Mark Knopfler’s Romeo and Juliet – an analysis

For no particular reason I decided to learn the Dire Straits song “Romeo and Juliet” properly. Which means checking out the original chords (which I probably learned osmotically sometime around 1982), and correcting and memorising the words.

I found a bug in my understanding of the chords for the last part of the chorus. Not major, but nice to correct. But in checking out the words, I found it hard to determine the last words of the line All I can do is kiss you, through the bars of ____“. Knopfler mumbles this line, but the closest I have ever been able to make out was the bars of a Rhine which makes no sense. Other people seem to think it’s bars of Orion. Context, logic and MarkKnopfler.com come down in favour of a rhyme. MarkKnopfler.com was full of strange stuff including sings a streetsusss serenade (sic). So much for going to the author for the gen. Is the site even official? I couldn’t tell. [Later I found some official looking sheet music that also says streetsuss. If you google it, you’ll find this song is the only place this word occurs in the whole of the internet.]

I’ve also heard someone sing finds a chameleon streetlamp.

We’ve all misheard lyrics. My favourite is possibly I wear goggles when you are not here (my mind crumbles when you are not here).

This led me to look more carefully at the meaning and structure of Mark Knopfler’s song Romeo & Juliet. The exercise is a bit like transcribing a jazz solo. I wanted to see how it all works. I’m impressed by the subtle craft of this song. I’d like to be able to write something like that. Here’s my analysis.

A lovestruck Romeo sings the street a serenade

Right off, the title of the song and the mention of Romeo sets up a complete backstory. We know that the lovers are doomed. We even know that Juliet is on a balcony. Knopfler has imported meaning via the reference to the characters and the play. If this song had been called Ron and Janet, he’d have had to do a lot more work to set the scene.

Laying everybody low with a love song that he made

My uncharitable assumption is that it’s not very good and everybody wishes he would shut up.

Finds a convenient streetlight, steps out of the shade

Is this an anachronism? Did they have streetlights in Verona? Or more likely this is transposed to modern times. Anyway, Romeo lit by the streetlight suggests a stage.

Says something like “you and me babe how about it?”

What a hopeless line Romeo uses. This establishes that Romeo is a loser.

Juliet says hey it’s Romeo. You nearly gave me a heart attack

Juliet is surprised. And tells him off for it.

He’s underneath the window she’s singing hey la my boyfriend’s back

Underneath confirms that Juliet is on a balcony, or at least upstairs. The second part is a sarcastic aside to someone behind her in the room. She refers to Romeo as her boyfriend, although it is already clear that he’s an ex, which is confirmed later in the song. So if Romeo is a loser, Juliet is a bitch.

What does hey la mean? I don’t know. Like tra-la-la and folderol, it makes the line flow nicely. But until this exercise I’d not noticed the lack of meaning. This is a kind of inverse to see-oh-el-ay and el-oh-el-ay, which for years I imagined were that sort of thing, but actually spell C-O-L-A, and L-O-L-A. Shows what an idiot I am. (See the comments section for an explanation of hey la.)

You shouldn’t come around here singing up at people like that

Juliet rejects the approach. The word people denies any connection with Romeo.

Anyway what you gonna do about it?

A challenge, reinforces the rejection. She really doesn’t want him around. These are her final words in the song. Telling off and rejecting. It couldn’t be clearer that she doesn’t want him.

Juliet the dice were loaded from the start

The chorus starts with a cliché which tells us the outcome was inevitable. He uses cliché as a shorthand, saving much explanation. So when I’m advised to avoid it, does that mean it’s banned, or just that it must be justified?

I also wonder if the judicious use of cliché is comforting for the reader / listener? A spot of familiarity to hang onto.

And I bet and you exploded in my heart

On however many thousand previous listenings, I hadn’t registered the word bet. Romeo acknowledges that he took a risk, and the scale of the impact.

And I forget I forget the movie song

On first listening this makes no sense. It refers to something that comes later in the song. That’s OK, because songs don’t have to make sense the whole time. Or more than OK, because it introduces a degree of mystery which is resolved in the next chorus.

When you gonna realise it was just that the time was wrong Juliet?

