Back in May this year, my wife Lauren and I drove through to the city of Glasgow to meet my father for dinner, then the three of us attended the local Mark Knopfler gig for his Down the Road Wherever tour.
When Knopfler performs in Glasgow, it’s invariably at one of the cluster of venues at the SEC, and that was true even when he was still the frontman of Dire Straits. The band’s final tour, which included four nights in the city in September 1991, was for the On Every Street album — and my father and I were both there too. It was my first Knopfler gig, and both my first and last Dire Straits one.
Each subsequent time we see him on stage, every few years, is an echo of 1991.
This time around, he didn’t play Sultans of Swing, which is (I think) a first for me at a live performance I’ve attended. I can certainly understand why he’d be sick of it by now, though I assume he played it on other nights of the tour. I always hold out the faintest of hopes to hear Tunnel of Love, but I didn’t, and I doubt I’ll ever hear it in person again. I do still remember it, a little vaguely now, from the night with Dire Straits when I was twelve years old.
I didn’t miss Sultans though. Of all the tours I’ve attended — and I think that’s been all of them from Knopfler’s solo career that had a date in Scotland — this most recent one was the most evocative of that early-nineties event. The stage lighting was more often than not in neon shades. He had at least one wristband on, along with his now-constant spectacles. He did Once Upon a Time in the West in proper reggae style. And he played Your Latest Trick.
It’s this last song that particularly transported me. Perhaps because it’s such an evening number. It has the twilight of a concert venue written all over it, and when Knopfler sung it on the Brothers in Arms album back in 1985, the nostalgic mood made his voice have much more in common with his current tone than how he usually sounded almost thirty-five years ago.
Has it really been that long? my mind protests. But of course it has.
I’ve written before about my complicated relationship with Knopfler’s work, and after the passing of a further five years, I know that attending these gigs is a pilgrimage rather than a musical outing. A ritual observation, no matter how much I’ve enjoyed the particular album in question; the performance of a kind of fealty. That’s not to say that the concerts aren’t uniformly excellent — they are, and they showcase the cohesion of a group of musicians who are surely some of the best in the world at what they do — but I’m aware of the dual function of those intermittent nights for me.
The venue was appropriate to the spectacle. The Hydro was 2018’s fourth-busiest arena in the world, selling over one million tickets in that twelve-month period. It has a capacity of 13,000 people, and there were no empty areas that I saw. Somewhere in that huge crowd, my brother and his wife also saw the show, having made the regular pilgrimage too. He was even there with us in 1991, when he was just eight years old.
He’s never missed a Knopfler tour either, and if anything, the music — rather than its associations, and the ritual element — means more to him than to me. For me, the music is to be appreciated, but is primarily a vehicle to experience something else. As a guitarist himself, I think he probably gets more out of each performance than I do. It was always a highlight: booking the tickets, planning the evening around it, having dinner, going to the gig, and then to the pub afterwards to dissect the performance. This time, though, I never even saw him.
We’re estranged now.
It’s a recent thing, of about a year’s vintage. The details are neither germane here nor anyone else’s business. I don’t want you to take sides, so there’ll be no sides outlined.
When the tour’s sales date was announced, I texted to ask him if he wanted me to get a couple of tickets for him and his wife as usual; he declined. I asked again a few days later, to see if he’d reconsidered, but he hadn’t. Fair enough. We weren’t in contact at the time, and indeed haven’t been since then, with the necessary exception of coordinating things during my father’s period of illness and hospitalisation. The tickets sell out very quickly indeed, but I’d asked twice, so I just booked three instead of the usual five. Then the months flew by. The day arrived. My wife and I met my father for a quick pre-show dinner, where he mentioned that the other two would indeed be there, just in case the situation came up. That was the first I’d heard of it.
My first feeling, honestly — and I hope you’ll believe this, because you’re only hearing my side of the story and I can paint myself as virtuously as I like, but it really is true — was relief that he’d still see the show. It was the first thing I said to my father, too. Knopfler isn’t a young man, after all; he turned seventy years old in August, just three months after my father did. You never know which tour will be the last.
The Hydro is like a spacecraft perched on the banks of the River Clyde. Bigger outside, somehow, where you can see the scale of its architecture, and the staggering engineering achievement of its roof. Inside, it just becomes a void above, too large to readily afford comprehension. A space of outdoor scale, but nevertheless indoors.
Amongst thousands of other people, I didn’t bump into my brother that night at all. And why would I? For the first time, we were seated separately.
My father and I had parked in different places, both only a few minutes’ walk away but in different directions, so we parted soon after the crowds poured out once the concert was over. We each had an hour’s drive ahead of us before we got home, after all. I was probably just unlocking our car when my father apparently did bump into my brother, surely beating the odds.
It would have been awkward if my wife and me had still been there, so I’m glad that we weren’t. It would also have been strange — because these Knopfler gigs are the only thing we would all reliably get together for. They were the last thing, now that I think about it.
It seems ridiculous, and petty, and childish, for two adult brothers to sit in different parts of the same cavernous venue and attend the latest night of music that was virtually the only shared interest and area of enduring common ground between them. It does, and it is, and it was. I didn’t even know he’d be there at all until I was already in Glasgow, but in retrospect I suppose it makes sense that he would be. Neither of us would allow the state of our relationship to stand in the way of being there that night. I’m not sure why I didn’t expect it, but then I have a habit of not thinking these things through to their logical conclusion. I tend to be surprised by the unsurprising. Caught unaware, without sufficient reason to be.
I hope there’ll be another tour. Things being as they are, I won’t ask my brother beforehand; I’ll just book three tickets (and yes, I hope it’s three, and so on; one thing at a time).
My brother and I are in that particular period of life where estrangement is essentially maintenance-free. Without the pressure of meeting by chance, or the abrupt sobriety of illness, or the likely proximity of death, it can continue indefinitely; calcifying until not even tragedy can touch it. That’s the way of people. I can understand that, and I can write these words, but then I can still take one more day’s worth of steps down that path. I find it a curious and sad admission. But there it is.
When there’s another tour, things being as they are, my brother won’t ask either.
He’ll book two, and there will be 13,000 or so others, in a space too big to be inside, in the neon dark. Maybe Knopfler will play Sultans; probably, even.
Maybe he’ll play Tunnel of Love. But probably not.
I’ve come to realise that my brother’s presence that night, somewhere in the darkness, felt like a necessary ingredient. I’ve never experienced it without him. In a strange way, I think it allowed me to fully enjoy the music.
I’m glad there was no awkward conversation. I’m glad I didn’t know beforehand that he was going, but I’m also glad that I did know by the time I went in. I’m glad that this rare night wasn’t tarnished by the mundane ugliness of our current relationship, because neither of us wants or deserves that.
I’m glad that I didn’t see him at all.
Next time, if there is a next time, I hope he’ll be there.