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`I've been pampered and loved. Why should I grumble?' Legendary pop star and wordsmith Ian Dury talks to Simon Hattenstone about the good times, the not so good times, and making the most of life with terminal cancer
by Simon Hattenstone
The Guardian; Manchester; Jun 19, 1998

Everyone in the office has an Ian Dury story to tell. Everyone. Even those who know nothing about music. It seems I'm the only one who hasn't met him. `I saw him just the once,' says Murray. `Spent the evening smoking spliffs . . . oh yeah, I interviewed him, too.' `He won't remember,' says Nigel, `but I booked him once for a socialist convention. He came on stage and screamed `'Ello you Trotskyists' . . . a great night in Trot history. And he took me to meet his mates, gangsters down to the last one. Great!' I tell Nigel that Dury's got a new album out, his first with the Blockheads in 17 years, and it's a cracker. I also mention the cancer, presuming he'd know. `Jesus . . . you are joking?' Bad news travels fast. Everyone in the office wants an update: how far's it gone, what hope, is it terminal? Everyone has the same reaction. How bloody unfair.

We've arranged to meet at Kenwood House in Hampstead. Kenwood House is a bit la-di-dah, in the heart of posh liberal north London. The heath, the bowers, the Great Danes, a few priceless Rembrandts and Vermeers tarting up the house, and polite conversation all the way round. Not the first place you'd associate with the man who hit us with his suggestive rhythm stick 20 years ago, who told us there ain't half been some clever `barstards', the poet of punk (as the Sun had it in 1979) who wrote songs about having it off in the back of his Cortina with Nina who was more obscener than a seasoned-up hyena, the polio sufferer who wrote Spasticus Autisticus against The Year Of The Disabled in 1981.

Dury's late. Eventually, I catch sight of a man limping down a passageway flanked by two minders. His hair is white, his face puffier but still handsome and cheekily menacing, the earrings piratical. They stop at the toilet and enter. It's impossible not to eavesdrop on the laughter and Dury mouthing off in his cor-blimey-guv best. I do a runner and park myself at a decent distance for when they emerge.

`Did no one tell you where my office was?' asks Dury, pointing the way forward with his stick. Within a minute he's tried out three or four voices, and told me a couple of old but fond jokes. The office is a table in the far corner of the cafe, which looks remarkably like any other table. Dury grins - he likes that one.

He hooks a pair of glasses on to his schnozz, which makes him look terribly civilised. Not that surprising - after all, Dury was never really a pop star, he was an artist who had done seven years bird at art school, an actor who's serviced the best theatres, a wordsmith equally at home with Wittgenstein as The Classical Dictionary Of The Vulgar Tongue.

Dury's playing with his pills, which are scattered on the table. `I've got 3,000 William Hills, here.' Antibiotics because he's caught a nasty coughy streptococcus. But he says he's feeling much better than when the colonic cancer was announced. The endless shitting and puking has stopped, even though the cancer has spread to his liver, and there is no known cure. It's only a few weeks since his specialist spotted the nine baby tumours on the liver. This resulted in the Mirror headline: `Ian Dury: I am dying of cancer . . . but I've still got reasons to be cheerful.' One is the new record, Mr Love Pants. It could be New Boots And Panties 2, following the classic album that established Dury and the Blockheads in 1977. A glance at the new cover shows that Dury, at 56, is still puerile, crude and witty in a way unique to pop music. A boxer dog in ghastly luminous boxer shorts stares out of the sleeve - its bristling tail sticks out of the fly like a you-know-what. And then there are the titles: Jack Shit George, Cacka Boom, Mash It Up Harry. The words and music-hall funk (composed by old sparring partner Chaz Jankel) whiz us back two decades.

Dury says he likes the album because the songs amuse him and they are impersonal. But there is also a mellowness, what seems to be a valedictory note in songs like The Passing Show: Our laughter rang around the world, When we were happy boys and girls.

As now, we balk and hesitate, Encumbrance comes to those who wait.

But when we're torn from mortal coil, We leave behind a counterfoil.

It's what we did and who we knew, And that's what makes this story true.

`No,' says Dury, `that song is not about me. I wrote it before I knew I was ill. It's about friends. Ronnie Lane, that would include, and my late wife - and Charley. All kinds of people who died too young.' Charley Charles was the drummer in the Blockheads. He died of cancer. Dury's first wife Betty died a few years ago - of cancer. The musician Ronnie Lane died of Multiple Sclerosis. Dury's long-time mate, minder and infamous bad boy, The Sulphate Strangler, died in police custody. Death has been part of everyday life for the past 20 years.

Actually, he says, the only song about me on the album is You're My Baby. Typical. Fooled again. I'd presumed the song was for a lover rather than a child. Dury now has four kids - the two from his first marriage are in their late twenties, the two youngest, Bill and Albert, are three and one. His wife Sophy,, a sculptress and the daughter of artist Joe Tilson, is in her early thirties. `You know, I had to go to St Pancras and register my three-year-old's birth and my mum's death on the same day.' Dury is in great form. `My girl went to Indonesia. Jakarta? No she went on a bicycle. Go on, crack yer face.' When Dury takes off with our photographer, Jamie Spencer - `the record company' (the only other worker is the lawyer) - tells me he is envious and ashamed. He's not half as content as Dury and he only has a mortgage to worry about.

Dury has given up the fags, only drinks and smokes the occasional joint on Sundays. `When you're on the chemo three days a week, you don't really feel like it.' He gets plugged up to his Hickman line on a Tuesday and disconnected on Thursday evenings. It's a form of chemotherapy that enables him to stay on his feet, cuts out the nausea and hasn't robbed him of his hair.

I tell him how well he's looking. `That's one of the cliches of cancer,' he says. `Well there are two cliches. One is that people tell you you look well, the other is that you do look well.' Some would say Dury has been well prepared for misfortune. His mum (a middle-class health visitor) and dad (a working-class bus driver) split up when he was young. At seven, he contracted polio, spent months in hospital, and was eventually sent to a special school. Dur was bright and he eventually made it to grammar school, but by then he wore callipers and he was, as he may have put it, a `raspberry ripple'.

At times it seems as if Dury's lyrics have been fuelled by resentment of the posh gits and clever barstards given the opportunities denied to most working-class kids. From What A Waste to Jack Shit George (below), there is a steady undercurrent of anger.

I'm a second-class person citizen-wise.

This is something I must recognise.

It's not my place to make complaint, But am I happy? No I ain't.

I missed my chance when I was young, Now I live below the bottom rung.

I was put on earth to discover my niche; Oh Lord won't you make me nouveau riche? Yet, however much the songs are inspired by experience, they are not autobiographical. He is a performer, sometimes a mimic, toying with character. Dury went into music, leading Kilburn and the High Roads, to subsidise his art. He wasn't interested in being a pop star, didn't even particularly like pop - jazz was his thing. But the further he strayed from art, the more he realised he couldn't make it on his own terms. `I was a good draughtsman, but I wasn't a very good painter. I got good enough as an artist to know that I'd never be happy. I'd always be frustrated because I'd never be that good.' At the same time, he began to realise he was a bit of a looker, that the girls liked him, despite or maybe even because of his gammy leg and the fact that he was minute - five foot nothing. It was 1973, still five years off from the charts, but Dury already had a disarmingly loyal fan-base. `I'd never thought I was handsome, and here I was getting told I was handsome. It was the first week Dingwalls opened, and the women . . . that did tipple my head. I was 30 years old and I was getting smothered in 'em, smothered. Everyone was going 'Ello babe, and touching me up as they went by. And I was looking at myself and thinking, `Why are they all doing this to me?" Was he tempted? `Wasn't I ever? Then I met someone who I ended up living with, and split up with my wife. There was a period when I went absolutely fuckin' mental with the birds. It was weird being told I was gorgeous, and I believed it.' A few years later, Malcolm McLaren proved himself pop's most audacious and irresponsible merchandiser when he packaged the Sex Pistols. And as Johnny Rotten spewed out Anarchy In The UK through tender, barely pubescent lips, Dury was preparing a more complex and mature form of anarchy. The hybrid music, the scatological poetry, the deviant persona were all shot through with anarchy. He was both of punk/new wave and separate. He was cruder and ruder and more anti-establishment than the teenyboppers in mohicans and nose-pins, and at the same time a father-figure, as wise as he was knowing.