Romeo is in denial. He’s blaming the timing, he’s blaming Juliet for not seeing that. He fails to see that it’s finished (although Juliet has made that abundantly clear). He still hopes.

Come up on different streets they both were streets of shame
Both dirty both mean yes and the dream was just the same

The second section of the song starts with a flashback. It is the first description of a scene in the song. Different streets takes us back to the play, but the lines also remind me of Peter Sarstedt’s 1969 song “Where do you go to my lovely?” I remember the back streets of Naples / Two children begging in rags …

And I dreamed your dream for you and now your dream is real

The word dream is used four times in two lines.

How can Romeo dream Juliet’s dream for her? Does he means that he did all the work to make Juliet’s dream real? I put you where you are now, and look at all the thanks I get. A typical response of an emotional illiterate, when he is finally rejected. Gosh, Mark Knopfler has a low opinion of Romeo. For me, this line evokes Joni Mitchell’s “Centrepiece”: To tell him like she did today / Just what he could do with Harry’s house / And Harry’s take home pay. Provision of wealth isn’t love.

It also reminds me of the Human League song “Don’t you want me baby?”: You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar / when I met you.

How can you look at me as if I was just another one of your deals?

The rhythm of this line is superb. As is the content. Romeo starts to understand the contempt in which he is held, but can’t accept it.

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

Romeo is talking to Juliet. In his view, what she is doing now is illusion. Romeo can’t imagine Juliet being interested in other people, so they be must worthless and shallow.

You promised me everything you promised me thick and thin

This is ironic, because actually it’s Romeo who fell for a pretty stranger and the promises she held.

Now you just say oh Romeo yeah you know I used to have a scene with him

Reiterates Juliet’s casual rejection of Romeo and her contempt for him.

Juliet when we made love you used to cry

The pain of this line is intense. The core of the song, it encapsulates Romeo’s loss.

You said I love you like the stars above I’ll love you till I die

Corny. Everyone says these things. Probably they mean it at the time. But how often are these kinds of promises delivered?

But wait, what does “like the stars above” even mean? Sounds great until you examine it. Stars don’t do much but shine. Or does Juliet mean she loves Romeo in the same way that she loves stars? Not very personal in that case. Maybe this is an example where meaning is not continuously necessary in the words of a song. The rhythm and feel of the words carry us along.

There’s a place for us you know the movie song

Clever reference here to West Side Story, another reinterpretation of the Romeo and Juliet story. The character Romeo is referring to a play about himself. Slightly mind bending if you think about it.

Definite learning point here: use reference to import a collection of associations from a small number of words.

When you gonna realise it was just that the time was wrong Juliet?

See above.

I can’t do the talk like they talk on 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

A catalogue of low self-esteem. Romeo knows he is useless. And hopeless. And he still doesn’t get it. There’s got to be something wrong with a person who loves someone else, when that love is not returned. Yes, I can remember being like that once. But, forgive me, I was 18 at the time. Romeo needs to grow up.

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 a rhyme
Julie I’d do the stars with you any time

The last verse is a summary of the song.

34 thoughts on “Mark Knopfler’s Romeo and Juliet – an analysis

    1. Ron, you’re dead on. That 60’s song line “Hey La, Hey La, My boyfriend’s back” pops into my head every time I hear the line in the Dire Straits song. And of course it adds to Juliet’s sarcasm because in the 60’s song, they were glad of it and she is most certainly not.

      1. “Hey, la, my boyfriend’s back” certainly comes from the Angel’s song, but I think it is just the girl being light and casual about the relationship. She either wasn’t as serious as the boy was OR she is trying to act as if she wasn’t, even though she really was.

    1. ‘Hey La’ is a modern expression of excitement, though I have no idea the root of it. I’ve have never heard it used other than in this song.

  1. It’s clearly a reference to the Angels song – “hey la my boyfriend’s back” is taken verbatim from the lyrics. You said it yourself: “a sarcastic aside to someone behind her in the room”. Just picture her singing that Angels song lyric sarcastically toward Romeo.

  2. Fairly certain this song isn’t implying to the original Romeo and Juliet, your interpretation of the street lamp line I would presume, to be highly inaccurate.

