Pete Doherty: A year of living dangerously
Pete Doherty began the last month of 2006 the way he had spent the previous 11, as if a tabloid editor was scripting his every move.
Somewhere in the small hours of Sunday 3 December, at a party attended by Doherty in an east London flat, the actor Mark Blanco fell to his death. Later that night, Doherty fled a wrecked hotel room. That Monday, he was fined £770 in court for possession of various drugs, and his band Babyshambles released their first EMI record, The Blinding, and opened a postponed UK tour with a barnstorming show at Newcastle Academy.
On the Tuesday following, news of Blanco's death hit the front pages (Doherty's blamelessness was buried paragraphs down). That Thursday, Babyshambles played a gig at Selfridges in London to announce Doherty's unlikely position as the "face and inspiration" of a new menswear range.
The Blinding's title track, about the flash of a paparazzo's camera - " the last thing that you'll ever see" - may prove prophetic. This year saw Doherty arrested on drug offences six times, and appear in court on seven separate occasions. In October, his supermodel girlfriend Kate Moss announced their engagement, confirming them as chemical generation royalty.
But the ferocious Newcastle gig recalled another Doherty narrative, the only one that will really count in the end. Before his addictions and involvement with Moss (the "Beauty and the Beast" tabloid dream wryly noted on Babyshambles' 2005 album Down in Albion), he was a purely heroic musical figure to many, with his old band The Libertines. Their primal rock sound was an inspiration to many of the bands who have broken through in 2006, The Mystery Jets, Larrikin Love and The View among them. That is the Doherty whom fans went to worship in Newcastle.
But this year has seen his reputation teeter on the brink. Does the notoriously seedy company he is prone to keeping and his addictions now outweigh an always precarious musical talent? Just what is Doherty worth, beyond the tabloids' glare? When I met him as The Blinding neared completion in a studio in Clerkenwell, east London, to discuss his year, the answer remained uncertain. The EP's songs, more solid than Down in Albion's opiated drift, tentatively justify EMI's lifeline to Babyshambles (cut loose from Rough Trade last year).
But the Doherty who is making it is fractious and evasive. Hours of waiting produce two surly conversations, intercut with errands to an " accountant " for cash, the crack pipe in his pocket suggestive of his lifestyle. Minder Johnny Headlock, also to be present on the night of Blanco's death, stays close. The rest of Babyshambles, regular victims of the Doherty no-shows that have wrecked tours, are eager to talk, wanting things to work out.
The singer remains a law unto himself when he leads me to the studio's gloomy basement. Unwelcome questions are greeted with cavernous pauses. Only when I ask him about his appearance on a Tony Hancock documentary does the innocent dreamer of The Libertines' early days come alive.
A Forties British bohemianism lies at the heart of his imagination: the world of Hancock, Greene, Orwell and Bacon, separating him from his peers. " Yeah, those people fed me," he says happily. "Somehow, they stretched out across the decades, and picked up a lost soul. When they find you younger, it just completely encapsulates you. Takes you out with a pipe in the night, and takes your breath. It's like you don't exist, and then they go and... Well, anyway. Orwell broke up boulders and turned them into tiny stones. I didn't know who The Clash were then. I spent a lot of time on my own. The only person about my age was separated by barbed wires. Kicking a ball against a wall..."
Doherty is flashing back to his childhood, the son of an Army Major father, Peter, whose nomadic military life caused that barbed-wire isolation. Peter disowned him this year, tired of his addict's lies. Mother Jackie has published a despairing book, Pete Doherty: My Prodigal Son.
But Doherty's own lucrative book deal (for The Books of Albion, due in March), again shows his other side. They will be drawn from his scrawled, fragmentary online journals. The books' titles - Boheme, Consumption, Libertine - reveal another creative wellspring, the dissolute bohemianism of English Romantic poets and French existentialists. The squalid east London home he daubed with his own blood, and was evicted from in September, is the underside of such dreams. His Cockney folk lyrics, fed by phrases from old films and books, are the reward.
"Albion", a Babyshambles song with words equal parts John Betjeman and Johnny Rotten, also shows a shared lineage with London writers from Blake to Iain Sinclair. When Doherty first moved to London in 1997, he and Libertines co-leader Carl Barât composed a mythical version of the city, and England as a whole: Arcadia, to be sailed to on "the good ship Albion".
