TThe first time Baxter Dury performed on stage was at his famous father’s wake. While several stars made their way through Ian Dury’s songbook, Baxter, who had recently launched his music career at the age of 29, was the obvious choice to repeat My Old Man, Ian’s tribute to his own father, Bill Dury. Bill, a working-class East Londoner, bus driver and chauffeur, had not figured much in the life of his son, who was raised by his mother and family, members of what Baxter calls “the Bohemian intelligentsia.” .
It is tempting to suggest that one absent parent brought another. Certainly, Ian had an elastic sense of parental responsibility, and he left his marriage to Betty Rathmell shortly after the birth of Baxter and her older sister Jemima, and then appeared erratically while contributing “a pittance” to their upkeep. His ambition to become a lead singer was all that counted, pursued first with Kilburn and the high roads, and later with the Blockheads, once in 1977 New boots and panties !! he had made his breakthrough at age 35 (six-year-old Baxter is on the classic album cover). With a severe physical disability, inflicted by polio when he was seven years old, Ian was an unlikely rock star and had become an even more unlikely national treasure by the time of his death in 2000.
At the same time charming, funny, abusive and threatening, Ian was a notoriously deceptive character, whose threat was often provided by his caretakers: “Dad admired anyone who was healthy and potentially violent,” Baxter recalls in these entertaining memoirs centered on his adolescence in west London.
Before New boots, his was a poor, provincial (if artistic) childhood in Buckinghamshire. His father’s success brought an exciting dive into show business: Baxter recalls that on a UK tour, “when my clothes smelled too much, they bought me a new football uniform in whatever city we were in,” though “Little responsibility in overseeing our well-being … Jemima and I was pushed between a variety of managers, caregivers, girlfriends and roadies.”
A more dramatic change came later, when Betty moved to Chiswick, just down the street from Ian’s riverside apartment in Hammersmith, and Baxter enrolled in the Chiswick school, an institution she quickly came to detest and of which he compulsively abandoned. Integration efforts failed. A concerned phone call from the assistant principal to Dury elicited an abrupt response: “Why don’t you fuck off, you little brat worm?” the Scream. There is nothing like having the backing of your parents.
Baxter has clear eyes on his father’s strengths and failures, of which he saw more once he effectively dropped out of school altogether and was staying in his father’s flat. For Baxter and his friends, Ian became a “weed-soaked Fagin,” a source of drugs, street wisdom, and great jazz records; after all, “the only thing I loved was the attention.” The boundaries between parents and children, as between day and night, were hopelessly jumbled. “Mom listened and supported. Dad broke your trust and replaced it with his own. “
Things took a weirder and more alarming turn with the arrival of a new caretaker, a 6-foot-7 “stinky giant” who had previously worked for Led Zeppelin, among others. His name was Peter Rush, but he was commonly known by his nickname, the Sulfate Strangler, a nickname earned from drug use (and trafficking) and a party trick that involved taking people by the throat. Ian moved him into his apartment, which means that Baxter was evicted from the guest room to the “decaying Victorian day bed” in the front room, which his father imaginatively called “the chaise longue.” The strangler became a stranger in the place of the parents whenever Ian was away, starring in a series of second-rate European films.
Baxter’s mother hadn’t given up hope that he could still get an education, and Baxter, in turn, “wanted people around who weren’t always screwed up … and I wanted a normal breakfast.” He was enrolled in an “intensive student university, designed to help the rich and rebellious complete their education.” This wouldn’t work either, though it changed Baxter’s prejudice against stylish people, whom he recognized as soul mates from equally chaotic backgrounds, but with money, cars, and more exclusive tastes for drugs.
Regardless of what he tried, chaos followed Baxter into his early 20s like a starving dog, whether it was at another school (expelled for drug dealing), opening a nightclub (instantly bankrupt), working at a West West watch store. End (burned), moving to a flat (misery ensued) or a six-month spell in Barcelona (bankrupt). He did better when he accompanied his father on another European film shoot, where he was promoted to assistant director simply because he was on set. The tragedy was not far behind, as his mother became terminally ill, her death coinciding with the fact that his father settled down and fathered another child. By then, Baxter was working in television and film.
A career as a musician followed almost inevitably, and for two decades Baxter Dury has established himself as a nuanced songwriter on more than half a dozen albums. Most recent, last year Chancellors of the Night, is his most accomplished, a series of sharp character vignettes delivered with a grunt. The main song people even appear in Deck chair as part of the strangler’s entourage, “People sold the idea that eroticizing plastic clothes and picking up speed somehow defined them as something.”
His memoirs are chaotically organized, going back and forth in time, but written with linguistic flair. His father would be in makeup.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism