by Phil Freeman
I’ve been an Iron Maiden fan for closing in on 35 years. The first album of theirs I heard was 1983’s Piece of Mind, soon followed by its immediate predecessor, 1982’s The Number of the Beast, which I liked better. I sort of stopped paying attention to them at that point, because I was a much bigger fan of Judas Priest, but my younger brother bought their 1985 double LP, Live After Death, and I had to admit the thing looked fantastic; its cover art, depicting the band’s mascot Eddie tearing his way out of a graveyard, was impressive even from across the room, and the more you looked at it, the more details emerged. Then there was the in some ways extremely nerdy booklet, which listed not only everywhere the band had played on their World Slavery Tour, but all the equipment they’d used and the names of every member of the road crew and support staff. Musically, it was great, too—a soaring, explosive sprint through the band’s best songs, with vocalist Bruce Dickinson repeatedly exhorting the crowd to “Scream for me, Long Beach!”
I didn’t see the Iron Maiden show for myself until nearly 20 years later, but I’ve seen them a total of five times between July 2003 and July 2010. They’re an astonishing live act, and Dickinson has the energy of a professional tumbler a third his age, sprinting back and forth across the stage, jumping off the speakers and the drum riser, and engaging with the audience in a genial and witty manner. Their 2008 tour, which focused primarily on material from 1984’s Powerslave, 1986’s Somewhere In Time, and 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, explicitly paid tribute to the World Slavery Tour in its stage setup, and was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen by anybody. And/but it’s not like they’ve been coasting creatively in recent years: 2006’s A Matter of Life and Death and 2010’s The Final Frontier are among their strongest albums, and while 2015’s The Book of Souls is too long, there are some great songs there, too.
If you’re a big Iron Maiden fan, you’ll likely enjoy Dickinson’s autobiography, What Does This Button Do? (Get it from Amazon.) There’s plenty of information within about how his interest in music and singing developed (as part of a somewhat horrific-sounding boarding school education), his pre-Iron Maiden bands, most notably Samson—where his stage name was Bruce Bruce, as a tribute to a particularly ridiculous Monty Python sketch—and his history with Maiden, including the years when he left to make solo albums. He also talks extensively about his interest in fencing, and his secondary career as an airline pilot.
However, he offers absolutely no information about any other aspects of his adult life. Did you know he was married from 1983 to 1987, right when Iron Maiden made their ascent to the top of the global metal scene? Or that he married again in 1990, and has three adult children with his second wife? You wouldn’t know it from reading What Does This Button Do?; none of them are mentioned, not even in passing, never mind by name. Indeed, the keenest psychological insights into Bruce Dickinson—rock singer, airline pilot, competitive fencer—come from doing independent research and learning what’s missing from his account of his life.
Anyone who’s ever met an airline pilot knows they’re a lot like surgeons: other people exist primarily as objects to be moved from place to place or manipulated in some other way. And the term “lead singer’s disease” exists for a reason. Iron Maiden have made some great songs (though I’d argue they’ve never released a front-to-back great album; Powerslave and A Matter of Life and Death come closest), and they put on a fantastic live show. But I liked Bruce Dickinson better before I read his book.