Bruce Dickinson isn't through just yet. It is the end of a 12-hour press day where the Iron Maiden vocalist has been answering a multitude of questions, most concerning the iconic heavy metal band's 16th full-length album, The Book of Souls. It is a task that requires a kind of Zen-like patience, yet the 57-year-old is noticeably unfazed, excited to spend the better part of an hour talking about his passion for music — and for life. Since 1981, when Dickinson joined Maiden, he and his bandmates have crafted an inimitable style of heavy metal, revolving primarily around themes of the battle between life and death.
Whereas their forebears in Black Sabbath engaged the subject of mortality with low and slow misanthropy, Iron Maiden tackled it on frenetically paced, epically rendered cautionary tales, heralded by Dickinson playing the part of a maniacal prophet. The result has been one of metal's most celebrated legacies, exuding a notion of the very glory and immortality the band's songs depicted. Yet recently, Maiden's lyrical themes, and that of many of their influential peers, have manifested as an unavoidable reality. The authors of the mortality narratives that have been heavy metal's stock in trade for nearly 50 years are confronting their own.
Speaking only a few weeks prior to the late August concert he abruptly ended due to health concerns, Motörhead front-man Lemmy Kilmister, was predictably dismissive discussing his own impermanence. "A lot of my friends went under," he told me, chuckling. "It's not like a charmed life, [yet] it's certainly a very lucky one. I had a couple of illnesses last year, but they didn't kill me." In similar fashion, Dickinson regarded his 2014 throat cancer diagnosis as simply another obstacle to overcome. Of course the news brought expected concern but, it also offered a glimpse into heavy metal's unhindered resolve — just like that of the vocalist himself.
Dickinson and Kilmister — as well as members of Slayer (who in 2013 lost founding guitarist James Hanneman) and other heavy metal founding fathers — find themselves at a sort of crossroads. Compared to genre peers such as country, blues and soul, metal is still a comparably young form. Though certainly not unfamiliar with death — having suffered the tragic losses of influential musicians like Metallica's Cliff Burton, Death's Chuck Schuldiner, and one-time Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Randy Rhodes — heavy metal has not had to confront aging until now. And as it has come to pass, its leading characters remain unwavering in their sneering indifference to what has always been for them a familiar destination
Dickinson, who received a clean bill of health just months after his initial diagnosis, is a living testament to the triumphant battering ram sound of his band. He is one of metal's true Renaissance men, and the illness was simply another test of his resilience. During our recent conversation, Dickinson's well-known wit and charm were in full bloom as he expressed his enthusiasm for Maiden, the new album and his life. Perhaps it was something more poignant, an immovable dedication to the same youthful spirit that will find him always at the ready, regardless of what the future may hold.
One thing that's immediately noticeable with The Book of Souls is the album's very pointed look at mortality. Was that creative direction deliberate?
I think Steve [Harris, Iron Maiden's bandleader, primary lyricist and bassist] had been working his way in that direction for a while. Obviously as we get older and more of our friends and colleagues fall by the wayside — some of them quite suddenly and some not quite so suddenly — it does set you thinking sometimes. [laughs] There's a general sort of melancholy prevalent in the world at the moment that has to do with existence and what it means to be human and what it means to be in the West, as opposed to a bunch of people who want to turn the world back into the Dark Ages, and what you do about those sorts of things. We've talked about issues like that on previous records like "For the Greater Good of God." [Discussing] a song like "Tears of a Clown" which, unusually for Steve, he had gone very specific: "The smile it beamed or so it seemed /But never reached the eyes, disguise / Masquerading as the funny man do they despise." I asked him: "Some of these words are a little bit personal, Steve. What's it about?" And he just went, "Oh, it's about Robin Williams," and I just went, "Ah, well you didn't volunteer that information before I sung it, you know." [laughs]
Of course you've also got "Empire of the Clouds," which aside from being the longest song you guys have ever done, is also a very different composition for Iron Maiden yet still touches on those familiar topics of death and mortality. What's the story there?
