Iron Maiden Frontman Bruce Dickinson Talks Beating Cancer and Having the Time of His Life

John McMurtrie
Bruce Dickinson

Beating cancer inspired the frontman to write his new memoir, 'What Does This Button Do?'

"You try to do a gag and it goes horribly fucking wrong!" Bruce Dickinson yells from the stage of New York's Gramercy Theatre on Friday (Nov. 3), the penultimate stop on a week-long speaking tour in support of his new memoir, What Does This Button Do?

The hyperkinetic Iron Maiden frontman just tossed half-a-dozen tennis balls into the audience, each ball engraved with a corresponding book chapter for him to read aloud. One recipient shouts, "One!" and tosses the ball back to Dickinson, to which the singer exasperatedly responds, "That's the name of the fucking tennis ball!"

Numerical confusion settled, Dickinson shares an excerpt about giving dungeon-decorating tips to an aspiring dominatrix in Halifax, Canada. The reading follows a candid, wickedly funny hour-long chat during which the 59-year-old singer touches on his upbringing in Sheffield, England, his tenures with U.K. hard rockers Samson and Maiden, his foray into the world of commercial aviation, and his 2015 battle with cancer.

"You've got to have a bit of a dark sense of humor to get through something like that," says the 5-foot-6 frontman, exuding the same charisma that turned him into a bona fide heavy metal star nearly 40 years ago.

Over his decades-long career, Dickinson has largely conquered the music industry: Iron Maiden continue to pack arenas around the world, and their latest album, 2015's Book of Souls, debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. But it was his triumph over cancer that inspired the singer to finally commit his story to paper.

“The book is not the end of something… The end of the book is actually the beginning of the rest of my life,” Dickinson says over the phone on Thursday (Nov. 2), before catching a flight from California back to New York. (Though the metal legend is a licensed pilot, it seems he's not flying this one himself.)

Notably calmer than onstage but no less cordial, the heavy metal legend talks about the process of writing a book completely by hand, occupying his time offstage and, after 35 years in Iron Maiden, having the best time of his life.

I’m embarrassed to admit that when I first saw the headline, I thought you were going on a solo musical tour. I was excited to finally hear some Tattooed Millionaire songs!

Well, never say never. I do a Q&A at these events, and I’d say that probably at least 30 percent of the question cards come up with, “When are you gonna go and do another solo album?” Or, “When are you gonna come out and do a solo tour again?” So it’s quite gratifying that people are that concerned about it, and it’s fantastic. I’m not sure at the moment when I’m gonna have a spare few days, weeks, months to do that, because the book is exploding, the live album’s coming out, and there’s a whole load of really exciting stuff that’s gonna be happening with Maiden as well -- which I can’t actually talk about.

The first thing I noticed about your book is there’s no co-writer.

That’s absolutely correct. I did the whole thing myself, and I also wrote it, quite bizarrely, longhand. So I did 160,000 words of writing, as opposed to typing.

That sounds like a daunting task.

It does, but actually, I’m a terrible typist. I just use two fingers, and I’m not very fond of spelling mistakes. My typing would be littered with spelling mistakes, and I’d have to stop every five seconds to correct my awful typing, and that would really interrupt the flow of just putting the words on the page.

You’re still playing some of the best shows of your career with Iron Maiden. What made you think, “Now is the time to write a book”?

The endpoint of the book -- in fact, the motivation for actually doing it, which is the question you asked -- the motivation for doing it now came largely because I had this diagnosis of throat cancer two-and-a-half years ago. I got clear of that, and that obviously makes you reevaluate quite a few things. People have been asking me to do a biography for the last 10 years, and I’d always go on, “Maybe, but not yet. It’s a little bit too soon. I’m too busy.” I knew how much effort it involved, because I’d done some writing before.

And suddenly, I got this diagnosis with throat cancer, and I got over it, and I thought, “You know what, that’s a great endpoint for a book. Maybe I should do it now.” And really, it’s as simple as that.

It’s great to see you beat cancer and have a new lease on life. That must make the book so much more meaningful for both you and the readers.

Again, it’s a great getting-off point. There’s another 40,000 words that didn’t make the book that I wrote, that we edited out -- not because they weren’t good stories, but because the narrative of the book really kind of races along. It’s a real page-turner, and my editor at HarperCollins wanted to edit the book like it was a novel. So we spent three days editing. It wasn’t a very long edit, but we spent three days locked away with 600 pages, and we tried to get it down to 400 pages. So we were taking out great chunks of stories and anecdotes in their entirety. So we’ve got some great stories and anecdotes for something else later. But it doesn’t detract from the book as is.

