Interview: Ian Dury

Tales of sex & drugs & rock & roll

Ian Dury from The Blockheads posed in The Paradiso, Amsterdam, Holland in 1977. Credit: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty

Ian Dury, between sets at the Bottom Line, is lolling on a chair in the just-cleared club. "With, with, wiv, with," he says. "Not for me, at me, to me. It's make love with me." He's talking with a young man who works in the mail room of his record company. They've just agreed that they both play in funk bands, and Dury is delighted that his new friend's band will cover "Wake Up and Make Love with Me" from his New Boots and Panties!! album.

On this second night of his New York stand, Dury, 35, looks like a discarded puppet from a Punch and Judy show. A bout with polio – he was in an English hospital school from age seven to twelve – left his left arm and leg withered. But he has the proud, startling eyes of a pirate king. "I've worked harder in the last five weeks than ever in my life, and I'm not truly tired, mentally or physically. In Philadelphia, I did one hour's kit [sleep] in three days. I get my energy from people."

Ian's work is to caper psychotically in front of his excellent, six-piece band: flipping scarves, shaking a red warning flag, brandishing toy swords and generally running through enough rabid gesticulations on such foulmouthed cockney epics as "Plairstow Patricia" to make a Ken Russell film frenzy look domestic.

"I used to tell my art students [Dury was a student/instructor at London's Royal College of Art] that they should behave like Hell's Angels, paint within an inch of their life, then have a nervous breakdown, or whatever, and recover and do it again. I don't like ideas much, I like activity. I was crazy before I got polio. I didn't like school very much. I knew it was a dump."

Ian survived as a painter for several years, doing illustrations for the (formidably establishment) London Sunday Times. But, says Ian, "I couldn't stand them taking my work and puttin' lines on 'em and stickin' em in drawers," so he became frontman for a pub-rock outfit called Kilburn and the High Roads.

Lack of prospects broke the band up, but saxman Davey Payne survives from that outfit, thereby becoming a Blockhead along with such standouts as bass player Norman Watt-Roy (born in India), drummer Charley Charles, and multi-instrumental pack leader Chaz Jankel.

"I'm happiest when I'm wastin' myself, workin'. That's my reward, not money. I spend money like fuckin' water. I tried to eat a hundred-dollar bill the other day – couldn't get it down.

"I don't take any stimulants or uppers," he adds. "Every hour you stay up on coke or pills or whatever is an hour off the other end of your life. You ever see Errol Flynn when he was 50? Jesus Christ. I'll be 50 in 15 years' time and I'll be better lookin' than Flynn, and I bet I can get it up quicker than he can. Whatever it and up is, I bet I can."

That's the sort of macho talk that makes "Billericay Dickie," a pompous satyr from Essex, the villain of a Dury song. But Ian, who claims he got his first performing inspiration from wrestler Ski Hi Lee's tour of England ("Fifty-five when I saw him. Six foot eleven, from Houston, Texas"), actually is not the conquest type. He compares a tough audience to flawed sex: "I don't really care if we come or not. Cuddling's much more fun."

Ian has a tenderness that seems to lift up out of him the further he gets from his show. Onstage, he's as randy and gruff as his songs. But when he sings "Sweet Gene Vincent" or "My Old Man," you hear the voice of a humanist who sounds sensitive and caring.

Ian grew up in East London, packed with his mum, and later his grandmother, into a secondhand mobile home set on blocks. "You could hear the hedgehogs bumping the linoleum where the floorboards had broke. My old man split when I was three. When he used to show up, they would go in the other end of the place and argue and call each other all kinds of names." When Ian's father died at 62, Ian found a picture of dad's mistress in the man's bed-sitter flat and wrote her saying, "I was really pleased with you."

Ian himself lives with a comely bass player of Caribbean extraction, name of Denise Roudette. "She poured a pint of beer on me, so I fell in love with her." Sex, he estimates, is about 18 percent of the human drama. "Sex is about as important as a cheese sandwich." Ian Dury lets those startling eyes widen slowly into a look that is anything but menacing. "But a cheese sandwich, if you ain't got one to put in your belly, is extremely important."