The musician Pete Doherty has often been described as a “poet” – by fans, breathless NME journalists and, of course, himself. (The tabloids, with characteristic humanity, tended to opt for “Kate Moss’s junkie boyfriend”.) As a somewhat lonely “army brat” – born in Northumberland but raised in Belfast, Cyprus, Germany, Dorset and Warwickshire – Doherty read Percy Shelley, Oscar Wilde and George Orwell. The anarchic, witty, self-mythologising songs he wrote for the Libertines (as well as his subsequent group Babyshambles, and, later, his solo material), with their romantically grimy fantasy of a utopian England, are replete with references to these literary figures. Doherty spent his years before the band performing his written work in Covent Garden’s Poetry Café; a particularly violent argument with his co-frontman Carl Barât ended after Doherty phoned the police – when they asked his profession, he recalls, “I sort of wailed: I’m a poet!” In 2007 a book of his “collected writings” was published (containing reproductions of his handwritten lyrics, alongside other scrawled fragments).
Doherty’s memoir, then, seems overdue. Fans of the Libertines – who formed in 1997 – may hope for a work rivalling the literary merit of Patti Smith’s Just Kids or Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. Peter Doherty: A Likely Lad certainly markets itself as such a product: a “rock memoir like no other” from an artist “immersed… in books and poetry”. On the cover, the title is scrawled in Doherty’s handwriting, or something aping it. But it’s clear from the first page that this is not that type of book.
An author’s note from the music journalist Simon Spence explains how Doherty’s manager “was not expecting Peter to write his own autobiography, given he used a manual typewriter and tended to flit between literary ideas” (this is not meant as a euphemism for the distractions of drug use – Doherty says he has been clean for three years, since he moved to France with his wife). Doherty also “refused to entertain the idea of a ghostwriter”. So what follows, Spence explains, is actually an “authorised biography” – but this descriptor isn’t accurate either. The book is, essentially, a lightly edited transcript of many hours of rambling interviews, and reads like it. (The word “really” appears 700 times in its 300 pages.) Ultimately, Spence admits, “this isn’t the book Peter will surely one day write about his life” – which leaves you wondering what the purpose of this one is.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, Doherty himself seemed baffled by the book’s existence. “The initial agreement was I would talk to him on the phone and it would be in the third person. But when the book arrived it was all ‘I’, ‘I’, ‘I’. It’s completely shocking,” he complained, adding that, after being read by Carl Barât, Kate Moss’s lawyers and his wife, “all the good bits” were taken out.
Still, the book is overloaded with compelling stories – many funny, some haunting. There are eccentric, shady characters, altercations with celebrities, tabloid dramas, and, of course, copious quantities of hard drugs. There are the years when Doherty worked as a gravedigger or pulling pints, stealing from the cash register. (Doherty explains how, while bartending at the King’s Head pub in London’s Chinatown, he formed an arrangement with a Chinese man called Peter, giving him half a pint of Guinness in exchange for a live crab. “I’d see his silhouette at the window, and he’d do little claw signs with his hands… I had about six in the end… I didn’t really know how to cook ’em.”)
There are Doherty’s first experiences with crack cocaine and heroin during the much-mythologised early days of the band, when they’d play tiny, unruly gigs in basements, squats and the brothel where they lived in north London – all always described as “the Albion Rooms”. There are fist fights and attempts to stalk their idols, the Strokes (all stories from this period also invariably end with the admission that Libertines hanger-on and future Razorlight frontman Johnny Borrell “was there too”.) But all the while Doherty and Barât are committed to the sound and aesthetic that would define them – intricate, overlapping guitar riffs, muddy production and knowing, kitchen-sink lyrics, anchored by two charismatic frontmen competing for the spotlight.
