Pete Doherty, Middle-class Anti-hero, Plays Tel Aviv

The English rocker's multi-faceted musical career has been peppered with scandal.

Moshe Kutner
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British musician Pete Doherty performs on stage at Club Backstage during a concert in Munich on November 29, 2009.
British musician Pete Doherty performs on stage at Club Backstage during a concert in Munich on November 29, 2009.Credit: AFP
Moshe Kutner

Singer and guitarist Pete Doherty, who will appear this evening at the Barby club in Tel Aviv, has caused controversy in almost everything he has done, from his drug addiction to his art to his music with his two bands, The Libertines and Babyshambles. That's exactly what made him interesting. Doherty, 35, founded The Libertines in 1997 together with Carl Barat. Their relationship was complex and paved with dramas, one of which involved police intervention when Doherty broke into Barat’s home.

“Up the Bracket,” their band’s first disc, was released in 2002 by his record company, Rough Trade, and produced by Mick Jones of The Clash. This album marked the beginning of a back-to-rock wave in Britain after several years of electronic music. The Libertines were the British version of their more famous counterparts in the United States such as The Strokes, who returned to basic rock 'n' roll and were influenced by the garage genre. The Libertines’ music was influenced by the melodic punk rock of Buzzcocks, the nihilism of the Sex Pistols, the classic rock of the Kinks and the indie of The Smiths.

Doherty, who was seen as a gutter poet, wrote lyrics that were sung in a cockney accent and drew from the texts of William Blake, Emily Dickinson and Oscar Wilde. Other influences included Beat authors such as William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac.

“If Oasis is the sound of a council estate singing its heart out, then the Libertines sounded like someone just putting something in the rubbish chute at the back of the estate, trying to work out what day it is,” Doherty said, describing the band’s beginnings. The band’s first interview, published in 2002 in NME magazine in which they were crowned the best new band, took place after its members participated in May Day rallies.

Barat recounted that he had thrown a bottle at a police officer and been struck by an object in response. In one interview, the members of The Libertines recalled their attempt to work as escorts for men, which they started doing because − they said − they thought it involved accompanying women to the theater and to restaurants. In the same interview, they also explained the meaning of their search for a world free of rules and restrictions, “where cigarettes grow on trees and all benches are made of denim.”

In terms of creating a new wave of rock, The Libertines’ influence on the rest of the world is not considered very great as compared with that of American groups such as The White Stripes or The Strokes. But The Libertines are considered very important in Britain, where the band is regarded as having been a modern link to the British rock-punk-indie tradition, and brought Britain back to a good place when all that was left of Brit-pop was Oasis.

The Libertines brought the tradition up to date with anthem-style hits such as “Time for Heroes” from their debut album, which was chosen as one of the best songs of the first decade of the 2000s.

Doherty is also considered in Britain the one who gave rockers the status of ordinary people, thanks in part to his combination of romance and unpretentious realism. This realism found expression in the way The Libertines, who loathed separation between the band and the audience and the behavior of superstars, worked for closeness and friendship with their audience. As a result, The Libertines paved the way for the ascent of Britain’s largest indie band of the past decade, the Arctic Monkeys.

Drugs were part of the spirit of The Libertines from the start. One meaning of the name of their first album, “Up the Bracket,” is cocaine-sniffing. The cover of their second, eponymous album, shows Doherty as trying to find a vein in his arm. Later on, narcotics played a major role in his public persona following his relationship with the model Kate Moss, which turned both of them into stars of the British tabloids.

After The Libertines broke up, Doherty and Moss got engaged and planned to marry in the summer of 2007, but that did not happen. Moss was nicknamed “Cocaine Kate” and Doherty was portrayed as a bad influence on her.

The scandals Doherty was involved in cast a pall over his musical side. He was seen as a product of tabloid culture and described as a walking scandal report and a simulacrum of an indie hero stuck in the past. He was shown in photographs being dragged between two police officers as paparazzi flashbulbs blinded him. At that time, he was a main hero of the media circle and admitted in The Guardian: “For a little while maybe I did fall for my own mythology.”

On the other hand, some saw him as a musician who had broken the dullness and engineering of pop music of the time. At a time when reality television stars performed lackluster covers and feared to take risks, Doherty was a symbol of something real, without any filters.

Still, the mythology surrounding him would not have reached the dimensions it did were he not that way in truth. In those days, plenty of celebrities (of the “remind me why you are famous” variety) could be photographed being dragged, barely conscious, out of clubs. Most were forgotten. One of them was Amy Winehouse. After her death, Doherty admitted that they had had an affair. But the unfulfilled story between them was mainly musical. Nobody has ever heard the ska project they were working on.

After The Libertines broke up, Doherty moved on to Babyshambles, with which he released three albums. He also released a solo album during that time. Between going into rehab, drug-related arrests and serving time in prison, he recorded new music and, like in his days with The Libertines, kept performing in guerrilla shows, small clubs and private homes with little advance notice. Sometimes drunk, sometimes kicking, sometimes with a crowd of starry-eyed fans and sometimes for drinks and coins.

He gives honest interviews about all of it, without taking tact into consideration. For example, a preliminary interview on Ynet, which was published recently and reported in the British press, was the first time the members of The Libertines heard about the reunion in London’s Hyde Park planned for the summer.

In recent years, Doherty has been living in Paris with his partner, doing creative work in other fields. He became a close friend of Carla Bruni, modeled for Roberto Cavalli, published his diaries, exhibited paintings made with his own blood and acted in a film beside Charlotte Gainsbourg. In his life and in his music, he still combines the attributes of a junky punk-rocker and a star who insists on being an anti-hero.

Pete Doherty with the Libertines.Credit: Brian Rasic/REX
Pete Doherty and Kate Moss.Credit: South West News Service / REX

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