Us against the world

Widely regarded as the best rock act in Britain, the Libertines have been ripped apart by the drug-addicted antics of guitarist Pete Doherty. Meanwhile, fellow Libertine Carl Barat has been trying to save his friend - and the band. Betty Clarke, who has been spending time with them both regularly for the past 18 months, tells their story

April 2003. Pete Doherty and Carl Barat are in their living room, at the top of a narrow flight of stairs in a Victorian terraced house. Around 40 friends and fans are pressed up against the kitchen cabinets, squashed on to the solitary couch and curled around a spiral staircase, watching the duo jolt around their microphone stands. This is the Albion Rooms, the flat in London's Bethnal Green that Doherty and Barat have shared since signing their record deal. They've lived together before - on and off for the past few years - but this is the first home they've lived in knowing they could pay the rent.

The Libertines have just released their first album, Up the Bracket, and been hailed as Britain's best new band. Even at this ramshackle performance, it's easy to see why. Barat and Doherty have a formidable charisma; their music is a thrillingly rowdy mix of spiky guitars and rebellious harmonies. When an irate neighbour starts screaming, it just inspires them to play louder. Later, Barat is wrestled by a friend, breaking a window and causing shards of glass to fall over a police van pulling up below. Barat and Doherty grin as they discuss who should placate the boys in blue.

The 15 months since that night have seen the Libertines break up, make up and almost fall apart. Doherty's drug problems have led him to a spell in Wandsworth prison, followed by various stays in rehab. Barat, bassist John Hassell and drummer Gary Powell have performed without him across the world. Barat and Doherty's relationship - according to their bandmates, never an easy one - has disintegrated to such a degree that they are no longer talking. How did the greatest rock'n'roll band in Britain end up here?

In a hotel room in New York, Barat is hunched over an acoustic guitar. As night creeps into morning, he'll run through various Libertines songs, try a few Beatles numbers and play lots by the Doors. He begins new single Can't Stand Me Now - a bruised portrait of how Doherty and Barat's relationship has deteriorated - before suddenly stopping. "Do you have any idea what it was like for me to tell Peter he couldn't be in the band?" he asks, his eyes welling up. Then he grabs a bottle of beer and loses himself in the song.

Next day, a bleary Barat is sitting on a bench in New York's Central Park, commenting on every bird, creature and jogger that passes by. What he doesn't want to think about is the Libertines. The band have a new album to promote, and he has spent the past 10 days talking to the press on his own. Now he's exhausted. "I've sat down with people for interviews, they've started asking me questions and I've gone into deep personal stuff," he says. "Then they say: 'OK, so what's the name of the band again?' "

It's hard to remember it was the music that made anyone care about the Libertines in the first place. That and the chemistry between all four members of the band, an unpredictability that inspires magic and mayhem in equal measure. Combining the power of the Clash and the melodic beauty of the Beatles, their songs capture the angst of the disenchanted and swoon with the poetry of the Libertines' private world, Arcadia - a vision of England in which no one is tied to societal rules, and in which everyone is free to do as they wish.

It was a shared belief in Arcadia that forged the initial bond between Barat and Doherty. "It was something that a lot of people had laughed at," says Doherty. "Or maybe I'd never found quite the right person to share it with. With Carl it was glaringly obvious that we'd found each other."

Doherty is in his new flat in east London. Wearing a suit, he is at pains to show how nice it is. He points out the roof terraces, the clean work surfaces and only slightly chaotic bedroom, trying to negate the image of a squalid drug den promoted by a Sunday tabloid. The desire for reassurance is unmistakable.

Sitting at his kitchen table, Doherty ponders his first impressions of Barat. The pair met through Doherty's older sister; Barat had been playing pub gigs since he was 16, and Doherty hoped Barat - older by two years - could teach him to play guitar. From the start, he thought Barat was a "genius". For Barat, Doherty was "a little pipsqueak". None the less, Barat admits there was something there. "I liked his drive and persistence. I was secretly envious of some of his character and I think he must have been of mine." They fought often, but became the best of friends. "I was completely devoted to him," says Doherty. "It was us two against the world," Barat agrees.

