Tuesday, January 03, 2006

London Falling

(Illustration by Alex Fine)

Pete Doherty's Cracked Music

It starts with a bang and ends with a whimper. Structure becomes shrapnel, air becomes fire, people become obituaries. Everyone-even the most candyass of heart, those who dare not think in curse words let alone utter them-reacts the same way: You motherfuckers.
When the London Underground came under attack earlier this month by Islamic killbots purchasing four tickets to Allah's bootycall with a backpack of C-4, I know the first thing you thought and the last thing you'd ever admit: God save the Libertines.

There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke, and discerning laughers know the Libertines dropped some of the best punchlines since the Clash and the Kinks before them. Like the Replacements in their stray-dog prime, the Libertines raised shambles to an art form, sizzling like a short fuse during a brilliant, blurred and ridiculously fractious two-album career.

Produced by the Clash's Mick Jones, Up the Bracket and The Libertines are the sound of the live-wire synapses of youth crackling with electricity, hormones and lashings of ginger beer. Baudelaire does the "Blitzkrieg Bop."

The Libs had that ultra-rare blend of style and substance, decadence and Dior-standing in the gutter and looking at the stars. They pledged allegiance to Albion-the ancient and mythological name for England-and set sail for Arcadia, the equally mythological realm of the senses where the only law is: If it feels good, do it. Nothing can hurt you in Arcadia-not coke, not crack, not even heroin.

It was the central fallacy of this last premise-proven time and again in an infinitely repeating loop of arrests, rehab and jail time-that would be the undoing of the Libertines, splitting the band's brotherly songwriters Pete Doherty and Carl Barat into irreconcilable differences and solo careers. Barat wanted to live. Doherty wasn't so sure. "Crack is gorgeous," he said.

Doherty-porcelain pale, frail as a fairy, his coal-eyed babyface dappled with a faint constellation of freckles-went on to form the aptly named Babyshambles, dropping natty Libs-like singles on the 'Net before they went straight to the Top 10, playing hastily announced gigs to overflow flashmobs in pubs, parks, student unions and his own living room.

It was a shaky but workable orbit, and then Doherty met Kate Moss last winter and it was love at first bite. The two became instant tabloid catnip-the most badass rock 'n' roll couple since Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg. But soon the whole world started crashing down around his ears.

In the last six months Doherty's managed to add a list of high crimes and misdemeanors-including assault, theft and blackmail-to a colorful CV that already includes gravedigger, Rimbaudian thief of fire, rent boy and punkish poet laureate of Albion. Hard to tell if all the low-life hijinks give the music its convincing aura of danger and glamour or vice versa, but Doherty's come to resemble A Clockwork Orange's Alex, his ever-elusive redemption serving every agenda but his own.

As I write this, the London Underground is blowing up again, and Babyshambles seems to have fallen down, cradle and all. A summer tour was canceled, the band was fired, and the debut album, once slated for fall release, is still unfinished, according to an apoplectic NME.

Which is a goddamn shame, because now more than ever, Albion needs music when the lights go out.

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