What Does This Button Do?
Dey St. Books
Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson was raised in a household where a strong work ethic was the most valued of all virtues, and “the only sin was not trying hard.” This minor revelation on page two of his autobiography What Does This Button Do? offers a clear and simple explanation as to how and why Dickinson became one of rock and roll’s true renaissance men. For most folks, being the multi-millionaire lead singer of a world-famous, well-respected, multi-platinum metal band would be enough; for Dickinson, it’s just one of his many pursuits (and it doesn’t even particularly seem to be his favorite). He’s also a commercial pilot, a world-class fencer, a novelist, a screenwriter, a brewer, a radio host, a motivational speaker, and an airline entrepreneur. What Does This Button Do? is a well-written and fast paced look at a few of the past adventures of The Most Interesting Man in the World of Metal.
When offered the chance to pen his memoirs, Dickinson eschewed straight biography and gory, salacious detail for something more conversational. He patterned What Does This Button Do? on autobiographies by actor David Niven and singer/writer George Melly; the goal was come up with a collection of stories that read like “being in the pub with the guy,” in Dickinson’s own words. It’s far from a definitive history, but the memories and anecdotes it contains do a fine job giving us a thumbnail sketch of who Bruce Dickinson is and how he got to be that way. His childhood experiences with education and religion (and his problems with authority figures in both) are well represented, as is his pre-Maiden tenure with hard rock ragamuffins Samson (under the nom de rock Bruce Bruce). He offers some insight into exactly how he procured the gig with Iron Maiden and what it was like as they grew into a global metal phenomenon; he quickly sours on the lifestyle that so often accompanies rock stardom, though, and begins pursuing interests that quickly become passions, like fencing and flying. Plenty of attention is paid to his solo career (with a chapter based on his visit to Sarajevo that is in turns harrowing and inspiring), and he openly and candidly discusses his battle against head and neck cancer just before the release of The Book of Souls.
Those looking for dirt will be sorely disappointed. There’s no mention of the Ozzfest 2005 kerfuffle with Sharon Osbourne, no mention of Nikki Sixx or Metallica. Paul DiAnno and Blayze Bayley each garner one mention by name each. There are no real details given on why Dickinson decided to leave Maiden, and the 1993 tour that would be his last with the band for six years is barely mentioned. In fact, he spends far more time on his relationships with producer Martin Birch and Maiden manager Rod Smallwood than on any of his bandmates. The only thing resembling a dig is when Dickinson pins the failure of the Three Tremors project on ex-Queensryche singer Geoff Tate (and expresses his regret that Tate, rather than Ronnie James Dio, was asked to take part.) Unlike many of his contemporaries, Dickinson was never known as a hellraiser, so as far as metal autobiographies go, this one is very light in the debasement and debauchery department. His relative clearheadedness and a writer’s eye for detail, however, means that his memories are clearer than most and far more coherently documented, with no ghostwriting middleman gumming or gussying up his vision. (In the afterword, Dickinson mentions that he decided against the book having any mentions of births, marriages, or divorces, for him or anyone else. While this devotion to privacy and loyalty is understandable and admirable, it sometimes makes him an isolated character in his own story and keeps him at arms-length from the reader.)
What Does This Button Do? reminded me of AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson’s super fun automotive autobiography Rockers & Rollers; both are character studies of hard rock icons, but neither book spends a lot of time on their hard rock experiences. Those hungry for details on Maiden’s inner workings or in-depth song analysis or date-and-time tour histories may want to look elsewhere. But for the rest of us, What Does This Button Do? is a galloping romp around the world with a rock and roll polyglot as our guide and humble narrator.