How The Libertines Saved Me
I have nine small letters scrawled across my left bicep, sacred ink in the handwriting of my ultimate hero:
This is a memento of darker times, a reminder of the struggle, an icon of the real me.
I was diagnosed with depression last summer. Classifications of generalised anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder followed soon thereafter, putting a name to the turbulence I had felt for many years.
Amid my murkiest episodes, when the spiky shards of a thousand thoughts scattered through my mind, music gave me reference, structure and a framework for carrying on. I lost the instruction manual for life, unable to connect one thing to another in search of meaning, but a post-punk indie rock band from the south became my foundation.
The Libertines formed in 1997, when two crude poets named Peter Doherty and Carl Barât embraced in a quirk of destiny. Drummer Gary Powell and bass player John Hassall added their own subtle magic. With wisdom wrought from the grimy gutters and sickly streets of working-class Britain, the Libertines rose to mainstream adulation in the early-2000s. Their prime was a startling supernova – intensely bright, stunningly short-lived and brutally concluded - but their legacy is so powerful as to totally transform lives, even all these years later.
I was always aware of the Libertines, at least on a superficial level. Their iconic riffs and melodic baselines became ingrained in our culture, used in everything from television adverts to popular sitcoms such as The Inbetweeners. However, I only became a devout admirer a couple of years ago, when the reformed band played a phenomenal live show at Prenton Park in Birkenhead, home of my beloved Tranmere Rovers.
As a local lad, The Coral were equally as attractive to me in the build up to that concert, but The Libertines’ chemistry stamped an indelible impression on my heart. It was a remarkable experience, and I was hooked for life.
In the subsequent months, I fell deeper into depression and delved further into their back catalogue. I discovered new tunes every day, falling in love with the graphic honesty and rebellious self-belief, the dreamy belligerence and prideful reminiscence of so many masterpieces.
The support of my family and loved ones helped me a lot, and I’m eternally grateful, but when all else failed, The Libertines permeated my gloom. Sometimes you just need the screech of an electric guitar, the warble of a harmonica, and the thump of a drum to pierce the smog and make sense of the whirling vortex.
Of all the lyricists ever to hold a pen, Pete and Carl come closer than any to articulating the true spirit of my soul. They vocalise my beliefs, my views, my dreams and pains and realities and struggles. They represent me.
If you’ve lost your faith in love and music, the end won’t be long.
In the autumn of 2017, I had the pleasure of experiencing a biblical, hastily-arranged Libs gig at Parr Hall, Warrington. They rocked the ancient venue to its foundations, producing a noise so vociferous as to stay with me forever. It was a white-hot performance that consolidated my adulation. I’ve scarcely been part of such a phenomenal crowd, such a swaying maelstrom of feeling. The rush of adrenaline was astounding.
I typically lose track of time during my depressive episode. Whole weeks and months can blur into one black splodge of angst. It’s difficult to remember anything specifically from those darkened periods, except the all-encompassing numbness. However, the sheer force of that Warrington crowd during Don’t Look Back into the Sun sticks out to me. I can still feel that moment.
After the Parr Hall gig, my younger brother and I managed to meet the band briefly, posing for photographs. They say you should never meet your heroes, but this encounter only enhanced my worship. Pete and Carl were so polite and accommodating. Carl thanked us for coming to the show, spotting our Merseyside accents and teasing us playfully.
I hadn’t smiled so much in years.
The Libertines are not just a band. They don’t just offer a way of life. They lead a cult and provide a prism through which to think and sustain. Those who follow are acolytes of the good ship Albion, bound for the lawless nirvana of Arcadia.
The Libertines extend an intoxicating identity to the lost and give purpose to those who have otherwise given up.
I lost a lot of passions during my severest bouts with depression, but I gained a belonging that was sorely lacking beforehand. I became a Libertine, and that saved me.
So much has been written about the band, and a lot of it falls within the bracket of derogatory tabloid fodder. But the ultimate almanac of their mission, history and philosophy is self-written. Like all great bands, The Libertines answered back in their own special way: with genius thoughts set to the most cathartically beautiful sounds of our time.
Is it cruel or kind not to speak my mind and to lie to you, rather than hurt you?
They sing about debauchery and discovery. They sing about the sweet agony and unfurling ironies of love. They sing about despair and despondency, reckless indulgence and mawkish decadence.
