For some tabloid readers, it must be quite a surprise that Pete Doherty has today made it to the age of 31 in England’s green and pleasant land. There has always been considerable dissonance between the chaotic, paparazzi-strewn life of the Babyshambles lead man, depicted with slavering distaste in the red-tops and real-life-disaster gossip magazines, and those thoughtful, sometimes gentle songs such as “Albion” that seem to originate from a far-off yet familiar land.
It was with the Libertines, particularly his friendship with Carl Barat, that Doherty first came to prominence as the bright young thing of British music. I’m not especially interested in the bad boy image of Doherty – and anything I write on that subject cannot help but portray me in a poor light, either as a purse-lipped, lemon-sucking patriarch or prurient gossip-monger. Nonetheless, while I may frequently shake my head at the car-crash decade of Doherty’s life, sometimes it is precisely those same incidents that have also made me hoot with pleasure. In the end, however, there are plenty of people who want the man to get on with what he is best at – making music rather than headlines.
With regard to Blake, Doherty’s fascination with the artist and poet, as well as Oscar Wilde, Emily Dickinson, the Clash and Morrissey, has been well-recorded, and it’s true that he paved the way for other groups such as Franz Ferdinand. One of my favourite quotes regarding the influence of Blake is an NME review of Up the Bracket included in their top 100 greatest albums of the decade, which describes the album as coming across “like William Blake meets The Jam round the back of King’s Cross station.”
“The Good Old Days” on that album is a great example of the sometimes whimsical, sometimes sharp, always poignant personal mythography created by Doherty and Barat:
Queen Boadicea is long dead and gone.
Still now the spirit in her children’s children’s children lives on.
And if you’ve lost your faith and love of music oh the end wont be long.
Because if its come then I too may lose it and that would be wrong.
I’ve tried so hard to keep myself from falling back to my bad old ways,
and it chars my heart to always hear you calling,
calling for the good old days,
‘cos there were no good old days,
these are the good old days.
It’s not about tenements and needles,
or all the evils in the eyes and the backs of their minds
Daisy chains and schoolyard games, and a list of things we said we’d do tomorrow, a list of things we said we’d do tomorrow.
The Arcadian dream, so fallen through
But the Albion sails on course
Let’s man the decks and hoist the rigging.
Because the pig mans found the source,
And there’s twelve rude boys on the oars.
They’re singing “row row row”
Just as Blake compressed time into visionary experience, with Boadicea charging through the streets of London at the head of murderous crowds celebrating executions at Tyburn, or Milton dropping as a star into his left foot in a cottage at Felpham, so Doherty sets sail on the ramshackle ship Albion in search of his Arcadia. Even amid the detritus there is always the possibility of paradise.
The 2005 Babyshambles’ album, Down in Albion, didn’t exactly garner extensive plaudits from the critics on its release, and it’s often a more frustrating experience than the earlier Libertines material, but the single “Albion” is beautiful, tender and bold, and apparently the first song written by Doherty when he was 16 years old:
Down in Albion
Ah, they’re black and blue
But we don’t talk about that
Are you from ’round here?
How do you do?
I’d like to talk about that
Gin in teacups
And leaves on the lawn
Violence in bus stops
And the pale thin girl with eyes forlorn…
But if you’re looking for a cheap sort
Glint with perspiration
There’s a four-mile queue
Outside the disused power station
Now come away, won’t you come away
We’ll go to
Deptford, Digbeth, Tuebrook
Anywhere in Albion…
Ah come away, won’t you come away
We’re going to…
There is many another English genius locii in this song – the Kinks or Beatles, George Orwell’s England in The Lion and the Unicorn – but for me the search once more for a deeper meaning in “Deptford, Digbeth, Tuebrook / Anywhere in Albion” calls to mind the wanderings of Los in Jerusalem:
Searchd in vain: closd from the minutia he walkd, difficult.
He came down from Highgate thro Hackney & Holloway towards London
Till he came to old Stratford & thence to Stepney & the Isle
Of Leuthas Dogs, thence thro the narrows of the Rivers side
And saw every minute particular, the jewels of Albion, running down
The kennels of the streets & lanes as if they were abhorrd. (45.12-18, E194)
Albion recurs again and again in Doherty’s lyrics – “Love on the Dole”, “Bucket Shop” and “Merry-Go-Round” to name but a few. His life may, as Anthony Thornton and Roger Sargent once observed, be more like that of Romanticism’s most infamous bad boy S. T. Coleridge than the hard-working, clean-living Blake, but for me it is from Blake that Doherty has taken his ability to see more clearly glimpses of Arcadia among the tenements and needles of Albion’s backwaters and byways.