Carl Barât, Peter Doherty - There and Back Again. A Tour Tale.
Alisha Ahmed & Federica Frezza 16/11/2010
Almost Famous might be just a movie, but lest we forget, that is also the not-so-fictionized version of Cameron Crowe's teen years spent on tour with bands during the 70s.
It would be worth to understand exactly why and when someone decided that such insight and "with the band" feeling could be put aside in favour of regular promo time and interviews heated up and consumed within time blocks of thirty minutes, instead of weeks spent observing and understanding what it can actually be like, but alas, that is not for us to understand right now.
So let's pretend for our sake that these are the 70s, and let us bring you on tour with us, even though you might find it much more interesting once you know that, along with us, you'll hear what it's like to be on tour with Peter Doherty and Carl Barât.
Regrettably, as it's not the 70s anymore for magazines, so it seems to be for PR and managements as well, and when faced with the possibility of having not just one, but two writers on their back for days, we might see why we were politely turned down: we feel compelled to acknowledge some sort of unwritten rule that tries to say, much louder than during the 70s, that what happens on tour stays on tour.
But we are the same ladies who brought you the bootleg version of the Libertines reunion last August, it takes a tad bit more to take our minds off an idea, and our hearts away from something that fuels our energy. Besides, to be "honest and unmerciful" you need not to owe anything to anyone, hence you won't have any doubts about where our loyalty stands. We were given no benefit, we have nobody to please.
As the last week of October saw the very peculiar occurrence of both Carl Barât and Peter Doherty being on tour throughout Europe -separately of course, but sometimes missing each other in the same city for a matter of days- the desire to understand the complexity of such harmony yet diversity became haunting, stirring us in with the carousel, to look closer at the duality they're capable of, to hear each of their voices, and maybe emerge with a slight hint on how they manage to wrap it all up into one when they feel like it.
This is when it all starts, it's the end of October, fall is in full throttle as we launch into our new adventure, feeling immortal and fearless like teenagers.
The plan includes us joining Peter Doherty's tour on the 25th of October for his show in TOULOUSE, which is to be performed in the most popular venue of southern France, le Bikini, everyone who's anyone has played it. And getting there isn't exactly the easiest of tasks, as the whole of France is on strike, both trains and fuel being affected by this, and we're arriving from Italy. But we didn't stop at Reading's gates, won't fall back now. Somehow we find a successful strategy to work it out anyway, and unexpectedly avoiding hitchhiking, we manage to get there on time. Le Bikini is a large cubic dark building, planted slightly outside of town, in the mathematical centre of nowhere. There's nothing around it, just a few factories, shady prefabricated hotels, patches of grass, ringed like beads in an apparently endless sequence of roundabouts identical to one another.
But once you get there you're welcomed by civilisation again, as the place itself is well organised, sleek, quite capacious (and adorned with a small frosted pool too!).
This date is sold out, has been for a while, actually every single date of this french tour is. And Le Bikini tries its best to contain the crowd, who swarm in at 8pm, the second the doors are opened.
Two acts open for Peter during this tour, the first is his sister's band, The Ezra Beats, the second is Marie Flore, a french young lady singer and songwriter, and the first word we're going to choose to describe her, okay technically two words, are fully self-sufficient.
The Ezra Beats go up first, playing their indie alternative folk -labels stick but they don't sing unfortunately, but if you trust us you'll never call a genre by name- and getting many heads wobbling for a good half hour. There's one thing to say about french crowds: they don't dance. They hardly ever understand what the artist is saying but they scream a lot. And this comes as a complication when Marie Flore comes up, because she does speak french, but in such a hushed tone it's hard for the crowd to hear her. Nevertheless, when she sings and plays, they're mostly quiet, since each and every one of her songs is a pattern of guitar and voice loops all laced together into one so delicately its exquisite. To be honest sometimes the whole jam of sounds gets out of proportion, turning into something slightly too messy, like you didn't say when at the right moment.
