Pete Doherty: ‘I’ve never wanted to top myself. I’m blindingly optimistic. Ravingly optimistic’
Few expected The Libertines co-frontman to reach 40 – but here he is, still writing and performing, making records and addicted to drugs
Alive and kicking: Pete Doherty performing at the Victorious Festival at Southsea Seafront in August 2018. Photograph: Tabatha Fireman/Getty Images
Peter Doherty arrives with a black case containing a mysterious creature called Gladys in one hand and an odd-eyed husky called Zeus in the other, a huge sore on his chin and a pork pie hat. Pork pie hat aside, you never quite know what to expect from Doherty.
Last time I interviewed him, it was in a hotel room with blood on the walls , a crack pipe on his bedside table and a motorbike in the corner that he kept revving until he fell asleep on it. That was in 2005, when Doherty was 25 years old and living the rock’n’roll dream – or nightmare.
He had been kicked out of the Libertines, a band hailed as the great literary punk rockers of their day, and was surrounded by creepy acolytes, hard men and beautiful young things (he was going out with Kate Moss). His very public addiction had attracted the attention of Newsnight, and attempted interventions from June Brown (who played EastEnders’ Dot Cotton).
With his new band Babyshambles, he wrote a song that summed up everything he did and didn’t believe in: Fuck Forever was perfectly ambiguous, celebrating his obsessions with sex and the transient.
Back then, nobody thought Doherty was in it for the long haul. Yet, astonishingly, he is still writing and performing, making records and addicted to drugs. And – having just turned 40 – still alive.
Unsurprisingly, many of his circle are not. In the intervening years, Doherty may well have become more famous for being linked to controversial deaths than for his music.
Mark Blanco fell from the balcony of a flat in 2006 after rowing with people inside, at a party attended by Doherty. The coroner recorded an open verdict, ruled out suicide and ordered the Metropolitan police to reopen its investigation (in 2011, the Crown Prosecution Service said there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone with Blanco’s death). Robyn Whitehead, who was making a film about Doherty, died after taking heroin with his friend Peter Wolfe in 2010; in May 2011, Doherty was jailed for six months after being filmed smoking crack with Whitehead days before she died. In 2015, an inquest concluded that Doherty’s friend Alan Wass died after being unlawfully injected with heroin by an acquaintance.
Tattoos, scars, needle marks
It is a gorgeous day. We sit outside the Walpole Bay hotel in Margate where Doherty orders a rum cocktail and sausage sandwich and unveils Gladys, which turns out to be an ancient typewriter. He types a few words, saying that he’s taking notes because he’s been duped by journalists before. The ribbon is so dry that very little prints. He is wearing a stylish checked suit that looks slept in, a salmon shirt and braces. His arms are mapped with tattoos, scars, needle marks and cigarette burns. He talks in a slightly fey, slurred manner: perhaps a consequence of the stimulants, perhaps part of the too-cool-for-school package.
I don’t want to be shared or passed around like a f**king tin can used as an ashtray at a party
For all that he infuriates, Doherty has something about him. He is charming. His insults are funny and perceptive. There is a generosity there, even though he spends the afternoon trying to flog me everything he owns. And despite his grubbiness and grey hair, he still has a fragile, boyish beauty.
Doherty’s latest album, made with his part-time band, the Puta Madres, is a likable mix of Gypsy folk-punk. In one song, Lamentable Ballad of Gascony Avenue, he sings: “I’d like a full English Brexit”. Given his obsession with William Blake, Albion and all things British, does he mean that? He looks appalled, and cites his “multinational” band. “We’d be rogered sideways if Brexit kicks in fully. We wouldn’t stand a chance. I wanna go the other way. I want to bring down borders.”
Doherty regards himself as an international socialist. He says he still objects to private property, despite the fact that the Libertines now own a hotel in Margate, the Albion Rooms, which has a recording studio and bar attached.
“Carl [Barât] found this gaff and said they were not going to pay me for a certain amount of gigs and then I was going to have a sixth share,” says Doherty who has been house-sitting there. He recently moved out as the Albion Rooms prepares for paying customers, but says of the venture: “It’s been the saving of me. It was a dream having a place where I didn’t have to worry about rent for the first time. Just having a roof over my head, not having a gun to my head with the threat of eviction or: ‘You have to shag me or you’re out on your ear.’”
Did that happen a lot? “There have been certain individuals whose dark, lustful lifestyles …” He trails off. “I don’t want to be shared or passed around like a f**king tin can used as an ashtray at a party. I don’t want to be a Primrose Hill dildo.”
