Saturday, July 8, 2023

Dylan's "No Time To Think"-- The Mercenary as Metaphor

Dominik Sostmann on Unsplash
I remember when I first noticed the magazine Soldier of Fortune, a publication devoted to readers intrigued by mercenary service The mag was founded by a former Vietnam War Green Beret. Launched in 1975 it first came to my attention in the early 1980s, a handful of years after Dylan's Street Legal album which featured a song called "No Time To Think"about the life and mindset of a mercenary. 

Mercenaries are private individuals who join a military conflict for personal gain. They are generally outsiders, not members of any other official military. They fight for money or other forms of payment (and I suspect adventure) rather than for political interests.

Having been familiar with Dylan's song before seeing the magazine, I took the song as a metaphor. The lyrics suggested that people are constantly being pulled in different directions, making it challenging to find a moment of respite or to focus on meaningful matters. The song can be seen as a reflection on the struggles of maintaining a sense of self in a busy, chaotic world.

Last week's news regarding the revolt by Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of a mercenary army called the Wagner Group, brought this notion of mercenary soldiers to the forefront for me. Evidently the Russian military purportedly struck Prigozhin's troops Friday, angering the Wagner leader, who according to news reports retaliated by taking over the Russian city of Rostov. The action was initially labeled treason, but afterwards the mercenary army was given permission to take refuge in Belarus.

The size of this army was especially striking. The Wagner Group claimed to have 25,000 mercenaries in its service, quite a bit larger than the 2019 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. At that time the Wagner Group was estimated to have between 2,000 and 4,000 fighters. The group's mercenary army is composed of a mixture of Russian, Ukrainian, and Central Asian fighters as well as recruits from Libya, Syria and Sudan.

The Wagner Group uprising immediately brought Dylan's "No Time To Think" to mind for me so that I wanted to explore it further. I'd heard that there were mercenaries fighting on both sides, but was unaware of the quantity of mercenary soldiers involved in this conflict. Dylan's song seemed a vividly portrayal of this life, and perhaps to a lesser extent it could apply to other high pressure jobs in our contemporary culture.

Please bear with me as I indulge in a bit of lyrics dissection.  

In death, you face life with a child and a wife
Who sleep-walks through your dreams into walls.
You're a soldier of mercy, you're cold and you curse,
"He who cannot be trusted must fall."

Loneliness, tenderness, high society, notoriety.You fight for the throne and you travel aloneUnknown as you slowly sinkAnd there's no time to think.
The first verse of the song describes the narrator as a mercenary soldier who is constantly on the move. In a world of death you "face life"but you also have a family, a wife and child. This wife "sleep-walks through your dreams into walls." There's a suggestion here that she's possibly been deeply traumatized. The narrator is angry and bitter about their situation.
The last line of each stanza highlights the difficulties of finding time for deep thought and contemplation amidst the constant barrage of information and societal pressures. And yet, for some people the excitement of living on the edge and taking risks can be quite addictive. 
In the Federal City you been blown and shown pity,In secret, for pieces of change.The empress attracts you but oppression distracts youAnd it makes you feel violent and strange.
Memory, ecstasy, tyranny, hypocrisyBetrayed by a kiss on a cool night of blissIn the valley of the missing linkAnd you have no time to think.

"Memory, ecstasy, tyranny, hypocrisy"... The words reflect a range of contrasting concepts. "Memory" could refer to the recollection of past experiences, "ecstasy" suggests intense joy or pleasure, "tyranny" represents oppressive rule or control, and "hypocrisy" refers to the act of pretending to have virtues or beliefs that one does not truly possess. This combination of words symbolizes the complexity and contradictions of human existence, which has always been my chief takeaway from this song.

"Betrayed by a kiss on a cool night of bliss"... This line suggests a moment of betrayal or deceit that occurs during a seemingly pleasant or joyful experience. It conveys the idea that even in moments of happiness, there can be underlying negative or deceptive elements.

"In the valley of the missing link".. This phrase could be metaphorical, representing a place or state of being where an essential connection is absent. It might imply his sense of longing or searching for completeness or understanding or meaning, which will be explored a little further on.


The next section begins with the line "Judges will haunt you, the country priestess will want you," suggesting that a mercenary is always on the run, never knowing when they will be hunted down by those they've wronged. This is a common theme in the lives of mercenaries, who often find themselves in dangerous situations and are constantly looking over their shoulders.