From the beginning of your career, you’ve always been something of a self-made rockstar, judging by the book.

I think you had to be. My dad was a self-made guy, worked really hard at multiple businesses, and I thought, nobody’s gonna do this for you. You’ve got to be pretty self-reliant if you’re gonna go into this world. People will only help you out of, frankly, economic motivation. They’re gonna make money out of you. And then, when there are people making money out of you, suddenly everybody gets very helpful. Until then, nobody cares. And that’s harsh, but true.

You seemed to recognize that early on, from when Iron Maiden’s manager Rod Smallwood invited you to audition for the band and you told him they were going to do things more democratically if you got the gig. 

The thing is, despite the fact that I did actually leave the team and do the solo career -- even as a solo artist, it’s always been about building a band. At a relatively early age, when I was in Samson, A&M Records wanted to sign me as a solo artist. And I was like, “I’m 20 years old, I don’t want to be a solo artist! Are you kidding me? I want to be a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band!” And I’ve always pretty much been that way. I love working with bands, and I love the interaction and the banter and everything. It’s great.

You joined Maiden during the making of The Number of the Beast, which turned you into one of the biggest bands in the U.K. How were you able to process that incredible career leap in such a short amount of time?

Every band I’ve ever joined was always a huge learning curve for me. Stepping up from college bands to Samson was one thing. Stepping up from Samson to Maiden was another thing. I likened it to being in a little league team, and then suddenly ending up pitching for the Mets, almost overnight.

But I think that because we spent a lot of time rehearsing together, we also had this confidence that had grown even in just the rehearsal room. At the same time, I was aware that at the very beginning of the shows, I was going out to an audience that knew the previous singer, and we were doing material that they didn’t know. We were doing new material that wasn’t even released yet when we did our first five or six shows, when I first joined the band. And it was kind of nerve-wracking. I was like, “I’m really not sure where we’re going with this,” but I think the vocal approach was so different that people kind of stood back and went, “Wow. This is kind of cool. This is totally different.” But I think the audience was just surprised as I was.

Throughout the book, you use the term “theater of the mind,” which is a great way to describe a Maiden concert, with top-notch production and stage presence.

That’s what we hope for. That’s the name of the game. We want to be fierce and in your face, but we also want to leave people with some content at the end of it. It’s not just about running around [clamoring] like rabid beasts and saying, “That’s enough.” It’s got to be a total experience. Going to see a Maiden show should be completely immersive for our fans. So that’s the upshot of it.

That’s refreshing, because so many older bands just go through the motions onstage now.

Look, we will never, ever be a Vegas karaoke act, as I term it. That’s what some people are kind of doing. Obviously, there’s a demand for it. Obviously, people pay money and they go and see these shows, and people are free to spend their money how they want. But for me, I could never do that. I could never turn up and say, “Oh yeah, it’s just a job.” No, sorry, not me. It’s so much more important than that. And that’s why we keep doing the music. That’s why we keep putting out new albums. If we couldn’t do that, then we would probably stop.

It’s funny you should mention Vegas, because I saw you there in July and it was far from a karaoke act.

I’m talking about people that take a two-month residency doing the same stuff every day. There’s nothing wrong with playing Vegas for a show. There’s loads of rock fans in Vegas. Somebody said to me the other day, “Would Iron Maiden do the Broadway musical?” I said, “Certainly not as ourselves!”

Maybe Eddie: The Musical.

Don’t start that rumor, for God’s sake! [Laughs.]

You took up fencing shortly after you joined Iron Maiden, and you took your first flying lesson in 1992, shortly before you left the band. It seems like you picked up these activities as your professional life was taking a big turn.

Being on the road the amount that we were back then, human beings are not designed to do that and still stay sane. So I needed something else to do during the 22 hours of the day, plus the days in between gigs, when there was nothing going on. ‘Cause otherwise you’d go mad, or you’d fill it with substances or God knows what. I thought, “I want to do something that’s constructive.” And as it happened, I ended up with an alternate career as an airline pilot. [Laughs.] So there you go.

After more than 30 years, you’re still playing some of the best shows of your career. Frankly, how do you do it?

First of all, I’m having a better time now than I can ever remember with Iron Maiden. This is just brilliant what we’re doing now. I love the music we’re making, I love the way we’re playing live, and I can’t ever see a time when I would want to stop making music with this band. That’s the way I deal with it. I’m having a blast.  


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