Better to Be a Burnout Than to Fade Away
For better or worse, the Libertines are living a media campaign that no lucky TRL booking could conceivably match--even if the band's performance was piggybacked on the live birth of little Jerry Spears-Federline. Take an ambitiously talented frontman, Pete Doherty, a charming bohemian fellow in his mid-20s who currently resembles a gaunt, shorn, Shoreview High School wrestler in the lower weight classes. Then let the English music press--famous for its relentless trumpeting of mediocre acts like Kula Shaker, Gay Dad, and Reef (more than enough to send me straight into the arms of a Kimberley Locke CD)--proclaim Doherty's group the greatest thing since Oasis. Let Doherty and dashing singer-guitarist Carl Barat (picture a softer-schnozzed Adrien Brody in battered wing tips) blather on about an alternate state of mind/faraway dreamland known as Arcadia, which they'll one day sail to on a ship called the Albion. Have them sell out arenas across the UK, but also announce steamy, lager- and hashish-filled gigs in random, tiny flats at the last minute.
Except for the Oasis thingy, it sounds pretty brilliant, no? Now pull the rug out from under it all. Have Doherty up the ante on his drug intake. Watch him burglarize Barat's flat. Send him to jail and have him kicked out of the band. Then get him to rejoin the band, complete a sold-out tour (in which one venue gets demolished by fans and the promoter books a follow-up gig without hesitation), decamp to Paris with Barat to write new material, return to the UK to play secret solo gigs for drug money, record the George Michael-y pop song "For Lovers" with a dope buddy known as the Wolfman, and watch as it climbs the UK charts while the band finishes recording their new self-titled album with Mick Jones of Clash fame serving as ringleader.
Now take a breath.
Finally, arrive teeteringly in summer 2004: See Doherty get shipped to heroin rehab twice (once in Thailand), flunk out of both facilities, arrive home in London, get busted for carrying a knife (a souvenir, he claims) and get kicked out of the band once again until he cleans up his act.
Now have a reviewer write nearly 400 words without even describing the band's music. Here goes: Skiffle. Yup, the Libertines play a popified version of skiffle--think Lonnie Donegan and other dental curiosities peeking out from the damp stage-caves in the Compleat Beatles, as filtered through the Jam or the Clash. Though really, their hunger, spontaneity, and disregard for whatever is trendy match Hootenany and Stink-era Replacements more than anything else. That's all it is, and it's enough. Arty, sloppy punk-folk that threatens to collapse only two minutes into each song.
The Libertines' lyrics offer NC-17 versions of the sort of teacup dramas put forth on Something Else by the Kinks--not political epics like the Clash's "Straight to Hell," nor anything as focused as "London Calling." While the band is massively famous in England, and its members have tethered themselves to Allman Brothers-sized drug woes, they're basically (and delightfully) only in their infancy as songwriters. As such, The Libertines, while touched with a shrewd cynicism, is attractive because its sentiments are still very earnest. Their song "Campaign of Hate," which lurches forward like a lawnmower running on a thimble full of gas, is one of few that dare ruminate on things other than love or drugs, but it takes the whiz out of itself before its sociopolitical warblings get too heavy. When Doherty laments about "rich kids dressin' like they're poor," Barat, in smug sotto voce, proclaims "Oh, my god."
Picture drug problems, ego problems, legal problems, and all that comes with them, and today the band's only gram-for-gram counterpart is Courtney Love, for whom 2004 has been as comfy as a decaying turtle stuck in the crotch of a very tight, soggy Speedo. Musically, Love's America's Sweetheart was an unadventurous sleepwalk through grunge's yellowing playbook; lyrically, Courtney falsely assumed her fans were clued in to her rapid-fire non sequiturs--the sort of mental shorthand people often mistakenly refer to as quick-wittedness--and the desperation of fading celebrity. Courtney's lead single, "Mono," fashioned the clichéd sense of entitlement that people already hated her for: "Oh God you owe me one more song/So I can prove to you that/I'm so much better than him." The Libertines keep the overt Mr. Brownstone-isms out of their music, wisely making their record's first single "Can't Stand Me Now," an unabashed, Barat vs. Doherty, don't-pity-me-I-know-I've-ruined-everything anthem that could just as easily apply to their fans' love lives as it does to the mess the band has made over the last couple of years.
Not that it's fair to jab at Courtney. She merely represents one example of where (besides the grave) Doherty and Co. will wind up if drugs get the better of them. Love's husband represents another: Fans love it when talented folks put their youth in a headlock and ram it against a brick wall repeatedly. We lionize them on T-shirts that the disgruntled youth of future generations will wear as they get beaten up by less sensitive classmates.
The Libertines know this. NME knows this, which is why the UK music magazine issued both a "Pete" cover and a "Carl" cover this summer, to keep the drama smoldering. If it were Shannon Hoon sitting on his tour bus, watching the bee girl rapidly diminish in the rearview mirror with nary a hummable hook on the horizon, we'd merely yawn. But because the Libertines are talented, they're getting free passes. Then they're dousing their free passes in kerosene and waving them over a roaring fire. And they won't burn for very long.
In July, in an effort to soldier on, Barat made a compelling promotional appearance for The Libertines at a marketing firm in New York, with only his guitar and a broken heart. A few weeks later he returned (minus Doherty, unless you count Doherty's image on his T-shirt) with a full band in tow. I wanted to cheer, but was left with the feeling one might get seeing Paul Revere and the Raiders at Float-Rite with only one original member (the tambourinist) left. If it was 2038, Doherty's absence would have been fine. If a pause is necessary to keep the band and its members alive, record or no record, then please, lads, pause.
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