And the whispered introduction to the story every song tells could be easily skipped.
And the songs resemble one another a lot.
And Feist has been doing the same effects for thirteen years.
And the set feels eternal.
Then it's finally time for Mr. Doherty to come onstage, and when he does is greeted with those screams we mentioned earlier, must be borderline scary, when you're the only one exposed to them, or maybe not. Maybe it's exhilarating, maybe it's never enough.
Peter Doherty bares his soul like few ever have. He lets everyone look at him while he looses constraints of any kind and frees his mind, so it can wander, miles away, lost in visions. When you're going to a Peter Doherty's concert you're about to witness a very private moment of his, not just a musician performing. He's letting you watch this.
He's not in his best mood tonight, actually. He seems bummed by the way the crowd is reacting to him, they never sing along when they should and they twistandscreamandshout in all the wrong bits. Bras fly all over the place, he's given cookies, his public is so submissively compliant you're bound to doubt they mean it all.
But alas, it's Peter Doherty we're talking about here. So after the gig, when people are still slowly leaving the venue, he offers himself to them, in the parking lot, where hardcore fans and polished combat groupies are already waiting, and even though there's a high metal fence between him and them, it's no less generous of him. He stands there for ages, in a light and sweaty white shirt, it's freezing cold. But he always turns when someone calls his name, he's shaking every hand, taking every picture, signing everything he's asked to, from a scrap of paper to a copy of The Queen Is Dead. Receiving gifts.
It's like he accepts the fact he's the only one walking in his shoes, but willingly reaches over to those who want to feel closer to him. Whether they truly understand him or not.
He comes and goes a couple of times and then withdraws into the safe belly of the tour bus for the night.
Next day is BORDEAUX, a two hours' drive following the banks of the Garonne river through amazing watercoloured landscapes. The venue is the Espace Medoquine.
Again, not much around to amuse oneself with. All Peter can do is go back and fourth from the tour bus to the venue, and since the majority of the roads of Bordeaux are so narrow there's no room to swing a cat it's about a total of six steps. No wonder he makes time to pop into an Irish pub before the show.
Designed by architect Bernard Vayssiere, the site describes the Espace Medoquine as a "modular room with contemporary architecture".
It's a gym.
A very large acoustically impeccable gym.
The supporting acts are the same, with the same setlists.
The crowd is very much like the one we met last night.
But a few things are different.
First, there are two mannequins, male and female, on stage, the female is wearing an "I love rehab" tee.
Second, Mr. Doherty is cheerful.
He's more talkative than he lately is, which is not much but it's detectable, he's sharing his red wine with the crowd, going as far as pouring it directly into someone's mouth when he runs out of glasses, he looks like he's up for anything. At some point, when one of the frequent shameless sexual offers comes up he dares and puts a price on a peepshow, probably without thinking twice, since many in the public could lead in raising the (much too cheap) sum of money.
He succeeds in diverting their attention from this by playing, neglecting the dispersive and impersonal room, in a very intimate way, peaking when he decides to introduce a song saying "it's just a little something" he's been writing, but he doesn't know... (this makes every single recording device in the venue magically appear).
Apparently there's no specific setlist, when it comes to Peter. Which is enthralling for many reasons:
first, you never know what you're going to get.
Second, no show will ever be exactly like the one before.
Third, you get the feeling he's playing for the sake of it, he's playing what he feels like playing, which is not necessarily true, but it's a fascinating idea.
Forth, if it's your birthday chances are he's going to sing Happy Birthday for you.
Fifth, Don't Look Back Into The Sun, which closes the set, always comes as a surprise, especially when, at the very end, Peter loses himself into a sweet dirge of "looking for another chance to ride back into the Sun", he also gets the audience to sing along (which is something he loves oh so dearly).
