Baxter Dury: âEverything was about Dad. It was the only way he knew how to surviveâ
B axter Dury strolls up to the pub, casually dressed and apologetic. The indie musician, known for his stylish suits, is wearing a white vest and unbuttoned denim shirt. His face is even whiter than the vest. Food poisoning. He ate oysters the other day, and has never been so sick. He orders a pineapple juice and soda water, sheepishly. âThatâs going to be the headline, isnât it?â The 2010 biopic about his father was named Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll â after one of Ian Duryâs most celebrated songs, and a fair summary of his life.
But weâre not here to talk about Dad, says Baxter, a successful musician in his own right. Itâs 21 years since his father died, and 19 since Baxter recorded his debut album, the fabulously titled Len Parrotâs Memorial Lift. Donât get me wrong, he says, he loved the old man, but heâs got Ian Dury fatigue. Heâs tired of the comparisons â their music, voice, looks and lifestyle.
So it might seem a strange time to write a book about growing up as the son of Ian Dury? He smiles. He knows heâs not got a leg to stand on. âBut the book isnât about Dad,â he protests. And heâs right, in a way. The memoir, called Chaise Longue, is about his mother, the artist Betty Rathmell, school days, expulsions, teenage anarchy, yobbo bad-boy friends, posho bad-boy friends, and the Sulphate Strangler (a 6ft 7in drug dealer entrusted with Baxterâs care). And of course, itâs also about Ian Dury â the punk poet who had a withered arm and leg from a bout of childhood polio, who could tickle or terrorise, depending how the mood took him.
Baxter, aged 49, draws us into the Dickensian underworld of his father â the âpot-soaked Faginâ who always had to be the centre of attention. âThereâs a loss of boundaries when your parent needs you to be their audience, as Dad did. He broke your confidence and replaced it with his own,â he writes. After all Ian had endured as a boy â sent to live in an institution for disabled children, where he was ridiculed and written off â he emerged determined to prove the world wrong. He was furiously ambitious, and nothing would stop him. Certainly not children. âHe just made the choice, âIâm going to be relentlessly about myself.â He created a vacuum, dedicated to him, where everything was about him. It was the only way he knew how to survive â by a form of almost total control. He controlled everything and he realised if he let go of that control it didnât work. It worked and he made money and he succeeded, but it was really awkward and people got fucked over and spat out.â
To an extent Baxter was collateral damage. His father is rehearsing when he is born, drops him the first time he holds him, and makes it clear that no matter how much he loves Baxter and his sister Jemima, priority-wise they will always come a poor second to himself.
Betty, who came from a family of artists with a ânerdy Bohemian-nessâ about them, wasnât that much more reliable a parent. While Ian seemed to constantly teeter on a precipice, it was Betty who fell off it when she fell asleep at the wheel of her car and killed a motorcyclist. Baxter, then aged nine or 10, and Jemima were both in the car, and not wearing seatbelts. Baxter was fine and Jemima only had concussion, but Betty broke her leg and arm and shattered her shoulder. A year later, having learnt to walk again, Betty was convicted of manslaughter due to reckless driving but only given a suspended sentence because of her family circumstances. Young Baxter, callow and callous, called her a âmurdererâ and that was the last time they ever mentioned it. He says Betty, who died of cancer in her early 50s, never recovered from the accident. In the book he writes: âMum is difficult to describe but the best people always are.âBaxter and Ian Dury on the cover of New Boots and Panties!!, the latterâs 1977 debut album. Photograph: TheCoverVersion/Alamy
At the heart of Chaise Longue is an unlikely trio living in belligerent harmony â dad, son and the Sulphate Strangler. They shared a flat in west London by the banks of the Thames; part of a block renowned for its arty squatters, which Ian dubbed Catshit Mansions. They drank together, took drugs together, smashed crockery together, rowed and made up together when Baxter was still in his mid-teens. At one point, the Sulphate Strangler, known affectionately as Strangler, attempted to squeeze the life out of Baxter after he stole the laundry money. Today, Baxter says Strangler, who died in police custody, was simply trying to teach him right from wrong. The title, Chaise Longue, refers to the day bed Baxter was relegated to when Strangler moved into the flat and commandeered his bedroom.
Baxter is parched. He downs his pineapple juice and soda in one, and is on to the next. When my bitter and whitebait arrives, he turns an ever whiter shade of pale. A family of four at the next table is enjoying an exuberant Thursday afternoon out.
When his father died he left the flat to his four children (two from another relationship), who leased it out. Four years ago, Baxter decided to rent it for himself and his son Kosmo. Itâs funny, he says, how history repeats itself. When they moved back in, the tenants with a long memory looked terrified. âIt was like fucking hell, here they come, because it was unadulterated chaos when Dad was there.â
Actually, he says, the neighbours seem to miss the bedlam of the old days. âThey were all quite fond of Dad because he was quite charming , but he didnât give a fuck if he played the drums through the night. Now theyâre a bit âBravo! Bravo!â at us cos we still make a little bit of noise politely. Theyâre like: âYour son was playing his drums. What a wonderful noise!â Thereâs a tenderness thatâs developed.â
Baxter has been thinking a lot about his relationship with his father and Strangler. He wrote the memoir through lockdown, âin moments of utter bleakness in this space where it all occurredâ. Did it inspire him? âI donât know. Itâs made me a bit more agitated about living there.â It certainly brought a rawness to the memories: lawless days when he bunked school and did whatever he fancied; overdosing on Stranglerâs âjelliesâ (temazepam) after falling in love with his best friendâs girl; his fatherâs tipsy joviality morphing into drunken nastiness; the stench of dope and booze and Stranglerâs body odour. At times, he says, the endless freedom he enjoyed became a burden.
