Sunday, 25 January 2009

What I did on my holidays
Part two: a musical

A long time ago, I knew Ian Dury quite well. I wasn’t a friend or anything but, as a music journalist, I spent enough time on tour with him and the Blockheads to learn at least five things about him.

One, he was one of the world’s great lyricists. A phrase-maker who gifted the language with ‘sex and drugs and rock and roll’ and ‘reasons to be cheerful’. A list-maker pretty much the equal of Mozart in Don Giovanni, Cole Porter in Let’s Do It, Noel Coward in Las Vegas and John Coltrane in My Favourite Things.

Two, his songs and rhythms were dream expressions of the dancer inside him. As a raspberry — his word, not mine — he could barely move, let alone dance. His songs were imaginative projections of his impossible dreams: if he could have danced, this is how he would have danced. As dreams rather than reality, his dances could be perfect in a way reality never can. The Dury dance is not just in the music and rhythms but the lyrics themselves.

Hit me with your rhythm stick.
Hit me! Hit me!
Das ist gut! C’est fantastique!
Hit me! hit me! hit me!
Hit me with your rhythm stick.

Three, his whole Essex Cockney shtick was just that, a shtick. The closest he’d got to Upminster in any meaningful sense was Walthamstow Art College. Like most successful English pop stars of that generation, he was a grammar school boy. (Me, too, of course.)

Four, he could be a complete and utter arsehole — even by the standards of pop stars. He drank. He chain-smoked dope. He could be selfish to the point of malice.

Five, everyone around him forgave him his trespasses. Until they didn’t. When did that happen? I guess when the hits stopped coming. It’s a rare eye that doesn’t turn away from a falling pop star. Also, frankly, I gradually formed the view that Ian destroyed his own career. It’s what people do. Fear of success is probably as common as fear of failure, maybe more.

When he died, I got myself a commission to write a life-and-emotional-crimes of Ian Dury piece. It could have been a really good story. I never finished it. Maybe that was my fear of success. Like I said, fear of success is common as . . . muck.

All of which is by way of making the point that when I went to see Hit Me! The Life & Rhymes of Ian Dury, I had some previous on the matter. It was at the Leicester Square Theatre. The last time I’d been there, it was a pop venue, the Notre Dame Hall. My date for the night had even played there.

The show? Well, it’s more a tell than a show, to be honest. But the story it tells is similar to the one I would have told: that Ian was a horrid, glorious, unstable mixture of genius and arsehole.

It’s a two-hander — Ian and his long-time minder, Fred ‘Spider’ Rowe, a former criminal whose life was transformed by his partnership with Ian. It was a marriage of sorts, of course, and one that, given Ian’s capacity for arseholeness, ended in divorce. I found myself thinking of Steptoe And Son. And wishing that it had been less shouty. And that it had found a way to give voice to the inner life of Spider. And that it had had something interesting to say about the mechanics and meaning of Ian’s lyricism — both words and music.

The audience loved it, though. Particularly, this joke:

Ian: If they held a c*** contest, you’d come second, Spider. (I censor myself only to prevent my blog being torn down by external authorities.)

Spider: Why’s that, then?

Ian: Because you’re a c***.

A wonderful joke, so good that I’m going to put it in the book I’m writing about swearing. (Filthy English, Portobello, October 2009.)

And, I suspect, a joke written by the man I saw talking to the playwright at half-time and again at the end — Chris Langham, the actor who went to jail for downloading child porn. He had been brought in to help fine-tune the show for its West End debut. I only learned that later, though. ‘Row over disgraced star's involvement in musical’ was the Independent’s take on it.

Next blog: What Do You Do With A Convicted Paedophile? (Particularly now that Ian Dury is no longer around to make rhyme and reason of the question.)