Bruce Dick­in­son

Pro pi­lot, fencer, can­cer sur­vivor, au­thor… As you’ll find out from his new au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, there’s much more to Bruce Dick­in­son than just fronting one of the big­gest heavy metal bands on the planet.

Classic Rock - - Contents -

Fencer, au­thor, pro pi­lot, can­cer sur­vivor… He’s not just the fron­man with one of the world’s big­gest bands, you know.

Bruce Dick­in­son would like you to know that when it came to writ­ing his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, What Does This But­ton Do?, he didn’t need any out­side help. “Peo­ple ask: ‘So who was your ghost writer?’ and I go: “Ac­tu­ally, I did it my­self,’” he says proudly. “I phys­i­cally wrote 180,000 words, and all of it was on WH Smith pads in ac­tual hand­writ­ing, proper old-school.”

Writ­ing an en­tire book by hand is a very Bruce Dick­in­son thing to do. The Iron Maiden singer is seem­ingly a man who can turn his hand to pretty much any­thing: fly­ing air­craft, fenc­ing, fronting one of the most suc­cess­ful bands of the past 40 years. The ex­cep­tion is swim­ming: “I am one of na­ture’s sinkers,” he says.

What Does This But­ton Do? is a gen­uinely fas­ci­nat­ing and funny look back at Dick­in­son’s life. From his early days grow­ing up in the Not­ting­hamshire min­ing town of Work­sop (where he was raised by his grand­par­ents un­til the age of six) to his roller-coaster 40-year mu­sic ca­reer, it paints a can­did pic­ture of a life well lived.

To­day Dick­in­son is in char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally vol­u­ble mood, ex­pound­ing on ev­ery­thing from the tor­rid time he had in the Bri­tish ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem to his suc­cess­ful bat­tle with can­cer.

“Writ­ing a book forces you to look at your­self and what you’ve done,” he says. “It’s an ed­u­ca­tion.”

Your par­ents were of­ten ab­sent dur­ing your early years – they were on the road with a per­form­ing dog act. Were you al­ways des­tined to fol­low them into show busi­ness? Even be­fore I knew prop­erly who my par­ents were, I was af­ter a pair of an­gel wings in the school na­tiv­ity play. I wanted to be the per­son wear­ing them. My school re­ports were al­ways de­press­ingly sim­i­lar: “Has not ful­filled his good po­ten­tial, would do bet­ter if he didn’t play the class clown 24 hours a day.”

You paint a vivid pic­ture of your school days: bul­ly­ing, reg­u­lar beat­ings from the teach­ers. It sounds pretty hor­rific, but did it also make you the man you are? It’s like the open­ing of the book says: ev­ery­thing moves in mys­te­ri­ous ways. You’ve got no idea where you’re go­ing to end up. You have to take things as they come. The one thing I am, I sup­pose, is stub­born. I don’t fall over. Or if I do, I get back up.

Some of the teach­ers you men­tion were fairly de­spi­ca­ble. You write about some of the can­ings they dished out as if there was a sex­ual, S&M-like el­e­ment to them.

The whole era was very strange. These were creepy, dirty old men, and it was thought to be nor­mal and ac­cept­able. The whole Jimmy Sav­ile thing and the rest of it opened up a mas­sive can of worms, be­cause that stuff was so­cially ac­cept­able. The sort of stuff you’d be banged up for now, and quite rightly. You have to pinch your­self and go: “I’m re­ally not liv­ing in the seven­ties any more.”

Was there any­thing good about that time?

There were a lot of bril­liant things about the seven­ties, cos it was pretty dis­or­gan­ised and an­ar­chic. But the flip side to that was that a lot of peo­ple got away with do­ing things that re­ally weren’t so pleas­ant.

There’s one teacher, John Wors­ley, that you speak highly of. He in­tro­duced you to fenc­ing. Did you stay in con­tact with him?

