David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 316: Dire Straits (Lions)

January 10, 2024

As a major nerd, I have spent much of my life trying to be the guy who discovers good music first. This matters the most when one is a teenager, when we all are looking for some edge in terms of coolness. However, sometimes the early bird doesn't get the best worm, merely finds the worm leader out and about while everyone else swoops in for the tasty colony of worms that come when the sun is fully out.

O.k., maybe my animal metaphor isn't working real well here; blame it on Lions. As in "Lions" from the Dire Straits' self-named debut album. 

Generally, I was near the front for the discovery of Dire Straits. I wouldn't have needed more than one or two hearings of "Sultans of Swing" to know I had to have the album. I rushed to buy it, only to discover a fairly sparse record, a descriptor that covers the music (more than half of the songs were slower atmospheric numbers, hardly the barn-burners of "Sultans of Swing") and the packaging, front cover a blurry picture of a woman at a window and back cover a quartet of mug-shot type pictures of each band member, accompanied by the nine song titles and the Warner Bros' logo. Was this rather dull-looking album really released the same year as The Cars, no blurry woman on the cover, and evocative street shot on the back?

Most crushingly is when I opened the album package, there was no insert. The record protector was the boring old white album holder, no glossy insert of additional band or song information, let alone lyrics (even The Cars gave us lyrics, although all in small-case with no punctuation). Look, I know I was drawn by the guitar, but the lyrics of "Sultans of Swing" certainly lent an artistic element to Top 40 hits when compared to "My Sharona," "Boogie Wonderland," "Don't Bring Me Down," or "In The Navy." Why couldn't they give me the words?

Eventually I could piece together most of the lyrics, save for "Lions," the haunting closing track. With "Wild West End" leading into "Lions," the final half of Side Two was and still is one of my favorite set of closing tracks ever. The guitar work, both Knopfler brothers, interlaced lovingly, the evocation of London (or at least urban settings) attracted me, and generally the commitment to impressionistic song-writing still means the world to me.

However, lyrically, "Lions" couldn't quite be pieced together. Without a lyric sheet (and no Google yet) I was desperately trying to figure out the lyrics. The opening line was easy: "Red Sun goes down way over dirty town," but the second line was far from it: "the stars they're sweeping around the crazy shows?" Huh? And it rarely got even better.

"Yes, and a girl is there tights feeling across the square?"

"Crazy man there to cross at the light?"

When the opening verse ends, I feel like I have the lyric back . . . until I get to the last word: "She looks around to find a face she can like, uh"; Or, "she looks around to find a face she can rely on." Such a one-word difference is huge in my understanding of this girl in the square. In the case of "like," I picture a brave girl seeking out a friendly stranger; but in the case of "rely on," she is now timid, needing a savior.

The second stanza goes along pretty clearly with church bells, Evensong, congregations, flagpoles and drunk soldiers. However right in the middle, right after we hear that "nobody cares to depend upon the chime it plays," there is a hard one: "all in the station, the gravy train," or "all in the station, praise the train?" As opposed to the girl in stanza one, I ain't got nothing for different interpretations here.

And then the third verse truly loses me with "straps hanging [completely unintelligible]" and later an "evening paper partly torn," so much so that I basically give up my interpretation of the lyrics, whether or not she finds her "stranger in the night," or why Knopfler is thinking about "what happened to the lions." Given that earlier in the last stanza we could clearly make out that the lions were made of stone, I just assumed he was talking about statues, the kinds of lions that front a public library or museum.

So, lo and behold, several years later I am at a friend's house and we pull out his Dire Straits to listen to. Imagine my shock, anger, depression to find his has a lyric sheet included with the packaging. I am sure with the popularity of "Sultans of Swing," additional releases could include the lyric sheet (a very no-frill single page stuck inside the sleeve not surprisingly). He didn't have to guess at the damn Lions. He doesn't have alternate narratives about stone lion statues guarding the library. No, he can understand the song at its menacing level all he wants. 

Life ain't fair. Screw the early bird and his worm, good things come to those who jump on the bandwagon later. But, don't worry, I am not bitter, I'm just a crazy old lion howling for a fight.

Dire Straits. "Lions." Dire Straits. Warner Bros, 1978. Link here.

Day 315: Mark Olson & The Creekdippers "One Eyed Black Dog Moses"

Day 317: Poe "Trigger Happy Jack"

See complete list here.