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What a Bloody Shambles
2004 was an extraordinary and chaotic year in the life of Pete Doherty. Having made the running as front man with The Libertines, he was sacked from the band. His heroin addiction public, he careened into all manner of potentially damaging conflicts. When he re-emerged recently with Babyshambles, the hope was that he might have begun to clean up his act. But when hotpress finally caught up with him in Dublin, on the final date of the band's tour of the UK and Ireland, we were witness to some truly bizarre and troubling scenes. [Frontline report: Steve Cummins]
Plus: Amid rumour and counter rumour concerning the future of the band, Libertines drummer Gary Powell offers a no holds barred view of the damage inflicted by Pete Doherty's heroin addiction on the career of a band that had the world at its feet. [Interview: Paul Nolan]
Steve Cummins, 14 Jan 2005
It’s an hour and a half since Babyshambles’ first Irish performance ended in a chaotic stage invasion. I’m standing in the rain trying to piece together how I’ve landed here, the side of the road by Dublin airport. Behind me the Babyshambles tour bus is starting its engine. As it pulls out onto the motorway heading north to Belfast where the band will board the ferry back to the UK, Pete Doherty pulls back the curtain and makes a gesture to say we’ll talk on the phone before giving me the thumbs up. I flag down a taxi.
As I clamber in, the rain begins to fall harder.
“It’s been a rough day hasn’t it,” comes the voice from the front.
“Yeah,” I say, “tell me about it.” The wipers hum, and the headlights flash hypnotically by, inducing a sleepy feeling. I’m tired but at least I’m heading back towards some kind of normality. There’ll be time to consider the events of the day more thoroughly in the morning.
Over the course of the past year, Pete Doherty has become one of the most talked about drug addicts in rock and roll. His 2004 is a story you just couldn’t make up. It involves studio punch-ups, ejection from The Libertines, four failed rehab attempts, a fall out with best friend and Libertine Carl Barât, conviction for possession of a flick-knife, the destruction of a £100,000 piece of art, conspicuous crack cocaine and heroin addiction, drug overdoses, a number one album, four top ten singles, lyrics traded for drugs, interviews for cash (for drugs), impromptu gigs, a new band, mammoth tours, regular failure to show for gigs, riotous gigs, gigs that actually end in riots, an attempt to buy curtains for his tour bus in exchange for his passport and, most famously, a failed rehab attempt in Thailand, involving EastEnders’ Dot Cotton.
Such behaviour has seen him painted as something of a punk icon in sections of the media. The NME recently voted him “the coolest man in rock.” His story has been splashed across the tabloids. The (UK) Sun even run a column called ‘Pete Watch’, charting the singer’s unpredictable behaviour.
His fans meanwhile, are fanatical and elevate him to hero status. They chant his name at shows and swarm around him at every opportunity. They are constantly forgiving of his crimes and misdemeanors. Often, when he fails to appear for shows, they are sympathetic of his “illness” and berate those who are critical of his unprofessionalism.
Sometimes, it’s easy to understand why they are so hostile to his detractors. As rock stars go, Doherty can be unusually inclusive and accessible. Free downloads are made available on his website and he often posts demos of new material, as well as live recordings. Fans are also regularly invited to impromptu gigs in London pubs and clubs. He even does gigs in his flat. Last August I attended one.
I sat in his front room drinking cheap lager as he performed for an hour or so. In conversation he was shy, softly spoken and often looked lost within himself. Whenever talk turned to The Libertines he became visibly upset. He wanted a reunion, he said. He had sent Barât numerous messages but had got no reply. He even sent one while we were there. If anything, I too felt sorry for him.
His drug dependency was even sadder to see. In his appearance, he bore all the hall marks of his addictions. His skin was pale to the point of ghostly. On his arms were marks where needles had entered. Twice during the gig a suspicious piece of tin foil fell from under his hat. It was the side to Doherty that nobody wanted to see.
Later that night he also displayed the kind of petulance and unpredictability that compelled Barât to sever ties with him. At 9 o’clock, he left the flat for a sold out show in nearby Camden, but never made it on stage. It emerged the following day that, after the venue door staff refused to admit one of his entourage, he stormed off, refusing to go ahead with the show. Two nights later he pulled another show. This time no explanation was given.
It is this kind of behaviour for which he has since become infamous. A first UK tour in October with new band Babyshambles included a show in Aberdeen which ended in a riot after the band failed to appear. It later emerged that Doherty had overdosed on his tour bus.
