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| The Iron Maiden Commentary | Rants | Rant 25: A Journey Through Steve Harris's Tortuous (Tortured?) Mind |
 

RANT 25

A Journey Through Steve Harris's Tortuous (Tortured?) Mind

Syl

Disclaimer: This essay was originally a short message that I intended to post on the MaidenFans bulletin board. However, as new ideas kepts flowing in, the short message turned rapidly into a longer dissertation and I thought it would be more appropriate to ask Maverick to add it to the already existing rant section of the Commentary. Basically, I simply wanted to compare my views with as many people as possible, so if you have any opinion about it, please send me a line to let me know. Some of you may see this as a sick attempt to intrude into Steve Harris's private life. Well, this is not the case, as I bear very little interest to the private life of artists. I only realised that the fear of what may exist beyond life as we know it is a recurrent theme in Steve's songs and I looked for a thread in his works. Such a topic does obviously involve very personal things.

 

In the Dance of Death Tour programme, Iron Maiden bass player Steve Harris says: "Thinking about dying is something that crosses everyone's mind at a certain point in life. I think that the idea of what comes afterwards, whether you believe in life after death or any of that, conjures up many different ideas and emotions. [...] People are scared and intrigued by the unknown and that's a very potent thing. Then again, maybe it's just on my mind more than anyone else's!"

Oh yes? Is that right?

In fact, if you take a closer look at the songs that Steve has written in the past 30 years or so, it is obvious that the after-life is his favourite theme. There are many different approches to this subject, and it is quite remarkable that Steve does it in an extremely personal way through his mystical and extra-sensory experiences. In this essay, I studied the way this topic is approached, as well as the way it evolved. I shan't explain each verse and each song related to this theme, but I shall point out those that seem to be the most significant.

Steve wrote many songs about characters inspired by films or literature, as well as fictitious characters, without defining who they really are. Whatever the case, most of these songs, or parts of these songs, deal with feelings and thoughts that could very well be Steve Harris's. Somebody once said that, after all, an artist only ever talks about himself, and song-writing is obviously a means for Steve to express his doubts and his fears.

Let's first have a closer look at the theme as Steve developed it. One of the leitmotivs is that of dreams, or more accurately of nightmares, as they are very often at the origin of fears and suffering. Steve Harris is a great dreamer, and his songs are full of references to his dreams. The similarities between the various following sentences are striking:

"In my dreams you're always there, you're the Phantom of the Opera you're the devil you're just out to scare" – Phantom Of The Opera
"With this nightmare inside me the devil's got a hold on my soul and he just won't let me be" – Prodigal Son
"'Cause in my dreams it's always there, the evil face that twists my mind and brings me to despair" – The Number Of The Beast
"Nightmares, spirits calling me, nightmares, they won't leave me be" – Still Life
"I lie asleep in the midst of a dream, is it now could it be the Angel of Death has come for me" – Heaven Can Wait
"Save me from torturing myself even within my dreams" – Infinite Dreams
Or even:
"Scared to fall asleep and dream the dream again, nothing that I contemplate, nothing that I can compare to letting loose the demons deep inside my head" – Dream Of Mirrors

Moreover, it seems that Steve has had experiences that he interpreted as extra-sensory or paranormal, such as feelings of déjà-vu, out-of-body experiences, confusion between dream and reality, premonitory and recurrent dreams, telepathy, communication with the dead, parallel and previous existences, etc. Very often, he's unable to express or explain what he felt.

Compare these lines:
"I've got these feelings and they won't go away" – Prodigal Son
"I've never felt so strange" – Still Life
"I never have felt this way before" – Heaven Can Wait
"Never felt this way before" – The Educated Fool
"Don't know why I feel this way" – Dream Of Mirrors

His dreams and extra-sensory experiences led him to take some interest in the mystical and occult aspects of life, as well as ponder the existence of a life after death, reincarnation, and eventually the meaning of life itself.

 

Following chronologically the order of release of the albums, we first stumble upon the very poetic and very enigmatic 'Strange World'. This is the very first song where Steve writes on the theme of dreams, of illusion and of parallel lives, and we don't really know what he's on about.

His ideas get clearer on the Killers album with 'Prodigal Son', which deals with extra-sensory experiences, dreams and death, and with 'Purgatory', which deals with dreams and death, as well as with previous lives.

