According to Bruce Dickinson, his Wikipedia page is “50 percent bullshit.” It starts off well enough. The sprightly, grey-haired Londoner is described as, “an English singer, songwriter, musician, airline pilot, entrepreneur, author and broadcaster.” That checks out. The page also notes that he is “the lead singer of the heavy metal band Iron Maiden and is renowned for his wide-ranging operatic vocal style and energetic stage presence.” So far, so good—that’s all quite accurate, but one supposes things may get a bit murkier further down. After all, Dickinson has accomplished an unbelievable amount in his 59 years, and has done so with enough verve (and gotten into enough colorful scrapes) that there’s a plenty of room to fudge the facts were one so inclined. The iconic frontman says he can’t be bothered to edit it, though, inviting would-be biographers to “print all the lies and the untruths. Just go right ahead” with a toss of his hand.
“People agglomerate all these things together as if they all happen in a week,” he tells me exasperatedly when I ask about the public perception of him as a sort of superhuman Renaissance man. “Like I get up in the morning and fence a dozen people before breakfast, and fly my jumbo jet to go to my nearest interview, and I write a book in my lunchtime interval. What are you, nuts? Nobody does that!”
I’m sitting across from him on a straight-backed chair in an airless conference room in HarperCollins’ head office in lower Manhattan, clutching a cup of tea while Dickinson nurses a coffee. A few moments before, he’d rushed in, nattily suited and booted, grabbed a pair of blue jeans and a lavender shirt off the back of a chair, and dashed back out. Upon returning, he hurriedly shrugs on a patterned jacket, spins on his heel (he's wearing Union Jack socks), and says hello, explaining that he’d just been down at the New York Stock Exchange and had zipped back just in time for our interview. Apparently, this is how Bruce Dickinson does tourism: quickly, efficiently, and with a considerable amount of flair. I’m not surprised—as I’d gleaned from reading his recently-released new autobiography for HarperCollins, What Does This Button Do?, and from hearing that the band is already poised to release a live album, The Book Of Souls: Live Chapter (out November 17) from their most recent epic world tour—that’s basically how he does everything.
Outside of his series of satirical novels and the screenplay he co-wrote for the 2008 horror film Chemical Wedding, Dickinson may not be a writer in the most traditional sense of the word, but he is very much a storyteller. Throughout the book, he offers up frank observations and hilarious, often self-deprecating anecdotes from his days as a wild young thing careening around London in search of heavy metal glory, and after that, as a successful pilot, solo artist, and businessman. For example: the book’s final chapter, which deals with his battle with tongue cancer and details his diagnosis, his treatment, and his eventual triumph over the “golfball-sized” tumor is titled, simply, Fuck Cancer.
As we talk, Dickinson answers my questions briskly but thoughtfully, retaining steady eye contact and projecting an air of pleasant intensity that feels more friendly than imposing (it helps that he is, as he says himself, not the tallest of men). He’s obviously a pro at doing media interviews and is stocked to the gills with glib responses to nearly anything a reporter could hypothetically throw at him, so I secretly take pride in each time he has to stop and ponder for a moment before responding to one of my questions.
Even in his youth, Dickinson retained a laser focus on accomplishing what he set out to do—whether the subject of his intent was learning to fence competitively, recording an album with his first serious band, Samson… or having two tons of manure delivered to the doorstep of a particularly abusive private school headmaster. When I mention the latter, he breaks into laughter. “Apparently now I’m a folk hero,” he tells me with a snaggletoothed grin. “They still remember me, that’s what I’ve been led to believe.”
In fairness to his old schoolmates (and even without all the horse shit), Bruce Dickinson is a pretty unforgettable chap.
Noisey: So why did you decide to write your autobiography now?
Bruce Dickenson: Well, I’ve been asked for the last ten years to do one and I’ve always steadfastly said, no, can’t be bothered, when the hell would I write it? I’m not finished yet. I think you only do one autobiography, and then anything you do subsequent to that is just a book of stories. This is the one. I thought it was a good time to stop. [But] when I got the whole throat cancer thing, I thought, well I’m not planning on checking out anytime soon now that I’m clear of it, but it’s a good stopping point—it’s almost like you reset the clock. When you have an endpoint, then it’s a lot easier to start at the beginning.
