Monday, October 14, 2019

Remembering Karl Edward Wagner (1945-1994)

Kane navigating his skeleton crew.

Sword-and-sorcery and horror are bedfellows. The former is fantasy infused with the grit of history, but also the chill hand of terrors terrestrial and otherworldly. Few writers bridged this gap so skillfully as Karl Edward Wagner (1945-1994).

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Wagner’s death. His untimely passing at 49 was a massive blow to my favorite subgenre. Wagner was one of sword-and-sorcery’s fiercest and most articulate champions, even if he didn’t like the term (1). Wagner championed Howard at a time when the massively popular Lancer/Ace Conan Saga was still at its zenith, and its heavy-handed editing and Conan pastiche was largely getting a pass. Wagner cut against the grain, arguing that Howard was a writer of literary merit whose works were worth preserving, not a property to exploit. That didn’t sit well with Conan Saga editor L. Sprague de Camp.

Wagner oversaw the publication of pure Howard in a three volume set published in 1977 by Berkley Medallion—The Hour of the Dragon, The People of the Black Circle, and Red Nails. The Berkley Conans restored Howard’s texts using the Weird Tales originals. Wagner had intended to publish all 21 Conan stories, but “contractual difficulties” ended the Berkleys after just three volumes. So we got just eight tales, plus Howard’s “The Hyborian Age” essay.

Wagner’s introductions and afterwords alone make tracking down the Berkleys worth the effort. Their presentation of the Conan stories—art, design, and of course, Wagner’s essays—remains a personal favorite of mine, even though I admit they have been supplanted by the Del Reys. I’m hoping one day to score copies with the Ken Kelly foldout posters intact. Mine were bought used and the posters were gone, probably adorning some young fan’s fake wood-paneled bedroom wall in the late 70s.

As the sun was setting on sword-and-sorcery (and his own life) Wagner edited Echoes of Valor, a three-volume series published by Tor with volumes appearing in 1987, 1989, and 1991. As its name implies Echoes of Valor served up classic pulp era sword-and-sorcery, some of it for the first time. Vol. 1 featured Robert E. Howard’s “The Black Stranger,” original appearance in the March 1953 Fantasy Magazine; Fritz Leiber’s “Adept’s Gambit,” which made its original appearance in the 1947 Arkham House collection Night’s Black Agents; and Henry Kuttner’s “Wet Magic,” first appearance in the February 1943 Unknown Worlds. Vol. 2 contained two versions of Howard’s “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” as well as stories by C.L. Moore and Manly Wade Wellman, and a collaboration by Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury, “Lorelei of the Red Mist.” Vol. 3 included Howard’s “The Shadow of the Vulture” featuring Red Sonya, more stories by Kuttner and Wellman, and tales by Jack Williamson and the enigmatic Nictzin Dyalhis.

The Echoes of Valor versions of “The Black Stranger and “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” are noteworthy. The latter marked the first mass-market appearance of the story as Howard himself wrote it, unlike the heavy-handed de Camp edited version in the Lancer Conan Saga, while “The Black Stranger” was reproduced from a photocopy of the original manuscript, prior to Howard’s attempt to rewrite the rejected story as “Swords of the Red Brotherhood.” As with the Berkley Conans, Wagner’s introductions in Echoes of Valor are well-worth reading, and his enthusiasm and erudition for pulp fantasy shines through.

Wagner not only championed sword-and-sorcery but added a powerful verse with his stories of Kane. I consider Bloodstone (1975) a Rosetta Stone (no pun intended) for the sword-and-sorcery genre. If you want to understand what sword-and-sorcery is all about you could certainly start with “Ill Met in Lankhmar” or “Beyond the Black River” (both great options), or you could find a second-hand copy of this gonzo story of a lost city deep in the swamps, guarded by an army of frog-men, and the corruptive power of technology wrapped up a green and red stone possessed of alien intelligence. Sword-and-sorcery introduced the figure of the Outsider to fantasy, and Kane is very much a self-serving antagonist in Bloodstone, albeit compelling and relatable. I recommend any of the Kane stories, but in particular “Undertow,” “Lynortis Reprise,” “Sing a Last Song of Valdese,” “Reflections for the Winter of my Soul,” and Darkness Weaves.

