Sultan of the Mississippi meets the Tyne
On foot of Mark Knopfler's new album 'Down The Road Wherever', Barry Egan hails the half Hungarian/half Scottish guitar troubadour
Money for nothing? In mid-1977, Mark Knopfler, working as a penniless English teacher, put together a rock group in his poky council flat in Deptford, London. His flatmate John Illsley, who worked in a timber yard, played bass, his younger brother David, a social worker, played guitar and Pick Withers played drums.
The latter, recalls Knopfler, had been "doing session work, just for tobacco. He was starving to death".
In terms of the band, Knopfler, born on August 12, 1949, says that it was "what I'd always wanted to do, and there was a bit of 'now or never' about it. But I wasn't hectic or desperate. I just enjoyed playing".
Less than two years later, the band from these lowly beginnings was possibly the biggest band in the world, Dire Straits.
They went on to shift 125m records before Knopfler split up the band at the height of their global success, having got fed up with it all. Knopfler played his last Dire Straits gig on October 9, 1992 in Zaragoza, Spain.
"It got so big, I just wanted to go another way," he says. "I wouldn't say I felt out of place in it, but I never really felt it was a fix that I needed as a permanent part of my life, and I thought if I was going to improve as a writer and a player, I was going to have to get myself into another situation."
Playing the 3Arena in Dublin next spring to promote his ninth studio album, Down The Road Wherever, Knopfler is the son of an architect who was kicked out of his native Hungary because of his hardcore style of socialism.
Knopfler once quipped to Bill Flanagan, as recorded in his book Written In My Soul: "My grandfathers were probably fighting in the British Army and the German Army. They probably tried to kill each other and if they had, that would have been that. There would be no strumming."
Thanks be for the strumming; Mark was born in Glasgow but grew up in Northumberland listening to Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers Ricky Nelson, Chuck Berry, "where the Mississippi Delta meets the Tyne".
That said, he disputes that the music which impacted most on Dire Straits was purely American.
"There are American influences but there are English influences, like The Shadows. But they in turn were influenced by Americans like the Ventures.
"It's a great global jigsaw, and it's a fool's idea to try to make sense of it."
The sultan of the Mississippi meets the Tyne, who would work with everyone from Bob Dylan - Knopfler first worked with Dylan on the sessions for his 1979 album Slow Train Coming - to Chet Atkins, to Randy Newman, Tina Turner, and Eric Clapton, once recalled a trip across America in 1976 on a Greyhound bus ticket "and not a lot else, just a shoulder bag. I was really excited about getting there at last, especially with the music, and not just because I was a complete blues nut.
"I was really into folk music, but also I was more aware that Irish and Scottish and English folk songs had gone to America and come back. This interaction between the continents always interested me, even from the first songs I was writing in trying to make a parallel."
This much is impossible to miss in the rootsy music he makes so compellingly.
"I'd been writing songs that were turning up in my notebooks that needed different palettes of music, more and different instruments," he said of the last days of Dire Straits, in a nod perhaps to his Hungarian emigre papa.
As Jesse Kornbluth wrote in the Huffington Post a few years back, "Very few people find early in life what they want to do and get to do it all their lives. At the top of the list in music: Mark Knopfler."
Mark Knopfler plays the 3Arena, Dublin on May 24
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