Babyshambles: Beauty On The Verge Of Collapse

Down In Albion, Ten Years LaterDown-In-Albion-coverIt’s now ten years since the release of Babyshambles’ debut album Down In Albion. Though I would later come to be a big fan of Peter Doherty’s music, I had never heard of him, the Libertines or Babyshambles in late 2005 when a mix CD arrived in the mail one day from my old pal Kurt Tolu.

It was mostly American jams, but in the middle of the mix was a kind of Brit interlude, which was introduced by the Misfits’ “London Dungeon” and then went into the Kaiser Chiefs’ “I Was Born To Be A Dancer.” But it was the next track that stole all my attention.

“Fuck Forever,” the lead single off Down In Albion, is one of the most remarkable performances to ever be captured on tape. I can only compare it to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” and Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” both of which were magical first-take performances. I don’t know if “Fuck Forever” was likewise a one-take wonder, but like these other songs, it has lost none of its power with the passage of time. It kicks off with a sonic blast by guitar player Patrick Walden, who is simply one of the best and most original guitar players I’ve ever heard. The opening chords are like a tear in the fabric of space-time, or more like a tear in the fabric of love, an even higher reality. And then the four chords that make up the chorus, played with a harsh staccato rhythm like stabs from a knife. The song is in B-minor, which Bob Dylan said was his favorite chord because it’s the most mystical. (See his 1975, “One More Cup Of Coffee,” especially the superior rendition off the Whites Stripes’ first record.)

I listened to the song over and over again. I called up Kurt the next day to find out more about this Babyshambles group. “Babe, I know, I KNOW!” Kurt yelled into the phone. “I tried to tell those guys at Rough Trade: ‘Do you even know what you have here?’ Nobody listens to old Kurt. The irony is that I’m the one who steered The Clash towards CBS for the U.S. release of their first record after nobody else would touch it, and now Mick Jones is the fuckin’ producer of Babyshambles. But people in this business got short memories, you know? The drugs don’t exactly help.”

No, the drugs don’t help. Except for that short time at the beginning when they actually do help. Every artist who gets into drugs makes a kind of devil’s bargain. All the creative energy that they have to expend over the course of their life is able to be concentrated and released over a much shorter time. The trade-off is that after that, there’s not much left. This partly explains the golden age of Pete Doherty’s songwriting and performing, from about 2002 to 2005 when he seemingly could do no wrong – musically, anyway.

Pete Doherty rose to prominence as one half of The Libertines, whose debut album Up The Bracket from 2002 is generally considered the band’s, and Doherty’s, best work. (But it’s not – Down In Albion is, though no one else realizes it.) After that, Pete’s well-documented drug use and chaotic lifestyle took its toll on the band, and by the time of their second eponymous album two years later, they were already broken up.

The dynamic between Doherty and bandmate Carl Barat was the fuel behind The Libertines. It was part best mates, part creative partnership a la Lennon and McCartney (though, in spite of the initial comparisons, we can now definitively say that Doherty and Barat didn’t even come close in quantity or quality of musical output) and part homoerotic flirtation. The cover of their second album, featuring an iconic photograph by Roger Sargent, shows the duo looking like waifish junkie extras from My Own Private Idaho. What interested me about the Libertines and especially Peter Doherty was the worldview espoused through the music. They made a by-all-accounts sincere effort to create their own private Britain, an alternative to the prevailing reality of the time, rooted in the European romantic and decadent traditions, and in the ancient mythology of the isles themselves. They harked back to Rimbaud, as all punk rockers are obliged to, but for them it wasn’t just about having spiky hair like France’s most famous enfant terrible, but about living one’s entire life as art. The Revolution of Everyday Life, as the Situationist writer Raoul Vaneigem would call it.

The Libertines’ alternate-reality centered around two main, ancient concepts: Albion and Arcadia. Albion is the archaic name for Britain, when it was a land of Druids and bards. Arcadia, although the name of an actual place in ancient Greece just north of Sparta, is a name associated with a kind of earthly paradise – specifically, a poet’s paradise. Ancient writers like the Roman Virgil wrote of Arcadia as a peaceful land of eternal springtime, with lush pastures, rich wine a’plenty, and the fairest maidens in all the world. (I might make a case for Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” as being another veiled reference to Arcadia, but I won’t.)

