The other day, Deadspin ran an exhaustive, in-depth piece on the colorful history and cultural impact of that most hallowed document of heavy metal dirtbaggery, Heavy Metal Parking Lot. The scope of the piece was impressive and I devoured every word, but the thing that really struck me (besides the ballad of Zebraman, of course) was the way the author and many of the people interviewed referred to the film and its subjects— like “Mayans, only with mullets,” in writer Dave McKenna’s words. They spoke about metalheads, and metal culture, in the past tense, as if it were a fleeting trend that briefly set the 80s ablaze with sweet solos, spandex, and Aquanet, then faded back into nothingness. Sure, it’s generally accepted that the genre’s commercial heyday reached its zenith in the mid-80s, but to see it spoken of it as some kind of Atlantean memory is nothing short of mind-boggling—especially when metal is more powerful and popular now than it's been since Heavy Metal Parking Lot first surfaced.
Deadspin quotes ethnomusicologist Laura Schnitker as saying,“The heavy metal years were quite something in the history of popular music, and the movie offers you a glimpse of this really distinctive, fascinating and kind of repelling working class culture that shares a love of a certain kind of music.” Even if we are to ignore the various classist insults couched in that statement, it’s still more than a little troubling to realize that, as far as most people splashing around in the mainstream are concerned, heavy metal is dead.
I thought about that as I walked up the steps to Madison Square Garden last night, bobbing and weaving through the thousands of people streaming into the stadium and sailing past the bored-looking cops and desperate touts shilling tickets to the sold-out show. All around me, I saw denim, leather, spandex, manes of long hair (some crowned by shining bald spots), and more Iron Maiden shirts than I’ve ever seen in my fucking life. There were drunk people, and giddily excited people, and couples making out, and questionable but ultimately unfuckwithable fashion choices; there were people screaming in joy, in anger, in confusion; people embracing their friends, carrying their buddies who’d gotten a little too blitzed on $12 Budweisers, throwing the horns and grinning like fools. It was chaos, and it was beautiful—it was Heavy Metal Parking Lot all over again, down to the Judas Priest shirts that peppered the scrum. Outsiders and skeptics be damned: heavy metal is alive and well in New York City, and Iron fucking Maiden was playing.
I’ve written at length about why Iron Maiden is so important, and why they’re still so vital to the global metal community (to say nothing of their awe-inspiring impact on the genre’s history and evolution), but at the end of the day, I’m still just a fan, and I was over the goddamned moon to be seeing them play again. It’s been a long time. The first time I saw Iron Maiden, I was seventeen years old; Ozzfest 2005 had come to Camden, NJ, and I’d made the trek up from the woods with a few of my older friends to witness the filth and the fury that large-scale heavy metal concerts invariably wreak (and yes, the parking lot tailgating party was lit, even if we were too young and broke to bring our own beer). All I really remember about Iron Maiden’s performance is that Bruce and the lads looked like ants, but they sounded like gods, and that it was the first time I’d experienced the glorious high that comes from standing amidst thousands people belting out the words to a song you all know and love.
Last night, though, they just looked like gods—gods who also happened to be starring in their own Broadway show. Their elaborate stage set was themed around new album Book of Souls’ artwork, which takes its cues from Mayan and Aztec art and sports an overall wild, jungle vibe. There was a serious Legends of the Hidden Temple feel to the proceedings, from the “stone” ruins onstage and “vines” hanging from the lighting rig to Eddie’s glowing eyes and tribal paint. The all-around visual emphasis was on pure, unbridled bombast. At one point, a gigantic inflatable Eddie erupted from the stage; at another, Bruce ripped a mobile Eddie’s heart out and chucked it into the crowd. The stage was kept ablaze with tiki torches and plumes of pyro, and the Devil himself even made an appearance.
Fierce, fantastical images that referenced both the band’s new album as well as the classics decked the screens and backdrops that slid onstage for each song, and Bruce Dickinson himself went through more costume changes than Taylor Swift—my favorite look was the oversized noose he wore jauntily around his neck during the epic “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” followed closely by his sun’s out guns out look near the end, his inexplicable purple lucha mask, and the sensible brown cords he sported throughout. After watching the spry 57-year-old frontman dash to and fro all over the stage for two hours straight, launch himself into high kicks, and brandish a massive Union Jack flag—all the while belting out the hits in his robust vibrato—you’d never think that Dickinson had been sick a day in his life, let alone fought—and won—a battle with throat cancer.
Iron Maiden’s brand has always been triumph, though, and they’re still the only band who can truly pull off a song and sentiment like “Death or Glory.” They played a number of new songs—”If Eternity Should Fall,” ”Speed of Light,” “Tears of a Clown” (which they dedicated to Robin Williams)—and the crowd responded with enthusiasm, but nothing beat the energy when they launched into the hits. As solid as the new album is, a band like this is all about the classics—the songs and albums that first hooked each one of us in the crowd when we were younger, and that have stayed with us ever since. While Dickinson was always the main focus (it’s impossible to take your eyes off him, really—he’s a total kinetic force), his bandmates were in fine fettle as well, especially guitarist Janick Gers, whose flamboyant stage moves, skin-tight jeans, and pristine white high-tops were all pulled off with the studied grace of a man who’s living a dream he’s nurtured since he was sixteen. He’s gotten some flack for his over-the-top stage gyrations, but I’d rather watch someone go all out with spins and high kicks and pogos than see yet another bunch of long-haired grumps stare grimly down at their fretboards. Most people would, which is why they do what they do; an Iron Maiden show is a show, and no one knows that better than Iron Maiden.
As I dusted off my vibrato and sang my heart out with everyone else during “The Trooper” and “Wasted Years,” I glanced down at the rows below me, and saw something beautiful: a burly, bald dad bent down teaching his bespectacled son (who was clad in a fresh new Book of Souls shirt and matching hat) how to properly wail away on the air guitar during Adrian Smith’s solos. That moment—so small, but so crucial—spoke volumes about the cross-generational appeal of bands like Iron Maiden, and of heavy metal in general, as did the presence of the many, many kids in tiny black shirts clutching their parents with one hand and throwing the horns with the other. There were people thirty or forty years older than me in that crowd, too, and every age in between. The appeal of this kind of music is ageless, and crosses every boundary, as Dickinson mentioned before launching into “Blood Brothers” near the end. He called for us to respect one another, for “all genders and all races” to get along even as the rest of the world is going to hell, because we’re all in this together, and metal is for everyone. It was a lovely moment, and a hopeful one, too.
Being a part of that crowd—that joyous mass of tens of thousands—while Iron Maiden played “The Number of the Beast” and “Fear of the Dark” was as close to a religious experience as I wager most of us would care to venture. I may have been raised Catholic, but the only time I’ve ever felt something like faith is in the front rows of heavy metal shows—and Iron Maiden are still the lords and masters of that universe.
Up the irons!
Photographer Alyssa Lorenzon was in the pit and down on the front lines at MSG snapping photos for Noisey—check out more of her Iron Maiden shots below:
Kim Kelly is repping the red and the black on Twitter.