Aside: It’s borderline criminal that the Kane stories have fallen out of print. Wagner’s books are increasingly harder to find and growing more expensive by the day on the second-hand market. Those sold out Centipede Press editions? If you can find one used, which is rare, the complete set will run you upwards of a thousand bucks. Midnight Sun alone (Nightshade Books) is fetching $135 and up, used, on Amazon. The Donald M. Grant Book of Kane will run you from $100 up to $300 on Abe Books. Apparently the Kane books are now available on Kindle, but since I have no interest in e-readers I don’t consider that a viable option. Fortunately I have my complete line of battered Warners. But this scarcity situation needs to be rectified by Wagner’s estate, pronto.

I wish I had the opportunity to meet Wagner at a bar at a convention, knock back a whiskey or five, and talk horror and dark fantasy long into the night. He knew these fields and he wasn’t afraid to express his opinion, articulately. He was a titan of horror, serving as editor of the yellow-spined DAW Year’s Best Horror anthology from 1979 until his death in 1994. For 15 years he was one of its most recognized and respected critics, and his work as an anthologizer ranks in my opinion right alongside the likes of Charles L. Grant and Stephen Jones. Wagner also wrote some incredible, enduring works of horror fiction, including “Sticks,” which won an August Derleth Award from The British Fantasy Society as the best short fiction of 1974. I think it’s top to bottom his most effective piece of fiction. I also highly recommend his incredibly atmospheric and creepy “Where The Summer Ends” from the Kirby McCauley edited Dark Forces.

With his pedigree in and deep passion for horror it’s no wonder that the Kane stories are eerily fantastic, infused with a Gothic sensibility, and at times skin crawling. For example, this passage from “Cold Light”:

An ingenious trap had cut down most of Kane’s forces, and he had fled westward into the ghost land of Demornte. Here his enemies would not follow, for the plague which had annihilated this nation was still held in utmost dread, and although it had struck this desert locked land nearly two decades before, still no one entered and no one left silent Demornte.

Dead Demornte. Demornte whose towns lie empty, whose farms are slowly returning to forest. Demornte where death has lain and life will no more linger. Land of death where only shadows move in empty cities, where the living are but a handful to the countless dead. Demornte where ghosts stalk silent streets in step with the living, where the living walk side by side with their ghosts. And a man must look closely to tell one from the other.

With a full three score years and ten I believe Wagner would have written more Kane stories. I believe he would have given us another S&S anthology, even though Echoes of Valor petered out and the appetite for such fiction was at its lowest ebb in the early 90s. He might have been involved with the Del Reys, penning some of the intros or afterwards for the series which has finally given us the full unadulterated measure of the likes of Kull, Conan, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn.

But it was not to be.

So, 25 years gone, and the world is poorer for his death. But those who know and love horror and sword-and-sorcery remember Karl Edward Wagner.

1. Wagner much preferred “epic fantasy” or “dark fantasy” to “sword-and-sorcery,” which he despised. He loved Howard, but hated his imitators. Here is Wagner from an interview appearing on East of Eden: “’Sword and sorcery’ conjures an image of yarns about girls in brass bras who are in constant danger of losing them, and mighty warriors with eighteen-foot-long swords killing wizards and monsters faster than thought. A sword fight every other page, kill a monster every other chapter, and rescue a girl at the end—there’s your sword and sorcery yarn.”

Friday, October 4, 2019

Sword-and-sorcery and the problem of Robert E. Howard

Equating sword-and-sorcery with Robert E. Howard, and Howard alone, is an easy path to start down, and a tempting one to follow to the end. One I had to be mindful of, and consciously revise my line of thinking many times, while writing Flame and Crimson.

How do you define a genre that nearly everyone agrees Howard created, and not just default to Howard = S&S?

