Mark Knopfler: the heavy backpack of being a guitar hero – 10/16/2022

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The April 2, 2001 one of the guitar heroes appeared in Montevideo for the first and only time. Mark Knopfler stayed at the defunct Sheraton hotel and wowed a crowd at the summer theater. Even then, 21 years ago, he was not the Knopfler of Dire Straits that had his guitar as the main voice. He was the Knopfler soloist stomping the path of traditional Scottish and Celtic music, from which he has not strayed to this day. In any case, in that memorable concert held in the Parque Rodó quarries there was no shortage of classics by the band that made it world famous, such as Sultans of Swing, Money for Nothing, Brothers in Arms y Walk of Life.

Mark Knopfler (73) is the son of an English teacher, Louisa Mary, and a Hungarian architect, Erwin Knopfler, who had to flee his native country persecuted by the Nazis for being Jewish. The family settled in Glasgow (the largest city in Scotland and the third largest in the United Kingdom after London and Birmingham), where Mark and his two brothers were born. They then moved to Blyth, in the North East of England.

His love for the instrument that made him world famous was born in the 1960s, when he joined small local bands and was amazed by other guitarists of the time such as Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, JJ Caley Hank Marvin. At the age of 16 he formed a duo with his friend Sue Hercombe. So it never crossed her mind that she could make a living from music.

In 1967 he took a journalism course which later led him to work as a reporter for a Leeds city newspaper. Around those years he met Steve Philips, a blues singer and guitarist with whom he created the duo The Duolian String Pickers. And he recorded his first demo, Summer’s Coming My Way. On September 18, 1970, he wrote his last account in the Yorkshire Evening Post about Hendrix’s death. And he decided to start studying English philology at the university. During that stage he married for the first time. He did it with Kathleen Urwin White, who, like him, came from Newcastle and attended the same university.

After graduating from Leeds in 1973, he moved to London. It was the necessary step if she wanted to dedicate herself professionally to music. There he worked for two months with a band called Brewer’s Droop. And the stars began to align. Not by chance, but because Knopfler already showed, with every note and performance, that he was a refined guitarist and songwriter.

“Extreme Situation”

The name of the band that made him famous in the late 1970s stems from the moment he was going through in his life: Dire Straits could be translated as “extreme situation”.

Once Brewer’s Droop was dissolved, Knopfler had a difficult time financially until he got a teaching job at Loughton College in Essex, which barely allowed him to cover his basic expenses. For two years he lived in a flat on Buckhurst Hill, while playing in small clubs with a band formed by friends from the school where he taught, called Café Racers.

In April 1977 he moved in with his brother David (also a guitarist) and his friend John Illsley, a bass player from Leicester, with whom they formed Dire Straits. The style of the band went against the grain of the trends of the time, when punk rock dominated everything. The drummer they recruited was Pick Withers, with whom Knopfler had previously played at Brewer’s Droop.

Dire Straits catapulted Knopfler as a true guitar hero, especially for his mega hit Sultans of Swing, in which his pure and crystalline style for playing electric is clearly appreciated. Something he does with a different technique, using his fingers instead of a pick.

But this sublime composition (and a true rock classic) was far from inspired by refined music. Sultans of Swing (from the band’s debut album simply called Dire Straits, from 1978) was prompted by an experience Knopfler had in a seedy bowling alley in Ipswich, a suburb of Suffolk County. Many years later, in a television interview for Life on the Road, the musician told it like this: “Sultans of Swing actually originated in a small pub. There was a pretty bad band that played and whose audience was almost non-existent, if you don’t count some guys at the end of the place who were playing pool, wearing baggy pants and platforms. I was just there to have a couple of pints. At the end of the night, the trumpeter or whoever was speaking said, ‘Okay, right…it’s over, time to go home.’ And then he said: ‘We are the sultans of swing’. You couldn’t be less of a sultan than anything, you know, if you were in that band, that night, in that pub.”

Mark Knopfler 2
Mark Knopfler.

Living legend

Knopfler has changed. He is no longer that skinny man with shaggy hair, that young guitar virtuoso who wielded a red Stratocaster and wore a tennis headband and wristbands on stage. He is now a bald man, rather corpulent, calmer with his music and way of playing and singing.

Knopfler has collaborated with many artists (including Bob Dylan, Phil Lynott, Tina Turner and Eric Clapton). And he has composed music for several films, such as Local Hero, Comfort and Joy, Cal, The Princess Bride, Last Exit To Brooklyn, Wag the Dog, Metroland y A Shot At Glory.

Today he is still active, marveling with his voice and his guitar in large stadiums and small theaters. And carrying the heavy honor of being a living rock legend.

Dire Straits: a hit machine

“Dire Straits lasted twenty years, which is not bad at all,” Knopfler said in an interview in London. And he added: “Groups break up because egos and personalities conflict. Because, like marriages, its members can grow at different rates. For it to work, it has to fit your personality, and you have to be very positive, through thick and thin. A band is like an emotional roller coaster, you touch heaven and hell in a matter of a short time. I never canceled a show, not even when I was sick, if necessary I would go on stage in a wheelchair.

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