It’s cool that you wrote it yourself. Most rock stars tend to lean on a ghostwriter or someone like that to sort of massage the text.
Never going to happen with me.
I just don’t like it, because it’s not your voice. In general, I don’t like ghostwriters. You can tell straight away when something is ghostwritten. Somewhere, they always do something cheesy that’s clearly somebody's memory, or it ends up sounding like a series of press releases.
They often leave out all the warts.
I left out a few of my own warts, but only really when they impacted on other human beings, because it’s my autobiography, not other people’s autobiography. I made a basic rule of thumb that, if there was a story and it reflected on me, then the person that was in the story was fair game— unless it reflected on them, in which case it wasn’t, because it’s not my business to reveal personal confidences from other people without their permission.
That’ a very honorable way to go about it.
Well, it’s a very honorable book. If I reveal things about myself, that’s my business. Fair enough. I can do that. I suppose it's a bit like being a comedian. If a black comedian wants to tell jokes about black people, he has a bit more of a right to do than a white person telling jokes about black people. You can argue the toss on that, but you can see the general principle. It’s my life, so if I want to reveal things about my life, it's down to me, but you can't reveal things about other people’s lives gratuitously.
The whole thing is a wild ride, but the bits about your childhood were really illuminating. The fact that you went a British boarding school and came out normal is incredible.
Well, yeah, it was only ever going to end badly [laughs].
Your poor headmaster.
Yeah, well, I didn't have a huge amount of sympathy for him. I think there was a lot of looking the other way on a number of transgressions by authority figures. What you have to remember is, during the 70s and now it turns out the 80s, basically, if you were in a position of authority and establishment—whether it was a church or politics or being a headmaster of a school—you could get away with pretty much whatever you wanted. And people did, as we now find out. Of course it’s not quite as topical as the current thing of discovering that Jabba the Hut has been sexually abusing actresses. Unfortunately, it’s not new.
That’s one way to make a mark on your school. It was interesting seeing you end up at such a fancy establishment when you’re very open about coming from a solidly working class background. It seems that that work ethic has bled into everything you’ve done, even the book itself. Your whole career has been a series of you saying to yourself, “Alright, I guess I just have to fucking do it.”
I’m not sure this story is in [the book] because 40,000 words were edited out of it. The editor Jack wanted it to read like a novel, and I was quite complicit; we’d lift entire lumps of text, like eight pages would go. So there’s one story that I don’t think is in there about when I did some go kart racing, and I had a really obsolete go kart. It was like second hand, third hand—the chassis was rubbish and the tires were all skinny. I had no chance whatsoever of winning a race; it simply was not fast enough. All these other kids had these rich dads, and I was feeling embarrassed and stupid using this stupid piece of crap. My dad just said, “Finish. Just finish the race, ‘cause all these kids are going to bash into each other, they are going to spin off the track. Just finish the race and see what happens.” I went oh, OK. I finished the race. And you know what, at the end of the day, they came along and said, “This kid was in the points, here, have a trophy.” I won the trophy because I finished the race and all the whizz kids didn't. There’s a lesson in life somewhere.
It seems very prescient when we think about what you’ve grown up to do.
If you walk off the tennis court, you’re never going to win. There’s no good in throwing your toys out the car because you’re upset or having a bad day. Finish the race.
You know, that was something about the “Fuck Cancer” chapter that really struck me. When you were diagnosed, you just said, ‘Well, I’m going to beat this’ It wasn't an if, it was a how—and then you went and did it!
I say I did it, [but] it was me plus a lot of chemicals and radiation and some great doctors. My wife was absolutely brilliant. She made me take loads of extra-curricular supplements to beef up my immune system and help me overcome the side effects of the treatment. My oncologist was brilliant; I went along to him and said, “Look, I’m going to be taking a load of weird and wonderful different compounds from here there and everywhere.” And he said, “I’m quite all happy with that, just make sure there’s no heavy metal in it.” And I went, “You’re kidding me.” He said, “No, no, if you’re taking heavy metal supplements, it’s going to screw up the treatment.” So, I was not taking any heavy metal during my cancer treatment.
