As time begins to burn itself upon me
And the days are growing very short,
People try their hardest to reject me
But in a way, their conscience won't be caught.
Something's happening to me day by day!
My pebble on the beach is getting washed away.
Giving everything that was mine to give
And now I turn around and find that there's no time to live.
So often I have seen that big wheel of fortune
Spinning for the man who holds the ace.
There's many who would change their places for him
But none of them have ever seen his lonely face.
The Traffic album is arranged so that it feels as if it has beginning and ending numbers, neither of which are included here. However, the penultimate cut, No Time to Live, is the actual crescendo of the album (as if the reprise of Sgt. Pepper switched places with Day in the Life). Chris Wood’s sad and lonely soprano sax solo sets the tone by opening the song and creating an atmosphere I’ve yet to hear elsewhere in popular music. It sounds to me more related to the “shepherd pipe” that begins Act 3 of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde than anything else. Winwood’s expressive piano comes into the foreground, supported by a more distant Hammond organ; the piano often treads lightly as if massaging a bruise but occasionally rolls like thunder accompanied by drums.
Many listeners perhaps feel that the lyrics to this already sad tune are morose, too heavy. I’ve been surprised that many people on the internet criticize the song, charging it with pomposity. Granted, the song has lots of musical fill, and flirts with “high art”—a problem that progressive rock would frequently be criticized for in later years. And granted, the lyrics aren’t as graceful as the music. However, I find the song to be haunting; it has been a frequent companion of mine ever since I first heard it nearly half a century ago. I consider it to be a fine example of psychedelia despite its shading into “progressive”, as the intent seems to be exploration of new sounds (especially in the soprano sax) and composition technique rather than virtuosity.
The lyrics reflect on being so busy giving everything that was mine to give that now there’s no time to live. I’m sure many listeners have experienced being so caught up in pleasing others, or meeting community goals, that they have felt they need to take time for themselves. But this feeling is magnified in No Time to Live by seeming to be expressed at the end of the poet’s life. (This sort of identification with old age—rather than projection onto the older generations, like Autumn Almanac by the Kinks or the Beatles' When I'm Sixty Four--is rare in the psychedelic aesthetic. I can only think of one other song of the period, Donovan’s retired Writer in the Sun, released in 1967 on the Mellow Yellow album, that identifies with old age, and in that case the poet is wry about it rather than tragic.) I admit not caring much for the second verse—the gambler metaphor seems borrowed from Dealer, a Traffic song on the group’s previous album. But if I were more successful in the eyes of the world, and could accept that my success was a product of chance rather than “earned”, I could perhaps better appreciate the point. However, there’s no way I can make sense out of their conscience won’t be caught. Maybe it is a distinctive British expression that doesn’t translate well into American English?
But the lyric As time begins to burn itself upon me captures a feeling I’m familiar with, as does My pebble on the beach is being washed away, and such words keep reminding me of themselves in my moments of feeling that my life is getting away from me. Steve Winwood's soulful singing of Givng everything that was mine to give and Chris Wood’s sax in particular seem to capture the emotion of such moments.