Ian Dury would have been 75 today. Jonathan deBurca Butler looks back on the life of one of the unique talents of the new wave era
THERE was one thing that Ian Dury hated more than anything: Being patronised. So when in 1981 the UN declared the following year would be the Year of the Disabled, the singer-songwriter was infuriated. He decided he would retaliate and came up with the anthem ‘Spasticus Autisticus’.
“I thought about going on tour as Spasticus and The Autistics,” he recalled in an interview some years later, “but [his friend, musician Ed] Speight said, ‘No, it should be Spasticus Autisticus — he’s the freed slave of the disabled’.”
Speight was referring to the Stanley Kubrick movie Spartacus, the ending of which sees thousands of slaves standing up and declaring ‘I’m Spartacus’ in solidarity with their would-be liberator.
Dury, who would be celebrating his 75th birthday today, never saw himself as a liberator but he was most certainly a rebel and an angry one at that. When he was just seven years old he was struck down with polio. It was an illness that, in many ways, defined his life, leaving him crippled and in constant pain. His Irish links included his mother’s family, Protestants who had owned a large farm in Co Donegal. He also played several gigs in this country.
“I met him in his hotel room in Dublin,” recalls Newstalk broadcaster Tom Dunne. “And at that stage he was very frail. I remember at one point using the bathroom and it was just full of medication. He was in constant pain. But there was always an air about him, whether in his music or the way he went about his business, which said ‘don’t you dare pity me’.”
At the time Dunne was working on a show for RTÉ called Popscene. Dury, says Dunne, was one of the more memorable interviews.
“He was just brilliant,” says the Something Happens singer. “We got on very well. The shared love was English and words. As you know, he was very sick as a kid and it was words that were his escape. He spoke a lot about his mother, that’s who he got his love of words from, and he told me he used this great big canvas and he’d write on it, almost like a painting, and then pull the words from it as he was going along writing a song.”
Dunne recalls that as he was leaving he pulled a CD of Dury’s from his pocket and asked the singer to sign it. “I was a major fan so it was sensational to meet him. So I handed him the CD and he autographed it for me with the words ‘Tom you tit’, and we will never understand why he wrote that.”
By all accounts, this was quite typical of Dury. He was adept at building people up just to cut them down or at least leave them wondering. In a nutshell he was what might be termed as ‘difficult’.
The story goes that when he first met his soon to be band mate and songwriting partner, Chaz Jankel, he told him to f**k off. Dury was 34, tired and frustrated. It was just as well that Jankel was persuaded to try to speak to him again because one year later Ian Dury and the Blockheads released their first and most successful album New Boots and Panties featuring their only number one, ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, as well as the anthem, ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’.
“At one stage when Hot Press had just come out, I was reviewing the singles for them,” recalls 2FM’s Dave Fanning. “I had sent in my copy and had picked my single of the week and next thing, this thing lands on my desk, ‘Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick’. I played it over and over again. It was just brilliant. I rang them to change my single of the week and they were aghast so I always remember it for that.”
“I interviewed him years later,” continues Fanning. “He sat down the whole time, he found it difficult to walk, and he twiddled his cane around and it turned out to be a long interview. He was an intelligent guy and he had a lot to say about things. If you ever saw the movie Sex and Drugs and Rock n’ Roll I think the portrayal of him was pretty accurate. It made him out to be a bit of a torturer and he knew how to be mean to people and press their buttons.”
“He was a brilliant storyteller and incredibly funny but he was also difficult and very stubborn,” recalled his son, Baxter, in 2009 interview in The Guardian. “As he got older he could be extraordinarily difficult but he was saved from wankerdom by his humour and his honesty. It was all very complex.”
Baxter, born in 1971, was the second of two children Dury had with first wife, Betty Rathmell. When Baxter was two, Dury decided to abandon both he and his older sister, Jemima, and move to central London where he eventually shacked up with Denise Roudette. Both women would be treated appallingly and as Dury admitted himself he was “a tricky customer”.
In an interview given to The Telegraph in 2009, Chaz Jenkel blamed alcohol for Dury’s darker side. “If you got a call from him and you heard the tinkle of ice in a tumbler at the other end of the telephone, you knew a certain amount of Dutch courage was being added to Ian’s acerbic brew,” he said. “It’d be like he had a row of soldiers behind him, it gave him the courage to say things he wouldn’t normally say. Multiply that by three tumbler-fulls or a lot of Guinnesses and you knew it was time to stand back.”
Dury stayed in the public eye right through the 1980s, but musically, never did anything as good his debut album. As Fanning points out, “he did have his day and then began to become less relevant”.
Fellow band members went off to pursue other projects and Dury dabbled in acting. Inevitably they always reunited however and The Blockheads continued touring for many years. At their peak, they were a potent combination, Dury’s unique lyrics backed by a band who, in terms of musicianship, were miles ahead of many of their peers in the new wave era.
“The last time I saw them was at a gig at a Biker’s Festival somewhere in the south east,” recalls Tom Dunne. “We were actually supporting them — that’s another story. But after we played we stayed on to see them. He had to be carried on to the stage he was so frail but the gig was fantastic. The Blockheads were amazing. That band were really sensational. But I think overall it was the lyrics that really drove it along because they were edgy and attacking and a little bit nasty and they really captured the spirit of punk rock. I suppose he was a bit like punk rock’s Bob Dylan, he captured the right words at the right time. He was magic.”
In 1995, that magic was dealt a blow when Dury was diagnosed with cancer. Shortly after the diagnosis he married sculptor, Sophy Tilson, and fathered two more children. Shortly before his death in March 2000, Paul McCartney paid him a visit. It was “like having the Queen Mother coming round for tea,” he told his wife.
The Beatle was also there when Dury’s ashes were thrown into the River Thames along with a caliper. Dury was defiant to the last.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved