Fans deify Pete Doherty for his ‘old school’ hedonism. Actually, he’s a tragic junkie du jour
I DON’T LIKE the look of Wolfman. The clue’s in the name, I suppose. It’s like when my sister said she was going to introduce me to “Claire Bastard”. I somehow sensed we would not grow close.
It’s Monday night, and Babyshambles, the band featuring Pete Doherty, the most famous drug addict in Britain, are playing their biggest gig to date — the 2,500-capacity Forum in Kentish Town. The stage is kind of chaotic, so it’s not easy to ascertain when Wolfman first appeared. One minute Doherty was at the mike, in a white shirt, looking oddly innocent for a man who is addicted to both crack and smack. The next minute Pete disappeared, to be replaced by this small, spindly, malevolent-looking thing in black. When Pete stumbles back onstage, he and Wolfman stare at each other. There is a pause. They then start howling, like wolves.
In an evening of dark, uncomfortable moments — at one point Doherty had invited a small boy onstage to sing with him, and a drunken member of the audience threw a can at him — it was a particularly dark, uncomfortable moment. Wolfman came across as the kind of shadowy figure that turns up to presage the end days — like the Fenris wolf at Ragnarök. Or, at a more prosaic level, Courtney Love at an aftershow.
Against all odds Doherty’s a man of the moment. Two weeks ago NME voted him the head of their “Cool List 2004”. As if to underline the point, last week Doherty’s debut single with Babyshambles entered the charts at No 8. This on top of his previous band’s second album, The Libertines, going straight in at No 1 on its release in August. Not a bad result for someone who was kicked out of the Libertines for failing rehab four times, was convicted of possession of a flick-knife in September, regularly doesn’t turn up to his own gigs, blows out interviews with text messages, sells lyrics in exchange for drugs and, this summer, attempted to buy curtains for his tour bus by giving a soft-furnishings shop his passport.
On the other hand, a great deal of why Doherty is so famous is exactly because of this kind of behaviour. The press, frustrated by the modern PR methods of closeting celebrities away from journalists, has tended to cover Doherty’s life as if it is an occasionally regrettable, but nonetheless fundamentally more honest and vital, existence than that of, say, Will Young.
While one would half-expect the NME — a magazine written by excitable children — to believe things such as Doherty being “bruise-eyed street royalty”, it is rather odd to see the grown-up papers join in, too. In July The Observer ran a huge piece on Doherty, in which they referred with a barely concealed regard to the “savage hedonism of the old-style rock’n’ roller — a star that burns twice as bright and half as long”, as opposed to the “sanitised pop star”. Just in case the readers needed spelling out to them what this meant, this was accompanied by a picture of Doherty smoking a crack pipe. Just in case Doherty needed spelling out to him what it meant, it was also accompanied by a picture of the late Sid Vicious.
And that’s before we even come to the Evening Standard (“Pete Doherty — My Crack Hell”), which shows little interest in other, non-junkie indie bands of a similar stature.
So much of what is written about Doherty now reminds me of what was written about Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers ten years ago. I worked for the music press at the time, and I can remember how unprepared we were for someone who was simultaneously charismatic, intelligent and troubled.
I think we all thought that because Edwards was clever enough to quote Marx and Camus, and aesthetically fine-tuned enough to dress well and write poetry, all his other decisions were part of some well thought-out gameplan, too.
When he cut the words “4 REAL” into his arm with a razor, it felt as if he was moving the rock discourse along, and when he became a nihilistic, alcoholic anorexic, at the time it merely felt like a logical extension of his aesthetic. We didn’t notice that he was actually in the process of killing himself.
When he eventually disappeared (it’s widely presumed, throw himself off the Severn Bridge, although no body was ever found), there was a realisation that what he’d been saying and doing and what we thought he’d been saying and doing were wildly differing things.
The nature of fandom is that you buy into the whole package. You presume that the artist is motivated by some lifelong, inchoate instinct. It’s not so obvious that he is, in fact, making a spontaneous mistake right in front of you, and one you could be making worse, either by writing about him, or simply being a fan and cheering when he comes on stage, off his face.
This is what is happening to Doherty now. He isn’t part of some long, destructive, perversely noble rock lineage — he’s a man making a mistake. When his previous band, the Libertines, first appeared, all their talk was of an alternative version of Britain, called Albion, which stood for literature and poetry and adventure and experimenting with drugs. But the long-term plan was never to be addicted to both smack and crack.
Doherty wanted to go on Top of the Pops, but not so off his face that he got into a fight with a member of the audience, as allegedly happened last week, and the programme had to broadcast his scrappy camera-rehearsal instead.
Doherty wanted to provoke strong reactions — but not the reactions at the Forum gig last week, when the audience, presumably taking their cue from Doherty’s attitude to himself, alternately chanted “Peter! Peter!” or threw bottles and cups at him. Indeed, I doubt Doherty ever intended for half the people at the Forum to be his fans — meaty, drunk thugs slamming into the women as they danced, treading all over each other and going to the bar whenever Doherty tried to speak.
The most obvious mistake, however, is in Doherty’s attitude to the philosophers and poets that he loves. Originally he used their works to set him free from a more prosaic life and allow him to become both a libertine and a Libertine. Now he uses their works to justify remaining an addict — an addict who has to put his drugs before his music. That’s the saddest use of art imaginable.
What makes it even sadder is that, as he has become part of the perceived pantheon of rock’s “predestined” wastrels, one day someone will use Doherty’s art to do exactly the same thing. •
THEY LIVED HARD AND DIED YOUNG
Sid Vicious The ultimate punk nihilist, Vicious ditched the Sex Pistols to record ‘My Way’ — his “way” lay with girlfriend Nancy Spungen, who was found stabbed in their New York apartment. Vicious died from a heroin overdose, aged 21.
Kurt Cobain I Hate Myself and I Want to Die was the working title for the final Nirvana album, so it was no surprise when the grunge icon, having survived multiple heroin overdoses, finally shot himself, aged 27.
Gram Parsons You know it’s bad when Keith Richard worries about your drug intake. Country rocker Parsons overdosed at 26.
Jim Morrison The Lizard King had been on a downward spiral of lewd conduct and dubious poetry when he died aged 27 in the bath.
© Caitlin Moran, The Times, 17 December 2004