Itâs a vivid portrait of family life at its most dysfunctional. But he worries that his writing isnât sufficiently nuanced â that heâs sensationalised the story, turned his father into a pantomime villain, made life too thrilling. He says he lacks the subtlety to deal with the boring bits. Whereas his father loved a tall story, Baxter seems compulsively truthful. âItâs a distortion of history to an extent in that Iâve laden it with excitement because there were many more ambient moments when people were peaceful and read books. They were really smart my parents, on both sides. Dad taught art for years. He knew everything about Van Gogh.â
Baxter contrasts the early years when the family struggled financially with the riches that came when his father made it big. Again, though, he fears misleading us. Go back a couple of generations, and the Durys had money and standing. He tells me of the two great aunts on his fatherâs side â both were university educated, independent minded and had no interest in men. Great Aunt Moll was a high-ranking civil servant who took trips to India to spend time with a spiritualist, while Aunt Elizabeth became a doctor. âIf Dad, hadnât got polio he would have probably gone to Cambridge,â Baxter says.
Baxterâs done with the pineapple juice, orders a pint of bitter and talks about his fatherâs âselective socialismâ. Ian sent him to the local comp in Chiswick, but went private when it came to his own needs. At school, the kids were aware that Baxter was the son of a celebrity. It was hard not to be. After all, young Baxter was photographed on the cover of New Boots and Panties!!, the debut album by Ian Dury and the Blockheads, looking even moodier than his father. The toughies at school acknowledged his fame by throwing him to the ground and beating him to the tune of Duryâs No 1 single âHit Me With Your Rhythm Stickâ. Sometimes he fought back, but on the whole he found it easier to absent himself.Ian Dury in 1978. Photograph: Peter Johns/The Guardian
Baxter downs his beer, and we order another. He seems so much better now. Then a man on the opposite table hands his dog a rabbit leg with the fur still attached. The dog owner looks on proudly, pleased at the offence he is causing as his pup gnaws the leg to the bone and the fur flies. Itâs a scene I would imagine his father relishing. Baxter looks as if heâs about to throw up. He talks about his son Kosmo, now 18, telling me he may turn out to be the best musician of the lot.
He split up from Kosmoâs mother many years ago, but they brought him up as a team. He says he wouldnât be best pleased if Kosmo got up to some of the stuff he did when he was young. On the table next to us, the family are knocking back JÃ¤gerbomb and rosÃ© chasers. Mother and daughter share the same birthday, and they are all out celebrating.
We toast them, while Baxter scratches away at his bookâs failings. The reality wasnât as bleak as he makes out, he says. âBy the time I was at a posh college, hanging out with narco-toffs, I was as happy as you can be. And living in that flat with a seven-foot asthmatic drug dealer, I was genuinely happy. I look back and think: âGod, they are fond memories.ââ
Soon after Strangler moved in, Ian suggested he take Baxter and his friends clubbing. Thatâs where he first saw the Brobdingnagian bruiser on the job. They popped into Dingwalls in Camden where Strangler had business to sort. Next thing Baxter knew, he saw Strangler throttling a man who owed him. âHe let go of the man, who slumped to the floor,â he writes. âWe all suspected Strangler was mad, but now we knew it.â
Was there anything gentle about him? âLoads and loads,â Baxter says. He talks about how Strangler would take him shopping, call for him from school (when he could be bothered to go), hang out with his mates and chill. âHe found sanctuary in my friends because we were an open little bunch. He was funny and kind and sweet.âDad was this in-command, say-what-he-fucking-wants person, and Iâm this other person. Iâm now comfortable with that
Strangler, whose real name was Pete Rush, died in his late 30s. Looking back, Baxter says heâs surprised he lasted that long. Even now, he is unsure what role his father had intended him to play in their life â part guard-dog, part nanny, part friend and flatmate. âSometimes Dadâs intentions were self-serving and sometimes they were genuinely altruistic. I donât think he gave Strangler somewhere to live just because he wanted him to look after me, I think he was helping him out.â After his fatherâs death, Baxter discovered Ian had been paying Stranglerâs motherâs domestic bills ever since Rush died, just over 10 years earlier.
When writing the book, Baxter carried out more research into Stranglerâs life, but didnât like what he found so didnât include it. âThere was some really dark shit there. I decided not to go further because that contaminates my childish version of what I knew of him.â
For most of his 20s, Baxter Dury dossed around. He worked on building sites and in Oxford Street shops, lived in the US for a while, appearing to have neither the desire nor drive to make something of himself. In 2002, two years after his father died, he released his first album. âI blagged myself a record deal without much merit. Being a famous manâs son, I had manipulated the system a bit in the era where you got quite a lot of money for not doing a lot.â The record was not a commercial success but was well received, as have been his five subsequent solo studio albums. Back then, he sang with the whispery diffidence of a young boy questioning his right to be there. If Ian Dury had been Fagin, Baxter Dury was Oliver.