I didn’t, but fun­nily enough I met his brother years later. Maiden were do­ing some­thing in Florida in the mid­dle of the eight­ies. There was this fenc­ing com­pe­ti­tion in Fort Myers, and I ended up driv­ing out there. I met this bloke called Wors­ley. I went: “Wors­ley? John Wors­ley?” And he went: “Yeah, that’s my brother.” Fenc­ing is a very, very small world.

Do you still fence?

Yes, but I hardly have any time to go near it. I keep wan­der­ing around and look­ing at all my kit, go­ing: “It’s get­ting a bit rusty now.” [Laughs] Like me.

Have you still got it in you, though?

Ab­so­lutely. If I had a good run up, where I didn’t have other stuff go­ing on, I’d be good. I love it. It’s re­ally good fun. It’s cathar­tic and you get out there and have a yell and a scream but no­body dies.

In his late teens, Dick­in­son moved to Lon­don, os­ten­si­bly to study his­tory at univer­sity but in re­al­ity to pur­sue a ca­reer in mu­sic. Af­ter a few false starts, most notably in pub-rock­ers Speed, later called Shots (the high­light of their ca­reer was Drac­ula, a homage to the lit­er­ary vam­pire that was more Carry On Scream­ing than it was Bram Stoker), Dick­in­son ended up as front­man with the NWOBHM band Samson, where he traded un­der the name Bruce Bruce and sported an im­pres­sive mous­tache.

If you met the twenty-year-old Bruce Dick­in­son in the pub, what would you think? Gosh. Light the blue touch-pa­per! I don’t know what’s go­ing on with that kid, but some­thing is go­ing to hap­pen. He’s ei­ther go­ing to end up do­ing what he says he’s go­ing to do or he’s go­ing to end up in jail. Or at the bot­tom of the river.

You make no se­cret of your spliff-smok­ing days in Samson, but then you stopped.

Had Samson not been such a bunch of pot­heads, I wouldn’t have both­ered at all. I was like: “I’ve done the cannabis now, I don’t see any point in tak­ing it fur­ther.” Noth­ing else hap­pens. All that does hap­pen is that peo­ple seem to slow down and eat a lot.

Did drugs get in the way of your am­bi­tion?

No, not re­ally. They just didn’t do any­thing for me cre­atively. The first time, you’re like: “Whoa, what’s all this about?!” But I soon re­alised I could get the same ef­fect just by wan­der­ing around and us­ing my imag­i­na­tion. I thought: “I don’t need to smoke some­thing to go and imag­ine that.” It was a nice awak­en­ing, but once your con­scious­ness is awake, you go: “I don’t need that any more.” It’s like writ­ing re­ally trippy lyrics – I’ve never taken an acid trip in my life. I’ve never eaten a mush­room or had any­thing re­motely hal­lu­cino­genic. Ev­ery­thing comes out of my imag­i­na­tion.

You al­ways avoided co­caine. Why? It must have been freely avail­able.

I never got co­caine. I got speed, be­cause it made you run around re­ally fast. But then it also made you feel ab­so­lutely shit. As far as co­caine is con­cerned, peo­ple get mashed and then sit there with the most stupid gib­ber­ish com­ing out of their gobs for hours and hours on end. It’s just te­dious at best, and at worst it turns peo­ple into para­noid nut­cases. So I’ve got no time for


co­caine what­so­ever. And ob­vi­ously any­thing re­sem­bling de­pres­sives, I just don’t get. I don’t get why some­one would want to shut re­al­ity off. Cos re­al­ity is bril­liant.

You write about Iron Maiden’s suc­cess in the eight­ies in the book, but also about the hard work in­volved. What does the pie chart of ‘Fun’ ver­sus ‘Not Fun’ in that pe­riod look like? By and large we were work­ing so hard, it was Ground­hog Day: the venues get big­ger, the venues get big­ger, the venues get big­ger. The roller coaster never stopped go­ing down. At one point, Rod [Small­wood, man­ager] had us do­ing nine shows, one day off, eight shows, one day off. I said: “You can’t run hu­man be­ings like that, they’ll fall over.”

