"I'm writing too many songs, and then I have to put them out -- I'm sorry," Mark Knopfler said at the start of what seems like our annual phone call.
But if Knopfler is going to make CDs like Get Lucky, he can call me every few months -- these eleven songs are completely original short stories and character sketches, set against music by one of the planet's greater guitarists. That the quality is uniformly high is no surprise.
What did take me aback -- and what will make fans of Dire Straits and Knopfler's previous solo releases shake their heads -- is that Knopfler seems to have assembled this CD without regard for the commercial marketplace. Nothing that says "automatic Top 10" jumps out at you like "Punish the Monkey (Let the Organ Grinder Go)" from Kill to Get Crimson or "Boom Like That" from Shangri-La.
The likely result: The guy whose band sold 120 million records has made a CD that will be appreciated mostly by the smallest cohort of music lovers: smart, literate grownups who can read without moving their lips. [Click to listen to Border Reiver, the CD's hottest song.]
An unwillingness -- or is it an inability?--- to compromise. A curiosity, at 60, about songwriting that explores new personal territory. A concern, in all things, for authenticity. You don't have to talk to Mark Knopfler long before you realize that these are bred in the bone. Listen:
Jesse Kornbluth: Three words: Dire Straits reunion.
Mark Knopfler (audible sigh): These days, it does seem to be the style. But putting the brakes on when I did [he disbanded Dire Straits in 1995] was right. I'm happy with the way things are.
JK: We're talking about the easiest $300 million you'll ever make!
MK: I'm looking to do more of what I do -- improve my recordings and playing the new music live, enjoying the variations that brings.
JK: At a conference, I heard Steve Jobs quote The Beatles: "You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead." I hear that idea running through your new CD. There's a lot of life experience -- people on the far side of young love, lost comrades, memories of a distant childhood.
MK: The road ahead -- yes, it's a different picture. I have become a bit of a veteran at this music thing, so there's some of what made me. One song, "Cleaning My Gun." is from the vet's viewpoint, the survivor's viewpoint. I've made a couple of notes where it's possible to tell you the background of some of the songs. But I try not to interfere too much or explain. I don't want to spoil the songs for you; I'd prefer that it's going to be what you want it to be.
JK: In "Remembrance Day," you sing the names of those -- war dead, it seems -- now under the "earthen roof." Are they men you knew?
MK: It's just a list of boys. It begins with a cricket team. In a lot of communities, cricket teams and football teams -- and in America, baseball teams -- were the kids who went to war.
JK: That's the closest you come to social criticism on this CD. There's no wry, angry song like "Punish the Monkey." Is Knopfler mellowing?
MK: The older I get, the more grouchy I become. I have some equally disagreeable friends who are walking partners with me in the morning. We get most of our bile out then. By the time I get home, I feel better.
JK: I think of a Bruce Springsteen CD that, according to his manager, had no obvious hit single. Bruce went home and dashed off "Dancing in the Dark." And the entire world bought "Born in the USA." In contrast, I fear that "Get Lucky" will be under-appreciated because it's merely gorgeous.
MK: It does occur to me I need to have someone like that.
JK: I see you have one concert scheduled this month -- then your schedule looks blank until May of 2010. This can't be.
MK: I'm trying to work out a way to pop over to America and do Prairie Home Companion or Letterman, just by myself. And there will be a tour from April to July. [The American tour is April/May, 2010. Information here.]
JK: Didn't Dire Straits once do 250 concerts in a year?
MK: When you're young and in a band, it's like you have a football under your arm -- you're running. But some of that is running away.
JK: Fender has just launched the Mark Knopfler Stratocaster. Do you use it or just endorse it?
MK: I play it on stage instead of my old one. It works better. It has all the things I specified: a rosewood finger board, nice big smooth frets. Other owners seem to like it too.
JK: Michael Jordan wore a new pair of Nike shoes every night. Do you have more than one Knopfler Strat?
MK: I can make a lot of money for charity by playing one at an event and then selling it. So I'll generally be using a new one....
JK: I see your high standards as an affront to our rapidly deteriorating culture. They reassure those of us who care about these things that we're not alone, not crazy. In that sense, "Get Lucky" is a comfort. Can you relate?
MK: There's been an erosion, and not just in the United States. It becomes more important for people who regard themselves as having the ability to discern and feel to stand tall.
JK: So market-directed music....
MK: I'm sorry. Those words are meaningless to me.
Consider "Get Lucky" Exhibit A.
[cross-posted from HeadButler.com]