"MARK Knopfler has a way of making a Shechter Custom Stratocaster hoot and sing like angels on a Saturday night, exhausted after being good all week and needing a stiff beer."
So said Douglas Adams saluting Dire Straits in one of his novels. There’s no doubt Knopfler’s band was huge in the 1980s and he deserves a position in the rock and roll hall of fame. Yet there’s something about the man that keeps him removed from that status. He’s not quite in the league of Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart or David Bowie.
Perhaps it’s that, unlike his contemporaries, he wasn’t famous before the 1980s. The Straits album Brothers in Arms is the biggest ever seller behind The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, but Knopfler was already approaching 30 when the band formed in 1978. He arrived as a late entrant to the category ‘dinosaurs of rock’ and slipped neatly in because his relative maturity made us assume he belonged.
"I think if I’d been 18 when I formed Dire Straits it would have been a very different experience for me," he confesses when I ask whether the rapid success went to his head. " I’d been looking at the world as a songwriter, observing it and writing about it, then suddenly the world started looking at me. It knocked me sideways at first."
When he did his first press day in Holland he had 26 interviews one after the other and afterwards he lay on his bed feeling that someone had pulled on a loose thread in his soul and continued to pull until it unravelled the whole sweater.
In those days his band was huge and album sales brought him a reputed 70m fortune. A firm favourite of the Princess of Wales, his songs were anthems for a Thatcherite period and his Geordie accent had begun to meld with a transatlantic lilt that made a perfect accompaniment to an unmistakable guitar sound still resonating through his solo albums today. The band grew so big they played 250 venues in a single year, to seven million people. But he grew tired of it all when the catering team numbered more than his original road crew.
"It seemed to me when people were saying it’s the biggest thing in the world that the only intelligent response was to walk away from it and to try and get control of my life," he says. "That didn’t just apply to the musical side, I think I wanted to get control of my personal life."
Personal comments are rare from Knopfler - he doesn’t like to analyse himself too much. But the final two-year world tour put an end to his second marriage. He’s reluctant to blame it all on the hectic schedule, but this clearly played a part. He married again 10 years ago and is happier and more settled now than he’s ever been. He and Kitty have a four-year-old daughter, while Knopfler also has two sons aged 14 (test tube twins) from his previous marriage. He lives in London and has houses on the south coast and in Northumberland, but other than that he isn’t saying where all the money has gone.
Knopfler has a disconcerting habit of falling silent and gazing out the window, letting his sentences trail as he meditates on what he wants to say. I find myself occasionally supplying the finishing words to his sentences.
"We were the first of our generation to form school bands..." he is saying, recalling the origins of his performing talent. "There’d always be two or three of us who were into bands and long hair but we ran straight up against…" he looks at the buildings opposite our private restaurant room.
"… the establishment?" I venture.
"Yes, the establishment," he smiles. He has a particularly warm, connecting smile, and you’d do anything to bask in the cosiness of it.
His father was a local authority architect on a low salary so the family had to watch their costs and his mother had to teach. It was a stretch for his dad to buy Knopfler’s first electric guitar and he didn’t have the heart to ask for an amplifier as well. This might explain the way he plays it - an acoustic approach to electric sound.
His first job after leaving school was as a local reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Post. "I think that was a great thing for me - it toughened me up and I got more focused. One of my first jobs was to write a one-paragraph review at the City Varieties in Leeds. I was in this old theatre along with just seven or eight other people watching ageing strippers wearing nipple tassels. And I had to write just 30 words on it."
After that he gravitated to teaching in a college of further education, "by fluke".
"I earned more money than I ever had and it enabled me to buy my dad’s car second-hand and carry my guitars about. But most importantly it enabled me to buy a Greyhound bus ticket to go to the States on the back of a jet and travel around in the holidays."
That experience influenced his musical style to the degree that he gained as much of an audience there as in Europe, a factor key to his success.
And yet he projects no aura - I am talking to the front man of one of the most successful rock bands of the last century, but I might as well be chatting to my window cleaner. He’s just a humble guy who loves to play guitar.
"The last decade has been a very good period for me in lots of ways," he says. "I’ve had my periods in the past when I’ve been negative about things and it’s possible to get there because the business is tough as well. It will kick you and you pay a price. But both personally and creatively these last few years have been a very good period indeed. I love reading my daughter stories, it’s my favourite thing ."
And yet there’s a brand new restlessness in his music. In common with many northerners, as a young man he had his sights set on London . Now settled there, he wouldn’t dream of moving away, yet two songs on his latest album reveal a growing nostalgia for Northumberland .
"I try to get up there every year, as much as possible. And the older I get the more time I spend in the countryside. When I was a kid my folks bought an old railway cottage on a disused line for 300. It had no electric light or water - we used to have to get water from a well. It was beautiful country and it was like being part of a children’s book. I was very lucky to have that as part of my growing up with nature all around me. Nowadays I like going down to my cottage on the Solent and watch the herons and oyster catchers."
With his roots planted firmly in Geordie-land he was the ideal choice to compose the new theme tune for the latest series of Auf Weidersehn Pet, which aired last year. In fact since Jimmy Nail was a dyed-in-the-wool Dire Straits fan (often coming back stage at concerts) Knopfler felt it would add authenticity to recruit him and Tim Healy for backing vocals on ‘Why Aye Man’.
That song opens his latest album, The Ragpicker’s Dream, which in his view comes closest yet to what he’s been trying to achieve musically . Musicians always say that , but you can believe Knopfler because he cringes openly at some of what has gone before. It’s an album about the subjects that break his heart. For example, ‘Quality Shoes’, because he thinks it a tragedy that not everyone can afford them . Or the title track, about a man who dreams of Christmas while drowning his sorrows in whisky.
There’s no emotional slush - it’s all good rock. It’s classic Mark Knopfler, nothing less.
The Ragpicker’s Dream is out now; Mark Knopfler plays The Playhouse, Edinburgh (08706-063424), June 8