When the show is over the small road where the tourbus is parked is filled with fans. They hum and buzz and seethe and cluster the second Peter steps out of the door. Security have to put up barriers, they surround the bus and Peter, so he is left on yet another stage, this is what the small section of street looks like, his audience screaming once more to have him look their way. And it's another round of pictures, autographs, kisses, hugs, and it looks so demanding and eventually tiring from the outside, but he doesn't look tired. He looks excited. He juggles from a quick chat to the other without visible effort, he catches a glimpse of a boy with a scooter inviting him for a ride and jumps on, disappearing from everyone's view at the end of the road.
Those who've witnessed the episode are left stunned for a few minutes, thinking basically two things:
- sympathetic emotions for Peter's management, as it must not be easy keeping up with his pace.
- exalting praises for the boy who might just have kidnapped Mr. Doherty to have him play for his own individual pleasure locked up in chains in his basement for the rest of eternity (and FUCK! That was our idea!).
But then, as Scooter Boy appears again after a round around the block, he's kindly returned and returns to what he was doing before, lanky as ever, skipping like a six year old on a sugar rush.
When he goes back into the tour bus for the last time the route for Paris is set.
As for your trulies, once back in London, we barely have the time to do laundry and change essentials to our luggage before we switch our minds over to Mr. Barât and embark on the DLR towards the most overrated airport in the whole of London, aka City, to fly ourselves to the Venice of northern Europe.
We're not sure about the whole of the Netherlands, but AMSTERDAM struck us with the same colour palette of the UK, just a different architecture and harmony around the streets. That, and the fact of course that, along with your green pepper steak, you can also order various kind of Joints a-la-carte in any coffee shop. Talking about superior civilisations...
But not to distract ourselves (too much), we drop our stuff and get to the venue of choice for the night, quite well known for the rich indie-related-calendar always filled with international artists: The Melkweg. An old converted warehouse, all glassed up now and surrounded for more than half its perimeter by one of the countless water canals of the city, besides being the core of the nightlife district: this promises to be good, and promises like this are not usually disappointed. The Melkweg hosts more than just one concert hall and it's managed as a cultural association, with an art gallery and all that's artsy in a city surrounded by a young vibe like Amsterdam is. But we don't even make it through the whole venue before bumping in a very busy Mr. Barât, most likely held for the umpteenth interview of the day at the cafè. From a venue called Milky Way, in Amsterdam, one could only hope to order some Milk-Plus, and we wish we had the time to find that out, but no one's set for long waitings here. The hollandaise crowd seem to be, so far, one of the best mixes you can get: respectful and looking out for each other as in most UK venues, they go properly crazy when the lights go down and the music comes aloud.
First day on the continent for Mr. Barât's solo tour, the support slot which used to be held by the promising Heartbreaks, is now for Swimming to fill, and they do so with praiseworthy humbleness and undeniable talent for research of daring sounds, mixing drum machines, guitars and MacBookPros in a way that still gives a good, sometimes even catchy sound as an output. Once their set is over, the stage is prepared in no time for Mr. Barât to come up, he steps on it ever sporting his leather jacket, which rumour has it, was given to him by no other than Mick Jones himself, who made it an icon on the legendary cover of "The Clash" self titled album.
The on stage persona of Carl Barât may prevail in every word he sings, and in every string that gets pulled from one of his provocative guitars, but it's when he tries to talk to the crowd, to make sure of sweet, silly things, like they're ok or even just enjoying each other, that his humbleness shines through, genuinely surprising us and everyone who can stop for a moment thinking how the last ten years clearly haven't devoured his ability to put things into perspective. He presents a setlist that feels like a photo book of his career, featuring songs from The Libertines, Dirty Pretty Things, which are framing the tunes coming from his new solo effort. It's only when he comes back for the encore that he embraces an acoustic guitar and features on the stage completely by himself, presenting the audience with a reedition of DPT's contribution for Love Music Hate Racism "9 Lives". Slowly, he's joined back on stage by his brother Ollie, which surprises everyone with his sheer talent, accompanying his brother and in the limelight when playing the solo at the end of "France" which used to belong to Peter...
