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?
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.