We were al­ways ar­gu­ing with Rod about mak­ing life more com­fort­able for our­selves. At one point, half­way through a tour, the stage man­ager lit­er­ally sleep­walked off the stage. We said: “Don’t you think it’s about time we got a tour bus?” And he went [grudg­ingly]: “Yeah, al­right then.”

But was the whole thing ac­tu­ally en­joy­able? Of course it was en­joy­able. The only thing you miss is any sem­blance of life out­side it. That’s where it started to feel op­pres­sive, es­pe­cially to­wards the end of the Pow­er­slave tour. You think: “What’s the point of all this?” And it turns into the world’s big­gest cir­cu­lar ar­gu­ment. “What’s the point?” “The point of it all is just to do it.” “Well, there’s other things I want to do…”

For Dick­in­son, there cer­tainly were other things to do. In the book, he doesn’t hold back when talk­ing about his grow­ing dis­il­lu­sion with Maiden dur­ing the early 90s, and his sub­se­quent solo ca­reer. The im­pres­sion of that pe­riod, at least ini­tially, is of a man who stepped out of a gilded cage, only to spend the next few years try­ing to es­cape his own shadow.

What was it like to leave Iron Maiden?

It was like be­ing a wild an­i­mal in a cage. They sud­denly let you out and say: “There you go, off you go into the jun­gle, feed your­self.” And you go: “I’ve for­got­ten how to do that.” When I quit, ev­ery­body as­sumed I knew what to do, but I didn’t.

It was a ques­tion of build­ing it all up again.

Most bands have the lux­ury of do­ing that when no­body’s both­ered about them, so they make all these re­ally goofy mis­takes. I just hap­pened to go and do the whole thing in pub­lic. In ret­ro­spect, I didn’t do a bad job of it once I’d got things in fo­cus.

What do you mean?

There were some great songs on [Dick­in­son’s first post-Maiden solo al­bum] Balls To Pi­casso. The big Achilles heel was that there was no clear di­rec­tion – that’s what the lis­ten­ing au­di­ence want. But even if I had come out with a clear di­rec­tion I don’t think peo­ple were ready to lis­ten any­way, be­cause they were so shell-shocked at me leav­ing.

What did you learn about your­self dur­ing the years away from Maiden?

I ac­tu­ally learnt a lot more about other peo­ple.

The one thing that hap­pens when you’re in a big, pow­er­ful rock band – as in, pow­er­ful in the me­dia – is that you have all kinds of peo­ple who will pro­tect you; all kinds of peo­ple who will hide bad re­views from you or make sure you don’t see that pa­per be­cause it didn’t say nice things about you. I don’t think that’s very help­ful. But when you leave the fold and you’re sud­denly on your own, out­side the pro­tec­tive pen­ta­gram, you see all these peo­ple queu­ing up to give you a good kick­ing, be­cause they couldn’t when you were in Maiden. And you think: “Re­ally? Wow.”

Did the neg­a­tive re­views bother you?

I was quite sen­si­tive to re­views, es­pe­cially if I thought they weren’t be­ing fair. At the same time, I was never afraid of a crit­i­cal re­view if it was hon­est and laid out rea­sons why.

When Blaze Bay­ley re­placed you in Maiden, you sent him two bricks painted yel­low.

I saw an in­ter­view with him, and there was a line at the end where he said: “I feel like Dorothy in


The Wizard Of Oz.” I thought: “That’s re­ally sweet. I know ex­actly how you feel.” So I painted two bricks and sent them to him.

Did you ever see Maiden with Blaze singing? No. It was all a lit­tle bit fraught. The only time I’ve ac­tu­ally lis­tened to the al­bums was when Steve [Har­ris] said: “We need to go and record one of these songs.” I thought: “Oh, how does it go, then? I’d bet­ter go and have a lis­ten to it.”

Blaze gave it his best shot.

