Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson talks surviving cancer and COVID: 'Medical technology worked really well for me'

British metal legends Iron Maiden recorded their 17th studio album, Senjutsu, in early 2019, but many of its tracks — “Days of Future Past,” “Darkest Hour,” “The Writing on the Wall,” and “Hell on Earth,” for instance — certainly seem appropriate for 2021.

“Strangely, we have one or two songs that do appear to be on the Zeitgeist here of what's going on,” frontman Bruce Dickinson tells Yahoo Entertainment with a wry laugh. “I think Steve [Harris, Iron Maiden’s primary songwriter] sometimes feels very kind of alienated by some of the things going on in what purports to be the modern world. So, the sentiment [of “Hell on Earth”] is very much: ‘You know what? This kind of sucks, this place. So if I end up kicking the bucket and departing this planet, then maybe when I come back, it'll be another time, a parallel universe, and everything is going to be cool again.’”

Dickinson quips, “Frankly it pisses me off!” when asked about Iron Maiden being unable to tour during the past year and a half due to coronavirus concerns, saying, “I've just done some theater shows, but it's not the same as a giant, fire-breathing monster in front of 20,000 people.” He actually recently had a breakthrough case COVID-19, which forced him to postpone some of those theater shows, but he notes that because he was vaccinated, he was “absolutely fine. … My belief is — and I stress, it's a belief — that this proves that I would have been more sick if I've not taken the vaccine. … I mean, I had both jabs. Everybody I know has had both jabs. And I'm quite happy about it. You know, none of us have started growing extra heads, suddenly wanting sidle up to 5G phones, or expressed a willingness to go down on Bill Gates. So, all of these things, I think it's largely a myth!”

While Dickinson still feels it’s a personal choice whether to get vaccinated, he does “honestly find it incredible that some people are still resistant [to vaccines] … And I mean, the [anti-]mask thing I genuinely do not understand.” But he doesn’t think vaccine skeptics are politically motivated. “I think they believe [conspiracy theories] because of their psychological makeup. They have a need to believe in these things. It's the same as people that are going to sit on top of a mountain every year and wait for the world to end. And the world doesn't end, but do they modify their beliefs? Actually, no. It strengthens them: ‘Yep, we were right all along. It is definitely going to end, just not this year. The rest of the world is against us!’ And that's the way that some people think. It's their mentality, and you're probably not going to change that. But for the rest of us I would say, just get vaccinated. And if you do get sick, you won't get that sick. It'll just be like a mild case of the flu.”

Senjutsu is Iron Maiden's first album since 2015, the same year that Dickinson underwent seven weeks of treatment for a cancerous tumor on the back of his tongue. Fortunately, the tumor was discovered in its early stages, and Dickinson was declared cancer-free by May 2015. He says despite being a cancer survivor, he wasn’t concerned that his compromised immunity would make him more susceptible to the coronavirus — but he does recall that at the time of his cancer diagnosis, he encountered some medical skeptics that reminded him of the current anti-vax movement. “When [doubters] found out that I was having chemo and radiotherapy, they went, ‘Oh my God, you're not doing that!’ Um, what do you think I should do? Eat more cabbage? That's going to get rid of it? So, yeah, medical technology worked really well for me.”

Dickinson’s famously operatic voice sounds at the peak of its powers on Senjutsu’s epic tracks, some of which are well over 10 minutes long. While Dickinson chucklingly clarifies that he “obviously would have preferred” not to get tongue cancer, surprisingly, he says that the cancer not only didn’t compromise his vocals, but it actually improved them in the long run.

SAINT PAUL, MN - AUGUST 26: Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden performs during the Legacy of the Beast tour at Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota. (Photo: Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
SAINT PAUL, MN - AUGUST 26: Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden performs during the Legacy of the Beast tour at Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota. (Photo: Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via Getty Images) (Star Tribune via Getty Images)

“I had a three-and-a-half-centimeter [tumor] — basically a golf ball — living down at the base of my tongue, right at the base,” he explains. “So, that was sitting there for I really don't know how long by the time it got big enough to notice. But I did a whole album [2015’s The Book of Souls] with that sort of sitting there. And when it went away, I guess there's a lot more space for the sound come out! Not to put too fine a point on it, but there's no more obstruction in the way, you know? So yeah, with the high notes I was like, ‘Wow! Whoosh!’ There's a lot more horsepower in some of the high notes, which is interesting.

“In early May [2015], I started trying to sing and it sounded absolutely terrible. I sounded like some wounded beast,” Dickinson recalls of the early days of his recovery. “I was just like, ‘Oh my God!’ So, I waited another two or three months. I was wandering around the kitchen, waiting until everybody had gone out, and just started to give the voice a bit of a workout. I went, ‘OK, let's have a go at the top.’” Dickinson then tested a few operatic lines of one of Maiden’s most classic songs, “Run to the Hills,” and suddenly all was well. “I went, ‘Oh, ooh, yep, yep, yep, yep, yep. Oh my God.’ And then I just relaxed, because I'm not in a hurry now; I know it's all there. It's come back.”

While Dickinson’s voice thankfully wasn’t damaged by his illness, he insists that he was never worried about possibly having to relearn how to sing — or, even worse, that he might not be able to sing ever again. “There's always a way you can turn things into being a positive,” he says. “I mean, even if the worst happened and it completely messed with my voice to the extent that it changed completely, you have to take that and go, ‘Well, what am I? Am I just some squeaky toy that makes noises, and if I don't make those noises, then I can't be an artist anymore?’ Just take a look at some great singers who have very unconventional voices. I'm thinking of somebody like Leonard Cohen — there's a man who, self-confessed, was like, ‘I have like virtually no voice.’ But because you're such a great communicator, the content of what you do comes through your voice. You don't have to be an opera singer to do that.

“So, there's ways and means, like the line in the line in Jurassic Park: Nature will always find a way.”

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— Video produced by Anne Lilburn, edited by Jason Fitzpatrick