My girlfriend had been laughing at me for three days. “I have never seen you this excited about anything in the entire time I’ve known you,” she said. And she was probably right. I was seeing Iron Maiden. High-school-me’s capital-B Band. Live. For the first time. At Madison Square Garden. I attend somewhere between 30 and 40 shows every year, but this? This wasn’t a show. This was a notch on the ol’ life belt—by definition, the last chance to see my favorite band for the first time.
Now I get it, we aren’t all Ed-Heads here. Galloping, operatic history porn with three lead guitarists and a honest-to-goodness zombie imp mascot isn’t everyone’s cup of very English tea—metal fans included. But the context is un-ignorable: Arguably the biggest rock band on the planet, whose iconic singer just survived a bout with tongue cancer, coming to your town to play a sold-out show at an classic venue that you just managed—after much refreshing, keyboard rattling, and cursing the cruel Ticketmaster gods—to scrape a pair of tickets to. Maiden fan or no, the gravity of the situation should be obvious. At the very least, the experience of building something up in your head for days/months/years on end, a relatable one. If you’re even remotely interested in live music, chances are you’ve had this moment—The Replacements, My Bloody Valentine, Nas, Blur, LCD Soundsystem—and this was mine, come hell, high water, or Midtown.
And so that’s where we begin, on some otherwise mundane Wednesday with a mix of apprehension, anticipation, and overpriced beers sloshing around somewhere in my core. The first takeaway of the evening came quickly, and was one I wouldn’t have gleaned through the rose-colored lenses of 17-year-old fandom: This wasn’t just a band showing up to play a show, this was a well-oiled corporate machine designed to rend both cash from wallet and flesh from bone. Seemingly every other human inside The Pennsy had some variation of Eddie’s rotting mug emblazoned on either chest or back. The suspenders-clad bartenders cracked open can after can of Maiden’s signature “Trooper” beer. Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark” roared in the background, setting the appropriately leathery mood. All of this, and we (including fellow FW editor, Pete, who was good enough to come along) weren’t even in the damn venue yet.
Once through the MSG security buzzsaw, the vibe only intensified, with a battalion of men in Iron Maiden t-shirts waiting in 15-deep lines for more Iron Maiden t-shirts dangling from merch tables set up 20 feet from other merch tables that had completely sold out of the NYC-specific tour merch in under 10 minutes. That’s when I realized they hadn’t even checked our tickets yet. By the time we finally ascended to our lofty perch in the I-have-to-pay-rent-this-month section, I had dropped over $50 on a combination of booze and merch, with nothing to console me but the distant chugga-chugga of selfie-snapping neo-NWOBHM openers, The Raven Age. Seeing a band of such personal magnitude at such cost invites significant expectations and is usually accompanied by a moment where the reality of those expectations are called into question. This was that moment, sitting with my seat-and-a-half-sized neighbor elbowing me in the ribs, wondering if this ship had sailed a decade ago.
Thankfully, however, Iron Maiden—nearly 40 years after they first began stalking the streets of East London—are still Iron Maiden: A band known for pomp, but built on the same maniacal work ethic that propelled them through a world tour a year from 1980 to 1989. Maiden put that penchant for theatrics and road-dog experience immediately on display as well, with the actual Most-Interesting-Man-in-the-World, Bruce Dickinson, huddled above a bubbling cauldron atop the elaborate Mayan-themed stage, launching the band into Book of Souls opener, “If Eternity Should Fail”, sometime just before 9pm.
Over the course of the first hour—including new tunes like “Speed of Light” and battle-tested classic such as “The Trooper”—I experienced, above all else, a sense of disembodied awe. After awhile, however, the shock of seeing heroes made whole and, what’s more, performing with an energy aeons beyond the usual gravy-train-tour-circuit fare, gave way to what everyone, including myself, came there to enjoy: Good, ol’ fashioned heavy metal revelry.
Adrian Smith went full Yngwie, strapping on two guitars at once. A 10-foot-tall Eddie ambled out, so Dickinson cut out his heart and threw it to the audience. Nicko McBrain and Steve Harris hammered away, as the costume changes, light show, and pyrotechnics whipped into an audiovisual tornado of unbridled “fuck yeah” around them. If there’s one expectation a dedicated fan should have when seeing a favorite band after years of near-misses and not-this-times, it’s that said band will put on a show that does justice to the scope of their career and the nature of their music. On Wednesday night, that’s just what Iron Maiden did.
And so, after the half-hour encore came howling to its end on the back of a show-stopping (and wonderfully self-deprecating) rendition of “Wasted Years”, we slowly made our way down the maze of escalators and out to the streets, groups of fans kicking up chants of “Maiden, Maiden, Maiden” as they went. It was all over except the Trans-Siberian subway ride back to Brooklyn and what you now find before you, the extensive (and quite public) psychological unpacking of a man-child Maiden fan.
In the end, the overall experience can be best described as neither nirvana nor torture, but simply surreal. On a Maiden-specific level, because for a few hours, Midtown Manhattan—blocks from Macy’s, across the street from TGI Fridays, and in the home of two of the most blue-blooded sports teams on earth—became a literal heavy metal commune. Saint Vitus X 5 in the heart of a personal hell. On the broader human spectrum, because this was like stumbling across a mythological creature in the wild—something you read and heard about but never quite believed was real until you came around a corner and saw it standing in the headlights for a brief second.
Some of you have probably had that experience. Some of you are probably still waiting for your chance. When it comes, however, don’t hesitate to take it. It might not be the best show you ever see (those tend to sneak up when you least expect them), but that’s not really the point either. The point is recapturing that defibrillator-jolt of adrenaline you got upon hearing your favorite band for the very first time, however many years, cities, jobs, and relationships ago. And to that end, Iron Maiden—who, like a rent-controlled NYC apartment, remain grandfathered in to a world that no longer exists—made me feel as if, in the immortal words of Number Six, I am not a number, but a free man.