By Lee Zimmerman
Bruce Dickinson seems to have lived a charmed life. At least that’s the impression one gets from reading his impressive new autobiography, teasingly titled “What Does This Button Do?” While most people would be well satisfied to front one of the most successful bands in the world, that being Iron Maiden of course, Dickinson didn’t stop there. Aside from a successful solo career interspersed between his two tenures with Maiden, he’s also found success as an airline captain, a motivational speaker, beer brewer, screenwriter, novelist and world-class fencer. And to top it all off, he conquered cancer, no major accomplishment in and of itself.
If Dickinson’s life story reads like the stuff of a prize novel, well, it’s even more apparent while reading his book that he’s accomplished more in a single lifetime than most people would pride themselves in over the course of several lives. There’s drama to be sure, particularly in the closing chapter where he shares the horror of finding out he was diagnosed with cancer. But there’s also humor — plenty of it — and it’s easy to see where the fictional group Spinal Tap may have culled their inspiration. What’s not in the book, but what may qualify for a sequel, is the time yours truly worked for Maiden’s American label, Capitol records. I was duly assigned to take Mr. Dickinson around for a series of press and sales visits prior to their gig that evening. We were running late on the way to the venue so I pulled into a right turn lane in hopes of cutting ahead of a line of cars on a single lane of highway. Unfortunately, a cop spotted me and pulled me over. I got out of the car to talk to the good officer while Dickinson waited helplessly in my backseat, looking none too pleased. Meanwhile, as the fans passed us, they spotted him and eagerly yelled out to him, amused at our dilemma and likely the fact they were going to beat us to the gig. Even now, I look back on it as an amusing anecdote, more so now than it was at the time. Prior to beginning our conversation, I mentioned it to Mr. Dickinson and suggested that he call me when the time comes for a follow up as it’s too good to leave out. “Obviously you have to leave some things out,” he replied. “You can’t include everything.”
Perhaps not. But the narrative that is included makes for a great read.
Goldmine: You’re a relatively young man. It would almost seem a bit premature for an autobiography at this point.
Bruce Dickinson: Getting throat cancer was a bit of a wake up call, and then getting over it seemed like a good end point to a book. And secondly, the book was already getting to over 600 pages and we edited 200 pages out to get it to the length it is and I hadn’t even gotten started on a lot of the stuff that happened subsequent to getting better and a lot of the other interesting stories that weren’t in it. So you have to reckon that there’s 50 percent of another book on the cutting room floor. (chuckles) So we had to keep this one pretty tight. And my editor wanted to edit it like it was a novel, so that it reads like a page turner and I got that. You see a book on the shelf and it’s 600 pages and it’s oh… really? Whereas 400 is pretty tight and it bounces around and it’s pretty agile.
GM: Others may fantasize about doing it, but for example, what’s it feel like standing on a stage and having thousands of people focused on you and cheering your every move? Most of us can’t imagine what that’s like. So does it still fill you with any sort of awe or is it, hey, this is what I do?
BD: I think if you stop to admire your own reflection, you’re not really serving the audience. In effect, when we hit the stage, we’re not looking at it like, “Wow, look at all those people there for me.” I’m looking at this audience like, this crowd is hungry and wants us to entertain them and we have to deliver. We’re all too busy in the moment to sit back and say, “Isn’t this cool?” What’s cool is just being there, being in the moment, delivering all that energy. Towards the end of it, when you’re offstage, having a drink of water offstage, you get some idea of the scale. But when you’re onstage, you’re in it. And you can’t step into the backseat and put your feet up and say, “This is cool.” You have to be there and be fierce — 100 percent.
GM: Still, that feeling of adulation must be overwhelming.
BD: Yes, but it’s transitory. You’ve got to deserve it. And you only deserve it as much as your last gig.
GM: You have a remarkable eye for detail. Were you keeping notes from a very young age?
BD: No. I have a kind of brain that remembers that kind of stuff. I’m awful at numbers and names and that kind of thing, but with images I tend to see things like scenes from a movie and that’s how I store things. I remember when I was singing — I don’t read music — I’d see vocal lines like scenes from a landscape. So I would see melodies as being landscapes, like mountains and valleys and sweeping vistas and that’s what I would see as I sang things.