If S&S is only Howard, and defined only by what he wrote, then it’s not a genre. It’s the works of a single man. Howard created sword-and-sorcery in the 1920s, but he did not consciously set out to do so. He was trying to tell entertaining stories of blood and thunder, and make a living. When he died in 1936 there were very few indications sword-and-sorcery would survive, let alone flourish. It had a lot more growing to do.

That got underway in earnest in 1939 when Fritz Leiber’s “Two Sought Adventure” appeared in Unknown. Leiber proved that sword-and-sorcery could be witty, and ironic, have different thematic concerns, and not take itself so seriously.

Heck, sword-and-sorcery was evolving during Howard’s lifetime. Leiber had conceived of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser as far back as 1934 with significant input from his friend Harry Fischer. That same year C.L. Moore’s Black God’s Kiss appeared in Weird Tales, and proved that sword-and-sorcery could have the development of atmosphere as its principal objective, over action and plot.
If you’ll allow Clark Ashton Smith into the sword-and-sorcery pantheon (I do), Smith showed with stories like “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (November 1931 Weird Tales) that sword-and-sorcery need not even be heroic, or require that its protagonists survive the adventure (“The Seven Geases”).

Defining sword-and-sorcery by Howard alone is like defining heavy metal by only Black Sabbath. Yes, Sabbath invented the genre, and many still consider them the best metal band of all time. But to leave out the innovations brought in by Judas Priest (twin guitars, leather), and Iron Maiden (operatic theatrics, and Eddie), or the heavy thrash and aggression of Metallica and Slayer, and today the likes of Amon Amarth or Blind Guardian, paints a very limited, incomplete picture of my favorite genre of music.

The term sword-and-sorcery wasn’t coined until 1961, some 25 years after Howard’s death. The early 60s were the beginning of a sword-and-sorcery renaissance. Leiber was finding his second wind and the outspoken, talented Michael Moorcock tossed a hand grenade into traditional conceptions of the genre. The fanzine Amra was just getting underway and various definitions and terminologies bandied about in its pages.

This was a major, interesting challenge with which I was faced when writing Flame and Crimson: How do I acknowledge Howard’s massive influence, but also recognize the contributions of subsequent authors and the divergent paths they blazed?

Sword-and-sorcery is today bigger and more expansive than “The Shadow Kingdom” and “The Phoenix on the Sword,” and that’s a good thing. Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. Karl Edward Wagner’s Bloodstone. L. Sprague de Camp’s The Tritonian Ring. Charles Saunders’ Imaro. All at some level influenced or inspired by the Howardian template, but also different. These authors had their own unique influences that inform their writing, and by extension broaden sword-and-sorcery and innovate on the Howardian template. I believe that the best post-Howard sword-and-sorcery authors acknowledge Howard’s formidable presence and influence, but also strove to be something different. The authors I chose to highlight in Flame and Crimson--Howard, Moore, Smith, Anderson, Leiber, Moorcock, Vance, a few others—had a blend of idiosyncratic influences, and as a result created works of lasting value. As sword-and-sorcery scholar Deuce Richardson once mentioned to me, too many authors in Howard’s wake put on Kabuki makeup, wearing the outer trappings of something they were not. You can’t say that about the likes of Smith, Leiber, Moorcock, Vance, Anderson, or Wagner. They helped create sword-and-sorcery as we know it today.

To be clear, I believe Howard is the greatest writer of the genre. He is definitely its beginning. But he is not the end. I don’t consider him sui generis.

On the other hand, if sword-and-sorcery becomes too expansive—whatever you want it to be—then it ceases to have meaning. If any book with a sword and/or a sorcerer is sword-and-sorcery, then we allow in The Mists of Avalon and Dragons of Autumn Twilight. For many readers that’s probably fine. But if you’re one of those people, Flame and Crimson isn’t for you. In it, I lay out what I believe the broad outlines and more rigid parameters of the genre are. I exclude certain works, while trying not to be overly rigid and exclusionary.

