No, the only wastrel who seems to me to bear any resemblance to Mr. Doherty is that other tabloid-loving dilettante, Sid Vicious, and just look what happened to him.
Babyshambles - Down in Albion
"Hail Muse, etcetera" (Byron, Don Juan)
Some of you might find it rather strange that I quote Lord Byron at the beginning of this review of the Babyshambles album, but rest assured there is a reason for this. With his flippant take on the invocations to the Muses, (seen to best effect in the work of Classical poets such as Hesiod in his Theogony), Byron comments on the gradual decay into uncaring convention of a tradition which was upheld with no little honour and reverence for thousands of years. Byron shows that the invocation is no longer the primary source of poetic alchemy, the well of inspiration that it was for poets. Rather, it is carried out as a mere matter of form, by poets who should know better.
A point which finally brings my attention round to Mr. Doherty's latest work with his band, Babyshambles.
Much has been made of Mr. Doherty's stance as a dissipated poet, and as a diviner of modern youth's various moods and whims. Admittedly some of this hoo-hah has been created by an often sycophantic press, but in naming this album Down in Albion, there can be no doubt that Mr. Doherty has decided to play for high stakes. Albion is a poetic word very strongly associated with William Blake. Many of the great poet's works contain some mention of this word, for example Vision of the Daughters of Albion.
I don't think it is fanciful to assume that Mr. Doherty, by using the word Albion so brazenly, hopes that some of the poetic and visionary glory that was Blake's life-work will in some way - doubtless by the vaguest and most ignorant association - rub off onto him. Yeah, kids, Blake was kinda cool, don't bother to read him though, just pick up the vibes from this album instead, cos Pete's the poet for now, right?
Other literary and cultural associations abound. By naming the opening track La Belle et La Bete we are no doubt meant to reflect not only on de Villeneuve's original text and Jean Cocteau's brilliant film, but also (again by flimsy association) Doherty's relationship with Kate Moss. What parody. As if this over-long, wheezing fumbler of an opening track could have any association with works of art as great as the film and tome which it doffs its battered cap to.
Now, far be it from me to deny anyone the chance to take inspiration from or associate with giants such as Byron, Blake or Cocteau. There are plenty of examples of writers encouraging their fellow scribblers to do just this, T.S. Eliot being just one example in a very long list. What I object to is the shallow, half-arsed ignorant and very careless way in which - in this particular instance Babyshambles but they are not the only culprits – modern day musicians shoehorn the Literary and Cultural Canon into their (seemingly) pre-fabricated muse. Babyshambles' music doesn't bring Blake, De Quincey or Orton to mind at all, even by a rather desperate association. What it does remind me of is a line in Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time series of novels (the Kindly Ones I think) where Powell mentions - by way of explaining one of the many sub plots in the novel - the penchant of the upper middle classes for dressing up.
Essentially this is the music of Babyshambles. It's all very entertaining and quite funny but like dressing up it has nowhere to go once the guises are donned and an initial performance is affected. At present Mr. Doherty wishes to be a poet. He assembles a lot of vaguely poetic ideas, throws a few phrases around, courts the press for notoriety and hey presto, expects us all to believe that this under worked collection of songs and scrap-book jottings are a collection of thoughtful, risky and provoking songs worthy of serious merit. And a lot of the media, happy to let the money-spinning and the circulation boosts continue, swallow it whole without recourse to serious research.
What is especially annoying is that he can write. Up the Morning and Albion have glimpses of true talent. A talent he is all too happy to flirt with, rather than to marry. The music relies too much on an "off the cuff" attitude; an attitude which obviously lacks the true seizes the moment determination that could have saved it. Seizing the moment, you see, takes a lot of careful planning. Robert Graves wrote this of working out ideas, a small poem that Mr. Doherty would be well advised to contemplate.
By this unready pen:
For every word I write
I scratch out nine or ten,
And each surviving word
Resentfully I make
Sweat for those nine or ten
I cancelled for its sake.
But let us rest the poetic comparisons awhile. To be fair to Mr. Doherty, let us place him in the company of other purveyors of popular music; in the company of people who have made a living by writing about their personal excesses. Mr. Doherty no doubt wishes to be seen as a poet wastrel of pop, a wastrel who's nevertheless gifted with a unique vision which ultimately and triumphantly finds its form through song. Let us therefore compare Mr. Doherty with other luminaries who could fit this bill of poet wastrel and see how he fares in their company.
Here's a small list I drew up of some of the more obvious names. Nick Cave, Shane McGowan, Robert Pollard, Lou Reed, Marianne Faithful, Iggy Pop have all lived lives of excess and in the case of Pop, Reed, McGowan and Faithful, very nearly paid for it with their lives. Yet all have transcended their nefarious and narcissistic activities to create some inspiring at times poetic music. All have worked hard chasing their respective muses. All have tried to understand through their work what it is that drives them to act in the way that they do. All have kept creating works of real substance and insight throughout their long careers.
Not so Mr. Doherty. I'm afraid to say that I wouldn't place him in the company of these artists just yet. No, the only wastrel who seems to me to bear any resemblance to Mr. Doherty is that other tabloid-loving dilettante, Sid Vicious, and just look what happened to him.
In some ways this has been a very annoying review to write. Yes, it has been fun quoting all the poetry and it is nice to have an opportunity to throw in the likes of Anthony Powell and Robert Graves into an article on music. But it is ultimately a depressing experience to find you have to write a lengthy review of an album where the music is so spectacularly slapdash in its creation, throwaway in spirit and, frankly, boring in its effect. The really depressing bit is that people will buy this album in droves. After all, the Babyshambles/Pete Doherty name ensures a fair amount of copy (even from people like me slagging it off) and garners resultant sales and publicity that this release signally doesn't deserve.
Whatever Mr. Doherty's musical talent is, could he please start to use it to better effect and in doing so, stop patronising us and wasting our precious time.
Not good enough, not by a long chalk.
Words: Richard Foster.