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Editor's note: Ian Dury died at approximately 8:30 a.m. March 27 in London, some five years after he was first diagnosed with cancerpeacefully, surrounded by his family, and, his manager told us, with a smile on his face. Thus he beat the following profile to the finish line. We had hoped to run it next week as a celebration of his indomitable life.
Ian Dury had a Saturday-morning hospital appointment to get chemotherapy for his terminal colon cancer.
The night before, instead of worrying or praying, he hobbled to the front of a London stage and gave a rough thrill to 2000 fans. "Louts and clowns," he called them, and they didn't vacate the sweat-soaked upper boxes until he'd done all his joyful late-'70s hits, "Wake Up and Make Love With Me" and "Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3," "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" and "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll." Dury is not easily deterred. He became a rock star despite the ravages of polio.
Dury wouldn't want you to read this story just because he has cancer. Overt sympathy may top his ample list of annoyances, and when annoyed, he growls. Not long ago, he traveled to Sri Lanka as part of a UNICEF mission to promote polio immunization. A journalist was with him, and every morning she'd gravely inquire about his health. "She was gettin' on my breasts. I got a bit pissed one night and had to straighten her out, in no small manner. The next morning she went, 'Nobody's ever used the C-word on me.' " He makes an unsympathetic face. "I didn't cunt her off that bad."
On the afternoon of his show, Dury, 57, sits in an overheated dressing room, bossing people about, tossing autograph requests in the garbage, and swearing magnificently. He's five feet and a bit extra, energetic, mercurialcoarse as a sailor one minute, addressing friends as "darling" seconds later with a theatrical quaver to his Cockney accent. "In and out like a preacher's cock," he shouts as his manager darts around. What Dury's missed in height, he's gained in width, with a solid skull under short white-and-gray hair, and the shoulders of a farm animal. It's as though Elton John mated with a battering ram. This is a man so blunt he almost named one very multiethnic group Cripple, Nigger, Yid, Chink, and Dead Fish. "Try and get them booked," he chortles.
After his rock career slowed in the early '80s, he worked as an actor, playwright, and TV host, and he's rich with picaresque tales about making The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Loverwith Peter Greenaway or tutoring Iggy Pop in subtlety on The Crow: Part Two, each told with the timing of an old vaudevillian, until you half expect to hear about the day he and Billy Shakespeare got bent on Remy.
Although his influence endured in a few younger bandsMadness, Black Grape, midperiod BlurDury's sunny mix of rock, funk, reggae, and music hall has proven inimitable. His offbeat rhymes and anachronistic slang mix wisdom and nonsense and refuse to distinguish between the two. "He's just brilliant, fantastic," says Damon Albarn of Blur. "Beautiful use of language. And he always comes across as a really good soul."
He hasn't had an American release since 1981, including 1998's moodier Mr. Love Pants(available at www.iandury.co.uk). He's toured the U.S. only once, opening for Lou Reed on his Street Hassletrek. It was a bad match: Dury, devoted to ecstasy and pleasure, and Reed, devoted to parsimony and pain. "Lou Reed used to get applause for lightin' a cigarette," Dury snorts. "Fuckin' joke. He was about as subversive as a packet of chips."
Dury's one of the few living musicians who can claim to have invented something good. And he's quick to remind you of that. "He's uncompromisingly abrasive," says his friend Suggs, the singer in Madness. "You could call him a genius, and that's one of the side effects of being a genius: Fuck everybody else if they don't realize."
Here's how Ian Dury got this way.
At the age of seven, he contracted polio, was sent to a school for the physically handicapped, and began a lifetime of wearing calipers on his right leg. He was raised by his mom, a midwife at a baby clinic, who split with his dad, a bus driver, when Ian was three.
"I'm naturally quite an aggressive person," he says. "Polio ameliorated my aggression, and curtailed my criminal activities, by making it so that I couldn't fight anybody. It made me mentally aggressiveyou be the brawn, I'll be the brains."
He's not a true Cockney, having grown up in suburban Essex, although "I've got every Cockney mannerism. It's an affectation I've been workin' on for 40-odd years. It's really the ethos and the style. I use a lot of the patois of the underworld. It's done with a smile and a quip."
As a teen, he heard art school was full of "dudes walking about with long hair, and gorgeous models," and decided to enroll. He did seven years, earned a master's, and studied with Peter Blake, the pop painter who also taught Pete Townshend and did the Sgt. Peppercover. Blake's mission was to liberate students' imagination. "Instead of doing a landscape of some old bit of fuckin' building, he said, 'What are your obsessions in real life?' "