Peter Doherty: Confessions of a Libertine

He was thrown out of his band, jailed for burgling his former bandmate, then welcomed back. And now he has a single out with his other group

Has anybody in the music industry had a more turbulent year than Peter Doherty? First, he was thrown out of his own band; then, he burgled a bandmate's flat, served a month in prison, had a son and became homeless. All this while touring the UK, Europe, America and Japan. Meanwhile, his band, The Libertines, were voted the best band in Britain by the NME. Other than his fellow Libertines - Carl Barât, John Hassall and Gary Powell, who have been riding the waves with him - few people can claim to have had that many ups and downs in so short a time. The Libertines are certainly one of the most rock'n'roll bands in Britain, but how must it feel to be the centre of all that attention?

It is no surprise that Doherty, who shares the job of singer and songwriter with Barât, does not look quite the same today as he did before the music industry got hold of him. The polite and happy boy who spoke like a poem is now someone else. But nothing has robbed him of the wildness and honesty in his eyes.

"Not everything has gone exactly like I hoped it would," he says of his encounter with the industry. "I didn't think that the profundity and betrayal would be so pure and so sweet," he explains, after a gig at Glasgow's Barrowlands. So is he unhappy to have been so successful? He seems unsure. "How do you define success?" he asks. "From the outside it might look like success is to get big record-sales and be voted best band in Britain. But from the inside, that is not what makes me feel successful at all. So have we been successful...?" he asks himself. But before he has found an answer, he breaks into a rendition of the new Libertines song "Can't Stand Me Now".

Played live for the first time this week at The Libertines' Birmingham Academy gig, the song could easily be a description of Doherty's relationship with Barât, the man he likes to call his "other half". The lyrics seem an open declaration of their tumultuous friendship: "I still love you... You can't stand me now, you can't stand me now! But have we enough to keep it together, or do we just go on pretending?" they sang while looking angrily at each other in front of the crowd.

Then, a few seconds later, in their usual fashion, any bad vibrations between them disappeared as the pair seemed to kiss each other and the mic lovingly in mid-verse. One can only hope that, at the peak of their success, Doherty and his fellow Libertines are making the most of it. For, as he sang on The Libertines' first album in 2002: "If you have lost your lust for love and music, the end is surely near."

Seen from the outside, the band could not ask for much more. Record sales are still good, even though the band's only album was released more than 18 months ago. The last few Libertines concerts have sold out in a matter of hours. To make the most of that success, at the end of last year Alan McGee - the former Creation boss and the man responsible for The Hives, Primal Scream and Oasis - took over as The Libertines' manager. Next week, the band are scheduled to begin recording a new album. And if that weren't enough, Doherty is releasing a single with the side-project he created when he was thrown out of The Libertines, Babyshambles.

The single is recorded with a friend of Doherty's, Pete Wolf, who goes by the name of Wolfman. True to Doherty's magnanimous attitude, he had the Babyshambles sessions on the net long before the single release, just to save fans the money and the wait. The songs, written by Doherty alone, have a lonely air: "Have courage, my boy/ When you look them in the eye/ And try not to look too scummy/ Coz you need their money, now you need their money," goes "Back from the Dead". "This ain't no happy place to be/ There's nothing nice about me/ There's nothing nice around me."

In fact, he says it is loneliness - the perfect antidote to his busy and sociable life - that makes him play music. "The well of loneliness is what makes me play," he says. "That's not to say that I feel lonely, but you can only truly understand loneliness if you have experienced the opposite."

Doherty seems far from the stereotype of a lonely man: just watch the relationship he has with his fans. The scores of them who wait for The Libertines before each venue the band play are received as if they are old friends. And, much to the annoyance of security guards and venue managers alike, the band have made a habit of inviting their fans to join them on stage at the end of their set. This stunt is quite a hit with audiences, who never fail to invade the stage when invited.

The Libertines have seven fan websites, where Doherty often can be found musing on his existence. There is also his Babyshambles site, where he uploads his diary every day for anyone interested to follow. Through these sites he invites fans to exclusive gigs in his living room.

The genuine attention Doherty shows his fans makes the whole Libertines experience seem like one big family having a never-ending party. When Doherty expressed the need to get out of London to rest after coming out of prison, for instance, fans posted a huge list of invites for him to stay at their homes. Doherty duly went on a spree around the country. But first, only hours after his release, he played a "Freedom Gig" with the other Libertines in Chatham, which was arranged by a fan. NME described the Freedom Gig as the number one live moment of 2003.

But what does spending a month behind bars do to a music star, and particularly one who makes so much out of being a free, libertine, spirit? He's not reticent in saying that his experience at Her Majesty's pleasure was "not exactly a knees-up", but otherwise he won't talk about his lost month. "Call it punk, or the year's best publicity stunt," wrote Rolling Stone of the Libertines burglary affair.

If the time spent in the music industry has taken its toll on Doherty, there is an air about him that has never gone away. That "Libertine air" is based on a life-affirming Arcadian philosophy, of which he vows never to lose track. "I've believed in it since I was 15. When I first met Carl and told him of Arcadia, he believed me." Before The Libertines signed their deal with Rough Trade, Doherty could be found late at night in north London attempting to convert young girls and mod boys to the Arcadian dream and the story of a ship called The Albion, which sails to a mythic English paradise. "The purpose of life is to be happy and reach Arcadia," he would exclaim, and raise another toast to The Albion.

Doherty's collection of diaries, which he carries wherever he goes, is called "The Books of Albion". The Libertines' fan club is also called The Albion, and members get a quarterly magazine entitled The Albion Chronicle. For outsiders, the "Arcadian dream" could seem a cover name for some new and dangerous cult, but Doherty sees is simply as a guideline to happiness. To the other members of the band, the philosophy adds meaning to their performances. "The happiest experience we have ever had," Doherty says, "is being together as the boys in the band, reaching the listeners' hearts and waking up Cupid too."

Every week there's another element added to the Libertines saga. Last week's tale, for instance, involves a girl from the north of England packing her bags and leaving her boyfriend in order to move into the Albion Rooms, Doherty's east-London flat. At any time, Doherty is prone to disappear, much to the wonder of fellow band-members and their manager. Last Sunday, for instance, he went missing from his hotel room after the gig in Birmingham, only to reappear with his guitar in a battered case. He had taken a cab from Birmingham to London in order to fetch the instrument. No doubt, this week's tour will bring many more additions to the Libertines story. As one of the many fans on the band's homepage remarked recently on the subject of Doherty's love life: "You just can't buy entertainment like this!"

Doherty suddenly remembers how he would like to define success. "I sometimes get a feeling when I play with The Libertines that we are playing beautiful songs that feel just perfect, and then I feel like I have got it. Success," he says, "is when, despite all the hurdles, we can make something beautiful together."

The Libertines play Brixton Academy tonight, Saturday & Sunday

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