GM: Was writing the book easy or did it come as a challenge?
BD: I’ve always been able to string two words together. Its just that you never get much of a chance other than lyrics. I’ve been involved in two or three film scripts over the years and I did a couple of comic novels that got published. But I’ve never written anything as serious as an autobiography…not that my autobiography is so serious. I initially just thought it would be a series of anecdotes and I didn’t want to organize it in a timeline. But that’s what happened because I had to start at the beginning. I had a little notebook and the first thing I did was sketch out little bits of memories and it was only one or two words, but one or two words would conjure up a whole story or a whole scene. I would transfer those ideas straight down onto paper… quite literally onto paper because I wrote it long hand. There were pages of handwritten words. Most of it was written in my local pub. I’d sit down with two or three beers over the course of two or three hours and do 1,200 words and then I’d be done for the night.
GM: Since you were writing in longhand, who had the job of typing this up?
BD: It’s bizarre. My publisher HarperCollins told me they would get it transcribed. They told me they would send it off to India. What came back was the most bizarre gobbledygook. A lot of it was comedic. They would misspell two or three words and on the basis of that, try to make sense of the sentence and then it would make no sense. It was unwittingly hilarious, but it was all unusable. They only got it done partially. So, Mary at the publisher volunteered to do it because she said she could read my writing. Nobody else could do that.
GM: Maybe that was the problem. The people in India couldn’t read your writing.
BD: It’s weird. Some people looked at my writing and thought I wrote rather nicely. But other people looked at it and couldn’t make it out at all. I don’t know.
GM: You make some great references when you talk about your early influences at university. Bands like String Driven Thing, Wild Turkey, all these obscure British prog bands from the mid ‘70s that are barely remembered these days.
BD: There are a lot of obscure bands. I think because there were so many sort of small, or rather medium-sized bands around and lots of touring and gigs to see, people did get influenced by groups other than the big bands.
GM: It also seems like you attained success very quickly, even while you were still at school. You went from your first recording outfit Samson right into the Maiden gig.
BD: I was like 19 years old.
GM: And then you transitioned right into Iron Maiden shortly after you turned pro.
BD: Yeah, I guess. I always felt whichever bands I was in, even the little bands in the beginning, I felt like I was a lump of something that had been tossed into a pond and somehow I would rise to the surface and somebody else would notice me and fish me out of the pond and then toss me into a bigger pond. And then somebody would notice me and say, “Hey, look at that. I want to throw him into my pond. We’ll see what happens!” The plan was to learn from every situation and just expand your knowledge of music and performance and singing. There was no plan for world domination, other than, let’s just be good at this. Let’s just tune into the things inside that make you want to do it. I still don’t know what they are other than to point it straight at the audience and make sure they get it. That’s what I was trying to do.
GM: It seems like you were pretty well defined even with Samson.
BD: With Samson, I applied what I had learned with my earlier outfit, Shots. I learned about singing and then I was dragged into Samson and it was all new to me, especially when I was doing my first albums. And then I learned to be a singer with Samson and people wanted me to embark on a solo career, but I said no. I didn’t want a solo career. I liked being in a band and then I jumped into Maiden and that was the A team at that point. And then I rose to the surface and I thought, well okay, let’s see where we can take this. Even now, I can’t see a band I’d rather be in than Maiden.
GM: You did opt for a solo career however. Suddenly it was all on you. You were the entire focus. Was that scary at all?
BD: It was extremely scary. You don’t know what to do. I had no idea. That was one of the reasons I left. You leave to find out what the hell was going on outside the institution. Everybody’s happy and contented inside this little Maiden world but there’s a whole world outside that. I realized that if I didn’t step outside at come point, I’d never know. I was worried that at some point that my horizons were shrinking within Maiden. We were becoming sort of self-reverential. I tried to explain my concerns to the other guys, but really I don’t think anybody really got it. They looked at me like I was a little bit mad. Perhaps I was. I left the band quite suddenly. It was Tuesday and I was gone.
GM: In reading the book, there were times when two words came to mind. Spinal Tap.
BD: Yes, you do tend to look at yourself with a bit of satire at times. That’s the English way. We like not to take ourselves desperately seriously all the time.