In the first of a series of articles examining the lyrics behind well-known songs, Carlton Boyce takes a look at Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits.
Taken from their 1980 album Making Movies, the beauty of Romeo and Juliet for me is the way Mark Knopfler (who wrote the song in addition to singing it) seamlessly merges the classicism of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers with contemporary 20th century England. Sure, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet’s love was forbidden because of their families’ rivalry, while Knopfler’s couple are estranged because Juliet has moved on to bigger and better things, but the parallels are cleverly explored in a contemporary setting, nonetheless.
A key part of Knopfler’s success in doing this so well is his cadence and accent; if the art of mastering a piece of music is to make sure all the silences are in the right place, Knopfler’s magic is to be able to sing one about one of the all-time great romances in an accent that is indisputably working-class Londoner.
So, when Juliet responds to Romeo’s question “You and me babe, how about it?”, she replies, “Heh, it’s Romeo, you nearly gave me a heart attack” giving the heavy emphasis on pronouncing the ‘h’ in heart that is so typical of the estuary accent. He has retained his humble roots, while Juliet has moved on; she’s attained her dream, while Romeo is still where he was – and nursing a broken heart, to boot.
And Romeo’s earnestness (“Juliet, the dice was loaded from the start / and I bet, and you exploded into my heart”) is constantly being undercut by Juliet’s light-heartedness. This playful, almost irreverent attitude towards her boyfriend was evident from the beginning of their relationship when he would sing to her from the shade of a streetlight, and she’d tease him by asking “what you gonna do about it?”. You can almost see her, can’t you? Hip canted, and giving him a shy smile from a half-turned face.
But, for her too, their relationship was serious; while she might now dismiss it with a casual “oh Romeo yeah, you know I used to have a scene with him” she cried when they made love, and swore to love him until she the day she died.
Given that we’ve all made declarations like that when we were teenagers, are we led to believe that Romeo’s was a more mature attitude to their relationship? He cautions that we can all fall for “chains of silver … and gold” (underlined by a heavy guitar riff, just one example of Knopfler’s use of volume and instruments to underscore his lyrics) and the lure of the better life “pretty strangers” appear to offer. Juliet, on the other hand, seems quite happy to have shrugged him away after she realised her dreams, dismissing him as “just another one of (her) deals”.
But what I take from this song are the fundamental differences between men and women: Romeo is caught up in the tragedy of a lost romance, the love that can never be, singing plaintively “When you gonna realise that it was just that the time was wrong?”. He acknowledges that for him, time has stood still, and he can’t get past her: “I can’t do everything but I’d do anything for you” followed by his heart-breaking whisper: “I can’t do anything except be in love with you”, which is pretty eloquent for a working class boy who claims that he 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.”
Juliet is more pragmatic. Yes, she loved him with all her heart, but for her life moves on and there’s no need to live in the past; the stoic appreciation of young love, if you like. While Romeo might well have helped her realise her dreams, that was then and this is now. But while Juliet might be stoic (and, if we’re being honest, more realistic than Romeo) it’s his heartbreak and nostalgic view of the past we empathise with. He yearns for the simplicity of their youth, when they had shared dreams, and while he seems to have accepted that his place in the social strata remains the same as it has always been, he can’t understand why she abandoned him, and so rails against the unfairness of a situation over which he has no place, or control.
Is this a masterful insight into the workings of the male and female heart, or was Knopfler perhaps just going through a rough patch in his personal life after breaking up with Holly Vincent, his girlfriend of the time? Knopfler has said that he felt that she used him to further her own career, abandoning him after finding success with her band, Holly and the Italians.
Or is it a brilliant post-modern look at how Romeo and Juliet’s relationship might have ended had their love not been forbidden?
More optimistically (I know, kind of goes against the grain, doesn’t it?), perhaps he is singing to a new girl in the final verse, albeit using the exact words (“you and me babe, how about it?”) that he sang to Juliet? Finding “a convenient streetlight” rather than the streetlight we hear about at the beginning makes me think there might be hope for him after all…
What do you think? We’d love to hear your comments in the comments section of our social media posts! And if you’d like to write 1,000 words on the meaning behind your favourite song, then please get in touch.
The recurring guitar arpeggio is identical to the one played by piano in the first verse of Bruce Springsteen’s Jungleland, which you’ll find on his 1975 album Born To Run. This might be nothing more than a coincidence, although Roy Bittan, Springsteen’s pianist, played on both songs…
Listen here for yourself.
Carlton Boyce @motoringjourno