I tried to strike that fine balance. Genres can be maddeningly subjective and hard to pin down. Their lines will never be perfectly drawn. There will always be outliers, exceptions that defy the rule.

And that’s OK. This is art we’re talking about, not engineering.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Introducing Flame and Crimson: The rise, fall, and rebirth of sword-and-sorcery

Cover art of Flame and Crimson
"Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content."

--Robert E. Howard, "Queen of the Black Coast."

I have loved the sword-and-sorcery genre ever since I was a kid, going back at least some 35 years I’d warrant. If my memory is correct it began with a fortuitous find of a treasure-trove of The Savage Sword of Conan magazines, a story which I detailed here a while back on The Silver Key. Since then sword-and-sorcery has been a huge part of my reading life, informed my one-time obsession with Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy role-playing, and even led me to seek out some heavy metal bands that proudly fly the sword-and-sorcery banner.

So I figured, why not write a book on the subject?

I have, and the result is Flame and Crimson: The rise, fall, and rebirth of sword-and-sorcery. It’s due to be published at the end of the year by Pulp Hero Press.

Pulp Hero Press is so new it doesn’t even have a website yet. But it has published a handful titles of significant interest to fans of S&S, and Robert E. Howard in particular. These include Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian by Roy Thomas, Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography by David C. Smith, Western Weirdness and Voodoo Vengeance by Fred Blosser, and Savage Scrolls: Scholarship from the Hyborian Age, also by Blosser.

Just this past Friday I sent the files over to the publisher, but there is more work to be done. I’ll be seeing them again post-edit. The plan is to have the book in circulation and available for purchase by early December.

I have a written a lot during my 46 years on the planet. D&D adventures and ridiculous made up stories I and my friends wrote for kicks. Essays and term papers. Spiral notebooks full of book reviews I hand wrote during the pre-internet days. I have worked for a daily newspaper and covered local news, town politics, and high school sports on deadline, including high school football for 22 years and counting. I’ve written for various fantasy websites and blogs, including a few hundred posts here at the Silver Key of course, as well as essays appearing in a handful of print journals. But I’ve never written anything long form. Until now.

Flame and Crimson was a ton of work, which I’ll detail in full later. Suffice to say it was a lot of research. I had many holes to fill in my reading, a lot of old books that I had to track down and buy. I was able to get a hold of the entire run of the REH/sword-and-sorcery fanzine Amra. I watched a lot of bad sword-and-sorcery films. Then it was outlining, and revising the outline. The table of contents underwent many revisions and changes. I wrote, and revised, and re-revised, and edited, and wrote some more. I started work on the book some six years ago but had to put it on hold for the better part of a year. But I never gave up hope. I spent more nights then I care to count plugging away on the computer, an hour here or there as time allowed. I’ve had some help along the way by an expert or two on the subject, better read than I. Finally, it’s (almost) fit to print.

Flame and Crimson is an academic study of the genre, heavily referenced and with a lengthy works cited (I see MLA citations in my sleep). Anyone who has looked under the hood of sword-and-sorcery has realized the dearth of good published material on the genre itself. Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds has a couple chapters on it. Some anthologies contain working definitions, but these are typically breezy and lightly sketched. You can find articles online easily enough, but in the main these are informal, subjective, and often well-intentioned, but misleading. Sword-and-sorcery as a term is still used to describe works as diverse as The Lord of the Rings, Forgotten Realms tie-in novels, and the Mists of Avalon.

Tom's return to sword-and-sorcery.
But while I wanted to add some degree of academic and critical rigor to the subgenre I didn’t want to write something dry and pedantic. One of my goals was to try and tell an exciting tale of non-fiction. Sword-and-sorcery has a story of its own to tell, of a confluence of pulp talent, a mercurial renaissance, a staggering commercial fall, and a second life in the popular culture. I wanted to write the kind of academic study that I’d want to read—informative, but also entertaining. I hope I have succeeded, or at least have written something that will provoke reactions, discussion, and get people interested in exploring my favorite subgenre of fantasy fiction.