  3. OMG. You just took a classic song and picked it to pieces. Is this a joke? Everybody knows you will never figure out what it’s about, none of us could understand Shakespeares version either.

  4. Regardless of that rather damning post from Teena above – I appreciated your analysis and thorough work through the lyrics, correcting some obvious issues. Mark wrote this song, at least in part, about his break up with a girl, Holly Vincent, who it seems, may have used him to get a leg up in the music business. I think therefor the ‘hey la my boyfriend’s back’ – may be an even more cutting reference, indicating what he thought of her and her group… Holly and the Italians

    1. No, it’s a reference to Juliet’s famous speech in III.ii, while she is waiting for Romeo to spend the wedding night with her after their secret marriage, which begins “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds.” The reference is specifically to probably the most famous bit:

      Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
      Take him and cut him out in little stars,
      And he will make the face of heaven so fine
      That all the world will be in love with night
      And pay no worship to the garish sun.

  5. I think that “All I can do is kiss you, through the bars of a rhyme” Is the BEST LINE EVER WRITTEN…. in MK’s repertoire! I also think that the overall analysis is really diminishing the song… There’s something completely vulnerable yet so humble about a guy that would serenade to declare his love to a lady. No matter how hopeless the delivery may be… “you & me baby, how about it” this line does show the simplicity of the guy…. but not that he’s a looser, & why would Juliette be telling him off for saying “hey it’s Romeo. You nearly gave me a heart attack”? (which is a line I love being said the British way, and notice that Knopfler never says it with an arrogant tone, it’s as thought it’s where the actual heart break happens for her, almost realizing (by seeing him again) the regret that they went separate ways…. do you not feel the whole desperation of the story happening in that one phrase?) It’s obvious that the connection of the lovers (in the original storyline) is so intense that they are willing to die for their love, and thus it is beautifully portrayed when implying (yes, in a more modern way) the “heart attack”…. Well from what I’ve read (couldn’t go on reading after this), there are a lot of suppositions I cannot agree with in this analysis… sorry I think there could’ve been a lighter and more optimistic outlook on the genius of Mark Knopfler’s songwriting & his AMAZING MASTERPIECE “Romeo & Juliette”!

    1. Hi Nadia

      Thanks for your comment.

      I’m only presenting here what I understand the words of the song to mean. That’s a personal thing and you understand it differently. That’s fine by me. If my post is going to ruin the song for you then it is better not to read it. And maybe I didn’t say strongly enough that I think the song is a masterpiece.

      Jeremy

    2. Unbelievable that someone sees that “All I can do is kiss you, Through the bars of a rhyme” as one of the best line of poetry ever, just as I do. My favorite song!

  6. Ah tkx for your reply Jeremy…. I have to agree that these are presentations of personal opinions, as you presented yours …. I felt like I had to express mine…(as it is open for comments)… I have to admit, I wasn’t sure if you thought this song was a delight or rubbish?… thank you for clarifying that with me… I didn’t mean to be too passionate about it, I do feel strongly about the love that is portrayed in this song… Again, I can’t apologize for what I’ve said, but I’m glad you are open to include it…. God bless! Oh & you didn’t ruin the song by any means…. Mark’s genius remains intact….of course 😉

  7. Lovely analysis … Two thoughts from me: I’ve actually heard Knopfler sing the words “streetsuss” a few times as in “sings *a* streetsuss serenade”, so I guess this is a made-up slang word like “tenderoni” in Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.”.
    I think the beauty of the song and the heartbreak within is in the humility in which the character of the song presents himself. It does not matter what and how much of it stems from the origin story Knopfler/Vincent, actually. There is little rage in the lyrics, disappointment, yes, but until the final repetition of the opening lines the “Romeo” remains subdued by the intensity of his (now unrequited) emotions. And Knopfler leaves the listeners to contemplate that in one of his trademark outros, that speak about a character who knows that he is lying to himself (a recurring sentiment which I perceive in “Tunnel of love”, “Telegraph Road” and “You and your friend”, too)

  8. I’d like to point out that in the video of the song appears a random guy in the shot exactly when Juliette sings “hey la my boyfriend’s back”, which would make complete sense to me if I compare it to what you said about that line.

