Pete Doherty: Man Out of Time
Is Pete Doherty a uniquely gifted musician with an underappreciated body of work or just a reckless junkie tabloid magnet looking for his next fix? Or both?
This cover story was originally published in the February 2008 issue of SPIN.
Screwing a cigarette into his mouth, which he clamps between his teeth like a cowboy Clint Eastwood, Pete Doherty prowls around his suite at London’s K West hotel as if scouting for potential escape routes. But while anxiety may bounce off him like static electricity, he is actually in good spirits today and looks comparatively healthy, the junkie’s sallow death mask having given way of late to jowls, baby fat, and blood flow. He is tall and seemingly elastic beneath his porkpie hat, the ability to sit still clearly an elusive one. His bassist, Drew McConnell, reaches up to offer a light, which Doherty stoops to take before crossing the room to boot up a battered laptop. He then picks up an acoustic guitar, rests on the arm of a sofa, and falls into guitarist Mick Whitnall’s lap.
“You know what?” he says, unfolding himself from the tangle of limbs. “Something good has happened to us. We are, dare I say it, a professional unit these days. When people get us in a room together now, they actually treat us like musicians. Before, they would treat us as anything but: pigeon fanciers, candles, dry humpers…”
The reason for the change, he continues, is rehab, twice a week, regular as clockwork. It is keeping him off the drugs — specifically, the heroin and crack — and helping rein in some of his more prosecutable behavior patterns. “I’m only just now starting to enjoy making music,” he says. “I’m only just starting to be allowed to.” Previously, Doherty might have felt it necessary to trash any hotel room he entered if only as part of his pursuit of canonization, tempting mortality to achieve a perhaps outmoded idea of rock’n’roll immortality and testing the patience of friends and strangers alike in the process. (He takes a certain pride in having outlived lifestyle role models Hendrix and Cobain: “I’m 28. Ha!”)
This is a man who enjoys painting walls with blood, and not always his own: On at least one occasion, he has been accused of injecting an impressionable fan, and if he wasn’t introducing drugs, then he was withdrawing blood in the name of art. But that was the Doherty of old, he insists. Today he is the model of relative restraint and keeps his rampant creativity within the bounds of normalcy. To this end, he finds some hotel stationery, sketches a crude portrait of himself in a suit and porkpie, signs it, and presents it to me as a gift.
“Obviously, I’ve given up the drugs now, but there are pages and pages on this,” he says, reaching for the laptop and tapping the screen. He explains that he has been writing fiction of late, “a sizzling Gypsy tale, a rambling, shambling melody of a novel that came about when I was still on the old fighting juice.” He peers at this typed evidence of his former self through a cloud of nicotine smoke and beams. “Fascinating stuff.”
It’s taken awhile, but Pete Doherty finally seems to have realized that there’s more value in being a living rock star than a dead one.
It is early November 2007 and Babyshambles, fronted by the most self-destructive British singer of his generation (sorry, Amy Winehouse, you’ve only been at this for a year), have been so buoyed by the reception to their recently released second album, Shotters Nation — 100,000 already sold in the U.K., on its way to eclipsing 2005’s debut, Down in Albion — that Doherty is now convinced they have a tangible future. If Albion was the sound of a band unravelling, then Shotters Nation (featuring four songs cowritten by and credited to Kate Moss, whom Doherty very publicly dated for two years) is freewheeling and whip-smart. It still rattles with Doherty’s many ghosts, of course, and in the margins of tracks like “Crumb Begging Baghead” and “UnBiloTitled,” one can hear what life must be like when you are confronting vampiric drug dealers one moment and splitting from your supermodel girlfriend the next. The regret is palpable. “It’s a lousy life for the washed-up wife / Of a permanently plastered, pissed-up bastard,” he wails on “Baddie’s Boogie.”