What is a Primrose Hill dildo?
“Good-looking lads who make the mistake of falling in love with people who are incapable of falling in love back.”
Was he a Primrose Hill dildo?
“I did a f**king good impression of one for a while.”
Anyway, that is the past. He says he has different things to focus on these days, not least promoting the career of his new girlfriend, Jade, who likes to sing.
His phone rings. “Hello Primrose Hill Dildos, Albion branch,” he answers. It’s Jade. He puts her on speaker.
“Hi, darling. I was just chatting about you and the fella asked if you were musical. Listen, we’re going to come and do a few songs.”
“D’you not want me to tidy up first?” Jade says.
“No, not for this scruffy git.” He pauses. “Put some clothes on the mannequin in the go-cart. Give her a skirt. We want to preserve her dignity.”
It’s classic Doherty. He doesn’t mind me seeing the pipes and syringes, but heaven forbid I should see a naked mannequin.
Last summer, Doherty was in the news again for polishing off a Margate cafe’s famed mega-breakfast, a fry-up that costs £17.50 and contains an estimated 4,000 calories. If you manage to finish it, you get it for free. Did he do it for publicity? “No, I was starving. I was skint, so I had a go at it. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t finished it. It’s the one thing that’s made me accepted in the community here.”
He seems to have lost weight since. I ask his waist size. “Thirty-two. And you?” I tell him I’m 32-34. “Get out of it.”
“Cheeky twat,” I say. A fist flies past my face. “Don’t call me a twat!” he says, then kisses me on the forehead where he almost landed the punch. “You didn’t even flinch!” he says approvingly. “Fat c**t.”
Doherty says that it’s time to meet Jade. “I promised her fame and fortune, and I want you to tell me if you think she’s got a good voice.”
We continue on our Margate odyssey, past the Albion Rooms and the sea where he says he swims every day, towards Doherty’s flat. He talks animatedly about death. One new song, Travelling Tinker, is dedicated to Alan Wass. “He was a helluva of a fella. He always wanted us to start a band together and it was going to be called the Travelling Tinkers.”
He talks and talks, in increasingly defensive terms. “All the years I sat injecting in front of him, and he’d say: ‘Let me do it, Pete.’ Not once. Not ever. Never put a needle near him.”
There has been so much death in your life, I say. He nods, and continues as if giving evidence under caution. “I wasn’t even in the f**king country when Alan died. I saw Robyn [Whitehead] the night before, and she died in Wolfman’s bed. Mark Blanco ... well, f**k knows what happened to him.”
People tried to say I bribed the police. Can you believe that? It was absolutely scandalous
He certainly can’t say he wasn’t there when Blanco died. CCTV footage showed him, his then-girlfriend, Kate Russell-Pavier, and his minder, Jonathan Jeannevol, AKA Johnny Headlock, running down the road, away from the flat, while Blanco’s body lay on the pavement.
Three weeks after the incident, Jeannevol voluntarily confessed to murdering Blanco. Hours later, he retracted his statement, citing stress. In 2014, Jeannevol encountered Blanco’s mother at Stratford magistrate’s court – where he was appearing on an unrelated matter – and told her: “I didn’t kill your son.”
Doherty is working himself up about newspaper coverage of these deaths. “How dare they? You can’t go round accusing people of murder.”
Did they accuse him?
“Well, yeah. The Limehouse police have reopened that murder inquiry three or four times purely because of the pressure from the family. People tried to say I bribed the police. Can you believe that? It was absolutely scandalous, man; f**king outrageous to say things like that. The first time I sat down in the interview room, the policeman said to me: ‘Are you sure you want to have this as your statement because it’s so out of sync with other version of events?’”
In what way?
“I said there were people there who had been dead and buried for years.”
Zeus craps on the pavement and Doherty kicks it into the undergrowth. It heralds a change in mood. He says he is getting on much better with his parents these days. For many years, Doherty’s father, a military major, refused to talk to him because he disapproved of his lifestyle.
“He’s an incredible man. He’s gone from not talking to me because of drugs to going online and looking up drug slang. He said to me: ‘Have you got your Christmas stash or are you bugging out?’ I was like: what the f**k?!”
Was his father joking? “No it was a way of putting his hand out to me, reconciliation.”
