CRAVEN’S NOTES: The rise of Spasticus Autisticus
Free Press Music Columnist
In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to explain the Paralympics.
After all, it’s only among the biggest, most important sporting events in the world. You would think one of the largest international competitions of all time would be as well-known as the Olympics or the World Cup.
But it’s not a perfect world, and the Paralympics rarely get the coverage of those other events. So, in case you didn’t know: The Paralympics is a huge competition, held immediately following the Olympics (both summer and winter versions). It is a multi-sport event featuring athletes with a variety of mental and physical disabilities.
Put another way, it is a truly amazing tournament in which people who have faced profound and unique physical or intellectual problems in life get to demonstrate that the drive to be the best you can be knows no such limits.
Last year’s amazing Summer Paralympics in London had an even more amazing opening ceremony — thanks mainly to the rendition of a song which had been banned in that city some 30 years earlier! “Spasticus Autisticus” was the title of the song performed by the electronic duo Orbital, joined by musicians with disabilities, following a stirring speech by physicist Stephen Hawking. You may never have heard of the song, but its history reveals the changes in the way we see people with disabilities.
In 1981, British rocker Ian Dury was disgusted. Ever since he came down with polio as a child, Dury had lived with a paralyzed arm and leg. After he came to fame with songs like “Sex and Drugs and Rock n’ Roll” and “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,” Dury was often asked to contribute to charities for “the handicapped.”
But Dury, a complex, scrappy musician much older than most of his punk rock contemporaries, abhorred what he saw as a patronizing and ghettoizing attitude toward people with disabilities. In 1981, to protest the United Nations’ International Year of Disabled Persons, Dury penned and recorded “Spasticus Autisticus” as a wordplay on the name of Spartacus (the gladiator who led a slave uprising against the Romans) and the word “spastic,” a term which had originally been used to describe people diagnosed with cerebral palsy, but which had, by the end of the 1970s, become a common-usage epithet. Dury’s intention was to provoke; like hip hop rappers employing the N-word, or a women’s rights protest adopting the name “Slutwalk,” Dury was deliberately seizing language which had been used to harm people and reclaiming it as a defiant, self-identifying label.
The BBC was not amused, and banned the song almost immediately. But people with disabilities recognized that far from shaming them, the song’s lyrics, written by one of their own, reflected the reality of their lives. Over the next 30 years, “Spasticus Autisticus” saw its reputation change. By the time it was performed at the opening ceremony of the Paralympics last year, it had been transformed from offensive to inspirational.
Dury died in 2000, from colorectal cancer. But beyond having inspired countless British musicians, Dury also set an example as a man who never let his disabilities define him. He may not have been able to use the left side of his body, but Ian Dury always found — to quote the title of one of his best-known songs — “Reasons to be Cheerful.”
And in that act, he helped change the world.
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog and also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog at http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog/. You can also find him on Facebook.
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