David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 240: Mark Knopfler (Speedway At Nazareth)

April 6, 2023

Mark Knopfler has always been a great storyteller for the little things in life. Behind the audacious guitar work of "Sultans of Swing" was a nifty little anecdote about a jazz band in a near empty pub. From that point on, lovers of Dire Straits came for the guitar and generally stayed for the stories: the roller-skater of "Skateaway," the seedy work world of the detective in "Private Investigations," or the blue collar retail worker of "Money For Nothing."

Unfortunately, "Money For Nothing" might have suggested that Knopfler's story-telling was getting too constrained by the trappings of Dire Straits. I mostly can't listen to their final studio album On Every Street, despite its lustrous title track, because of "My Parties," whose superficial narrator brings nothing to the heart of the song. Somehow as the band broke up, it seemed easy to assume Knopfler would fall back on the soundtrack music he'd been doing in his spare time, instrumental landscapes to fit a story brought to him (the one exquisite exception is his "The Way It Always Starts" for Local Hero, a lovely original Knopfler lyric sung by Gerry Rafferty).

As Knopfler, however, launched himself into a solo career that wasn't exclusively more songs for films, he showed his tendency for story-telling more than his tendency for guitar showmanship. I know it turned off a lot of Dire Straits' fans, and even for me, the songs and the corresponding CDs become more difficult to use as a daily infusion of feel-good music. Songs about Imelda Marcos, stalkers named Rudiger, Lewis and Clark, Ray Kroc, Sonny Liston, Lonnie Donegan, a guitar maker, the poet Basil Bunting, or novelist Beryl Bainbridge all sparkled through the brevity of narrative, lyrics surrounded by larger and larger musical accompaniment to Knopfler's guitar; however, they were no "Telegraph Road."

Luckily for us, he does still occasionally let that guitar go. Among his solo albums, 2000's Sailing To Philadelphia best showcases the guitar virtuoso behind the narratives. Both are probably best seen in "Speedway at Nazareth," which fits in well with Knopfler's general fascination with athletes (boxing songs and auto racing songs feature repeatedly in the Knopfler catalog).

True to the same "slice of life" origins that came from Knopfler seeing the actual "Sultans of Swing" in a near empty bar in Deptford, UK, "Speedway at Nazareth" came from conversations he had with an auto-racing friend, capturing moments in a NASCAR season, a quick travel around the world from Phoenix, Arizona, to Belle Isle, Michigan, finally to Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Along the way, there are cracked vertebrae, blown tires, and wall scrapes. (Trust me, I know nothing about auto racing, much to the chagrin of my great nephew, so I won't go much further.)

Musically, the song connotes motion, a general rumbling brought on by bass and drums, a violin trailing slightly behind the delicate guitar work and duet singing of Knopfler and Gillian Welch. One waits for the inevitable shift into higher gears, which builds and builds off the final lyric, "so we came to Road America/where we burned up at the lake/but at the Speedway at Nazareth/I made no mistake." It takes a few laps, but eventually the crowd, a lot of Dire Straits' junkies, since Sailing To Philadelphia came less than a decade after the break-up of Dire Straits, get what they paid for: Knopfler tearing through the guitar, band a-fire, drums, violin, keyboards all elevated in the ways we expect for a Knopfler tune. Because the performance is so key, my link below is to a live version with Emmylou Harris sitting in for Gilliam Welch.

The next song on Sailing To Philadelphia is "Junkie Doll," which makes me think Knopfler knew exactly what he was doing, luring us crack addicts in with the promise of the highs delivered before. In fact, the song after "Junkie Doll," "Silvertown Blues" similarly sounds like the Dire Knopfler we all loved so dearly.

Interestingly, I first thought "Speedway at Nazareth" was ultimately about some metaphor about the Nazareth of Jesus. Luckily, I was smart enough NOT to think it was about a gas station/convenience store there, although I think a really scathing poem/song could be written about that subject: "At the Speedway of Nazareth/the coffee tastes like swill/but you got no room to complain/considering this is Israel."

Instead, thanks to the auto racing nuts in my family (Pennsylvania folk, at that), I quickly learned about the actual Speedway at Nazareth, Pennsylvania. However, it shut down in 2004. Knopfler got the song done just in time. Otherwise, there might have been a whole lot of confused tourists in Nazareth, Israel.

Knopfler, Mark. "Speedway At Nazareth." Sailing To Philadelphia. Warner Brothers, 2000. Live performance here.

Day 239: The Crash Test Dummies "Afternoons & Coffeespoons"

Day 241: Donna Summer "Love To Love You Baby"

See complete list here.