They sing about life. True, real life.
The Libertines are a band of contrasts and oxymorons, mirroring the human condition with subtle majesty. Their work can be whimsical. Their work can be marked with classic erudition. Their work can be reflective yet prescient, analytical yet inspirational, dark yet lively.
This is music for the football hooligan and the intelligentsia alike, a perfect blend of dialects and worldviews, possessed of a unique gravity. It is the music of my self-discovery, the music of my recovery. It is the music of four turbulent souls laid bare, guts exposed, snot and saliva and sweat dripping from every pore, dirt under the nails.
Cornered the boy, kicked out at the world; the world kicked back a lot fuckin' harder now.
Many people are quick to deride Pete Doherty, writing him off as a druggy, a thug, some kind of public disgrace. Yes, he can be uncouth, cantankerous and unpredictably impulsive, but the mainstream does not consider the scores of lives Pete has saved with his artistic splattering.
Lives like mine.
My brother and I travelled to Newcastle to watch Pete and his Puta Madres offshoot band last summer. The show was blissfully chaotic, as Pete thrashed through Babyshambles classics such as F**k Forever, Killamangiro and Albion. The ‘Shambles also hold a special place in my heart, as my curiosity has developed. Therefore, experiencing those songs live was phenomenal, even if Pete allowed a stage intruder to play his guitar and sing vast portions of the encore!
We waited hours after the gig for a glimpse of Pete, and he treated us to a few melodic tunes on his acoustic guitar from the tour bus. In a fatal mistake, I passed my ticket into the van, where it was shoved in Pete’s direction by a band member. He was about to provide an autograph, but when I couldn’t produce a pen, the doors were closed, and the bus drove away.
I settled for the tattoo instead.
Some people questioned why I made such a commitment. After all, I’m one of the most ardent anti-drugs campaigners you will ever encounter. I had my first alcoholic beverage aged 18 and don’t drink at all anymore. However, I adore the Libertines because they are a band of the people, honing a closer connection to their fans than any of their contemporaries.
From the bedsit guerrilla gigs to the small pub performances with a few hours’ notice, The Libertines are a story of addictions and arrests, prisons and recoveries, unlikely love and aching breakups, dreams on the horizon and unfulfilled potential.
The Libertines are a story of life, and my life goes on, thanks in part to this iconic band.
I managed to get back on the correct path to recovery, and they remained my soundtrack. After practically giving up on finding love, destiny led me to meet a beautiful girl named Patrycja from Tarnów, Poland, who happened to settle in Liverpool after experiencing the Erasmus student exchange programme.
Our first date was in New Brighton, the seaside town referenced by The Libertines in Radio America:
And all across Africa, China, Australia
I will call...
Call you down in New Mexico, New Brighton and Tokyo
I will call...
If call we must do
To take my love, my love to you
Somewhat bizarrely, Babyshambles also released A Day Out in New Brighton as the B-side to Delivery, a famous single, while the Libs have also performed in the town. I see now that even this was by no means a coincidence. It was all meant to be.
One day, early in our relationship, we walked near the Albert Dock. It was Remembrance Sunday, exactly one hundred years since Poland gained its independence. My grandmother was German, and we have extended (somewhat sinister) ancestry in those parts. This makes my meeting with Patrycja all those decades later even more remarkable.
As we crossed a bridge near the docks, a lone busker played his guitar in faceless anonymity. The bridge is usually a hive of activity in a tourist hotspot. As we walked, hand in hand, it emptied for us. As we passed the busker, without any form of communication, he began playing a familiar tune. Familiar to me, at least. It was Arcady, a relatively obscure Pete Doherty single. It has almost no mainstream renown. Only to diehard Libertines does it have profound meaning. Only to me, there and then.
Said he was your teacher
And he taught you true and wise
Now you know more than your teacher
I see nothing but cool self-regard in your eyes
In Arcady, in Arcady.
Patrycja recognised instinctively that it was a Pete Doherty song. She held me on that bridge, as the sweet strains bounced across the Mersey, a river once involved in my darkest thoughts. It was the most powerful moment of my life; a message from somewhere telling me that what we were doing was correct.
This was meant to be, after all the trouble, strife and agony.
This was destiny.
Do you believe in miracles?