Iron Maiden's Magnificent Stupidity

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:20

    The Mark of The Beats Iron Maiden's Magnificent Stupidity A friend and I were walking across the Brooklyn Bridge recently when I learned that she?well-read young woman and native Brooklynite though she is?never read Leaves of Grass.

    What a datum with which to be confronted when you're halfway across the bridge's boardwalk, especially when the sun's mellowing the red-brick shoreline's beneath you, and when you've just walked down Brooklyn's Old Fulton St. past the headquarters of Whitman's old Brooklyn Eagle. Sunlight and blue water. A republican moment, even though we inhabit a polity that's barely a republic anymore, and even though it would take about a day for a shabby Aquarian like Whitman to get himself jailed for vagrancy in New York now. The bridge's suspension-engineering miracles soared up and around us?a miracle from an era when poets memorialized Industry and Commerce and the Exertions of steam engines. The banners of the American nation fluttered from cornices above.

    Anyway, she'd never read Walt. So we jogged down the bridge's wooden ramp and past City Hall and up into Chinatown; then shot up through the East Village?me and my friend, her blue-black locks trailing. Fluttered up to the Astor Pl. Barnes & Noble on one of the first merry Saturday afternoons of autumn; pulled the famous 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass off the shelf?that's the slim first edition, completed before Whitman started larding his perfect core of a poem with encumbrances?and hopscotched downstairs to lay my cash down. Crumpled the receipt, stuck the volume in my friend's hands?then snatched it back as soon as we'd hit the sidewalk and spent the rest of the afternoon thumbing through it as we strolled the East Village (The Bourgeoisie at Play, like a Pissarro), cackling as if I'd written the tremendous book myself.

    Of course I wish I'd had. Leaves of Grass?at least in that great 1855 edition?is one of the great American anarchic myths, a rebuke to almost every dominant tendency of contemporary American life?and one that's slim enough to carry in your jacket pocket as a hex against our culture's antihuman encroachments. In my own personal intellectual mythology, Whitman's always beckoned down our culture's Road Not Taken. He exists at that point in American history at which, I like to fantasize, it remained possible that we might be delivered into some anarchic and pastoral vision of democracy in which it would make sense for a gentle hippie and honest political radical to write something as mind-blowing as this:

    I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals... they are so placid and self-contained, I stand and look at them sometimes half the day long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied...not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth. It's lucky for Whitman that he inhabited an older Brooklyn. Were he to exist in that city today, Giuliani would beat him with a stick?a shiftless pagan faggot author of antinomian verse.

    Thus, two Brooklyns. The Brooklyn of the Brooklyn Museum controversy, in which the Mayor wars against the subtleties and difficulties of representation. And Whitman's Brooklyn, where thought is flexible enough to preclude "WHAT IS ART?" silliness, where beauty and meaning are immanent in every molecule of being and where both are accessible to you if you pay the proper attention to grass stems, lonely girls, despised slaves, vilified whores. If a guy like Whitman came around today and wrote about a prostitute as he did?

    The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck, The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink to each other, (Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you,) ?Giuliani, if he noticed it, would throttle the offending book before the cameras as affront to Mother Church and to a properly bureaucratized notion of decency.

    Okay, so here's where we shift into talking about Iron Maiden. Anybody out there want to argue that Maiden isn't art? I've been thinking about the band recently. Not only because their new album arrived at our offices, but also because I've been up at my parents' house recently, going through my closets and my past. Iron Maiden?and I'm not the only male my age who can claim this?was one of my youthful enthusiasms, and was therefore by sheer accident important to my formulating my own insecure position on "art" and representation, which you have to have if you're going to read the metro pages these days, and that can be encapsulated in the following question.