After a couple of years they adopted the name the Libertines and set sail on the good ship Albion, a self-created romance drawing on English mythology, British films and literature of the 1950s and 1960s, Hancock's Half Hour, Chas and Dave and skiffle music. Now all they needed was a band. Hassell knew of the pair through a mutual friend; he joined as bassist after "Pete turned up on my doorstep with a book of poetry under his arm, stroking my cat". After several months of performing everywhere from kebab shops to an old people's home, they found a manager and a drummer, Gary Powell. At last, "the Albion task force", as Barat calls it, was in place.

"It was a real campaign," Barat says of their determination to get a record deal. "Personally, I said: 'We're gonna get these bastards.'" What Doherty remembers was Barat being depressed, convinced it would never happen. "Carl just reaches this point where there's no talking to him at all. It took media hyperbole and fans' adoration to drill into him that, yes, you can play guitar. Yes, what we're doing is good."

Their potential was finally spotted by Geoff Travis, head of Rough Trade. "They were alive, alive to a degree that you just don't see," he says. "They were hilarious, entertaining, jumpy, songs coming out of their ears." The Libertines were signed to Rough Trade in 2002 - and celebrated in typically idiosyncratic style. "We got a bunch of money," says Barat, "ironed it and put it in the fridge."

But over the next few months, living and working together began to take its toll on Doherty and Barat's relationship. "We were a little bit like Morecambe and Wise for a while," says Barat. "But I've always been really in my own space, and we didn't have that in the Albion Rooms. In the end, I had to get out because of Peter's new friends."

The "friends" were Doherty's new-found crack cocaine buddies. "I had to throw crackheads out of Pete's room," Barat says. "I knew from previous experience with other people that it was pointless to ban it. But I made very clear that I didn't want it around and I didn't want Pete doing it." That intimate show in their front room in April 2003 was Barat's leaving party.

May 2003. The Libertines arrive in New York for the first time and play a triumphant show at the tiny Lux in Brooklyn. Afterwards they go back to their hotel to celebrate. Barat and Doherty sit with their guitars, playing Chas and Dave songs to a small group of friends. Everyone is happy. It doesn't last. The next day, the band are in a recording studio and Barat is eager to do some work. But Doherty has brought some friends in with him. The tension is unbearable.

"Pete and his friends having their little crack fun," remembers Barat. "They're singing this song - which is my tune - adding and changing bits. Then a girl says: 'Come and sing, it's fun. Shall I teach you the words?' " Barat left the studio and New York soon after.

Doherty remembers it differently. "I knew I had I a better album than Up the Bracket in me and I wanted to record it. But I was told we've got to keep touring, keep promoting. That was the first time I realised we were on a conveyor belt."

A few days later, Barat flew back to America and Doherty. He wasn't prepared for what he'd find. "He was hanging out with some English kid. I went into his room and found syringes. This guy, who was obviously preparing to introduce Peter into the world of jacking up [heroin], turned to me and said: 'Pleased to meet you. I don't think there's enough for you.' " Infuriated, Barat smashed the syringes against the wall. "Peter seemed kind of pleased I'd done it."

It didn't stop Doherty's drug problems becoming more noticeable. He seemed to be withdrawing into a world the band had little to do with. The Libertines had always performed guerrilla-style gigs - shows in tiny pubs with no stages, to hordes of fans. But people were starting to wonder if the desire for drugs wasn't Doherty's motive for staging these events. Doherty says this is ridiculous. "If I want drugs, I don't have to do a gig to get them. I do a gig when I feel shit, because I need to be playing. There's no drug in the world that can compare with playing music."

Still, Barat was suspicious. And when Doherty asked him to play a gig on a rooftop in east London in June 2003 - even though it was Barat's birthday - he refused. What followed was chaos. The band were about to tour Europe - only Doherty didn't turn up for the tour bus. Then he decided he wanted to join the rest of the band in Spain. "That was a bit rude," says Barat. "He hadn't bothered with the rest of it. And he was absolutely off his napper." It was decided that Doherty should not return to the band. And it was down to Barat to tell him.

"It was the hardest phone call I've ever made," he says. "I phoned him from Paris and said: 'Don't come.' He was gobsmacked. I don't think he thought I was capable of it. I think he knows why I did it. But, in a childish way, he won't forgive me."

