Ian Dury dies at 57. What a waste

John Walsh pays a personal tribute to the poet of pop
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The Independent Culture

Ian Dury, 57, died yesterday, exactly two years and two months after his doctors warned him that he had six months to live. The musician spent most of his extended leave from the underworld in performing rock'n'roll shows across Europe with his band, The Blockheads, refusing to give in or slow down, belting out "Sweet Gene Vincent" and "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll" to ecstatic audiences in a way that would have exhausted an unusually healthy teenager.

He was a crowd-pleaser of endless invention and charm, telling stories in his gruff Cockney-diddicoy rasp, winding up hecklers, being gallant with the ladies in his Billericay Dickie mode, and occasionally standing on stage lost in thought, inspecting one of a number of gift-shop plastic objets d'art he kept as talismans, looking like a kid in Hamleys.

He was a tiny man with a dragging limp, the result of childhood polio, and a bullet head that had swollen - at the time I met him - to Magwitch proportions. I never in my life met anyone who more vividly embodied the life force.

It was not a rock venue. It was the 1998 Cheltenham Festival of Literature, when I was director and he was the star guest on a day devoted to rock writings and lyrics. I asked him along to talk about "the poetry of rock'n'roll", partly because he was one of the few pop musicians you could trust to marshal their thoughts coherently, and because I longed to meet the man who wrote songs in a cross between W S Gilbert, Max Miller and Percy French: "Home improvement expert Harold Hill from Harold Hill/Of DIY dexterity and double-glazing skill/Came home to find another gentleman's kippers on the grill/So he sanded off his winkle with a Black & Decker drill."

He was staying in the best suite in the Queens Hotel. His manservant, Derek Drawe, a hirsute melancholic with luxuriant moustachios, ordered room service tea as we discussed the time Ian met Bob Dylan (who had regarded him with wary respect and asked, head on one side, "'Sweet Gene Vincent', right?"). A flunky brought the tea. "Bung 'im, Del," grated Dury. The boy looked nervous. "Twenny, boss?" asked Del. Dury nodded.

Already a month into borrowed time, he said he was feeling fine. "I just get a bit tired, sometimes," he said. I explained the crowd who would be in the Green Room later: they included old friends of his. "I've just flown in from Belgium," growled Dury. "Maybe I'll just slip off to bed after the show".

On stage that evening the PA played "Sweet Gene Vincent", the lights faded to black, I did the intro and Dury hobbled out from behind a screen. The normally demure literary-minded audience erupted, leapt to its feet and screamed the place down. When all was calm, he talked about the songs he had heard at his mother's knee, his love of well-made lyrics, his puzzlement at songwriter's lives and inspirations. "My favourite song is 'Love for Sale'," he said, "but it's funny what happened to Cole Porter. For years he was swanning around the world, drinking champagne, living in huge houses and he did all his best work. Then he fell off a horse, hurt his back and never wrote a decent song again. You'd think it would be the other way round, wouldn't you?"

About the is-rock-poetry debate he was quite clear. It just wasn't. "I hate," he said, "to see my own stuff written down." And, as if to clear up the matter, he threw back his head and recited Keats's "Ode to Autumn", word perfect. The audience erupted again.

Later, en route to bed at the Queens, I looked in at the bar. It was 2.15am. There was a crowd around a table that included supermodels, diary hacks, Sixties throwbacks and, in the middle, the early-night-favouring Dury.

My last sighting of Mr D was of him pressing Del to proposition the woman in the bar on his behalf, "... an' if not her, try that other bird".

"I tried once, Ian," whined Del. "She's just not playin'...."

"Just one more go," said Ian firmly. "A little drop o' champagne in my suite. Just say that". Del went back to the fray.

Ian Dury was a roughneck, a gentleman, a hater of condescension, a lyricist of genius, a limited but characterful singer, and the final epitome of diamond geezer. Of all the reasons to be cheerful in this vale of tears, he was, until yesterday, one of the most convincing.