Jewel in the bile
‘I see myself as a member of the building trade – a rock ’n’ roll brickie. It all depends on just how good a brickie you want to be …’
Ian Dury, man of Hod, has invited me round to his recently acquired West End flat – ‘I’ve only got a year lease. Haven’t got a fucking clue where I’ll be after that.’
When you’re writing the interview for Record Mirror, the Daily Record and the Evening News, you get bounced up to club class − invites to the homes. I’ve interviewed Ian once before -- we went ice skating together at Queensway, believe it or not. He’d just released New Boots and Panties, the outlet for a townful of emotion that swirled and bubbled in Dury’s jewel box.
It created a unique market. Seldom out of the charts, the album has clocked up sales approaching half a million.
The follow-up, Do It Yourself, was a disappointment. A bit self-indulgent maybe? Over-estimating the aural intelligence of the masses? Or just plain shit?
After chatting to Ian for an hour and a half, I’m still not sure what he thinks of the album.
‘I think we went a bit MOR simply because we tried to be so different from New Boots. But it has paved the way for a lot of new songs to be written. A lot more hard work will come as a result of it. Oh, well, you can’t disappoint everybody. The songs on Do It Yourself were more autobiographical, which may have been a mistake. Now that sounds as if I hate the album and it’s not true.’
Why was the album more autobiographical?
‘In a personal way I wasn’t really happy last year. Everything that happened really messed up my normal life. I felt alone a lot of the time. I didn’t go out; I didn’t meet many new people. I guess it was obvious, in the light of that, how my songs would turn out.’
Are you a satirical songwriter?
‘What’s that saying . . . ‘Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit’? No. Satire is the last outpost of the bankrupt middle-class public-schoolboy wanker. There’s nothing very important about the entertainment industry. People worry too much about industrials. If it’s entertaining and people want to see it there doesn’t have to be any more reason.’
But it’s true he’s regarded as something of a hero by many. ‘And I’m amazed by it. To think me, just another normal crotchety old bastard, could be thought of as some kind of bod to a lot of people. I mean, for a start, I’m not all that reliable a person. I don’t go waving magic wands at people in real life.
‘A bishop once told Mick Jagger he had a lot of respect. Jagger replied: "There is no respect attached to what I am." When I realised he really meant that I stopped loving him. The only real respect is a personal one. If someone wants to be decadent in private it’s their responsibility not to make a fuss about it. It’s not that wonderful a thing. In fact it’s very sad – the last outpost of someone who can’t relate to normality. I have a responsibility to keep myself together.
'Ten years ago I could like myself quite easily. Now I have to work hard at it. But I still have that self-respect. If I lost that, I’d give up. Van Morrison used to get a lot of letters from people who said his songs prevented them from jumping off bridges. After he read them he’d say, "Christ, that’s another one I’ve stopped." I hope my songs don’t stop people jumping off bridges.’
He’s got a smile as blue as his baggy shirt. I’ve had my doubts about Dury in the past. It was that art-school/fart-school antecedence, that down-among-the-plebs pageantry. After our last interview I had a cast-iron respect, which has since rusted. But the longer he talks, the more I begin to realise he’s still out there on that ledge with the rest of us, scheming and dreaming. Scheming and dreaming … and screaming …
But self-respect isn’t the only kind, is it, Ian?
‘I do respect the guys I work with, enough to want to work with them. I don’t think they think I’m the best singer in the world. But I do object to being called, as I once was, the "Roy Hudd of rock". I mean, fuck me.’
Ian, do you think you’re ugly?
‘Nah, I’m just around the corner and three doors down from handsome, that’s all. I still get my fair share of fan mail. A lot of the young ladies don’t seem to mind that much. In fact, some people seem to find me attractive. I have fourteen-year-old girls writing to me asking for a photograph. And I remember the last time I played at Hammersmith, ten girls leaped on the stage to get hold of me. ‘Oh yeah,’ he adds, tongue in cheekily, ‘I get the screamers alright. Gary Glitter watch out.’
But he also takes great pains to point out that he doesn’t want to simply attract the ‘TTDC – that’s Teen and Twenty Disco Club. It’s like I’d rather do an interview with the Daily Mirror than the Observer. I want to reach as many kinds of people as possible. I’d be very happy if the audience was full of old age pensioners and little kids.
‘You can’t attach much importance to what I do – although at the same time I hope I believe in what I do. I’m thirty-seven now. On my thirty-fifth birthday the telephone was cut off because I hadn’t paid my bill. I was skint. I was very worried about that telephone bill. Very worried. I don’t have to worry about the telephone bill any more. They used to say something about Keith Moon which I thought was a magnificent concept. They reckoned that if he’d left The Who at any time he would have been broke in six months. That’s a great thing to remember.
‘I’ve been in a closeted atmosphere for quite some time. Mind you, I never was one for showing my face. Don’t like the scuffling it involves. I’m just not interested in that nonsense. I don’t find it very interesting in the way that, say, Bob Geldof or Billy Idol seem to. Oh, I didn’t have time to experience an identity crisis or anything like that. I was too bloody busy. Still am. I die when I’m alone …
‘Still, I’ve been lucky. None of us are in debt. We’ve managed to stay alive by selling records. It’s all quite healthy. But I think the rest of the guys still worry about their telephone bills.’
He looks a little tired. Does he get depressed?
‘I usually get moody when I’m exhausted but generally I don’t think there’s any point in taking things seriously. If we make mistakes on stage we just laugh. We know we’ve done our best and there’s absolutely no need to get uptight about it. The only people who know when you’ve played a bum note are musicians and they didn’t pay to get in anyway. So it doesn’t matter.
‘It’s important to have normal feelings. I try hard to keep myself together in that way. I’d hate to end up like, say, Bob Dylan, living in that vast West Coast mansion. One day Dylan was walking down a narrow corridor with a huge bodyguard. This little guy came rushing towards them and bumped into Dylan. The bodyguard got hold of him
and said, "Hey, do you know who you’ve just knocked into? That’s Bob Dylan." And the little guy replied, "I don’t care if it’s fucking Bob Donovan! Get outta my way!"
‘Once I was walking down to a tube train when a mass of people suddenly swept me off my feet, and they didn’t touch the ground till I reached the platform. The train was already there and in the rush I fell over. Someone saw me and helped me onto my feet, which saved me from a right good stamping. It’s nice to have someone around to pick you up when you fall down. I get up quicker that way.’
Like all good circles the subject reverts back to respect. ‘I just don’t know why it should be that people respect me. After all, I’m only a bit of a spiv, a bit of a clown, a bit of a brat. It’s always easy for an oddball to be accepted.’
(The Blockheads broke up, re-formed, broke up, re-formed and gave their final performance at the London Palladium on 6 February 2000, supported by Kirsty MacColl. Ian died of cancer a few weeks later, aged fifty-seven. In my humble opinion, New Boots and Panties featured the finest lyrics ever written by a British artist)
Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain
© Barry Cain 2013
Check out Barry’s new novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives