It popped up in my email inbox: “I don't think you need to be a motorcycle enthusiast to lose yourself in this book. It is an open-handed classic about living and love, with a heart as big as a Vincent V-twin engine.”—Mark Knopfler
For a moment I was stunned as I waited for the words to sink in. It was another Saturday night with nowhere to go. Out later in the cold I was putting my trash in the can when the word “classic” hit home. I had longed my whole life to hear that word used about my work by someone I respected.
Decades ago, when I wasn’t old enough to drive but old enough to want to, I wasted so many Saturday nights falling asleep in front of the TV. Most often it was the USA network’s late night programming. In heavy rotation then was a short film called Making Movies. It was comprised of three or four Dire Straits songs (off the album of the same name) married to short silent movies. These were the first music videos I remember. I loved them all—“Tunnel of Love,” “Skateaway,” but especially “Romeo and Juliet.”
It was tragic yes, but at least Mark Knopfler’s Romeo had known love and—even better—lives to sing about it: “Now you say, Oh Romeo—Yeah I used to have this thing with him / Juliet, when we made love you used to cry.” This is not Shakespeare’s way of telling the story but what did I really know about Shakespeare? I was 14.
At college, things hadn’t changed much and late at night when the only students left at the parties were drunk and lonely, I would stumble back to the dorm and if I was lucky, I could hear music coming out from the girls’ room across the hall. For a time it was most often Making Movies. I would knock and ask (plead, really) if I could lay on the floor and listen till I got sleepy. They almost always said yes.
I understood why it was right for me to be alone: I wasn’t handsome, rich or a jock. But these girls—how could they not have Romeos standing under their street light saying, “You and me babe—how 'bout it?”
And after a few more drinks, S. would command me: “Bibhead, tell me I’m beautiful!” It wasn’t a come on, far from it and I could have taken that fact as an insult or pure torture because she was stunningly beautiful. But we were in the land of svelte 80’s ice queens and here she was--half Native American, half Black, with a knock out body—totally unappreciated, perhaps intimating even to those pasty prep school boys. I suppose I lusted after her but at the same time I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Never again would I get to tell a beautiful woman she was beautiful in such an innocent way.
And then she was dead, the victim of a drunk driver, on graduation night. So much of what we said I’ll never forget. The last conversation she talked of a dream she just had about white birds flying away. She told me it meant that she was starting a new stage of her life and how happy she was to be finally out of college.
When I got to the church on the Rez for the funeral I sat in the driver seat reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Later I looked up and saw the hearse. I knew I wasn’t in the funeral party but something made me get out of the car. My neck was sore—damn if I hadn’t gotten rear ended on the eastern shore on the drive up, but still I knocked on the driver’s window: “You need a hand?”
So we carried her in and I said goodbye when it was just us two and I said what I wrote in the book you had left out for that exhibit of yours—those photographs documenting the women of your tribe. I said, You Are Beautiful.
Last semester, I decided to teach Romeo and Juliet in my undergraduate Shakespeare Survey course. I had never done it before, telling myself they had all read it back in 8th grade and that really, it wasn’t one of his best plays, especially if you are older than 14. It is amusing what we do to hide from ourselves. As a way to start the conversation, I asked my students if they knew the Dire Straits song—and big surprise here, none of them did. (Perhaps I should I have asked if they knew the cover version done by The Killers.)
On a whim, I played it for them on youtube. They probably found the incident amusing, but I felt as if I had ripped open a raw stream of memories. There was so much I wanted to say about what that song means to me yet what could I tell them? So instead I talked flatly about how Knopfler reinterprets the story and suggested as they went away that they should really think hard about fate and agency.
Then several months later I got a blurb.
Thank you, Mark Knopfler! Just when you think the whole blurb experience is pointless, something good comes out of it. S.--your picture is on my bookcase as I type.
Causes Matthew Biberman Supports