In the last week of October, the middle-aged Baxter Dury and the boy Baxter Dury were brought together. The 45-year-old man released his fifth album, Prince of Tears, his best so far. The five-year-old boy, meanwhile, appeared on the cover of New Boots and Panties!!, by his father Ian Dury, released in 1977, but re-released in a bells-and-whistles deluxe edition the same day Prince of Tears came out.
You wouldn’t listen to Prince of Tears and conclude that Baxter was Ian’s son, but once you know they are related it becomes hard not to hear generational echoes. The opening song, ‘Miami’, is the kind of wrong-un character study that the elder Dury used to engage in, but updated for a colder age, in which the drugs and the delusions have changed. ‘Miami’ fancies himself a coked-up Florida gangster, rather than an East End bovver boy.
Across the brief span of the album Dury captures not just latent violence, but also many different shades of maleness, including, on ‘Oi’, the strange combination of resentment and nostalgia and victory that comes with remembering school bullies: ‘Do you remember me?/ You broke my nose once/ It fucking hurt/ I’ve been thinking about you/ Wondering if you’re in prison/ I went to live on the river and got into media.’ They’re strange little stories that seem like disconnected scenes from an unedited movie. It’s a really terrific album, as much Serge Gainsbourg as East End music hall.
‘I see the songs as being like The Sopranos, the scenes where he goes to therapy and you have amazing singing fish, and weird little things that mirror events that are true, but have been abstractified,’ he says. ‘Or like a Coen brothers film.’
The chap eating smoked salmon and scrambled eggs in a café in Kensal Rise, the gentrifying west London district in which he lives, isn’t much like Miami, except for the geezery voice. He moved back to London not long ago, from Hertfordshire — the countryside got boring after a relationship ended — and he sounds awfully old talking about the city. ‘I find London a bit like bloody Rio de Janeiro at the moment,’ he says. ‘Like it’s a bloody favela. I find it a bit menacing. I buy into Evening Standard hysteria a little bit too much. And I guess the advent of technology makes you very aware of everything that’s going on all the time. But there’s a kind of ruthless culture — all the police stations are closed. My mate got hijacked yesterday. And I saw a gang of people going up and down on scooters. It feels like New York in the 1980s to me.’
Oh, come on. You grew up in the London of the 1970s and ’80s. All that has changed is the means by which crime is committed and information transmitted. Dury thinks for a moment and recalls an incident with his father. ‘I was at a gig once with Dad at Aylesbury Civic Centre and the skinheads raided the gig. Me and my sister ran down a corridor, and a minder shoved us into a room. He got a table and he slammed it against the door, and there was a riot going on outside. We just sat there, and with all his strength he kept the door closed. My sister was screaming, and they were kicking the door. It’s the same shit.’
Then he looks around, pointing to roads we can see from where we sit. ‘Fifteen years ago, that street there was one of the main drug-dealing streets in west London. They raided it with 12 double-decker buses full of plod.’ He looks to another road. ‘There was a shooting just there, where eight people were killed, Yardies. There are traces of all that still. Now there’s a place next to mine called Mini Picassos where kids learn to paint in Prada jumpers. But as a kid I wouldn’t even come up to this area.’
Dury’s at the odd point of having made his best record at the age of 45. With a 15-year-old son who lives with him, he’s hardly in a position to go round promoting it heavily. The good reviews, he says, have made him feel like ‘the Sheriff of Kensal Rise’. He’s been making records for 15 years, having been signed in the first place, he accepts, largely on the strength of his surname. ‘But now I’m really good.’ He laughs. ‘As soon as you say that, you’re shit. You come apart when you think you’re too good, because you’re not fighting anymore.’
I wonder if the nature of Dury’s childhood — his mother, Betty Rathmell, was an artist, and anyone who’s seen the Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll knows his dad wasn’t one for setting boundaries — gave him the sense of freedom to do what he wanted without the all-consuming need to have a regular wage that most of us are governed by. ‘I think the only thing I ever learned that was really useful is that if you put your head down for long enough and you accept that you’re going to survive, though it might be quite painful, then you might get somewhere,’ he says. ‘I think the bohemian arty thing allowed me to understand that you have to work twice as hard within that world to make any progress.’
Dury left school at 14, having not really paid much attention — ‘My old man called the headmistress a “snotty maggot”, and that gives you authorisation to go, “It doesn’t really matter”’ — and now he has the challenge of bringing up his own 15-year-old son in a manner a little more conventional than his own upbringing. He counts his own class in the manner designated as ‘arts and crafts’, but says his boy is that particular London grouping of ‘posh urban’.
He ‘wouldn’t dare’ to call his son’s headteacher a snotty maggot, and he has more understanding of the purpose of education now — ‘It’s not really about the grades, it’s about committing to something to the end of the page.’ And he has learned about how he resembles and differs from his dad. ‘There are similarities, because I can’t help it, but I look after my son because he lives with me and in that way, in terms of fatherhood, we’re totally different. My father was an egocentric guy. It was all about him. I was unsupervised and didn’t know anything. But I’m somebody with domestic output: I look after my son. He’s my priority. I couldn’t give a shit about the rest. You have to teach a kid how good they are, you have to give them structure. How you do that is up to each individual. But you have to give your kid a version of achievement.’
Baxter Dury won’t become a pop star at 45, because people don’t become pop stars at 45. It was freakish enough in 1978, when ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ made his dad one at 36 in more forgiving times for weirdos. But Prince of Tears deserves its applause, and Dury deserves to have found his place in pop.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free