In International Clash Day I mentioned a life-changing song: “Wasted Life,” by Stiff Little Fingers. SLF’s anti-military song literally changed my life; or its potential direction, at least. I was probably moving in an anti-war kind of direction anyway, to be fair, but it was definitely a trigger point.
People say — or used they to, at least — that a song couldn’t change your life. By comparison, I don’t think there was ever a similar tendency to say that a book couldn’t change a person’s life. I suspect that is down to their comparative sizes: it seems respectable for something the size of a novel to have a major impact on a human’s psyche, while a three-minute song? Not so much.
Although if it were merely length, then people wouldn’t have complained if you said an album changed your life. I’m not sure that anyone ever said that,1 but I suspect that if they had, their statement would have been pooh-poohed just as much as the same claim for a song.
At this point I feel I ought to quote Springsteen, giving the opposite view:
We learned more from a three-minute record, baby,
Than we ever learned in school
he sings in “No Surrender.” Hyperbole, certainly, but there is a core of truth to it: the truth of the feeling you can get from listening to a great song.
With “Wasted Life” the feeling for me was of sudden crystallisation, or realisation. I had, for some years, been saying that I wanted to be pilot, join the RAF. This was before the horrors of the Gulf War, or for that matter the Balkans. Though it was in the heart of the Cold War, and British soldiers were stationed in Northern Ireland during the troubles — though not so much RAF staff, I would think.
But I was blind to all that, brought up as I was on a diet of Second World War films, Commando comics, and Airfix models of warplanes. I had, in short, a thoroughly romanticised view of war. And I just wanted to fly.
But I didn’t want to kill. I had always known that, I’m sure. But two lines of that one song made it real for me:
Stuff their fucking armies
Killing isn’t my idea of fun2
And that was all it took. I remember that it was a while before I could tell my parents that I had changed my plans. Perhaps because they would have asked why, and I didn’t want to have to explain it. Maybe because I thought they’d be disappointed. I’m sure my Mum wasn’t. My Dad kind of was: “But you were going to be a Spanish-speaking pilot,” he said. He had always been slightly amused that my school taught half of us Spanish, instead of the then-much-more-conventional French.
A life can hinge on such a small moment.