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.