“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” – Joseph Stalin
Everybody knows a Pink Floyd song even if they don’t know that they know one. Hits like “Another Brick in the Wall” and “Wish You Were Here” are universally recognizable even to those who rarely venture beyond the comfortable, unthinking realms of mainstream pop and bro country. But “A Gunner’s Dream” is a song that is perhaps even unknown to many people who would fancy themselves as Pink Floyd fanatics. And for a snobby, self-proclaimed rock-n-roll connoisseur like myself, that alone makes it the perfect selection to be my favorite Pink Floyd song of all-time.
Like all of Pink Floyd’s music, “A Gunner’s Dream” is a pretty thought provoking track. The lyrics offer a unique perspective on warfare by exploring what Floyd frontman Roger Waters imagines to be a fallen soldier’s final dream. The song focuses on the thoughts that are running through that soldier’s head as he floats down through the “space between the heavens and the corner of some foreign field,” descending into what will assuredly be his final battle. While a few of the lyrics require some historical context (such as the real life London “bandsmen” blown-up by the IRA), most of this song is metaphorical—a representation of a fictionalized “gunner” that could be applicable to any war in any era.
The soldier’s dream begins with his own funeral—the “tolling bell,” his saddened mother…but in the second verse, the dream moves beyond himself. He dreams of a world in which everyone has “a place to stay” and “enough to eat”—“where you can speak out loud about your doubts and fears,” and where people “on both sides of the tracks” live peacefully and comfortably. Perhaps most notably, he dreams of a world in which “no one kills the children anymore,” a world that, considering this young man’s fate, currently ceases to exist.
I love protest songs, but this one stands out to me among many of the rest. That’s because “A Gunner’s Dream” attempts to lend war a face. So often when we talk about war, we reduce it to death tolls and generalizations—names of countries and competing factions. This song, on the other hand, focuses on the experience of a single soldier—his final thoughts, his final dream. Surely, to every soldier, this is what war is. It is not some objective phenomenon to be rationalized or philosophized or strategized or detested—it is their experience.
I also appreciate the ending of the song and the onus it puts on the listener. The soldier is gone; “what’s done is done.” But “we cannot just write off his final scene.”
Soldiers sacrifice. Throughout history, millions of soldiers have given their lives for what most would consider noble causes—surrendering what is left of their existence so that those who remain may inherit a better place. But in order for that better place to become a reality, those who remain need to build it. The soldier is gone. He has given everything that he has to make that better world a possibility, and now it is our job to make it happen. We must “take heed” of his dream.
That is one of the things that a song with substance does. It gives the listener something to think about. It challenges the listener to be better. But even if, in “A Gunner’s Dream,” all of that is lost on the listener, at the very least, we can all still appreciate the moment when Water’s bone-chilling scream damn-near seamlessly fades into a saxophone solo. Substance aside, that part is fucking awesome.
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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.