On the cover of the Libertines’ self-titled second album, singer-guitarists Carl Barât and Pete Doherty sit shoulder-to-shoulder displaying their tattoos of the band’s name. Barât’s is on his left bicep, Doherty’s on his left forearm, just below the crook of the elbow, a fine place for a needle. They’re in a pub outside London on October 8, 2003, after a show celebrating Doherty’s release from prison, where he had served one month for burgling Barât’s apartment, presumably to finance his heroin and crack habit. Two final details tell the rest: beneath Doherty’s Libertines tattoo is a skull-and-crossbones, for a rock ‘n’ roll pirate is he to the death. And though you can’t see it in the cropped picture on the booklet, just off to the right an unidentified man thrusts his arms into the frame. He has written “Pete” and “Carl” across the knuckles of each hand, like Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter with love and hate etched on his fists.
Such is the sad state of one of current rock & roll’s best bands, stuck in mud and myth. Their music is as raw as a freshly skinned knee: decades worth of British melody-craft riding bursts of densely clotted guitar noise. Their 2002 debut, Up the Bracket, recorded after five years of Barât and Doherty living together in London squats, drew frequent comparisons to the Strokes and the Clash, whose Mick Jones produced. Yet the Strokes are more sober, at least in the studio, and the Clash more original. The Libertines invoked the history of punk as deliberately as the New York Dolls swiped lyrics and a producer from the Shangri-Las. One song was called “The Boy Looked at Johnny” and the chorus of another went, “please kill me/oh no, don’t kill me.” The longer you listened, the more the music gave up: ’60s garage, skiffle, music-hall, glam, le jazz hot, hardcore loud-hard-fast, acoustic rambles, maximum r&b. At the band’s U.S. gigs, Barât and Doherty fell all over the stage and each other as though they’d studied the choreographed erotic tension of the great battling lovers of years gone by: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, David Johansen and Johnny Thunders, Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell.
But soon enough Doherty’s habit was too much. The band was playing gigs without him and he was crawling in Barât’s window. The two of them sing about it on the lead cut of The Libertines, “Can’t Stand Me Now”: “Your light fingers through the dark,” says Barât, “that shattered the lamp and into darkness cast us,” to which Doherty replies, “No, you’ve got it wrong way round/You shut me up and blamed it on the brown.” Almost every song chronicles doomed love: Barât and Doherty’s for each other, and Doherty’s for the poisons he uses to heat and cool his brain. As for the music, gone are the skintight arrangements of Up the Bracket. The Libertines occasionally falls back on ready-made blues, and several songs drift off into jammy puddles. The underrated rhythm section is always ready at the rescue, but throughout the Libertines sound surprised to find themselves alive after a seven-day weekend. Too loose to be called shattered, this music fights for its own existence second-by-second; it brings to mind the slovenly mid-’70s Stones trying to play the repertoire of the bright-eyed early-’60s Stones. Of course it’s exhilarating, an argument to keep going. But it’s also deeply disquieting, crammed with a junkie’s self-mythologizing confessions.
The Libertines soldier on. An August show at the Bowery Ballroom with Bostonite Anthony Rossamondo replacing Doherty on guitar was full of swing and slop; an October 13 stop at Webster Hall was brutal, with tempos and volume pushed to a frenzied, thrashing screech. It was efficient, devastating, and empty of romance. And who can imagine how Barât feels singing the line from “The Saga” that goes, “Only fools, vultures and undertakers will have any time for you.” As for Doherty, he had a top 10 U.K. single called “For Lovers,” recorded with his running buddy Wolfman. And he’s been playing gigs with his band Babyshambles to scare up drug money. Go to babyshambles.net to see photos of Doherty smoking crack and to babyshambles.com to find band graphics that feature needles and blood. More recent pictures show Doherty with black tunnels where once he had eyes. He is a true believer whose dream of a life of pure art and freedom, far outside the laws of reason and convention, is no longer sustainable. The brown powder allows him to dream when he’s awake, if that’s what you can call it. Barât has said there are only two ways for this story to end. But the more time goes by, the more there seems to be only one.