Feeling Grateful

It was my college roommate, Matt Ford, who introduced me to the music of the Grateful Dead. I remember listening to Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty and hearing the harmony and beauty in the music. Listening to Aoxomoxoa and hearing “China Cat Sunflower” made me feel like I had known the song all my life, even though it was the first time I had ever heard it.

The summer after my freshman year was 1987. The Dead released their first album in six years, In the Dark, which included their only charted single, “Touch of Grey”. I had also met Julie that year, and had gone to visit her in Tucson during the summer of 1987. I can remember driving around Tucson in her yellow Datsun, listening to her brother’s radio station KRQ, and talking about the new Grateful Dead album. Not that she cared at all about the Grateful Dead; she was showing interest in me and my interests. I was 18 years old and oblivious to such subtleties.

I was playing that song again tonight, and remembered back to those days. I thought, “Wow, that song came out in 1987. That was 20 years ago! … Wait, no … that can’t be right … 30 years ago?!?!”

“Oh well, a touch of grey, kind of suits you anyway…”

That line has a lot more meaning for me now than it did when I was 18.

Me and Mark

My best guess is that the first time I heard Dire Straits, it was “Money For Nothing”, probably on KSHE-95 radio in St. Louis. I was 16 in 1985; we had recently gotten cable TV, including MTV, but I don’t think I saw the iconic video until later. If I had ever heard “Sultans of Swing” prior to 1985, it didn’t make an impression on me.

Of course, back in the day, when you heard a good song, you had to buy the entire album. 1011009

Or in my case, the cassette.


The first track on this tape is “So Far Away”.  Listening to that song was when I first fell in love with Dire Straits. Yes, “Money For Nothing” was the hit, but “So Far Away” was great music.

I grew to love the rest of “Brothers in Arms” as well. I remember I had their debut album and “Making Movies” on tape. As I went through college and CDs came out, I found “Love Over Gold” and “Communique” in a used-record store (probably Tower Records). And I waited for a follow-up to “Brothers in Arms”.

(An aside: At our wedding in 1991, our first dance song was “Why Worry”. My wife and I danced to the first part of the song, with the lyrics, then our parents and wedding party joined us for the lengthy instrumental. It was perfect.)

When “On Every Street” finally came out in 1991, I was in grad school. I listened to it repeatedly, and found multiple echos of the work I was doing in the album. The title track has a line that mentions “the sacred and profane”, a major theme in the sociology and history classes I was taking. One of our professors’ favorite sayings was “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.” And “Iron Hand”, while written about the 1984 miner’s strike, has great similarities to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

So when the “On Every Street” tour came to the Sports Arena in San Diego, I was there. I think I had a sense that this was probably the end for the group. I didn’t follow any music magazines or anything, but I figured since it took 6 years to make this album, any more were unlikely. So I wanted to make sure I got to see them. They did not disappoint.

When Mark Knopfler came out with “Golden Heart”, his first solo album, I bought it, but was underwhelmed. Same with “Sailing to Philadelphia” in 2000. His work dropped off my radar for a while. I heard occasional songs on Pandora or Sirius XM that I liked: “Coyote”, “Boom, Like That”, “Junkie Doll”. But I think it was when I heard some of his collaboration with EmmyLou Harris on “All The Roadrunning” that I sat up and took notice of Mark again.

I went back and bought the solo albums that I didn’t have and re-discovered some great music (“Speedway at Nazareth”, “Done with Bonaparte”, “Cannibals”, “Donegan’s Gone”, “You Don’t Know You’re Born”, among others). Probably in the late 90’s I was disappointed that his music didn’t sound exactly like Dire Straits. At a greater remove in time, I can appreciate the similarities between Knopfler’s earlier work and his later, while appreciating the new music for what it is.

I love how Knopfler writes songs with lyrics for the first few minutes, then nothing but instrumentals for the last 8 minutes. It’s not the same as a jam band that just keeps playing and riffing in a live show; for Knopfler, it’s as if the real song is the instrumental part and the lyrics are just a prelude. The prototype for this is “Speedway at Nazareth”, but you can find it in many others songs, both from the Dire Straits years and solo work.

As a student of history, I love how he writes songs about historical episodes. “Done with Bonaparte” is from the point of view of a French soldier after the Battle of Austerlitz. “Privateering” is set in the days of Lord Nelson; “Baloney Again” during the segregation of the 1950s in America; “Why Aye Man” during the economic strife of the Thatcher era in Britain. While the songs are certainly emotional and sympathetic, they are more than simply love songs.

In the midst of my renewed interest in and appreciation for Knopfler’s music, “Tracker” was released and the tour announced. My wife and I considered seeing him in concert here in San Diego, but we really don’t like the venue at which he was playing. So we looked farther afield, up and down the West Coast, but found that there were no tickets to be had, even six or seven months ahead of time. So we looked even farther afield: we had been considering traveling in Spain anyway, so we bought tickets to the show in Sevilla and planned our trip around that! (The tickets in Spain were much cheaper than tickets in the US, by the way.)


What’s nice about going to a concert today, compared to in 1992, is that they record them all and sell them. So when we got home, I was able to purchase and download the live recording of the concert we were at. Also, much of it is on YouTube as well:

This makes Mark Knopfler the only artist I’ve ever seen in concert more than once, for whatever that’s worth. We went to see Paul Simon in Temecula a few years ago, and I said at the time that I would rate Simon as the greatest singer-songwriter of his generation. So how would I rate Mark Knopfler? I would argue that he is the most under-rated singer-songwriter of his generation. For all the attention he got during the Dire Straits years, I think his work since then is under-appreciated.


The Other One

I found this on Netflix this week:

As much as Jerry Garcia was always the public face of the group, I’ve always appreciated Bob Weir’s vocals more than any others. This documentary is a great history of the band as well as a great biography. The title is perfectly appropriate, reflecting Weir as “The Other One” in relation to Garcia, but also as the title of the first track that Weir wrote for the group, released on Anthem of the Sun, and always one of my personal favorites.

Here’s a performance from 1989: