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 cancer—peacefully, 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, mercurial—coarse 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 Lover with 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 bands—Madness, Black Grape, midperiod Blur—Dury’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 Hassle trek. 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 aggressive—you 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. Pepper cover. 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?’ ”
Dury saw a lot of bands while studying at the Royal College of Art in the early ’70s. “They’d all encore with ‘Brown Sugar,’ and I’d say, ‘Fuck me, I could entertain people better.’ ” To prove it, he started Kilburn and the High Roads, a pub-rock outfit, and showed that a man with a limp and a cane could be as engaging and sexy as Mick Jagger. Lack of competition helped, he says: “Most people in rock ‘n’ roll are fuckin’ stupid cunts.”
“The Kilburns were this mixed bag of odd-bods,” says Suggs. “Ian couldn’t move much, there was a guy with one leg on drums, and a dwarf on bass—but it was the most theatrical show I’d seen.” Once, he recalls, Dury pulled a long string of knotted handkerchiefs from a pocket, “like some cheap sort of magician. With the slightest movement, he’d make it look like the whole stage was alive.”
By 1977, Ian Dury and the Blockheads were signed by Stiff Records, the pioneering alternative label that hyped itself with the deathless slogan “If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck.” Stiff made stars of Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, but others—like Wreckless Eric and Lene Lovich, Mickey Jupp and Jona Lewie—mustered a classic 45 or two and departed for cultdom. Many of the singers—”weaklings and runts who would never have got a deal with a proper record company,” Nick Lowe says—joined up for a 1977 caravan documented on Stiffs Live, which is still in print. Not that there was camaraderie among the weirdos. “It wasn’t a relaxed, happy tour,” Dury recalls. “It was geared toward launching Elvis—I didn’t need it as much as he did. And there was a certain paranoia flying about” because, Dury says, his band often upstaged Costello.
“It was quite a rivalry,” Lowe confirms. “Ian and Elvis were very ambitious, and ready to take the world on. We were young and real pleased with ourselves, and everyone was quite nasty about each other.” Costello, who kept Dury’s “Roadette Song” in his live set for several years, declined a request to discuss Dury and his Stiff years.
Just as Peter Blake taught him, Dury wrote about his obsessions, which were often sexual, comic, or both. Although it was obliquely ambivalent, his first single, “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” was quashed by the BBC (the B side was a merry tune about shoplifting porno). The title earned him an entry in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, though Dury knows he didn’t invent the phrase: “Life coined the phrase, and I nicked it off life.” The song “sounds like I’m saying, ‘Yee-hah for drugs.’ I was saying it was good, but then I’m saying, ‘Are you sure that’s all there is?’ I’m not saying it in a way that’s very clear.”
Next came “Wake Up and Make Love With Me,” about morning erections, which radio also boycotted, and the vibrantly kinky “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,” a No. 1 in England. Dury cheekily proclaims “Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3,” the funky recitation that came next, “the first rappin’ record. It came out three months before the Sugarhill Gang, ‘Rapper’s Delight.’ I got the same sources as those geezers. I had the Last Poets record in 1971.”
After his hits, Dury “went completely crazy,” a former manager charged. “He became a monster, turned from being really nice to being a real pain in the ass.” Dury has admitted, “I was selfish. Girls were throwing themselves at me and I went for it.” He’d had two kids with Betty Rathmell, an art-school sweetheart, but the marriage fell apart over his cheating.
In 1981, to declare his ambivalence about the U.N.’s Year of the Disabled, he released “Spasticus (Autisticus),” in which he yelps, “I’m spasticus!” again and again. He felt entitled to use the word. “I’ve been sitting with somebody who said, ‘I’d sooner be dead than lose a leg.’ They say it forgetting that I’m a crip.” This was well before women dubbed themselves bitches and blacks called themselves niggers, and Dury’s appropriation of insulting language was genuinely shocking. “Some people say that song was a career wrecker for me.” Once again it was effectively banned by British radio.
Looking back, he says, “I’ve written about four songs that I really like. Mind you, Cole Porter only wrote six good songs. There’s not a lot about.” His bravado flares. “There just aren’t any good lyric writers. I’m the only one. In the ’60s, I shared a flat with a guy who was into The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I used to go, ‘That guy was on speed when he did that.’ I could tell.
“David Bowie must have spawned 700 bands. I don’t particularly think we have, because what we do is too difficult.” He breaks into a savory laugh.
At the start of the show, Dury gets helped to the mic, and stays still throughout, sending the band and fans into motion. Bassist Norman Watt-Roy sweats through his light-gray pants, until it looks as though he’s pissed himself. Before the encore, Dury steps behind his hulking helper and takes a few puffs of illegal. In a white scarf, dark fedora, earrings, and sunglasses, he’s equal parts carny, gypsy, thug, pirate, and fop, full of the Devil’s own charisma.
After the 2000 have been sated, a celebration bulges the small, smoky dressing room. The late hours pass. Dury holds court with old friends, reluctant to end the evening. “He’s usually the last one to leave,” Watt-Roy says with a fond chuckle. “The last chicken in the shop.”
He was first diagnosed five years ago, and in 1998, when the cancer spread to his liver, doctors said he might be dead in eight months. So he married his girlfriend, sculptor Sophy Tilson, who’s 23 years younger—they have two sons, Bill, 4, and Albert, 2. He’s chosen private medical care over England’s national plan: “I’m a socialist, but I don’t want to be a dead socialist.” He continues a regimen of chemotherapy through a permanent Hickman line in his chest.
A few close friends have died of cancer, including his ex-wife Betty, so “it’s hard not to think of it as a sword of Damocles,” he says. For the most part, he maintains a darkly comic stoicism in public, though his moods vary nearly as widely as his health. Lately, he’s felt tired and weak. He has a few gigs booked in England for April and May, and vows to perform from a wheelchair if he has to.
Even now, with interest in oddballs and misfits a pop staple, Dury remains unjustly obscure, partly because he’s just too prickly to ingratiate himself with history. Knowing how he’s going to die has only strengthened his resolve about how he wants to live. Last year, Madness regrouped for Wonderful, which they dedicated to Dury. And they wrote a song for Dury to sing on, “Drip Fed Fred,” a comic fable about a formidable gangster ailing in prison. “We were supposed to start recording at 11 a.m.,” Suggs says with a laugh, “and when we turned up at midday, he’d already finished and gone. He doesn’t have any time left to fuck around.”