Pete Doherty: The boy who fell to Earth

Last year, he led The Libertines, Britain's most fêted band. But his addictions to crack and heroin have derailed his glittering career. Pete Doherty tells Charlotte Cripps about life after the high
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Pete Doherty is sucking on a lollipop and catching the summer rays outside a museum in Bristol, a picture of innocence. It's hard to believe that the 25-year-old singer-songwriter and sometime front man of The Libertines is at the centre of a media storm that has kept everyone guessing as to his whereabouts for the past week. As he famously failed to perform at two sold-out performances, inciting near-hysteria among his fans, the fact that he has managed to keep this appointment at all comes as something of a surprise. What's more, he's arrived with two full minutes to spare.

Pete Doherty is sucking on a lollipop and catching the summer rays outside a museum in Bristol, a picture of innocence. It's hard to believe that the 25-year-old singer-songwriter and sometime front man of The Libertines is at the centre of a media storm that has kept everyone guessing as to his whereabouts for the past week. As he famously failed to perform at two sold-out performances, inciting near-hysteria among his fans, the fact that he has managed to keep this appointment at all comes as something of a surprise. What's more, he's arrived with two full minutes to spare.

As the baby-faced singer settles down opposite me at a nearby picnic table, it's easy to understand why his no-show at the Barfly in Camden, London, on Monday night elicited such panic among his fans. Far from resembling the wraith-like heroin addict he has been painted as in the press, he looks pathetically vulnerable. One imagines that it was this vulnerability that led his fans (typically, girls of about 15 who want to sleep with him, and boys who want to be him but don't want to go to rehab) to bombard the offices of the music magazine NME with urgent phone calls, desperately seeking conformation that their idol was OK. And it's also this vulnerability, presumably, that made them so forgiving when, on Tuesday, he failed to show up for the second night running at the Scala, in King's Cross, London.

I ask him whether he is flattered to discover that NME staff have unwittingly become stand-in counsellors for thousands of distraught fans. "Well, I need counselling, too," Doherty says, before going on to impress on me how he wants to set the record straight about what really happened last week, and to prove that he is not "A waster (pt 2)", as The Independent reported on Wednesday.

He says that his no-show, far from being anything to do with drugs, was all to do with a bullying bouncer at the Barfly who was being aggressive to young fans. And that, anyway, he had arrived straight from playing another show - for 80 fans - at his own flat in Islington.

There's more than a grain of truth in his tale. It's widely known that Doherty is more accommodating to his fans than most of us would be to our own family. "I let them write on the walls, put on records, flick through books, make cups of tea," Doherty says. "And a few fans were only 14 years old. In some cases I had to phone their mums to let them know. Some of the kids were embarrassed when I first phoned. Some mums came round and sat with them while I played." After his fight with the Barfly bouncer, Doherty went home to put on another show for fans into the early hours of the following morning. He says he plans to make amends to his other fans by performing a replacement show.

Despite a terrible rasping cough, Doherty seems calm and articulate. He is in Bristol because he did finally manage to play a solo acoustic show last night, and he's clearly pleased with the way it went. "I made it to the venue, played outside for a bit. Played everything, really, songs done with The Libertines, stuff we've never done before. We played on the balcony, then a little encore. I think this is what I've been building towards all my life. To be at ease. It has taken a while not to be under the control of anybody else. And, in the event of something going wrong, I'm not responsible for messing up anybody else's life either. Nobody is relying on me. It's just myself."

While in Bristol, Doherty is staying at a £50-a-night B&B with his small entourage - the musician Andrew Aveling of The White Sport (who wears a straw hat) and the Scottish singer Dot Allison. It's a far cry from the treatment he is used to. The rest of The Libertines are currently in Japan in a swanky hotel, having performed at the Fuji rock festival. They are preparing to return and play at the Reading and Leeds festivals without him.

"The fact that I'm obviously well enough to be playing, in fine fettle and fine singing voice, yet I am not playing with The Libertines, is a sore point," Doherty says of the decision by his co-writer in the Libertines, Carl Barat, who announced in July that Doherty would no longer be playing with the band while he was addicted to drugs. "I think it would be irresponsible to play with Peter when he's in this state..." Barât wrote in the press release.

It's not the first time Doherty has been summarily exiled from their company. Last summer, Doherty's behaviour proved so off the wall that the rest of the band decided to tour Europe without him. Rough Trade decided to send Doherty off to his first dose of rehab, at Farm Place, near Dorking, Surrey, but he didn't even make it as far as a group session. The following month, he was arrested for burgling Barât's flat in Harley Street and sentenced to six months in prison. Yet, amid all the chaos, The Libertines' single "Don't Look Back into the Sun" reached No 11 in the charts.

Tensions still simmered after Doherty's release from prison two months later. Alan McGee, now The Libertines' manager (and the man who discovered Oasis), tried to persuade Doherty to go back into rehab. But a trip to South Wales with McGee, intended to heal the rift between the two songwriters, made the relationship even more fractious - McGee subsequently hired bodyguards for the two of them.

An end to the band's problems seemed possible in April when The Clash's Mick Jones helped in the making of The Libertines' difficult second album. But Doherty's addiction continued to disrupt progress. During a short stay at the Priory clinic, in London, Doherty spent most of his time informing his fans online about the vast quantities of medication being shoved at him. And, last month, he bailed out of the famous rehab centre run by monks at Thamkrabok monastery, Thailand, a place often seen as a last resort. He has also recently been arrested and charged with possessing a concealed weapon (he pleaded not guilty).

