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21 June 2008 @ 06:28 pm
The Telegraph  
"I haven't washed my hair in years," says Barat. "Never had any complaints."

"If you don't wash your hair, it cleans itself," reports Doherty. "That applies to the human body as well."






The rock band is making a deafening comeback. Neil McCormick jumped on the bus with the Libertines to see if the rituals of the rock tour were back too.

Forming a crazy quilt of laddered stockings, tartan mini-skirts and torn T-shirts, four girls stretch out across twin beds in a hotel room in Glasgow. The mini bar door hangs open, the barren interior looking as forlorn as a bank safe after a raid. Empty bottles of spirits, beer and wine litter the floor, several filling up with ash and fag ends.

John Hassall, thin, pale bassist with the Libertines, lights up another hand-rolled ciggie and enquires in a polite, dazed voice: "Whose room is this anyway?"

It is 2am on the 10th day of the Libertines' European tour, and Pete Doherty and Carl Barat (joint singers, guitarists, songwriters and polemicists for the London quartet) have slipped away to wander the corridors, looking for another mini-bar.

What they would really appreciate (they let it be known in an odd slang of their own invention) is some "bugle" or some "brackle", the exact pharmaceutical ingredients for which they leave to the imagination. But they settle for a bottle of red wine in the chambers of a man from Rough Trade records who has come north to watch his young charges perform.

"Can you ever get a buzz better than that?" asks the soft-spoken, otherworldly Doherty. He is not referring to drugs or alcohol. He is talking about tonight's performance: the clattering of guitars, the charge of bass and drums, the swarm of bodies in a climactic stage invasion. "You can't get that feeling anywhere else. It's communion. It's like being washed away in the ocean, carried aloft on a wave."

"High seas, low seas, swab the decks, all hands on," mumbles the foppish Barat. An acrid smell of sweat hangs around the two young bandmates, who appear to be still dressed in the distressed threads they were wearing on stage. Someone suggests that they might avail themselves of the shower facilities before reboarding the tour bus in half an hour to make their way to the next city.

"I don't look that bad," says Doherty, offended. He runs his fingers through a greasy tangle of barbed wire curls. "It's 'cos I've hardly had any sleep. I've been hallucinating all night. I've looked worse, though."

"I haven't washed my hair in years," says Barat. "Never had any complaints."

"If you don't wash your hair, it cleans itself," reports Doherty. "That applies to the human body as well."

I fear for the health and sanity of the Libertines. A ramshackle garage rock quartet whose Up the Bracket album sounds like the savage young Beatles colliding with the Jam and the Clash in a pop culture spin-dryer, they may one day be established among Britain's greatest combos. But first they have to survive life on the road.

Let me take you on a tour round the cramped bus that acts as home for several weeks for four band members, their beefy roadie Paul, exasperated road manager Rob, implacable soundman Nick the Hat, the imperturbable Moose the driver and various strays collected along the way.

Downstairs, behind the driver's cabin, there is a recreation room that resembles a much abused pimp's suite, complete with white leather sofa spotted with suspicious stains. Amid the empties, there is a TV, video, stereo and Playstation 2. Above a sink has been taped a notice: "Your mum is not here. Please clean up yourself." No one has been paying it any attention.

Occupying pride of place in the toilet is the award which the Libertines collected when NME readers voted them "Best new band in Britain". Upstairs, there are 10 bunks, overflowing with luggage, guitar cases and stray items of clothing. Aft is another small recreation room.

To the fore is a tiny cubby hole which Doherty has claimed for himself. It is not a pretty sight. Strewn with socks and underpants, bras and stockings, butts and empties, rank with the stench of body fluids, it has the ambience of a cupboard in which someone has held a bachelor party.

Interlopers have been banned from the bus in a vain attempt by management to curb certain destructive influences. Nonetheless, Doherty has contrived to spend the overnight journey from Sheffield to Glasgow cooped up with four female acquaintances, all squeezed together on his single bunk. The results are not pretty. When Rob finally departs, Barat pokes his nose round the door and reels back in a display of olfactory horror.

"Well there's been four stowaways in here all night, sweating it out in the dark with no air vents," wheedles Doherty, defensively. "Of course its gonna be a bit humid."

"There's a massive roof hatch," Barat points out.

"Yeah but you can't open it without the key," counters Doherty. "I wasn't going to wake Rob up and say, 'The hostages are getting restless, can we open the air vent' was I?"

"Hostages, was it?" says Barat.

The friends both start to laugh. The girls, however, are looking rather alarmed to notice that the much feared Rob has returned before they could make good their escape. Doherty turns to his disgruntled road manager with eyes of twinkling innocence.

