Bruce Dickinson – What Does This Button Do?

An Autobiography

As I began to read ‘What Does This Button Do?’ in order to review it, I noted that it was firmly embedded in the UK Top 10 Books… This is as it should be, as it is a most splendid read indeed! This book will obviously appeal to fans of Bruce Dickinson and Iron Maiden; but the casual reader will find much to enjoy here, as will aviation fans.

Dickinson writes very well, indeed, which is a joy in this era of text messages and generally bad communication. Communication is the key. Dickinson tells his tales well (Maiden are there too, but this is not their story), with humour and honesty. His description of his throat cancer treatment is unflinching.

Bruce Dickinson: Iron Maiden frontman

When Dickinson joined Maiden, their next album was The Number of the Beast, produced by Martin Birch, one of the all-time great producers, with a CV that includes Argus, Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath and, of course Maiden. Bruce writes of recording the album: “Outside, the winter weather was slush, cold and foul. Someone was murdered at the bus stop and the chalk outline remained for several days. Martin’s Range Rover was hit by a minibus full of nuns, and the repair bill was £666.66. We laughed, but Mr. Smallwood seized the day, and all manner of stories about curses, hauntings and evil spirits were dreamed up.”

His description of the effect of Iron Maiden’s tour for The Number of the Beast on his sanity is among my personal highlights from the memoir: “There is a William Blake painting Nebuchadnezzar, which is the cover of Atomic Rooster’s album ‘Death Walks Behind You’. The king’s face looks out in horror as he realises what he is becoming: he is transforming slowly into a beast. That painting was my reflection.”

He also philosophises on Iron Maiden’s longevity. “The interpersonal chemistry required to sustain a global rock group over many decades is nothing short of a miracle. Too many chiefs and not enough Indians; all Indians and no chief; one chief and rebellious Indians; stupid chief and clever Indians: all are doomed to fail. The temperature of the porridge has got to be just right.”

Another good philosophy of Bruce’s is “be afraid and be scared but panic will kill you, not fear.”

Young Bruce

Bruce developed his ‘theatre of the mind’ during his schooldays. “The roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd were taking their toll on my subconscious. The germ of a philosophy started to take root. The idea that it didn’t matter what you engaged in, as long as you respected its nature and attempted, some measure of harmony with the universe.” Which is a pretty decent philosophy, as it goes.

Bruce’s tales of being bullied at school are particularly harrowing. All institutions and organisations, whether schools, factories, offices, etc., are all capable of being places where great injustice is tolerated. We should all work to stamp out bullying; bullies are cowards, scum that get through their lives at the expense of others. What they do to their victims is appalling and stays with them for life. If we allow these scum to behave as they wish, we are no better than them. Read Bruce’s experiences and see if you feel such treatment should be tolerated. It’s also obvious that Bruce’s grandfather and godfather were his father figures, not his biological father, as is so often the case; this probably helped make him the man he is.

Creative inspiration

Bruce has taken a lot of creative inspiration from the visionary William Blake, as he explains. Reading Peter Ackroyd’s “excellent biography” had a powerful effect on Dickinson, which carried over into the making of The Chemical Wedding: “Most of the album was heavily influenced by Blake – not just in a literal sense, but in a spiritual one. Blake was almost certainly an alchemist or a member of group relating to the occult or magical philosophy.”

Another visionary that fascinates Dickinson is Aleister Crowley. Bruce had formed a friendship with Julian Doyle, the director and editor of Iron Maiden’s excellent Can I Play With Madness video (which was the final appearance of the late great Graham Chapman of Monty Python). Bruce and Julian wanted to work together again, firstly on an Eddie the Head movie, but this didn’t happen, so they decided to do a film about Crowley together: “The catalyst was a song I had written called ‘Man of Sorrows’. The beastly script that eventually became Chemical Wedding was based on a reworking of Somerset Maugham’s novel The Magician. Maugham had met Crowley, loathed him on sight and created the character of Oliver Haddo, the evil sorcerer trying to create a homunculus or moonchild in his lair in Scotland…”

I’d love to see Bruce do a book on William Blake or Aleister Crowley and such visionaries. He really has such an incredible feel for whatever sparks his interest and he possesses the rare quality of being able to convey this to his readers. I could also see him doing graphic novels, on Eddie for example, or the story of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.

Ronnie James Dio

Bruce was a big fan of Ronnie James Dio-era Rainbow, as am I, but by the time Maiden got to tour with Rainbow, things had changed in Ritchie Blackmoor’s band. “The singer was now Joe Lynn Turner, an American with what Ritchie hoped would be a radio-star voice to give Rainbow the leg up they required in the USA. It’s ironic that had Rainbow stayed with Ronnie Dio, the world might just have turned in their direction after all…”

On the subject of Dio, Bruce tried his best to involve Ronnie in a very worthy project, which sadly didn’t come to pass; maybe it will be revived in the future with a different vocalist joining Bruce and Rob Halford. “Back in the mists of time, I have no clear recollection of who suggested a metal version of The Three Tenors. The idea was interesting. Managers and in particular, agents were salivating at the prospect of selling out venues with me plus two other alleged legends warbling away. Nice idea, but the devil, as always, was in the detail…I wanted Ronnie Dio from Black Sabbath and Rainbow and Rob Halford from Judas Priest alongside me, and I think probably everyone else on the planet would have done, too. …”

What a tragedy this never happened. Perhaps the idea might be revived in the future; there is, as Bruce rightly says, a huge potential audience out there for it.

Auschwitz and Sarajevo

Dickinson writes with great sensitivity about Auschwitz. “No birds fly over Auschwitz. It is as if the very soil contaminates the air with the stench of death and the evil of those who walked upon and planned the horror. It is the banality of industrial execution planning contrasted with the screams of the gas chambers that is the true measure of the terror. That terror, I believe, is the secret fear that we may all be such monsters deep down. It makes me shudder even to think it… I cried a lot after the visit. I was angry and silent. Not until I drove into Sarajevo ten years later, during the siege, would I feel the same intensity.”

Canada

Bruce Dickinson has a special affinity with Canada, as he writes. “We were due to fly to Canada for a short headline tour before returning to America to start a special guest slot with Scorpions. I have always loved Canada, and Canada returned the favour by faithfully following Maiden for years. Canada espoused the band well before the USA and eschewed the vagaries of fashion and radio popularity to support us, which it continues to do undimmed to this very day… Canadians share a similar sense of humour and a refreshing lack of hysteria. Perhaps because of their closer Commonwealth ties and French culture, their sense of history is embedded, giving places like Toronto a comforting sense of permanence.”

More books please, Bruce!

Published by Harper Collins.

www.harpercollins.com/9780062468130/what-does-this-button-do

ironmaiden.com/whatdoesthisbuttondo

Steve Earles

Steve Earles is author and co-author of numerous projects, including To End All Wars: The WWI Graphic Anthology, available summer 2014 (http://toendallwarscomic.wordpress.com/writers/).