Pete Doherty: Unstrung

Some people may neglect to take him seriously because of his antics, but Pete Doherty may be one of the best lyricists of his generation. For Doherty, who famously won a scholarship to study poetry in Russia while in his teens, songwriting is the primary form of expression. And it is his lyrics, good-natured but defiant, that should be regarded as his only real answer to his public. Even as his life grows increasingly hazy, Doherty’s lyrics remain simple, poetic, and clear.

With his first band, the Libertines, Doherty was half of a great songwriting pair with Carl Barat. Their songwriting process was precarious; the music was inspired by their power struggles and, to a large extent, contingent upon them. Doherty was the happy-go-lucky merry prankster to Barat’s more sober and structured older-brother figure, and the ongoing clash of their personalities invigorated their music. But even though their songs depended upon their own stormy relationship, they had a liberating effect on the listener. And Doherty himself was a surprisingly sunny presence amid the gloomy, moody rock scene. He never went too far into petulance; instead, he played a kind of rock-and-roll Peter Pan, incorrigible but inspiring in his romanticism. On “Campaign of Hate,” from the second Libertines album, Doherty cheerfully proclaimed, “Don’t believe them when they say / That you don’t get nothing for free / It’s all for free / Follow me!”

From the beginning, Doherty insisted on freedom but beneath his willful defiance, he displayed a deep-seated yearning for approval. On “The Man Who Would Be King” from the Libertines’ self-titled second album, he sang, “I lived my dreams today / … I’ll be living yours tomorrow / So don’t look at me that way!” And while he often made the suggestion that he was just following his heart, on the earlier “Don’t Look Back Into the Sun”, he uncharacteristically suggested that other people were just jealous. On “Eight Dead Boys,” from the first Babyshambles record, Down in Albion, he sings, “I want love / I want it all”. And therein lies his particular frustration: He longs for total freedom, but total freedom is total chaos.

This tension creates pathos. A restless longing for freedom, coupled with the intimation that he knows he can’t handle it, is a lyrical theme that dates back to his earliest songs. His lyrics make it clear that his belief in personal freedom is what he holds most dear. When on “A’rebours” Doherty sings, “If you really cared for me / You’d let me be / Set me free”, freedom is a ringing affirmative but also a desperate necessity. In retrospect, his choruses of “Let me go” and “Set me free” seem a bit desperate. While in the Libertines, Doherty wanted to break free from Barat, but now it is less clear what he wants to get away from. Doherty is still “too polite to say / I defy you all!” as he sings on “A’rebours,” but on Down in Albion, he continues to plead for understanding and acceptance.

But acceptance was becoming harder to find, even as his public persona inflated. By the time Doherty formed Babyshambles, he had become noticeably unhinged. It’s clear Doherty has had trouble dealing with the freedom that large-scale success has brought him. The scene in these songs is bare: There’s almost no one around. Those that present are only too happy to serve him a wince-inducing dose of reality. “You look better now than last time / But you still look better from afar!” someone tells him on “Eight Dead Boys.” Then they get even harsher: “You look better now than last time / But you’re still no better than before / The life that you wanted was not in store / You’re going to be in the dark once again.” Many of these songs are composed of other people’s reproachful monologues, and the cumulative effect is convincing. When he sings, “There’s nothing nice about me / And almost everyone agrees” on “Back from the Dead”, he sounds truly sorry.

But the edge has always been there. Many of Doherty’s songs contain a variation on this kind of conditional statement:

I think I now understand what I misunderstood before,

How your love gives me so much more.

I’m free again

I can see again

But if I should fall…

Similarly, when he sings, “If I had to go / I would be thinking of your love” on “Last Post From the Bugle”, you know that it’s not a matter of if but when. Even when he’s reassuring someone, “We’ll meet again some day,” he knows that “there’s a price to pay” for every action or deferral he makes.

