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.

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.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Paying tribute: The Priest and AD/HD

Some day in the not too-distant future my favorite heavy metal bands will be retired, the big concert halls silent, and only memories remaining of the glory days of Iron Maiden, Megadeth, and their ilk. And I will be reduced to watching tribute bands.

Frankly, I’m very much OK with this, if they are anything like the caliber of The Priest and AD/HD.

I would be happy until the end of my rocking days watching good tribute bands perform. I don’t feel any need, whatsoever, to seek out new music. That’s not to say there are no new good bands on the scene. Far from that. Nor do I actively dismiss new music. I have had a few finds over the years that I find enjoyable.

But the fact of the matter is, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, KISS, AC/DC (and throw in Rush for good measure), have massive and varied catalogs of studio and live albums that are more than enough for my limited listening time. I don’t feel the need to seek out new bands. And now, if I want the experience of listening to live music—and there is nothing like live music—I have the tributes.

This past Saturday I got the opportunity to check out two tributes playing locally. I live some 20-odd minutes from the venue, Uncle Eddie’s in Salisbury MA. It was an absolutely beautiful summer evening. I pulled out of my driveway, alone, around 8 p.m., rolled the windows down, and started blasting Unleashed in the East. Route 110 in Amesbury passed too quickly as I drove the two-lane blacktop, wishing I was on Desert Plains to some far-flung destination. I wish that drive was long enough to get me through the album, and a few other discs besides. It was a divine experience. 

Ahead was the knowledge I’d be meeting up with an old friend of mine and his wife, for some conversation and cold beers. And then a full evening—three-plus hours—of some of the best hard rock and heavy metal ever written. Yes, played not by the original artists, but by bands of talented performers who dedicated countless hours to perfecting their craft, and paying homage to a pair of rock and metal greats.

Uncle Eddies is right on the beach, and you can hear the waves of the Atlantic rolling up the sands outside the club. It’s not much to look at inside, with a stained drop ceiling and restrooms with broken mirrors and ill-cleaned graffiti, and a low stage in the back. But it’s got a charm of its own, and the owner works hard to give local music and heavy metal in particular a voice. It’s a hard-working, blue-collar venue.

I paid more to park ($10) then the cover to get in ($5). I would have gladly paid five times that over. The lights of Salisbury beach pizza joints and arcades made for a fun walk to the club. Uncle Eddies was as packed as I’ve ever seen it. Judas Priest, AC/DC, and other various metal T-shirts were ubiquitous (dude with the Kreator T--nice work. This one’s for you). The beer was flowing. Life was great.

As for the show, my words can’t do it justice. The level of musicianship was incredible. Both lead singers were excellent, in particular Ron Finn of The Priest, who not only is Rob Halford reincarnated, but can pull off a very credible David Coverdale, among others. The Priest crushed hits like The Ripper, Beyond the Realms of Death, Devil’s Child, and Victim of Changes. AD/HD was a crowd favorite and packed the dance floor. I was so pumped to hear If You Want Blood (You Got It) and Have a Drink on Me, both in my top 5.

I took a lot of clips with my crappy cell phone, but they don’t do these bands justice. For a better idea of how good these guys are, here’s The Priest playing Devil's Child.

The two Brians.
Afterwards I thanked as many members of each band as I could. I praised The Priest’s Bryan
Shepherd for owning the guitar solo of Beyond the Realms of Death. I hugged Ron Finn and his wife. And I told the hyper-talented AD/HD guitarist “Angus Young” that he was performing an amazing service, keeping alive a breed of rock that is slowly becoming a relic of the past.

And I meant it.

Priest, AD/HD, KISS Forever, and legions of others playing small clubs across the USA and in parts unknown—this post is your tribute. Keep rocking, brothers in metal.

Check out The Priest on Facebook:

Here’s AD/HD’s Facebook page: Worth a visit and a like, too.