The Libertines
w/Radio 4
Wed Sept 29, Neumo's, 9:30 pm. $10 adv/$12 DOS.

On a rainy Monday night in April 2003, I was among the few who caught the first Seattle performance by Britain's the Libertines at the Crocodile. Barring Alzheimer's, it's a night I'll never forget. Up the Bracket, the band's debut LP, had come out in the U.S. a month before, and I'd spent the previous four weeks falling deeply in love. Produced by the Clash's Mick Jones and praised by critics on both sides of the Atlantic, Up the Bracket clobbered my rock G-spot without mercy, providing that once-in-a-decade thrill of ambitious young punks flogging the dead horse of British musical history (Britpop, mod, and British Invasion rolled into one) to produce something that feels like new. "Crack-rock," I tagged it, for the way the Libs distilled the most intoxicating elements of their elders into a polluted brew all their own--derivative by definition, but exploding with joy and an unprecedented intensity.

My pointy-headed musings were easily corroborated by the Crocodile show, where the Libertines' magic was on full display. Sparked by the intricate interplay of bandleaders Carl Barat and Pete Doherty--each of whom writes, sings, and plays guitar, like Morrissey and Johnny Marr crammed into one person, then cloned--the live Libertines met the promise of Up the Bracket and then some. Watching the show, it was clear that if Barat and Doherty hadn't joined forces, each could've fronted a band on the level of say, the Strokes. But together, they were unique, seemingly invincible, and the world was theirs for the taking.

Drugs were a problem before the Libertines had ever made an album--see Up the Bracket's "Begging," which recounts the agony of a junk intervention. But after a bout of pneumonia felled Barat and forced the cancellation of the Libertines' European tour, Doherty's admitted appreciation of heroin and crack flew out of control. For the rescheduled European tour, Doherty was left behind, with the promise of full reinstatement in the Libertines once his addiction was under control.

What happened next is the stuff of tabloid legend and ridiculous rock melodrama. In July 2003--just two months after the worship-worthy Croc show--a distraught Doherty breaks into Barat's apartment, stealing a number of items from his estranged bandmate's flat and earning six months in prison. In jail, Doherty reconnects with his bandmates through letters; after serving a reduced sentence of two months, Doherty is met upon his release by Barat, and the reunited Libertines are soon playing out, but ridiculous fuck-ups remain a key component of the band's itinerary.

In November 2003, a drunk Barat slips in the bathroom, requiring dozens of stitches. In March 2004, the band reunites in the studio with Mick Jones to begin work on their second album, the progress of which is impeded by the ragingly crack-and-smack-addled Doherty, who somehow shambles to top-10 success with the power ballad "For Lovers," a one-off single by Doherty and his "scary mate" Wolfman. Then comes rehab: Threatened again with expulsion from the Libertines, Doherty logs two nonconsecutive weeks at a London clinic and one unsuccessful week at a Thai monastery, after which he flees for a bender in Bangkok, cementing his estrangement from the band he made great and resigning himself to the heartbreakingly stupid life of the burnout crackhead. (Most recently--Aug 22, to be precise--Doherty was attacked by London thugs, who dragged him into the street where he was nonfatally hit by a car. Sigh.)

In the thick of all this shit comes The Libertines, the band's second album. Significantly messier than Up the Bracket (which was plenty messy on its own) the new record, which, among other things, offers long stretches of burned-out vocals that sound as if they come from a completely different song than the rest of the music, won't win over any new believers. But for diehard fans, it's a rich, heartrending portrait of a band set to self-destruct, set to jangling guitars, woozy horns, and Britpop melodies. With all dreams of world domination effectively dead, the Libertines are left to distinguish themselves as the little band that could've but didn't, exploding most extravagantly--and there's something ghoulish about Barat continuing on without Doherty, touring in support of songs that graphically detail the band's collapse. I can't blame Barat for choosing life. But honestly, do we need another Strokes? Give me Libertines or give me death.

schmader@thestranger.com

Support The Stranger