“I had a dream.”
I was surprised to find out only last week that for the first time since I started working for my corporate masters, the entire company was given MLK Day off as a day of vacation and remembrance to honor a truly great man. It was a long time coming but I consider it progress. I was doubly surprised when I saw that Roger Waters had released a version of he and his band playing a socially distanced version of an old Pink Floyd song, “The Gunner’s Dream.” He released the black and white video of the song in honor of Dr. King and the holiday but also in honor of a Russian Colonel, Stanislav Petrov. Petrov was in the Russian nuclear defense early detection program. In 1982 the early nuclear detection system in Russia indicated, falsely, that the U.S. had launched anywhere from one to several nuclear missiles toward Russia. Colonel Petrov realized it was a false alarm and prevented a Russian retaliatory strike which would have likely started WW III…by mistake. One might say the Colonel saved the world that day. I don’t normally comment on YouTube videos here at B&V, but in this particular instance, “The Gunner’s Dream” happens to be one of my all time favorite Pink Floyd songs and I believe it merits comment. Hearing it again, freshly done, does take me back…
If you were listening to rock and roll in the 70s there was a virtual smorgasbord of styles and rock bands to choose from. Fads came and went but there were only two bands whose names were whispered with an almost Holy, quiet reverence: Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. These bands were seemingly immune from the churn of fads and fashion. They were simply put, the coolest bands out there. Those two bands had to have made a fortune on selling black-light posters, let alone for their music. By the end of the 70s Led Zeppelin had tragically lost their drummer and sadly, disbanded. Pink Floyd, on the other hand, released their magnum opus, The Wall in November of 1979. That album was huge. Everyone I know loved that record. It was only the second double-LP I ever purchased. You couldn’t claim to be a rock n roll fan and not own The Wall. We listened to that rock opera the way earlier generations listened to The Beatles (aka The White Album) looking for clues…”You can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat.” The album told the story of a rock star, the fictional Pink (based loosely on the lives of Syd Barrett and bassist/lyricist Roger Waters). Pink loses his father in the war, has a smothering mother, awful teachers but becomes a rock star only to lose his mind and build a metaphoric wall around himself. I know that’s a lot to take on, but it was the 70s, man, it just made sense.
I was in my freshman year of college by the time Pink Floyd managed to release their next LP, The Final Cut in April of 1983. It came out during the one semester I spent away from my beloved Kansas State University. I was attending the University of Kansas – which I did for only one semester, which I refer to as “the dark semester” – when The Final Cut was released. While I wasn’t crazy about the first single, “Your Possible Past” I bought the album the day it came out. If David Gilmour was playing guitar I figured, sign me up, it’s Pink Floyd. There was bound to be a bit of a letdown after The Wall, and I was initially disappointed with The Final Cut. Bad things were happening in my life at KU and this was just another blow. I remember this guy from Chicago who lived in my friend Doug’s dorm saying, “this is the album where Roger Waters finally got to say everything he’s always wanted to say.” I’m not sure about that but the album did grow on me.
The Final Cut had a difficult birth. Originally they had a bunch of songs left over from the sessions for The Wall that they were going to use for the film adaption of the album. They were also going to cut a few new songs for it as well. Then conservative Maggie Thatcher became Prime Minister and promptly went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Waters began to write protest music about the Falkland Islands war and the conservative government causing a lot of conflict within the band, especially Gilmour. It wasn’t about the politics, Gilmour just didn’t think the material was very good. Waters had already forced out original member/keyboardist Rick Wright after The Wall. It was clear his controlling ways were getting the best of him. The album was subtitled, “The Requiem For The Post War Dream by Roger Waters.” It felt to me like a Waters’ solo album – he sang almost every song – with Pink Floyd’s name on it to sell the thing. The story was, indeed, disjointed. The album is dedicated to Roger’s father who was lost in WW II and I think that story feeds some of the narrative.
All of that said, there were moments on this album where that old Pink Floyd magic came through. There were a number of songs I really connected with almost immediately. The title track, which sounds like the sequel to The Wall, was an early favorite. I liked the final song, “Two Suns In the Sunset,” which Waters ended with at his performance of The Wall at the Berlin Wall (I Attended: Roger Waters & Special Guests, ‘The Wall’ at the Berlin Wall, July 21, 1990). There were two songs on side one that I felt were the heart of the album. It starts with “The Hero’s Return” that tells the story of a war veteran whose returned from the war and became a teacher. The former soldier clearly has PTSD and holds a memory that he can’t even talk with his wife about, “Sweetheart, sweetheart, are you fast asleep? Good, that’s the only time I can really speak to you.” He goes on to describe the memory that “is too painful to withstand the light of day.” His plane had been hit and the gunner fell to his death…he sings at the end of the song, “the memory smolders on of the gunner’s dying words on the intercom.” In my head I had this thought of the gunner falling through space, but still on the intercom and the narrator from the “The Hero’s Return” listens to what he has to say all the way down… all of that is prelude to what I think is one of Pink Floyd’s greatest songs, “The Gunner’s Dream.”
“The Gunner’s Dream” is simply what the gunner says as he’s falling to his death. The opening stanza gives me goosebumps…”Falling down, through the clouds… memories come rushing up to meet me now.” As the Gunner falls to his death, in that “space between the heavens and the corner of some foreign field,” he has a dream that he shares over the intercom. He imagines his mother and maybe a brother at his funeral service. Then he simply lays out a beautiful dream for everyone: “A place to stay, enough to eat, somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street.” It’s a world where no one is hungry, everyone has a home and war is a memory. In the Gunner’s dream no one is afraid to speak or scared to be free any more. “No one ever disappears, you never hear the standard issue (boot) kicking in your door.” A world where there isn’t authoritarianism or militarism. It’s a beautiful thought for this old hippy wannabe. It’s a perfect song for these times…”and no one kills the children any more.”
If you haven’t checked out this performance yet, I urge you to do so. It’s an obscure, fantastic Pink Floyd song and this is a great performance of the song. “We cannot just write off his final scene, Take heed of the dream, Take heed.” Waters starts at the piano and the rest of the band kicks in…here’s the link: