This week, a prisoner decided to celebrate his release from prison by staging a Freedom Gig in an obscure venue in small-town Chatham with invited guest stars. The tickets, at £10 each, were sold out in a matter of hours, even though it was impossible to promise that the main act would actually arrive. Why? The person in question is Pete Doherty, formerly a quarter of one of the most celebrated of the current crop of rock bands, The Libertines.
The Freedom Gig, which took place in Chatham's Tap 'n' Tin, was made possible with the help of one of The Libertines' loyal fans (a young, polite boy called Dean), arranged via communication from prison and advertised on The Libertines fan website. According to the website, fans would be making it to Chatham on train, bus and by the carload from all over the UK. For those fans contemplating travelling to the event, the following disclaimer was put on the web: "This gig has been planned a few weeks ago and the confirmation date from Pete was given to us late last week in person by phone and a letter. The gig is set to go ahead but as Wednesday is the day Pete gets out, the venue and myself cannot promise he will be there. If we hear he won't be coming we will post the message immediately here." Oh, and some of the guest stars invited by the former guest of Her Majesty's prisons were the other three members of the band, the bassist John Hassall, the drummer Gary Powell and the singer/guitarist Carl Barât, who had his flat burgled by Doherty this summer, resulting in Doherty spending a month behind bars.
Playing music Hassall describes as "rock'n'roll for the 21st century", the band has spent the past year going through the mill of touring, starting off in what they call the "toilets" and going on to play for audiences of 2,000 and more at London's Astoria and on Reading Festival's main stage. The band recently went gold in the UK, selling 100,000 copies of their debut album, Up the Bracket. Produced by the former Clash guitarist, Mick Jones, it not only made the four boys big in Britain, but also on the other side of the world. In Japan, they managed to sell more albums than the band often described (though not entirely accurately) as their American counterparts, The Strokes. The latest single, "Don't Look Back into the Sun", which came out in August during Doherty's trial, became the Libertines' highest-charting single, reaching No 11 in Britain. As the band were without Pete at the time of the chart success, they performed on Top of the Pops with stand-in guitarist Anthony Rossomando, who deputised for Doherty on their North America tour.
The three remaining Libertines were taken by surprise when one of their fans rang with a message from Doherty that he wanted them and their instruments on a stage in Chatham in a matter of days. They decided not to play the gig. "If we regroup we will need to talk first," said Powell ahead of the gig. "This Chatham gig is too soon for us to play together." Before the gig he said, "I am going down there to open up for some communication, though I have no idea where this place is!", Hassall said simply, "I'm looking forward to seeing Pete." But how did this band, winners of NME's award for Best New Band, ever get itself into the current state?
I first met the band three years ago, working as an usher in the same theatre as John Hassall and next door to the one where his friend Carl Barât was employed. A friend of the duos, Pete Doherty, would pop in to watch the odd show. Outside working hours, the three companions could be found strolling the back streets of Soho, always immaculate in suit and ties, looking like the Reservoir Dogs gang on holiday.
I performed poetry at one of the string of small venues the band courted in spring 2000, The Foundry. With Doherty as the hilarious host, I would read alongside the likes of the Worm Lady (don't ask), local poets and musicians and then this band called The Libertines, three suited boys with mod haircuts and a drummer in his fifties, Paul Duffour, wearing a flat cap, dark shades and bearing a great cockney accent. Duffour later vacated his drum stool to Gary Powell, who had previously been a permanently smiling audience member, always in a white vest and trendy trainers - and another flat cap. The songs would be mixed up with a dreamt-up philosophy of Arcadia - a mental state to which the band yearned to sail on a ship called The Albion. Away from The Foundry, the band were plying their trade in small venues that seemed gigantic as audiences failed to turn up, but they were happy, with an infectious lust for life and, most of all, for music.
Somewhere in between that time and today, there was a change. How did Doherty get the idea that he would burgle his best friend and fellow Libertine Barât? Much guesswork has been done, not only by the NME - which has championed the band ever since the first single - and their fans, but also the friends of the band. Johnny Borrell of the Razorlights thinks the dream world of Arcadia could have something to do with the current state of The Libertines. "The Libertines, and Pete with his companion of a big, battered suitcase of poems, were always about relentless positivity and drawing inspiration from the surroundings," he says. "Pete genuinely believes and lives in the world of Arcadia. And that is a wonderful thing, but can also be dangerous."
Though Doherty himself does not seem sure of why he did it, drugs have been the most common explanation. "I think the burglary was a cry for help," says Tabitha, a member of the DJ duo Queens of Noize, who used to be in what she likes to call "an enjoyable mutual torture relationship" with Doherty. "Something had to happen, otherwise something really bad would have happened to him, though a custodial sentence was a bit harsh." She is happy to see him out - but a bit annoyed that she never got to send him a prison parcel she had a hand in preparing ("full of fun things like an eye patch, a stick-on goatee and a book of humorous anecdotes with good ideas for games to play when you are stuck in a room...").
"I wish the band would get together. God bless Pete Libertine," says Gordon Raphael, the producer of The Strokes. "When I first moved to London, the Libertines took me under their wings and helped me get to where I am at now." While the patron saint of new bands everywhere, John Peel, might admit "that whole Libertines craze sort of passed me by", it certainly reached music critics around Europe, who were otherwise not overly excited by British exported bands. "When I was first presented with The Libertines a year ago, I thought they were exported as a new Strokes, only selling because of their good looks," explains Gonzalo Suarez, a music critic for the Spanish national paper La Razon. "Then I heard their first single, 'What a Waster', and was really impressed with the sound. The album was even better, with a punk element that I really like. But most of all, these boys can be taken seriously, they are not just empty heads strumming their guitars. In Spain, we music critics think they are the most consistent band in Britain today."
To newcomers, the whole affair may sound like a mix between This is Spinal Tap and the prison series Porridge; to others The Libertines are a whole different entertainment. "It's like a crazy soap opera. And Pete being in prison was just another episode. They have always been bonkers," says one of the few people who should know, Nick Allen, who as their sound man has witnessed nearly all the stages they have played, travelling with them in a tour bus through Asia, America and Europe. The band's tour manager, Rob Hayden, agrees and does not think the lifestyle of The Libertines was ever hard to control while touring. "The only row I had with Pete was when he brought two girls on to the bus and hid them in his cabin. The boys just need to be handled properly and treated like adults," he says.
But the question isn't really why did Doherty do what he did. Instead it is this: will the band get together again, and get back to normal? For my part, having known the band since the beginning, it is safe to say that there never was any "normal" Libertines existence. There have always been mad plans, adventures and quite a few arguments along the way. The inherent nature of the The Libertines makes their future impossible to predict .
The state of flux that surrounds the band today is not very new at all, perhaps just an extreme version of how things used to be. Take Barât trying to visit Doherty in prison for instance: he travels from London all the way to a prison on the Isle of Sheppey, just to be told that Doherty has moved to a prison in London. All very Libertines. "Tomorrow, I will go and meet Pete by the prison gates and remind him why he never should have got there in the first place," said Barât the day before his friend's release.
The feeling in the band prior to the gig was that they would love to play together again - and they duly did. But The Liber-tines' future will remain unclear till all four of them have sat down far away from the media, the fans and the industry hobnobs, and perhaps found the spirit that got them sailing on The Albion in the first place. "To these boys, playing music is a human need, just like eating and drinking. How can they not carry on as musicians?" asks their manager, Banny Postchi.
And what does Doherty say? On the day of his release, looking happier (and quite a lot skinnier) than he's been for a very long time, Doherty contented himself with one sentence: "I am glad to be out again - up The Libertines!"