Thirty years ago today, I found myself sitting in first class – for the first time – on a plane headed to the island of Montserrat. I was in the window seat with my good friend and now boss, Mark Knopfler next to me. Across the aisle sat Neil Dorfsman, co-producer and engineer. Next to him, strapped into a first class seat all their own, were the master tapes for what was to become one of the biggest albums in rock history. This was a scene I had only read about in *Rolling Stone* – like the Allman Brothers buying seats for their guitars when they flew on tour.
My life would never be the same after this day. Three weeks before, I had been working in a guitar shop on 48th street and had made the very painful, but very necessary decision to change my life and give up on my dream to become a rock star musician. Ten years of banging my head against the wall in New York City had left me broken and depressed. The previous New Years Day, I had collapsed in my apartment – blacked out – and came to lying on the floor paralyzed, unable to move except for my eyelids; my head wrapped in a pain more intense than anything I’d ever experienced. Time passed. My mobility returned but the pain remained. Dear friends arrived and took me to the hospital. Tests revealed nothing. I was sent home with a pocketful of the heaviest pain killers available at the time, but they barely took the edge off of what felt like 12 inch red hot knitting needles being jammed into my skull and a brain that had turned to molten lava. The next nine months were spent visiting doctors and clinics of all kinds – from neurosurgeons to allergists, acupuncturists to witch doctors – none of whom could provide answers or cures. Until another very close friend recommended a doctor who had helped him, a doctor who just so happened to be the head of the Columbia Medical School Dept of Psychopharmacology. This man saved my life. Six weeks later I was pain free. And I have my friend, Ken Pine, guitarist for the legendary band The Fugs, to thank for it.
I was accompanied to that appointment by another good friend at the time, Mark Knopfler. We had become very close friends while meeting at the guitar shop during the recording of *Making Movies*. We hung out, played guitars, drank, argued about music and drank some more. He sat in with my band when he was in town. I got phone calls from around the world while he was on tour to talk, bitch and shoot the shit. Like friends do.
The idea of me playing in his band never came up.
Until early December 1984 – three days after I had received an acceptance letter to Fordham University. I was planning to go back to school to pursue my first love – writing. Before music, before guitar, before The Beatles and dreams of becoming John Lennon, there was the pen and the page. It wasn’t until my first year of college at U Conn – after being accepted to transfer to Bard College to study literature, as my parents were unable to afford the tuition – that I decided to leave that dream behind and go to music school.
This year will mark the 30th anniversary of not only the high point of my musical career, but of Dire Straits’, “Brothers In Arms,” an album I’m proud to have been part of making. This summer, I imagine there will be a lot of hoopla around the 30 year marking of Live Aid, which I am also proud to have performed at with the band.
I still have the long red coat I wore on stage that day. And I will put it up for sale this year, as I believe it will mean more to some fan than it does to me. As I said, I’m proud of my time with the band and I’m amazed every day by messages or emails from fans someplace in the world who tell me how much the music or my stage performance and contribution means to them. It’s humbling and honoring to receive these messages thirty years after the fact.
I never intended to write a book centered on my years playing in Dire Straits. I am far more interested in the years before and after – investigating the things that made me pursue the dream and what happens when you wake up one day to find the dream gone…and you are no longer who you believe yourself to be.
The details of what happened at the end of that tour and between Mark and me is better left untold. Shit happens. Business gets in the way. People move on. The promises made and then broken are meaningless all these years later. Our relationship was different from any of the other musicians who played in that band with Mark. Beyond the original members, they were all hired guns; sidemen with no expectations of anything beyond the gig. I was a friend first, a good one and maybe even, at the time, his only real friend. One he could trust. Who wanted nothing from him; who couldn’t have cared less about his status as a rock star guitar player. I had spent years in NYC surrounded by the best session guitar players on the planet. This is certainly not to take away from Mark’s brilliant playing and amazing talent. But really, we were just guys hanging out, sharing a love for the six string instrument that carried dreams for both of us. And then he invited me to “come to Montserrat, finish the album and do the tour.”
The decision to leave Fordham behind and hit the road took all of about 10 seconds.
I was a naive kid – even at 30 – who believed in the dream of being in a “band” and all that this romantic notion held; and believed the plans his friend laid out for the future beyond the tour.
Until he changed his mind. A rock star’s prerogative, I guess. Regardless of the collateral damage it may cause.
Thirty years later, as I turn 60 and look back to see where this journey has brought me, I am happy. Truly happy. I’m a father and grandfather. I am in love with a wonderful, caring woman who loves me. I spent two weeks celebrating this milestone birthday in a manner fit for a king with one fine distinction: the fabulous, epic meals and wonderful wines were provided and created by and shared with true friends possessed with a boundless generosity.
I’m returning to the Noepe Center for Literary Art on Martha’s Vineyard after being awarded a second year as writer in Residence. The memoir will remain on the shelf for now. I have started work and research an idea I have now – finally – for a novel. Think of it as The Godfather meets Justified set in the Appalachia coal mining hills of western Pennsylvania, the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans. I never intended to be anything but a novelist and it feels good to find my way back to this dream after all these years.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Here’s wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and prosperous 2105, filled with wonder and dreams coming true.