In 2003, shortly after he realized that he had become a full-blown heroin addict, Pete Doherty was playing the Coachella festival in California with his fractious, fractured band the Libertines. On a mission to be “the most f***ed-up person in the world”, he was lying in a bush with a bottle of whiskey when Iggy Pop, once notoriously drug-fueled, ran past sipping water. “He stopped and said something like, ‘I’ve been there, but now I’m into jogging,’ ” Doherty recalls forlornly. “Even Iggy Pop had abandoned me.”
In a Hollywood biopic, this might have been the great redemptive epiphany, but, as anyone who has read a tabloid in the past 20 years will know, that’s not how it panned out. Instead Doherty’s unhappy dedication to the old-fashioned ideals of rock ’n’ roll turned him into the headline-grabbing “junkie lover” of Kate Moss, a convict with a ticker-tape rap sheet and a magnet for scandal and tragedy.
A Likely Lad, based on more than 60 hours of lockdown conversations with the journalist Simon Spence, is Doherty’s hectic version of events — chatty, intractably charming, yet mottled with darkness. Doherty initially hoped that this would be an “uplifting and funny book”. However, while the line between tragedy and farce sometimes blurs — in a courtroom on drug possession charges, 13 wraps of heroin fall from his trousers — A Likely Lad is as grim a tale of dissolution as you’ll find this side of Amy Winehouse.
If you’re hoping to discover why Doherty slid off the rails, you might feel thwarted. Born in 1979, he had an itinerant military childhood — his father, Peter, eventually became a major in the British Army and his mom, Jackie, was an army nurse — yet it left him with a mythic vision of England rather than any lasting scars. Academically smart, he credits romantic poetry for triggering his interest in opiates and briefly studied English literature in London after a Dickensian stint as a gravedigger.
It was when Doherty met the drama student Carl Barât through his sister that the Libertines catalyzed. Like all the best rock ’n’ roll partnerships, their relationship had the ardent intensity of a love affair. Doherty says that Barât, who couldn’t swim, would throw himself into Regent’s Canal to see if his friend would rescue him; there was talk of a suicide pact.
Doherty’s unhappy dedication to the old-fashioned ideals of rock ’n’ roll turned him into the headline-grabbing “junkie lover” of Kate Moss.
In the grubby backwash of subsequent events, it’s easy to forget how thrilling they were when they emerged in 2002 with their debut What a Waster, beautiful Bash Street Kids bonded by a love of Tony Hancock and Joe Orton, sharing a mike like a slash-fiction Lennon and McCartney.
Yet A Likely Lad shows the rot setting in dispiritingly early. Received wisdom suggests that it was Doherty’s drug problems that scuppered the band’s first iteration. His spin here, however, is that his estrangement came from being a true renegade, railing against “the industrialization” of the Libertines as they increasingly left him behind.
Yet Doherty’s pain at his alienation was undeniable. When the band went to Japan without him, Doherty burgled Barât’s flat — “a wild act of madness”. He missed his first court hearing because the expired ham he stole from Barât’s fridge gave him food poisoning; his punishment was a six-month prison sentence, described with grotty flair. Barât movingly met him on his release from prison, but although “it was all very emotional and almost spiritual… I actually really needed a bit of brown and a pipe”. The Libertines barely lasted past their second album in 2004.
From there, Doherty threw himself into his addictions to heroin and crack, his second band, Babyshambles, and a relationship with the model Kate Moss. Within a week of their getting together, he persuaded Moss to join him in getting matching tattoos to prove her love (no jumping into a canal for her).
Academically smart, he credits romantic poetry for triggering his interest in opiates.
While Moss endured the side effects of dating Doherty — pictures of her appearing to snort cocaine temporarily derailed her career — his increased tabloid profile upped police interest. The final straw for the relationship came when Doherty accidentally hit a panic button at Moss’s house and 12 armed police descended. As a finale, she apparently burned his beloved childhood bear, Pandy. “It still rankles,” Doherty says.
Moss, though, is almost comic relief in a book that can read like a catalogue of lost souls. Peaches Geldof, who died in 2014, helped Doherty to build an occult shrine; Amy Winehouse was dragged off him by her minders while they were “getting it on”. Robin Whitehead, the daughter of the filmmaker Peter Whitehead and Dido Goldsmith, overdosed on heroin in January 2010 while making a film about Doherty.
In 2006 the actor Mark Blanco fell from a balcony after being ejected from a party for bothering Doherty. The singer was filmed running away past the dying man, a bid to avoid more police attention. While he expresses sadness, he thinks he “did the right thing” in protecting himself. It’s shockingly blunt, but then Doherty often seems to have looked at the chaos around him as he might look outside to see if he needs a coat. It’s just weather.
There is, however, still an unprocessed feel to this narrative — a Cecil B DeMille cast of users, hangers-on and even superstars (Paul McCartney apparently worried about him); a breathless stream of incident. Maybe ten years down the line Doherty will tell a different story. After all, it was only in 2019, when he urinated over the front desk of a Parisian police station, that he received the implant that halted his addiction.
Doherty is now feeling “adult and sober”, married to the filmmaker Katia de Vidas and living quietly in Normandy. Anyone with a shred of interest in the Libertines will wish him well and want to read this book, but what a wasteland it describes.
A Likely Lad, by Pete Doherty and Simon Spence is out now
Victoria Segal is a U.K.-based journalist writing about books, music, and television