It has been close to twenty five years since I stepped onto a stage of any size. Anything larger than a nightclub. Certainly nothing close to the stage in Monte San Giovanni Campano, a town about halfway between Rome and Naples, last week. Honestly, I haven’t even played much music in all that time. There were months and maybe even years that went by that I didn’t touch my guitars, let alone take one out of the house to do a gig. Every couple of years, I’d book a club, put together a band of friends and play on my birthday. But that was about it.
How is it possible that someone whose life was dedicated to rock n roll, playing guitar and chasing a dream of rock stardom – which actually came true – could not play music for that length of time? It’s a question I get asked quite a lot.
“Why don’t you play more often?”
There’s a multitude of reasons. Too many for a blog and better left in the pages of my memoir for now. Suffice to say, that after touring with the world’s biggest band (no brag, just fact – you can look it up) and more to the point, how it all ended, simply made playing too painful. Just looking at my guitars was difficult for me for years. Which is why they stayed in the closet. Well, the ones that I didn’t sell to pay the rent in the year after the tour ended. More details you’ll have to wait for the book to hear about.
For the longest time, it was impossible for me to hear any Dire Straits music without my head exploding. Pity the fool who mentioned the band within my earshot or innocently asked me when we were “getting back together” or what my former boss was up to. Or, on the rare occasion I did play a gig or sit in with a friend’s band, come up and ask “man, what are you doing playing a shitty club like this one?” Or say something really clever like “duuuuude, gettin’ your money for nothing and chicks for free?”
It’s only been in the past year or so that I have actually picked up my guitar and played in front of people. I’ll sing a few songs after a dinner party or jump up with a local band every blue moon. I played two songs at a charity gig in Connecticut a couple of months ago. I’ve even begun to think about putting a band together to play some gigs. But that’s about as far as it goes. Thinking about it. Organizing some musicians to rehearse and play, with families and jobs in the mix, is a nightmare and ultimately, because of limited rehearsal time, the gigs are disappointing to me. Yes, it’s fun to a degree. The rush of playing, regardless of the stage or audience size, is always there for me. But there’s a deeper level of satisfaction that comes from playing more than a set of seat-of-the-pants versions of songs and yet another unrehearsed blues shuffle. I get bored very easily.
This may all be surprising to my Facebook friends, given the amount of past history that gets paraded across my wall. Ancient videos and photos from my past. If you look carefully, you’ll notice those things are never my posts. I’m rarely, if ever the one to bring up my past. I can’t escape it and, believe me, no one is more amazed than me at how many people remember that long ago tour and my part in it. No doubt, it’s all very flattering and a good ego boost. But it’s a bit embarrassing at times. I mean, it was twenty five years ago! I’ve lived an entire life since then, working in marketing & advertising, raising my twin daughters and, now, because I can’t seem to do anything the easy way, have returned to being a struggling artist as a writer.
Which made the whole going to Italy to play with some of my former Straits band-mates really strange. Not the going to Italy part. Who in their right mind is going to turn down a trip to Rome? It was the idea of playing those songs again that was unsettling, all compounded by the fact that the guy who wrote the tunes, whose band it was, would not be taking part. And probably wouldn’t be all that thrilled with the idea of four former members getting together to play the material with a “tribute” band. Then there was the promoter who initially advertised the gig as a Dire Straits show with an image of Mark, which was really fucked up. That got rectified within hours of the poster’s appearance and changed to listing our names prominently followed by “from the legendary Dire Straits.” But that didn’t really resolve my internal unrest. The whole thing felt a little, I don’t know, weird.
None of this is meant to disparage my host, Marco Cavilgia, who is a wonderful, generous guy and an excellent guitar player. He has fronted one of the best Dire Straits tribute band’s in Italy, if not the world, for close to a decade. His uncanny ability to play and sound like Mark Knopfler is remarkable and, honestly, at times throughout the show, I could have sworn my former boss was playing. I’m not fucking joking. We could debate forever the merits and moral correctness or lack thereof when it comes to “tribute”bands but, in Marco’s case, I can tell you that this stems from a powerful love for the music. And, by the crowd’s reaction last Saturday evening, he brings a lot of joy to a lot of people.
So it was a bit confusing. Maybe if I were a bit stronger person, I’d have turned it down. Refused to participate in what could easily be perceived as coattail riding or, worse, a deception of sorts. Or some pathetic attempt on my part to relive my Glory Days.
But I love to play guitar. I love being on stage. So I went. The chance to play with Alan Clark again, one of the finest musicians I’ve been lucky enough to work with, was more than I could pass up. Plus I’d never been to Rome!
Dire Straits was never as big in the States as it was, and still is 15 years after its final gig, in the rest of the world and especially in Italy. I had no real idea how big the show would be. I thought it was going to be a club gig, a couple hundred people. No big deal. I was shocked and thrilled (the old ego reach-around!) at what it turned out to be.
When I walked out in front of over 5000 people – the largest crowd I’d played to since the last show of the tour in Sydney, Australia, April 26, 1986 – it was as if no time had past at all. I felt like I was right where I was supposed to be, doing what I was born to do. But, outside of a brief period and for a whole host of reasons, has escaped me in this lifetime. Yes, it was strange playing those songs again but the band sounded great. The Italian musicians who played were excellent, and kicked ass. Honestly. I’d be the first to admit otherwise. The youtube videos don’t do it justice. And once the band started playing and I heard the crowd’s insanely enthusiastic reaction, I forgot all about my doubts or moral quandaries. I had a blast and played my ass off, if I do say so myself. One particular transcendent moment happened during my solo on “Fade To Black” which I hope someone captured on tape as I’d love to hear it again.
The feeling of hearing a crowd chant your name is impossible to describe but as I was taking my bows, arm in arm with the band, that’s exactly what happened. I stood on stage, reliving a moment I’d believed for so many years I’d never experience again in this lifetime, amazed, stunned and humbled to be hearing a chorus of voices shouting “Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack”
After signing autographs and posing for pictures for a couple dozen fans after the show – another thing I had long ago given up on ever seeing happen again – I returned to the dressing rooms. I sat alone for a few moments then was suddenly overcome by a wave of emotions. Joy, shock, anger, relief and a downward spiraling at realizing the moment was gone. Again. I’d tasted something I’d been denied (and denied myself) for so long and been in deep denial at the effect the loss has had on me all these years. An almost forgotten wound ripped wide open again.
It was like being reunited with a long lost, true love for a night – being allowed to lose myself in the passion and joy – the ecstasy to be found in giving oneself up to the heart – and glimpse for a brief moment all that might have been, could have, should have been – only to wake and find her gone. Again. I locked myself in the bathroom and, for ten minutes wept uncontrollably, crying like a broken-hearted school girl.
I don’t tell you this in an effort to garner pity or even sympathy. I know I have been so very lucky to have done, even for a short time, what so many others can only dream about doing. And I should be, not only proud, but satisfied, happy and content that I lived my dream. After all, I’m not the only person in the history of mankind to see his dreams go up in smoke and be forced to “hang up his cleats.”
And better to have love and lost than to never have blah blah woof woof?
Don’t you believe it for a second.
There’s nothing like being in love.
And there is nothing like being on stage, playing rock n roll and hearing people chant your name.
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