These days, his voice is more of a gravelly sprechgesang. Did he resist singing in that voice because it was so close to Ianâs? He smiles â just. âWell, close to mine!â He pauses. âYeah, close to our voice,â he concedes.
Like his father, he is a natural storyteller. His songs are often character studies of monstrous (and vulnerable) men played out to gorgeous beats, with a surprisingly French feel to them â he has an imagined conversation with an old school friend who broke his nose in âOiâ, is a stalker in âIâm Not Your Dogâ, and beyond menacing as the âsausage manâ and âshadow lickerâ in âMiamiâ. Despite the bravado, his characters can also be hopeless romantics. Imagine Serge Gainsbourg mixed with Ray Winstone backed by the electronic chill-out duo Air.
I ask if it was hard following his father in the music industry. No, he says, the hard thing was lasting the pace. âI was going to get attention because Dad was really famous. So the music business will look at me, but it only lasts about a year if Iâm a poor emulation of him. Most kids of famous singer parents only last for a year or so before it dies off. They become a version of their parentsâ creation.â Who like? Iâm not going to quote them,â he says diplomatically. âLike them all,â he adds less diplomatically. âNinety nine per cent. Iâve grown a music career that Iâm proud of. And itâs intact because itâs mine.âI never had a constitution for drugs. Iâd be sick in my pocket after three pints and any drugs
Two JÃ¤gerbombs arrive, courtesy of our neighbours at the next table who are in party mood. Baxter, who appears to have made a rapid recovery, tells me to knock it back. I obey orders before heading off to the bar to get us a couple of beers to clear our heads. Matt, the young man at the bar, points outside: âIs that Baxter Dury youâre with?â Yes, I say. âI love him. Heâs brilliant.â I tell Matt to come out and meet him. Meanwhile, an attractive woman walks up to the table and starts chatting. Itâs turning into quite a party. The woman heads off, and Baxter explains she is a former girlfriend, a dancer with the Royal Ballet, who lives nearby and to whom he remains close. He seems to have a gift for remaining close to people.
I tell him how surprised I was when Matt got so excited. âYouâre only surprised because of your perspective,â he says. What he means is, Iâm still thinking of him as the son of Ian Dury. Heâs right to quietly put me in my place. Iâm not sure that Matt would have even heard of his father. So many people, throughout his life, have wanted him to be what he is not â Ian Dury mark 2. âDad was this in-command, say-what-he-fucking-wants person, and Iâm this other person and Iâm now quite comfortable with that.â
Perhaps there was a time he wanted that, too. Heâs thinking about his own childhood, and the way he saw himself â the bad boy forever getting expelled from schools. He ended up sending Kosmo to King Alfredâs, the private school that threw him out after three days for chucking a chair through the window. The same headmistress was still there. âI said: âWhat was I likeâ?â and she said âYou were such a wonderful sweet sensitive little boy.â I think I was pretty naughty but also sweet and sensitive.â
The family next door have knocked back their final JÃ¤gerbombs and are off to the Dove, down the road. The mother walks over to Baxter before they leave. âYou are my sonâs absolute hero,â she says. âHe has seen you so many times, but heâd never say it! Can I grab a picture â is that all rightâ?â Baxter and son have their photo taken and the family leave happy.
Iâm beginning to think this is Baxterâs elaborate set-up. To be fair, heâs beginning to think itâs mine. In the end, we agree itâs serendipity, and sit there swapping stories and family photos. We head off slightly the worse for wear. Baxter only has a few yards to walk back to the flat.
He tells me heâs lucky â busy but not too busy, comfortable but not loaded, well known but not too well known, and best of all, close buddies with Kosmo, with whom he has written his latest single. Perhaps he wouldnât be in such a fortunate position if his father had left a fortune, he says. âThereâs no great gold mine Dad left because there are too many people, and there are only a few hits so it doesnât generate that much. But itâs a fun position to be in. People like what we do. I make enough money to live quite well, Iâm about to sign a new deal and I can kind of do what I want.â
Is he surprised that heâs so functional after the early years? Not really, he says. He never felt he was in danger of becoming an addict. âI never had a constitution for drugs. Iâd be sick in my pocket after three pints and any drugs. Iâm so shit at it.â
Weâre back at the flat. Baxter says heâd invite me in, but he doesnât want to distract Kosmo. We stare up at the third floor with its huge balcony overlooking the Thames. I imagine Dury, Strangler and young Baxter wreaking havoc all those years ago. Itâs so quiet now. Baxter says he has started to think it wasnât all quite as haphazard as it seemed at the time; that the old man had a plan. âMaybe it was some kind of experiment. Maybe it was like: this is what the edge looks like, to teach me not to go over itâ â
Chaise Longue is published by Little, Brown (Â£16.99) on 5 August . To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com.