But Shotters Nation also reveals a singer sounding more focused than he has been in years, due in no small part to influential Britpop producer Stephen Street, who’s overseen albums by the Smiths and Blur. A fan of Doherty’s former band, the Libertines, he only accepted the job on the proviso that the singer would be in a healthy state.
“I love his ramshackle style,” Street says. “I even loved a lot of Down in Albion. But despite assurances to the contrary, it became evident in our very first week that he wasn’t well at all. I made him go home and work on lyrics, which was difficult, because he has a horrible group hanging around him, trying to make money off him.”
The recording sessions lasted six weeks and were punctuated by arguments, recriminations, and tears. Street was so continually exasperated by Doherty’s addled state that he often threatened to walk, endeavoring to capture the singer’s creative bursts as and when they occurred, later relying on the rest of the band to give these ramblings shape and context. Consequently, the album offers a better image of the man than he perhaps deserves.
“Pete is incredibly frustrating, yet you can’t help but like him. The trouble is, he knows it,” Street says. “He was challenging, but so was Morrissey, and sometimes you get the best out of people in difficult situations.”
For all the struggle, Shotters Nation is a critical success in England, the Daily Telegraph newspaper calling it “probably the best English rock album anyone is going to make [in 2007].” Even his detractors might allow that Doherty is an uncommonly gifted songwriter, capable of penning the kind of songs whose firework momentum can spawn entire movements, romanticizing working-class England in a way that inspired like-minded, hyperverbal young bands like Arctic Monkeys, the View, Razorlight, the Fratellis, and the Cribs. “[The Libertines] galvanized the DIY mind-set,” says the Cribs’ Ryan Jarman. “It’s a shame — he’ll never shed that public-enemy-number-one image and his music winds up being a shadow of the fact.”
Certainly, in America, where Shotters Nation had at press time sold just 5,000 copies since its October release, he is still little more than the junkie fuckup who almost destroyed Kate Moss’s career — hence the urgency to turn things around. Videos for the singles “You Talk” and “French Dog Blues” impressed even the most cynical of bloginistas, but without the ability to tour the U.S., thanks to no fewer than 18 arrests in the past five years, Doherty is not likely to gain entry anytime soon. As a result, he still seems an imaginary figure, like some nihilist Easter Bunny. His American label, though, is poised with a contingency plan.
“This is an area where the Internet can lessen how severe a situation like this is,” says Glenn Mendlinger, general manager at Astralwerks. “People can see live footage of a band in real time after a gig now. It might not be ideal, but we want to build Doherty’s profile here in any way we can. I was always a big fan of the Libertines, and this new record is a bold step forward. With Pete, you really have to separate the tabloid sensationalism from his music.”
Would that we could. It is impossible to overstate just how much a fixture of daily tabloid life Pete Doherty has become in England the last few years. There are regular calls from newspaper columnists for his imprisonment due to his persistent flouting of the drug laws. (Doherty’s attorneys regularly secure bail for their client rather than jail, judges readily accepting that he is striving to beat his problems.) He has thus become a poster boy for everything that is wrong with today’s youth: louche, uncouth, and idolized for his failings.
The middle child of three, Peter Doherty (pronounced, in fact, Dock-erty) was born in Northumberland, northwest England, to an Irish father and Liverpudlian mother. He thrived in school, a studious teenager noted for his high intelligence who, at the age of 15, won a trip to Russia after winning a poetry competition. But by 17, he was itching for the seedy glamour of London and arrived to live with his grandmother in her cramped flat. By day he dug graves, by night he wrote songs. One afternoon, he managed to run into Oasis’ Liam Gallagher.
“I said to him, ‘I’ve got this little band together. Do you want to come back and have a jam?’ ” Doherty recalls. “But Liam said [affects a broad, convincing Mancunian accent], ‘I’m the devil’s dick. I don’t do that, kid. But keep going.’ “
He did. Little more than five years later, the Libertines signed to Rough Trade, once home to the Smiths, and released Up the Bracket, which combined both the combustible energy and high articulacy of the Clash (it was produced by that band’s Mick Jones), while brandishing the authentic scuffs and scars of misspent teenhood fantasized about in music label boardrooms. Within months, they were being talked about as a potentially legendary force.
