Does the world really need another book about Pete Doherty? "Junkie Pete" has already been the subject of two biographies and his multi-volume diaries--Books of Albion--are available for free on the Internet. That seems more than enough attention for a modestly talented singer-songwriter whose principal claim to fame is that he may or may not be going out with Kate Moss.
This poses a problem for Alex Hannaford, an experienced music journalist who's saddled himself with the task of writing this book. You get the impression that, deep down, he knows Doherty isn't really worthy of a full-scale biography, but he feels obliged to justify his choice of subject matter nevertheless. Thus, Doherty is "one of the most charismatic individuals, not just in rock, but of his generation" and The Libertines, his short-lived band, are "so closely connected with England's capital" that they've become "as much of a London mainstay as...The Jam, The Clash and The Sex Pistols". When Max Carlish, a Channel 4 documentary maker, is allowed to watch Doherty composing song lyrics while "chain-smoking heroin" he knows he's "in the presence of genius".
Can any of these claims possibly be true? The Pete Doherty who emerges from these pages is a self-absorbed, not very bright 26-year-old whose only real talent is for self-promotion. When another documentary-maker, this time from the BBC, asks Doherty a question that he regards as "inappropriate" he responds by breaking a glass, cutting his own chest, kicking the camera over and beating up the cameraman. Such outrage over the invasion of his privacy is a little hard to take from Doherty given that he has often sold stories about himself to the tabloids.
Hannaford gamely tries to defend such antics by claiming Doherty is a tortured soul and comparing him to a host of romantic poets, including Byron, Keats, Shelley, Rimbaud and--most ludicrously of all--Emily Dickinson. But Hannaford's heart isn't in it. Byron may have been somewhat dissolute, but then he did write Don Juan. Excusing Doherty's bad behaviour on the grounds that he's composed a few top 10 hits, by contrast, seems a bit of a stretch. Remember, this is the man who vomited in front of 4,000 people at a Norwegian rock festival and then pelted the crowd with champagne bottles.
With no direct access to "Potty Pete", and a limited number of poetic geniuses to compare him with, Hannaford is quickly reduced to padding out the biography with yard after yard of extraneous material. For instance, we're told that Dad's Army--one of Doherty's favourite television programmes--was "a comedy about the Home Guard during the Second World War", while David Letterman, who's show Doherty appeared on in 2002, "has been a mainstay of American television since the 1980s". After informing us that Doherty was sentenced to six months for burglary in 2003, Hannaford embarks on an endless digression in which he painstakingly records every instance of a rock star being sent to prison.
To be fair, Hannaford is quite good on why it is that so many modern-day folk heroes feel obliged to self-destruct on the public stage--and the sections in which he dissects this rock 'n' roll archetype are the best parts of the book. But it's a bad sign when the filler material in a biography is actually more interesting than the book's subject.
Last year, Blur's Damon Alburn joked that he'd like to launch a new protest movement: Make Doherty History. "Junkie Pete" was smoking crack in the lavatories when it was announced that the Libertines had won Best New Band at the 2003 NME Awards and if he carries on in that vein it won't be long before Alburn's wish is granted. But I suspect that, like most tabloid sensations, Pete Doherty will disappear in a less dramatic way, simply fading into the background as another drug-addled demon occupies his place in the national psyche. Come in number 666. Your fifteen minutes are up.