Just like his, Carl's gig ends on the notes of "Don't Look Back Into The Sun".
After more or less ninety minutes, the show is over and we'd expect to see the same rituals we've attested with Mr. Doherty, but everything goes down very differently. The aftershow time here seems more likely to end in a pub with his on-tour family rather than rushing back into a tourbus, headed to the next city.
But truth is that all of us have to jump on the four wheeled equine of choice to drive our way to BRUXELLES for the following night, where a sold-out Botanique awaits Mr. Barât. Crossing the border to Belgium, still trying to fully recover from the previous night (a Friday in Amsterdam...), we get there by late afternoon, just as Mr. Barât is spending an hour or so strolling along the roads around the venue with his unmistakable green parka (maybe we are in the 70s after all...).
The Botanique is an indoor tiny wooden theatre surrounded and embraced on the outside by the majestic Botanic Gardens, where you still find yourself walking through tidy paths and little water streams and hedge mazes... if only you were given the time. We ain't given much as we just make it for the beginning of the gig, greeted by the very welcoming sound of "Je Regrette, Je Regrette", which most of Carl's fans have decided to unofficially nickname "Angry Birds" (one of the many cultural changes the iPhone brought upon us...). Carl looks a bit more rigid with himself tonight, delivering an impeccable performance which maybe lacks only the excitement of the unpredictable, as everything seems to have been thought through and planned, down to the teeniest tiniest detail. He also entrusts his acting skills to have the whole room giggling when he offers to sign his own album to someone called Ebay. With much love. It all makes sense of course if you think that Bruxelles is also the host of the European headquarters of PIAS. That may also be the reason for an unusual delay in Mr. Barât's usual aftershow social behaviour. This time in fact, Bruxelles seems more than ready to offer him a throng, waiting patiently for him despite the cold wind that starts to blow over the city, but it's not for us to witness when such meet&greets happen, as he makes his escape from the dressing room really late. Seems reasonable to think Bruxelles had a more professional side to the night than it did the previous date... and for that, we will all miss Amsterdam a lot.
On the next day, with one extra hour of sleep, we get ready to press the pause button on our tour schedule as we face the journey to the third city -and third country- in three days, as we head back to London. But do not get fooled by the self-evidence of it, as it's just the easiest place for us to reach by plane. Our stop in London is not supposed to last more than just a few hours, but plans change unexpectedly when, in perfect Doherty style, word is out on Tuesday 2nd of November, that Babyshambles will play a "warm-up gig", before headlining the NME Weekender, in a south London pub. Referring to Lewisham as South London is still a stretch for us, despite the fact that technically, yes, it is still within the embrace of the M25.
The DIRTY SOUTH lives up to its name, it's your basic less than average pub, with sticky floors, pool table, drunk regulars and everything.
The unofficial date is sold out in a matter of hours, and by sundown everyone is already there, trembling in anticipation as no one knows just WHO exactly is in Babyshambles, nowadays.
Rumor has it that Drew McConnell is out of the band, some include the two dancers who travel with Peter's solo tour in the line-up, curiosity is high, as many fans, hiding behind the anonimity the web offers, admit they're keen on hearing something new, from Babyshambles. Anything.
Three opening acts for the night. THREE. It's Brassics, the OH DEAR NOT AGAIN Krakatoa, and Dead Red Sun.
The venue has a curfew pending at 12 a.m., so everyone starts worrying Babyshambles might barely make it and deliver nothing more than a quickie.
As it turns out it's not what people on French Dog were fearing, "potential twenty minutes gig", but it's nothing special, it's the regular Babyshambles line up, it's the setlist a newbie fan would have on his/her Ipod, one anthem after the other.