  9. I’d like to make a stab at the line that you quote as “sings the streetsuss seranade”. I have seen in many online versions of these lyrics.
    My take is that Knopfler is saying: “sings the streets a seranade.” If you say this outloud, the “s” from the end of streets is slurred into the “uh-seranade”. Actually, all three words are slurred together which gives this: street-suh-seranade.
    The other line: “through the bars of a rhyme” is brilliant. Romeo is in prison (separated from Juliet), but additionally, the bars of the music and the words of his rhymes can’t break through her to her heart. He’s on one side; she’s on the other.
    These lyrics yield a lot of possibilities in meaning. Isn’t that what great writing is about? Mark’s one of the best. He’s gotten better as he’s gotten older.

  10. Here’s another snippet. In 1968, the movie “Romeo and Juliet” came out. The music was performed by Henry Mancini.
    “A Time For Us” (Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet)
    – peak Billboard position # 96 in 1969
    – competing instrumental version by Henry Mancini charted at # 1
    – from the 1968 film produced by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey
    – Words by Larry Kusik and Eddie Snyder and Music by Nino Rota

    “A time for us, some day there’ll be
    When chains are torn by courage born of a love that’s free
    A time when dreams so long denied can flourish
    As we unveil the love we now must hide

    A time for us, at last to see
    A life worthwhile for you and me”

    It seems to me that Mark Knopfler was drawing on his memory of Mancini’s version when he says: “There’s a place for us… you know the movie song”. “There’s a place for us” is highly evocative of “A time for us”. I don’t think it was “West Side Story” (1957) that he had in mind. Knopfler wrote his song in 1980, 12 years after Mancini’s version.

  11. Hi! Interesting analysis. Could “sing a streetsuss serenade” be interpreted as “sings at street us serenade”? He continues with “Laying everybody low…”. What do you think?

  12. If “bars of a rhyme” are the correct lyrics, then I’m sorry I’ll have to critique Mark’s metaphor as the bars are then a conduit for the kiss, not a barrier.

    Doesn’t change my agreement the song is a masterpiece, though perhaps for different reasons than your interpretation. Taken in context of the musical quality and Mark’s performance — not so much bittersweet, but sweetly bitter — I wouldn’t say the song is about a spurned loser being told to get lost by the spurner, but an earnest lover who recognizes but cannot fully accept the person they fell in love with has changed. Perhaps different sides of the same coin, but as any loser of a high-stakes coin flip can tell you, which side of the coin can mean all the difference in the world.

  13. I think you’ve inverted a few things in the song. Laying someone low is a positive – it’s a knockdown as in it’s so good it knocked me down.
    The heart attack isn’t telling him off, it’s surprise that he would appear. And the next line, it not said by Juliet, but another member of her party describing Juliet’s reaction to Romeo being there.
    When he references the stars – he means that the stars are permanent, or enduring.

  14. Knopfler’s second line: “He sings a street suss serenade”
    The “suss” might derive from “süss”, the German word for “sweet”. “Street suss” could actually mean “street sweet” — or what passes for sweet in down-to-earth German immigrant communities in English speaking countries. Thus a serenade as sweet as it gets in some rough immigrant streets. The name Knopfler sounds Germanic.

    Later: “All I do is kiss you, through the bars of Orion/a rhyme
    Julie I’d do the stars with you, any time”
    We could have a double metaphor here. The famous belt of stars in the constellation Orion resemble bars, and this ties with “doing the stars”. It could also be kissing during the bars (measures) of a musical rhyme in a song, perhaps this very song.

    This is a speculative view from New Zealand.

  15. The melody Somewhere from West Side Story is contrapuntal to Knophlers tune Juliet. Thats what it means musically as well as the literal aspect theres a place for us.

  16. Nicely done. Thanks for agreeing with my thoughts on rhyme vs. Orion and streets ‘a’ vs. ‘of’.
    One thing you missed- maybe you’re too young to remember. Hey la my boyfriend… is a reference to The Angels’ 1963 hit.

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