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, and 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 pursues 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.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Iron Maiden!

Phantom of the Opera! Probably in my top 10-15 favorites.

In one week’s time I’ll be making my way over to Great Woods (I still call it that, not the Tweeter or
Xfinity or Comcast Center or whatever the fuck it is currently being called) in Mansfield MA to watch the greatest heavy metal band in history.

I’m talking of course about Iron Maiden.

I’ve had the fortune of seeing Maiden 10 times prior, on the following dates and at the following venues:
  • Jan. 1991: Providence (RI) Civic Center
  • July 1999: Orpheum Theatre, Boston
  • August 2000: Tweeter Center, Mansfield
  • July 2003: Worcester Centrum
  • July 2005: Tweeter Center (on Ozzfest Tour, where they proceeded to destroy Ozzy)
  • Oct. 2006: Agganis Arena, Boston University
  • March 2008: Izod Center, East Rutherford NJ
  • June 2008: Tweeter Center, Mansfield
  • June 2012: Comcast Center, Mansfield
  • July 2017: Xfinity Center, Mansfield

So many good memories in that list above. I saw them the first time in 1991 on the “No Prayer on the Road” tour, and my 17-year-old self was so fanboy-ed out that I bought a tour poster and tour book (which I still have). My mouth was hung open in joy when they hit the stage playing Tailgunner. No one does war songs and history like Maiden.

You’ll notice the major gap from 1992 to 1998, which was when Bruce Dickinson took a break from the band and went solo, and Blaze Bayley stepped in. I realize now I made a mistake by choosing to not attend Maiden shows during Blaze’s tenure, as I really like several songs off the X Factor and Virtual XI (Judgement of Heaven, Sign of the Cross, Futureal, Man on the Edge, The Clansman).

If I had to pick a favorite show from all of the above it would be the ’99 show at the Orpheum Theatre. A small venue, sold out, ridiculously hot, but HUGE energy with Bruce just back in the band. “Transylvania” opened the set and my pulse rate doubled, and they came tearing out like Gods of Old. Metal was back after taking a hiatus during the grunge era. And so was Maiden.

Watching Maiden play the entirety of A Matter of Life and Death in 2006 at the Agganis Arena was amazing. What band with this much history and pressure to play just the hits, cranks through an entire new album? It’s a great album, and I loved it.

Maiden probably sounded their best at the 2008 show in East Rutherford, NJ. Watching them do a full rendition of “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” with Bruce in a full cloak, wreathed in fog, was amazing. Pure art, worthy of broadway.

Right now I’ve got a copy of Dickinson’s autobiography What Does this Button Do? waiting to be read. Can’t wait to dig into that.

If anyone reading this is a Maiden fan and hasn’t yet discovered Talking Maiden: The Podcast of the Beast, correct that right now. The co-hosts are not only passionate but put in huge amounts of research and show prep, often breaking down single albums over 4 or more episodes. I’ve learned a ton about Maiden’s early years from this show. Plus they have good taste in beer.

Up the Irons. I’m sure I’ll post a review of the August 1 show here.

Rest in Peace, Rutger Hauer

Man, this one hurts: Blade Runner Star Rutger Hauer Has Passed Away.

Hopefully he's facing his creator right now, with a scowl, and a demand:

I want more life...fucker.

Here's a link to one of my oldest SK posts about Blade Runner, one of my all-time favorite films.

Perhaps we'll meet at the Tannhäuser Gate some day.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Haakon: The Golden Ax, a review

No man could defeat him.
No woman could resist him.

Alas, I had high hopes for this one, being a sucker for all things Viking fantasy (is this a subgenre? If not, time to coin one. Broad-and-battleaxe? Skald-and-shieldwall? Leave your suggestion below). It sounded great. From the back cover:

Warrior, leader, lover, conqueror… HAAKON.

OUT OF A VIOLENT AGE, when longships and broadswords rule the earth, comes the mightiest Viking warrior of them all—Haakon the Dark.

I'm in.

Haakon started out with a bang, a desperate ship-to-ship battle in the North sea. This was the best sequence in the book. I don’t know if there was anything quite like these old longboat battles, with crews of desperate Vikings leaping over the rails and murdering each other, with drownings and maimings and mayhem miles from shore.

A spear drove down toward Haakon. His shield rose to meet it. The spearhead pierced the leather-covered wood, nearly skewering Haakon as it flashed by his ear. He swung the shield, and the shaft of the embedded spear lashed through the ranks of the enemy. A man screamed and clapped his hand to his face, where jaw and cheek and one eye were bloody wreckage. One of Haakon’s men closed in and struck with an ax. The man’s screams died as his head lolled on his shoulders. The thud of the falling body was lost in the swelling uproar of clashing weapons and cries of panting men.

Outrageous that these wild combats actually occurred. Not a bad start.

After the initial carnage the battle scenes are not as well-depicted or as plentiful as I’d hoped. I guess I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Bernard Cornwell, who does the desperate, fear and sweat drenched press of shield wall combat better than anyone. Author Eric Neilson’s prose is workmanlike.

Haakon flags terribly in its second half, once Haakon returns home to Norway with his booty and the willing English maid Rosamund under his arm. Like Arnold in Conan the Destroyer, my prevailing thought plowing through interminable dialogue and dickering was, “enough talk!” There’s too much Haakon lounging around his deceased father’s steading, pondering whether to launch a pre-emptive strike on Ivar Egbertsson who has designs on his lands and his lady. Politics and perception stays Haakon’s hand, but he’s forced to take action when Ivar’s men steal his beloved Rosamund.

Haakon could almost be classified as sword-and-sorcery, with its action-oriented central hero, gritty historical setting, and light touches of magic, which possess a bit of the weird unpredictability that makes for good S&S fiction. But the feel isn’t quite right to me. I’d place it in the category of historical fantasy. Haakon the Good was a historical figure and served as king of Norway circa 920-961, but nothing in the first book bears any resemblance to the events of his life.

Spoiler alert: Haakon culminates with the rescue of Haakon’s beloved Rosamund following a pitched final battle and the promise of more adventure in Book 2: The Viking’s Revenge. I may read it yet, sucker as I am this kind of fiction. But overall Haakon: The Golden Ax is sadly well outside the rarefied air occupied by the likes of The Broken Sword, Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, and Eric Brighteyes

Perhaps worth a read if you enjoy the Northern Thing.