It goes back to when I won a piano in a raffle. [Laughs] I set it up in the living room and started mucking around. I wrote what I thought was gonna be an introduction for a song about air fighting in the First World War. That song turned into "Death or Glory", so I was left with this sort of intro left hanging out all on its own. I thought, well, it's a shame to lose it. I wonder what I could use that as. With the specific interest I have in airships, the history and the modern future of it — I thought, there's a great story to be told here about the tragic loss of the world's biggest flying machine in 1930, something which has been a little bit lost in the midst of time. But I walk into a meeting about something at the Houses of Parliament, and there in front of me is this exhibition about the loss of the old 101 and a brass plate screwed to the floor of one of the oldest and most historic buildings in the country, commemorating the dead of the 101. All the bodies lay in state, and they'd had a state funeral for them. It was a tragedy of almost unparalleled proportions, yet it's been overwhelmed by the loss of the Hindenburg, because the Hindenburg was caught on camera. So I decided to write the song. As soon as I started to write the story of the last day and of the first and last flight of this airship, I realized that this was going to be quite a lengthy proposition. I wanted to sum up all the various moods — the suspense, the anticipation, the triumph, the excitement, the rush, the tragedy and the hope and poignant ending.
Which goes back to that theme of mortality. Topically it's been a cornerstone for heavy metal since the very beginning, and so much of it has been done through that kind of storytelling.
You go back to the original Sabbath records or the original Zeppelin records and things like that – a great deal of stuff on there is about [death]. Particularly the first Black Sabbath with "Behind the Wall of Sleep" and everything else. And Motörhead have been singing songs about death ever since the moment they started, and they're still not dead. I think it's probably not something that I personally would dwell on. But, I think it's something that maybe Steve might feel a little bit more than me. Which is weird, innit, because I'm the one that's had all the radiation and chemotherapy! [laughs] But what I think happened is the people who are the well, as it were, are more worried by the people who are unwell than the people who are unwell [are worried themselves].
Looking back at your recent experience with the reality of that with last year's diagnosis, is it something you see now as a renewal of spirit and drive for you?
Oh yeah. I guess I always didn't care when it was one album, one tour, one album, one tour at a time. But when I got diagnosed with this thing I found it slightly ironic that the first thing I did was take two diaries going forward about two-and-a-half years and virtually crossed out every page. Everything changed at that moment. We had touring plans for this year and god knows what happening next year and everything else, and I just went, "You know what? Let's just cancel the next two years until I get done with this." I've never had that happen to me ever, nothing on that kind of scale. It had the result that when you get released from it, you think: You know what? I'll think about what might be nice to do for the next two to three years, and if it happens, then great, but just for now I'll settle for what happens in the next six months.
When I did meet with the Ear Nose and Throat gal that gave me the official bad news that I had neck cancer, it was interesting because before I went in there, I already knew what was wrong with me because I'd been told via telephone that I had squamous cell carcinoma cells in this lymph node. I knew what that meant. So I went in feeling kind of in some strange other world like, "Hang on. I'm in some altered state. I am, in fact, dreaming. I'll wake up and this won't be real." But of course it is, so I went in and sat down in this lady's office, and she said, "I have here a letter that says you happen to have neck cancer," and I thought: Well, that's answered my question. That's how you tell somebody. [laughs] To which I replied: "Yes, I know. The question is what is it? Where is it? What do we do about it?" And she went, "Oh. Well, do you have any plans," and I said "As of now, no. As of now, all my plans are cancelled. As of now, my full time occupation is getting rid of this. Now, how shall we start?"
Is the broader or more culturally acceptable status of heavy metal something you find interesting given the sheer backlash so many bands in the genre experienced in the '70s and especially so in the '80s?
It's never concerned me whether or not we are, even in the past, perceived as being incredibly rebellious or anti-authoritarian or whatever. The band has almost entirely been about music and storytelling and about expressing that explosive kind of energy that goes along with youth. Not trying to keep the energy, but trying to take it somewhere — as opposed to having it splurge out there in a way that says "I'm generally pissed off at everything and at authority in particular."
There are so many bands that did that I never heard of again. The key was to harness the energy, and so I try and keep that energy pumped in there within the system as long as possible, whilst acquiring more and more musical chops and skills and experience so I can make it more effective. Now, obviously we're not as naïve as we were when we were a lot younger, and that lack of naivety leads to different subject matter. You can't write songs exactly like you would've written songs twenty years ago, because things change and you've moved on a bit. You've done those kinds of songs back then, and so now there are other bands that are having that same moment in their own way at that same point in their career. Let them carry the torch. It's a bit stupid. It's like me going into competition with my kids. Why would I go into competition with my kids? Apart from the fact that I really like them, what's the big deal? I'm doing my own thing. I've already been on that journey, and now it's up to them to go on their own journey through various stages of their life.
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.