In the late 1990s, two idealistic, talented and disaffected young dreamers decided to form a band. Peter Doherty and Carl Barât would sing songs of freedom, England, girlfriends, the Caledonian Road and everyday life. The Libertines had something of the kitchen sink about them, something of Blake, something of the Clash, something of the Smiths, something of Dickens, something of the fin de siècle dandy, something of the Pogues. They rejected trainers and baseball caps and embraced brogues and fedoras. For thousands of NME-reading, literate rock'n'rollers, it was an intoxicating combination. Thornton's portrait of these artists as young men, a nicely-produced book packed with pictures by Roger Sargent, is intended to defend Peter Doherty against the commonplace and unreflective accusation that he is merely a druggie fame-seeker who happened to go out with Kate Moss. Thornton's intention is to give a good, respectful account of the artistic project of Barât and Doherty, and in this the book is a success.
At heart, the Libertines project was a romantic one. Doherty and Barât concocted an appealing mythology with echoes of William Blake: they were sailing to Arcadia on a ship called Albion. Through their music and their poetry they would free themselves of the bourgeois everyday. But really they were less like Blake, who after all was not a drug-user but a steady worker, than another great but short-lived creative partnership, Coleridge and Wordsworth.
Doherty has something of the young Coleridge, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, a moon-gazer, while Barât is more your Wordsworth type: slightly sterner, more firmly rooted to the earth, less wild and unpredictable, but brilliant nevertheless. Like Coleridge and his mates, the Libertines boys lived in communal situations, in housesits and squats, in poverty. On long rambles they developed their ideas for music. Both pairs took drugs together, behaved in silly fashion and talked about art and revolution. The publication in 1798 of Lyrical Ballads, a poetic joint project, revealed Wordsworth and Coleridge's new democratic conception of poetry of "man speaking to man". In similar fashion, the Libs also attempted to redefine the relationship between band and fan. In between conventional gigs, they would announce tiny gigs at their flat, where 30 fans would cram in and then sit up drinking with the boys. A few days after they had played to 2,000 people at the Brixton Academy, I saw them play a gig for about 100 fans at the Duke of Clarence pub in Islington. It blew me away. The sound was pretty awful and you could barely see the band, but the energy and life was thrilling, like seeing the Beatles at the Cavern. Afterwards I met Doherty and found him full of twisted charm and surreal courtesy. He offered me a puff on his crack pipe, and asked if I would give him a column in my magazine, The Idler.
The poet-rocker Doherty used the internet as a sort of confessional, posting his peculiar 5am thoughts on Libertines websites, which would be read by fans seconds later. He would also make jam sessions and demos available free to fans over the net in a way that was truly revolutionary. Doherty had been keeping notebooks from his late teens, which he rather grandly called The Books of Albion. These contained scrawled song lyrics, chord patterns, sketches, wine stains, notes from girlfriends. Up it all went on to the internet, and as a result his growing number of fans felt they had a close relationship with him, far closer than anything previously imaginable between star and fan.
In a world where Health and Safety threaten to tear all the fun out of life, Doherty has a glorious and public disregard for both. He appears to be destroying himself with drugs, the dreamy pastoral heroin and the jumpy urban crack, and also appears to have no conception of conventional morality, staggering from rehab to police station, from Whitechapel crackhouse to Newsnight interview, from stolen car to another girl's bed, from Thai monastery to Bangkok brothel. He's been arrested countless times, he's been jailed, he's had implants to prevent him taking drugs, he's been on probation. All attempts to reform him, whether made by family, fans, friends or State, have been completely ineffectual, and at the end of it all you have to see that there is something heroic about his carelessness and disregard for the structures that most of us work within. What are we going to do about young Peter? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
His influence was and is huge. But this closeness and intensity had its downside. It was painful being a Libertines fan. Peter kept letting you down. You would read about a secret gig on libertines.org, and dutifully make your way to, say, the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel, where a "Libertine with a hat" would escort you to a show. Well, the Libertine in a hat never turned up and you would eventually trail home, forsaken. On other occasions you might wait in the Duke of Clarence for a Doherty acoustic set but only get Wolfman, one of Pete's strange druggie mates. Then next time he would turn up and play a wonderful gig, and you would forgive him everything.
In the end, like Coleridge and Wordsworth, Doherty and Barât had a very public falling out. Wordsworth/ Barât essentially abandoned Coleridge/Doherty because of his opium habit. The Libertines threw him out of the band. He'd be allowed back in if he quit drugs. Of course, there is a less flattering comparison to be made with that other "fire-and-ice" creative partnership, Nigel Tufnell and David St Hubbins in This is Spinal Tap, with Nigel as Doherty and David as Barât. The Spinal Tap men also had a self-important and pompous falling out. Certainly the Libs lived a fair few of the rock'n'roll clichés as well as reinventing the form.
Doherty was, he said at the time, with his beguiling and manipulative form of confessional self-pity, heartbroken. Coleridge, too, wallowed in pain. Without the more level-headed Wordsworth to anchor him, Coleridge went off into dangerous netherworlds and never managed to quit his opium addiction. And without Barât to anchor him, Doherty sank into his self-created netherworld of sinister grotesques, a sort of Prince Hal surrounded by various Fagins, guttersnipes and outcasts.
But instead of quitting drugs and rejoining the Libertines, Doherty decided to stay on drugs and move his side-project, Babyshambles, to centre-stage. Babyshambles at times came very close to recreating the magic of the Libertines, and before long they were filling Brixton Academy. Less spikey than the Libs, more sludgy, they nevertheless had some excellent songs and Peter was magnetic on stage.
The Libertines did, without a doubt, as Thornton claims, change the direction of English pop music, paving the way for bands with a similar musical approach, but with a more conventional attitude to a career in the biz; bands like Arctic Monkeys and Kaiser Chiefs. So despite all the problems, the Libertines can congratulate themselves on a job well done. As for what now, who knows? The hope is that Doherty will find a creative path that doesn't involve drugs (the phrase is "grow up"); and dare we hope for a Libertines reunion one day?
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler' and the author of 'How to be Idle' (Penguin)Reuse content