Bruce Dickinson in stripes over leather while fronting Iron Maiden early in their career.EXPAND
Bruce Dickinson in stripes over leather while fronting Iron Maiden early in their career.
Photo by Rob Grain/Courtesy of Dey St. Books

Bruce Dickinson Pilots Heavy Metal Onstage and in the Skies

What Does This Button Do? An Autobiography
By Bruce Dickinson

Dey St. Books, 384 pp., $28.99

Bruce Dickinson’s distinctive, high-pitched wail has been front and center in Iron Maiden's music for more than 30 years. But being the lead vocalist for one of heavy metal’s most enduring and influential bands (with one hiatus) is just one in a series of day jobs that would make the hard-working Jamaicans in the old In Living Color sketches sputter (“Wot, man? You only got tree jobs?”)

Dickinson is also a world-class fencer who has won tournaments all over the globe; a novelist, screenwriter and radio host; a beer brewer; and a motivational speaker. His most famous “second job,” of course, is as a commercial and private pilot, helming giant 757 and 737 planes across the sky for British Airways and other companies. Most famously, he co-piloted his own band on the “Ed Force One” (named after Maiden’s skeletal mascot) on a tour to far-flung countries, as shown in the essential documentary Flight 666.

Famously guarded about his life – private and otherwise – this memoir is engagingly written, swift-moving and succinct. Unfortunately, it also often skimps on page count and anything other than surface insight concerning Dickinson’s main gig. And it’s fans of heavy metal music, and not heavy metal fuselage, who are ostensibly the target audience here.

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Dickinson’s not-so-fond memories of the British school system and warmer recollections of his pre-Maiden band Samson are fascinating. Those who want stories of Iron Maiden’s writing and recording process will be disappointed, though he does have some interesting tales for the road over the band’s touring life. Many of those take place in countries like Germany, Poland, Denmark and Brazil.

A chapter on Dickinson’s harrowing travels to and a solo gig in Sarajevo during the heights of the Bosnian War is of special note, as are his recollections of being in New York City during September 11, 2001. The pilot in him knew early that planes as big as those in the sky that day didn’t just wander off course into the World Trade Center by accident.

While Iron Maiden was big in the U.S. for portions of the ‘70s and ‘80s, their most rabid fans live in European and South American countries (particularly the latter); to this day, the band can sell out massive sports stadiums.

Still, entire swaths of albums are barely mentioned or are skipped, nor is there much about his relations with bandmates over the decades, including leader/bassist/songwriter Steve Harris. And he writes in the afterword that info about his marriages, divorces, children and girlfriends was never going to make it to print – though the book doesn’t suffer in the least for those exclusions.

Two items of his musical career are worth note, however: How engineer Tony Platt early on helped direct and mold Dickinson’s voice by raising its pitch to the one he’s famous for today.

And how in 2002 he had hoped to put together a sort of “Heavy Metal Three Tenors” album and possible tour with fellow lead vocalists Ronnie James Dio (Dio, Black Sabbath, Rainbow) and Rob Halford (Judas Priest). What a project that would have been.

Just when the reader thinks Dickinson’s life can’t get any more full, he discusses at length the neck and head cancer he was diagnosed with in2015, and successfully beat. He took more than 30 chemotherapy sessions that left him with – in his own words – a six-pack and a lean physique. And enough energy to record their last record, the double CD The Book of Souls, and take it on tour to 39 countries with 117 shows (and counting) just in the past year and a half.

What Does This Button Do? will leave Iron Maiden fans wishing that Dickinson was more detailed and forthcoming about the band and its music. But it is an engaging memoir from the restless, curious and exploratory mind of Bruce Dickinson, a Renaissance man who is actually worthy of the nomenclature. Oh, and he just started learning how to fly 747s...

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