2 or 3 Thoughts - Ian Dury: Rock Star, Ladies' Man . . .
and Polio Victim

by Gary Hailey

In the wilds of Borneo
And the vineyards of Bordeaux
Eskimo . . . Arapaho
Move their body to and fro

Hit me with your rhythm stick!
Hit me! Hit me!
Das ist gut!  C'est fantastique!
Hit me! hit me! hit me!
Hit me with your rhythm stick
It's nice to be a lunatic
Hit me! Hit me! Hit me!

 (From "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick," by Ian Dury and the Blockheads.)

Polio epidemics were unknown before the 20th century.  But improvements in urban sanitation practices -- especially better sewage disposal and cleaner water supplies -- reduced childhood exposure to the polio virus.  That meant that fewer children developed a natural immunity to the disease, and were more susceptible to polio.


The year I was born -- 1952 -- was the peak year for polio in the United States.  There were 58,000 reported cases of the disease that year, which resulted in 3145 deaths and 21,269 cases of mild to severe paralysis.


The Salk and Sabin polio vaccines began to be widely administered shortly after that, and there were fewer than a tenth as many polio cases in the U.S. in 1957 as there had been in 1952.  In 1961, there were only 161 recorded cases.


The Americas and Europe were declared polio-free in 1994 and 2002, respectively.  Today, polio remains endemic only in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

A number of well-known popular musicians who came of age in the '60s were infected with polio when they were children, including Judy Collins, Donovan, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell.  Mitchell was bedridden for weeks, and was told she might need an iron lung to breathe.  Her unusual guitar chord technique is a result of her left hand being weakened by polio.

The British musician Ian Dury was born in London in 1942, and contracted polio during a 1949 epidemic.  After a year and a half in a hospital, Dury was sent to the Chailey Heritage Craft school for disabled children for three and a half years.  

The staff at Chailey didn't believe in babying their patients -- austerity and discipline were the order of the day.  And so, according to Dury, was sexual abuse.  "A lot of the staff were pervs," he said.  "No buggery, but a lot of enforced wanking."  

The late Dury (he died of cancer in 2000) has been described as "the highest profile visibly physically disabled pop artist in Britain," and he has been credited with producing "a compelling body of works exploring the experiences of disability."  Click here to read an article about Dury and some other well-known musicians of Dury's generation who survived polio.  

The most famous -- or infamous -- of  Dury's many original songs that reference physical or mental disability is "Spasticus Autisticus," which was released in 1981.  The United Nations had declared 1981  to be the "International Year of Disabled Persons."   Dury wasn't buying that.

"Spasticus Autisticus" is a shoutout to "you out there in Normal Land."  It doesn't shy away from the embarrassing physical limitations that result from polio and other crippling diseases:

I widdle when I piddle
'Cause my middle is a riddle . . .

 I dribble when I nibble
And I quibble when I scribble

It was all too much for the BBC, which declined to play the song.  

"Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" went to number one on the British singles chart in January 1979.  (It displaced "Y.M.C.A." by the Village People, which is reason for all of us to be eternally grateful to Dury).

The song's music video represented a "coming out" for Dury.  He appeared in it wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, which revealed his polio-withered left arm.  

The physical ravages of polio didn't prevent Dury from being quite the ladies' man.  He got married to a fellow Royal College of Art student in 1967, and fathered two children.  In 1973, he went to London to pursue a musical career, and cohabited with a teen fan for several years.  In 1987, he hooked up  with actress Jane Horrock.  (The two had met while performing together in a London play.  Dury also appeared in several movies in the '80s and '90s.)  And in 1996, after learning he had colorectal cancer, Dury married sculptor Sophy Tilson.  

Dury was a brilliant and distinctive lyricist.  Andrew Lloyd Webber asked him to write the lyrics for Cats, but Dury turned him down.  "I can't stand his music," Dury said.  "I hate Andrew Lloyd Webber.  He's a wanker, isn't he? . . . [E]verytime I hear 'Don't Cry for Me, Argentina' I feel sick, it's so bad."

Click here to watch the music video to "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick."

(Gary Hailey is a father, a lawyer, a basketball referee, a biker, a voracious reader, and the author of the wildly popular music blog, 2 or 3 lines.  But not necessarily in that order.)

Return to DaBelly

2013   DaBelly Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.