The Libertines re-envisioned decaying 21st century Britain as “the good ship Albion” which was sailing towards the paradisal land of Arcadia, fueled by music and poetry, camaraderie, festivity, and a good amount of drugs.  It was an effort to break on through to the other side, if you like, giving them a kind of spiritual kinship with the Doors, even if their music bore no further resemblance. And in spite of their hark back to days of yore, they were deliberately forward-looking, cautioning against too much nostalgia on their first album: “It chars my heart to always hear you calling, calling for the good old days. Because there were no good old days. These are the good old days.” The Libertines were one of the first bands to make use of the internet to bypass record companies and concert promoters, going directly to their fans on forums and message boards to promote guerrilla gigs, often at a moment’s notice and in the most rundown sections of London.

But all the fights and the nights and the drugs and the pubs took their toll, and by 2004 Doherty had been kicked out of the band. He had taken to consuming massive amounts of drugs, including his preferred pair of heroin and crack cocaine, and going without sleep for days at a time. One of his Babyshambles’ entourage said at that the time that it wasn’t the drugs that really mess you up but the lack of sleep – it makes entire landscapes fly off into the ether. Doherty was by all accounts a mess during this period. He was also giving some of his best performances and writing some of the best songs of his career.

After being kicked out of the Libertines, he immediately formed another band, called Babyshambles after a nickname he’d picked up because he was such a, well, shambles. Rumors at the time were that Babyshambles wasn’t a real band, but just a publicity stunt so that Doherty could put on gigs in order to get drug money. In retrospect, it’s more likely that that story itself was the publicity stunt, since footage and recordings of their 2004 concerts show the band in fine form, most notably on the Up The Shambles DVD. The band cut their teeth playing a large number of gigs throughout late 2004 and early 2005, mostly in bars and small clubs. Finally, they made their first record.

Down In Albion was produced by Mick Jones, who also produced both of the Libertines records. His production style, which perfectly suited both bands, was basically to record them live in the studio and not try to fix what isn’t broken – even if it was cracked. This style, coupled with the character of the band at the time and the nature of their performances, gives the album its unique feel.

Beauty on the verge of collapse. That was the phrase that came to me at the time to describe Down In Albion, and ten years later I still think that’s what the album captures. Not only the beauty of the music, played in a chaotic, drug-induced delirium in which it barely holds together (but for exactly that reason seems to flow effortlessly) but also the beauty of Peter Doherty’s soul, ravaged by the loss of his first band, his best friend, and by the excesses of fame and drug abuse.

Those of us who pay special attention to lyrics, who have to have good lyrics in order to really like a piece of music, knew that Doherty was a poet from the first. He showed an ability to turn a phrase with wit and intelligence, half hipster-genius and half literate bookworm. He seemed hungry for experience, as great young men are, not necessarily as an end in itself but as fuel for the fire, as raw material with which to make art. Even his abuse of crack cocaine, previously the most uncool of all drugs, became something to make music about, as in “Pipedown,” a double entendre meaning both “Be quiet” and “Put that damn crack pipe down, Pete.” When Babyshambles formed and then announced that they’d be putting out a record, people expected essentially a new Libertines album. What they got was something different, albeit with a few songs that had previously been bandied about in Libertines rehearsals and on informal demos that Pete had given out free on the internet. The album begins with “La Belle et la Bete” featuring Doherty’s then-girlfriend Kate Moss on backing vocals. The track shows off Drew McConnell’s bass, as well as Pete’s gift for lyrical dexterity, beginning the album as a storytelling venture. “I’ll tell you a story but you won’t listen, it’s about a nightmare steeped in tradition. It’s the story of a coked-up pansy who spends his nights in flights of fancy. He met two fellas over gin and mixers, they talked for a while and soon got the picture. One was a souped-up Soho mincer and the other was a Pikey with a knowledge of scripture.”

That last line could also be “of another description.” One of the unique things that Doherty does with his drug-slurred singing is to give an air of indeterminacy to certain phrases within the songs, as in the above example. It’s a variation of a technique that some rappers use when they need to make two words rhyme that don’t quite rhyme – they’ll change the pronunciation of one or both words to bring them into alignment. But here it’s more like a quantum wave that could actualize as several different particles, but remains in its wave form, blurry and stretched out between two different possibilities, or two different realities, suggesting both but not committing to either.

