Dire Straits, Pick Withers And The Winter Break Of My Discontent

February 3, 2013

(rebroadcast from February, 2009)

Here, it is often said that if you don’t like the weather, wait twenty-four hours. Actually, I’ve been trying to inject new blood into that maxim by saying, if you don’t like the weather, move ten feet to the right.

It hasn’t caught on, yet.

The reason I’m even considering the weather is that after a couple days of warmth, tonight it’s cold again and I’m trying to remember the last place I lived that didn’t have a draft.

Psychologically, I wonder if I now associate a draft with the concept of “home.”

But having grown up in the lower Midwest, I was accustomed to cold from October through the end of March – none of this low 70s in January nonsense. There were no days off from the raw temperatures.

The shame that Paloma and I won’t have kids is that I could deliver that parental speech triangulating long distances, heavy snow, and walking to school backed by true experience.

(it would be an Oscar-worthy performance)

As I student at a large university, on an average day, between hiking to classes and work, I was probably trekking at least ten miles.

(thank God for the Walkman).

One winter, I was stuck working through Christmas Eve. The campus was empty and I was crashing at a house owned by my girlfriend’s uncle.

The girlfriend’s brother lived there as did two of her cousins and a couple of other friends. No one remained, though, except for the roommate who managed a Pizza Hut.

(think Wooderson, Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed & Confused, except, you know, managing a Pizza Hut).

I watched a lot of late-night cable, slept on the couch under a mountain of blankets, and worked myself into a state of catatonia due to the relentless boredom.

I was also going through some kind of Dire Straits phase which lasted for a good six months. On one of those nights during that holiday break, I stayed up ‘til dawn taping every song by Dire Straits, A to Z, from their debut up through Brothers In Arms. I think I even threw guitarist Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack work into the mix.

(has anyone gotten a large government grant, yet, to study OCD in music fans?)

Poor Dire Straits. Has any band that was the biggest in the world – as Knopfler and company arguably were with the album Brothers In Arms – been so lightly regarded?

Of course, since that winter and following spring, I’ve rarely listened to Dire Straits even though I own everything save for their final studio album. Their songs pop up randomly on the iPod, though, and it’s a reminder that they did have some fantastic stuff.

And they also had a drummer named Pick Withers.

It’s a name that I just like to say from time to time.

Here are five songs by Dire Straits…

Dire Straits – Water Of Love
from Dire Straits (1978)

I always thought that Water Of Love was the underrated gem from Dire Straits’ debut.

Dire Straits – Skateaway
from Making Movies (1980)

Other than Sultans Of Swing, this was the second song I think I ever knew by Dire Straits. I’m not sure where – as we didn’t have MTV in our town at the time – but I saw the video. Probably on Night Flights which we got a year or two before MTV.

Anyhow, it’s always been one of my favorites by them.

Dire Straits – Tunnel Of Love
from Making Movies (1980)

Is there a consensus on the best Dire Straits’ album?

I’d have to go with Making Movies and Tunnel Of Love is that record’s stellar opener. Roy Bittan of the E-Street Band plays piano on it.

It has a way cool cover, too.

Dire Straits – Telegraph Road
from Love Over Gold (1982)

It seems that Dire Straits was never cool (at least from what I’ve read), but a high school buddy turned me onto the band several years before Brothers In Arms when they were being mostly ignored in the States.

I took to them and, despite its fourteen-minute length, the epic Telegraph Road was a favorite not only for the reflective lyrics but for the ferocity of Mark Knopfler’s guitar work at the song’s crescendo.

Dire Straits – Brothers In Arms
from Brothers In Arms (1985)

Musically and lyrically, Brothers In Arms is moody and evocative.


Suicide Hill

December 15, 2010

Like a good portion of the States, our region was smacked with the first snowstorm of the season.

The cover of white that we awoke to this morning, though, had largely disappeared by the time I faced the evening’s rush hour hell. Nothing makes the trip as potentially as treacherous as when a wintery mix is added to the commute.

Yeah, the cast of Ice Road Truckers might brave the elements, but they don’t do it with thousands of other vehicles driven by oh-so attentive folks who – aside from a couple days a year – have little experience with such conditions.

I exited the interstate and headed home along a frontage road, From the road, I could see several kids were making use of the conditions and gravity, hurtling down a good-sized hill on various crafts.

Though it’s fortunate for me that we get little snow and it’s rarely on the ground for more than a few days, it’s the children who suffer. The snow on that hill already had wide swaths that was revealed the grass.

Those kids were sledding on borrowed time.

Growing up in the Midwest, me and my friends could usually expect ample oppotunities to hit the slopes each winter.

Several of us lived along a country road that bisected a subdivision and farmland. As soon as there was snow, we would jump the fence across the road and drag our sleds up a small hill.

If there was enough snow, we would eventually create rudimentry bobsled runs, piling the snow and creating a half pipe. If the weather held, over the course of a week or so, the run would pack – smooth and slick – and become more delightfully lethal.

As we grew older, we would head for Suicide Hill with most of the other kids in our hometown. From the top, we’d stare down at the state road in the distance. The busy road posed no danger as it was unreachable, separated from us by a drop into a small creek.

To get to the bottom, you navigated a path that took you between the 11th and 18th holes on a golf course. And, if you managed to make the run cleanly – avoiding trees and such – you still had to contend with that water hazard.

We lived for the rare spectacle of someone plunging into the drink.

As Christmas approached in 1980, my friends and I were halfway through our middle year of junior high. It was beginning to dawn on us that it might be better to be inside on winter days – somewhere where there might be music and girls – then outside risking hypothermia.

But, in December of ’80, Suicide Hill was still a siren’s song to which we had to respond. Music was still mostly incidental to me, but, over the next six months or so, I’d be hooked.

Here are four songs that were on the chart in Billboard thirty years ago…

Bruce Springsteen – Hungry Heart
from The River

Hungry Heart most likely served as my introduction to The Boss. The River was his current release in late 1980 and, though I was just discovering radio, I was familiar with this song as well as Cadillac Ranch, Fade Away, and the title track.

It would take more time for my young ears to embrace the stark brilliance of the follow-up Nebraska , but I was on board for the long haul.

Blondie – The Tide Is High
from Autoamerican

Blondie was one band that had caught my attention in 1980. Songs like Heart Of Glass and Call Me were such mammoth hits that you would have had to have made an effort to not hear them at the time even if, like me, the radio was nothing more than an occasional companion.

(lead singer Debbie Harry also gave the band a visual component that did not go unnoticed)

I vividly remember hearing the breezy, island groove of The Tide Is High blasting from the radio when someone’s older sister gave us a ride home after one of those afternoons spent sledding. It was a wonderful antidote to the winter weather then and it still is.

The Korgis – Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime
from Dumb Waiters

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the lone US hit by The Korgis on the radio. I certainly don’t recall hearing it thirty years ago when it was a hit.

The first time I do know I heard Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime was when The Dream Academy covered the song in the late ’80s. And, I also heard Beck perform a version of it on the soundtrack to the movie Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind before I heard the original.

There really was no need for the song to be covered, though. The Korgis’ version is lovely – wispy and fragile – and flawless.

ABBA – The Winner Takes It All
from Super Trooper

ABBA and T. Rex occupy a similar niche in my music world. I could probably distill both to a dozen songs (most of which I never tire of), but I own way more of both acts’ work than I truly need.

That said, The Winner Takes It All is a shimmering tower of melancholy and Agnetha really belts it to the back row.