I am super happy with the cover, which I’m revealing here for the first time. I’ve been detailing my experiences with veteran science fiction, fantasy, and sword-and-sorcery illustrator Tom Barber, and I’m pleased to say he has painted the cover of Flame and Crimson. I could not be more pleased with the work. It’s simple, stark, and evocative. Tom is a legend with a tremendous body of work, and I’m not sure I’m worthy of his talents.

I cannot even begin to describe how exhilarated I am to have written this book. And to soon be sharing it with you.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

A meeting with Tom Barber, part 2

Barber in front of Toad Hall

During our first meeting at his Andover, NH home in August, Tom mentioned that several more of his paintings were in storage in a gallery in the neighboring city of Franklin. This past Labor Day weekend I was able to fold in a second trip to meet Tom at Toad Hall, a beautiful old brick commercial building in the heart of Franklin whose third floor houses many of his paintings.

The gallery opened to the public on June 5, 2015 with art and live music, but on this fine Saturday afternoon Tom had to let us in with a key, as the gallery has since shuttered its doors. A web page and a Facebook page speak to what it was, briefly—an attempt to bring some art and light into a run-down community, trying to shake off its image as a mill city that never recovered from the economic downturn of the 1970s. Toad Hall had big plans for this revitalization with the art gallery and a first floor restaurant and microbrewery, but these seem to have stalled out and construction on the restaurant has ceased.

But apparently revitalization efforts continue in New Hampshire’s smallest and poorest city, with a white water park in the works, and ground set to be broken.

But up on the sunlit third floor gallery Tom’s paintings were vibrant and powerful. Tom walked me through pictures of knights in renaissance armor, burning spacecraft, beautiful enchantresses, and scenes from Arizona where he lived for a short stretch in the 1980s. An image of King Lear brooding over his life as he looks into a rapidly fading sunset. Tom also showed me several conceptual pieces which I found particularly arresting, including this one (above, left) of a soul embracing and thus breaking free of the fear of death which looms over all our collective shoulders. There was also a wonderful image of a crusader silhouetted against the moon, still in need of some finishing touches. All of this is for sale by the way.

Some more interesting facts about Tom: The two artists that inspired him most were Monet and N.C. Wyeth. The latter is of course a hugely popular illustrator perhaps best known for his western art and his wonderful illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. You can see the clear influence of Wyeth in Tom’s work. Monet meanwhile I can see in his hazy interstellar art and images of the night sky. Tom’s agent once hosted a dinner in his apartment with Tom and a second guest named Fritz Leiber. He met legendary sword-and-sorcery artist Jeffrey Jones at a Boskone convention, and at another show displayed his art between Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury.

I can now say I’m one degree removed from these artistic legends, which is pretty cool.

During this meeting Tom also revealed the striking cover art he has created for my forthcoming book, Flame and Crimson: A history of sword-and-sorcery fiction. It’s awesome. I’ll post a picture of that shortly.

Monday, August 12, 2019

A meeting with Tom Barber, sword-and-sorcery legend

Barber with a press proof of Bane of Nightmares

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting a sword-and-sorcery legend: The talented Tom Barber, perhaps best known for his illustrations of Zebra paperbacks in the 1970s, including a Robert E. Howard title (Black Vulmea’s Vengeance), several Talbot Mundy reprints, and a trio of stunning covers for a Weird Tales paperback revival edited by the late great Lin Carter. Barber was a prolific fantasy and science fiction painter in the 70s and very early 80s, with credits on a wide range of paperback titles and magazines like Galileo and Amazing Science Fiction.  Here’s a great piece by Morgan Holmes focusing on his sword-and-sorcery work over on the Castalia House blog.

Tom has led an interesting life. He graduated from the Art Institute of Boston in 1967 and served as a Vietnam-era army medic in Germany from 1968-71, providing bedside care for some grievously wounded soldiers returning from the jungle. After an honorable discharge in 1971 he returned to the United States and began working as a full-time illustrator.

