I came across a post on X (formerly Twitter) asking the question, “What band changed your life?” It was accompanied by the following image:
I’m not in the habit of answering these types of questions on social media, mainly because I’m of an older demographic and usually come off sounding like some old fart trying to chat up the sexy zombie girls at a college Halloween party. It’s unseemly and embarrassing.
So I’m offering an answer of sorts here in the safe and secure confines of my personal blog, which will be read by few, and remembered by none. And I’m cool with that.
Back in winter 1978-79, I was a junior in high school. I used to hang out at a local pool where I was friends with a couple of the lifeguards. Often, at night after they got off work, we’d pile into one of their cars and take off looking for food and entertainment, which usually meant pizza and discussing the mysteries of women and how to land a girlfriend.
The pizza was generally satisfying, but the conversation never resolved into possible solutions. We were like puppies stuck behind a baby gate trying to figure a way out.
I don’t remember much else from those days. Except for the music. My friend had a cassette from a new band called Dire Straits, and we played that cassette until the magnetic tape was stretched and raw.
Prior to this period, before I began hanging with these guys, my main musical tastes tended towards disco. To teenagers like me, disco was the audial equivalent of Cheetos®; nutritionally barren, artificially cheesy, and it left a stubborn mental residue that tainted everything you touched.
But the girls dug it, so I was in, Baby.
But in the winter of ’78-’79, one cassette by Dire Straits rescued me from the horrors of disco.
Dire Straits showed me music could be more than thumpa-thumpa “Stayin' Alive”.
Music could tell a story about a band that’s “blowin’ Dixie double four time”. It could be clever lyrics that talked about life and art, or a slow, ambling tune about “Stepping out to Angelucci’s, for my coffee beans…” and a bluesy tune about looking for metaphorical “Water of Love” (as a lonely teenager, I could relate).
A couple years later, in the fall of 1980 I heard Dire Straits’ third album, Making Movies for the first time. As a lovesick loner (as usual) I fell in love with the lyrics to Romeo and Juliet. In Tunnel of Love in particular, I was amazed at how Mark Knopfler wound the story and thoughts from one line to the next. It was nothing extraordinary in the rock and roll song world, but it was a revelation to me.
“And now I’m searching through these carousels and the carnival arcades
Searching everywhere from steeplechase to palisades
In any shooting gallery where promises are made
To rockaway, rockaway…”
That one poetic insight blew me away. It finally hit me (after 18 years of public instruction that somehow missed the mark) that words are tools that can be combined in any manner of ways to tell a story or make a point. It’s a trite insight, but at the time it was like a lightbulb blew up in my head.
Mark Knopfler woke me up and made me think about the music I listened to. This was WAAAAAY better than disco.
Dire Straits launched me on my graphic design career by showing me a way to be creative. What they did in words and music I instinctively knew could also be done in words and pictures. In the years that followed, each new album reminded me of those first lessons, and renewed my commitment to art and imagination. After Dire Straits, I searched for artists that were different, original, musical, funny, and creative. This led me to “discover” Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Little Feat, Patty Griffin, John Hiatt and many others. When it comes to my career – for my money – music has definitely made a difference.
So, in answer to the question, “What band changed your life?”, without a doubt the answer is Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits.
I was reminded of all this by the sudden explosion of Oliver Anthony’s Rich Men North of Richmond on X the last couple days. The lyrical power of one man’s justified rage from “Living’ in the New World, with an old soul” conveys a message both powerful and inescapable.
This guy hit a vein of rage that’s pulsing through this country right now. Good. We need a lot more of this.
About the Author
Topdog is Steve Merryman, a retired graphic designer, illustrator, and unrepentant asshole. Steve can usually be found working on a portrait commission or some other artwork. Steve fills his days by painting, writing, shootin' guns, cuttin' trees, hiking with his dogs, and savoring a beer or two, all while searching for the perfect cheeseburger. He studiously avoids social media and is occasionally without pants.