The Frustratingly Unique Ian Dury

Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography by Will Birch (Sidgwick & Jackson)

Ian Dury was a tremendously English composite whose success against the odds of unlikelihood and disability remains a lasting example of what a determined soul can manage to attain. Ten years after his death, at the age of fifty seven, he has been the subject of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a frantically chaotic bio-pic that gives a good thumbnail portrait of a life of immense complexity and contradiction, but misses out on many of the finer points which go a long way to explaining Dury's disparate nature.

For a more detailed, accurate, but no less affectionate portrait of the man and his monsters -- and there were plenty of them -- fellow musician Will Birch (Kursaal Flyers, The Records) tackles his often-awkward charge with immense consideration and delicacy. The greatest trick in Dury's strange vocabulary of ticks and gestures was to transform an essentially middle-class boy into a Cockney geezer, part music hall villain, part straggler from the wrong side of the tracks. That he was Grammar School-educated, a product of the Royal College of Art, and a lecturer in the subject reflects how successful he was in his downwardly mobile ascent. His mother was a doctor's daughter, educated and refined, who married a man who wasn't, but to whom his new wife marked several steps up on the social climb. Dury's childhood was ruined by the polio virus; isolated in hospital, and then sent to a special school where bullying and humiliation was rife, he became a bully himself. A not-uncommon reaction to being on the receiving end of harsh treatment is to farm it out to others. Driven to succeed as an act of revenge, his shambling figure wasn't a likely star in the making. His vocal skills were characterful and limited, but his drive saw him form the unlikely Kilburn and The High Roads. Their oddness and energy made them stalwarts of a burgeoning Pub Rock scene in the London of the early '70s. Success wasn't to be theirs, and this was hindered by Dury's hiring and firing, divide-and-rule technique to maintain dominance and control amongst both friends and collaborators. In essence he was a one-trick pony, a volatile presence whose actions undermined his chances of greater glory. His debut solo release, New Boots & Panties, was a brilliant punk moment, a collection of characters and thoughts that would become part of the British psyche. It was a trick he never quite repeated. Just as Elizabeth Taylor is now more famous for being herself than for her movies, Ian Dury became, after his chart years ceased, a figure instantly recognizable as much for his personality and presence as his songs. What emerges from Birch's pages can only be described as a nasty charmer. Someone who could go off at any moment, and usually did, a trait exacerbated by his being a rubbish drinker. My own brief encounters with Dury left a sense of fascination, but not one of a particularly restful presence. He was a lyrical genius who was never as good as he could have been. His erratic collaboration processes, and constant belittling of his creative partners, meant his wordy gems were often poorly set.

His personal life was no more tranquil. He was at best an enigmatic parent, an errant husband, and a lover whose approach to his supporting cast of girlfriends was to undermine them via the same means he employed against his band mates. To keep him under control, and out of the bar whilst on tour, they'd remove his calliper, which left him screaming "Bastards" at them whilst he was marooned on his hotel room carpet. In the '80s and '90s Dury drifted into acting. Though his live shows were always guaranteed to draw a crowd, it was only with the onset of cancer that he finally made an album that came close to his debut solo collection. It also mellowed him. He married again, but the closeness he felt towards his new children, he could never quite extend to his two grown-up ones.

That his final gig was undertaken under the shadow of his encroaching death, in the splendid setting of the London Palladium, is heartbreakingly poignant. Dury's "Sweet Gene Vincent" is one of the most achingly poetic songs one is likely to encounter, a perfect tribute of affection and loss from one artist to another, especially one whose talent and disability rather mirrored his own.

"Skinny white sailor the chances were slender, the beauties were brief. Shall I mourn your decline on some Thunderbird wine and a black handkerchief? I miss your sad Virginia whisper. I miss the voice that called my heart...."

Will Birch has done a wonderful job in fusing a narrative from a life beset by incident, resentment, and personal discord. It is unlikely to be the final word on an awkward subject, but it is a wonderfully affectionate portrait, just like the one by Peter Blake, a lifelong friend, that adorns the cover. The book's success lies in its ability to never spare, nor overtly linger upon, the understandable flaws of the man in question. What emerges is an at times malevolent, mischievous, and insecure figure for whom one in the end feels enormous affection. Sometimes we expect enormous grace from lives that have been gifted precious little by way of that virtue.

Ian Dury perhaps created his own epitaph in "The Passing Show," a song about absent friends, from his final album, Mr Lovepants: "When we're torn from this mortal coil, we leave behind a counterfoil." 

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