Worse was to come. While the tour continued to the Far East, Doherty had a brief spell in rehab. He left, then he broke into Barat's flat in Harley Street, London. When told the news, Barat says he felt himself "descend a bit deeper into this very painful world". Doherty had publicly betrayed him. Powell is more forthright. "I was pissed off at Peter's lack of self-worth," he says. "It was Peter once again crying out for attention and the only way he could do that was burgling his best friend. There were millions of people he could have done that to. He chose Carl."

Reflecting on the events of last summer, Doherty stares at his kitchen table. "I can't equate it with even the slightest idea I have of reality," he says. "Things like being kicked out of the band, going to prison, are so horrendous, I think it's gonna take me some time to talk honestly about how I feel about it. I'm managing, so far, to shut it out pretty well. I've never been to prison. I've never been kicked out of the band, never been in a band called the Libertines. That's the way it has to be."

Sitting in Central Park, Barat looks no less unhappy. When he heard that Doherty had been given a jail term, he says: "I kind of broke down. It's a stupid reaction, but I thought: 'I've jailed my friend.' But that's bollocks." He jumps up and walks away before mimicking the joggers who eye him suspiciously. Before long, he's smiling again. "Sorry," he says. "If I get emotional, you won't get anything out of me."

At the time, Barat held things together, leading the band as they continued touring and played Glastonbury and the Reading/ Leeds festival. "I couldn't give up," he says. "There's a part of Pete that says, 'It's all about me.' If I'd let him believe that, it would have really fucked him up."

When Doherty was released from prison in October 2003, Barat went to collect him. "I didn't want the bad guys to get him," he says simply. Photographs of the meeting say more than either Barat or Doherty do. Arms wrapped around one another, they stride away from the prison, Doherty clasping his regulation HMP bag full of his belongings. The relief and joy at seeing each other is clear. In part, this is what is so frustrating for the rest of the band. "Peter knows," says Powell, "that nine times out of 10 he will be forgiven for his acts."

That night the Libertines played an impromptu celebratory gig in Chatham, Kent. This time, it seemed the good mood would last. That same month, Alan McGee became their manager (Powell had asked him to do so at the Reading festival); in November they played three sold-out dates at London's Forum. The shows were amazing: Barat's new-found confidence was a revelation, while Doherty just looked happy to be able to play.

But behind the scenes, the same problems were returning. After each gig, Doherty would disappear. Barat was looking strained again. "The drugs were obviously back," he says. "And the behaviour was beginning to come back, too." He describes Doherty on drugs as paranoid, over the top, needy. It was at this time that security guards were brought in to protect Barat and Doherty, from each other as much as anyone else.

February 2004. The Libertines' name hangs above the door at London's Brixton Academy. For the band, who had struggled so long to be heard, it felt like a victory. And though Doherty was still distant - and enjoying playing with his new band, Babyshambles - he appeared to adore every moment on stage. But on the last night of the Libertines' three-night residency, he stormed off in the middle of performing Can't Stand Me Now.

"He had a little freak-out, didn't he?" Barat says, smiling. "I thought, 'His temper's got ridiculous. That's the drugs.' As it turns out, he thinks I looked at him a funny way during Can't Stand Me Now."

Doherty stands by his reason. "It had taken six, seven years for him to say it, to say the truth: can't stand me now. He sang it to me and I thought, 'You're right. We've used each other, got here, but underneath it all, you're not my mate.' So I kicked his amp over, smashed his guitar and cut myself up."

Doherty reappeared on the stage with thin lines of blood covering his chest. Barat wasn't amused. "I did fuck all. What upset me was that if I hadn't got back on stage, he wouldn't have come back. When he heard me on stage, he fucking legs it back to get a big round of applause. I could do that."

Later that night, band-mates and friends waited outside the dressing room, feeling fraught. No one was sure what might transpire between Barat and Doherty. But when the door was finally opened, there was no atmosphere, no strangeness. The pain had been buried once more. "The worst thing they did," says Powell, "and are doing, is to ignore the fact that things have gone wrong between them. They've never once tried to sit down and talk to each other."

"Sometimes I get in denial with the problem," admits Barat. "If I just forgive Pete, then it'll be fine. And it would do me no good to have a blow-up. Pete loves a blow-up, there's almost no point in giving him that. It's a double victory of silliness."