Then, on the following album, 'The Number Of The Beast', inspired by one of Steve's dreams, mentions the confusion between dream and reality ("Can this still be real or some crazy dream?") and 'Hallowed Be Thy Name' highlights, through the eyes of a condemned man, the anguish that arises when facing death, as well as, once again, the blurred line between dream and reality ("Is it really the end not some crazy dream?", "Somebody please tell me that I'm dreaming"). Incidentally, I do not agree with what the Commentary says about the last verse, and I think that the line "Life down here is just a strange illusion" needs to be taken at face value. With hindsight, the meaning matches more closely the other themes approached by Steve about the dream state and real life, mostly in this particular song.

In Piece Of Mind, the themes of death and paranormal experiences can be found in the song 'Still Life'.

What comes out of these songs on the first four album is a feeling of being powerless. The characters are passive and, at the most, call for help without ever really getting it. The character in 'The Number Of The Beast' is somehow hypnotised, the one in 'Still Life' is dragged to the pond and drained by what he sees there, those in 'Purgatory' and 'Prodigal Son' beg for an external help. To Steve, man seems to be predestined and cannot in any case escape his fate, which causes this feeling of anxiety.

Let's skip a few years, as Powerslave does not feature any song about any of Steve Harris's existential doubts. On the following album, though, we find 'Deja-Vu', a song dealing with the possibility the existence of previous lives, and mostly 'Heaven Can Wait'. This latter song contains the now recurrent theme about the confusion dream/reality, death and what may be beyond. However, there is here an evolution in the way Steve approaches the topic. For the first time, the character in the song shows some sort of will to counter fate: "I'll go when I'm good and ready", "I can't accept my soul will drift forever".

The mystical story of the Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son concept album gave Steve the opportunity to express much more intensely his doubts than on the previous albums. 'Infinite Dreams' is some sort of "confession" about his fear of the after-life. Like in 'Heaven Can Wait', he once again asserts that he doesn't want to be a pawn of fate. But most importantly, he faces to the fact that his real problem is his failure to find himself ("Help me to find my true self without seeing the future »). Trying to see the future by interpreting his dreams and his extra-sensory experiences could constitute for him a way to discover himself.

But is this a true confession? Can't we link this song to another one that was written long before this one? Pay attention to the verses of 'Wrathchild': "And now I spend my time looking all around for a man that's nowhere to be found, until I find him I'm never gonna stop searching". This song is supposed to be the story of a young man looking for his father, but the lyrics are ambiguous enough for us to see some kind of hint that the young Steve Harris was already looking for his true self. Isn't it anyway the goal of every man to know who he really is and therefore try to give a meaning to his own life?

For the first time also appears the theme of reincarnation, found at the very end of 'The Clairvoyant'. In some quite confused way, Steve seems to imply that one lifetime won't be enough for him to do what he intends to do, which is in essence to find himself. Hence the notion of reincarnation, which would provide him with some extra time to achieve his goal.

 

The following album constitutes an interesting milestone in Steve Harris's quest. In the song 'No Prayer For The Dying', he once again calls for help, but, for the first time, he turns to God. 'Fates Warning' also refers to the antagonistic powers of good and evil. But, at the same time, the recurring themes that we were getting used to, such as dreams, paranormal and extra-sensory experiences, are absent from this album.

It seems that Steve understood that his dreams and various extra-sensory perceptions cannot provide any answers to the questions that plague him, and that he chose to turn to divine powers in order to find a meaning to his life. Could it be that God is the answer?

 

The Fear of the Dark album shows us that this is not the case. Calling God for help has become out of the question. On the contrary, we find there all the themes dear to Steve, and 'The Apparition' is a pretty good summary of all of them. This song can be compared to 'Twilight Zone', on the Killers album, as both songs feature a spirit who comes back to haunt the living. However, this is the only similarity. As it goes, 'Twilight Zone' remains within the same fatalistic vein as 'Prodigal Son' and 'Purgatory', whereas 'The Apparition' features the notion of free will: "You can make your own luck, you create your destiny, I believe you have the power if you want to".

So, after trying two different ways that are seemingly dead-ends for Steve, that of the man who cannot escape his fate, and that of the man who's submitted to God's will, a third possibility is envisaged: the way where man can actively play a role.

