Almost exactly to this date twenty years ago in 1994, I was living in a shared house in an area of St. John’s called The Battery. I didn’t have much to call my own besides a guitar and a bed (I probably didn’t even own the bed). But in all my travels and moves in that era of my life, I did manage to hold onto one thing: my old Sansui stereo system. Given to me by my father, this old Japanese stereo emitted a warm, bassy response through a set of old laminate speakers. I had set these up on either side of my bed, and I would lie there for hours listening to my favourite albums. One record that received a lot of play on that Sansui stereo (which I still own) was Dire Straits’ debut. I must have listened to this album a hundred times in that little room on Battery Road back in the spring of 1994, and the sarcastic bent of the album’s lyrics and the snarl of its guitar tones suited my moody disposition to a tee. This is why it still holds a lot of nostalgic value to me. But long before 1994, this album was spinning on turntables all over the world as thousands marvelled at this brand new band’s potent sound.
When Dire Straits released this remarkably fully-formed debut album in the fall of 1978, listeners were taken aback by frontman Mark Knopfler’s guitar chops and of course his eerie vocal resemblance to Bob Dylan. In fact, many thought that the lead radio single “Sultans of Swing” was Bob himself. Obvious influences aside, Dire Straits’ debut album was an unique crossover of blues, pop, rockabilly, and flamenco. Knopfler’s cutting, yet nimble Stratocaster tones sounded more like a 60-year-old blues or jazz player from Chicago than a 29-year-old Englishman with Scottish roots. The music industry took note, and within several years Dire Straits became a major touring act that eventually carried itself into the mid 90’s with worldwide acclaim before disbanding.
Soon after the release of Dire Straits, Dylan hired Knopfler to play guitar on his 1979 album Slow Train Coming, and ace studio band Steely Dan hired him for a guitar track on their 1980 album Gaucho. Knopfler even ended up producing Dylan’s 1983 album Infidels. But thankfully through all of this hoopla about his guitar skills, he chose to remain focused on his original band. Equally talented as a songwriter, Knopfler’s guitar skills sometimes overshadow this otherwise obvious fact. But true fans of Dire Straits remain well aware of the poetic lyricism of the band’s music. The finely-crafted lines just seem to flow out of Knopfler’s gravely vocal cords like a mixture of beat poetry and free-form jazz. It’s no surprise then, really, that Knopfler taught English Literature in college before forming Dire Straits in the mid ’70s.
We all know that “Sultans of Swing” sold the debut album to the public, but to ignore the other material on this debut record is to do it a great disservice. The lyrics on this album are especially good. One particular song that deserves a closer look is Track 7, “In the Gallery.”
Anyone familiar with the contrasting worlds of art and commerce knows that the two make for strange and sometimes unfortunate bedfellows. In this song we meet “Harry,” who’s a sculptor. The main gist of the song is that he doesn’t get the recognition from the arts community that he deserves because of the medium in which he chooses to create. Sculpture is traditionally not as accessible or recognizable an art form as the more straightforward “painting on the wall” idea of art. As the song proceeds, Harry passes away and his work is then predictably accepted and celebrated in typical post-death artist fashion. Yes, it’s a common story across all genres of art. However, the way Knopfler crafts this lyric is what makes this song stand out as a scathing commentary on the fickle nature of art and commerce.
The song starts with a funky, choppy minor-chord blues riff. Knopfler sings:
Harry made a bareback rider proud and free upon a horse
And a fine coal miner for the NCB that was
A fallen Angel, Jesus on the cross
A skating ballerina, you should have seen her do the skater’s waltz
Knopfler is describing the types of sculptures that Harry made, using images loaded with symbolism relating to art. The bareback rider represents the artistic freedom of the sculptor; the coal miner is a symbol of the labour of art (“NCB” stands for the corporation National Coal Board, suggesting Harry may have been commissioned for this piece); Jesus symbolizes the sacrifices necessary to devote one’s life to the creative urge; and the skating ballerina nicely represents the grace of the piece and the beauty it emits upon completion. Sculpture is tangible art; it has structure. The lyrics here reflect the presence that sculpture can evoke when viewed and admired.
