Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson is revered by millions the world over as a heavy metal god.
For decades he has let his music do the talking. But there’s more to Dickinson than music. Much more. Famous for his huge voice and his larger-than-life persona in Iron Maiden, Dickinson has lived an extraordinary off-stage existence, too.
He is, or has been, an airline pilot and captain, an aviation entrepreneur, a beer brewer, motivational speaker, film scriptwriter, twice-published novelist and best-selling author, radio presenter, television actor and international fencer. He has also survived throat cancer.
For the first time in his life, though, he’s letting Australian fans get up close and personal on a warts-and-all spoken word tour. Penning his 2017 autobiography What Does This Button Do? opened the flood gates. And yes, he did actually write the book himself – using pen and paper.
“This is very different to performing in front of 50,000 people. This is me in front of 500 or 1000 people and let me tell you, you really can see the whites of everybody’s eyes, the pimples on their noses – or the pimples on my nose,” Dickinson says, laughing.
He’s fond of a good, hearty laugh, I discover, and a chat. He’s down to earth, friendly and generous with his time and conversation. And boy, does Dickinson have some stories to tell. He actually had too many when he finished writing his book.
“There are another 40,000 words I had to leave out simply because the book would have been too big. Also, my editor was trying to balance my stories with Iron Maiden stories. I think we got the balance about right though.”
One of the appeals of a spoken word tour was that he would be able to verbally share the untold stories with an audience.
“I’m very excited to come to Newcastle and, well, I’ll tell you that story when I get there,” he quips. “That story is not in the book – in fact there are many stories about Australia that are not in the book and some of them are quite naughty.
“Only about 10 per cent of readers on Amazon gave my book a not-great review, and when you read them it was like ‘I wanted to hear more about sex, about how many groupies he screwed’. I’m much more interested in the 90 per cent of people that gave it a four or five-star review. These are the people who actually get it.”
Dickinson says the one-man show “came out of left field”. His publishers wanted him to do a reading from the book but he thought that was far too “dull”.
“I thought back to when I was a university student and my girlfriend dragged me along to see a guy I’d never heard of before. His name was Quentin Crisp and he did a one-man show and I loved it.
“The first 45 minutes was basically a monologue and he was really smart, insightful and funny. Then he invited the audience to write down their questions on cue cards and collected them. During the interval he arranged the questions like a script, so basically the audience was written into the material.”
Dickinson, who says he “did a bit improv when I was a kid, at school, and a bit of drama training way back when’, decided to use Crisp’s performance as a template for his own.
“While the audience is getting pissed during the interval I’m sitting out the back rearranging cards with questions on them into some semblance of a script – and probably drinking at the same time – then I come out and off we go. It’s nice and risky in the sense that I could fall flat on my face. There’s no script, there’s no autocue, there’s no parachute. There’s just me.”
It’s a far cry from performing in arenas the world over.
“What you see is what you get. And funnily enough, I think that’s quite disarming. It makes people pay attention even more when they realise that what they’re getting here is not you standing on stage in front of 50,000 people. This is me in their living room.”
Reflecting on touring with Iron Maiden and the rock star lifestyle, Dickinson says he kept things in perspective. If you believe the hype and let it go to your head, he says, you can quite quickly fall from grace.
“When you’re on stage it’s like throwing yourself in the lion pit,” he explains. “As the singer you’re the focal point, the chief director of stories. You’re a combination of lion tamer and shamen, you know, because you’re taking the energy from the audience and reflecting it back at them. You can’t walk off that stage with the emotions of 50,000 people still hanging around you because you’d go mad.
“And the people who start doing drugs and things like that, they go onstage and they imagine that the audience is all about them, and so walk off stage with their brain a bit fuddled and with the audience kind of sticking to them. And they genuinely think that they are as big as those 50,000 people, and just as powerful, and that’s when they start getting into trouble.”
So, how did the frontman of one of the world’s biggest and most influential bands avoid that scenario?
“Well, I didn’t enjoy taking the drugs,” he replies, laughing. “It was as simple as that. If you’re fully conscious, when you’re going on stage it’s easier to leave the stuff in the dressing room at the end of the show. It’s almost like taking your coat off, and that coat is stuffed full of the energy of 50,000 people. You walk in, you hang the coat on the peg and off you go. You need a bit of space to decompress after a show.”
Given his many talents and hobbies, I ask Dickinson what music means to him today. Where it fits in his busy life. For the first time during our conversation he pauses before answering.
“It’s the expression of the big internal universe inside most musicians. I was very privileged recently to be asked to say some words at a ceremony about the newly discovered grave of [poet and painter] William Blake in London. Blake was a man who lived his life through an alternate reality.
“He saw things and visions which he wrote down and I think, without trying to sound goofy, that’s what musicians – when we’re at our best – that’s what we do. We see and dream alternate visions of reality and we write it down in the form of music. And then that music is a way for other people to access our dreams.”