I was about 15 when Dury waggled his way into my consciousness through Top Of The Pops. My friends and I were entranced. If we'd been a couple of years older, I'm sure we would have recognised a great performer. Instead we saw a weirdo with an even weirder posture, a lunatic, a sicko, a leather-and-chains whipping boy, a straight-down-the-line perv with lyrics and a voice every bit as louche. Top Of The Pops didn't do `cripples', and here was Dury totally at ease with his body, revelling in it, sexing up his disability, being irresistible.

He sang dirty songs and we made them even dirtier. I tell him that I used to sing Sweet Gene Vincent and swapped the lyrics from `I miss you sweet Virginia whisper' to `I miss your sweet vaginal deodorant', and he cracks up. `I love that, I love things like that. My nickname was Durex at school. My daughter's called Jemima so they called her Vagina Durex at school. Barstards.' Is he as perverted as I presumed? `We harbour these thoughts, and occasionally . . .' Yes? Dury smiles the smile of a man who knows he's going to disappoint. `I wouldn't say I was a 100 per cent full-time professional eight-hours-a-day perv, d'you know what I mean? I have my moments, love! I never knew whether to say yes or no when some bird came up and asked if it's really you. There was a girl who used to stand at the front and I wore a safety pin in my lughole, and she started wearing one in hers. Then me mate made me a silver razor blade, not a real razor blade but it looked like a real one, and I hung that in my earhole. And BP Fallon, you know, the legendary press man, talked to her during one of the gigs and he said to me `You must never, ever smile at her'. I said, `Why not,?' and he said `Because she's fantasising about you . . . she thinks you're this right evil bastard, and if you say hello to her it would shatter the fantasy'.' Did he exploit his disability? Dury looks hurt, a little annoyed. `No, I didn't,' he says sharply. `I was once doing a gig and a bloke came up to me afterwards and said, `You're putting that on,' and I said, `No, I fuckin' ain't, I'm hiding it, you chunt.' Dury speaks 19 to the dozen. Now he's doing two dozen to the dozen. `We did a tour with The Who and Roger Daltrey said, `If I had a leg like that, I'd stick it up in the air and wave it about,' and I said, `Yeah, would you, Roger?' He would, I wouldn't. I didn't either hide it or wave it about, I ignored it. I'd rather it didn't show, I would resent the idea of using it.' He takes a breath. `I always felt I was very glamorous. I liked the way I dressed and the way I looked.' As a pop star, Dury proved as ephemeral as the punks. Two albums and he was a gonner. Did he miss the glory? `No, I was fuckin' well sick of it. I thought I was old and cynical enough for it not to wear my head out, but it did. It does your soul up, being too famous. And being non-stop feted and lauded wherever you go.' Dury is happier talking about others than himself. I tell him that as a child I also had an illness that kept me off school for a couple of years, and he's fascinated, hungry for comparisons. I tell him about the journalists back at the office who interviewed him all those years ago, and he remembers their names and more details than they do. He wanders off with the photographer, David, and orders me to look after the mobile phone. They are away so long I'm convinced they've eloped.

