Higher Ground or Reasons to be Cynical: Rock, pop and disability

If the disabled prodigy is ever to remain in the limelight for the long haul then an increasing degree of independence and confidence is essential, along with perhaps the ability to mock the stereotype.

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Just recently a talent contest for autistic kids was brought to my attention. On the video an old school buddy shared with me about it was a band consisting of three teenage kids with autistic disorders plus two of their dads and a carer/frontman.

Admittedly my sense of fierce independence was rather shaken to begin with. But when I saw that they’d played a number of festivals, gained interviews in national newspapers and even been joined onstage by Tom Jones at one point, my cynicism melted somewhat although I still sense they’re adding to a generic image that people with autism of whatever form need Mummy and Daddy’s help with everything.

But it got me to thinking – about parental involvement in one’s musical career but also how rock and pop have previously proved a grand arena in which one’s own disability can have the back of one’s middle finger shown to it in no uncertain terms.

Paul Weller was managed by his father John until the senior Mr Weller’s death in 2009. But onstage he was always very much his own man. OK so the old boy may have emceed him at times but Paul was the singer, the writer and the star and musically always very sure of himself and unafraid to step into virgin territory with no musical assistance from Dad at all.

Disability in itself need not be a barrier. From J S Bach to the late blues guitarist Jeff Healey, blindness has given countless musicians a heightened use of their other senses. But while disability is not something to hide, it is sad that it should be used as the chief means to plug an artist now that the days when you had to call yourself Blind Lemon Jefferson are long gone, except possibly to silence the naysayers.

Exhibit A: Stevie Wonder

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The most obvious example is Stevie Wonder. While people’s initial response to the teenage prodigy might have been amazement at his ability in the face of blindness, this is not the same as having an especial enjoyment of Wonder’s music in its own right. Indeed his greatest achievement is not so much his having mastered an array of keyboard and percussion instruments in childhood despite disability let alone achieving a No 1 hit with Fingertips (Part 2) at the age of 13 but in standing up to Motown for his artistic rights.

In its 1960s heyday, Motown had very specific roles for everyone – there were singers, players, writers and producers. Wonder’s UK breakthrough hit Uptight (Everything’s Alright) gave him a minor writing credit for the central brass riff but TV appearances show him lip syncing without even a keyboard to complete the image while some hits like Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday were written for him.

But the former Stevland Morris was not to be deterred. He fought for complete creative control and by 1969’s My Cherie Amour album had the sole production credit. Two years later, Where I’m Coming From saw him co-write every track with his then wife and on its follow-up Music of My Mind, Wonder played all bar two instruments. The stage was set for a commercial renaissance and Talking Book, released in October 1972, was an across the board smash. Yes there were two other producers and some co-writers and even guest appearances by the likes of Jeff Beck but these were Stevie’s choices – he wasn’t Motown’s docile servant anymore and with hits like You Are The Sunshine of My Life and Superstition, began a run of smashes that made him probably their biggest money-spinner of the 1970s.

Whether the younger half of The Autistix will go on to achieve more than simply proving that autistic people can do it remains to be seen.

Exhibit B: Ian Dury

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Before you all begin your nostalgic chorus of Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, let us remember that Dury (1942-2000) contracted polio at the age of seven and despite being at a caring special school in early years, was forced into grammar school at secondary age and tormented for such unhelpable crimes as soiling his bed as well as being forced to learn epic poetry for lesser offences – mercifully a kindly member of staff made sure this was put a stop to.

Dury went to art college and trained under Peter Blake of Sgt Pepper cover fame and eventually got into the music scene with his short-lived band Kilburn and the High Roads but success eluded him until the age of 35 when What A Waste became a Top 10 hit and his debut solo album New Boots and Panties became a cult classic.

Dury was not churning out crap in the name of being cute or a disability poster boy. He wore his calipers without shame despite the fact that they didn’t generate any image of cool to deceive those none the wiser, unlike Stevie Wonder’s dark glasses, and anyone slightly bemused by such a sight on Top of the Pops would quickly have been distracted by his observant spoken word poetry ably backed by the Blockheads. He wrote quality lyrics sung or spoken in his cockney/Essex accent about life as a common lad nicking porn mags from the newsagent or showing his age by nostalgising over Gene Vincent.

But the best thing Dury or anyone on the rock/pop scene ever did for the disabled ‘community’ was the release of Spasticus Autisticus in 1981. I say release – the song featured on his Lord Upminster album that year but the single was quickly withdrawn for fear of causing offence. But the song had in fact been recorded after Dury had been asked to do something for the International Year of Disabled Persons. While not against making needs more widely known, he refused to be paraded as an exhibit (like the Conjoined Fetus Lady in South Park in later years) along the lines of “Look – he’s disabled” and instead recorded an iconoclastic rap taking full advantage of the way the word ‘spastic’, previously an adjective for one suffering from cerebral palsy, had degenerated into a playground insult.

The fact that Polydor Records wouldn’t release it and DJs wouldn’t play it just goes to show. This was a member of the disabled ‘community’ making fun of himself and thus disarming the detractors. This would have meant that kids in the playground with cerebral palsy or undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome could turn it back on their persecutors.Said persecutors were aided in their sick cause far more from the unlikely source of Blue Peter when Joey Deacon, an elderly disabled man who relied on one person to read his communications, another to type them up and yet another to read them out, appeared on the children’s magazine programme. It wasn’t long before everyone from the kid who gave a wrong answer to the weirdo with no diagnosis (like yours truly) got dubbed “Joey”. I suffered years of “Joey”, only coming to understand it when I attended a seminar about disability in which the speaker asked for insulting terms which he wrote on a flip chart.

But Dury… he avoided such patronising exhibitionism. People of all disabilities would be well advised to do the same.

That said, if ever the lead guitar/bass/drums line-up at the back of the Autistix go on to become well established in their own right with their parents and carer out of the picture, then the latter will have done a sterling job.

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