As a Libertine, Doherty wrote songs in which he dreamed of reaching Arcadia, a mythical, utopian place “without rules or authority.” But because of fame and the extra freedom that it brought, he became able to live a life that more closely resembled his utopian ideal. And what happened? Confusion led the once frolicsome singer astray. Like William Blake, the radical visionary poet, Doherty seemed powerfully gripped by his vision of heaven and hell.

But a flight of fancy is especially powerful when you can practically touch it. In Doherty’s case, he dreamed about a world (and a life) that was fanciful, but that could practically come true. But as he spiraled deeper into addiction, the ideal seemed more and more out of reach. On Down in Albion, Doherty seems helplessly caught between Heaven and Hell, Innocence and Experience. His experience of hell permeates his songs, but even more powerfully, they demonstrate his awareness that heaven still exists. Doherty’s adoption of the nickname “Baby Shambles” validates others’ opinion of him—he is the most striking contemporary example of a public figure as little-boy-lost.

Yet there’s no lingering bad taste for this scapegrace. Though his songs are often dark, they never seem bitter. Maybe it’s because the music is melodic and his voice is sweet that Down in Albion doesn’t leave an impression of spitefulness. Although there are certain injuries he can’t seem to forget—on “Eight Dead Boys” he sings, “When it suits you, you’re a friend of mine” eleven times in a row (!)—Doherty’s hopefulness doesn’t crumble. A perfect example is in “Eight Dead Boys” when Doherty first talks about disillusionment, then mentions love as a saving grace:

Promises, promises, promises

I know: you’ve heard them all before

Love is, love is, love is

Love—oh well, it’s just around the corner.

This may be his defining lyric. Though he can’t believe anyone’s promises anymore, he can’t help but come back to his hope in love. Even when his intentions seem skewered and confused, he demonstrates his resolve to be true to his childhood dreams. Like another famously prodigious romantic, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Doherty knows it’s the dream itself that matters, not its fulfillment. The problem is he can’t remember exactly what the dream was in the first place. The best part of “Loyalty Song” (which deals with this issue) is during the chorus, when he starts clapping in an effort to keep his band’s accelerating tempo steady. The rhythm of his band is speeding up, and he’s clapping to keep time, just as his lyrics belie his confusion: “And there’s nothing gonna keep me from my… / What did I dream?”

Yes, it just might be that reality is too crude and vulgar for one of the UK’s most gifted songwriters. So why is Doherty such an affirming rock-and-roll presence in spite of all his escapades? The answer: his self-awareness. Doherty has always seemed to know exactly what people think of him. On “Don’t Look Back Into the Sun” he recognizes that his public, which remains both fascinated and dismissive of him, begrudges him his success. At the same time that he begs for liberty, he acknowledges that it’s killing him. Success may be the worst thing that ever happened to this singer. In “Loyalty Song” the line “I found solace in the flood / Every body knew that I would” runs like a punch line. And on “Fuck Forever,” one of Doherty’s personal favorites from Down in Albion, he ponders “how to choose between death and glory”:

I can’t tell between death and glory

Happy endings don’t bore me

They, they have a way

A way to make you pay

And to make you toe the line

Justice, he says here, has a humbling effect, but he seems willing to play by the rules if he’s allowed his happy ending. This willingness to give and take has been characteristic of Doherty’s relationship with his public as well. He has always been courteous. Though he hates to be scolded, the closest Doherty has ever gotten to an all-out rebuke of his public was on a live (and unrecorded) song, the still polite “Do You Know Me (I Don’t Think So).” Instead of turning hateful when others deny, condemn, and judge him, the singer, who on “East of Eden” likens himself to a wounded sparrow, becomes doleful; he just can’t understand why people aren’t nice. In “Fuck Forever” the only criticism Doherty offers is similarly soft: “You’re so clever / But you’re not very nice.” But then Doherty turns introspective and identifies the reason his own free-and-easy ways harm him: “I’m so clever / But clever ain’t wise.”