The group spans a wide range of musical styles and influences on the album. “Pipedown,” “Fuck Forever” and “8 Dead Boys” are rough rock in the vein of The Stooges or The Dead Boys, while “Pentonville” and “Sticks and Stones” are reggae-tinged. “Back From the Dead” sounds like The Cure, while “Loyalty Song” takes an old Irish nationalist folk song and transposes it onto the chords of The La’s “There She Goes.” “What Katy Did Next” and “In Love With A Feeling” are sweet love songs, but the latter is about a love of getting high – if Richie Valens had written “Donna” about heroin instead of his girlfriend, it would sound something like this. Finally “Albion,” originally a Libertines song although not on any of their official albums, is a classic ballad with a beautifully delicate melody and melancholy, nostalgic lyrics paying homage to Doherty’s particular vision of Britain and Britishness.

It is Peter Doherty’s vision and personality which unite the disparate elements of the album, which are scattered around the various tracks like syringes and notebooks in his loft apartment. One theme of the album is certainly as simple as Pete’s late friend Amy Winehouse’s lyrics: “They tried to make me go to rehab. I said no.” In “A’Rebours” (named after the quintessential decadent novel by J.K. Huysmans) he says, “I defy you all … If you really cared for me, you’d let me be,” sounding like he’s lashing out at a would-be interventionist. Another theme of the album is the demise of the Libertines and his relationship with Carl Barat. “Back From The Dead” and “Sticks and Stones” are both concerned with this. And then there is “Fuck Forever.”

On one level the song is an answer to the Libertines’ “What Became Of The Likely Lads” with it’s question, “What became of forever?” But because Doherty is a true poet, the song transcends its personal inspirations and becomes an expression of what Albert Camus called “metaphysical rebellion.” It is a raging against the dying of the light, the cry of the finite against the infinite, the temporary against the eternal, the creature against the creator. “Fuck Forever” is one of the most powerful, brutally nihilistic songs ever made. I used to put it on mix tapes as a follow-up to Bukka White’s “Fixin’ To Die,” not so much for the second meaning it gave to “fixin” (though admittedly I thought that was clever) but because the foreboding, somethin-ain’t-right feeling of that song was the only thing I could find that could stand up next to “Fuck Forever.”

The great mystics of world religions speak of oneness. But there is another kind of oneness that is found in depression and despair. “One and the same, it’s one and the same,” the song begins. “So what’s the use between death and glory? I can’t tell between death and glory.” This is a nod to the Clash song “Death or Glory,” but much more than that it’s an expression of an existential crisis, a recognition of the futility and meaninglessness of one human life in the face of eternity. We usually think of life and death as extreme opposites, but they’re not. At the extremes, the opposition is between the total embrace of human life, making the absolute most its possibilities and seeking after its highest rewards, and the total rejection of life, the most extreme expression of which is suicide, but which also has plenty of lesser expressions as various forms of apathy, forfeiture, defeat and acquiescence. Glory or death, death or glory.

But what is glory, even the greatest glory that a man might achieve, in the vast expanse of time? In The Odyssey, Homer has Achilles say that it’s better to be even a slave on earth than to be a hero in the land of the dead. A man may succeed greatly or fail miserably, and in a thousand years, what will it matter? And therefore, what does it matter now? This lamentation is as old as Ecclesiastes; probably older. Later in the song he repeats this line and then says, fighting against this awful realization, “No, it’s not the same, it’s not supposed to be the same.” Throughout the song, Doherty slurs, shouts and drags out the words as though they were globs of black bile being expelled from his system. It reminds me of how Darby Crash used to “sing” Germs‘ songs.  During the bridge, there is a terrible, menacing guttural sound like the coughing up of blood, which he repeats again and again in a brutal rhythm. “Aaaaaaand a way, to make you toe the liiiiiiiiiiine – I sever my tie!” This severance is doubtless a reference to his ties to Carl Barat and the Libertines, but in the larger context, it is nothing less than the tie to the eternal, to God.

“Oh I’m so clever. But clever ain’t wise.” This line has the ring of a deep, personal confession. Anyone who has a way with words knows something of their power to persuade, to enthrall, even to enrapture. So often in life we mistake eloquence for honesty. But what is well-said may not, for all that, be true, nor even good. Clever ain’t wise; the sophist is not the philosopher, the wiseass is not the wise man.

“So fuck forever,” he says. Fuck heaven. Fuck eternity. Fuck love. “If you don’t mind,” he adds, ever the gentleman, apparently. Doherty was raised Catholic and is also a fan of the novels of Graham Greene, especially Brighton Rock, which is about a young street criminal who believes in God but actively rejects Him and the heaven that He offers.  (As an aside, the resemblance between Doherty and Sam Riley, who plays the main character in the newest film version of Brighton Rock and who also plays Ian Curtis in Control, is uncanny.)

