In a recent interview for The Guardian, Pete Doherty confessed to possibly falling for his own mythology back when he was doing drugs in Camden. Isn't the past tense a bit bold there? Making a French film?! 'What a waster', the world says, except for a few little voices cooing 'he's a sweetie really!', because as this video from when he was released from prison in 2008 demonstrates, the sweetie is sweet from time to time. Look at his little face when he asks the nazi paparazzi if they want to see his journals!
Cruel nasty journalist (mockingly): What does it contain?
Sweetie Petey: Forts... drorins...
... (Pete shows the world a 'Segregation Unit Certificate')
Anyway, I digress. What with his stealing and his strange recent past, Doherty's excellent song-writing can sometimes become lost in the throes of speculation and judgment. Several years ago, I knew him as a 'tabloid whipping-boy' well before I'd heard his voice - a voice which is not the strong point of his music, but idiosyncratic to say the least. What's important is often what that voice is saying. Not many musicians bother writing poetry, whether it's heavily influenced by someone else or not. Here's a run-down of my top five gems.
'Up the Bracket'
Now, it should be mentioned that pretty much all of these tracks were co-written. But, if you compare the lyrics of The Libertines, Doherty and Barât's project, to those of Barât's solo lyrics, it seems clear that most of the good stuff should be attributed to Pete. Since he put pen to paper, Pete's been penning good songs - sometimes. He has definite off-days, but the day he wrote 'Up the Bracket' was not one of them. The title track of their first album, it showcases a little anecdote about Pete being chased by a couple of serious baddies for a friend's address.
I saw two shadow men on the Vallance Road
said they'd pay me for your address.
Oh I was so bold...
In three lines, he sets up all the suspense a good story needs. What did he do? What did he do?
I said "you see these two cold fingers?It's great. We get the recounting of an 'oh so bold' reply, of weedy Pete giving them the sign - the sign they should fuck off. The story goes on though, with warm anecdotal flair,
These crooked fingers?
They'll show you the way" -
to mean 'no'.
Well they didn't like that much I can tell you,
said "sunshine, I wouldn't wanna be in your shoes".
They chased me up two flights of stairs,
caught me in the lift. I sighed and said
"Hello", but you're impossible.
This little scene is perfectly imaginable. Not quite sure what he means by the final lines, but they're expressed with a suitable sigh of futility. It's a good track because, let's face it, we've all heard more love songs than we'd like to shake a stick at, and this is romanticised but totally different from the boring generic love songs constantly played elsewhere.
'Can't Stand Me Now'
Up the Bracket was The Libertines' first album, and all the peace and joy went downhill from there. The light-hearted punk-rock gave way by the time their self-titled second release was made - to self-absorption and harrowing suffering, mostly. Tracks like 'Narcissist' are attempts at recreating the fast-paced carelessness of album number one, but the album gets its fame from the heartache it clearly represents - and discusses, in raw and often very painful detail. 'Can't Stand Me Now' is one of The Libs' most famous tracks, and its lyrics were penned in France when Carl and Pete reunited after Peter's first spell in prison. The first verses are golden:
An ending fitting for the start,
you twist and tore our love apart.
Your light fingers through the dark
shattered the lamp, into darkness you cast us.
The first question - is the song about Carl and Pete themselves? It's a question loaded with significance, because the key to the second Libs album for a lot of people is its romance, the way it bares its heart to the world - raw emotion usually so detached and unfamiliar in songs is thrust into the light by the fact we know the story. The magic of these lyrics in particular is that they open the album, with 'an ending', looking back, prophesying the band's untimely break-up. Barât appears to be singing to Doherty, attacking him, blaming him for shattering the lamp of their lives, casting them into darkness. It's traditional imagery but it's well-phrased.
But lo, Pete replies:
No, you've got it the wrong way round,
you shut me up and blamed it on the brown.
Cornered, the boy kicked out at the world...
the world kicked back, a lot fuckin' harder now.
This clearly refers to Barât, destroying the mystery; Barât had Doherty sent to prison in 2004 for breaking into his flat. Pete suggests that it was Carl's fault - 'you shut me up' - and then that Carl tried to shrug the blame by saying it was Pete's drug use causing the problems. The way they immortalise the deadlock of their disagreement is brave - to air their dirty laundry is either a blatant cashing-in on the romance of their story, or songwriting which breaks down the usual boundaries between private and public, the personal lives of the artists and the analytical gaze of the outside world. (Only your personal feeling about the band will determine which angle you take on that.) Doherty turns to some poetic phrasing to give his verse oomph: 'cornered', he begins, placing himself as the passive victim where Barât's verse had been so accusatory. But then he confesses - he did kick, and he got a suitably colloquial kick back. These verses capture both his victim complex and a wry understanding of the way everyone else sees it. As well as being as catchy as Hell, 'Can't Stand Me Now' is a lyrical corpse preserved in formaldehyde, a neat description of the cataclysmic fatal domestic.