It’s perhaps helpful here to mention that Harry was a specific person that Knopfler knew personally. His last name was Phillips, the father of Knopfler’s some-time musical collaborator (Notting Hillbillies, etc,) Leeds musician Steve Phillips. So it’s safe to assume that this song comes from Knopfler’s first-hand observations of Harry’s creations as well as his struggles to be accepted in the arts community, or “the gallery.” In the second verse, Knopfler carries on to give us more of the story:
Some people have got to paint and draw
Harry had to work in clay and stone
Like the waves coming to the shore
It was in his blood and in his bones
The key element of this verse is the key phrase “had to work.” Just as Leonard Cohen famously stated about poetry being less a choice than a “verdict,” Harry did not choose sculpture; it chose him. This is an essential element in this song because it works as a juxtaposition to the commercial side of art. The contention is that artists create as an extension of who they are, as opposed to creating as a career choice. “Like the waves coming to the shore,” his creative compulsion is as natural as the ocean tides.
Next Knopfler sets up the social dynamic of Harry in relation to the art community, by which he wasn’t accepted or taken seriously. The images of “toys or strings of beads” communicate the worthless and childless nature of his art in the eyes of the trend-makers. Not only can’t his work be in the gallery, but HE can’t be in the gallery. This is interesting in that it ties the art to the artist and shows how often one cannot be separated from the other.
Mark Knopfler in 1978. (Photo by Danny Clifford)
The lyric then takes a sarcastic turn, commenting on an artist who is so “avant-garde” that an empty canvas is factitiously presented as a credible work of art that is accepted by all the phonies and fakes who “decide who gets the breaks.” Knopfler is referring to artists who get to present their works in the galleries frequented by money people and patrons of the arts who line the artists’ pockets with enough money to continue to create unabated by financial woes. Of course, half goes to the dealer. Therefore, there is obviously a lot of manipulation at play with regard to artist hype. This is where the subjective nature of art meets the suggestive nature of the dealer.
And then you get an artist says he doesn’t want to paint at all
He takes an empty canvas and sticks it on the wall
The birds of a feather all the phonies and all of the fakes
While the dealers they get together
And they decide who gets the breaks
And who’s going to be, who’s going to be
In the gallery, in the gallery
Particularly interesting is the line about the dealers getting together. It is quite like the music business in that a network of hype helps everyone make money. If a whole network perpetuates the hype, it creates a “reality” (however artificial) that increases the monetary and social worth of the artist and his/her art. When it comes to visual art, it’s extremely subjective – which increases the chances of being able to convince people of the pieces’ worth. So being “in the gallery” means being sellable; more importantly, it means being willing to be sold. This has always been a precarious place for an artist to be. At the risk of sounding dramatic, it is an artist purgatory in many ways.
After a delightful guitar interlude (the song clocks at a decidedly anti-commerical 6:16), the lyric reenters with a proclamation of Harry’s refusal to compromise for the sake of being accepted as a sellable commodity. He sees it as a lie to do so. And of course, we predictably see the artist pass away as an unknown, thereby creating the most perfect of all sellable tales in art: the dead artist “discovered post-mortem.” Knopfler calls the dealers and art buyers “vultures,” swooping in to feed off Harry’s corpse by turning his art into a commodity. He ends up “in the gallery” after his death, a much easier feat because of the dealers’ assurance that the buyers will flock to this authentic art – borne of “true suffering” in obscurity.
No lies he wouldn’t compromise, no junk, no string
And all the lies we subsidize that just don’t mean a thing, thing
I’ve got to say he passed away in obscurity
And now all the vultures, they’re coming down from the tree
He’s going to be, yea he’s going to be
In the ga-gal-gallery
Gal, in the gallery
This last verse has probably the most poignant of all the song’s lines: “And all the lies we subsidize that just don’t mean a thing.” What an indictment of art as commodity. This of course can be attributed to any form of art, not only visual. Just look at the music and movie businesses. It’s evident that business people ultimately “decide who gets the breaks,” and we also see the commodification of death in famous actors and musicians. Dire Straits’ “In the Gallery” may be a song about a sculptor, but it speaks on a much larger level about the precarious nature of art when manipulated for consumer consumption and capital gain. Of course, this song also has a great groove and a wonderful guitar outro…so it’s worth the listen even if you don’t like lyrics. But you can be rest assured that the words of this song are anything but filler for Knopfler’s tasty guitar licks. Some would argue that it’s the complete reverse.