"And imagine my surprise," he declares.

It is astonishing to think that even after half a century of this rock and roll lark, touring (certainly at the start-up level) remains as chaotic and ridiculous as ever. It is a life positively encrusted in unhealthy rituals built around bad meals, worse drugs, casual liaisons, sleep deprivation and lack of hygiene.

Between service stations and chain hotels, killing time with uppers, downers and inbetweeners, days consist of endless waiting, waiting for that one adrenaline-fuelled burst of activity on stage. Afterwards there is only the slow comedown, the desperate attempts to maintain that high with hedonistic abandon, culminating in a gradual estrangement from reality, a sense of dislocation that hangs around everyone who boards the bus.

And the truth is: this is what most of them really want. Pop culture myths of decadence and debauchery are embraced with naively open hearts. After all, everybody knows that sex and drugs and rock and roll go together like stock markets and crashes. Booze and hangovers.

The Libertines' requirements, to be placed in their dressing room before each show, includes the following: "48 large cans quality lager, 8 Red Bull, 24 cans coke, 1 bottle good white wine, 2 bottles vodka, 1 bottle whisky".

"I like touring," says Doherty, swigging a huge tumbler of vodka and Coke backstage at King Tut's in Glasgow. "It's like a school trip." Which makes you wonder what kind of school he went to.

"We get more comfort on the road than we do at home," claims Barat. For the record, he makes this statement while sprawling on a threadbare couch, in a tiny windowless room jammed with sweaty bodies, the floor strewn with cigarette butts.

"At least we've got hot and cold running water here," says Doherty. "We haven't got that at home. I have to flush my toilet with Evian. Only the best for the Albion rooms."

Doherty is a notoriously unreliable narrator. The grandly named Albion rooms are, in fact, a run-down East End rental where Doherty and Barat reside. The Libertines' chief ideologues have created for themselves a fantastical aesthetic of the imagination they refer to as the Arcadian dream, to which they have set sail on the good ship Albion, the latter referencing their arch nostalgia for a certain indefinable quality of Englishness.

They name-check Oscar Wilde, Disraeli, Dickens, Galton and Simpson, Steptoe and Son, Tony Hancock, and a holy trinity of Sids: Sid James, Syd Barrett, and Sid the Sexist.

"People accuse us of being in love with the colours of an old world and dusty tins," says Barat.

"But it's an age that exists now. You can own the tin now," says Doherty, taking up his co-conspirator's train of thought with the deftness of a double act. "Its not like time-travelling or pretending you live in another era. You can appreciate the beauty of something whenever it was made, whether it's a charming image of rollers and quaint fags hanging out of the corners of mouths ."

The pair can go on like this for hours, and frequently do. Two girls on assignment from a local college magazine gaze on as if beholding the fount of all earthly wisdom. "What are your feelings about going to war?" asks one.

"I'd never say I wouldn't fight a war," says Doherty, who has a penchant for Crimean army uniforms. "In different ages I would have done. I'd have fought the Vikings."

King Tut's is jammed to capacity. Condensation drips down the walls. The crowd heaves in expectation. Gary Powell, the incongruously urbane black American drummer, says: "I don't think we should get anybody up tonight." Paul the Roadie concurs. "No stage invasions. It's too dangerous. All right Pete?"

Doherty just gives them his innocent smile. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out what's going to happen next.

At the conclusion of a performance that is a jolting explosion of primal energy, Doherty and Barat start pulling fans on to the stage. It is one of their oft-repeated tenets that there should be no barrier between performer and audience. Soon the band have disappeared in a swell of bodies.

Someone starts up the anthemic I Get Along and 30 or 40 interlopers jump up and down bellowing the lyrics. Barat's guitar is unplugged but he sings instead. Doherty occasionally surfaces, looking utterly ecstatic. "There's no way my stage can take that," mutters the promoter. But the mood in the room is euphoric. It's a big punk rock blast. It is, as Doherty would have it, communion.

Then it's over. The band fight their way offstage. "You can't do that again, Pete," warns Powell, who has been fighting people off his kit.

"It was beautiful, Gary," says Doherty.

"You cannot do that again," Powell reiterates.

Doherty looks longingly back from the side of a stage still teeming with invaders, chanting for more. "Shall we go out and do another one?"

"With what?" roars Rob. "They've nicked all the fucking mics!"

The night after Neil McCormick's departure, the Libertines were due to play in Hamburg. On arrival, however, singer Pete Doherty was diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia, and the band were forced to cancel the rest of the tour.

'Up the Bracket' is out now on Rough Trade records. A new single is due out in May.