Guitar Hero 

Mark Knopfler matures with grace

by Aaron JentzenThough Knopfler was indeed a rock star in Dire Straits’ 1980s heyday, his music has allowed him to mature with grace, perhaps even growing in dignity as he’s gone on.

At a recent Peter Murphy concert, I fought back a sense of cringing embarrassment while watching the former Bauhaus vocalist and goth forefather stalk the stage, occasionally breaking into dance and pantomime—then pausing to catch his breath. Murphy’s voice and material were superb, but instead of presenting himself as a composer, vocalist or songwriter, he tried to play the preening rock star and ended up seeming more the faded vampire, sucking the blood of his own youth. I left early.

A month earlier, watching the original lineup of Van Halen perform, I felt a similar unease as a waxed and dyed David Lee Roth performed a combination of high kicks, libidinous leers—and geriatric hobbles. No matter how talented a musician may be, or how potent their legacy, some genres are extremely unkind to performers as they age.

But what does any of this have to do with Mark Knopfler? Though Knopfler was indeed a rock star in Dire Straits’ 1980s heyday (perhaps to his own surprise as much as anyone’s), his music has allowed him to mature with grace, perhaps even growing in dignity as he’s gone on. “Punish the Monkey,” off last year’s Kill to Get Crimson album, with it’s eerie spaghetti-Western atmospheres, fluid guitar lines and darkly sardonic lyrics, sounds of a piece with “Down to the Waterline,” from Dire Straits’ 1978 self-titled debut; both sound decorous coming from a man entering his sixth decade.

Perhaps it’s because Knopfler, born in Glasgow in 1949, was already pushing 30 when Dire Straits hit the shelves. But I suspect it’s more that, since the beginning, the most integral elements of Knopfler’s music have combined to make him sound like a wise old man from another era.

Knopfler’s principal calling card has always been his utterly distinctive guitar playing. His opening salvo, the still-inspiring and inimitable “Sultans of Swing,” may not have sold as many Stratocasters as “Purple Haze” did, but his sound is as immediately identifiable as that of Hendrix. Like many of the guitar greats of the 1960s and ’70s, he has a touch—in this case, with his unusual method of fingerpicking on an electric guitar, it’s literally the sound of Knopfler’s flesh interacting with wires and electricity. Small wonder Rolling Stone recently noted “Sultans of Swing” as No. 32 in its “100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.”

It’s a sound and sensibility that many other performers have sought to add to their own music, resulting in collaborations and session work with a who’s who of baby-boomer superstars: Van Morrison, Sting, Steely Dan, The Chieftains, James Taylor and Bob Dylan, to name just a few. His 2006 album with Emmylou Harris, All the Roadrunning, the result of a seven-year collaboration, prompted a Grammy nomination, extensive tour and the live CD/DVD, Real Live Roadrunning.

While Knopfler’s guitar may be his real voice, the one that comes out of his mouth is—if barely considered singing—also highly distinctive. His raspy Dylanesque croak has always seemed old and knowing, capable of registering kindness and subtle scorn. Seldom sounding above a murmur, its closeness and intimacy seem equally suited to nostalgic love songs (“Romeo and Juliet”), elegiac meditations (“Brothers in Arms”) and character sketches (“Lady Writer”).

Lyrically, Knopfler has a knack for using odd details to sketch out larger narratives, which in 1984 yielded one of the more baffling hits of the MTV era, “Money for Nothing,” a mockery of made-for-TV rock stars told from the perspective of average (and not very politically correct) working stiffs. Just as Dire Straits were out of step with the punk era when the band started, Brothers in Arms had little in common with either hair metal or new wave, but went on to sell a staggering number of copies (the first CD to sell over a million copies) on the basis of the hits “Money for Nothing,” “Walk of Life” and “So Far Away.”

The basis of Knopfler’s lyrical skills, I’d like to think, came from his years as a reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Post in the late 1960s; he graduated with an English degree from Leeds University in 1973, wrote music reviews and worked as a lecturer before forming what would become Dire Straits. When the band closed up shop in 1995, Knopfler embarked on a solo career, releasing his debut Golden Heart in 1996, followed by 2000’s Sailing to Philadelphia, 2002’s The Ragpicker’s Dream and Shangri-La in 2004, along with the ongoing soundtrack work he began in 1983 with the film Local Hero.

On his most recent album, last year’s Kill to Get Crimson, the song “Madame Geneva’s” seems to give a nod to both his career as a worker in song and to those early days as a journalist: “I’m a maker of ballads right pretty / I write them right here in the street / You can buy them all over the city / Yours for a penny a sheet / I’m a word pecker out of the printers / I’ll write up a scene on a counter / Confessions and sins in the main, boys,” he sings.

Overall, the album offers a mellow, folk-inflected backdrop for Knopfler’s trademarks, including his tendency to operate entirely independent of the times.

“Sonically, what I was trying to do in a way as well was to tie up those strands that are important to me, which is namely folk music, but tied in with the sound of the electric guitar as it struck me [in the late 1950s],” Knopfler says, in a video promoting the album. “So I think, in other words, what I’m doing is up my alley.”

And as long as that alley doesn’t suddenly start to incorporate high kicks and rock-star posturing, it’s a tasteful, scenic route that Knopfler and his fans should enjoy exploring for years to come.

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