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Offstage and out of his spandex knickers, Bruce Dickinson doesn't play the shrill and pampered prima donna. In fact, there isn't much about the Air Raid Siren, as the leather-lunged lead singer of the British heavy-metal group Iron Maiden is nicknamed, that fits the image of a rock 'n' roll animal.
Dickinson, 32, has a degree in history from the University of London. He's a published novelist, albeit of a rather bawdy talc, The Adventures of Lord Iffy Boatrace, which a few members of Parliament would like to see banned. He's working on a rock opera about Italian violinist and composer Niccol� Paganini. He had been going with the same woman for several years, before marrying her in May. He doesn't use drugs, and he's sharply critical of metalists who do. "There are a lot of bands using self-abuse as a marketing gimmick," he says. "Metal music has been ambushed by a fashionable West Coast wasted look—you know, the red bandanna and the heroin needle sticking out of your arm. I think that's disgusting."
But the thing about Dickinson that least conforms to the M.O. of the metal magnate is his passion for, of all sports, fencing. Dirt-biking, bungee-jumping—those seem like they might be a rocker's preferred recreation. But fencing? Incongruous as it may seem, the man who wrote and recorded Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter for the Nightmare on Elm Street 5 sound track was also the seventh-best foil fencer in Great Britain during the 1988-89 fencing season.
That ranking placed Dickinson just below the top tier of British fencing, a remarkable achievement inasmuch as he didn't really begin concentrating on the sport until he was 25, after having taken it up when he was a teenager. What's more, because Dickinson is often in a recording studio or out on year-long concert tours, usually far from a reputable salle d'armes, he can't spend nearly as much time training as do those in fencing's upper echelon. But what makes Dickinson's climb through the ranks still more impressive is that he accomplished it after he switched his fencing hand from his right to his left in 1986.
"I find that fencing and training give me more stamina and help me deal with the craziness of being on the road so much," he says.
Dickinson discovered the sport's rigors at the Oundle School, a boarding school in Northhamptonshire. Though a solitary sort as a kid growing up in Sheffield, he played some cricket and enjoyed go-kart racing. At Oundle he was becoming interested in the three R's—rowing, rugby and running—when, fittingly, a metalwork teacher gave him his first fencing lesson. "I'm a ham," Dickinson says. "I was immediately attracted to fencing because it seemed like a romantic, melodramatic form of combat." At 15 he won the school fencing championship and became team captain. At 17, however, he was expelled from school for' what he describes as "nonsporting reasons."
A training stint with the British equivalent of the army reserve convinced Dickinson that school wasn't so bad after all. In 1977, he enrolled at the University of London's Queen Mary College and fenced on occasion, although singing and studying took priority. After earning a degree, he sang with a band called Samson until Iron Maiden invited him to join up in 1981.
Dickinson's robust tenor and animated stage presence added a theatrical dimension to Maiden's crunch-and-squeal guitar sound. His first album with the band, The Number of the Beast, went to the top of the British charts and helped Maiden break into the U.S. market. But success in the music business, especially the metallic end, which gets minimal air play, is spelled T-O-U-R. To promote an album, Iron Maiden typically spends a year or more on the road, with concerts on more than half the days. Ultimately, it was the toll of touring that persuaded Dickinson to pick up his weapon again.
"Life on the road can get a little one-dimensional," he says. "I wanted to get back into fencing to do something outside rock 'n' roll. I didn't want to reach 40 and have to say all I'd done was look out the window of a tour bus and get drunk."
He trained sporadically and competed in regional tournaments in Britain for several years before making a serious commitment to the sport. Through the summer of 1985, Dickinson studied five days a week under British Olympic foil coach Ziemak Wojciechowski. But Dickinson's hard work wasn't doing his fencing much good.