FOCUS: THE NEW DECADENCE: Rock & Roll: All the best stars are a mess

Pete Doherty is a mess, or a genius, or both. The singer is also now a star thanks to his affair with Kate Moss. Is it hype, or is he the latest in a proud line of rock rebels? And why do we still need them so?

Marc Almond put it best: "To me a star is someone who has something extra, and something missing at the same time - flawed and extinguishable, but never mediocre." Exhibit A: Pete Doherty, now more familiar to millions from his tabloid problems as Public Screw-Up Number One than he ever was in his time fronting The Libertines or his aptly named post-eviction project Babyshambles. Stumbling from courtroom to brawl, to failed rehab, to no- show gig, to (stage-managed?) romance with a supermodel, Doherty screams the archetypal mixed message of the drug-addled rocker as Doomed Young Poet in Romantic Squalor: "Screw you!" alternating with "Help me!"

His misfortune is to have commenced his adventures as Epic Mess on Legs before cementing his superstar status. Keith Richards, after all, was firmly in place as the key player in The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World before becoming the defining archetype of junkie cool. And, no matter how messed up he was, Lord Keef always managed to do the gig, to play a blinder even while blind.

Doherty, on the other hand, seems to be travelling the Iggy Pop route. The Ig's reputation for widescreen debauchery preceded his acceptance as a punk grandmaster: indeed, it actively contributed to his legend. Ditto many others, variously dead, alive or somewhere in between: Syd Barrett, Ozzy Osbourne, Jim Morrison, Lou Reed, Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker, Sly Stone. However, the hardest trick to pull off is to get loaded beyond human comprehension - and still function well enough to get the job done.

In a sense, Doherty is doing that: Babyshambles and The Libertines are up for awards from the NME, and the man himself is in the running for both Best and Worst-Dressed Man and Hero and Villain of the Year. The magazine has already hailed him as the coolest man in the country. But why? The question needs to be answered by another: what are pop idols for?

Music biz apparatchiks see them as an effective method of separating kids from their pocket money. For the media, they're a source of news, gossip and all manner of sensationalist trivia. For the fan, the idol is either an object of desire or, more significantly, an external manifestation of your real, true self. Only Kurt Cobain or Richey Edwards understood how unhappy you were. Only Sinead O'Connor or Eminem were as angry as you. Only Marilyn Manson knows how grotesque the world is (and how grotesque you feel). Only you can make Robbie Williams truly happy. Only you could have convinced Boy George that sex was more fun than a nice cup of tea. The conventional teen idol functions as love object or role model, but the most interesting ones tend to be damage cases of one kind or another.

Sometimes, the more messed-up teen idols seem to be, the more effective they are. It is a truism that teenagers don't always focus their adoration on artists of whom their parents would approve, but they also don't always respond to the kind of human offerings with whom the music industry's Fat Controllers feel most comfortable. The platonic ideal of the corporate pop idol is clean, pretty, biddable. They won't do anything to disrupt the career plan or cash flow. In other words they're not Pete Doherty.

He is a major talent whose life and career are utterly, publicly out of control. All that is needed now is for someone to figure out how to make serious money out of him. Maybe that could even be Doherty himself.

Charles Shaar Murray has interviewed or written about everyone who was ever any good in rock and roll

ROCK & ROLL

`You can't get annoyed at him'

Alison Kiely, 26

I was first aware of The Libertines in 2002. I've seen them play a ridiculous amount, at one point it was every week. I've heard about people rioting at a Babyshambles concert recently when he didn't appear but that `will he, won't he' was part of the experience for us.

Pete is a lovely bloke who is very genuine and always has time for you, so you can't get annoyed at his behaviour. I remember a gig at the Hope and Anchor in Islington, September 2003, two days before he went to prison. He asked me if I wanted a drink and then realised he had no money, so I ended up buying both. Then he went to prison for two months, and the next time I saw him was at a gig in his house. He came up to me and apologised for not having the money.

Obviously when he started charging pounds 10 to hear a gig in his house we all realised pretty quickly what the money was going towards. It was a bit of a conflict, because while I knew what he was doing, not many bands are prepared to play amazingly for hours in their own home. I suppose he does glamourise drugs a bit and he's a hero to so many because of his music, but everyone can see what he's doing to his life. We watched the interview he gave on Newsnight and my flatmates were crying. He's only 25, hugely talented, and he knows he's risking his life.

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