"I wouldn't want what has happened in the past couple of weeks to get in the way of the fact that the first and second Libertines albums are glorious," says Doherty, who is now drinking a peach-flavoured iced tea. "Carl can take my amps, my guitars, my songs, but he can't do anything about what we did with Mick Jones - that is for ever. I must emulate what I did with The Libertines. Patrick Walden [the guitarist in Doherty's own band, Babyshambles, and his new songwriting partner] has that certain hunger, a lack of self-belief combined with an unbelievable talent, that Carl had."

He is busying himself with Babyshambles, who are also signed by Rough Trade and share the familiar punk-with-a-romantic-twist sensibilities of his former bandmates. Ever faithful to his army of fans, Doherty keeps them informed of his daily activities via the Babyshambles website that he runs from his laptop. He updates his online diary every day and posts details of secret gigs, often held in dingy pubs or in his flat. Their only release to date has been a single, released in April, which included a track that will appear on the forthcoming, self-titled Libertines album. This album is released on 30 August, and has already been described by NME as "a masterpiece of life-changing rock'n'roll".

This is just the latest instalment in the pantomime of Pete Doherty and The Libertines, the fans and the media. Certainly, Doherty's life has become something of a crazy fiction, helped by the way The Libertines made up stories about themselves for journalists. (Barât apparently once said that he was born in a sink, and was related to Basil Rathbone, who played Sherlock Holmes on film.)

Doherty's childhood was quite ordinary, despite a peripatetic childhood. He grew up all over the place: "Every five minutes we moved." His mum, Jacqueline, hails from Anfield, Liverpool, and his Irish dad, also called Peter, grew up in Shepherd's Bush, west London. Working for the Army, his father moved around a lot, and the family followed. "Whenever he was posted somewhere, we would live on the army camp," he says. "I've lived in Liverpool, London, Belfast, Germany, Coventry, Dorset and Cyprus."

"Liverpool and London are two places I looked upon as home," he says. "But, in my heart, I always wanted to identify myself with a place that my mum and dad couldn't get out of quick enough when they were younger - the inner city. Whereas my dad came from a Paddington council estate - and didn't ever want to go back there - that is where I dreamt of being. I was romanticising what they were trying to escape from."

Doherty describes his childhood as strict and lonely. "I had no choice really but to disappear into myself, just veering between old, flickery episodes of Rising Damp, Tony Hancock radio shows, Emily Dickinson, flowers and QPR." Often his dad was out in the Persian Gulf or Bosnia, and the rest of the family would stay at one of his nans' flats in either Liverpool or London.

He left home at 17, and went to live with his nan in Kilburn, north London, where he slept on her sofa, learnt the guitar and got a job in Willesden Green cemetery, "working full time as a grave-filler". "It was my first proper wage," Doherty says. He had just finished his A-levels and was offered a place at the University of London to study English literature, but there was never any pressure on him to do well academically. "My older sister, Amy Jo, and I - we are the first generation of my family to stay on at school and do any exams at all."

Amy Jo now lives in Lewisham and is a primary-school teacher. "She is amazing," Doherty says. "She respects me and understands me and realises a lot of things are exaggerated. She is a shelter for me, very protective." His younger sister, Emily, "is a bit more dubious. She always writes to tell me how ashamed she is of me and how all her friends wind her up and call me a junkie. But then, when she wants tickets to Reading, it's all: 'Yes, Peter. Love you, Peter.'"

Doherty never made it to university because, he says, "I fell in love with a girl called Evelina who wore a plastic crown." They were due to get married in Sweden. "But I never went to the airport," Doherty says. Instead, he started writing and performing poetry, and became friends with Barât, who he'd met in 1996 as part of a Bohemian scene around Filthy McNasty's Whiskey Cafe, near King's Cross.

"I was trying to work out a single reason why my life shouldn't emulate poetry. I know it is supposed to be the other way around, but eventually I turned it on its head, and all that was fantasy in ink became true - the search for Arcadia and the underworld, love and crime and melody," Doherty says. "Carl and I both dropped out of everything and lived in disused factories on the Albion Road [in Stoke Newington]. We were trying to get the band together in various guises - so many line-ups, so many ideas." They eventually settled on the drummer Gary Powell and the bassist John Hassall.

It was while "searching for freedom and truth" that Doherty became enslaved by his drug addiction, an untreated condition that is now threatening to alienate him from all that he dreams of. What is he going to do about it? He seems certain he must stop, but appears to have no clear plan about how to go about it. "It is impossible for things to go on as they have done. I will end up six feet under, particularly with the crack," he says, with brutal honesty. "It just spirals into the darkest, saddest melody. But there is something irresistible about it, something like waiting for the perfect wave that never comes. But it is awful if it destroys anything that is good."

Surely he must want to be a part of The Libertines again, I say. "Anything is possible," he replies. "But I can't see myself in a band with people who don't want me. They say I am mentally ill and incapable. No. I have a drug problem at the moment. I am in no better state than a month ago. But if this is a pantomime, then it is about time the ugly duckling turned into the swan."

Babyshambles tour from 15 September; the forthcoming Babyshambles single, 'Kilimanjaro', will be released on Rough Trade. 'The Libertines' is out on 30 August, also on Rough Trade