Seriously? That’s almost too poetic to be true.
You have to have a dark sense of humor to go through cancer treatment. If you can manage that, at least you stand a chance of surviving. I discovered I was entitled to disability benefit because I had cancer—everybody who has cancer is technically disabled—and so the first thing I thought was, hey, I could get one of those blue badges, brilliant! So, I applied, and by the time the form arrived, I was feeling better. I had to fill out the form and had to answer, unfortunately, truthfully. They asked, “Do you have any difficulty walking up stairs?” And I went, “Ahhh, three weeks ago I could have answered yes, I’m exhausted all the time but now unfortunately I don’t have a problem with it. Damn.” So, that was that! I did think—do you watch Dr. Who?
I have a passing familiarity.
Do you know what a dalek is?
Daleks were like masters of the universe, but according to this questionnaire, I worked out that a Dalek should be entitled to a blue disability badge. Because they can’t walk.
It’s even more ironic that to beat this thing you had to take all these drugs and put all these chemicals in your body, when even way back when you were a wild and crazy twentysomething, you weren’t really into drugs.
I was hoping for great things from morphine and it was so disappointing. I was just a little bit woozy and your backside sort of seals up and nothing happens for several weeks. You know, it’s just like, this is grim, who thought this one up? I don’t get to cut my ear off. I don’t get to paint daffodils in scary colors. What is going on?
And speaking of the old days, there are a lot of great photos in the book of your early days, and in half of them you have your shirt off and have your spandex on. That was during the time where you and your bandmates were basically drinking gasoline cans full of beer all the time. How were you guys fitting into that spandex?
Because we were 23. It’s as simple as that. When you’re 23, you can drink gasoline cans full of beer as much as you like and you still look healthily anorexic. Later on, that changes. You do a bit more jumping or alternatively you just go get throat cancer and that works well as a weight reduction. I don’t recommend it.
Another little tidbit from back then that really tickled me was how irritated you were by the “NWOBHM” tag.
It’s such a silly title! It was made up by a bunch of drunken journalist in a pub—“We’ll call it the new wave of British heavy metal.” What? What is that? Maiden had been around since 75. The whole movement as it were was invented by journalists who were trying to steal a commercial advantage over their rival paper, The New Musical Express, which had basically adopted punk. Sounds decided to go invent the new wave of British heavy metal as an antidote, to differentiate the papers. There was another paper called the Melody Maker which was pretty staid and had all the classified adverts in the back. Every musician in the UK bought the Melody Maker before the days of the internet because there was endless ads for ads requiring singers, guitarists, drummers. Everything that would now be done on the internet or social media.
That’s so interesting, especially when we consider that, in a way, punk was a marketing scam.
I mean, [Sex Pistols manager] Malcolm McLaren was a clever, intuitive chancer, basically, who used his knowledge of art and fashion to re-purpose what effectively were just a bunch of fairly average heavy metal riffs but present it in a totally different way. The Sex Pistols were a thoroughly standard rock band. Glen Matlock was the only talent musically in there, and he wrote all the songs. The rest of it was heavy metal guitar riffs with Glen Matlock, who’s a big Beatles fan, and John Lydon, who was a smart cookie with his sneer and persona and some quite acid lyrics. You put it all together, go on the BBC or wherever, and bang—they were darlings of the media.
In the book, you describe the moment when you saw Iron Maiden for the first time, watching from the wings, and just knew that you were going to sing for that band. How did you know, besides just having faith in yourself?
No, that’s it. That’s it. There’s no logic or certain to it. It’s just an emotional reaction. The feeling I got from them is so strong, I thought, “Wow, oh my god.” Don’t forget, [at that point, Dickinson’s former band Samson] were their contemporaries. We were all on the same bill together. I thought, “This is exactly where my voice should be going.” I could just hear it—I could really take my voice somewhere with them, and I think vice versa.. They were fantastic.
It almost sounds like you willed it into existence.
I think a lot of people will things into existence. The first thing you have to do in terms of anything when you want something to happen is you need to dream it, envision it. You need to have it tangible ,even though it’s intangible. And then you see what happens next. If you really believe something will happen, you start taking tiny steps toward it subconsciously. You have to dream it.