Doherty has said he avoided drugs growing up, but the band became increasingly drawn toward experimentation, though only Doherty became hooked on the hard stuff. In 2003, by then increasingly unreliable, erratic, and occasionally violent, he broke into the home of his Libertines co-conspirator, singer/guitarist Carl Barât, and was later arrested and charged with burglary. Barât kicked him out of the band. Though Barât is eager to reconcile, Doherty is less so, spitting at the mention of Barât’s current band, Dirty Pretty Things, although the two have performed together as recently as last April. Doherty clearly likes his grudges: He also holds an unexplained one against Rough Trade. The news that the label has recently released a Libertines greatest-hits set called Time for Heroes — culled from the two albums in the band’s catalog-prompts a sneer Billy Idol would envy.
“How do I feel about it?” he repeats. “I feel nothing, because (a) um, and (b) well, know what I mean?”
He laughs with unnecessary vigor at this witticism, as does the rest of the band, all seated protectively around him on the hotel couch. By now, Babyshambles’ members are well trained at bolstering their singer’s forever fluctuating moods. Between them, McConnell, Whitnall, and drummer Adam Ficek work hard to promote a public display of unity and harmony. All is good, they insist. Honest.
And when Pete trips up?
“Then we pick him up, dust him down, and get on with it,” says Ficek.
“Most of the stories,” Whitnall claims, “are lies anyway.”
“I’m surprised you’re even asking us about them,” Doherty adds, “because they have no effect on us whatsoever. My tabloid caricature is nothing more than a horrible, cartoonlike fucking monster that bears no relation to the quiet, shy and retiring, teetotal, police-loving, clean-nosed poet you see before you now.”
He goes on to suggest that, due to his progress in rehab, life has become much better. His army major father has started talking to him again after three years of silence, and though he doesn’t want to discuss My Prodigal Son, the book his mother, Jacqueline, recently wrote about him, Doherty insists the “family situation” is healing.
“Don’t get me wrong, what drove me to drug in the first place is still there — I’m still a bit raw, I think — but this is the happiest and most positive time of my life.”
It is at this moment that his manager comes into the room and bids, with an urgent nod of the head, that the singer follow him outside now. When Doherty returns moments later, hands thrust deep inside his trouser pockets, his face is ashen. “Bad news. Fucking hell. Someone’s got a picture of me injecting heroin,” he announces. “It’s going to run tomorrow.”
“Probably an old photograph,” says Whitnall, a little halfheartedly.
The next day, The Sun, Britain’s biggest-selling tabloid newspaper, prints a picture — and on its website, cell phone video — of the singer shooting up. The footage clearly shows Doherty wearing his wristband from the MTV Europe Awards, confirming it was, in fact, taken just three days earlier.
In the weeks that follow, during which time attempts to schedule another meeting with the man become ridiculously complicated, many people I talk to refer to something called “Pete fatigue.” This is a national condition, by all accounts.
“Pete could well be an expert in sabotage,” says Nigel Coxon, Babyshambles’ British A&R rep, who helped mediate the new album’s awkward genesis. He explains that ruinous stories have often broken the same week that the band has released singles and that, due to “Pete fatigue,” radio stations are resistant to give them any airplay, something Doherty desperately needs. Despite having more column inches written about him than any other British male rock star today, he isn’t selling a huge amount of records. In contrast, the Kooks, an English indie outfit also in thrall to the Libertines legacy, shifted nearly two million copies of their debut album, Inside In, Inside Out, in the U.K. last year. “It’s very distracting,” Coxon laments.