When I pulled into Tom’s driveway he was sitting in an Adirondack chair reading a Louis L’Amour paperback. Tom spent several years out in Arizona and the west is in his blood. You can see it in his incredible landscapes of towering red rocks, searing blue skies, and golden sands. Unfortunately at that time in his life he was in the throes of alcoholism. The war had left him with deep wounds, even though he wasn’t on the front lines. Tom was an imminent danger of succumbing to addiction before he was saved by a couple of Vietnam buddies who got him into a recovery program through the VA. He’s been clean and sober for years, and resumed painting in 2005.

Barber's studio
After exchanging a few pleasantries, he took me into his unattached studio, suitably dark and mysterious with a bleached cattle skull greeting entrants. Inside I was greeted by some stunning original oils adorning the walls, from stunning landscapes to raging storms to the deeps of space. Tom took me on a guided tour of his artwork, including original oils as well as a nice .ppt slideshow of all of his major art, many of which now sits in the hands of private buyers. I glimpsed a stack of Conan Dark Horse reprints, recently given to him by a friend. We talked a bit about Howard and sword-and-sorcery, but also about Harlan Ellison and Steven Pressfield’s superlative The War of Art, among other wide-ranging subjects.

Three of the most stunning paintings in his studio are quite personal in nature: One is a trio of Vietnam soldiers, the original of which is on permanent display at a Vet Center in White River Junction, VT. It’s a moving work of art, with two soldiers helping up a third wounded comrade. The other is a quartet of bikers, two of which are Vietnam vets. Tom told me that the guy on the left ran point for a year in the bush and survived the
ordeal with barely a scratch, and remains the most perceptive, aware person he’s ever known. Undoubtedly not a coincidence. The other guy to me looks like a lot like Karl Edward Wagner, though he’s not. Both helped Tom get sober in the mid-80s.

The third piece of art is a conceptual/symbolic work, a skull ripping free of a man in a straightjacket. Tom told me this a self-portrait, his own breaking loose of addictions and society’s pressures. It’s called (appropriately) Free At Last. He also showed me a press proof of Adrian Cole’s Bane of Nightmares, one of a couple Barber illustrated titles I have on my bookshelf. I bought a copy of his book What the f*** was that all about? The story of a warrior’s journey home, a fictitious account of a Vietnam Veteran’s struggles with addiction and reintegration to society that loosely mirrors Barber’s own struggles.

Free At Last
Tom was full of wisdom and is a true artist’s artist. I wish I had a tape recorder running, but I do remember a couple of his memorable bits of advice and storytelling: “Art that isn’t shared with the world is only half finished.” Of his decision to leave commercial art in the early 80s, the jobs were becoming the equivalent of “filling in a coloring book,” leaving little room for artistic license or interpretation. He seemed genuinely touched that I took such an interest in his work, and he likewise offered me many words of support for my upcoming work.

Tom is going to be illustrating the cover of Flame and Crimson: The rise, fall, and relevance of sword-and-sorcery. It’s my upcoming non-fiction study the sword-and-sorcery subgenre. I am humbled to be collaborating with an individual of his talents and resume. We met through Bob McLain, the publisher of Pulp Hero Press with whom I am under contract. Initially I was planning to come to the meeting with Tom to offer him some concrete ideas for the cover, but after hearing him talk about coloring books I’m glad I did not. Artists need creative freedom.

Tom gave me a pencil sketch and I’m super pleased with the early concept: Simple, stark, eye-catching, with a classic sword-and-sorcery feel. It definitely won’t be a lifeless Frank Frazetta clone. I can’t wait to see the finished product.

