A couple of years ago when a man I admired and respected was dying, I was asked to prepare an article to be published when he died. Basically an obituary, but also an appreciation for a talented man who through fate, bad luck, and his own demons never really received the recognition he deserved. While I was able to supply the nuts and bolts of his career and give my opinion, I knew if I wanted people to notice I’d need to have a quote from a not only a familiar name but one whose opinion would carry some weight. While there was an obvious choice I didn’t hold out much hope of hearing back from him as he didn’t know me from a hole in the ground. However, to my delight and heartfelt appreciation, it was only about a week after I sent out the email request I heard back from Mark Knopfler.
He hadn’t worked with Willy DeVille since the late 1980s when they had made the Miracle album, which included the theme song for the movie The Princess Bride, “Storybook Love”, which had garnered DeVille an Academy Award nomination. Yet in spite of that he wrote a beautiful and gracious letter saying what he had appreciated about DeVille’s singing and the pleasure he had making his minor contributions to the album (his words not mine). Listening to his new release, Privateering, released by Universal Music September 11, 2012, I’m reminded once again not only of Knopfler’s talent, but the simple elegance of spirit that infuses both his music and everything about the man. It’s not a thing you can point your finger at and say look there’s an example, there’s just something his music exudes which cocoons you with its warmth of heart. Like a magic cloak, you can wrap around yourself to protect you from the privations of the world.
This latest release, in its basic form, is a two disc set containing 20 tracks ranging from electric blues to traditional sounding folk from the British Isles, all performed with his usual understated excellence. You also have a choice to buy the release as double LP, a deluxe set including an additional CD of rehearsals for his last tour packaged in hard back book format, or you can go the whole hog and purchase a box set which includes the two CDs, the two LPs, an additional bonus CD of three songs, a documentary DVD called A Life In Song, a card with code allowing you to download a concert, and a numbered art print. However, no matter which version of the release you choose to buy, you can count on hearing superbly played music and a guitar which sings like no other.
In one of the books in his The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, the late British author Douglas Adams spent a couple of paragraphs rhapsodizing about the way Knopfler played his Fender Stratocaster. He called it the most beautiful sound in the known universe, even more beautiful than the sounds made by some sort of love dragons. In fact, Adams went on to say, if these love dragons happened to hear Knopfler play, they would just pack it in, weeping in frustration over their inability to match the quality of his playing. Now Adams was known for his hyperbole, and of course he was a science fiction writer, so its doubtful the love dragons in question really exist. However, his point about the sensuous beauty Knopfler is able to create with his Stratocaster wasn’t exaggerated.
In his typical understated fashion though, Knopfler flashes his talent only rarely. Unlike others who seem to feel the need to be constantly saying “look at me,” he is quite content with sharing the spotlight with those he plays with. Oh sure, he’ll take his solos, and be it slide, acoustic, or electric guitar they are all things of beauty, but they’re only one part of a song, not the song’s reason for being. (Note: For some reason the order of songs on the download I received for review purposes seems to bear no relationship whatsoever to the order they appear on the actual release. So in order to avoid any potential confusion I’ll only refer to tracks by name.)
Listen to a song like “After the Bean Stalk”, a delta blues-type ode to Jack’s life after successfully pilfering from the giant in the sky three times, and you’ll hear what I mean. Both Kim Wilson on harp (which I have to assume is harmonica since there’s nobody credited with playing harmonica) and Tim O’Brien on mandolin have their instruments featured far more prominently than anything Knopfler does on this song. You’ll also notice as you listen to the disc how this track is emblematic of the release’s theme of there being no easy ride in this life. There aren’t any magic beans that will magically make your troubles all vanish: “Oh, Mama what’s the matter now/Oh Mama what’s the matter now/I’m still up in the morning to get behind the plough.” Even after three trips up the bean stalk you still have to get up and work the fields if you want to eat.
Even on a song which lends itself to uncorking a guitar lead, the rollicking honky tonk “I Used To Could”, Knopfler holds back to allow his long time keyboard associate Guy Fletcher to share the spotlight with Wilson’s harp on the solo breaks. At the same time though, both the piano and the harp make the most sense in this song about driving 18 wheelers. The harmonica catches both the loneliness of the road and, along with the piano, brings the rhythm of the wheels eating up miles of highway to life. This combination works perfectly with the lyrics. They not only manage to capture the difficulties of life as a long distance trucker, but the appeal it can have to a certain type of person, all without sentimentalizing the experience or making the driver into some sort of hero: “GMC Cannonball going like a train/All down the 40 in the driving rain/All those horses underneath the hood/I don’t do it no more but I used to could”.
What I really appreciated about this disc is how easily Knopfler is able to cross the ocean musically from his adopted land of blues and country music back to his homeland’s folk traditions. “You Two Crows” sees him swing back from the rainy highways of America to the rainswept moors of the British Isles. The uilleann pipes of Mike McGoldrick are enough to bring a shiver to anyone’s spine, and they set the tone for this tale of a shepherd and his dog out in the rain contemplating life. Taking shelter from the rain and drinking from his flask, he questions his career choice: “And once again I ask/What made you think/There’d be a living in sheep/Eat, work, eat, work and sleep.” However, the two crows of the title, looking for carrion to eat, but most of all survivors, seem to give him the strength to continue: “And I raise my flask/To the clearing skies/To you sweepers/You carrion spies/To scavenge and survive/If you can do it so can I.”
Its a beautiful and haunting sounding song, but like the other tracks its firmly rooted in reality. The farmer has chosen a hard life for himself and knows damn well he’s going to have be as tough and ornery as any crow in order to survive. There’s nothing romantic about this rainswept heath, no brooding heroes or beautiful heroines wandering looking for lost loves, only mud, dirt and the hard work of making a living from a herd of sheep. Yet, even here, in this tough and dirty song, you can feel the love Knopfler has for his subject. The respect he holds for the people who have to get their hands dirty, in one way or another, in order to get by. As he says in another song, “Corned Beef City”: “You don’t ask questions/When there’s nothing in the bank/Got to feed the kids/And put diesel in the tank.” Sometimes people don’t have much choice and they do what is necessary in order to survive.
Like the gentleman he is, Knopfler doesn’t judge any of the people he sings or writes about. There’s not many people who can sing about the realities of having to make a living with compassion and understanding without pontificating. Not only does Knopfler avoid those traps, he doesn’t make the mistake of romanticizing these people either. These aren’t odes to the salt of the earth, these are songs about people. Of course these are songs, not essays on the plight of the working man, so they also sound wonderful and are played with the seemingly effortless skill of all Knopfler’s creations. To make this combination work successfully it takes a person with equal amounts compassion, understanding of human nature, and musical ability. Mark Knopfler is such a person.
Photo Credit: Picture of Mark Knopfler by Fabio Lovino