“The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man.”Huey Newton
Brothers In Arms is one of my all-time favourite albums. I was a Dire Straits fan before MTV. When this album came out, I was ecstatic. I played it nonstop. Even to this day, I can sing every song on the album without looking at a lyrics sheet!
The album, to me, is in two parts. Part one is mostly about loneliness, disillusionment, and heartbreak, and part two is about the potential of destroying our one world as reflected in the many guerrilla wars that raged throughout the 80’s. In particular, the Nicaraguan conflict.
In the lead track, So Far Away, the protagonist of the song is in a long distance relationship brought on by his constant travel. He’s tired of ‘bein’ in love and being’ all alone.’ The longer he is gone, the further his love gets away from him. They are on two sides of the continent. She’s in the sun and he is in the rain. She keeps getting further and further away from him as the song suggest at the end. ‘You’re so far… so far away from me…” is repeated until the song fades out.
Money For Nothing, the runaway MTV hit, is about a working-class appliance delivery man who is envious of the perceived lifestyle of rock stars and the fact that they get paid a ton of money and get all the girls just for playing some guitars and drums, which to him amounts to doing nothing. Meanwhile, he has to just get by in life doing “real” work and get paid next to nothing for his hard work. By verse three, he wishes he had learned to play the guitar or drums and then he could have a cushy life too. I love the cameo appearance of Sting on the track with his distinct high pitch squeal… ‘Money for nothing and your chick for free…’
Walk Of Life balances out Money For Nothing with a guy who is excited to go watch an old blues singer named Johnny who is in town to sing the ‘oldies, goldies’ like “Be-Bop-A-Lula”, “Baby What I Say” and “I Gotta Women.” Songs the protagonist likes. He’s a huge fan of Johnny’s so much so that he can watch Johnny play all night: “Turning all the night time into the day.” The protagonist seeks refuge in Johnny’s songs from the walk of life which is full of ‘violence and double talk.’
With Your Latest Trick, we swing back to the theme of loneliness with a guy who has had his heart broken by a girl he’s madly in love with but doesn’t love him back in the same way. My favourite thing about this song is Mark Knopfler ’s use of metaphors to build a hazy dystopian picture of the city. I love his use of the piano keys as the keys to his heart. And the final epiphany, when he realises there is no more love between him and his girl: “Like a bowery bum when he finally understands that the bottle is empty and there’s nothing left.”
Knopfler balances out Your Latest Trick with Why Worry like he does with Money For Nothing and Walk of Life. In Your Latest Trick, we get the opposite view of love. Here are two people who support each when things are bad and they are feeling down. The song opens with the protagonist offering support to his girl who is feeling down about the world which has made her sad. But as bad as things maybe now, he reminds her that it will get better, so why worry, there will be ‘laughter after pain’ and ’sunshine after rain.’ “These things have always been the same.” It’s part of the rhythm of life. He knows when it’s his turn to feel down, she will do the same for him and help him through his blues.
I love the whole album, but part two really struck a chord with me. When it came out in 1985, I was 17 and longing for real world adventure. The kind of adventure the romanticised version of war promises to boys who are on the verge of becoming men.
In my boyhood naïveté, I wanted to be a mercenary. I used to buy Soldier of Fortune Magazine every month and read it from cover to cover. I was fascinated by the Rhodesian Bush War and many of the soldier of fortune tales that came out of that conflict. The Wild Geese movie with Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris, and Hardy Kruger, was one of my favourite films at the time. I wanted that kind of camaraderie. Heck, when I was 16, I had researched and planned to runaway from home to join the French Foreign Legion! Not having a passport, and needing my mom to get me one, proved to be a barrier.
Part two of the album, to me, is mainly about the guerrilla wars that were being fought in Central America at the time, particularly the Nicaraguan Revolution and the Contra War.
Part two opens with Ride Across the River, a brilliant song. It shows war from two perspectives – one from the revolutionaries who are fighting what they consider to be a just and noble war in support of freedom. They are ‘the chosen’ and are ready ‘to pay with our lives if we must.’ And I’m wondering if Knopfler uses the river, which, appears in the chorus, as a metaphor for death. It calls to mind the River Styx from Greek mythology where Charon, the ferryman, would taxis the souls of the dead from Gaia (Earth) to the Underworld of Hades. The revolutionaries in the song are committed to death. They know they are “ Gonna ride across the river, deep and wide/Ride across the river to the other side.”
The soldiers of fortune in the song are not so naive. They don’t care about freedom and noble causes. They are in it for the money. And they “don’t give a damn who the killing is for.” To them, it is “the same old story with a different name/Death or glory, it’s the killing game.” And like the revolutionaries, they too, know, that they will more than likely be taking a ride across the river.
The revolutionaries are optimistic. They are fighting the good fight: “Today in the mountains; tomorrow the world.”
The Man’s Too Strong is tricky. The revolutionaries’ cause starts off noble, but the death and destruction of war soon brings out the worst in men and the cause becomes tarnished by the evils of humanity and the corruption that evolves out of those who lose sight of the cause and become blinded by the power they wield over life ad death.
In this song, we meet the guerrilla leader who has finally been caught by The Man.
The Man’s Too Strong feels like a confessional song. The warlord tells his story:
… I have legalized robbery
And called it relief
I have run with the money
I have hid like a thief
Rewritten histories with my armies and my crooks
I did burn all the books
Through all of the bad things he has done, he has ‘striven for peace.’ A peace, he would never know.
The Man doesn’t want the guerrilla leader to die a martyr so brings him out into the courtyard to publicly denounce him:
“You always was a Judas,
But I got you anyway.”
The Man is not satisfied with just killing the guerrilla leader, he wants him to suffer. He tells him what he has done to his daughter and wife.
The captured warlord, who knows his execution is imminent, prays to God for absolution:
Oh father, please help me
For I have done wrong
The man’s too big
The man’s too strong
In One World, the protagonist has the blues. Nothing seems to be going right for him:
Can’t get no sleeves for my records
Can’t get no laces for my shoes
Can’t get no fancy notes on my blue guitar
He confesses that he “can’t get no antidote’ for his blues.
He seems to be trying to find a reason for why the world is in the state that it’s in. But nothing seems to make sense and the reasons people give for their actions can’t be trusted. He’s been told that it’s mostly vanity that drives our actions. That’s the way it has always been and always will be. He has to accept that “there’s no such thing as sanity, and that’s the sanest fact.” There is no remedy for his blues.
He concludes that if the politicians can’t find “a way to be one world in harmony,” there can never be an antidote to the blues he is feeling.
The last song, and the title track for the album, Brothers in Arms takes us back to the war torn country we met in Ride Across The River. It’s told from the point of view of one of the rebels who has aged now. He is resigned to the fact, that as a rebel, he can never go home again, that the mountains, where the rebels hide, have become his home. He misses his real home:
But my home is the lowlands
And always will be
He does hope that one day, the fighting will stop, and the rebels can go back to their homes in the lowlands and lush valleys and be with their families and no longer ‘burn to be brothers in arms.’
Verse two holds a specially place in my heart. As a former soldier, these words ring true:
Through these fields of destruction
Baptisms of fire
I’ve witnessed your suffering
As the battle raged high
And though they did hurt me so bad
In the fear and alarm
You did not desert me
My brothers in arms
I will always be close to my brothers in arms.
In the next verse, we return to the one world theme. Where the bluesman in One World has given up hope, the aged rebel in Brothers In Arms still holds on to hope that while for now we all live in different worlds maybe one day we will realise that we, in fact, only have one world. And we are “fools to make war on our brothers in arms.”