Four years ago, Doherty went into rehab in Thailand, and came out announcing he had beaten his heroin and crack addictions. How long was he clean for? “Honestly? For about 10 minutes after I got back to Margate.” Because you didn’t want to stay clean? “No, because my brain thinks I enjoy it.”
And what does your heart tell you? “My heart wants to know what the f**k is going on. Why am I wasting my time and money and friendship and love and energy and creativity on some grotty dessert?”
Would you like to be clean? “Yes, a part of me would. Just so I can feel things. There are so many people in my life who deserve better. It really is a mental deficiency.”
Would you be more productive if you were drug-free? “I’d be a force to be reckoned with! I’d have money and self-respect and clean hands.” His fingers are filthy.
I notice the name of his son Astile tattooed on his neck. Astile, whose mother is singer Lisa Moorish, is now 16. Doherty also has a seven-year-old daughter with the South African model Lindi Hingston. I ask him how close he is to his children. “I don’t want to talk about that,” he says. Earlier on, he had said how proud he was of Barât. I asked why. “Because he’s dedicated himself to his family. His two boys are his life.”
At home, we are greeted by Jade – and Narco, an alaskan malamud. Jade is in her mid-20s, warm and friendly. She hands me a bottle of beer, Doherty gets his guitar and they sing Love’s Signed DC. “My soul belongs to the dealer/ He keeps my mind as well/ I play the part of the leecher/ No one cares for me.”
He tells me that Jade didn’t have a clue who he was when they met. “She doesn’t even know who the Smiths are!” Does he like that she hadn’t heard of him? “It’s essential these days, so people can judge you on who you really are. They don’t have their mind made up.”
On the walls of the flat are scrawled messages, quotes, blood paintings, vintage posters and hand-drawn profiles of people’s faces. Sure enough, the mannequin is now respectably dressed. I admire a vintage poster of an Olivetti typewriter. “D’you want to buy it?” Doherty asks.
He draws the curtains and tells me to stand against the wall. “Don’t move!” he orders. I shut my eyes and prepare for the worst. He gets out a yellow marker and draws around my head. “See!” a delighted Doherty says. He announces that I am the latest exhibit in his portrait gallery.
In my own sweet way I’m quite a superficial person
I ask him why Narco is so-called. He looks sheepish. “When she was a puppy it was my dream for her to fetch my pipe for me.” His crack pipe? “Yes.” And did she? “Well, let’s just say we’re halfway there. She does go and find it. She just doesn’t bring it to me.”
While Doherty disappears briefly, I ask Jade what the best thing is about him. “His soul, his inner self.” And the worst? “Probably his disbelief in himself. I think if he could love himself as much as I do ...”
Doherty’s manager, Jai Stanley, arrives. Stanley was at school with Doherty near Coventry. He is down to earth, practical and doesn’t touch drugs. They are about to set off on a tour of Europe. What was Doherty like as a schoolboy? “Utterly brilliant. He got top grades in everything. He was very similar to today apart from the obvious one that we all wish was different.” Drugs? “Yes.”
Doherty has been packing his bags. He returns, and asks whether I want to buy the tunic hanging on the wall.
Are you desperate for money? “In my own sweet way I’m quite a superficial person,” he says. “I feel a lot better when I’ve got a bit of cash on me.”
Doherty kisses Jade goodbye, and tells me he’ll give me a lift back to the hotel where his publicist has been waiting. He, Zeus and I squeeze into the front of the van.
I ask him whether he’s surprised to still be here. Well, he says, we were supposed to be back at the hotel a while ago. No, I say, are you surprised to still be here?
“Surprised isn’t the right word. I do feel a little blessed.” Were there times you thought you wouldn’t be, or didn’t want to be here? “There have been desperate times when I’ve thought, just give me peace, but very, very rarely.’’
I say: many people would assume that someone who has led such a self-destructive life has a death wish. He looks staggered. “I’ve never wanted to top myself. I’m blindingly optimistic. Ravingly optimistic.”
Genuinely? He looks at me with utter sincerity. “I gee people up around me. They always think I’m ill or dying because I’m out with the pipe. But I love it. I love life. I squeeze everything I can out of the day. I mourn every passing f**king dawn. I love that time when the light cracks over Margate, man, and I’m down on the beach with my dogs or my girl or my guitar. Glorious. Glorious. GLORIOUS!”
He smiles blissfully, and he really does look in love with life. – Guardian
Peter Doherty and the Puta Madres’ self-titled album is out now. They play The Academy, Dublin, on Saturday, May 4th