My Life in Dire Straits (Book Review)

Through Diversion Books, John Illsey will reveal how his life was in dire straits. Who thought it was that bad? Being the bassist and founding member of- oh, right. It is not quite that grim. The title is just being punny.

Released on November 9, 2021, Illsey’s new autobiography is called My Life in Dire Straits: The Inside Story of One of the Biggest Bands in Rock History. As it says, the book covers Illsey’s journey as a founding member of Dire Straits. It goes from them scrabbling for gigs in London pubs to being rock icons via classic tracks like ‘Money for Nothing’ and ‘Sultans of Swing’. Not to mention the highs and lows in between, and his friendship with co-founder Mark Knopfler, who also provides a foreword for the book. It promises to be a reflective and even humorous recalling of Dire Straits’ run. Perhaps surprisingly, it fulfils that promise quite early too.

There are readers who would prefer biographies- auto or otherwise-to start with the fame than the life story. Surely playing at the Roxy is more pivotal than Market Harborough? But Illsey’s writing style manages to make the descriptions of post-war Britain sound as vibrant as Dire Straits hitting the big time. It is one of the more engaging and entertaining recollections of a Boomer-era British upbringing, even compared to the Beatles or Pythons’ biographies.

The same applies to the meat of the book, that is meeting Knopfler and starting Dire Straits. The band’s forming, fame and end makes up 19 of the book’s 25 chapters, with each chapter varying in length- generally between 7 and 17 pages. It makes for a pretty breezy read for 279 pages in total, excluding the foreword, acknowledgements, index, etc.

Yet it is easy for the reader to picture each event because Illsey keeps up that vibrant writing style throughout. Well, for the most part. There are segments where the energy lags and he simply recalls events in order. Then it will spike up with some reflections on his personal life, regrets, or the odd flavorful anecdote (meeting Bob Dylan, Tracey Chapman saving a gig, etc).

The humor, while not guffaw-inducing, is endearing and makes Illsey’s experiences and wry observations quite relatable. Generations can change, but bad jobs, bad decisions, and getting through them with good music is a near-universal feeling. Only that there probably are not as many young adults putting Engelbert Humperdinck on a playlist alongside Jimi Hendrix today.

The reflections come off quite honest, with some being quite touching, though others could make readers raise a curious, Roger Moore-esque eyebrow. Like they are the jury getting Illsey’s side, and are then wondering if his former partners and others have their own book to get the full scoop. Like a relationship version of Zoe Street-Howe’s How’s Your Dad? (2010).

Overall, My Life in Dire Straits is a fun and engaging read that lives up to its promises. While it has some lagging parts, Illsey manages to keep the book going at a decent pace thanks to his colourful writing style. It is a must-read for Dire Straits fans, while also being a strong book for casual readers as well. Thus, for these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives My Life in Dire Straits: The Inside Story of One of the Biggest Bands in Rock History 4 out of 5 stars. 

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