Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mark Knopfler, "Skating Away" With My Heart

I love albums that take their title from the lyrics of a song on the album but not the actual title of a song on the album. For example: CCR's Willy And The Poor Boys ("Down on the Corner"), Simon & Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, & Thyme ("Scarborough Fair/Canticle"), Roxy Music's Stranded ("Street Life"), Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True ("Alison"), De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising ("The Magic Number"), The Pixies' Doolittle ("Mr. Grieves"), Nirvana's Nevermind ("Smells Like Teen Spirit"), Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish ("For Tomorrow"), and, perhaps most famously, Dark Side Of The Moon ("Brain Damage/Eclipse"). Wait, you mean that song wasn't actually called "Willy and the Poor Boys?" That song wasn't actually called "Dark Side of the Moon"? You can go far in life once you start paying attention. Add, to this list, Making Movies and "Skateaway." According to Wikipedia, however, Mark Knopfler had actually written a song called "Making Movies," but thankfully it didn't make the cut; otherwise it would have ruined my whole paragraph.

Given that, unlike its predecessors, the third track on Making Movies is not a song about the challenges and pitfalls of romance, you'd be tempted to think that it would be a lighthearted change of pace. But Knopfler's artistry may have snuck up on you once again, because it might be the most aching, tender, anthemic track on the whole freaking album.

It begins with an absurdly slow fade-in, as Dire Straits' drummer is apparently bouncing a basketball in an abandoned alleyway. The organ comes in at 0:25, then Knopfler's nimble fingers make their presence known around 0:34, followed by the voice a few seconds later:
I seen a girl on a one way corridor
Stealing down a wrong way street
For all the world like an urban toreador
She had wheels on, on her feet
Well the cars do the usual dances
Same old cruise and the curbside crawl
But the rollergirl, she's taking chances
They just love to see her take them all
Interesting. A girl on roller skates, comically impervious to the dangerous traffic surrounding her, no big heart-wrenching love story, right? The music's got sort of a low-key bluesy groove, probably going to stay that way for the whole six minutes. Your sensitive and vulnerable soul shouldn't have to worry about being shattered, right? Uh-oh, the bridge sounds like trouble:
No fears alone at night
She's sailing through the crowd
In her ears the phones are tight
And the music's playing loud
Hmm, they're picking up some steam. Are they building towards something grand and sweeping? Nope, not yet at least, as Knopfler tosses off a fancy little guitar run, everything calms back down, and you're still OK:
Hallelujah here she comes, Queen Rollerball
Enchante, what can I say, don't care at all
You know she used to have to wait around
She used to be the lonely one
But now that she can skate around town
She's the only one
Hold on, it's that meddlesome bridge again, dangling the threat of Knopflerian majesty over your head. But this time, Pick Withers does a tasty drum roll, and you better brace yourself, because here it comes:
She gets rock 'n' roll in a rock 'n' roll station
In a rock 'n' roll dream
She's making movies on location
She don't know what it means
And the music make her wanna be the story
And the story was whatever was the song, what it was
Rollergirl don't worry
D.J. play the movies all night long
Daaaaaamn. Dire Straits just gave my heart an aneurysm. That chorus is like a glimpse into an entirely different song, from an entirely different universe (I think it's actually in a different key, which helps). Also, props to Roy Bittan for pounding out a choice piano chord or two, fleshing out the glory. That chorus is like the beautiful sound that Rollergirl hears in her head. Sure, on the outside, to her fellow ignorant city-dwellers, she might seem like some narcissistic little punk. But in her mind, she's the hero of an epic film that's screening on an endless loop - and there are no boring scenes.

To me, "Skateaway" is one of those luminous songs about the power of music. Music can turn the mundane into the fantastical, the dreary into the exciting, the insignificant into the essential. But Mark Knopfler manages to say this with the music, by juxtaposing the calm, repetitive verse with the soaring, intensely melodic chorus. The music makes me want to be the story, dude!