In 2006, does he still hold that dream? "I still do," he says. " It's changed a lot. It started off as something ancient and forgotten; and became something modern and real." He half-laughs, perhaps thinking of all that's happened to him in London. "I just couldn't swim. The tunnels get narrower and narrower." Has he kept his ideals? "Have you?"
While Doherty's relationship with Moss obsesses the tabloids, it is his bond with Barât that matters to fans. Up the Bracket (2002), The Libertines' debut album, remains the only great record that Doherty has helped to make. It still sounds joyous and anarchic, studded with anthemic songs.
The band's impromptu gigs in their flat collapsed barriers between them and their fans, an ideal the British indie scene still maintains. But the band's self-titled 2004 follow-up was crippled by Doherty's spiralling drug addictions, causing Barât to split the group. The sleeve, with a pallid Doherty's arm bared and a harried Barât propping him up, showed the dream's death.
Since a July reunion at Camden's Dublin Castle pub, the pair have hesitantly healed their rift. The day I meet Doherty, though, he is in a bitter mood.
"Did you not listen to what we were singing?" he asks, appalled, when I ask if The Libertines were the ideal vehicle for his early dreams. " Did it sound like we were happy, the perfect band? I can't believe they kicked me out." He sighs. "Carl's all right. It's just like EastEnders really. He's still my kid."
Then he switches again, seething: "I paid the price. I got kicked out of the band. And with nothing, no sweat from anyone, we got it together with Babyshambles. We really got it. But they [meaning Barât and his fellow ex-Libertines in Dirty Pretty Things] got it in the fact that they were in the best band and now they're in the worst band. And he needs to sort that out.
"He's still really pissed off. But I know he's not like that. He's someone who likes drinking. That's the hypocrisy of it." Does Pete miss anything about Carl creatively? "He used to get me good crack," he snaps acidly. "That'll do, innit?" And Doherty leaves, returning hours later, when the snap of his lighter punctuates still more effortful words.
The fact is that his image in 2006 is a world away from the fresh-faced boy of even two years ago. Where he and Barât once favoured extravagant military jackets, Doherty now appears bare-chested in photos, recalling the iconic but talentless Sid Vicious. Where the point of The Libertines was community, Doherty in 2006 has been characterised by an addict's selfishness. The string of arrests, and his new bond with Moss, have seen tabloid inches dwarf all his achievements.
Then there are the drugs. The media's salacious attention apart (and days like our meeting), there is no doubt that Doherty has spent 2006 trying to fight clear of his demons.
I wonder how this determined libertine sees the balance between self-destruction and his art. Does he associate control with a dull life? " No, not at all. It's the opposite. I'd say exercising self-control is very important for a dissolute life. You don't need to control your drug intake to lead a free life. Whether you take no drugs at all or everything you can get your hands on, a free life is separate from that."
But does he ever feel he is going astray? Has he looked around, at the room he's in, or the people he's with, and felt frightened? "No, I never surround myself with people I hate," he says. "I always leave there pretty sharpish."
The most important thing that happened to Doherty last week may not be any tabloid headline, but The Blinding's release. He's shown unusual professionalism for his new EMI paymasters, promoting it on The Culture Show and starting his tour burning with energy. Drummer Adam Ficek told NME: " He's realised that these chances aren't always going to be around."
I wonder if he is working with The Clash's Mick Jones, producer-mentor on all his previous records. "In a way, I'm always working with Mick Jones, " Doherty says. "I feel like he's watching over me all the time. We talk about everything. History, quite a lot. Balloons, and wars, and old football players. The Clash." Does Jones ever give Doherty advice? "He just tells me straight. Like with the drug thing. He's like, 'You're really a slave to it, aren't you?'"
The Blinding doesn't really settle the arguments over Doherty's musical worth. It may be that his talent won't ever cohere into something clearly great. The fragile, fascinating drift of his voice, fragmentary lyrics and erratic live performances, so against pop's mechanistic grain, may be his main contribution.
At any rate, he has written his own happy ending, in a notebook where he sketched Down in Albion's plot: "True Love of girl and the English Imagination let Beast see error of his ways. Rehabilitation. Beast is released from prison back into things, but wants to break FREE."
Here's hoping that Doherty makes it. The tabloids may see you as sport, Pete, I tell him in parting. But most of us just want you to survive, and keep making music. "I always have done," he says, defiantly. " Always."
'The Blinding' is out now on Regal