He did. Ab­so­lutely. Hats off. Full-on re­spect to him for that. His voice is very dif­fer­ent to mine, and there was a point when he got the job where I thought: “How the hell is he go­ing to man­age to do those songs? Maybe they just won’t do them.”

I said to some­one at the time: “Why don’t they re­ally do some­thing off the wall and re­ally out­ra­geous? Get a woman! There’s some of these fe­male Fin­nish vo­cal­ists kick­ing around, and they’ve got the most out­ra­geous voices! Do some­thing to re­ally, re­ally knock peo­ple’s socks off.” But I’d have been fucked then. I’d never have come back.

Dick­in­son did re­turn to Maiden, of course, in 1999, help­ing to usher in a pe­riod of suc­cess that out­stripped even that of the band’s 80s hey­day. Since then he has di­verted his en­er­gies into other ar­eas, in­clud­ing fly­ing

(he’s a qual­i­fied com­mer­cial air­line pi­lot, and fa­mously pi­loted Maiden’s Ed Force One plane on sev­eral tours) and beer-mak­ing (he had hand­son in­volve­ment in launch­ing Maiden’s sig­na­ture Trooper beer). Even a po­ten­tially life-threat­en­ing di­ag­no­sis with head and neck can­cer in 2014 was seen off with a char­ac­ter­is­tic com­bat­ive­ness.

You steer clear of pol­i­tics in the book. You’ve tried a lot of other things, but have you ever thought of run­ning for of­fice?

[Em­phat­i­cally] No, no, no, no, no, It’s mad­ness. No. I’ve got quite a few friends who are ac­tu­ally MPs of all shapes and sizes. And I’ve had my fair share of deal­ings with gov­ern­ment agen­cies from the avi­a­tion side of things. And the one thing

I’ve re­alised is that if you want to get any­thing done, don’t be a politi­cian. It’s the civil ser­vants who run the politi­cians, as they quickly re­alise when they get into of­fice.

We stand more chance of help­ing peo­ple out in Maiden by brew­ing beer and cre­at­ing jobs, or tak­ing a hun­dred and fifty peo­ple out on the road with us and giv­ing them all jobs. We do a huge amount with Maiden.

How did your can­cer di­ag­no­sis change your view of death?

I’m a bit more philo­soph­i­cal about it now. Although I wasn’t at any stage… how can I put it… near death, I could cer­tainly see it in the rear-view mir­ror. Death doesn’t re­ally cross your mind much, un­less some­one has an ac­ci­dent or falls un­der a bus. As hu­man be­ings we brush it off, es­pe­cially if you’re at a rel­a­tively young age, full of piss and vine­gar, run­ning around like a lu­natic. And then all of a sud­den in comes Mr Death with his scythe, point­ing and say­ing: “I have come for you.” And you go: “Oh fuck. Re­ally? I’ve got things to do.” So sud­denly you find your­self re­ally get­ting on with that, liv­ing your life that bit more, do­ing the things you’ve got to do. I find I have less time for peo­ple who want to waste my time.

So what does the fu­ture hold? Maiden are hav­ing a bit of a rest. We’ve a lot of things go­ing on at the mo­ment, but noth­ing I can dis­cuss in de­tail right now. There’s half a solo al­bum sit­ting in LA too. I’d love to go and fin­ish it.

The other thing is, let’s see how the book goes, be­cause I re­ally en­joyed writ­ing it. I wrote 180,000 words and ob­vi­ously there was a bit of tweak­ing, and we had to take out big chunks for space. There’s about two-thirds of a book on the cut­ting-room floor. I couldn’t do another au­to­bi­og­ra­phy be­cause I’ve al­ready done one of those. But who knows, it could pos­si­bly turn into some­thing else.


Words: Dave Ever­ley

On stage dur­ing yet another of Maiden’s gru­elling tours.

Samson, with the mous­ta­chioed Bruce Bruce (sec­ond left).

Aces high: Dick­in­son pi­lot­ing Maiden’s pri­vate plane on tour.

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