But in the end, for the one who tries to say no to the All, the joke is on them. It’s his misfortune and none of God’s own. There’s a recognition of this in the song when he says, “Cuz I’m stuck forever, stuck in your mind.”

For a mystic, the supreme goal is to achieve total union with the universal mind, or God. But this possibility is an affront to the ego, which thinks itself separate and wants, in its extremity, to be completely separate, completely cut off from everything, to sever the tie, because that would be the supreme proof its independent existence. This is one meaning of the myth of Satan’s rebellion against God. That rebellion exists to some degree in all of us, and is always, ultimately, doomed to failure.

The feeling of exhaustion and imminent collapse pervades the entirety of Down In Albion. Its energetic songs are the rush of a drug high, its slower and sweeter songs the peaceful peak of the experience. Its emotions are all over the board from anger to tenderness. I think sincerity of emotion has always been one of Doherty’s strongest points as a songwriter. “Albion” was the album’s biggest single and is a lovely song. But the most beautiful is the closing track, “Merry Go Round.” Originally called “That Bowery Song,” Doherty began performing it around 2004. It’s built around a very simple, droning two-chord rhythm that is absolutely hypnotic. The song perfectly evokes the atmosphere of aftermath – a messy room at dawn, empty bottles and empty people strewn about all over the place, with a small few still awake, still high, and singing a last song. “It was the first one of the day, it was the last one of the night, oh hold me tight, hold me tight. They said you were a wrong’un, but I could see in your eyes that you were gentle and wise.”

At the end of the track, the music stops except for Adam Ficek’s drums and Pete’s vocals, which become faint and echoed as he stumbles around the studio looking for (presumably) his crack pipe, and changing the lyrics to match. “I been so good to that boy, why did he steal my lighter?” And then we hear “Whoa!” as he stumbles over something and collapses in the studio. It’s the perfect ending to what is, in its way, a perfect album. Not perfect in its craftsmanship, or technical execution or anything like that, but perfect in its naked honesty and transparency. There is no lying in any of this music; or rather, if there is, it is the artist lying to himself, which paradoxically becomes a kind of greater honesty when he puts it on a record and shows it to the world. Like that line in Scarface, “I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.”

Rock n’ roll, like other religions, loves its martyrs; those who bear witness to the higher truths of the faith and lay down their life for it. Around the time of Down In Albion, there were Dead Pool-style bets being made about how much longer Doherty had left. He seemed to be riding William Blake’s road of excess all the way to the end, pedal to the floor. But against the odds, he survived. He has, as Carl Barat observed, “a mammoth constitution.”

The great irony is that, had he not had this reservoir of strength within him and had he died of an overdose as almost everyone thought he would at the time, Down In Albion would be remembered as one of the great last testaments of a rock god, spoken of alongside In Utero, Electric Ladyland, and Joy Division’s Closer. They would have used those last lines as an epitaph: The tabloids said you were a wrong’un, but I could see in your eyes that you were gentle and wise. Or damned clever, anyway. But because Pete is still with us and Babyshambles continued to make music, recognition of the album’s greatness never came.

And the music has never really been the same. Down in Albion was quickly followed by The Blinding EP, which featured neither Patrick Walden on guitar nor Mick Jones on production. Neither would work with the band again. Walden’s guitar was especially irreplaceable – one need only compare Down in Albion to the other records. When Shotters Nation was released in 2007, it was widely praised in the music press due its relatively slick production, but it was not half the album that its predecessor was. The Blinding and Shotters Nation both had some good songs, to be sure; but the raw energy of Albion was not there anymore.

Nor should anyone expect it to be, anymore than one could expect Bob Dylan to make another Blood On The Tracks. Stephane Mallarme said that poetry is the language of a state of crisis. This crisis that Peter Doherty translated into music seems to have subsided, but the album will have relevance long past its personal meanings for the artist, because we as a civilization have known, since Oswald Spengler told us so, that we have been in a state of slow collapse for several hundred years, and thus the poetry of exhaustion always has a peculiar resonance for us. In the image of a talented young man who feels an affinity for the old world that is already gone, and can find no solace in this modern world except drugs and nostalgia, is a symbol of our age. Perhaps it’s fitting that no one recognized it.


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