As Gilbert and Sullivan never quite got around to observing: Carl Barat’s lot is not a happy one. An ‘unpopular’ Home Counties childhood and ‘disappointing’ studenthood; the Libertines’ brief and glorious flicker of fame marred by burglary, breakup and breakdowns; hauling a zombie version of the band around the world on tour while Doherty languished at home pointing the finger; surgery; a solo descent into spurious “DJ”ing, club nights and generally wandering lost among Primrose Hill scenesters old enough to know better; Dirty Pretty Things – still a band of admirable, workmanlike effort but diminishing returns and an inevitable grind to a halt – and then a self-confessed ‘year of demons’. (Only a year, dude?) Even if things currently seem to have taken a deserved upturn – new girlfriend Edie Langley, incipient fatherhood, solo album and book just out – the path that got him here’s still not the sort of beat a chap would choose.
Right now, a bookseller’s lot isn’t the happiest either. Particularly in the run-up to Christmas, commercial imperatives dictate that the trade immerse itself in a slew of celebrity memoirs, an unedifying genre into which Barat’s effort may fall but, in keeping with everything else about the man, won’t quite fit. It’s no surprise to find Carl’s written an autobiography while still in his thirties. He’s always had that long-suffering, worn-down and weary maturity, especially when placed next to Doherty’s wide-eyed stab at eternal schoolboyhood, and this book seems a logical step in light of his apparent desire to wrap everything up and depart this vale of tears.
You can read an extract of Threepenny Memoir here. It’s what you might expect: an unassumingly endearing picaresque, a string of anecdotes that in thirty years time will still be diverting over pub tables in Soho and Shoreditch, studded with pleasingly arcane and esoteric vocabulary. As self-mythology, it lacks the surgical pseudo-soul-bearing of The Albion Diaries, and Carl for once presents himself as active raconteur rather than the passively decorative object in which guise he so often appears in the work of others. (Amusingly, the names of some supporting cast appear to have been changed. This is a ruse which, by the time a certain gent shows up under the soubriquet of ‘Irish Paul’, looks about as cunning as those letters in ‘code’ you’d write aged six where you substitute each letter for the one next to it in the alphabet.)
The book-related appearances Carl’s made so far have all involved an acoustic performance, with references to the book itself notable by their absence. His night at the Big Green Bookshop was no different.
The Big Green Bookshop, a legend in its own locality, is one of Wood Green’s curiosities. It lurks surreptitiously up a side-street off the High Road like a ligger working up the nerve to blag a place on the guestlist. (I accept that this observation may be tempered with some projection on my part, it being the same sort of manner in which I frequently lurk myself. Tonight, though, I have a legitimate ticket, even if the name attached to it isn’t actually mine, but that of a generous friend.) The mother of the Big Green Bookshop’s affable patron, did you know, once gave the fledgling Libertines singing lessons. Oh, and their one-time associate, the heroically daft Johnny Borrell, grew up not far from here, on the mean streets of Muswell Hill. The world is small sometimes, and London’s smaller.
Negotiating the crossing outside Turnpike Lane station, I’m apprehensive about hearing the new stuff. Even more apprehensive than I am about this evening’s combination of a man whose chainsmoking is so proverbially ferocious with so much combustible material.
I’ve been playing the solo album straight through once a day for the past week, which at first felt uncomfortably like a duty. It’s underwhelming, certainly on initial listens, although I can’t say I wholly dislike it. Musically it’s half a return to the skiffle, suits and swelling melodies of Legs XI Libertines, and half matinee-idol theatrical crooning which has always been a quintessential part of Carl. The bonus track ‘Death Fires Come At Night’ is a welcome wild card, its flex and swagger bringing to mind Carl as teenage death-metaller hiding behind his hair and dreaming of escape through music.
Still – gigs in bookshops, eh? I join the rest as we crowd into a loose knot in front of the cash desk. Eyeing a clutch of fanboys who have brought along some cans, I feel semi-envious and then remember that this isn’t Wembley Stadium and there are a good three off-licences within spitting distance if I want them. There’s not too long a wait, though. When Carl comes on I’m at the back and unable to see much at all, but he sounds in good voice.
He opens with ‘Carve My Name’ – one of the album’s saving graces, a shadowy lilt strewn with the symbols of violence and romance. It’s not really the right space or the right music for dancing, but we sway our shoulders and shuffle politely.
‘Has everyone got a drink?’ he asks, to uncertain laughter.
There’s ‘Deadwood’, with its sting (You got the world, boy / This all you make it?) sounding substantially drawn, and an indifferent ‘She’s Something’, and ‘Bang Bang You’re Dead’, its intricate, insouciant scribbles of guitar taking me right back to ‘Seven Deadly Sins’.
By this point I’ve shifted tentatively through the crowd and ended up leaning against the wall, where I am finally able to see. It’s instructive to compare contemporary Carl with his iconic portrait on the book cover, multiple versions of which gaze from the stacked shelves behind him with that glassy-eyed thousand-yard-stare. This year’s model is skinny-jeaned, smooth-skinned and seemingly relaxed, no longer so shockingly beautiful perhaps but equally shorn of that worrying mid-2000s coke-and-whiskey bloat. Right now, his demons appear conspicuous by their absence. As ‘So Long My Lover’ induces a quavery singalong down the front, there’s a peaceful, companionable feel to things.
‘Do you want another?’ he asks, looking sceptical at the enthusiastic assent expressed. The acoustics seem to be troubling him and so does the possibility of performing in the face of mass sobriety.
‘Has everyone got a drink?’ he asks, again, and again we respond in the negative with bolshier humour than before. Looking perplexed, then concerned, and finally resolute, he raises his gaze towards the back and gives instructions to ‘pass that bottle of Jamesons around’.
At this, there is dissent in the ranks. It seems that this bottle of Jamesons originated as a gift from a member of the crowd, who’s not taking kindly to Carl’s proposal to nationalise and redistribute the whiskey for the common good. Carl argues his case: ‘What, do you want me to sit on my own and drink myself into a stupor?’
It’s a rhetorical point and a fine one. So the bottle of Jamesons gets passed through the crowd – we are so few, or perhaps so abstemious, that I think everyone who wants it gets it at least twice – while Carl, with a fine sense of irony, comic timing, or both, does ’9 Lives’, a blasted barroom lament worthy of Shane Macgowan.
‘Time for Heroes’ is the final song, and oh yes, here we go – vocal cords warmed by swigged whiskey, I sing along and feel less desperate for a reason to keep the faith and know that he’s still got it.
A shout of ‘Lights on!’. Followed by a deeply masculine voice from the back: ‘Alright, trousers up!’. He’s still got it alright.