a feel, a geography where people can have their own little stories, be in their own little movie.
Is there a big difference between making those little movies and doing film soundtracks? Ry Cooder has said he feels his best music is on soundtracks, not his albums, because he thinks he’s freed from constructing a three-minute single. Do you ever feel that way?
I can understand what he means, but I’ve never felt constrained like that when I’m making a commercial album. It’s a bit more complicated doing a film. It all depends on how much technical knowledge you’ve got — I have very little. How much diplomacy you’ve got. How much of a musician you are. How much of an administrator you are — and I’m zero at that. Then, too, directors are different. I’ve worked with only two, Bill Forsyth and David Puttnam. They’re completely different in their feeling about music, about where they want it in a scene and how much. Some directors know down to the second how much they want, and others are very vague.
What was it like coproducing Bob Dylan’s Infidels album?
I met him the first time we played Los Angeles. He came down to see the band, and then I started going out to Santa Monica, where he had a place, and we would run down his songs for Slow Train Coming.
For Infidels, I was in the studio in New York, set up to do Local Hero. Bob wanted Sly [Dunbar] and Robbie [Shakespeare] and Mick Taylor, so we got them. Neil Dorfsman [coproducer of Brothers in Arms] was the house engineer at the Power Station, and I had Alan [Clark, Dire Straits’ keyboardist] over. We had a little house band. Because Bob had been at my house a few times to run down the stuff, it was usually easy to get something on tape. Because with Bob Dylan, he’s not necessarily going to be around to sing it more than two or three times.
There have been a lot of personnel changes in the band, and one hears you’re a stern taskmaster. Do you think you are?
No. That’s one of the things you can’t win. If you are, you’re a dictator. If you’re not, you’re a wimp. Ninety-five percent of the time I like being the fearless leader. I just think that when you write a song and get it together, you want to get it done right. Now if that sometimes involves making people work long hours in rehearsals, that’s fair enough.
Sometimes, I make the mistake of stopping and waiting for somebody else to give, waiting for somebody else to show how much they care. I’ve done that a few times, and I don’t think it gets you very far.
Do you solicit advice from the band, say, about lyrics?
No, never have. I can only recall one time, with one word: Jack [Sonni] suggested I use makeup in “Money for Nothing” [“See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup”] instead of tutu. I was using tutu.
How would you describe your relationship with your brother David now?
It’s cool. I don’t see much of him, really, just because we’re in different countries.
What led to the split between you and David after Communiqué?
I think the main thing is that I’m naturally cut out to do what I’m doing. And I’m not sure whether Dave is. I’m not sure how much he would be prepared to go through all the things that I was telling you before. I mean, Dave was never into guitar as much as I was. Dave plays only keyboards now.
Was there any bitterness between the two of you after he left the band?
I never thought about it. We’ve always been able to speak to each other. I played on his first solo record. I was concerned with going on. I knew what I wanted to do. The other guys could come or not.
Do you have any idea what you’ll be doing twenty years from now?
I’ll be in clubs, playing. I’ll fall over onstage, dead, someday. I’d like to work on a smaller scale again, play some small clubs. I got together with J.J. Cale in a club in San Francisco not long ago and had a really good time. I got up with the Everly Brothers in a club in Canada. They recorded “Why Worry,” from Brothers in Arms, and I played a few songs with them.
What musicians do you listen to these days for pleasure?
If I ever get the chance to sit around at home, I return to certain artists again and again. Like Van Morrison. I think even something recent of his, like Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, is fabulous. “Rave On, John Donne” is a magnificent song. I like J.J. Cale a lot. I like the rough textures of his records.
How about guitar players?
Yeah, a lot of dead ones: Robert Johnson, Lonnie Johnson. B.B. King, who’s very much alive, is a big influence. I heard Live at the Regal when I was sixteen, and that was a great moment, ’cause I felt that a triangle was formed on that record: guitar, voice and audience, and it was amazing to hear. There’s also the fact that on his records the guitar seems to do some of the work of the singer — his guitar has such a clear voice. Maybe that appeals to me because I’m not much of a singer in the conventional sense, certainly not like B.B. King is. So my guitar becomes another, better voice I can use.
When I was a little kid, I sang Everly Brothers songs with a friend of mine. I really tried to sing well, and I think we did, for kids. But in general, I think singers absorb the influence of other singers. Eric Clapton’s one of my favorite singers. People don’t give him enough credit for his singing. As a singer, he’s the white Ray Charles. Bob Dylan’s another influence on my singing. I don’t hear it as much as other people seem to, but I know he’s in there, in my phrasing. A lot of my favorite singers, people like Tom Waits, Ry Cooder, J.J. Cale, they’re not technically great. But to me, that’s what makes them special.
What is there left for you to learn about the guitar?
The thing about my guitar playing is that I don’t know much about it. It’s a process of always learning stuff. I recently went down to Nashville to play with Chet Atkins on an album he’s making of duets with other guitarists. I could have stayed there for five years. I loved it and learned so much. So it never ends, what you need to learn. In terms of my vocabulary with the guitar, I think I can say, “Hello, how are you?” and that’s about it.
I basically feel that as long as you have soul and you have melody, then it doesn’t matter whether you’re Miles Davis or Waylon Jennings. You’re going to make good music. Often, you find that very advanced, trained musicians love and adore players with very little technique at all, and that’s as it should be.
Have you ever released an album and then thought, “Boy, that was a step in the wrong direction. I wish I hadn’t put that out”?
All of them.
All of them?
Oh, yeah. I don’t like them that much. The best stuff happens when you’re just sitting around playing, by miles. I don’t like to sit around listening to my own records — it’s perverse. I think in general that there’s too much attention paid to albums just because of this business that’s grown up around it. I’m going to be playing better stuff than anything on my records if I get up in a tiny bar and play with a bar band.
As rock stars go, you seem to be all work and no play. Would you say you’re a workaholic, that you do music to the exclusion of all else?
I wish that wasn’t the case. Because I like all the things that guys like. You know, I love to eat and I love to sleep. I love to watch sports, I like cars. But when you’re touring so much and doing all these things, it ends up that you haven’t got time to put in new light bulbs all over the place. I just don’t get off on painting the toilet.
I get accused of being lazy. I’m lying on the bed, watching sports on TV, and Lourdes wants me off the bed, she wants to tidy up around me. I end up getting thrown out of the house. You have to go do something, right? So why not go do a session?