 

The X Factor seems to represent a break in the continuity of Steve Harris's thoughts. It is well-known that he was going through a rough patch both privately, with his divorce, and professionally, with Bruce Dickinson leaving the band and Blaze Bayley replacing him at the helm. This gave birth to Iron Maiden's deepest and darkest album. Two introspective songs written by Steve are of particular interest. In 'Judgement Of Heaven', he questions his beliefs and his own existence ("You question your beliefs, your inner thoughts, your whole existence"), as well as his fear of the afterlife ("All of my life I have believed judgement of heaven is waiting for me"). 'The Unbeliever' illustrates even better the changes that took place in Steve Harris. It is what I would call his second "confession". The lines "All my life I've run away All my life I've tried to hide away" are an echo to 'Infinite Dreams' and 'Wrathchild'. This is no wonder that the child cannot find (let alone become) the adult he's looking for if he is constantly running away.

Instead of trying to find out about the future, Steve finally dares to look back at his past and starts to reflect about the knowledge of good and evil. We then realise that his fear of the afterlife was just a decoy to hide his real fear, the fear to look inside of himself ("Are you scared to look inside your mind, are you worried just at what you'll find?"). I believe that this album is fundamental in Steve Harris's career in the way that it represents his arrival into adulthood and his first steps on the path of wisdom.

 

This new life as a "grown-up" can be seen in the song 'The Educated Fool', on the Virtual XI album. Despite doubts being still present, this is the first introspective song written by Steve Harris where we find a feeling of immense hope. We can go as far as saying that this is a rebirth: "Could this just be that life's just begun?". After looking at his past, he knows now that he can use his experience to give a meaning to his life ("Got a lifetime of experience yeah I've got so much to give"). He is calling onto free will instead of letting himself be blinded by his fears or turning to some divine power ("I want to leave my life on my own").

 

Brave New World features once again the notions of good and evil. However, whereas The X Factor only considered the personal choice between the two, these notions are now broadened to the rest of society in 'Blood Brothers' and 'The Thin Line Between Love And Hate', while keeping in mind that, at the end of the day, this is a choice that each individual has to make by himself. This reflection is only a starting point for Steve, and when he asks "At what age begin to learn of which way out we will turn?", he implies that he hasn't been able to make that choice yet.

In fact, the song 'Dream Of Mirrors' shows clearly that he is still torn by doubts. It is a very similar song to 'Infinite Dreams' when you consider the notions dealt with in the lyrics. However, it is obvious that Steve Harris has come a long way since the Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son album, as he starts to find his own answers and now sees his life better ("I only dream in black and white to save me from myself").

 

The opener for the Dance Of Death album, 'Wildest Dreams', reflects on Steve's spiritual evolution towards wisdom and it is clear that he has come much closer to his goal. There is no more mention of fate, all fears have disappeared, and asking God for help is now out of the question. We feel that Steve, by facing his past, has found a new strength to give a meaning to his life ("I'm going to exorcise the demons of my past... I just feel that I can be anything that I might ever wish to be... When I'm feeling down and low I vow I'll never be the same again"). This song is in the continuity of 'Wrathchild', 'Infinite Dreams' and 'The Unbeliever' in his search for his own identity: "I just remember what I am and visualise just what I'm gonna be". Now, he's found himself!

It is also possible to compare 'No More Lies' to 'Heaven Can Wait', a song in which the character couldn't resign himself to die because of his feeling that there was much more to achieve and who therefore wanted to go back to earth. With 'No More Lies', the character feels so ready that it is to him like going home ("My life is set, the time is here, I think I'm coming home"). He has no regrets when he looks at his life, despite the fact that he hasn't done everything he had to do. The notion of reincarnation crops up again, but we cannot in this case consider Steve a fatalist like with the songs on the first albums. Conversely, we can feel here a total lack of fear, a relative peace of mind and an assertive attitude because the character knows that he will come back in a form or another in order to finish what he had to do.

 

So who is Steve Harris? A tortuous or a tortured mind? Do you agree with Bruce Dickinson when he says: "Oh man he's a tortured motherfucker, Steve is sometimes"? Or do you think that the author of this rant has a bit of a problem and that, like with polls, you can interpret just about anything from a text. As far as I'm concerned, Steve's songs are much more than bed-time stories in support of the music, but the very expression of the darker side of his own soul. It can't all be coincidence, too many things are evident (well, didn't I hear something like this before?!). But, at the end of the day, I shall certainly not cast any kind of judgement on a man by only reading his texts, because any man is much more than the sum of his parts. On the other hand, I have the utmost admiration for someone who is able to lay down his feelings in words, as deep as they are, and who has the subsequent courage to expose them to the whole world. Absolute respect, Mr Harris.

For those who will have read all this to the end, I hope that this essay will help you read the texts with new eyes, listen to the songs with new ears, and, as it is the case for me, love them even more.

Syl
18th August 2005

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