In addition to the art in his studio Tom has several (as many as 20-30) paintings in storage in a gallery in Franklin, NH. I’m heading back up to Andover next month and we’ve already made plans to head over to Franklin and look at the rest of his art. I can’t wait. Expect more photos and coverage.
Note: You can find Tom’s personal website here:

Saturday, August 3, 2019

A review of Iron Maiden, August 1 Mansfield MA

Wake alone in the hills 
With the wind in your face 
It feels good to be proud 
And be free and a race that is part of a clan 
To live on highlands 
The air that you breathe 
So pure and so clean 

When alone on the hills 
With the wind in your hair 
And a longing to feel 
Just to be free

Iron Maiden has been ignored by radio stations their entire career. Largely passed over by mainstream media outlets. And granted no consideration by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But on Thursday, August 1 they played in front of a sea of 19,000 fans at the sold out XFinity Center in Mansfield, MA.

I was one of them. And they kicked my ass.

It's unbelievable that these six dudes from England, now all in their 60s, can still sound this fantastic and draw such huge crowds. They've kept themselves in great shape, stayed off the drugs that got so many metal bands in trouble, and possess an incredible degree of artistic integrity. As a result they've built up an incredibly loyal fan base. Maiden requires no external, artificial support to sell tickets. Their music speaks for itself.

These days for me, concerts are in all honesty more about the friendship than the music. As great as
Tailgating trio. Me at left.
Maiden was, hanging out in the parking lot for a couple hours beforehand drinking beer and blasting Maiden CDs with a couple friends on a beautiful 80-degree night, was the highlight. Just an unbelievable amount of fun, you could not wipe the shit-eating grin off my face.

Take that Hitler!
Inside, seeing Maiden rip through Aces High with a full-size Spitfire over the stage, and Bruce in a leather pilot jacket, aviator goggles and leather helmet, had me grinning ear-to-ear. Hearing Churchill's speech over the PA always makes me want to scramble a fighter and shoot down some ME-109s.

I got to hear The Clansman and belt out the epic ass-kicking patriotic verses (see above). Where Eagles Dare had me air-drumming in a frenzy. For the Greater Good of God was unexpected, an excellent song from a great album (A Matter of Life and Death). I loved Sign of the Cross, the second song Maiden pulled out from the Blaze Bayley years. It's heart-warming that Bruce performs songs during the era he chose to leave the band to pursue a solo career.

Bruce was in fine form singing and is a smashing entertainer. He came out for Fear of the Dark in a dark trenchcoat, looking like Jack the Ripper, slowly swinging a sinister green lantern back and forth as he intoned the opening verses ("When the light begins to change; I sometimes feel a little strange; A little anxious when it's dark"). You know the rest. He battled a monstrous Eddie on stage during The Trooper.

What an encore. The Evil that Men Do, Hallowed be Thy Name, and Run to the Hills, back-to-back-to-back? Are you kidding me? Metallica or Black Sabbath could not match that trio of hits. I'd put The Evil that Men Do and Hallowed in my top 5 Maiden songs of all time.

You can find the complete setlist here if you're interested. If you're at all a fan of heavy metal you owe it to yourself to see Maiden on this tour. Of course I'd say that about every Maiden tour.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Bruce Dickinson What Does This Button Do? A review

There aren’t too many men for whom I would admit to possessing a genuine man-crush. Bruce Dickinson is one of them.

Iron Maiden’s lead singer is a true Renaissance Man in every sense of the phrase. Perhaps polymath is a better descriptor. Licensed airplane pilot who flies 757s and other large aircraft for commercial airlines. Author. Former world-class fencer. Beer brewer. Motivational speaker. Solo artist. Songwriter. He is far more than just a man blessed with an incredible voice, though of course he hasn’t earned the nickname “the human air-raid siren” for nothing.

After reading Dickinson’s biography What Does This Button Do? I have if possible even more respect for the man.

There’s a lot of lessons to take from this book. It’s a story of courage to pursue difficult and uncommon pursuits. Of seizing opportunities when they arise, and working your ass off to achieve your goals (I was stunned to discover how much fencing and flying Bruce did, and continues to do, while in the midst of worldwide tours). And wringing as much out of the marrow of existence as you can in this one life you have been given.