You’re such a confident, accomplished person. Can you think of a time where you had doubt in your ability to do something?
Oh god, yeah.
Really? It doesn't come across at all in the book.
After the end of [90s era band project] Skunkworks, I was seriously looking in the paper, looking at jobs. I was wondering whether or not the whole thing was worth it—all this grief. It didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I’d given it all my best shot. What else was there left to do? Maybe just step out of the arena. When you get tired of being a lion tamer, that’s the time to stop.
It was a pretty harrowing read at points. I mean, you guys sneak through a mountain pass into occupied Bosnia during the war to play a gig.
There’s a documentary about what we did called Scream for Me Sarajevo, [that] was made by a local filmmaker, completely unknown to me. About four years ago, this guy started collating interviews with all the people who were at the show, and the interviews, for me, are the most compelling bit of the film. They are just straightforward, a lot of them black and white, people telling their stories about how this gig changed their lives. They’re just heartbreaking. He found the truck we drove in on. It still exists. They managed to get it started. They found the guy that drove us on in there. They found footage of the show. All the characters in the chapter, they found them and put them in there. On the 20th anniversary of it, the band all went back to Sarajevo and did interviews; I didn’t because I was under treatment for throat cancer, and I couldn’t tell anybody. I had to turn it down, [but] I went back the following year and did some bits of interviews for the documentary. It’s going to be released in February.
Iron Maiden has a lot of rousing, glorious songs about war, and battle, and victory. How did walking through the middle of a warzone impact the way you see these stories?
You have to draw a line between what you might call “glorious fiction” and gritty reality. We have quite a few bits of gritty reality bits in and amongst our glorious fiction—Trooper is one of those, it’s not a happy ending. The guy dies at the end. His last breath comes at the end of that song. “Afraid to Shoot Strangers” is pretty ambivalent about things, but “Aces High,” that's straight guns forward, blazing. We run the gamut between the two things.
Did that experience affect the way you approach that kind of storytelling?
Yeah, I wrote a song about it, on the Skunkworks album which was the next album we did after the Sarajevo album. The song “Inertia” is completely about Sarajevo. The opening words—”these are the pictures, these are the words from the frontlines”—that’s it. The whole feeling of inertia, resistance to movement. The chorus, [sings]” Inertia. No wish to move at all. Everything is a stone wall. Inertia. History lets you die.” You know? [sings] “Ragged pile of silent accusers. Smell the blood of strangers here. No eyes. No ears. No smell. No taste. The mouth of the maggot if full of this place. Murdered conscience. The pressure is crushing heads like paper lanterns now. Unbreakable grip. A dead hand driving us forward to the end.” That’s war.
That’s another thing that struck me about the book. In it, you describe visiting concentration camps, you visited Sarajevo. You were in a rock ‘n’ roll band during the Thatcher years. And yet, there are very few mentions of politics to be found.
There’s not really anything to say about politics during the period that hasn’t already been said by much more learned commentators than me. I’m a musician. Do I have political views? Yes. Is an autobiography a place to put them? No. What that does is that it attaches an inordinate amount of weight and self-importance to your own political viewpoint, which, if people want to hear your political viewpoint, then be a politician! Join a political party or do whatever. Stand up and say, “I think you need to hear my political views because I’m especially qualified to tell you why you should do what I think.” I don't have any of that special sauce. I’ve got no crystal ball. I’m no expert witness on stuff. If you want to hear about what I think about politics, I’ll tell you, but why does it matter? I’m just one citizen out of millions and I have one vote and so does everyone else. The fact that I’m famous for being a musician or doing whatever, sorry, it’s not enough reason other than salacious curiosity or an attempt to dig up a story which they can then immediately slap down.
But I would fit somewhere. I’m right of center, but not very far. Put it this way. I’m not a socialist at all but I do believe in a nice humanistic approach to the way society should be run. I think there’s a difference between profit and greed. I think profit is a way of measuring how efficiently a business or a society is being run. Greed is just evidence of its corruption and fecundity. I’m not a fan of greed. For those reasons, some of the Thatcher years were appalling, but at the same time, what happened to the UK during those years was transformative. Because at the end of the 70s, we were toast. The country was washed up. At the end of the 80s, it was not. In between was a whole other thing, some of which I didn’t agree with, but every politician makes mistakes.
