Saturday, December 30, 2017

What Does This Button Do?

What Does This Button Do? is the newly released biography of rock singer, professional airline pilot, world-class fencer, author, poet, public speaker, television show host, and entrepreneur Bruce Dickinson.

It's a fast and fun read about an interesting polymath who is now on the verge of turning sixty years old.

The overall impression of Dickinson is that he is a man of curiosity (hence the title), almost possessed by the love of learning, the drive to succeed, to venture out into uncharted territory, and to push the limits of his abilities.

Like most rock and roll biographies, the book moves along at a fast pace, is not by any means a difficult read, but given Dickinson's quirky personality, the book is filled with humor, candor, surprises, and possibly a few words that might send you to the dictionary.

On the downside, the book at times could use stronger editing.  Given that the author is a do-it-yourself headstrong Alpha male, this probably explains the undeveloped and at times disconnected narrative - especially in the first couple chapters of the book.  Being Bruce Dickinson's editor is probably a matter of negotiation.  But as things get rolling, the prose becomes smoother and more fluent.

He also has an undeveloped fascination with the occult, including a long-term project to make a movie about the life of Satanist Alestair Crowley.  It is not clear in the text if his movie was ever made, or why this was one of Dickinson's passionate projects.

Another strange thing is that missing from this autobiography are any mentions of his own family life: nothing about marriage and children and life as a husband and father.  He does include an explanation for this at the end, but reading the narrative gives one the (false) impression that Dickinson was and is a confirmed bachelor with no interest in family life - much like the feeling that one gets watching a Charlie Brown cartoon in which there are no parents or adults inhabiting the planet. Such an omission makes Dickinson sound perhaps more self-centered than he probably is in real life.

This omission leaves a great void, an elephant in the parlor, as far as a life story goes.

But as a professional chronicle and journal of personal growth, this is a fun read.  The last chapter addresses his recent throat and tongue cancer.  Not only did he survive - but he managed to reignite his singing career, even claiming that his voice has actually improved since his aggressive treatment regimen.  His account of this period in his life is frank and yet humorous.  There is a seriousness conveyed, and yet he avoids being maudlin or melodramatic.

For me, the most interesting thing about Dickinson is his determination to do pursue his unusual passions at all costs - even seeking out fencing coaches and flight instructors during his "day job" of world tours performing theatrical heavy metal shows: both with Iron Maiden and for his solo projects.

Over the course of his years as an aviator, he has not only racked up stacks of pilot's licenses, he has had an entire career as a commercial airline captain - professionally flying 747s full of passengers.  He also collects and flies antique planes, even performing flying WW1 aircraft in airshows.  He is not a celebrity who was allowed to slip by.  He is a hard-working serious pilot with his nose to the grindstone, who has paid his dues and has managed to weave together multiple careers in one life.

A couple of interesting passages from the book:

At Munich I waited in uniform, by the bus stop for the crew bus to take me to the hotel. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted an Iron Maiden fan, and he spotted me.  Bedecked from head to foot in badges, cut-off biker denim and Maiden shirt, he made a bee-line for me.  
He stared at me and said, "excuse me... but is this the bus stop for Munich?" 
"Er, no.  Next one up."
He turned and walked away.  He never knew - nobody knew, except me - that I was an airline pilot.  Unbelievable.  (Page 287)


I flew 300 hours in the 737 during the summer and autumn of 2002.  By now, Astraeus [Airlines] had added a pair of new-generation 737 aircraft to the fleet, and in the space of a year we had four aircraft.
Some of those aircraft were old, and equipment failures often meant that pilots had to actually hand-fly them.  One day I turned up for work, where Gatwick to Athens and back was the mission, except the plane was broken and all its autopilots were not working.  I expected to be back in my bed at home watching late-night TV around 1 a.m.  In fact, that was the time I eventually took off.  We hand-flew the aircraft to Athens and back overnight, finally landing at 9 a.m.  I was so tired I could hardly see the white lines on the road driving home.  I pulled over and slept for three hours.  Character-building stuff.
By contrast, going on tour with Iron Maiden was like going on holiday.

The book is filled with such reminiscences and anecdotes.

It is hardcover, 371 pages, and includes a color plate of photographs in the middle.  If you like heavy metal music, aviation, or inspiring biography of people who live their lives off the beaten track, you just might enjoy this book!

Bonus - here is a video of the first episode of Bruce Dickinson's TV series on aviation: Flying Heavy Metal

Fasten your seatbelts and enjoy your flight!

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