This sounds plain, trivial. But it's shocking in its simplicity: it's a script. A boring script they (especially Peter and Mick) seem to read with not much interest, like they've had enough of sweaty gigs, of setlists that never change, of crowds who do sing along, unlike french audiences, but unreasonably overdo it, blabbering and chanting so loud it's hard to hear the band, at times.
As someone on the forum described it it's "An intimate soiree with 300 drunk people in a sweaty bar", not exactly something to write home about.
Because on the outside, right next to the smoking area barriers delimit, there are three police vans, which look really eager to snap into action.
The chance arises as, when the gig is over, fans gather once again to wait for Peter, and officers feel compelled to disperse groups of three or more like it's a riot (which is sort of ironic since no one can still sport his/her being stylish after such a shambolic night). It's an accident waiting to happen, when a guy goes on an attempt to jump back into the pub five policemen tackle him, handcuff him and drag him into one of the vans, that shortly afterwards wails its sirens rushing away into the night. Now THAT is something to CALL home about, we guess...
What's slightly alarming is that a policewoman, trying and persuading a couple of girls to leave since "Mr. Doherty is not coming out for hours", tells them they weren't on site just out of precaution, they were actually asked by the management to be there. With a sympathetic shrug she claims "Maybe it's just to keep up with their bad boys reputation!"
Peter does come out, eventually, when everyone else has already left, showing no interest whatsoever in anything resembling those caring hugs and quick yet life changing talks he enjoys so much in France. Is he once bitten twice shy? Has he had enough of Albion? Is it true, that theory whispered in dark alleys that states he's trying to stay as far away from the public eye as possible to avoid overshadowing Carl's crucial moment?
Once more not much time to dwell, since the following day is time for the NME WEEKENDER.
And we're going to say this up front: we should have known better.
Because when a "festival" is held in November it's not a festival.
Because if it's set in Camber Sands it's not a festival.
Because if NME is so reluctant to disclose the precise name and location of it, things don't look good.
Plus everyone, his wife and the pet goldfish, have WON tickets. Need we say more? Oh, right, coming the actual date, when it's already clear organisation has spectacularly failed, NME tries and puts a "sold out" banner on advertisements, but pathetically adds you could try and call in case there are last minute cancellations!
Yes, we should have figured it was a scam earlier.
Camber Sands is a microscopic village with nothing to offer but a stretch of windy sea shore, rye crops and PONTIN'S.
Pontin's being the location for the NME weekender, and the cheap reproduction of the Dirty Dancing Summer Resort, not graced with renovations since. Nor cleaning services.
We fight the strong desire to flee the nightmarish place for the sake of what you're reading now, and wait, internet-less, 'till night comes, trying not to look out of the window because all there is to see is an abandoned kart circuit, the huge plastic statue of a crocodile, stained by time and weather, under a sign that reads FUN FUN FUN, rusty stairs, unhealthy looking carpet and sad curtains. You get suicidal very easily in situations like that, another reason to step away from the windows.
Babyshambles are scheduled to get onstage at 22:45 and do so with just a five minutes' delay. Once again the gig is not unprecedented, as it's nothing that hasn't been seen before, but it's not as tensed as the previous night. Maybe it's because it's Mick's birthday (cake and champagne included), maybe it's because the place is half empty and it doesn't feel threatening, maybe they know once they get it over and done with they can leave, and look forward to this. They actually play at their best, even though they encounter many technical issues.
They all retreat to their rooms as soon as they can, there's a small yet warm party being thrown for Mick, and Peter is snatched away the following morning by rapper Smiler, who apparently got him to sing the chorus for his upcoming single "The man I used to be". Outcome of this is yet to be seen/heard.
For the last day of "our" tour we are finally graced by the cherry on top that is time with one of the main characters of our study, and so we end up spending the best part of the afternoon becoming the boring press people who tend to always repeat the same questions, but trying instead to fill these shoes with the alternative-zing we always aimed for. This is the point where you head to Gin In Teacups if you're interested in the press part itself, where you will see how an interview and acoustic session can be pulled during a grey afternoon if you're willing to go that extra mile so as not to cause your artist death by humdrum.
