"Bed O' Roses No. 9" /
Ian Dury & the Blockheads
You know how there are some books you just can't put down? Will Birch's new biography of Ian Dury was like that for me. Over the past week, I actually looked forward to long subway rides because it'd give me a stretch of reading time; I gave up jogging in favor of the stationary bike in the gym, just so I could prop this on the book stand and plow through more of Ian Dury's fascinating life.
It's not just because I'm a devoted Ian Dury fan -- although I do like his music a lot and I own most of it on CD (check out my previous posts on Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and Inbetweenies). As a graduate of the pub-rock scene and one of Stiff Records' first recording stars, Dury consorted with all those other musicians I adore, such as -- oh, you know who. But that too is almost beside the point. Dury was a complex personality with an intriguing life story, and Birch follows the twists and turns with sympathy and shrewd insight. Despite his foul-mouthed Cockney image, Dury was in fact a grammar-school boy raised in relative comfort by his upper middle-class mother; even his working-class bus-driver dad, who wasn't around much, rubbed shoulders with toffs after becoming a Rolls-Royce chauffeur. Ian's lyrics may have been peppered with rhyming slang and profanity, but behind that guttersnipe manner was a talented artist and former art school teacher, with an ear for jazz and a sharp eye for cutting-edge fashion.
Although we Americans were quick to appropriate the title of his trademark song "Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll," Dury's thick Essex accent and topical satire didn't translate well to an American audience. (Last weekend I ran a trivia contest at my college reunion and nobody -- nobody! -- could identify Ian Dury.) The most salient fact about Dury's life, however, was that he contracted polio as a young kid and spent several years in a horrific school for the disabled. To be honest, I had no idea Dury was a "raspberry" ("raspberry ripple" = cripple) until a couple years ago; I bought his albums for their snappy lyrics and the tight jazz-funk arrangements, with no idea of his mesmerizing stage presence. But Birch connects the dots, reminding us why Dury was such a prickly bloke, continually pissing off everybody he knew, including -- no, especially -- the Blockheads, his brilliant backing band. And in the end, Birch left me with enormous affection for the "diamond geezer."
I was delighted to find this YouTube video of "Bed O' Roses No. 9," since it's not one of Dury's better-known tracks. It comes from the tail end of his career, from the 1998 album Mr Love Pants, for which he somehow managed to tempt the Blockheads back to record with him after some 18 years' hiatus. (A lot of water under that bridge!) He was already diagnosed with terminal cancer, but this was hardly a pity session -- the Blockheads must have known that they needed his saucy wit and showmanship every bit as much as he needed their delicious groove. At long last Dury was writing songs again with Blockhead Chaz Jankel -- his chief collaborator on those classic late 70s Blockheads LPs -- and the result is one of their best albums ever. Quite a note to go out on.
You might imagine that a sense of mortality would have made Ian Dury mellower. Not a chance, mate. The sparkling jazz intro sets him up to reflect: "I've done a lot of things I wished I hadn't / There's other things I never hope to do / But sliding off the map in both directions / Is the sorry mess I've made of knowing you." Listen to how unrepentantly he spits out "sorry mess."
And he goes on in that vein, slicing up his ex-lover with sardonic thrusts and jabs. Verse three: "I knew it wouldn't be a bed of roses / I've seen the bloody grind that love entails / But one door shuts and then another closes [how's that for a witty lyric?] / And now I'm on a bloody bed of nails." I love that deft progression from the blissful bed of roses to the torturous bed of nails.
Eventually she's nailing his bollocks to the door ("my poor cojones," in the second repeat) -- at which point the Blockheads step in to regale us with a rapturously copasetic instrumental. That's Davey Payne on the sax, who was constantly mouthing off to Ian, getting fired from the Blockheads, and soon inevitably rehired. I wonder if Dury ever admitted to his face that Payne's sax WAS the linchpin of the Blockheads' sound?
It's that dialog between Dury's clever snarled lyrics and the elegantly supple instrumental that always won me over. No matter how nasty his words get, the Blockheads keep swinging, keeping the good humor front and center. Back in 1977 London, you could be punk or you could be New Wave; Ian Dury may have been the first to sport a razor-blade earring, but he was too art-school to go full-on punk. Wit was what he was about; it was all theater. How else could a crippled geezer who sang out of tune and played no instrument become a bona fide rock star?