Doherty’s erratic behaviour, though, hasn’t affected his growing popularity. Babyshambles last single, ‘Killamangiro’, went into the UK?charts at number 8. Their recent week-long December tour of the UK and Ireland was a complete sell out. It was at the Dublin show I was due to meet him for the second time...
These days nothing is simple in Doherty’s world. Where previously he offered interviews for cash, he has now become much more evasive with the press. An hour before I’m due to meet him at The Village, I receive a call from his Irish PR to tell me he has cancelled all media commitments. He’s still asleep, I’m told. It’s the second time I’ve had an interview with him pulled at short notice.
I decide to call his manager, James Mullord, who I know, in an attempt to organise something later that day. At 4 o’clock I eventually get through to him. He sounds like he’s just woken up.
Belfast went well the previous night, Mullord tells me, and the group have just enjoyed the benefits of a long sleep. “Someone brought down a load of Termazipan,” he says chirpily. “Everyone was out like a light. It was fuckin’ brilliant. No hassle, no trouble. Everyone got a good night, unlike Friday when there was fuckin’ fighting and arguments and mayhem.” We make a date to meet at the venue, where the tour bus will be parked. I could talk to Doherty there.
Carl Barât refers to Babyshambles as Doherty’s “denial band”. He claims that Doherty has surrounded himself with his junkie friends and that they make up the group’s entourage. As I sit on the group’s tour bus, waiting for Mullord, I can see what Barât was getting at. A lot of the characters who float in and out of the bus appear much the worse for wear. They share Doherty’s pale skin and glassy eyes.
Mullord is different. He wanders down the stairs, throwing out instructions. He appears organised within a disorganised world. He suggests we head into the venue. Doherty has gone AWOL but he expects him to appear for the sound check in twenty minutes time. He hopes the interview can be done then.
“We’ll have to be tactical about this,” he says. “Peter can be funny about these. You know one minute he’ll do it, the next he won’t. I’ll try getting him at the right time. He’s quite unpredictable though.”
When Doherty does show, he looks completely out of it. The sound check is a farce. Doherty does most of it while lying on the floor next to the drum kit. The sound engineer isn’t impressed. Drew O’Connell, the group’s bassist, becomes impatient.
“Have you got enough? Is the sound alright?” he asks.
“It would be,” says the engineer, “if Pete could stop clipping the mic and would sing up but I doubt that’s going to happen.” For reasons that seems pretty obvious, I’m told the interview won’t happen until after the show.
The gig itself is an absolute triumph. Doherty is in fine form. The band too is much better, and tighter, than might have been expected. The crowd go nuts. Constant streams of crowd surfers are pushed forward, Doherty reaching out a hand to each one. By the end of the night, it appears that nearly half of the crowd are on stage. A huge invasion occurs during ‘Wolfman’.
The security men don’t know what to do. It’s carnage. People are falling everywhere. Babyshambles drummer Gemma Clarke is going crazy at the fans falling on her drum kit. A roadie lifts a mic stand and waves it aggressively screaming, “The next cunt who falls on the equipment I’m going to fuckin’ hit them.”
I have to say I’ve never seen anything like it before. The lights go up and the gig finishes.
Outside the crowd are refusing to go home. They mill around the tour bus. Screams of “Peter, Peter” ring out. I bump into O’Connell, who is signing autographs, and we jump onto the bus together. The chanting is getting louder. As we open the door, separating the driver’s cabin from the buses lounge area, I see Doherty right in front of me. He’s about to shoot up.
He’s sitting at a table with his top off. Wrapped around his left arm is a black rubber cord. It’s just above his ‘Libertine’ tattoo. The other end of the cord is held between his teeth. On the table in front of him is a needle. He gives me a look as if to say hello.
“You’d better wait out here with the driver,” says O’Connell.
“OK,” I say, shocked. He closes the door behind him.
I look out at the fans. They’re smiling, banging on the side of the bus. They’re still chanting. It all begins to feel a little uncomfortable.
Ten minutes later Doherty emerges. He’s looks animated, gazing out the front window. There’s still a large group of fans around. I move down the bus. A roadie wanders up to me and asks me for a note, offering me a couple of lines. I decline. I bump into Mullord. He’s doing his best to organise things. Doherty wanders up, looking for his guitar. He looks awful up close, deathly. He’s got frailer since I last saw him. His skin is yellowish around his eyes and his teeth are ruined. His eyes are watery and glazed.
He tells me to come up and watch the gig. At the front of the bus he begins to serenade the crowd outside, with Libertines songs. I stand behind him listening. Above my head I spot a small cabin with a dirty mattress and duvet in it. It looks like a squat. On top of the mattress are a number of burnt spoons and pieces of tin foil. There is a large pile of white powder in the corner nearest me.
