Romeo and Juliet, by Dire Straits

Great literature has always inspired great music. Combined with personal heartache or tragedy, creative motivation is just a heartbeat away. The stroke of a pen. The heavy sigh of sadness. Using art as a way to deal with pain and sadness.

But seriously, who does this guy think he is?

“A love struck Romeo, sang the streets of serenade
Laying everybody low with a love song that he made
Finds a streetlight, steps out of the shade
Says something like, “You and me, babe, how about it?””

Sung in time to a beautiful resonant guitar arpeggio, sounding like a mandolin from the middle ages, the sad story begins.

Written by guitar and songwriting virtuoso Mark Knopfler, and performed by his group Dire Straits, “Romeo and Juliet” frames his own tragic love story with nothing less than an interpretation (maybe even a complete re-write) of the story by William Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest writer to have ever lived. Perhaps the greatest writer to have ever put pen to paper.

Juliet says, “Hey, it’s Romeo, you nearly gave me a heart attack”
He’s underneath the window, she’s singing, “Hey, la, my boyfriend’s back”
You shouldn’t come around here singing up at people like that
Anyway, what you gonna do about it?”

Knopfler makes this classic, tragic love story a story for our time. Romeo is a singer. He is Sinatra. Standing in the yellow cone of a street light. He looks up at the girl he loves, and he propositions. Referencing the great 1963 “My Boyfriend’s Back” by The Angels, he gives his Juliet a voice, a voice that speaks to all of us.

Come up on different streets, they both were streets of shame
Both dirty, both mean, yes, and the dream was just the same
And I dreamed your dream for you and now your dream is real
How can you look at me as if I was just another one of your deals?

When you can fall for chains of silver you can fall for chains of gold
You can fall for pretty strangers and the promises they hold
You promised me everything, you promised me thick and thin, yeah
Now you just say “oh, Romeo, yeah, you know I used to have a scene with him”

Just as in the original, Romeo and Juliet come from different parts of town, but they shared a common dream. A dream of love, and a dream of a future together. Mark Knopfler was inspired to write “Romeo and Juliet” after he was unceremoniously dumped by a girlfriend, only to find out she was in the relationship only to further her own musical career. Only so she could someday say “Yeah, I used to have a scene with him.”

“Juliet, when we made love, you used to cry
You said ‘I love you like the stars above, I’ll love you till I die’
There’s a place for us, you know the movie song
When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong, Juliet?”

It is the peak of hubris to imagine you could interpret, let alone rewrite, one of the most important love stories of our time. I have argued in the past that no one steps on a stage, puts a pen to paper, even gets out of bed each morning, without a healthy dose of ego. But William Shakespeare? Seriously?

Knopfler evokes the very best of Bob Dylan. Gymnastic-like phrasing behind a sandy, gruff delivery. Had the song been crooned, or sung with more traditional style, it would not have nearly the same impact. The song is sung through heartbreak, and with a self-awareness that this Romeo may already be everything that this Juliet wants him to be.

“I can’t do the talk like they talk on the TV
And I can’t do a love song like the way it’s meant to be

I can’t do everything but I’d do anything for you
I can’t do anything except be in love with you

And all I do is miss you and the way we used to be
All I do is keep the beat and bad company
All I do is kiss you through the bars of Orion
Juliet, I’d do the stars with you any time.”

Inspiration is sometimes kept buried deep, something only the writer knows. As audacious as it might have been to take the story of Romeo and Juliet as his own, Knopfler lays bare for us the pain he is feeling, and the continuum in which he places his story.

“Juliet, when we made love you used to cry
You said ‘I love you like the stars above, I’ll love you till I die’
There’s a place for us you know the movie song
When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong, Juliet?”

Romeo and Juliet
Written by Mark Knopfler
Performed by Dire Straits
Released January 9, 1981

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