According to Dr. Mike McPhillips, an addiction specialist and medical director of the Causeway Retreat, a rehabilitation center in Essex, England, Doherty’s faltering progress is not quite as bad as itlooks, but rather entirely typical.
“There is nothing unusual in lapsing and relapsing — sometimes for years,” says McPhillips, who has not treated Doherty. “It’s simply part of the process. Anyone who just stops [using] the minute they go into a clinic is an exceptional case. One can only feel compassion for someone in the public eye with these problems, and [Doherty] has essentially become cannon fodder.”
“With Pete, it’s always going to be a bumpy ride,” says Coxon. “But then he really is head and shoulders above everyone else, a special talent. Is he worth the effort? I’d say yes, yes he is.”
On November 22 Babyshambles begin their most high-profile tour to date, a nationwide jaunt to England’s biggest arenas (and the largest the band has ever played) in just eight days; their U.K. label Parlophone’s objective is to get Doherty in front of his many fans in as short a time as possible. “If we mounted a bigger tour of smaller venues,” Coxon explains, “it could very probably come off the rails. It’s safer this way.”
One could argue that it would be even safer for Doherty not to tour at all, given his tenuous grasp on the sobriety he seems to genuinely covet. McPhillips suggests otherwise, though. “Clearly, a tour is an incredibly stressful thing to undertake,” he says. “But then, it is also stressful for an artist not to live up to his professional obligations. It can be a hard thing for someone to feel their career is spiraling downward.”
And so the show goes on, opening at Manchester’s M.E.N. Arena, a place vast enough to host Red Hot Chili Peppers and, on tonight’s evidence, at least twice the size it needs to be to house a Babyshambles crowd. Barely half of its 15,000 seats are occupied. At 9:15, the quartet take the stage, on time, to huge cheers and, against all expectations, an apparently sober Doherty excels. He is funny, wry, and captivating, and when he plays a solo version of “Lost Art of Murder” (from the current album and reportedly about his messy split from Moss), he is at once heavy with regret and light as air, a man who knows precisely what he is capable of.
After the show, however, it’s another story. As Doherty leads me from the dressing room to the tour bus, he looks ravaged, slurring his words and walking as if on the deck of a ship that has just hit an iceberg. His left eye is pink and bloodshot; his chin sports a fresh open sore. Once on the bus, he pulls off his T-shirt to reveal a doughy torso and offers me tea. He sticks an arm through the ripped lining of a tattered jacket, looking for Christ knows what, and eventually makes do with a lighter retrieved from his jeans pocket, which he continually sparks, holding the flame just millimeters from his thumb.
I remind him that the last time we met, his latest heroin lapse was about to go public.
He groans: “Of course. You were there while it was all going off, weren’t you? Shit.”
He insists he doesn’t want to talk about it. “I’m clean now, I really am. I have to be. If I started piping [smoking crack] or doing brown [heroin] again, then I’d let everyone down, and I just can’t do that.”
He leans forward till his head rests on his kneecaps. When he speaks, the sticky floor absorbs his words.
“Look mate, this isn’t right. I’ve just done a show. Last thing I want to do now is sit around analyzing myself. It’s not on.” He looks up at me, pleading, “Couldn’t we have spoken earlier?”
I explain that I had been waiting to talk with him since three this afternoon but was repeatedly told he didn’t want to see me. His response is one of feigned amazement. His jaw goes slack.
“Nobody told me! You should’ve come directly to me! No point going through them, know what I mean?”
He suggests we catch up when the tour reaches Brighton, “where we can talk and watch all the pretty girls go by.” He gives me his cell phone number and tells me to call him directly, and then asks me to leave him in peace.