Mullord pops his head in. He asks Doherty to do the interview. They have to leave soon. Guitarist Patrick Walden is also eager that Doherty sits down and talks. Eventually the bus begins to move and Doherty finishes his impromptu set.
As we pull away, leaving the fans scattered on the pavement, they ask me to stay on the bus until we get to the ferry. Doherty says he’ll do the interview at some stage on the way down. He’s giddy now. Constantly moving. I learn that they are going to the port of Larne, just outside Belfast, over a hundred miles away. Sense gets the better of me. It’s now or nothing, I say.
Our interview is brief. We have until the airport. Throughout Doherty constantly dodges questions, allowing others to do the talking. As he speaks he moves his head child-like, staring at whoever is speaking. He’s cartoonish in his movements.
“There was a lot of love in the air tonight,” he says, “it’s been a hell of a start to the tour.”
What does he make of The Libertines decision to split at the end of the year?
He becomes evasive.
“Libertines will always be around. The realm of infinity. They’ve been around for centuries and will for centuries more.”
But what about the band, I say.
“I don’t know. I just feel so far removed from that dark age. I’d be a fool to sit around and mope. They’re not my friends. They’re not Libertines.”
He’s insistent now.
“They’re not actually Libertines. How they can call themselves that is beyond me. It’s beyond me why anyone would be interested in them. It’s not their songs.”
Walden interjects. He says that Pete instigated the whole Libertines thing; that they wouldn’t have happened were it not for him. Doherty says he’s with his real friends now. He is indignant that Carl Barât and the other members have done him a great injustice. He doesn’t know if they will speak again. “He’s involved in a quite fucked up celebrity schmoozing world,” he says of Carl, “I don’t understand it. I’m just glad he showed his true colours when he did.”
We are passing by the airport. I decide to get out. Doherty says he’d like to continue our conversation. We agree to speak on the phone over the coming days. I say my goodbyes and walk out into the early morning rain...
Over the next few days I try Mullord a number of times without any luck. It’s nearly a week later when I eventually get through to him and he fills me in on the news.
Two days earlier a gig in Blackpool ended in disaster. Doherty began nodding off on stage, forgetting lyrics. The band stormed off and, although he tried to carry on, playing acoustic guitars, eventually he was literally dragged off the stage. Mullord says he was relieved to hear he’d only taken sleeping pills and not “the hard stuff”.
The following night they are due to play the Astoria in London. It’s the last gig of the tour. Doherty, I’m told, will hopefully speak to me at around 8 o’clock that evening. I call but Mullord’s phone is off. The following day I read that Doherty failed to show and that the gig ended in a riot. The bands equipment was smashed and the stage ripped apart. There are photos on some sites of fans leaving covered in blood. It’s horrendous. That same night, Carl Barât ended The Libertines in Paris. In contrast the gig is said to have been a huge success.
In Pete Doherty’s world, right now there is no one to say stop. His apparently self-destructive behaviour has become acceptable to his fans, and to those around him. They seem vicariously involved in his downward slide. He is almost constantly on tour, constantly surrounded by drugs, and rarely has a (scheduled) day off. Classically, it looks as if Pete Doherty is becoming a victim of his own success.
He tells me he would have given up music for a while if Babyshambles hadn’t been so good. Unfortunately, you might say, they are terrific.
I wish it wasn’t so. The way things are going; I cannot imagine there will be a happy ending.
The Libertines: The Show Must Go On:
To say that 2004 was a tumultuous year for the Libertines would be something of an understatement. The ongoing psycho-drama between the three remaining members and Pete Doherty has become the soap opera du jour in the major music publications in Britain, with the ongoing fallout from the Babyshambles frontman’s departure still making headlines some six months after his erstwhile band mates finally asked him to leave.
It goes without saying that the build-up to Doherty’s parting of ways with the band was a lurid catalogue of, often literally, criminal excess. Whether it was breaking into his band mate Carl Barat’s flat and making off with some choice goods to finance his well-publicised crack habit, selling his passport for similar reasons, or even the disappointingly prosaic misdemeanour of driving without insurance, Doherty seemed hell-bent on self-destruction.
Since Doherty left and began his haphazard attempts to kick-start the appropriately named Babyshambles, The Libertines have regrouped, re-focused and attempted to establish themselves as a credible force minus their wayward talisman. With guitarist Anthony Rossamando filling in for Doherty, the band came through their tricky initial assignments at Reading and Leeds with flying colours, then headed off on a five-month world tour, the reviews for which have been hugely enthusiastic.
