Bruce Dickinson on Life in and Out of Iron Maiden, Surviving Cancer

With the release of his autobiography, 'What Does This Button Do?,' the singer reflects on war, mortality and the arrogance that comes with stardom

Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson discusses his new book, 'What Does This Button Do?' and how his cancer battle changed his life. Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty

"I don't really read autobiographies," says Bruce Dickinson, the Iron Maiden frontman and solo artist who just happens to be promoting his own memoirs. "So when I decided to write my own, I sampled a few – as in, going to a bookstore, not buying the book and opening at random and going, 'OK, this reads like a shopping list.' 'OK, this is self-centered and boring.' You go through these celebrity biographies and you think, 'God, shallow' and, 'This is a bit desperate.'"

Luckily for Dickinson, he has enough of a sense of humor about himself to make his book, What Does This Button Do?, both insightful and entertaining. Throughout, he interweaves stories of Iron Maiden's glory and playing solo shows in war-torn Sarajevo with tales of recovering from falling off stages. He offers glimpses into his offstage life, whether it's fencing, piloting 757s, hosting a radio show or writing novels and screenplays – all with the requisite tales of bumps, scrapes, hurt feelings and terrifying engine malfunctions. And, in the book's longest chapter, he opens up about the battle with cancer that nearly sidelined his singing career.

For at least the past decade, he says, people have begged him to write his memoirs, but he's resisted. "It's a bit early," he says. "I'm not done yet." He changed his mind about writing a book after he got cancer. "When I got done with it, finished, clear of it, I thought, 'This is probably nature's cattle prod to go,'" he says. "It's actually not a bad end point for a book – not that I'm planning on checking out anytime soon. It's the beginning of a whole new chapter of the rest of your life. So I thought, because I've got an end, the beginning is pretty easy." So he started writing out his story in college-ruled notebooks.

Today, Dickinson is seated in an otherwise unremarkable conference room in his book publisher's office, high up in a Manhattan skyscraper. Copies of his book sit on a glass table next to his porridge, which he waits to eat until after the interview. As he speaks, he leans back and makes eye contact, looking relaxed in a way that suggests he has nothing to hide but still with the same intensity he projects while leaping around arena stages, commanding audiences to "Scream for me!" And despite his energy, when he looks back on his life so far with Rolling Stone, he's in a reflective mood.

What sorts of ground rules did you give yourself when you began writing?
I'm quite happy to reveal things about myself, but it's not my business nor is it moral to reveal things about other people that they wouldn't be willing to reveal about themselves. It's not their book. In a similar vein, I left out wives, children, divorce since it's not their book in a sense. Because you're a celebrity, whether you like it or not, whatever you say in a book, impinges massively on other people. I don't need to indulge in the salacious stuff or tittle-tattle. There's no point - it's not [Mötley Crüe's memoir] The Dirt.

Does it feel strange to you to write about your early girlfriends but not your wife?
I think if you throw marriages and things like that in, you automatically have to throw in divorces and all the rest of it. It's part of your life, but not part of your life that's any relevance to other people. I think you open a big can of worms there, which I don't see as any point in doing. The point of the book is to tell some great stories.

When you wrote about your childhood, you mentioned that you were bullied for being short. What strikes you when you look back on your life and how that shaped you?
[Pauses] I've spent my whole life forgetting that I'm five foot six, posing for photos like, "Make sure you get the half in" [laughs]. And the thing about fights is that you come up with a kind of morality. You fight to defend what you think is right, and you don't fight for the hell of it. I'm not very fond of aggressive people that take up too much space in bars. I spent an awful lot of my time at school having bossed up some people like that, for calling them out and saying, "You're an asshole." You shouldn't say things like that, but you just do.

My son's got himself into so much trouble for telling the truth about people. I'm like, "You can't say that, even if it's true." He's like, "Why not?" I say, "It's complicated." It's part of growing up.

On that note, in the book, you address some of the times when you shot your mouth off, namely when you said Iron Maiden were better than Metallica. What do you think about things like this now?
Look, I'm acutely conscious that when you say things in print, people are going to pick up on things. The stuff about Metallica, quite frankly, was a really good windup. We have a great relationship with Metallica. It wasn't aimed at Metallica. It was aimed at the rest of the world to say, "We're back and we mean it. We mean it so much that we're going to say something pretty outrageous, so why don't you come to the show and find out. We dare you." It's throwing down the gauntlet, and I'm the lead singer. It's my job. It's what I do.

So is it arrogant? Uh, yeah. You're the lead singer of Iron Maiden, and you're going to be arrogant every now and again, because it kind of goes with the territory, yeah. Mick Jagger, is he arrogant? Yeah, probably – it's Mick Jagger, for fuck's sake. Do I make a distinction between me walking down the street and me onstage with Iron Maiden? Yeah.

How would you describe that, the difference between being onstage and off?
It's like you have a little internal balloon. Normally, you walk around and it's in the little flaccid deflated state inside your head, and nobody sees it. When you walk out on that stage, you have to inflate that balloon, and it has to touch everybody in the audience. So out it comes, and you know, the bigger the place, the bigger the balloon, so you end up bringing Mr. Montgolfier and his enormous balloon. Then at the end of the show, the balloon has to deflate all the way down, and you have to resume normal service with the rest of humanity. That takes a few hours, I can tell you.

Actually, some people never manage it, and they end up doing heroin or whatever the fuck they do, to try and adjust from that transition. The balloon is real and permanent, so they walk around with this permanent balloon and they can't manage to get through doorways or have a normal conversation with people. "There's a hundred-foot balloon in front of me, look at me." So it's a skill.

When did you learn that skill?
It's hard to put a finger on it. I started after the Number of the Beast tour. I realized that I could do this thing. I could project. I thought, "I can't carry this thing around with me in everyday life." And you're young, so what happens is you go on a high, you go out to clubs and bars and things, which I did back in the day a lot, and you have a few beers and all of a sudden here comes the big balloon. I've got a few beers, and it's like Jekyll and Hyde. Mr. Hyde comes out and he's onstage, and you have to learn how to deflate him and put him in his box and say, "Back to bed now. Your day is done."

So I started dealing with it around the end of the Number of the Beast tour with varying degrees of success. I did fencing and doing these things culminating in me leaving the band, and then culminating in me learning to do it all over again. By the time I went back into Maiden, I had a much more balanced appreciation of what it was going to be like. Going back into Maiden, we did the Brave New World tour and everything, and I went, "I know how to do this. I can blow up this bubble and I'm going to say that we're better than Metallica. That's going to fuckin' piss everybody off." But I said it because I knew it would piss everyone off. I knew it wouldn't piss Metallica off, because they're Metallica. What do they care?

On the subject of you leaving the band, I was surprised to read how disillusioned you were with performing in the mid-Eighties, well before you quit. Why was that?
I was walking a thin line between self-criticism, self-doubt and the liability. You're in a very successful band, and they have a pretty defined style, and they're doing great. It doesn't seem to matter what they do, it sells. That worried me. I was like, "If everybody is going around blowing smoke up your ass about how good this stuff is, how do you know it's really great?" And that's the whole thing about papal infallibility: How could the Pope ever be wrong? He's the Pope, right? What if he is wrong?

I really began to feel that that was what was going on with Maiden, and nobody else did. It culminated when I did one solo album [1990's Tattooed Millionaire], which did very well, actually, but it was a complete pastiche. There were a couple of good tunes. It was well executed, but it was like a Saturday Night Live version of a classic-rock album. There was a ballad sketch, there was a groovy sketch, there was an AC/DC sort of sketch. Literally. We assembled the record like that because we only had two weeks to write it. It was very successful, and I thought, "That's kind of weird." I thought, "I'll have to do something different with the next one." But nobody else wanted me to.

They all said, "Just do another one of those." Everybody was happy with it, because it did well, but I was not happy with it. Artistically speaking, there was only one song on there that I thought was really good, which was "Born in '58," and the rest of them were not earth-shattering. We're not going to break the mold of the pantheon of rock music with this, and that's what you're looking for. With every album, you should be looking for the fucking holy grail, not just rearranging the ornaments on the altar. So that's what drove me with the next solo album [1994's Balls to Picasso]. But I had no clue about where to look for whatever the holy grail was.

I realized that being in Maiden, I was immersed in the culture and I felt it had somehow enfeebled my artistic sense. In the meantime, I had left Iron Maiden and I think people around me thought there was a plan, and there wasn't. The song "Tears of a Dragon" – "I throw myself in the sea/Release the wave, let it wash over me" – that's where I was at. I was floating downstream going, "I hope I end up on some kind of shore that's not too rocky." That was it. I left Iron Maiden to find out what was beyond. If I'd stayed, I'd never have found out, because nobody was going to tell me the truth about anything I did.

What's different now?
Going back, it's been a whole different set of relationships with everybody. It's much more real, much more, in some ways, grown up. We all accept that some of the time we like each other, some of the time we don't, but we all get on because we have to get on. Our loyalty is not to each other; it's to the Iron Maiden mother ship, the one that gave birth to us, which it did. We all share everything a lot more now than we did way back then, so that's different. We are a lot more in control of what we do now as well, and not in a sort of obsessive-compulsive way, but simply in the way we say, "Look, we're not going to do a 13-month tour," because we're going to be dead or in the funny farm.

I said to my manager, "We need to do amazing shows now. Back in the Eighties, we weren't doing amazing shows. We were doing a lot of shows, and you can't do amazing shows if you're doing a lot of shows, because your body just fades away and your voices break." I felt like it more than anyone else back then. Before the Somewhere in Time tour, I just went into that tour going, "I'm just going to be the singer; I'm going to stop trying so hard." Then a couple albums later, I quit.

