The Libertines: Taking liberties

They're Britain's most talked about rock band - but for all the wrong reasons. In a frank interview, The Libertines' Carl Barat talks to Craig McLean about music, drugs and the trouble with Pete Doherty
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Backstage at music festivals, it's always easy to spot the big-selling American acts. They're the ones with the outsized security detail worthy of a Western ambassador in Iraq. Necks constantly swivelling, hands repeatedly touching their hidden ear-pieces, these watchful goons telegraph the message: "Make way and back off - proper rock star in the area."

At last month's T In The Park festival in Scotland, it was a bit unusual, therefore, to spy a member of a minor-league British indie-guitar band strolling around the guest area flanked by two bomber-jacket-wearing hulks. This was Carl Barat, co-songwriter and co-frontman with The Libertines. He, creative partner Pete Doherty, bass player John Hassall and drummer Gary Powell have sold a respectable if unremarkable 150,000 copies of their 2002 debut album, Up The Bracket. While The Libertines are sufficiently "cult" to sell out mid-sized venues like London's Brixton Academy three times over (as on their spring tour) they are at best a commercially marginal outfit.

The reason for the insecurity guards, however, is less to do with fending off legions of over-eager fans than it is to do with protecting The Libertines from themselves. Doherty, who is 24, is currently barred from the band pending his overcoming an addiction to heroin and crack cocaine. Barat, Hassall and Powell had spent the week prior to T In The Park rehearsing with a stand-in guitarist somewhere near Box in Wiltshire. The location was secret lest the erratic Doherty take it upon himself to turn up; the heavies at T In The Park were said to be reinforcing this protective cordon around the band.

Barat must have had a sense of déjà vu: a year ago The Libertines were forced to play a round of festivals without the troubled Doherty.

"I know, I know," sighed Barat, 25, as he and his beefy posse walked to The Libertines' Portakabin dressing-room. "Doesn't make it any easier though. Pete's into festivals, but he's not very well at the moment. It would be nice to have him here, but there's no point in compounding his illness by accepting it."

Is being in The Libertines bad for Pete's health?

"No, taking smack and crack is bad for his health."

Doherty's much-publicised battle with drugs and, as a result, with the rest of the band, has been causing serious ructions for more than a year. Last summer he was temporarily ejected from the line-up after he failed to show for a European tour. While the rest of the band were away, Doherty burgled best friend Barat's flat. He duly served two months at Her Majesty's pleasure. On his release last autumn, things were sufficiently amicable between him and Barat for them to begin work on their second album. But by the time the pair reached the recording studio in London this spring, their management - Alan McGee, erstwhile boss of the Creation label, discoverer of Oasis and a former addict himself - had to assign each a bouncer. It was the only way to stop them fighting and, says Barat, deter Doherty's drug buddies from turning up at the studio.

In this period, propelled by Barat and McGee, Doherty also had three shots at rehab, at The Priory in London, in France and, in June, at a Thai monastery where the monks - led by an American former Green Beret - deploy a particularly brutal detox regime. He scarpered from all three, often detailing his escapades in the weblog he writes on his Babyshambles website.

Babyshambles is the name of what Barat calls Doherty's "denial band", the new group he formed and whose first single charted in May. "Pete likes to have a lot of control, so he needs his own project," says Barat. "On a more negative note, everyone [around Babyshambles] is more tolerant of his drug abuse."

In a similar vein was Doherty's collaboration with Wolfman, a wasted, cadaverous associate from London's East End. The pair scored a surprise Top Ten hit in April with the ballad "For Lovers". "I was asked to play guitar on that," recalls Barat, "but at the time I was heroically boycotting it. Then it got to number seven! So me not playing guitar didn't make any fucking difference at all." But Barat wanted to stay well clear. "Everyone's bad for each other in those circles."

As an indication of his perhaps less-than-serious commitment to coming clean, Doherty has taken to selling "My Drugs Hell" interviews to the tabloids to raise money to buy more drugs. He has also played solo gigs for anyone willing to stump up the readies. Setting the seal on this talented rock'n'roller's shift from music-press favourite to tabloid f fixture was his post-Thailand arrest for alleged possession of a knife. It also been reported that Doherty has a "love child" with a sometime singer called Lisa Moorish - also mother of a child by Liam Gallagher.

Yet somehow, in the midst of all this, The Libertines have managed to make another great album, to be released later this month. The air of ramshackle energy and borderline danger that hangs round the band is vividly captured by their regular producer, mentor and kindred spirit, former Clash man Mick Jones. The record is called "The Libertines" because, simply, it tells the story of the songwriters' topsy-turvy relationship. On many songs Barat and Doherty sing alternate lines directly at each other. Hearing them is like being privy to a particularly savage Mike Leigh workshop. The last song on the album is "What Became Of The Likely Lads" ("please don't get me wrong, see I forgive you with a song/ but if it's left to you I know exactly what you'll do with all the dreams we had"). The truth is in there.

