- Ahmed Ragheb
Baxter Dury: A Spoken-Word Poet for the 21st Century
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural, under a pen name.
I am not a fan of spoken-word poetry. Even regular old poetry – I’ve always sort of regarded it from a distance, but spoken-word poetry especially. I don’t have anything against it as an art form, I just sort of always put in the “not my kind of thing” category. Okay, well maybe I do have something of an issue with it as an art form. I’ve seen my share of slam and spoken word performances (in college, at open-mics, friends) and I can’t help but feel the whole thing is a little too self-indulgent, and a little outdated. I may receive some hate for this last statement but the next time you’re listening to a performance, look around and ask yourself: “Does this seem right? Who, other than the speaker, is benefitting from this? What year is it?” An obsession with virtue-signaling and a myopic worldview have bloated the art form to the point of parody. It all feels a little too tied to the communal, revolutionary fervor of the 1960s to me, which may have worked then but does it work now, in 2020? It’s not for me to say (no, I don’t think it does).
This goes, too, for the best of spoken-word infused music albums. Both American Dream by Jim Morrison and Small Talk At 125th and Lenox by Gil Scott-Heron are incredible pieces of art, music, and spoken-word poetry. There are no two ways about it. I recommend them both highly. But, again, they feel outdated, even inaccessible, to a modern audience. To further elucidate my point: a spoken word album has not taken home the Grammy Award for “Best Spoken Word Album” in my lifetime, only audiobook recordings. Something is wrong here.
At this point we must discuss the subject of the article: Baxter Dury. We must also establish that Baxter Dury is not a spoken-word poet – or a poet at all, really. He’s a singer. Dury’s music is most commonly defined as new wave, indie rock, and alternative pop – none of which, unsurprisingly, fit his music (at least not his last three albums). Attempts to categorize any true artist is generally an exercise in futility but we’ll give it a go anyway: in celebration of The Night Chancers, released this week, let us take a look at Baxter Dury as not just a spoken-word poet but one for our times.
On its face, it’s actually quite easy to frame Dury in the role of spoken-word poet (at least as easy as it would be to do the same for Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits). For those of you not already familiar with Dury, his music, especially on this latest release, generally employs electronic beats coupled with small-set string orchestration and female back-up singers to do his singing for him. This allows Dury room on the track to breathe and deliver his lines at his own pace. The result is unique at its worst and unnerving at its best; either way, though, it’s absurdly fun. Dury’s voice saunters in and out of his own songs like a vagrant that doesn’t belong but won’t leave, the threat of violence hanging over each word that comes snarling out of his mouth.
Thematically, Dury seems almost obsessed with defining himself on his own terms – regardless of whether or not the definition he is getting at is accurate (whatever that means). His most effective songs find him literally naming what he is – a “Sausage Man,” “a salamander,” “a Prince of Tears,” “a Milky-Bar Kid,” – and what he’s not – “your friend,” “your dog,” or “your problem.” Is his quest to forcefully define himself a result of being continually defined by others and in relation to others? Is it the result of being the son of a punk icon and always being referred to as such (even on reviews for his newest album)? Is it the subconscious effort of an artist fighting tooth and nail to be his own man? Who knows? I’m a music writer, and it’s my job to arrogantly jump to conclusions without any evidence – so of course I think it so.
“Carla’s Got A Boyfriend,” which was released late last year, has wrapped up in it all the things that make Baxter Dury such a fascinating writer and performer. His lyrics and ominous delivery drip with childish threat and perversion as he tells us about Carla’s new boyfriend – “He’s got horrible trousers/And a small car…. Bit of designer hair/Sloppy facial looks…. He looks like me.” As the dread mounts the song reads (listens?) more and more like a diary or a bizarre voice message left on the machine. You get the feeling that it's not for you to hear; it’s that special mix of embarrassment, shame and fear you might get from watching Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver – acknowledging and feeling sorry for someone’s lack of power but quietly hoping they don’t get any. What’s more, the female back-up singers on the track deprive the singer of the final word, further pushing a sub-narrative of emasculation and desperation. “Carla’s got a problem.”
Baxter Dury’s music is not commonly defined as “Spoken Word,” but perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps it ought to be thought of as spoken word. Perhaps it's on us to expand our definition of an outdated and stale artform that does very little to excite in us what it is meant to (at least anymore). If you’ve tried out spoken word and it wasn’t for you, then listen to Dury’s The Night Chancers and alter your perception. I admit, the self-indulgences I complained about earlier are present in Dury’s music but accompanied with them is a little self-awareness, a little irony. What's gone however, is the victimhood (without losing any of the vulnerability or honesty). He is not the hero of his own “poems,” he is not the voice of reason or virtue or understanding. He is forceful in his definition of himself and his art; he is The Slumlord himself. ▲
Ahmed Ragheb is an independent filmmaker from Cairo, Egypt. He is now based in Pittsburgh and, with his partner, Lily, he is working on a series of short films. You can follow along with them on social media at @dogdoorfilms!