    If Iron Maiden meant more to me as a youth than, say, Shakespeare or Nabokov or Brahms or Grieg or anybody else, then why shouldn't the category called "art" be scrapped as a pinched and meaningless bureaucratic abstraction? That a clever fellow like myself can blast Iron Maiden's new Ed Hunter collection in his bedroom while reading...I don't know, let's just say Wordsworth for now, because he happens to be on my night table?blows away the possibility of making moralized esthetic distinctions. Ed Hunter is possibly the most offensive, vulgar, stupid, stunningly jejune, moronic, dopey, adolescently fantasist, leadenly dense, slackjawed, irresponsibly escapist, occasionally mildly Satanic and always plainly, incontrovertibly, inexorably, inexpungibly ugly experiment in the self-indulgence and hand-on-pecker shiffle-shuffle onanism of chinless heavy-metal lager louts that the planet's ever produced.

    It's simultaneously, however, magnificently rigorous, moving, powerful and exciting.

    Whoa! How can that be? Two ideas at once. The skull of the Honorable Rudolph Giuliani, aficionado of easily affirmational art, blasts into shards under the force of the pressure of contradiction, like a pumpkin impacted by an M-80. (His art-world opponents are just as bad: art as a mere vehicle to scandalize middle-class housewives in Rego Park, and the artist as the equivalent of the creep who approaches churchgoing women at the bus stop brandishing a salami.)

    So to hell with it. And so I'm left here with my stupid, magnificent Maiden record, which is?again?entitled Ed Hunter, and that reminds me that I was right about Maiden the first time around; back when I was a kid, that is, skulking through the dead zone of a suburban adolescence, in the midst of which I latched on to great records like Killers and The Number of the Beast, and didn't let go for a while. I even read Maiden's official biography, which I believe was called Running Free. This dumb new record?it consists of two music discs that bear the greatest 20 Maiden songs ever, as chosen by fans through a recent poll on the Maiden website, plus a third CD-ROM disc that includes the gory, inevitably stupid "Ed Hunter" video game, in which you navigate various hellscapes in pursuit of Eddie, the band's famous demonic mascot?is nonetheless a testament to pop music's tremendous power and its possibilities for discipline and artistic rigor.

    Two ideas at once. I've been driving everybody crazy with this record. Blasting it, depending on my schedule, either in the morning before anybody else gets here, or evenings when everybody's gone, and pushing my luck the rest of the time, notching up the volume as far as I reasonably can. I haven't heard most of these songs for at least 14 years?since I spun off musically into SST radicalism, and never looked back?and it's amazing to hear them now, to allow myself to be reminded as a grown man how tremendous they were.

    In fact, there's so much that's overwhelming on this collection that it's possible only to isolate specific instances for celebration. There's the beginning of "The Trooper," for example: the two guitars and the bass play the song's descending opening figure in unison. Then, after several measures, one guitar breaks off to play the same figure a slight harmonic distance above the other instruments. It's an amazing moment: power married to finesse. How did these morons manage to become such good musicians? (Endless dole-funded bedroom hours with Deep Purple and bonghits, obviously.) Then "The Trooper" breaks into a quintessentially Maiden gallop and you're heaving office furniture from your window, dragging people from cubicles and stomping their teeth. Steve Harris' propulsive bass bubbles in front of the mix, as it always does on Maiden records. And then?the discipline's amazing?the music stops on a dime and Bruce Dickinson's voice pierces the dopey silence with some exuberantly leaden metallic stupidity: You take mah life but I'll take yaws tooooooo, singing like the toughest girl in the world.

    Or there's the famous high-E-string guitar riff with which the magnificent "Wasted Years" begins. How many 13-year-old lead guitarists are playing that ingenious figure even in 1999, flicking 32nd notes on their top-strings until their wrists scream with carpal tunnel syndrome?

    Or else take the very next song after "The Trooper," the classic "The Number of the Beast," which turned me on to the Book of Revelation back when I was 13 (for that matter, how many of us kids opened the Bible for the first time in order to track down the Apocalypse of John, the song's eerie reference point) and several of my peers, actually, on to a more comprehensive and self-destructive suburban Satanism. Good for them. Good for Maiden.