There is the heady era of the band’s first mainstream success: signing a £50,000 record deal with Rough Trade at the end of 2001 and spending it all in days; the release of their rowdy, triumphant debut Up The Bracket; their first appearance on Top of the Pops in 2004 (“the crowd they had in didn’t really seem to be ‘Time for Heroes’ aficionados”); Doherty’s heroes Chas & Dave supporting them live (and writing him a song, “Why Don’t You Have a Cheese Sandwich Instead, Pete Doherty?”); the time Doherty ran into Iggy Pop at Coachella and was devastated to find he was jogging (“he was drinking through a straw from a bottle of water. So, even Iggy Pop had abandoned me”). Doherty’s drug use left him unable to perform the role of professional musician – when the band went on without him, he was wounded, railing against “the industrialisation of the Libertines”.
There are the Kate Moss years, from the start of 2005 to the end of 2007, when he was all over the papers, in and out of rehab (“I wasn’t into it – you have to stop taking drugs for a start”) and moved to a country pile, “a mashed-up, skaggy version of Graceland”, where Amy Winehouse, Peaches Geldof and others would come and get high. There are the years spent in and out of prison, including the day Doherty appeared in court and was arrested again when one of the 13 wraps of heroin he was carrying fell out of his pocket.
Such “colourful” anecdotes are usually considered the holy grail of celebrity interviewing. Here, they accumulate into a wealth of surface detail but offer no deeper narrative substance. Perhaps this shows the effect such an enormous amount of hard drugs can have on a person – inviting all manner of chaos into their orbit, but diminishing their ability to find meaning outside their addiction, in their passions, their loved ones, or their selves. Or perhaps it’s simply because he hasn’t written the book himself.
At one point Doherty admits he “wanted to be the most fucked up person in the world”; at another he says he thought he was “going to die any minute”. But just as he approaches a moment of insight, or self-reflection, he veers away again, choosing instead to focus on an irrelevant detail. He describes one infamously terrible Babyshambles gig – a bandmate had attempted suicide just beforehand and arrived wearing “his long woollen scarf that he’d used to hang himself still connected to the branch that had snapped”. Doherty’s mother was there, to persuade him to return to rehab: she recalls walking with him through a cemetery, where he threw himself to the ground and wept, begging her to forget him. “That sounds like me,” he says, “I think that’s a solid foundation of my character, prone to despair or melancholy. I was definitely battling the demons. I know I was wearing a wicked Burberry mac that day – it was absolutely the nuts.” He goes on to describe his trademark “look” of the time.
Understatement abounds. Doherty describes the well-documented incident in which he burgled Barât’s home, which led to his first prison sentence and first exile from the Libertines, as “a bit naughty, really”. Trying to ensure the band was a success while being an active addict was “tricky, really”. On tour in Japan – when he realised how addicted to heroin he was – he says everyone else was “reining it in a bit, and I was really reining it out, if that’s an expression”. His family and friends’ response to his addiction is summed up as: “Everyone was a bit on a knife’s edge about the drug thing, really.” And there are notable omissions: his son (born in 2003), daughter (born in 2011) and wife are barely mentioned.
There are moments when Doherty communicates something true about himself. When he explains the appeal of John Lydon – he “had this image of being a bit rotten, vicious, but actually he was a really intelligent, sensitive kid… quite timid” – you feel he could be describing himself: soft-spoken, always preferring “Peter” to “Pete”, pinpointing the vulnerability that endeared him to his fans. His desire to create a movement around music, reminiscent of the mutinous thrills of the punk scene of the 1970s, is often returned to – he is genuine and stubborn in his aim to break down boundaries between band and audience, hence all the tiny gigs, the stage invasions, the leaked releases, and the tattoos and online correspondences he shared with fans.
Other stories offer a glimpse into what was happening in his head. Doherty describes how, after that first Top of the Pops appearance, he and Barât were “mobbed” by fans for the first time, something they’d been hoping would happen for years. And yet, he recalls, “it didn’t really fulfil me”. Doherty made eye contact with a homeless man standing back from the crowd, watching, and a silent understanding passed between them. He had a choice: stick with Barât and prepare for their next gig (their biggest yet), or disappear with a stranger in search of his next hit. He raised his eyebrow – an expression that said, “Can you score for me?” – and, leaving Barât behind, the two disappeared into the night.
Peter Doherty: A Likely Lad
With Simon Spence
Constable, £20, 311pp
This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant