Review: What Does This Button Do? by Bruce Dickinson

When you are a sword-wielding, jet flying, human air raid siren, it shouldn’t be surprising that your memoir stands out from the deluge of books from your peers. But Bruce Dickinson’s new book What Does This Button Do? An Autobiography still manages to surprise, entertain, and break the bold a bit. While he’s most well-known for being the vocalist of Iron Maiden, Dickinson proves in this latest literary offering that he is clearly a great storyteller.

First, the disclosures: Dickinson’s book is published by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. Dey Street was formerly It Books which published my books. The folks over there provided me with a free copy prior to the What Does This Button Do‘s official sale day.

Anyone who has followed heavy metal over the years knows that Bruce Dickinson is a good storyteller. His interviews typically cover wide ranging topics, and he’s certainly not bashful. His verbal shots at Metallica and his war of words with Sharon Osbourne have been proof that he’s not going to hold his tongue. He does the same in What Does This Button Do?.

What is refreshing is the way that he does it.

As the hard rock memoir field has become increasingly paint-by-number stylistically, you’re trained to expect a book to open with a dramatic flashback of hitting rock bottom. The musician is on the filthy bathroom floor, facing death from an overdose, while naked women cavort outside the door and leeches and parasites all crowd in the mansion. As the literary “screen” fades to black, there is usual a pithy, sarcastic one liner from the rocker. Something that alludes to having it all and supposed happiness but misery and despair abounds instead.

That’s the way it’s done in most hard rock memoirs. And I’ve read virtually all of them. (I need to update the Slushpile Round Up of Hard Rock Books.)

Dickinson does start with a slightly dramatic story. But it involves planes and anti-aircraft, not drugs and silicone boobs. And it is little more than a quick tease and then the book shifts into life at 52 Manton Crescent. From then on, he shifts from family stories to the violence and tyranny of British schools to discovering music to being a soldier and more. Dickson has a conversational manner in the book, like he’s just sitting next to you in a pub, casually tossing off stories.

The design of the book is much more straight forward than many hard rock memoirs. There aren’t demons and volcanoes and whisky bottles covering every square inch of white space. This book looks like a normal book. White pages, black words, an insert of color photos in the middle. Aside from the longhaired photo of Dickinson on the spine, you could pass this book in the store and assume it’s a BBC presenter or maybe an entrepreneur. This book doesn’t hammer you with “I’m METAL!!!!!” every single opportunity. In this instance, that’s a good thing. Because you definitely do not have to be a metal fan to enjoy the book.

That breezy style of What Does This Button Do?, however, does has its drawbacks in terms of a superficial treatment of major events. There are some minor frustrations expressed here and there about Maiden’s career trajectory. But, in the scheme of bloody, emotional memoirs, these are very, very minor details of disillusionment. You just think the band is plodding right along. Then, Dickinson encounters a quote that prompts a major move.

Dickinson writes, “It was a quote from the writer Henry Miller: ‘All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without the benefit of experience.’ So at that moment I decided to leave Iron Maiden. You can blame Henry Miller.”

The act of informing the band, releasing two live albums, and a farewell appearance are given a whopping 400 words. That’s it. He rejoins the rockers in a similar fashion. Such momentous occasions seem to deserve more consideration on the page. Shit, it will take longer for you to listen to Maiden’s epic “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” tune than it will to read the combined story of him telling his mates he’s leaving and then hashing out the details of reuniting with the group.

Possibly, this might be a British versus American thing. I had similar thoughts while reading John Taylor’s memoir of his time in Duran Duran. Taylor also featured an explicit “I am not writing about that” as Dickinson. In the Afterword, the Maiden frontman writes, “No births, marriages, or divorces, of me or anybody else.” While most hard rock memoirs (primarily American, now that I think about it) agonize over details in the zoomed lens manner of a porno shoot, some of these Brits just blow by major upheavals. Maybe that’s the thing over there.

Lack of gore notwithstanding, What Does This Button Do? is entertaining. Bruce Dickinson’s voice on the page is more warm and more humorous than what you might assume, given the power of his voice on the stage. He smoothly (if somewhat breezily) moves from his stories at the microphone with stories holding a fencing foils to stories watching the altimeter with ease. Particularly notable are Dickinson’s retelling of a trip to war torn Sarajevo with his solo band and, later, his descriptions of a cancer battle. Not only are the stories told well, but Dickinson does an admirable job of teaching while he’s telling. You’re not going to be able to pilot a 757 after reading this text, but he explains enough of the science of flying that you get a better understanding of the activity. Same with his cancer treatment. Instead of simply saying, “It sucked, my mouth hurt,” Dickinson adeptly explains the medical science about his disease and treatment protocols.

All in all, What Does This Button Do? by Bruce Dickinson is a more than worthy addition to the heavy metal bookshelf. It definitely stands out from the mosh pit of colleagues.

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