    Listening to these old songs again, I was impressed by their sheer fast-forward propulsiveness. A lot of the best metal or metal-based music?Sabbath, Tad, Deep Purple, Sleep, just to name some of my favorites?trudges and stomps. It doesn't move. Isn't it amazing, though, how Maiden, by contrast, sprints and rages and gallops and rolls? If, say, Megadeth makes you want to beat your head against something, Maiden makes you want to run across the room and beat the other guy's head against something. The band even sort of swings. Listen, for instance, to the beautiful syncopated guitar work on "The Number of the Beast" during the short moments when the band's vamping between choruses. This is metal suffused with soul, and with the melodic sense of punk.

    Dickinson, by the way, is a genius of a rock singer, and anybody who disagrees ought to listen?again?to "The Number of the Beast." The sense of energy Dickinson imparts is tremendous; his melding of operatic finesse and rock brutality exhilarating. Listen a hundred times to the passage in "The Number of the Beast" in which, as he witnesses the black mass that's the song's subject, he sings The ritual has begun/Satan's work is done as a melodic heldentenor before absolutely screaming the crucial next words of the chorus as loud and hard as he can: SIX?SIX SIX! From Bayreuth to the old Mudd Club in the space of several measures.

    Or else consider the way Dickinson, imagining himself as a prisoner awaiting the gallows in "Hallowed be Thy Name," at the beginning of the song sings The sands of time/For me/Are running looooowwwwwww...

    Does he nail that endless last note or what? Iron Maiden's excellent Behind the Iron Curtain videotape includes an Eastern European performance of "Hallowed Be Thy Name" in which Dickinson sings for a crowd of what I remember to be Poles (Satanism for Dummies?), and it's a great moment: the simian Dickinson, whose perfectly round and deep-browed physiognomy encodes what one suspects is a fairly comprehensive stupidity (Dickinson, like an ox, is truly one of those among God's creatures whom you can imagine clocking in the head with a shovel to no ill effect, just one-two-three WHAP and he wouldn't even feel it), sporting tight trousers and crouching on a riser while the whey-faced band noodles on the stage below him wreathed in dry ice and Dickinson holds the note loooooooowwwwwww and in the audience Polish jaws drop to hit Polish chests in Polish wonderment and Polish mouths issue the phrase Whoa! or whatever the equivalent to that phrase is in the Polish tongue... Forty seconds... Fifty seconds... Or it sure seems like it...

    Dickinson was the second and most important of Iron Maiden's three lead singers. Unfortunately?for this collection does have its flaws?Ed Hunter contains too many songs from the eras before and after Dickinson joined. Paul Di'Anno, Maiden's first singer, was a growler who lacked Dickinson's power and range. Blaze Bayley, who sang in the early 90s, after Maiden's prime moment had passed, is unmemorable, a moxe whom the band must have discovered singing Jethro Tull covers at some state fair. I'd have eliminated some of the Di'Anno and all the Bayley material, thus leaving more room for Dickinson-era classics. Why, after all, aren't such great songs from The Number of the Beast as "The Prisoner" or "22 Acacia Avenue" in this collection? Where's the Piece of Mind classic "Flight of Icarus"? Or "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"? Or "Alexander the Great"?

    It doesn't matter. The record is what it is, and I'm happy that it exists, if only as a testament to the fact that Maiden can still generate sales. It's nice to know that there was apparently a need for this record. I'm eager for a free weekend morning on which to load the Ed Hunter game onto my PC at home. And in the meantime I've been bugging to the CD booklet art, which is characterized by the usual offensive, vulgar, stupid, stunningly jejune, moronic, dopey, adolescently fantasist, leadenly dense, slackjawed, irresponsibly escapist, occasionally mildly Satanic and always plainly, incontrovertibly, inexorably, inexpungibly ugly?and at the very exact same time, damn you, magnificent and compelling?horror imagery for which Maiden's renowned. You know: the grinning Eddie-demons, the infernal powerslaves, the rotting animated corpses, the weapon-toting ghouls. The rest of it.

    Meanwhile, a reconstituted and Dickinson-fronted Maiden's been on tour recently?with typical lager-lout bozo stupidity, they've added a third guitarist, aspiring as they always do to a little bit more?and they're still great, still absurd. And so Iron Maiden lumbers on, the ugly dimwits, philosophizing with a hammer, helping carry me through this dimwitted bureaucratic-ideological fall.