Bruce was not handed any of his fortune and fame. He endured a tough upbringing. For the first five years of his life he was raised by his grandparents, and later by British boarding schools, until he was able to earn a living from music. His biological parents were alcoholics and rather neglectful of their son. His grandfather, a miner, did not make much money and the young Bruce lived a very frugal existence (he describes not possessing a telephone, refrigerator, central heater, car, or inside toilet in those early years). In boarding school he endured a fair bit of bullying and had to learn to defend himself. Eventually Dickinson fell in love with rock after hearing Deep Purple and discovered he had a talent for singing. By the time he entered Queen Mary College, University of London, he had decided he would pursue a career in music. In Samson he was a one man enterprise booking a 20-date UK headline tour when a lazy, useless agent couldn’t find the band any work. He kicked around for a few years playing experimental unpopular material in front of sparse crowds before his talent won out, leading to his audition for Iron Maiden. The rest of history.

I learned a lot about Bruce. Much of the information on his early years was new to me: His first singing days in bands like Shots, and the details of his recruitment into Samson in 1979 at the age of 20. Bruce absolutely loves flying, perhaps at this stage of his life even more than Maiden and music. The last 40% of the book contains many stories and anecdotes about Bruce’s obsession with aviation, harrowing episodes in the cockpit of various aircraft, and eventually his purchase of a replica of the Red Barron’s legendary Fokker triplane. It also covers the band’s outfitting of Ed Force One, a custom Boeing 747 that carted the band around on their Book of Souls world tour.

The book is full of interesting anecdotes and details. I loved a story of his personal maturation and anger management breakthrough while on the Powerslave tour in 1985, told in the context of fencing and switching the foil from his right hand to his left hand:

I started again, but left-handed. I was slow and my coordination painful; the muscle memory was all wrong and had to be reprogrammed. My left arm tired quickly and my neck ached—it was twisted on the side from the headbanging injury. Various small muscles in my forearm had atrophied because of the disc problem. This was the rehab for my body, but it was like a revelation for my brain. The anger was gone. The will to win and the passion remained, but the pressure cooker had disappeared.

Also illuminating and was his harrowing account of the benefit concert he delivered during his solo career in war-torn Sarajevo, which I admit to missing at the time (hey, it was the mid-90s man. There was no internet and metal was not being covered on MTV or any other mainstream outlets). Dickinson took no pay for the concert, which several other major metal bands passed on. He witnessed live fire in the distance and saw bullet pocked cars, buildings reduced to rubble, and orphaned children by the score.

Bruce does not take himself very seriously, and is someone who prefers to plunge deeply into hobbies and master difficult skills and take on business ventures rather than dwell on his mistakes and failures, or engage in maudlin bouts of “why me”? self-pity, even during a rather harrowing bout of throat and neck cancer.

I do agree with some of the criticisms of the book. One is that it’s not comprehensive. Bruce provides insight on the art and skill of fencing, flying, and singing, and the details of how he was diagnosed with and ultimately beat cancer. But other important events (his departure and return to Maiden, his process of writing songs, his deeply held beliefs religious or otherwise, political views, etc.) are all either skimmed over or left out entirely. What Does This Button Do? offers very little in the way of Bruce’s personal life. There is no mention of his wife or children or other relationships, other than a brief note of why he left them out in an afterword. There is very little details of behind the scenes band drama, save for some early clashes with Steve Harris over positioning on the stage and songwriting differences. Some 360-odd pages later there is still much more about Bruce I’d like to know. What Does this Button Do? Is a humorous, fun, and impressive recollection of what Dickinson did for the first 58 or so years of his life, but not a particularly illuminating look under the hood of who he is, and what makes him tick.

In fairness, however, I believe the absence of these elements is in fact a telling characteristic of Dickinson, who loves living life, and doing things, and acting, rather than reacting and deep reflection. We see enough emotion in his deep respect for the military and of the innocent victims of the siege of Sarajevo to know there is a real heart beating beneath the acerbic wit and Python-esque comedic optimism with which he seems to view the world and himself. Dickinson always looks on the bright side of life.

My rating: 8 out of 10 Eddies. A must-read for any Maiden fan, and of interest to rock and metal fans in general.