"I've seen all these decoys through a set of deep turquoise eyes" could be a reference to the mercenary's jaded view of the world. After seeing so much death and destruction, it can be difficult to maintain an idealistic view of humanity. It's interesting that Dylan and "Old Blue Eyes" Sinatra both viewed the world through blue eyes. Each saw much or has seen much and could easily have become jaded by it all. 
Judges will haunt you, the country priestess will want youHer worst is better than best.I've seen all these decoys through a set of deep turquoise eyesAnd I feel so depressed.
China doll, alcohol, duality, mortality.Mercury rules you and destiny fools youLike the plague, with a dangerous winkAnd there's no time to think.
When he speaks of feeling "so depressed" it's clearly pointing to the psychological aspects and impacts of this lifestyle. The duality could easily refer to the challenge of being a killer while maintaining one's humanity. 
The references to Mercury and destiny echo the classic stories of Theseus and other heroes of Greek and Roman mythology who believed they were in control of their own destinies, but ultimately learned they were simultaneously subject to the whims of the gods and chance.
Your conscience betrayed you when some tyrant waylaid youWhere the lion lies down with the lamb.I'd have paid off the traitor and killed him much laterBut that's just the way that I am.
Paradise, sacrifice, mortality, reality.But the magician is quicker and his gameIs much thicker than blood and blacker than inkAnd there's no time to think.
This section begins with a moral dilemma. Mercenaries are often, if not usually, forced to make difficult choices that run counter to conscience. 
They may have been hired to do something that they knew was wrong, and they may have been haunted by their conscience as a result. The fact that this song was recorded just previous to Dylan's trio of Gospel-infused albums cannot be overlooked. The song Señor, also found on Street Legal, is explicit in this regard if you consider that the word Señor is used as a reference to the Lord. "Lord, Lord can you tell me where we're heading...?"
"The lion will lie down with the lamb" is often used to point to symbolize a states of peace and harmony. There is similar imagery in the book of Isaiah. This is followed by a reference to a traitor, and in the second stanza of the song we hear him sing "betrayed by a kiss on a cool night of bliss," yet another Biblical reference, this one to Judas.
We're not trying to give overmuch weight to these references. We're only noting that there's a whirlwind of imagery on this album drawn from ancient texts, mythology, occult philosophy and mystical sources.
"I'd have paid off the traitor and killed him much later..." To survive the mercenary must be a cold and calculating individual, unafraid to use violence to achieve his goals, and willing to wait for the perfect opportunity to strike. 
All these words and images shuffled together denote how unpredictable the mercenary's circumstances are. He is constantly at risk on many levels, and not in control of what will happen next.
Anger and jealousy's all that he sells us,He's content when you're under his thumb.Madmen oppose him, but your kindness throws himTo survive it you play deaf and dumb.
Equality, liberty, humility, simplicity.You glance through the mirror and there's eyes staring clearAt the back of your head as you drinkAnd there's no time to think.
The song continues its meditation on the nature of power and control. The narrator also suggests that kindness and humility are seen as weaknesses in the mercenary's world, and that the only way to survive is to play deaf and dumb.

The lines "Equality, liberty, humility, simplicity" suggest that the narrator longs for a world where these values are more important than anger, jealousy and conflict. It is difficult, however, to escape the cycle of violence and oppression. From the mercenary's vantage point it's a pretty bleak world, which is reiterated yet again in the following passage.

Warlords of sorrow and queens of tomorrowWill offer their heads for a prayer.You can't find no salvation, you have no expectationsAnytime, anyplace, anywhere.
The stanza begins with a description of a world where the powerful are corrupt and the weak are powerless. The "warlords of sorrow" and "queens of tomorrow" are those who control the world, and they are only interested in their own power and wealth.
I've been recently re-reading Machiavelli, and it would seem that his ideas have formed the basic foundation of our contemporary amoral Realpolitik. Though their propaganda says otherwise, the game is rigged to favor the elite.
The speaker here concludes that there is no hope for salvation in this world, and that there is no point in having expectations.
Mercury, gravity, nobility, humility.You know you can't keep her and the water gets deeperThat is leading you onto the brinkBut there's no time to think.
"Mercury" @ the Bargello in Florence
As you've noticed, the second half of each stanza begins with a quartet of multisyllabic words that permit listeners an opportunity to reflect on their potential meanings. The first here is Mercury, appearing for a second time in the song. Mercury is the closest planet to the sun with its face ever gazing sunward, but it is also the Roman god of commerce and travel. 
Gravity is the force that holds us to the Earth whereas Mercury has been portrayed in flight with wings on his feet. Nobility and humility are two qualities that are also often seen as being in opposition, but the lyrics suggest they can coexist.

Regarding the lines "You know you can't keep her and the water gets deeper"... Tony Attwood in his 2014 Untold Dylan blog, puts the song into another context, suggesting that it is Dylan's ultimate divorce song. This and other lines in the song can be interpreted as a reference to the breakup of Dylan's marriage with Sara which was occurring at that time. In this light these lines could be referring to a relationship that he is trying to keep alive, but that is becoming increasingly difficult. On the other hand, it could also be referring to his own sanity, which is being tested by the pressures he's under.