Dury returns in hyper mode. `I pinned 'im down straightaway. That's Alan Sillitoe's little boy, Alan's lad, innit? We had sympathies together, me and Alan . . . Royal Court, leftist writers. Geezer goes to the psychiatrist, says, `I think I'm a dog.' He says, `Oh jump on the couch.' He says, `I'm not allowed.' Haha! Anyone phoned up? No one phoned? I've been away half an hour, I feel gutted. What's the bird? What's the time?' Dury says he went for a decade without doing an interview. Why? `I don't talk about what I don't feel proud of. I've written a few albums I didn't feel like doing interviews about. The mistake people make in this business is they hype something that ain't very good. It kills your career.' Having said that, Dury's done plenty over the past 15 or so years that most of us would be proud of: he wrote a play, Apples, for the Royal Court (`a bit of a disaster . . . I read somewhere that most writers write 17 books before they get one published, and I've just steamed in and wrote a play . . . a bit naughty really'), worked as an ambassador for Unicef, acted in the theatre and did numerous bit parts in bit movies (`They always want me to smoke a cigar - must be something to do with the shape of me 'ead.') He was even asked by Andrew Lloyd Webber to write the lyrics for Cats. `I went naaaaah! Naaaaaaaaaaaah! And he got Richard Stilgoe, who's not as good as me, and he made about pounds 18 million. He's crap, but he did ask the top man first.' And he's smiling for Essex, refreshing himself on the memory. `And I said nil, non.' Does he consider himself a poet? `No. I'm a rock'n'roll lyricist, a word-writer, a wordsmith. I met Steven Berkoff at Metamorphosis, and he come up to me afterwards and said, `'Ello Wordsmith', just like that. And I thought, `Yeah, he knows his onions.' I'm a wordsmith. I'm not in competition with anybody. In my opinion, I'm in a league of my own.' After the drought, he says, he's got more to talk about than ever. `I've got three areas of expertise now. My doctor gave me a lecture last week, two and a half hours, and he's giving me another one next week so I don't talk bullshit when I give interviews. There are me three subjects now - rock'n'roll, Unicef and cancer.' He explains how chemotherapy works, tells me about survival percentages, the 360 cancer charities, the 190 types of cancer, and then apologises for going on. `Can we get back to the music?' What did he mean when he told a newspaper he wanted to talk about cancer to cheer people up? Dury says that in a way he'd rather no one knew, `because it's oppressive being loved. It stops you being vulgar and swearing and Jack the laddy, your normal self. But, you know, after I did these articles my doctor rang me up and he said `I'm proud of you.' And he really was. Someone has got to be out there, talking about it, not ashamed of it, not hiding it. In that sense, it will help people. It will also help people to know that it's not always gloom.' He almost seems sanguine. `Sanguine is a funny word. If I was only 40, I wouldn't be so sanguine. And if I hadn't had a fairly good crack already, I wouldn't be. I've had no reason to be grumpy.' But lots of people are grumpy without reason? `What I mean is, I've been pampered and looked after and cuddled and loved, and treated with friendship. Not that I'm getting ready to fold up. At least 50 per cent of the fight against cancer is how you feel, what your attitude is. If you can deal with the treatment, and the treatment doesn't fuck your mind or body up, you've got a lot more chance of fighting it with your spirit. It's up to people like me to make it glamorous, or at least normal.' He seems momentarily distracted; his voice melts away.

`I wouldn't say sanguine though . . . I'm gutted when I think about not seeing my kids . . .' Do they know? `Nah, they're too young. I wouldn't tell them anyway. I hope I creep away . . .' It's going-home time. We pack ourselves into the tiniest four-seater in the world. Jamie The Record Company drives while Dury guides us through Hampstead. `Ah, you fucker, where's me cripple stick?' We pass a man with blond hair and biceps. `Look at that matelot,' says Dury, breaking into song. `Matelot, matelot, where you go I will follow.' We're driving through a famous gay cruising area. `See there, that's a bush where you can get beaten up. That's a bush where you can get a good shagging. Fuckin' a-mazing. You can get off at the Tube 'ere. You know, there was an American singer Jim Ford and he sang a song that went, `I'm ahead if I can quit while I'm behind'. I love that.' Mr Love Pants is released on June 28.

 


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