Personal redemption can appear at the most unexpected times, and in the strangest of guises. For beleaguered, trouble-prone British rocker Pete Doherty, former frontman of The Libertines, Babyshambles and a more recent backing band called The Puta Madres, it arrived in an unsteady 2019, courtesy of France, of all places. He was summarizing his physical and mental state with an appropriately stark metaphor at the time, recalls the mercurial artist—who, now 43, has begun to openly discuss his two turbulent decades of crack cocaine and heroin addiction, which became so severe that he nearly lost both vein-collapsed feet. “I felt like I’d been hit by a bus,” he recalls, coldly. “It was my first two weeks of being clean, and I think I was in a kind of stupor, but I was probably really in shock.” Additionally, he’d been the victim of a truly freak occurrence: His left hand had been pierced by a hedgehog spike while attempting to rescue the cornered wild animal from his pair of pet Siberian huskies, resulting in an infected wound that would require immediate surgery. “And afterward, it was like I had carpal tunnel syndrome—I couldn’t even pick up a guitar, really, so I couldn’t play even if I wanted to,” he adds. “Plus, I didn’t have a phone, and I wasn’t online or anything. I was really despondent and I just wanted to live by the sea.”
Moving to the windswept coast of Normandy seemed like an ideal solution, and a perfect way to disappear with his then-steady girlfriend, now-wife, Puta Madres keyboardist Katia De Vidas, where they would remain once lockdown hit. But oddly enough, that’s where 57-year-old Parisian musician Frédéric Lo managed to track Doherty down and make him a surprise offer that would change his life, help keep him sober, and lead to their new full-length collaboration as a duo, The Fantasy Life of Poetry and Crime, with guitarist Lo composing and producing most of the adventurous music and a now-two-years-clean Doherty—who answers to a more refined sounding Peter—penning the Baudelaire-ornate lyrics. The buzzing, symphonic-colored title track alone was inspired by a hip literary influence they soon realized they shared—the gentleman-burglar Arsene Lupin stories of author Maurice LeBlanc. Echoing Doherty’s early kinetic spark with co-Libertines frontman Carl Barat, it’s a potent combination of combustible talents—and artistic interests—that really works.
Facing a cold, drug-free reality is never easy for any reformed user. Doherty was feeling so disillusioned he was wondering if he could still conjure up any songs at all. ”But then Frédéric just turned up one day,” he says. “Somehow, he had managed to find me.” The favor he asked was simple. He wanted Doherty to contribute to a tribute album he was assembling for Daniel Darc, the late lead singer for French New Romantic trailblazers Taxi Doll. “I wanted him to do a cover of one song I wrote with Daniel, which turned out great from the start because he loved so much those songs I wrote with Daniel,” says Lo, who, as a huge Libertines fan himself, felt truly honored. It quickly turned into a mutual admiration society.
The first time Doherty attempted to croon the Darc chestnut, “Inutile et hors d’usage” (translation: “Useless and All Used Up”) to Lo’s softly strummed accompaniment in the former’s Normandy garden, he sighs, “I just broke down in tears, it was so good.” And perfectly timed. Doherty had bumbled into legal trouble again, thanks to his habit, after getting arrested in Paris for buying cocaine and then receiving a suspended sentence for being violent while intoxicated. Lo says that whenever he’s hanging out casually with friends and he’s got a guitar in his hands, he always inadvertently, even absentmindedly, begins running through his latest song ideas. Intrigued by what he heard, Doherty pressed to hear more: “And I said, ‘Oh, I like that one! What was that song? What was that song?’ But he said, ‘No—it’s nothing—it doesn’t have any words.’ So I said, ‘Let me write some words to it!’ And it turned out to be our song “Yes, I Wear a Mask” (an almost Vaudeville-meets-Grand-Guignol romp, brimming with pandemic double entendres), so we kept on, wrote a few more, then wrote a few more, until we had 11, 12 songs together.” Due to his chum’s hand injury, Lo did quadruple duty on vocals, bass, keyboards and guitar; quintuple, if you count production, as well.
Lo hadn’t been sure what to expect when he dropped in, unannounced. But Doherty’s reaction was instantaneous and completely disarming: “It was like a dream, like someone was playing a joke, you know what I mean?” Lo laughs, retelling his version of the synaptic summit meeting. “Peter actually fell on his knees and asked me, ‘Please! Can I work on your songs?’” It was an offer neither one of them could refuse. They chiseled everything out from inside the echoey Normandy house (which Lo swears is haunted) pictured on Fantasy Life’s album cover, not far from Doherty’s equally rustic place, co-writing in the kitchen by day, or by crackling hearth fire at night. They’d also take well-earned breaks to go swimming in the ocean, all while comparing their matching inspirations, like Bowie, Rimbaud, Huysmans, James Ellroy and just the sinuous effect of decadence, in general, on art. “We both love the weird themes in songs,” explains Lo. “We love Nick Cave or The Smiths, and even French classical composers like Ravel, Satie or Debussy, and we became very close right from the start, like when Johnny Marr met Morrissey or Keith Richards met Mick Jagger. And very soon, we had a whole album in our hands.”
The team plans on introducing with some intimate spring theatre shows in Europe the rest of its debut material, like the flickering piano minuet “The Epidemiologist” (more Covid deja vu), a bouncy, chiming “You Can’t Keep It From Me Forever,” a punchy pop-rocker dubbed “Rock & Roll Alchemy” and the glistening acoustic-folk kaleidoscope “The Monster.” Doherty—who has worked in poetry and painting, additionally—has become so comfortable with decadence, it can’t help but ferret its way into even his most upbeat efforts. For instance, he elaborates, he loves the way Hunter S. Thompson employed his skills as a journalist to cover not only predictable politics, but also more uncharted (read: Las Vegas) territory. “Like the grotesque side of the American dream,” he says. “When man looks into the mirror and realizes that he is the beast, as well.”
The Lo project did, indeed, pave the path for Doherty’s long-awaited salvation. Today, he looks back with some embarrassment, but tempered with a dose of his patented ribald wit, on Libertines milestones like the classic, Mick Jones-produced 2002 debut Up the Bracket, for which the band has reunited for a 20th anniversary “Giddy Up a Ding Dong” tour and a soon-to-be-completed comeback album (with sessions reportedly going garage-punk well). He owns a record label now, too, Strap Originals, and his ears are always open for potential signees, even while playing a recent concert in the Glasgow jail, where he was awed by a prisoner who taught himself to play guitar and write songs while incarcerated. He’s also opening a Libertines-themed Margate bar/hotel/studio in London called The Albion Rooms, based on his longtime love of the word “Albion,” an ancient alternate name for Great Britain.
And this survivor swears he will never take anything for granted again, especially The Libertines, whose promising career wings were clipped by his substance abuse problems almost as soon as Up the Bracket hit the charts; by 2003, the once-tight outfit had issued its final, fairly prescient Top 20 single, the aptly titled “What Became of the Likely Lads?”what, indeed? Doherty just had to cancel a few reunion dates due to a non-Covid-related respiratory infection, and he followed every last bit of his physician’s advice. After all, an enterprising artist had already sculpted a life-size, church-displayed figure of himself, nailed to a cross—he doesn’t desire to end up crucified for real. Especially when simple changes in his daily habits and routines can save him.
“So I’m, uh, trying to keep my freak-outs limited now,” Doherty concludes, sagely. “I’m just trying not to start running naked into the woods and start living in a hut if I think about things too much. And I feel like I’m just trying to make sense of things in the songwriting now — there’s a real art in the writing to which I attach great meaning … ”