You've murdered your vanity, buried your sanityFor pleasure you must now resist.Lovers obey you but they cannot sway youThey're not even sure you exist.
Socialism, hypnotism, patriotism, materialism.Fools making laws for the breaking of jawsAnd the sound of the keys as they clinkBut there's no time to think.
Once again, the narrator is feeling not only isolated and alone, but also powerless to do anything about it. In this stanza, socialism, hypnotism, patriotism and materialism are external forces that are bearing down on him. So we see both internal and external pressures at work.
The bridge that you travel on goes to the Babylon girlWith the rose in her hair.Starlight in the East and you're finally releasedYou're stranded but with nothing to share.
Loyalty, unity, epitome, rigidity.You turn around for one real last glimpse of Camille'Neath the moon shinin' bloody and pinkAnd there's no time to think.
The bridge that the speaker travels on could represent a journey to a new and unfamiliar place. The Babylon girl with the rose in her hair could represent a temptation or a danger that the narrator is facing. Babylon is yet another major Biblical reference. Babylon was an ancient city located in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). It rose to prominence under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar II in the 6th century BCE and became the capital of the Babylonian Empire. The historical significance of Babylon lies in its conquest of Jerusalem, destruction of the First Temple, and the subsequent Babylonian exile of the Jewish people. 
In the apocalyptic book of Revelation, Babylon is used symbolically to represent a corrupt and immoral system. It is referred to as "Babylon the Great" and is seen as a symbol of worldly powers that oppose God and persecute the faithful. Its fall is portrayed as a victory of God's justice and the establishment of His kingdom.
In short, Babylon as a symbol is multifaceted, encompassing historical events as well as symbolic representations of power, idolatry and immorality. It is featured in prophecies of judgment and hope.
Thus the starlight in the East can be seen as a symbol of hope or a new beginning. The narrator is stranded and has nothing to share. Isolated and alone he turns for one last glimpse of Camille, a name that means untamed or wild. It could suggest that they are reluctant to leave or that they are still hopeful about the future, though the moon shining bloody and pink suggests danger or violence.
Bullets can harm you and death can disarm youBut no, you will not be deceived.Stripped of all virtue as you crawl through the dirt,You can give but you cannot receive.
No time to choose when the truth must die,No time to lose or say goodbye,No time to prepare for the victim that's there,No time to suffer or blinkAnd no time to think.

To the very end we see the struggle up close, suggest that while facing a difficult and dangerous situation, but he is determined to overcome it. He will not to be "deceived" by the danger, and vows to keep fighting. Though stripped of everything he holds dear, he is still willing to give to others even if unable to receive anything in return.

In these last lines we see the urgency being underscored. No time to choose, no time to lose or say goodbye, no time to prepare, no tie to suffer or blink, and one last time, no time to think.

* * *   Overall, these lyrics seem to explore contrasting emotions, the complexity of human experiences, and the challenges of navigating a world where moments of joy can be tinged with betrayal or hidden truths. The exact meaning can vary depending on the perspective of the listener and the context in which the lyrics are presented.

I believe the song is another example of where Dylan digs deep within himself to unearth very emotional content that listeners can unwrap and apply for themselves. As Tony Attwood noted, Dylan was not only dealing with a heavy schedule and a crumbling marriage, but also the massive Renaldo and Clara project and who knows what else. This chaotic period in Dylan's life was followed by a new chapter, embracing Christianity after an encounter with Christ. 

* * * 

The life of a mercenary soldier, also known as a private military contractor, varies depending on the circumstances and assignments. Here are some aspects that can characterize such a life.

--Mercenaries typically work on a contract basis, where they're hired by private military companies or other entities to provide military services. Contracts can range from short-term assignments to longer deployments. Locations vary from conflict zones to areas in need of security and protection.

--A common denominator for most mercenary work is risk. Mercenaries often find themselves in high-risk and volatile environments, such as war zones or regions with political instability. They may face combat situations, exposure to violence, and the constant possibility of injury or death. The nature of their work requires them to adapt quickly to unpredictable circumstances. The specific tasks and responsibilities depend on the client's needs and the nature of the mission.

Mercenaries often operate in different countries and regions around the world. They may be required to travel frequently, live in remote or challenging locations, and work alongside individuals from various nationalities and backgrounds. This is why I was curious regarding the demographics of the Wagner Group. (noted above in paragraph 5)

The involvement of mercenaries in conflicts raises legal and ethical questions. The use of force, adherence to international laws, and respect for human rights are important considerations in the conduct of mercenary operations. The legal status and accountability of mercenaries can vary depending on national laws and international agreements. It's a very strange world from the one most of us live in. 

* * *

During the early years of the Obama administration I picked up a hitchhiker who was on his way to fight overseas in the service of the United States. He was not happy about this. This young man was told he would get $25,000 for enlisting, but after signing the papers they explained that he was getting only half up front, and a large chunk of this was going to taxes. 

It struck me that his enlistment was not out of patriotism, but for the money. In short, he was little different from a mercenary. 

* * * 

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