Music as Short Story: Why Mark Knopfler is Still My Guitar Hero

Before you ask, “Mark who?” I’ll refresh your memory:  Dire Straits. You know–“Money for Nothin”? “Sultans of Swing”? That band. That guy. Those guitar riffs. He’s always been my favorite singer-songwriter–and not just because his weird last name is nearly identical to the one I was born with (Klopfer–but that connection helps).

I clearly remember the first time I heard Dire Straits. I was a junior in high school, back in 1978, cleaning up my room, when “Sultans of Swing” came on the radio. I stopped dead and asked aloud, “Who’s that?” Maybe it was the guitar licks, maybe the unusual lyrics: a song about under-appreciated jazz musicians in the time of rock ‘n’ roll? Whatever. I was hooked. I still am.

This weekend I got to see him live (for only the second time), and my admiration’s only grown. First of all, he’s superbly professional. He walks onstage with no fanfare and no warm-up band, and plays a straight 140-minute set with only one break to introduce his fellow musicians, most of whom have been playing with him for 20-35 years. Secondly, he’s a guitar master, someone who single-handedly converted me to the idea that an electric guitar could make music as complex, nuanced, and, well, classical as a violin.

And then there are his songs. MK tends to write from the point of view of working men, in an astounding array of roles. Off the top of my head, I can think of Knopfler songs in the POV of a trucker, a sailor, a boxer, a racecar driver, a farmer, a bricklayer, a ballad-writer from the 1800s, a pawnbroker/Holocaust survivor, a painter, and a sculptor. Some of his songs are from the mind of the bad guy: a snake-oil salesman, a mobster, a bank robber. He’s written songs about historical figures: Elvis Presley, Sonny Liston, even Mason & Dixon. One of my favorites, “Baloney Again,” presents the perspective of a Black, staunchly Christian musician on the road in the segregated South.

Ironically, Knopfler’s most popular mid-90s numbers, like “Money For Nothin,” are my least favorite, but even that one’s misunderstood. If all you hear is “money for nothin’ and your chicks for free,” you might think MK’s a chauvinist pig, when in fact that song’s written from the POV of a working stiff, who has to “install microwave ovens/custom kitchen delivery,” complaining about rich rock stars.

Songs as short stories, with a range of instruments like Irish pipes and accordion playing background to jaw-dropping guitar-picking? That’s why MK’s my guy.

I am not the type of audience member to take pictures, much less video, during a concert. I prefer to be fully in the moment. But if you want to hear for yourself, this shaky video captures MK’s finale song pretty well: “Piper to the End.”

Favorite Knopfler song you’d like to share? Or do you have your own guitar–or piano, or whatever–hero or heroine? Tell me why.

 

 

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