Coming back, we started making some ground rules for ourselves. We said, "Let's do three months touring a year, and we love it." I really look forward to it. We all do. We like to work hard; we don't like to be destroyed. I love being in the band far more now than I did in the Eighties. It's much more fun now.

One of the major turning points in the book was when you played a solo concert in Sarajevo, which was under siege during the Bosnian war at the time. How did that change your outlook on humanity?
Well humanity is both incredibly inspirational and unbelievably disappointing when you go to a war zone. It brings out the best and the worst in every aspect of humanity. You get incredible acts of selflessness, and you get appalling acts of brutality and cruelty that are simply breathtaking, where you can't believe human beings could do such things to other human beings.

Sarajevo was the longest siege in history; it was longer than the siege of Stalingrad. And this was in the latter half of the 20th century – in Europe. People were living like rats. They were down to three days' supply of food and diesel, and they had no power. There's an amazing documentary that's been made about it [Scream for Me, Sarajevo]. He went back, and he interviewed a lot of the kids that were at the show, and said, "How did it change your life?" It's heartbreaking. There was a kid saying he was 11 years old, and his mom was crying because she couldn't feed them because they have no gas, no electricity, half the house was blown away. He said, "Don't worry, mom." And he went and burnt the furniture to boil water, and his mother was sobbing and he was saying, "It'll be fine. I'll look after you." That was in the beginning.

It was brutal. To go into that, even for three or four days felt like a lifetime. To come out of it, to come back into the Western world in the full throes of Christmas and consumption and, "Go buy this and buy that," I'm just sitting there going, "I don't think anybody gets how unbelievably lucky we are to not be in that situation." Sarajevo was a beautiful city. It was cultured. The 1984 Olympics were there. How could that possibly happen? And it did. People were murdering each other on a regular basis. You're thinking, "Jesus. This is a heartbeat away from what could happen in any circumstance anywhere." So you start getting impatient with people who seem to be self-centered and selfish. You go, "Oh, you're just an asshole. Why don't we transplant you for five minutes onto the front line, see if you'd make a life there."

It seems like this has really stayed with you.
It really has. You can only imagine what it's like for soldiers who exist in that environment for six months at a time, whether it's Iraq, Afghanistan, Sarajevo, Bosnia, even as peacekeepers. You see such terrible things.

I used to fly as an airline pilot to Sierra Leone and used to stay for three or four days. Funnily enough, I used to fly there during the war, but we'd land and take off during the curfew. It didn't affect me as much as it did being in Sarajevo, because that was a shooting war, but it was harrowing in Sierra Leone. You'd go to the amputees' camp, and you'd see these people who had their arms and limbs hacked off by the rebels, and living in, literally, shit. They're living in a place with open sewers, shanty tents – and this is the UN amputee center and you're going, "Fuck." These people have nothing, and they're the most generous, kind-hearted people you ever meet. It's a very sad, beautiful place. It has a similar effect, but not quite as much as Sarajevo in this way. I'm sure if you'd been there during the Ebola thing it would have been pretty harrowing for sure.

The other major turning point in the book is your cancer. How did you deal with the depression and hopelessness?
When I got diagnosed, it was like an out-of-body experience, like someone is talking to somebody else in the room. Like, "Me? I have cancer? Really?" Then you're thinking you might die. Then it's like, "Do you feel sick? Maybe this is a terrible mistake," but you know it's not. So there's that moment. Then there's the acceptance: "OK, what do we do with it? Let's make a plan and get on with it."

I thought, maybe I should be angry about this. Perhaps I should sit there and meditate and stab it with my steely knives, then I thought, "That's exhausting. I have a feeling I'm going to leave all my strength to just get through the treatment. I can't waste all my energy hating things. That really is a waste of energy." I've got chemo. I've got radiation. I've got to try and live my life and look beyond it. That's how I dealt with it. Then at the end of it, when I got the all clear, and you go, "It's gone?" You almost go, "Really? I kind of miss it." Because you've been living with it for three months. It's weird. It's like Stockholm syndrome. Then you're like, "Don't be so fucking stupid." You're almost afraid to step out into the light, because you've been in this dark place for three to six months. And then you sort of go, "What do we make of the rest of life then?" After eight, nine months, after starting to sing again and things like that, you finally come out of it, and I thought, "Life is just amazing."

How has it changed you now?
It hasn't changed my view of dying. Dying is absolutely inevitable, always has been, always will be, but it's made me change my view about living, which is that it's not the space between living and dying. Living is living now [touches the table], every minute, every second, for right now. Not because I think a bad thing is going to happen tomorrow, but because it's worth celebrating. Life is just a fucking amazing thing. That's the little gift that it gave me. That's one of the reasons why when I wrote the book, I wasn't going to write a shitty negative book. My book was going to say, "Wow, isn't life great?"