Iron Maiden: Why Heaven Can Wait For Metal's Greatest Band
The full, inside story on Bruce Dickinson's cancer scare, the incredible Book Of Souls double album and what may come next...
Not long after completing their ambitious, Mayan-inspired masterpiece, Iron Maiden received news that threatened to stop them in their tracks. Now, for the first time, Steve, Bruce, Janick, Adrian, Dave and Nicko tell us how they overcame a matter of life and death.
Are you sitting comfortably? It’s time for another implausible tale from the most epic and revered saga in heavy metal history. Having stalked the planet like some imperious, multi-limbed colossus for more than 35 years, fuelled by creative verve, an unerring dedication to hard work and an uncompromising vision, Iron Maiden arrive in 2015 buoyed by an enviable reputation and the love of millions, but also weighed down by fearsome levels of expectation.
Admittedly, the unveiling of every new Iron Maiden album is a major event. This time, however, the album concerned – The Book Of Souls, Maiden’s 16th studio effort – has nearly been overshadowed by events that took place after the music was etched in sonic stone. Back in February of this year, the news broke that vocalist Bruce Dickinson was being treated for a cancerous tumour on the back of his tongue, and suddenly, for the first time ever, Iron Maiden’s impervious steel façade began to exhibit a hint of vulnerability. In metal terms, Iron Maiden are immortals. Living legends. Heroes. But late in 2014, they were suddenly confronted with the prospect of losing their singer and, as a result, hitting the dreaded career buffers with a chilling thud of finality.But then, of course, this is Iron Maiden; these guys are made of much sterner stuff and are by no means finished with their tenure as metal’s most-loved band. As the release of The Book Of Souls draws closer, we speak to all six members of the band about the turmoil of the past year and the creation of what may be the finest record that Iron Maiden have ever made...
“I had a lump in the side of my neck, like when you get a really bad cold or flu and your glands come up,” says a comfortingly healthy-looking Bruce Dickinson, several months after being given the all-clear from cancer. “I thought it was just some bloody bug, as you do. But it didn’t develop into a cold or flu and I was singing fine. A local French GP came down to the studio and had a little poke at it and a little look down my throat, and he said, ‘Well, you need an MRI of that, you need a CAT scan of your chest and lungs, and we need to stick a needle in that to see what’s inside...’ I was like, ‘Ohhh, shit!’” Bruce sits back and takes a deep breath, momentarily jarred by the memory but still smiling because, as we all now know, this tale has a happy ending.
“The irony of it was, I went away and got stuck into Google and Wikipedia and everything else,” he continues. “And six weeks before I went to see the doctor, I got the diagnosis spot-on, even down to the kind of tumour that it was. Once I got the diagnosis, I just said, ‘I’m not doing anything now, for the rest of my life, until I get rid of this. It’s my full-time occupation now!’”
Bruce was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, a relatively common form of cancer and, fortunately, one that his oncologist1 thought eminently curable, not least because his patient was in fine health and considerably more sprightly than most men in their mid-50s. Of course, Bruce’s reputation as a heavy metal polymath and unstoppable force of nature made him seem one of the least likely people in our world to be struck down with such an illness. “None of us knew,” shrugs Steve Harris, still exasperated by his friend’s misfortune. “He didn’t know. He’d sung fantastic in the studio. He sounds better than ever, so there was no indication that there was a problem with his throat,but lo and behold, he had a test and it came back that he had a tumour. It was scary stuff. Seeing as he’s the youngest and arguably the fittest in the band, it was a massive shock to him and to everyone else as well. But he’s a very positive person, as we all know. He’s full of beans and he’s a fit guy, so he’s come through it.”
As ridiculous as it sounds, from the outside at least, Bruce’s welcome recovery seemed almost inevitable; his legendary quantities of get-up-and-go propelled him through weeks of gruelling, intimate and intricate treatment and on, towards the happy news that his tumour had gone and his future prognosis was excellent. Job done. Bruce seems to have weathered this storm by delving deep into the science of his treatment – he regales us with an incredibly detailed rundown of everything he’s experienced, eyes twinkling with the enthusiasm of a geek – but nonetheless, beating cancer is an exhausting business and he cheerfully admits to having struggled at numerous points. “The last two or three weeks were particularly miserable,” he says. “I was on the morphine and a liquids-only diet, and you lose your sense of taste completely. Everything tastes like cardboard, plasticine or sand. I never realised how essential taste is to appetite until I didn’t have it anymore. But what got me through was custard! The inside of your mouth disintegrates for a period of time... it’s called mucositis and it’s not very nice. So I couldn’t speak, because it hurt to use my tongue, but I could take big gulps of custard every day. You end up with the metabolism of a hummingbird during this treatment because you’re being cooked from the inside out, but your body’s also trying to heal itself rapidly, and it goes into overdrive. I think that’s one reason why you lose weight. It’s simply because your system is banging away and then eventually it all dropped back down to normal. It’s fascinating. Basically, I am my own science project!”