Carl Barât thanks us without spoken words for this: Carl's frontman side sings for us, Carl's public persona takes charge and answers a few questions and then unexpectedly he gifts us with an appearance of Carl Barât the human being. And that's quite a sight.
But getting back to the point where the cameras are off, we find ourselves in yet another club by late afternoon, somewhere on the continent (BOLOGNA, Italy, that is), where the walls are plastered with posters and scream of all the indie bands that have trampled their stage before. The Libertines have played here years ago, Babyshambles too, and tonight it will all go full circle with Mr. Barât taking the stage. Soundcheck is about to begin and when the man himself comes and talks to us, on the last day of his european tour, explaining how life on the road might make you feel like you're looking at the world from a fishtank, the weirdest thing is that by now we feel like we understand that, we can actually relate: time and places get all crammed together and any thing (or anyone) outside the little family a tour bus becomes, seems to be abnormally deformed (it's seriously bizarre that an insight like this could link us, Carl Barât and Hellboy, right?). Despite the common perception everyone normally has, including us, touring is not just about throwing yourself every night at a crowd who worships you, as it's not just the pleasure of visiting new places; in reality you might end up feeling like a tourist in your own life when the lights go out and the encore of the last date is eventually over. You might feel the need to make a few phone calls just for the sake of staying in touch with the world you've left behind, back at home. You might feel strangled, caged; the fishtank that is the tourbus, which inevitably ends up smelling of chemical toilets, way too small and way too exposed to those who just can't get enough. To celebrate his last date on the european tour, with a little nudge from us, Mr. Barât has picked a complimenting grey suit instead of his leather jacket, and has played as emotionally as ever, giving his one hundred and one percent to his audience.
And yet, when everything is said and done, when Three Penny Memoir has been out for more than a month and you'd expect fans to have read it by now, you still get girls in daring outfits they can't pull off waiting up to 3 or 4 a.m. in front of a sleeping tourbus, and you suddenly perceive them like they're those obnoxious kids who keep tapping on the tank's glass to draw the fish attention, driving it insane.
So, what could we make of these twin tours? Well, not twins. Inexplicably related yet so different from one another, you sometimes wonder how was it possible for one thing to contain it all.
Peter Doherty and Carl Barât were a great partnership, may have the chance to be an even better one again soon, but seeing them apart is a great opportunity to taste the ingredients of the recipe, undiluted and pure. To see the elements of what they had created together singularly, like unmaking a puzzle you can still see where two pieces used to fit perfectly together. When each of them is taking his stage, their characters show just how much distinct they can be, with Doherty's lanky proxemics and Barât's bursts of energy, that when together embolden Peter's appearance and sweeten Carl's voice by mixing it with the other.
They look slightly more human, after you've seen them follow a daily pattern, an uncommon one, yet a pattern nonetheless, but this doesn't make them more easily understood, nor their connection less mysterious.
Which is perfectly fine, considering with them it's always been death or glory, top of the world or bottom of the canal, there's no rushing to the end of this story, let's just suspend our judgement on this side of the matter and look at the facts: in ten years' time both of them have managed to get their own voices out, to find their own way to express themselves without feeling the need to have the other filling the gaps. They are both cherished by very distinguished audiences willing to follow them no matter what.
But what still escapes even the comprehension of a careful observer is a stripped down analysis that succeeds at clearly explaining why they can both play venues like Le Bikini (which ironically, they did, in a matter of two weeks) as solo artists, but together they become a complex system which is truly more than the sum of the parts, and manage to draw in people in the order of thousands, having them headlining festivals such as Reading and Leeds.
Maybe the point of true beauty, true poetry, true emotions is that you can never pin them entirely down, never have them explained fully, or mathematically calculated, so you'll never tire of looking at them to try and figure them out.
Which is the essence of it all.