[Here is the third post of the series of articles Mike Raine thought about doing on individual songs. They focus on background, meaning, and anecdotes, to varying degrees.]
To the amazement of some, there was a time when Pete Doherty was half of an infamous song writing duo instead of half of an infamous tabloid duo. In the former’s case, Pete’s better half was fellow Libertine Carl Barat. Pete, Carl, and the rest of The Libertines exploded onto the British music scene in 2002 like a group of Hell’s Angels with a knack for writing catchy punk rock tunes. They lived without care or caution before imploding in a haze of drugs, fights, robberies, and arrests. The most important element in the band remained the relationship between writers and co-founders Doherty and Barat. The pair became inseparable in the public consciousness. Like many inseparable musical pairings before them, their brotherly relationship dissolved into a haze of drug abuse and betrayal while their fans watched in despair and their detractors in amusement. Amidst all the drama and in an amazing display of peace and reconciliation, Pete and Carl recorded
Can’t Stand Me Now a song so revealing and personal, you feel as if you’re eavesdropping on a couple splitting up.
Pete and Carl were this generations’ addition to the long list of great British rock duos from Lennon and McCartney to Morrissey and Johnny Marr. Like their predecessors, Pete and Carl had an us-against-the-world mentality and aura that could make onlookers envious of their obvious bond and friendship. Whether it was Carl finishing Pete’s sentences in an interview or Pete carrying Carl to an ambulance after he drunkenly fell off a table on to his face, they had an inseparable bond that went beyond mere friendship. Fans lived vicariously through them, wishing they could be on board for the ride.
Then along came Pete’s crack and heroin addiction. It’s easy to forget that Pete was not a user of class A drugs when the band first broke the charts. It wasn’t until the release of their superb debut, Up the Bracket, that Pete first tried both heroin and crack. His use quickly escalated to the point where Carl and the rest of the band knew the end was near. That became abundantly clear when Pete was left behind as the rest of the band toured so that he could seek treatment. Instead getting clean, Pete broke into Carl’s flat stealing a guitar, laptop, and the band’s NME Award, all for the purpose of selling the items for drug money. Pete got a two month prison sentence. In an astounding display of forgiveness, Carl greeted Pete at the prison gates upon his release. That night The Libertines played a show at a nearby pub which would be named “gig of the year” by NME magazine.
All this makes Can’t Stand Me Now an incredibly personal song. Carl opens the song with, “an ending fitting for the start/you twist and tore our love apart” before Pete counters in the next verse with, “no, you’ve got it the wrong way round/just shocked me up and blamed it on the brown.” It’s obvious from the start that the song is directed at each other rather than the listener. Musical soul mates breaking-up through song rather than conversation. Every verse drips with the sentiments of the last words of a close relationship.
It is Pete and Carl’s well known history that gives lines such as “I know you lie, I know you lie/I’m still in love with you” such resonance. When they go into the back and forth vocals in a chorus of “you can’t stand me now” you can’t help but wish they would just work things out. But like every breakup conversation, it comes down to the question of whether the relationship is worth saving when it is clear that it’s no longer what it used to be. The lines of the final verse, “have we enough to keep it together? / or do we just keep on pretending / and hope our luck is never ending”, make it clear that the answer is “no”. The fights, drugs, and arrests had simply created too much drama for Carl to bare it anymore.
Both Pete and Carl would go on to blame the other for the disintegration of the band. Pete claiming that his being left behind while the rest of the band toured was just a final act of betrayal by Carl. Carl said that Pete’s drug use was getting in the way of the music and that he never kicked Pete out of the band. Carl simply wanted Pete to get clean before he rejoined. When they sing in unison, “I know you lie/ all you do is make me cry/ and all the words, they ain’t true”, they are both laying blame on the other.
“Can’t Stand Me Now” would go on to chart at #2 in the UK becoming The Libertines’ best selling single. British fans couldn’t resist hearing the audio diary of a couple that they had all followed from the start.
What Became of the Likely Lads the second single off the album – which contains equally personal chorus of “what became of the likely lads/ what became of the dreams we had/ oh, what became of forever/ I guess we’ll never know” – would chart at #9. The Libertines played their final show in December of 2004 but Pete was not present. In a wise move, Carl disbanded the band following the show saying that it wouldn’t be right to continue to play and record under The Libertines name without Pete present. After all, there is always something vaguely sad about a band playing under a given name when a key part of the original line-up missing (Gun ‘n’ Roses, enough said).
Pete and Carl would both form decent bands following the clasp of The Libertines — Pete with Babyshambles and Carl with Dirty Pretty Things — but neither would equal the quality of The Libertines. In the past year, Pete and Carl have reunited to play on stage on a few occasions sparking endless speculation in the British press that a full Libertines reunion is in the works. However, The Libertines meteoric rise and fall have created a mystique and legacy that is hard to match. Many fans feel that a formal reunion would only detract from that legacy.
It clear from the first days of The Libertines that Pete and Carl were a flame that would burn out before it faded away (I know that is cliché but it is apt in this case). Can’t Stand Me Now gave fans a glimpse of what was happening in those final days of their partnership. The song allowed us to be a fly on the wall, listening to them bare it all. It was clear to everyone when the single came out that Can’t Stand Me Now was the public breaking up of one of the best bands in modern times. Not since the Sex Pistols has band risen and then imploded so quickly while leaving behind legacy that will be discussed for decades.