The following month, the band, accompanied by their security guards, started recording their second album. Working together was difficult - on the very first day, Barat and Doherty got into a fight and had to be wrenched apart - but successful. From opening track Can't Stand Me Now to the unbearably poignant closer What Ever Happened to the Likely Lads?, the frustrations and love that still lurk in the Libertines weep from the album like an open wound.

His recording commitments with the Libertines over, Doherty should have been basking in his accomplishments. Instead, he was battling his drug addictions. A previous stay in rehab hadn't helped, so now he tried the Priory. Not that he wanted to. He did it, he says, for the band. "To show them I was making an effort, because I know they don't like those things [drugs]. Even though I feel I'm in control." He had two spells at the Priory; each time he lasted a week. Was Barat surprised? "Disappointed," he sighs. "Not surprised. Never surprised."

Doherty maintains: "I came out of the Priory clean. First time in a while." Even so, he decided to travel to Thailand for a more radical rehab programme at the Thamkrabok monastery. Barat felt hopeful. "I was proud that he'd taken such a big step as to go to Thailand. I thought it might help. I forgot you can go to Bangkok, just down the road, and get the best stuff [heroin] in the world."

Doherty soon left the monastery to visit the capital. "To get the most out of that place isn't to approach it like, 'I'm going to recover from a drug'," he says. "It's to enter on a spiritual journey within yourself to find that precious thing you might call a soul. All I could think of, though, was songs."

Soon after, Doherty returned home - and immediately landed in trouble. Having been stopped by the police while driving a friend's car, he was found in possession of a flick knife. A night in police custody wasn't quite the welcome home party he envisaged. The rest of the Libertines, meanwhile, had had enough. They released a statement announcing that until Doherty was well, the band would continue without him. It was the last thing Doherty wanted. "When I think about it," he whispers, "I just feel like putting a bullet through my head."

At his kitchen table, Doherty is reflecting on a spread in the Sunday Mirror that claims he turned his girlfriend into a crack addict. Though accepting that he opened the door to tabloid scrutiny, he says he had no choice. "That's the only way to communicate with the Libertines. Carl doesn't answer my calls, doesn't call me. It's a way of saying, 'Hello? I'm still around.' "

Barat isn't convinced. "He loves to air his dirty linen in public. It just happens to be mine as well." So far, he's resisted the urge to fight back in print. "I just want Peter to clean up," he says, earnestly. "I want music. I don't want a chat show."

And yet, the feeling remains that if Doherty and Barat were to talk to each other, past hurts could be plastered over. Doherty certainly thinks so. "All he has to do is come and talk to me. If he came round and said: stop taking smack, stop taking crack, I'd do it. I'd do anything he wanted."

"I'd love to talk to Peter," admits Barat. "It's so tempting sometimes and he knows that. To be honest, he knows he can manipulate me, which is why he wants to see me. Which is why I won't see him. I'm not talking to him until I know he's chosen me over the drugs. It's not about talking to me, it's about him doing it for himself."

July 23 2004. It's the opening night of The Libertines: Boys in the Band, an exhibition of photographs by Roger Sargent. Sargent has followed the band since they were first signed by Rough Trade and the show is a rollercoaster of emotion. From the cheeky grins of the early days to the tired faces of recent shots, it's clear that in two years in the spotlight, the band have grown up fast.

Doherty walks into the gallery, staring at the pictures of himself. But his first thought is for Barat. "He's still in America, then?" he asks, knowing that press commitments have kept Barat away. He wanders away to look at the photographs. It's the closest he can get to Barat for now.

Two days later, Barat flies back to England from New York. On the way home, he drops into the exhibition. As he stands looking at the pictures, his smile changes to a frown. "There's more of Peter than me," he says, only half-joking.

June 2002. Doherty logs on to the new fansite and posts the following message: "My brother and I are not rivals. We are shipmates and best friends and the greatest songwriting partnership in the world." If the Albion is to sail again, those are words Doherty and Barat must remember.

· Can't Stand Me Now is released on August 9. The album The Libertines is released on August 30.

· Prints of Roger Sargent's photographs are available from the Proud Gallery, London NW1. Details:


Betty Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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