“No time to think” – the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

One of the amazing things about doing this site is that despite now being on review 127, or something like that, I still have masterpieces to do.  OK a fractionally flawed masterpiece, but a masterpiece way beyond the capabilities of almost any other songwriter even on their most brilliant of compositional days.

I’ve said elsewhere that I bought Street Legal when it came out, but I’ve just looked again at the LP and it is clearly marked “Property of CBS, Demonstration only, Not for Sale”, which means I was given it iby the record company n order to write a review of it.  I was working in the theatre at the time as a musician, and adding to my income by writing record reviews.  I have no idea what I wrote (I try and keep copies of the books, but not the articles), but it would have been a rave review.  I loved the album from day one.

I suspect I started by talking about divorces – having had one by then – and that amazing, stunning, extraordinary opening verse.   You want to know how being divorced can affect a man?  Try this for size.

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”

If you want to give your ex a battering you can’t get much darker than this.  Indeed that last line “He who cannot be trusted must fall” rings so true for me.  Time and again I have found myself asking in response to an accusation, “How could you actually think I could do such a thing?”  or “How you could ever think that of me?”

In fact sometimes I wanted to be trusted more than I wanted to be loved.

So I disagree with commentators who talk about this song having apocalyptic themes, the Bible and all the rest.  This is about the emotions of rejection.  She loved me, now she hates me and wants to take me for every penny.  That is the start and the end of the song.   All the hurt comes pouring out.

But amazingly it all comes pouring out through just three chords rotating over and over


To put so much into such an epic around just through chords is extraordinary.  I am immediately drawn back to Desolation Row which achieves the same power again on just these same chords although in a different sequence.

And Dylan, we must remember, at the time of writing and recording this masterpiece was fighting issues over who would look after his children, and worrying about the movie Renaldo and Clara.

According to reports Dylan was at his most difficult in the studio, distracted and not ready to work.  And how could he be?  Well, ok, some brilliantly creative people manage it – I recall the descriptions of Woody Allen working during the time when Mia Farrow was making all her allegations.  He could separate life and work.  I can’t in the slightest.  And it seems, at least on this occasion, Dylan couldn’t.  But he didn’t need to.  He put it all in this song.

Dylan returned to Street Legal with the legal settlement done, and quite probably the title of the album all ready as a result, but with no amicable settlement with Sara and this is the moment at which this song is pitched.

Reports show that during this period it took a long time to get the band right, as Dylan wanted a particular sound; the sound that we can particularly hear on this track.

And if all this were not enough two other issues happened around this time.

The first, as reported on Wikipedia’s review of Street Legal is that “a telegram arrived from the Japanese promoter, and in it he had a manifest of the songs he expected Bob to do on this tour. In other words he was a jukebox, he was playing requests. We don’t want you coming here and doing like your new experimental material, or getting up there and jamming.”  One can only imagine how that went down with Bob.

And then Renaldo and Clara was released to very poor reviews.  At which moment we get the tour and Bob Dylan at Budokan – a superb album in its own right.

After the Japan and Australia tour Dylan returned, rented a portable studio and recorded nine songs in four days.

Now I mention all of this, which of course is pertinent to every song on the album, because with the song that is the subject of this review, it all comes out.  Yes it is the big divorce song, but it is also a song about all that has been happening around him.  About pride, and vanity, about possession and obsessive behaviour.  It is THE inner-man song of the moment.

These are of course huge topics and getting them into a fixed format pop song is hard going.

And if all that were not enough there’s one other factor that I find here.

I’m going to relate this to my own personal experience of creating both songs and the books I’ve written.  Not because I am trying to compare the almighty talent of Dylan with my poor efforts, of course not.  But because I’ve done a fair amount of studying of creativity (it is part of the study of psychology) and I’ve taught courses in creativity when I was an academic, and in my own way I try to be creative.

Now one of the things I do is jive – it is still a popular dance activity in England – and at jive dances I find I get transported by the dancing, by the music and by the lights.  All sorts of ideas flash through my mind, all sorts of lines, so I take a note book and when I am sitting out a dance I write them down.  (It is something I always encouraged my students on the creativity module of their degree course to do, and it really can work for some people).

The sort of results I get are similar in style (if not in elegance or content) to what Dylan reveals here.  He is, to my mind, revealing snatches of consciousness related to all that has gone on in the past year – the tour, the difficulties with the band (which changed personnel many times) the divorce.. everything.  It is as if he writing down little phrases and half lines and working them brilliantly into one narrative that flows below those major chords.

So when commentators suggest that here we are going into dark deep issues I think that is only partially right.  We are picking up the sort of snatches of thought that we all have, but which most people never record. Dylan has captured these snatched moments from his darker times and turned them into a song.

And let us not forget the imagery.  That gives us the thought that there is no literal meaning to each line, no need to analyse, we go around in circles, ideas bumping into each other like the lines bump into each other here.   This is “Not Dark Yet” but without the resignation and waiting for death.

