Forget the road crew of 50 that’s hauling his equipment all across Europe. Ditto the 45 tons of amps, instruments, lights and cables, the five transport trucks and the $22,000 per day this rolling rock extravaganza is costing. Mark Knopfler is sitting in a fancy London restaurant recalling his first guitar, bought back in the days when his touring was done on the soles of his feet.
Knopfler was 15 then and growing up poor in Newcastle, England. “I remember standing outside music stores with my nose pressed up against the glass, just staring at those electric guitars,” he says. “I used to smell Fender catalogs, I wanted one so bad.” Then one day Knopfler’s Hungarian-born father came home with one of the coveted instruments as a gift. Alas, Dad didn’t know Fenders from bumpers and neglected to buy the essential accompanying amplifier. “And I didn’t have the nerve to ask him for one,” says Knopfler, who instead caused an explosion when he tried to amplify his licks through the family radio.
Much has changed in the 20 years since then. Knopfler’s recently released Brothers in Arms—his first studio album in three years with his band, Dire Straits—suffers neither from a lack of power nor a shortage of equipment. Bolstered by a horn section, 13 different keyboards and Knopfler’s always spare, distinctly resonant guitar playing, the LP debuted at No. 1 on the British charts and last month hustled into the American Top 10 as well.
Perhaps the LP’s most telling instrument is Knopfler’s voice, a rock-hard diamond in the gruff cut by years of pub singing and a penchant for Dun-hills. At 36, the singer sounds like a cross between Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, whether he’s growling puckish invective at rock’s current crop of pretty boys—See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup/Yeah, buddy, that’s his own hair/That little faggot got his own jet airplane/That little faggot he’s a millionaire—or, as he does in the title cut, evoking a gentle plea for pacifism.
By some accounts, Brothers in Arms might be an apt description of Knopfler and his younger sibling, David. The two, who joined together in Dire Straits eight years ago, parted company in 1980; Knopfler the Elder still treads warily when discussing the break. “We were getting bigger and better, and the idea was to be the best,” he says. “David wasn’t into touring and really wasn’t into the guitar enough. We needed something better.”
Mark and David grew up in Glasgow, and later in Newcastle. Their father, an émigré architect, and their mother, an English schoolteacher, could afford neither a car nor a television, remembers Mark, and “there was never much money around.” Leaving home at 17, Knopfler breezed through journalism college at the top of his class, then spent two years as a cub reporter with the Yorkshire Evening Post. The newspaper experience “was a good thing,” he says now. “You learn the way society works, the way business works. You come across life and death.”
After returning to school to collect a Leeds University degree in English in 1973, Knopfler passed up graduate school and instead went to London and joined a band. Good play didn’t translate into good pay, and “I was sleeping on an ambulance stretcher in a room that had no heating, virtually starving,” he remembers grimly. The poverty cost him a wife and eventually led him into a job teaching English.
While making a second full-time try at music in 1977, Knopfler hooked up with bass player John Illsley, then working in a lumber yard. The two—the only originals still with the seven-member Dire Straits—recruited David Knopfler and session drummer Pick Withers, then chose a name that fit their circumstances. With $180 earned on the pub circuit they next cut a demo tape, mailed it off to a London disc jockey, and hoped for the best. It came. Sultans of Swing, a rambling six-minute talk-song about a backwater band playing out of love, led to a recording contract, a Top 10 hit, and eventually to their first platinum LP.
Four more albums and sales of 17 million-plus followed. Not content with that, Knopfler branched out to produce Bob Dylan’s Infidels in 1983, and Aztec Camera’s pop-charting Knife (1984), and to write the movie sound tracks for Local Hero, Caland Comfort and Joy.
Knopfler welcomes the work load with more ease than he does its attendant fame. He is a private person whose intelligence and self-assurance become most apparent when he discusses his craft. Though Knopfler insists that it’s music and not money that drives him, his protean schedule has moved him off the Dire Straits and onto a modest version of Easy Street. His $140,000 home in London’s unpretentious Holland Park is shared with Lourdes Salamone, his second wife and the daughter of a Hilton Hotels vice-president. Chances are he’ll be seeing little of his family in the months ahead. With a hot new album to hype, Knopfler is in the process of leading his band on an 11-month tour of 25 countries, including the U.S. through the middle of next month. The London leg began at Wembley Arena in London last month, where Prince Charles and Princess Di joined 8,000 others who took to their feet to dance. A small moment in the big scheme of things, perhaps, but sure proof that a onetime outsider is now doing more than just looking in, face pressed to the glass.