There’s no simple way to put it: Iron Maiden is a huge part of my musical life. I found them — they found me, maybe — in that sweet spot in every heavy metal fan’s life, that period of waffling confusion that hovers around your 16th birthday. You can’t really go anywhere, you can’t really do anything – you’re just there, waiting for something of consequence to happen.
Late summer, 1988: I had just gotten my permit for my driver’s license — not much else was going on in my life, but I was discovering metal … and that’s all I really needed to keep me busy. I’d already found one significant landmark album — Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime — and I apparently needed another one.
When you’re a dorky fifteen year old with no interest in sports of any kind, about the only kind of group interaction I had was riding my bike to the mall with a couple of friends, where we’d struggle to find something to do. Eventually, we’d make our way across the street to a smaller strip mall where a Wherehouse records was buried between a Circle K and some hair salon. This was my music world at the time — not long before I found the somewhat limited world of indie music stores I had access to, but back in the days when a place like Wherehouse could actually be counted on to have a fairly decent selection of music. Those days, of course, are long gone.
Cruising the stacked rows of cassettes in the Wherehouse, you’d find them arranged like tiny books in a weird, shiny, plastic library. There was always the occasional cassette case turned face-forward, displaying its artwork, usually with a sale tag displayed below. Running my fingers across the alphabet of artists, I would peruse what was still there and what was new. That particular day, something stood out — that blue cover, with the sea rippling below that decrepit half-torso’d character holding what seemed to be a baby in a womb, complete with umbilical cord that somehow had fingers attaching itself to the larger character’s exposed ribs. What IS this?! Iron Maiden?! I knew the name, of course — how could I not? They were evil, everyone knew that. You know, “666, the number of the beast!” Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son. That just reeked of evil, and I had to check it out.
I grabbed the cassette off the rack and immediately flipped it over. Ooh, cool, I thought — it was one of those cassettes with the wrap-around cards so the artwork covered the entire back. That meant, to me, anyway, the band was a class-act. And it was a clear cassette! Another plus! No one really wanted those lame off-white cassettes in the cheap-feeling black cassette cases: What you really looked for were the cool clear cassettes with the white printing. Oh, sure, they got beat up pretty quickly, but for a short while, that crystal-clear plastic was the thing you obsessed over. CDs have their clarity and relative sturdiness and vinyl has its warmth and vast artwork, but cassettes had the cool factor of a miniature, bonafide gadget going for them. While there’s much I won’t ever miss about cassettes, I will say this: shake a CD or a record and tell me if you hear little plastic parts clinking and rattling, or try stuffing one into a pocket to take along on a car ride.
Amongst the ice and the water of the artwork, the titles immediately grabbed my attention. “The Clairvoyant,” “Infinite Dreams,” “The Evil That Men Do,” all these things intrigued me. In the back of my mind, I was giving them the benefit of the doubt, as I always try to do: “They really aren’t evil, right? They’re not devil worshipper, right?” But being a teenager in high school, I’d heard all the rumors, that people around school who were into things Satanic were into Maiden and other bands like them. It didn’t help convince me otherwise that there was a book that looked suspiciously like a Bible buried under ice in the corner. Regardless, I kept the tape gripped in hand until I got to the counter, where I nervously made my purchase and sped home to find out what I’d gotten myself into.
Needless to say, I got myself in pretty deep — decades later, I’m still into them. I even tried a couple of times in my 20s to convince myself that I had outgrown Iron Maiden. I found out the hard way that just isn’t going to happen: Iron Maiden is a part of me, and I am a part of what’s kept Iron Maiden around.