My favorite Dire Straits song, and the title track of an album that introduced music buyers to the cd (one of the many achievements that makes Dire Straits a seminal band), is the song “Brothers In Arms.” It is difficult for me to listen to this song without thinking of its deep and tragic implications for my own life and its conflict-ridden context. With a spare and somewhat gloomy musical track, this song is a melancholy reflection on our tendencies for avoidable conflict by our penchant for unnecessary wars. And I certainly know this problem very well in my own life, from all sides.
The first verse of “Brothers In Arms” reads as follow: “These mist covered mountains / Are a home now for me, / But my home is the lowlands, / And always will be. / Some day you’ll return to / Your valleys and your farms, / And you’ll no longer burn / To be brothers in arms .” The first line of this poem is particularly ironic for me, given that I am currently living in a land of mist-covered mountains and moving to a place with other mist-covered mountains very soon. I was also born in a land of mist-covered mountains, which have always given a depth and melancholy sense to my life and work with various hill peoples. But having grown up in the lowlands of central Florida, most of my life has been spent in low-lying coastal plains. But as the child of farming families, and as someone who has done more work than I ever would in farms, I definitely understand that the feeling of brotherhood often depends on a common goal and common actions, and that when this is over, sometimes the bonds of friendship and intimacy are forgotten.
The second verse of “Brothers In Arms” is as follows: “Through these fields of destruction, / Baptisms of fire, / I’ve witnessed all your suffering / As the battle raged higher. / And though they did hurt me so bad / In the fear and alarm, / You did not desert me / My brothers in arms.” In this verse, Mark Knopfler speaks of what would appear to be military experience, in a literal or symbolic way. A brotherhood in arms is formed through shared experiences of conflict, suffering, and heroism, as trust is built through acts of loyalty. I must say I am very grateful to my own brothers (and sisters) in arms, who have not deserted me in my hour of need, just as the narrator’s friends were loyal and true themselves. I only hope to be as loyal to my friends as I can be.
The bridge of the song is as follows: “There’s so many different worlds, / So many different suns, / And we have just one world, / But we live in different ones.” The meaning of this enigmatic bridge turns on the different definition of worlds. There are many different worlds within our world, but we all (for now, at least) are limited to the same planet, even where we are in different worlds. Many of us (myself many times) have had the strange phenomenon of meeting people from different worlds and being somewhat confused by the experience, or in visiting different worlds and dealing with the dislocation and strangeness of it.
The third verse of the song reads as follows: “Now the sun’s gone to hell / And the moon’s riding high. / Let me bid you farewell, / Every man has to die. / But it’s written in the starlight, / And every line on your palm, / “We’re fools to make war / On our brothers in arms.”” The singer, in his most popular album, is already thinking of bidding farewell. Ironically enough, the band would release just one more studio album before calling it quits, and here at their moment of supreme commercial triumph the band is already contemplating their exit. The lyrics of the song close with the very important and notable point that we are fools to make war on our brothers in arms, on the people that should be our allies. As my life can attest to, this is a very frequent and lamentable experience. Given that life is short and we all die, we should avoid as much conflict and warfare as we can. Some of us, even those of us who dislike warfare and fighting, are so well practiced in starting hostilities that we do not know how to practice peace well. But while we live, there is time to learn.
It is striking that this song, so spare and minimalistic in its music, is so rich and complex in its imagery. Every verse of the song (and the bridge) refer to suns, hell, fire, burning, and similar imagery. While the song plays in a slow, melancholy burn, the lyrics describe baptisms of fire and hearts that no longer burn to be as one. Additionally, the songs reflect on death, fear, injury, and abandonment. The band’s understated approach to the music and singing makes the passion of the lyrics that much more striking in contrast.
The success of this song (and album) is full of ironies. Here we have a slow, melancholy song about friendship and death in an album that is very stripped-down in its approach introducing the music-buying world to the compact disc, and becoming a massively successful album. It is also ironic in having a somewhat nontraditional structure, lacking a chorus and having its hook be instrumental and not vocal in nature, similar to Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” only much less flashy in nature. But with its ironies, it is a song that has always spoke deeply to the melancholy depths of my own experience and background. I suppose it always will.