PEter Doherty had, for a period in the mid 00s, the kind of fame that made him recognizable even in silhouette. Like his friend Amy Winehouse, he was a fixture on tabloid front pages, whether in disrepair or ducking out of a courtroom. Doherty had gone from a cultish figure as co-frontman (with Carl Barât) of the Libertines – a band with a devoted following and tantalising capacity for implosion – to a threat to the nation’s impressionable youth and himself. His drive to self-destruction was served up as cartoonish sideshow, his trajectory fast-tracked from public health risk to pitiable train wreck, amplified by his relationship with Kate Moss, a famously guarded A-lister. Playing up to the “why him?” angle, the couple duetted on a tellingly titled song, Beauty and the Beast.
Doherty has made it out the other end of flashbulb infamy but, as A Likely Lad makes clear, it was touch and go. The book is an “authorized biography” put together by the music writer Simon Spence from more than 60 hours of conversations the pair had during lockdown. Spence has organized his chronology but hasn’t put words in Doherty’s mouth. As the singer notes in the foreword, he’d been clean of drugs for more than a year when they began the process and he’s a lucid, honest presence, admitting at one stage part of him had wanted to be “the most fucked-up person in the world”. Doherty reveals that beyond the tabloid hoopla, it wasn’t all brinksmanship and squalor; there was joy too, in the excess, in his relationship with Moss – at times “an Evelyn Waugh scene”, we learn, all secret rendezvous and four-poster beds – and in the camaraderie among bands, especially in the Libertines’ more ramshackle days.
Self-mythology was always part of Doherty’s approach and you sense at times a weakness for a fanciful thought, such as the one about imagining Morrissey in intensive care with him, suffering from “suspended melancholy”. In the main he offers a fairly unvarnished recounting of his life, and if some of the exploits are carnivalesque, his narration, at least, is free from self-pity.
Doherty paints his drive to introduce chaos to the Libertines as an anti-capitalism kick – though that’s not the only reason why they played cash-in-hand shows. Recalling the launch for Up the Bracket, the band’s 2002 debut album, Doherty complains “they wouldn’t let me smoke crack inside”, which seems fair enough. You sense, off stage, the pain and frustration of Barât, as his friend’s dissolution imperilled their band in its infancy. Doherty sees that his behavior was a destabilizing force, but maintains he could have been offered more understanding.
We hear stories about the “underground” figures who abounded in Doherty’s orbit, headed by sometime co-writer Peter Wolfe, AKA Wolfman, a fellow addict and, we are told, the reason for Doherty leaving various rehab units, as well as his short -lived association with Amy Winehouse, when he was “under manners to try and look after her… I could see how fragile she was”. There was a lot of “dark energy” about, he says, the records “crafted out of the scraps”.
There’s a paradox at the heart of Doherty’s story. We learn of his enduring urge for fame, a “desperation to get on telly”, mixed with a distrust of the “industrialisation of the Libertines” as he describes their label Rough Trade’s handling of their early years. He sometimes made use of tabloid curiosity, selling photographs and stories to pay debts, a naivety guiding his approach: “I thought I’d be able to crack it.”
There is a sense of reckoning, too, a well of sorrow over friends lost, such as Winehouse and sometime collaborator Alan Wass. Doherty speaks about the drug scene in which he sought refuge from the paparazzi and police, stealing phones to “prove myself” to a dealer or hiding out at a super-fan’s flat. He doesn’t emerge well from the death of Mark Blanco – who fell to his death from the balcony of an east London flat at a party in 2006 – maintaining he fled the scene to protect himself and the teenager he was with. Four years later, film-maker Robin Whitehead died of a suspected heroin overdose in the flat where she had been filming Doherty and Wolfman. Doherty was sentenced to six months in prison for possession of class A drugs. He refers to that time as “penance… time to mourn”.
The Doherty of 2022 has a wife, whom he married last year, and harbors aspirations of running a bookshop and literary imprint. If this isn’t quite a comeback story, it does end on a hopeful note, with Doherty – a musician again rather than a caricature – optimistic about what’s to come, intent on repairing various relationships once pushed to breaking point. In his foreword he says he “can’t really admit defeat” and, despite a few near misses, he hasn’t had to.
Declan Ryan’s first collection of poetry, Crisis Actor, will be published by Faber next year