Dire Straits, “Brothers in Arms”

200px-ds_brothers_in_arms.jpgBut it’s written in the stars
and every line in your palm…
We’re fools to make war
on our brothers in arms



My earliest memories that comprise more than a second’s worth of time are of being on the couch in my first apartment, age three, head on my Dad’s stomach while he rubbed my back, watching television. On this particular night, we were watching The Dukes of Hazzard. Even now, when I feel lost and unhappy, I like to lay on my side and watch television – doesn’t matter what, just so long as I can close my eyes and imagine that I’m back in this first place – Winnie the Pooh pyjamas (with feet, of course) on, and my father’s hands keeping me safe and warm. Some nights, this is the only way I can sleep. Over the years, I watched whole series of shows with my dad – Star Trek: The Next Generation, M*A*S*H, Miami Vice – lots of shows. And just as most sane people would feel some trepidation about saying this, Miami Vice really changed my life.

You learn a lot when you watch a whole series of something with another person. Especially if, like me, you like to dissect things after you’ve watched them. What really caught my interest with Miami Vice, as it did for so many others, was its incredible use of music. As Chris was talking about in his “Dead Souls” entry, there really was a time (and, one might argue that this still prevails) when film soundtracks were largely mix tapes instead of scores. I would posit that a clear precedent for this was found in this show. There are certain things that we’re all familiar with, perhaps none more famous than the inclusion of Phil Collins’ moody “In The Air Tonight” in the show’s pilot. (1) My favorite episode of this show was called “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run.” Unsurprisingly, this was almost my Dad’s favorite.

To bring you up to speed, without dragging you too deep into the world of Miami Vice, the episode centered around an ex-cop (Hank Weldon) who re-emerges to help capture a drug lord who, it is rumored, is about to return to Miami. Weldon was instrumental in bringing him to trial a few years back, but became undone when the trial ended in a mistrial. After the ruling, the drug lord (Arcaro) was not seen again. After a series of misdirections, and a falling out between the detectives (with Weldon going on the run), a call alerts Crockett and Tubbs that Arcaro has been caught. At this point, the first thunderclaps from “Brothers in Arms” begin to play, and the song will finish along with the episode. When Crockett and Tubbs arrive, they find Weldon alone in an empty building. But not for long, as he quickly reveals that Arcaro has been immured in that building since the day of his release – stunning, and silencing, everyone. It has to be one of the darkest hours of the show that I can remember, and one that is genuinely moving (really). (I’ll place a clip at the bottom.)

What really makes this work, though, is the inclusion of “Brothers in Arms.” (2) Now, as I’ve said, you learn a lot about a person when you watch a whole series of television with them. For instance, if that series is Alf, you learn that they’ve got problems. In this case, I learned a lot about my father’s conception of morality. We could agree that it was just unbearably sad for the policeman to have been placed in this position on account of a legal “technicality.” We could also agree that the drug dealer needed to be punished. Watching this episode with my father, and talking to him about it, I gained a sense, for the first time, that there was “justice” and then there is Justice. Though dark, and outside the law, the ending to this episode is satisfying even as it is saddening. And part of that outrage stems from the fact that our poor detective is going to be sent to prison – ultimately, for responding to the insane situation into which he was placed. Tricky stuff – and a lot more mileage than you’d expect from an episode of Miami Vice. (3)

Now, of course, I’d heard the song before. My father had a few favorite albums, and Brothers in Arms was certainly one of them. Of course, I’d seen music videos before, but it’s hard not to remember the “Money for Nothing” video. (Unless you were in a coma, unborn, or in Utah, that is.) It’s fair to say, then, that I am equally familiar with this album. After my parents were divorced, I spent a lot of time revisiting my father’s records. At one point, my mother and I were living in the downstairs part of a duplex. My two uncles and grandmother lived upstairs, and, on occasion, my uncle Michael would come down to babysit me. We had a pretty strained relationship – Michael and I – as he would often express his disappointment with my lack of “respect” and athleticism. The typical stuff you get from ex-Army types, I guess. (4)

On one particular evening, while my mother was away, my uncle decided he was going to retrieve my father’s stereo, along with his records, and bring them upstairs so that, presumably, he could stay up late drinking and listening to them. This threw my eight-year-old soul into turmoil, and my temper into a rage. “How dare he try and take these things away?! They’re my father’s!” At this point, that stereo, and those records, represented the majority of the “contact” I had with my father. Really. They were sacred objects, and I couldn’t possibly let them out of my sight. And so, I tried to fight him for the records. The futility of that gesture still astonishes me, but what else could I do? For that moment, I was “the minstrel boy,” and that’s how it was going to be. (After all, there’s “right” and then there’s Right, right?) Unfortunately, my uncle was the sort of person who would hit an eight-year-old, and I lost my father’s things for the night. I’ll never forget that profound sense of failure, and then the despair that that absence caused me.

I did get them back, as you can imagine, when my mother returned. And until the time I was thirteen, when my father returned to claim them, I kept them safe from harm. It’s difficult to explain the connection between these albums and those early days of watching TV with my Dad without referring to Kevin Bacon. It’s the whole “six degrees” thing, you know? This album was an important part of my life, especially because of that episode of Miami Vice, and so it recalled those early, elysian days of resting my head on my father. I think what upset me so much about my uncle’s intrusion was that he was able to intrude. If nothing else, the whole episode rubbed my father’s absence in my face. My powerlessness was an issue because of what I lacked, and there was no hope for salvation. As long as I could hold the albums, and listen to them, there was a tangible reminder that my father was still with me. Without them, I had nothing left but memory. An issue that, unfortunately, comes up more often than I would like.

