(ESSAY) In Defence of Sleaze: On Baxter Dury’s Miami by Sarah Fletcher
In this timely essay, Sarah Fletcher riffs on what sleaziness means, especially in the murky expanse of quarantine. Taking musician Baxter Dury as a case study and musing on themes of charm, permission, bodily consciousness and the everyday, Fletcher explores the weird and pleasurable contradictions of reclaiming the sleazy vibe.
> In the past weeks, I have felt hygienic but never clean. Everyday objects now carry hidden vectors of threat, and I’m conscious of how many unseen things are touching my skin. Wifi. Electricity. Radiowaves. Other people’s breath, maybe. 3G. 4G. Various smells. This is obviously ridiculous (and scientifically unsound), but this thought has also made me restless and caused me to feel I am marching into the future with the resistance of a body trudging through water. My mind’s been repeating and re-appropriating Frances Leviston’s poem ‘Incubus’, about sexual assault, as a mantra for the quarantine age: “A crime requires a perpetrator/To put in the dock, to accuse or defend,/To finish the plot, but there’s nobody here./…They’ve learned to walk through walls.”.
> Music has been one of the nicest things. It’s able to tune and untune time from slow to fast and back again. It’s also become an organising facet for my day: I play a song to get out of bed. I play a song while I take my state mandated walk with my dog. I listen to music while I cook. One morning, my calendar notified me of a concert I’d bought tickets for: March 25th, Baxter Dury, O2 Forum Kentish Town. I spent that night inside. Baxter Dury probably did too.
> Baxter Dury’s a singer and, to get it out of the way, the son of Ian Dury of Blockhead fame. His single ‘Miami’ first got my attention, with its synths that are so sweet they almost hurt your teeth, fumbling and hypnotic bass-line, and music video where pot-bellied Baxter is bathed in pink light and caresses one of the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen, the type of caress that really makes you think about fingerprints. It’s ‘chorus’ is the cocky-ominous brag of ‘I’m Miami’. The song is one of the sleaziest things I’ve heard, which made me fall in love with it. I listened to his newly released album ‘The Night Chancers’, and it was exactly as I’d hoped: the sort of music that, like electricity and wifi, made its presence on my skin uncomfortably aware. The album makes me want to take a hot shower (in a good way). Sleazy.
> I’ll be honest here. I relate to the overt, bleeding-heart ridiculousness of sleaze. I have been a confidante of sleazesters and a lover of sleazesters; I have probably made myself so embarrassing and wonderful in equal measure as to have possibly been one of the few sleazy women existing in the world for a night or two. I should quickly emphasise here what fascinates me is a benign sleaziness. Of course, sleaziness can also be a veil by which men can be excused for behaviour that genuinely makes women uncomfortable or is even straight up harmful. All too familiar is the avuncular party-goer who is simply dismissed with: oh, that’s just [NAME]. We all know he’s a bit ‘like that’.
> The sleaziness I like — and that embodied in Baxter Dury’s music — is that which is unable to afford “the nice stuff” but will dish out for a downgraded parody of “the nice stuff”, no matter how ridiculous. Off brand liqueurs when beer would probably be nicer, and even cheaper. ‘Sleazy’ reminds me of the year I drank Martini Asti to feel fancy. Even worse, it was absolutely delicious. Anything that is “decadence on discount” has the scope to be sleazy. A lot of sleazy things were straightforwardly high-end until the masses got their hands on them, and they become tinged with dirtied sexual suggestion. Strawberries and cream. Satin sheets. Having a mirror as a wall. To be sleazy is to reclaim the spoiled hand-me-downs of the decadent shits who don’t even have the good sense to enjoy them properly in the first place. This is different than simply being cheap: sleaziness is the way that you enjoy things, and you carry that with you, no matter how much dough you have. Dutch still lives are windows into sleazy pasts with their strong cheeses, dead fish and ominous flies. It’s splashing out, and splashing over, always in a town near you.
> Sleazy is charming, but you wouldn’t want to take a photograph with it. In fact, you want to probably check there is absolutely no documentation that you met at all, despite the fact you laughed the hardest you have in years. It has a levity and swagger that seedy leaves at the door. It’s probably harder to be sleazy if you’re conventionally attractive. If you can wink, though, you’re already halfway there. Sleazy is always slipping between the slim margin of ‘tacky’ and ‘camp’. Camp is playful and aware of its artifice; to recognise camp when you see it is to be part of an inside joke. Tacky is embarrassing and unintentional, but tender in its earnestness. Tacky, at the end of the night, doesn't want to get so drunk it won’t be able to charm you to the hotel room. These humours muddy and melt in sleaze: bad puns. The pick-up line. Even a badly timed dad joke can fall victim.
> I asked twitter to name some sleazy things and got a gorgeous cornucopia of artefacts. Chest hair. Hot tub people. Overexposed photography. Cocaine. Hot tubs in private residences. Tia Maria. Dating younger women. Pomeranians. Miami.
> Purple is a sleazy colour. Even more so knowing it used to denote royalty. Libertarians are sleazy: so much shiny permissiveness with absolutely no sense.
> The joy of listening to Baxter Dury is, of course, that it can make a few minutes of my life sordid, and I can control when and how I return back to my current, hygienic-but-not-clean world. Sleazy is good for a night, a holiday, or a four minute song… but to start at sleaziness is to doom yourself. More than even evil, Oliver!’s Fagan’s sleaziness makes him laughable and ineffective. The sleazy man is already drunk by the time the women arrive at the bar. To end at sleaziness is to accept defeat into a pantomime, all normal routes of life exhausted. Sleaziness is uncomfortable to sit with for too long, because we worry it’s the stock cube from which all desires and overtures diffuse. If you could distill all your love, all your true sexual energy, your charisma into a single thing… what if the real meat of it was a man with a gold chain buried in his chest air, extravagantly smoking Benson & Hedges and holding a heart-shaped box of chocolate?
> I recommend you listen to Baxter Dury’s ‘The Night Chancers’ with a glass of day-old red wine in silk pyjamas at an uncomfortably early time, like 5:30 PM.
Text: Sarah Fletcher
Image: Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Herring, Wine and Bread, (Holland, 1596/1597-1660), 1647, Paintings, Oil on wood.