'8 Dead Boys'
After The Libertines broke up for what seemed like it would be forever, Pete ran off and wrote some blisteringly mean songs about Barât. The first Babyshambles album is a constant two fingers at Carlos; "Shoop d'lang d'lang", Pete echoes from 'What Katie Did', parodying the innocent friendliness of that Libertines track; "Don't look back into the motherfucking sun" he cries on 'Sticks & Stones', a more obvious reference; one of the songs is even called 'What Katy Did Next', using the convenient literary sequence to move on from The Libs - to open the next book.
'8 Dead Boys' is a particularly vicious track, a masterpiece in sparse punk - here's a great live version.
My favourite lines are at the start of the second verse, and go
If you stop your moaning then they'll give you a taster
They'll give you a line and then call you a waster.
You say you will then you won't.
Either you do or you don't - do or you don't.
It's true that the painful, gut-wrenching screams of the song nail home its mood, but these lines encapsulate it too. That taster/waster couplet is another example of Pete placing blame for his way of life on someone else. Pete addresses the audience - it could happen to you, you my friend, that if you go to 'them', whoever they are (we assume his old band, with whom his drug-taking got real), they'll offer you drugs and then accuse you of being the waster. Yes, friends, you. The 'don't' is Doherty's final remark on the matter; he then switches. The 'you' is no longer a cover for himself, an attempt to pull the audience into sympathy; the 'you' assumes the role of the 'they', I think - he addresses his drug-providing pals - don't, because you're unreliable, you lie, and this is your last chance. It's partly appealing because of its rhymes, but I also like its vagueness; he wrote these in a journal or on a scrap piece of paper and they've stayed in tact. That's how it feels. Then he yells, "When it suits you you're a friend of mine", implying that when it doesn't suit them, they're not. Accusatory, angry, powerfully raw - it's what punk used to be about, only more... self-centred.
Album number two brought a much less bitter and more stable range of lyrics into Babyshambles' fans' lives. Personally, I think the album, whilst it is beautifully produced and has some lovely tracks on it, lacks lyrically. It has a few good lines on though, like 'Carry on Up the Morning''s
In the morning where does all the pain go?which is gorgeously easy to empathise with, and witty to boot. Then, there's 'Delivery', with
Same place the fame goes - straight to your head
I'm fucked, forlorn, frozen beneath the summer.
Don't sing along or you'll get what I got
a grim warning to his fans, telling them off for going to see him play in a cage, which the whole world calls a stage. And then perhaps the denaturalised cliché of 'There She Goes':
How could I let go?
Since I caught a glimpse of your white plimsoles
twisting and turning to Northern Soul.
Just one glance, everybody knows.
I love these, and this album, but like sub-plots in a novel, they don't seem to stick to the story of Pete's life. He has every right to write songs which are about things other than his mighty rise and fall, of course, and he writes great tracks nevertheless, supported by a strong band (even if walk-out guitarist Pat of the first album was a more individual player than this album's Mik).
'New Love Grows on Trees'
And finally, Doherty's solo album. Soft and delicate, it's possibly called 'growing up', only as with most maturing, the lyrics get duller, less impassioned... nostalgic, self-consciously 'British', lots of these songs are sweet and about nothing. Last of the English Roses has a few little crackers in it - "Round the snooker table, you dance the Frutti-Tutti. She almost spilled her lager toasting girls of great beauty" is a nice rhyme, for example, if a little laboured. The magic comes in a song he wrote years before. It is summoned for this release, possibly because its warm reminiscing fits with the character of the album. Peter gently sings,
I don't know why I love these lyrics so much - they just seem to conjure up appealing images, especially of the talking to dead film stars, an endearing quirk in the person the song is written for, whoever it may be. The simple internal rhyme of 'rhymes' and 'crimes' is nice too, just aesthetically. Though the lyrics are very simple, they have an undercurrent of something a bit darker - it's that repetition of 'like you used to' that does it, like a cruel reference to better times, or times when the pair were better acquainted. It's also impatient; as he later says, if you are still doing these things, "you really don't have to".
Are you still talking to
all of those dead film stars, like you used to?
And are you still thinking of
all of those pretty rhymes and perfect crimes
like you used to?
The album version is absolutely gorgeous, but it seems appropriate to post this vid, what with its array of pictures of the guy I've spent a good thousand words talking about, so enjoy.
I just hope Pete can recover his writing talent and release some new material, be it with the Babyshambles team or alone. 'Genius' is too strong a word, in my opinion, as perhaps even is 'poet', but Pete Doherty has released some invigorating and wonderful tracks in his time, and some superb lyrics. And he isn't cut out for acting - hopefully the reviews will drive him back into the studio.