I guess to hear about your politics on a more personal level, you can just go to an Iron Maiden show. The last couple times I’ve seen you, you make a point of saying, “This is for everyone. Everyone is welcome, no matter what.”
Absolutely, but to me that’s independent from whatever political affiliation you have, left or right. When you get to the extremes, people exclude people. When you’re somewhere in the middle, people include people. I would agree with some statements. In America, I would be hopeless. I would have one foot in the Democratic camp and one foot in the Republican camp. Because I agree with some Republicans. I agree with some Democrats. Where do I fit? I’m a contrarian. I make up my mind on each individual issue what I think. That’s not necessarily in line with a political party, you know?
It seems a lot more difficult to hang out in the middle these days.
It’s a lot harder, but in the middle is where healthy societies belong. Occasionally when things fail, they need a bit of a shock. Hopefully, they will bring things back to the middle. What worries me as a guy who did history at college is looking at history and seeing how, when the middle disintegrates in different societies, how it has always led toward a polarization, which has in turn led to some unpleasant effects. It has happened in Europe on a regular basis. The one place it hasn’t happened, as a matter of fact, is the UK. We’ve had one dictator, Oliver Cromwell. He lasted longer than he should have done and we got rid of him, and we asked for the king to come back, which may sound strange. But when we brought the king back, we said, “You can be the king because we like you, but if we don’t like you, you can’t be the king anymore.”
We’ve had this weird checks and balances things for hundreds of years. The other thing we’ve never had is a written Constitution. As in written, set in stone. I get the impression that written Constitutions always end in tears because they have no possibility to change.It’s all written down and the way you change the Constitutions is so prescriptive and so prohibitive that it never changes.
It’s not a living document.
It’s not a living document at all. Its interpretive to an extent but nevertheless it’s still so prescriptive. To me, it feels like a burden.
You see how well we’re doing with it.
It becomes divisive because people become polarized. The NRA and all that stuff—it’s divisive. Some things belong in the middle.
How do you think we get there?
I don’t know. I’m not American. Not my circus. Not my monkeys [laughs].
You’re always painted as this Renaissance man; you have all these interests, talents, skills. If you were to introduce yourself to someone you’ve never met, who knew nothing about any of your bands, how would you describe yourself? Who are you?
Do you want the flippant response? I’m a quantum mechanic, because I can be in two places at the same time. I avoid saying I’m in Iron Maiden if I can, because it just provokes an enormous [reaction]—you won’t get any sense out of the person. They stop asking sensible questions. They just want to know about you, and they won’t tell anything about them, and that’s not a real conversation. So, I usually think of what I’ve done that day that might be kind of mundane and I sort of go, “Well, today, I had to go visit a couple places up North on the train and came back. Doing some stuff with some bookshops, and how was your day?” And then later on when you’ve got a relationship going, and you’ve had a couple of beers, they may kind of whittle it out of what other things you might have done. But you’ve got yourself established as a human being as opposed to an inflatable rock star.
That’s a really good way to avoid being seen as as caricature.
You can’t help it if someone comes up and says, “That’s him!” You’re kind of screwed at that point. I try to be as invisible as I can. Not when I’m during interviews [he plucks at his jacket, which is indeed quite colorful] this jacket is hardly invisible, isn’t it?
As invisible as you can… while fronting Iron Maiden.
That’s the whole point, when you’re fronting Iron Maiden, that's what you do. I was doing a theater event for the book, and someone asked, “What superpower would you most like to have?” My instinct immediately was to say invisibility so I could run on stage, say “Whoaaaaa!” and run offstage and be invisible. And I would be happy being invisible until the moment I go on stage. I would be quite happy being invisible. The other one I said was teleportation, so I would come off a show and be back at my pub in West London having a beer, and someone would go, “You’re sweating a bit, have you been down at the gym?” “Yeah, a bit of a busy evening.”
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.