My father eventually replaced the first stereo (which I dutifully captured) with a complicated Pioneer system from Rent-a-Center. It had a lot of fancy options, and was fairly high-end for its day. I made all my mix tapes on that stereo, heard my first CDs, and listened to all my vinyl on it. Later, I would experience my first home theater moments through it. It was the backbone of all my experiences with media and entertainment. Eventually, it would find its way into my room, and it was a constant reminder of both my musical past and my father’s presence. It was living history. And eventually, when my father and I began to live apart, it went away with him. At school overseas, there was no way that I could possibly have it with me. When my father passed away, I wanted to have it back – to preserve that sense of history. Unfortunately, my father’s niece, who we had been living with, claimed it. I had no recourse, and now it’s lost. I sometimes think about the idea of children, and I wish that I had that stereo, as I know it would provide a million stories. Or, perhaps more accurately, it would draw a million sleeping stories from deep inside me. (5)

Perhaps, you might say, that’s a little bit silly. It is, after all, only a stereo. There are plenty of other ones, and I still have my father’s music to pass on. True enough. One of the many things I wish for, however, is a past. Something that is more than just a jumble of memories – something that is made up of places and objects that can be seen, visited, and shared. For a variety of reasons, this continues to shrink as I slowly grow old. And while I know that I can play music, or put on the TV, and rub some small back until its bearer sleeps, I wish that my father’s stereo and records could be the tools that build that moment – if for no other reason than that he would share in that same joy once again.

And so, I will share this song with you. It is, I must say, one of the most beautiful guitar works I have ever heard. Mark Knopfler remains one of the world’s most underrated guitar players. (6) I hope you will enjoy it, and that it will help you to return to your own secret places.

For me, I have the satisfaction of listening to it and knowing that it is one of the few things that connects all the ages of my life. I can close my eyes, and I feel that my father has returned from his faraway home. And because of this, and returning to sentences I never expected to use – Dire Straits can save my life. Enjoy!

As a special bonus, I present you with that clip of Miami Vice which I had mentioned previously.

  1. Collins would appear in several episodes, in fact, reminding us (as if Buster weren’t enough) that he is no gangster. [Back]
  2. A song that, it seems, just can’t avoid involving itself in key emotional moments in TV and Cinema History. Consider its inclusion in both “The West Wing” and “Apocalypse Now,” if you will. [Back]
  3. An unrelated, but relevant, story that comes to mind when I hear this song involves my father and the draft. The video for this song, as well as its inclusion in “Apocalypse Now,” recall the Vietnam War. My father missed the draft by but a few numbers, and he never had to go. He did, however, have friends who went and never returned. He would sometimes talk about them when he played this song, and it was easy to see how deeply it affected him. It’s a strange phenomenon, but it remains a near-universal truth that this song is a lightning rod for people who lived through the mindless horror of that time. I suppose I should be thankful that there are no needless, hopeless wars going on today. [Back]
  4. Well, not all of them. Usually the kind that feel they’re “owed” more than they receive when they return. [Back]
  5. So often, when I’m writing for this site, I imagine that glow of the yellow lights on its equalizer, and the words just fall from my mind. It is, strange as it seems, my spiritual center. [Back]
  6. Actually, I’ve read this sentiment so often that I’m beginning to wonder whether or not we might have bumped him up into a higher bracket without even realizing it. Makes one think, at any rate. [Back]

4 thoughts on “Dire Straits, “Brothers in Arms”

  1. I’d never seen the Miami Vice clip before today, so that was really interesting. And though I know Apocalypse Now has played on my TV at some point in the past, I don’t think I’ve ever watched it carefully enough. My primary exposure to the song, outside of you playing it for me back in the day, was that West Wing episode, where it was also used to powerful effect.

    Anyway, great story. This was the first thing waiting for me in my Google News Reader this morning, and I’m glad that it was there.

  2. And strangely enough, both Apocalypse Now and The West Wing involve Martin Sheen. Maybe the song really has a cosmic link to Martin Sheen? (Goes to look for his name in the small credits of Miami Vice) Anyway, I’m really glad that you enjoyed the entry. It’s one of those ones I’ve wanted to write for a while, but could never really find the shape for… I think I got most of the easy ones out of the way when this page started, and now I’m getting into the long grass. Hm.

    Anyway, cool. 🙂

  3. The West Wing had a knack of using just the right song for the right moment, whether it be “Brothers In Arms”, Aimee Mann’s cover of “MLK”, or Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujia.” And need I mention “Carol of the Bells” and Josh going PTSD batty?

  4. Thank you for sharing some of your lifes journey, i remember watching miami vice i used to love it and the episode you are talking about is my faverate, and when i ever here brothers in arms i remember the mummyfied man comming out of the wall chilling, somber, but also rightous.I moved to tenerief for two and a half years in 1986 i have fond memories of that time,and i also remember one day after about a month living in tenerief listening to the casete brothers in arms it was a freinds and as soon as I got to the track brothers in arms a tear came into my eye and also a lump in my throat and again the picture of the mummy came to mind, this was the second time i had heard the track the first was in the miami vice show, i listened to the track about ten times on the trot that day each time with the same feeling. peace and happyness to you

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