Overall, The Libertines would appear to have experienced a very bittersweet twelve months.
“Well, psychologically, it’s been a very difficult year for the band,” explains Gary Powell, the band’s laid-back and immensely likeable drummer. “It’s been a lot of fun touring, because we managed to get Anthony Rossamando to come back and play with us again. We really like Anthony as an individual; he just gels perfectly with us on both a personal and musical level. So, we’ve had great fun gigging over the past year, but it’s definitely been a bit of a grind at times, because every so often we just hear stories of woe with regard to Pete and what have you, and that’s been really hard for us all to handle.
“But the flip side is that we’ve all grown as individuals, not just musically, but also in terms of our ability to deal emotionally with what’s going on around us. I think we’ve become a lot more adept at handling different people and different scenarios because of what we’ve come through. But, you know, it’s still pretty tough.”
What’s the current state of play with the band?
“Well, Carl’s going to have an operation on his eye this month, after which he’s gonna have some rest and recuperation time. John’s the lead singer in a band called Yeti, so he’ll be playing with them while we’re taking a bit of break from the band. At this stage, we’ve been on the road for five months straight, so we all need to take a breather and catch up with some other stuff.
“Then we’ll probably be heading into the studio at the end of this month or mid-to-late February, just to goof around with some ideas and see where it takes us. There’s nothing set in stone in terms of recording, although our management has made some tentative plans for more touring this year, but I would stress they are tentative. But things are pretty much in motion for us for 2005.”
There was report on the NME website in December that when Gary, John and Carl regroup later this month, it might not be under the name The Libertines…
“Well, even if it is something else, people will still look at us and see The Libertines,” reasons Gary. “We’ll have three of the same members in the band, and I’d imagine the sound and the vibe will be essentially the same…so I think it’s more a case of The Libertines are dead, long live The Libertines.”
What are Gary’s feelings toward Doherty at this point?
“I’d just wish he’d get his act together, I really do,” he sighs. “I mean, I know he’s doing his Babyshambles thing at the moment, which is really good, ’cos he seemed to be approaching it properly and trying to do the best he can musically. We’ve heard mixed reports with reference to his shows; some people have said it’s absolutely brilliant, but we’ve played shows with Peter where things have been completely shambolic and on the verge of falling apart, and you’ve got to remember, we are musicians – we started playing together because of a love of music.
“My idea of a good show is where we all play to the best of our abilities and we really communicate what we’re feeling. So when we used to play these ridiculously chaotic shows, and it didn’t really feel so great for us, and people were still saying it was possibly the best gig they’d ever seen, that actually made me question their motivation for coming the see the concert in the first place. I mean, are you going to see a band you really like play good music, or are you going to see a freakshow?”
Unfortunately, Doherty really doesn’t seem to be in great shape at the moment. Are the band fearful for him?
“We are always fearful for him, and Peter knows that we really want him to sort himself out,” says Gary. “But he really has to want to do it for himself. I read some of that interview he did with Q recently, but I only saw the stuff he was saying about us. You know, ‘I’m not in The Libertines, I’d never play with that band again’, all that type of stuff. That was really quite hurtful. Because we’ve gone through a lot as friends, and as band-members, and for him to be so dismissive of us, to push us aside in a single sentence, like we meant absolutely nothing to him - that really stung, so I didn’t actually read the rest of the article.
“But I also know that Peter is hurt himself, and he’s probably lashing out at the one thing he knows he can lash out at, which is us guys. He’s not going to have a go at anyone else, cos I don’t think he particularly cares about anyone else. He’ll always take his frustrations out on us, ’cos he knows that we care about him. And I’m sure he knows that we still care about him.”
From a performance point of view, how has the dynamic in the group changed since Doherty left?
“It’s more stable, although we still do have the odd moment of mayhem,” replies Gary. “Like in Montreal a while back, I just decided at the end of the show that I was going to trash the drumkit. And I didn’t just trash the drumkit, we all trashed the drumkit. Whereas before, when something happened onstage, it was usually because Peter was doing something for his own gratification. Peter wasn’t actually acting on behalf of the band, Peter was acting on behalf of Peter.”
Whether or not Doherty finally staggers back to the straight and narrow remains to be seen. For The Libertines, however, life goes on. What are Gary’s hopes for 2005?
“Just to get things on an even keel, and for us to realise our potential as a band,” he states. “And to enjoy the shows. You better have a Guinness waiting for me when we play our next show in Ireland!”