There is also the element of being used – everyone wants a bit of Dylan for themselves – which is why I quoted the story from Japan of people telling the master songwriter what he is going to perform.

But I mentioned in passing at the start that this was not a perfect conception.  And the trouble, for me comes in lines five and six.  They work at the start, as an quick imagine of the life of the travelling rock star

Loneliness, tenderness, high society, notoriety


and here they do indeed flow into the next line as he is back to thinking of his ex…

You fight for the throne and you travel alone 

Next verse again, it all seems to scan and fit.

Memory, ecstasy, tyranny, hypocrisy
Betrayed by a kiss on a cool night of bliss

Third verse and a spot of brilliance, two words not one (quite unexpected) and also a pattern equal to sudden black and white flash backs in a movie

China doll, alcohol, duality, mortality
Mercury rules you and destiny fools you

He’s rushing around and around, and indeed just to prove it there is a musical slip at the words
Like the plague, with a dangerous wink

but everyone recovers and we keep going.

But then we start to find the fifth line of the verse a line that seems to have the words thrown in to fit.  The rigour of the structure has been exhausted and Dylan is looking for words that fit, not words that mean anything in combination, or which utterly surprise us, like China Doll.

Paradise, sacrifice, mortality, reality

It is a shame because the lines following about the magician contain a glorious set of images and metaphor and these are followed by a reiteration of the song’s central theme…

Anger and jealousy’s all that he sells us 

Equality, liberty, humility, simplicity

have a really interesting piano part behind them, but that doesn’t hide the fact that the words here don’t really convey a meaning.  But they have to be there through the structure of the song.

All the rest of the lines really work, like the movement suddenly into Daliesque surrealism…

You glance through the mirror and there’s eyes staring clear
At the back of your head as you drink
And there’s no time to think

Mercury, gravity, nobility, humility 

But now we are knowing that this rhyming line of individual words isn’t working any more.  What does gravity have to do with anything here?

Still the song emerges with more images, the image of the man so much in love that he will give up everything, and now he can’t have it any more.

You’ve murdered your vanity, buried your sanity
For pleasure you must now resist

But the desperation to find the single words for the fifth line gets worse, and indeed I think we are now at the very worst moment.

Socialism, hypnotism, patriotism, materialism 

Despite this failure of one line imposed on the poet by the structure of the song, everything else remains utterly brilliant.  The tour of Japan has given him some release from the world

The bridge that you travel on goes to the Babylon girl
With the rose in her hair
Starlight in the East and you’re finally released
You’re stranded with nothing to share

He is destroyed by divorce, but he has kept his life together (through the rotation of the chord sequence.  He’s not whole, but he is with us.

Stripped of all virtue as you crawl through the dirt
You can give but you cannot receive –

the man destroyed by divorce has not recovered but he is partially here.  At last he abandons that stifling four word line, he is not whole again, but he is with us.

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 blink
And no time to think

Like Desolation Row it is an overwhelming concept put into words and music.  I can only hope that in a small way I have conveyed the gigantic achievement that we have here.  Yes I find it flawed in one detail, but that is a detail.   This is an extraordinary piece of music.

Index to all the songs

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3 Responses to “No time to think” – the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Faz says:

    Amazing analysis. Very adroit and perceptive, as well as encapsulated. I always felt that this album was possibly Dylans most underrated. “Changing of the Guards” is possibly Dylans most provocative song for me-ridiculous amounts of imagery that never really resolve and keep the listener thirsty. It contains so much poignancy and drive, but considerable poetic tragedy and heartbreak.

  2. Clyde Nachman says:

    Hello, I enjoyed your thoughtful, well-written article. “Street-Legal” perplexes people because they can hear the incredible peak Dylan was climbing towards but wasn’t equipped to reach. Fans read bad reviews and then regurgitate it flaws: sloppy production & engineering; Dylan’s emotionally-repetitious singing; self-parodying, misogynistic lyrics that rely on Tarot cards and rhyming dictionaries; tasteless musicians & back-up singers.
    I understand those complaints. But for me, the biggest defect that undermines “No Time to Think” and the rest of “Street-Legal” is the same defect that sabotages “Bob Dylan at Budokan,” “Slow Train Coming,” and all other albums he’s released since. He lost his ability to consistently write and perform songs with good chord progressions, rhythms and melodies. Forget about his lyrical writer’s block for a minute and play one of his post-1976 compositions or arrangements by yourself on an acoustic guitar. The music itself doesn’t make you feel anything or take you anywhere.
    Yes, there are exceptions, thank God. But nobody else can transmute his blood into invisible ink.

  3. cavapress says:

    I know that this song was written before the event but the following verse reminds me of the Clinton/Monica Lewinski scandal.. Empress = Hillary haha. Was Dylan playing soothsayer here?!??

    In the Federal City you been blown and shown pity,
    In secret, for pieces of change. –
    The empress attracts you but oppression distracts you
    And it makes you feel violent and strange.

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