And the amazing part is, his singing range is so horizontal, he barely even hits the soaring notes he's actually written for himself, but those notes are so soaring, it feels like he hits them anyway. It's like how FDR always seemed like he was walking, even though he was merely holding on to his aides, or a cane, or a podium (yeah, I caught a little of that Ken Burns documentary last week). Here's how great this song is: Knopfler actually starts laughing at one point (around 2:56), and yet this does not reduce the song's emotional punch one lousy iota. Unquestionably the most beautiful moment in a song full of beautiful moments: during the second go-round of the chorus, right after Knopfler sings "DJ play the movies" at the 3:54 mark, his guitar hits a note so piercingly high, it doesn't sound like it came from a real guitar. It sounds like it came from a unicorn's tears, or a wood sprite's orgasm.

And then, at 3:58, it all turns to dust again as the band brings everything back down to lazy-ville, as if the rock and roll dreams in Rollergirl's head could never be taken seriously by the jaded truckers and cab drivers surrounding her. Nope, it'll just be her little secret. Rollergirl skates off into the neon night, and that chorus never happened.

Like the videos for "Tunnel of Love" and "Romeo and Juliet," I'm not sure if the claustrophobic, hermetically sealed vibe of the studio-crafted video for "Skateaway" really captures the "bustling, real-world city boulevard" feel I get from the song, but it still has its fun and/or surreal charms, particularly the slow-motion shots of Rollergirl (apparently played by the ex-patriate daughter of a Nigerian president!) skating through the faceless masses. For me, the most powerful part of the video might be the very last minute, which simply consists of a single uncut shot of the band playing in front of what appears to be the Dawn of Man. For Dire Straits, I think the music really was the story.


Hugo Fernandez said...

Although when "Making Movies" came out I was taken by the beauty of "Romeo and Juliet" and blown away by the intensity of "Tunnel of Love", my favorite song is still the one I heard first, when it came out as a single, "Skateaway". It's so underappreciated that it doesn't even appear on their hits collections. Glad to read someone else gets it.
By the way, I quite enjoy your writings -that last sentence on today's opening paragraph was hilarious.

Little Earl said...

I spent a lot of time on that paragraph!

Yeah, talk about a greatest hits fail. Out of three Dire Straits greatest hits collections, "Skateaway" only appears on the two-disc American version of The Best of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler: Private Investigations. Come on people. This is silly no so much because I personally think it's the best song on Making Movies, but because, in my experience, it is actually the most well-known and most frequently played song on Making Movies. OK, sure, "Romeo and Juliet" was a UK top ten hit, but "Skateaway" peaked at #37 there, which was higher than "Tunnel of Love"s peak at #54, and in the US it was the only charting single from the album, hitting #58 (and #31 on the Mainstream Rock chart). Plus, classic rock radio in the '90s played it all the time. Maybe Knopfler doesn't like it or something. Well he can kiss my ass.

But that is a lethal Side One. The first two tracks are already a couple of shades of hot damn, and you're thinking, "OK, they're not going to be able to top that," but then "Skateaway" just goes in for the kill.

Herr Zrbo said...

For some reason the chorus reminds me of Meatloaf's "Rock and Roll Dreams come through". Yeah, I brought up Meatloaf in your Dire Straits post.

Little Earl said...

Ah, but you brought it up with good reason! The reason they might sound similar is because they both feature the E Street Band's Roy Bittan on piano. But that's not all! After a little quick research, I discovered that Jim Steinman had originally recorded "Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through" on his 1981 solo album (sung by someone else), and this version actually became a minor hit single, peaking at #32 in the US. Hmm, 1981, eh? Little Earl suspects that Mr. Steinman may have been listening to a certain Dire Straits song which had just been released, and which I shall not name.

Herr Zrbo said...

Wow, great research!

Little Earl said...

Great research, or the GREATEST research? Also, both songs feature the phrase "rock and roll dream." Also, Meat Loaf officially spells his name as two words (to differentiate himself from the dish, I presume?).