It’s now early December, and the rain is pouring down on Doherty’s country home in Marlborough, an hour west of London. Doherty tells me he’s moved here to be closer to his rehab facility. The house is huge — nine bedrooms, several lounges, a stone floor kitchen, and, beyond the garden, rolling hills upon which gray sheep graze. When he rented the place, it was unfurnished. It still is. Walk from room to room, and you have to be careful where you step amid all the filthy flotsam of torn books and discarded clothes and shoes. In one room, there are piles of half-finished canvases, some in charcoal, others apparently in blood. Hanging in the hall is a gold disc commemorating 100,000 U.K. sales for Down in Albion, the glass frame smashed. There are kittens everywhere, seven of them, the stench of their shit overwhelming. (One of them may well be the cat he allegedly fed crack to in September.) He has christened the newest one Jimmy McShambles. Upstairs there are no beds, just floorboards and stained sheets. And out front sit Doherty’s three Jaguars, each in various states of disrepair.
Since Manchester, the man has been infuriatingly elusive. I did call him in Brighton, but he never picked up, and further appointments in Birmingham, Nottingham, London, and Glasgow were also canceled, due to what the singer’s camp referred to as “illness.” But at four in the afternoon, the Spin photo shoot just wrapped, he finally agrees to talk with me here at the house he likes to call Albion Towers. He approaches me through the calamity of the main corridor like a ghost, dressed in Dickensian pipe-cleaner trousers and a military-style jacket. With a midnight croak to his voice, he tells me we’re going for a drive. Not fit to get behind the wheel himself, he instead commandeers the chauffered record-company car that sits expectantly in the driveway.
As we travel down dark, rain-lashed country lanes, I ask him where we are going. But he has grown suddenly catatonic and can barely keep his eyes open.
“Meeting friends,” he wheezes. “Train station.”
Then, cell phone in one hand, lighter in the other, he falls asleep.
Doherty will continue to make the papers on a daily basis throughout December. Charges are filed against him for allegedly hitting a photographer; he is wanted for further questioning regarding the December 2006 death of a man who fell from the window of an apartment during a party Doherty attended; and he is increasingly linked with Amy Winehouse, paying 4 A.M. visits to the singer while her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, is in custody, accused of witness tampering in his own assault case.
Back in November, Doherty had told me that he and Winehouse had become friends and were hoping to record a song together soon: “When I first moved to Marlborough, she and Blake would come down a lot. We’d have a few drinkies and crisps and have a bit of a singsong. She had me in fucking [tears] when I’d just split with my missus, singing at me with this amazing voice of hers.”
Now, in the car, when he lifts his lids again, I ask whether the latest newspaper reports are true, that he is helping her through her own drug problems. He snorts with derisive laughter.
“I’m helping Amy with rehab? Is that supposed to be sarcastic? Anyway, look, I can’t talk about her; it wouldn’t be fair.” His head lolls forward. He is moments away from unconsciousness. “You’ve got to understand…these days I just can’t afford to get involved [with the press]. People — they turn on you… on me. They write horrible things, deliberately twisting my words.” For a fleeting second, he looks up, helpless and lost. “I know you are not here to shaft me, but…”
And he’s out. I fail to rouse him when we reach the train station, so we return to the house without his “friends,” and I leave him passed out in the car. Later, his tour manager and bandmates attempt to shake him awake. They have a one-off gig tonight in London and must leave immediately. He staggers into the house just as the people we were supposed to meet at the train station show up, on foot, soaking wet and angry. He smiles benignly at them and sings a line from a 1980s British TV commercial (“If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit, join our club”). He disappears into one room, and then another. One by one, his bandmates and assorted friends and hangers-on each exchange complicit looks, grit their teeth, and sigh heavily. It’s Pete being Pete, they seem to be saying to one another, Doherty still convinced his raffish charm won’t run out. En route to the show this evening, he will go missing, the band having to perform without him. A few days after I leave Albion Towers, it’s reported that Doherty was beaten up by local dealers for not buying drugs from them.
In Manchester three weeks earlier, he had told me that he was desperate to be free from drugs once and for all, as much a show of faith to friends and family as to himself.
“I mean it, I do,” he said. “But it’s really hard.”
Harder even than he thinks.