Their hard-won second album confirms that Carl Barat and Pete Doherty are the most intriguing and talented partnership currently working in British music. They also love/hate each other like brothers. But in the run-up to its release, the music is the last thing people are talking about. Might Barat see the day when he thinks, "Sod this, I'm gonna kick Pete out or split the band permanently?"

"I ain't gonna sack him from the band, I'd never do that," says Barat evenly. "But maybe if he doesn't get better in the foreseeable future I might have to put a lid on it until such time as he does. I'm not gonna keep doing this" - and here he gestured around him at the bouncers and the T In The Park crowds - "forever. I want this record to have the fucking birth it deserves."

CARL BARAT, from Basingstoke, and Pete Doherty, from Nuneaton, met via Doherty's sister. As friends and songwriting partners they clicked instantly, and were signed by Rough Trade in late 2001 on the strength of four songs. By the time of the release of their début album the following year, they had outgrown the lazy epithet "The British Strokes" to become a much-hyped, but still underground, phenomenon. To many, they were the most exciting new guitar band since Oasis. They would become, as veteran music biz player McGee put it, "the most culturally significant band I have ever worked with".

From the off The Libertines were fêted for their habit of inviting fans onstage, into their dressing room and even into their flat - assiduous watchers of internet message boards might find themselves at an impromptu gig at Barat and Doherty's dilapidated gaff in London's East End. The Libertines wanted to break down the barrier between entertainers and entertained. (In this regard, the barriers now in place around the band must be particularly galling.)

"It's such a load of old bollocks, that wall, that unnecessary divide," Barat told me in spring 2003. "Which is why we like intimate gigs. We want everyone to be involved."

The Libertines were a People's Band, a force of rock'n'roll nature who encapsulated the most genuinely underground revolution in British music since punk. Sure, Barat and Doherty partied hard and took girls and drugs - "bracket", as in "Up The Bracket", is a Libertines word for cocaine. But they did so no more than your average twentysomething lads flush with new opportunities. Until, obviously, Doherty ratcheted up his drug use. From Barat's perspective his escalating use became a problem when they were making the first album.

"I didn't want to be surrounded by the brown [heroin] people; I didn't want an audience for everything I did. So I had to move away from that scene. And slowly I just got further and further away from Pete."

BARAT AND I meet again one week after T In The Park, when he is promoting the new album alone in New York. Sitting in a downtown private garden, he is relaxed and chatty. He likes New York; he and Doherty got their matching "Libertine" tattoos here, traced in Barat's handwriting on their upper arms. But they also had an abortive recording session here.

"Someone had once told Pete that if you want to get crack or brown anywhere out of London, it's easy: ask a homeless person. To him that was 'bingo!'; to me that was like, 'dur, why do you think they're homeless?' So all these homeless New York crack heads would be coming round. At one point Pete was crying, freaked out, saying, 'I can't handle it, I've got all these people in my room.' 'You invited them all in there!' I had to go down to his room and kick out all these people. They're sitting there getting their free hit, Pete's upstairs crying. I'm thinking, where is this going?"

At the end of his tether, Barat quit the session halfway through. Doherty, true to form, made the abandoned demos available for free on the internet, calling them The Babyshambles Sessions.

Barat hasn't spoken to Doherty since the day before Doherty went to Thailand. They've been texting each other but that's it. Doherty has been performing solo shows and turning up in the music press. In the pictures he is stick thin, boggle-eyed and swollen-faced, his boyish good looks twisted into an unsettling, doll-like puffiness. In interviews, he complains about his treatment by Barat, proclaims his eagerness to get back to working with the band - but is also surreally defiant about his drug use.

"His demons are something very, very personal and very dark, which I don't think he's ever seen," says Barat. "And there's a lot of exorcising to be done there. And it has to come from him."

Does Pete have to make the next move?

"Looks that way. He's got to want my friendship more than he wants any kind of fame or drug addiction."

Barat says he's not sure what to do next. He doesn't know what he thinks of the album he is tasked with promoting round the world. Its visceral power and impact may derive from its no-holds-barred account of his and Doherty's relationship so far, but that also makes it too painful to listen to right now. But much as he hates playing shows without Doherty, he feels he has no option. To not give the new album a decent shout would be unfair on the rest of the band, and the fans, and on everyone who worked on making it.

He gains some succour from the memory of the ideas that united him and Doherty in the first place, and that have, despite all the subsequent crap, made The Libertines the most vital British band in existence.

"We'd just run around town together, in our own little dream, with our own view of the world. We'd be in football stadiums in the dark, creeping about, jumping over fences down by the river. Just having adventures. Initially, the plan with the band was to get on stage, enjoy yourself and be enjoyed. And the songwriting was just a dream we had - visions ..."

Barat leans back in the bench and gazes round at New York in the summertime. He gives a rueful sniff.

"I'd like to get back to that vision right now cause it's quite hard to see, even in this beautiful park."

Memo to Pete Doherty: a mind - not to mention a good band and a great friendship - is a terrible thing to waste.

'The Libertines' is out 30 August on Rough Trade

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