High up on a Normandy clifftop, in a house overlooking the sea, the man I once considered to be the most beautiful musician in the world, Pete Doherty, is asleep on a sofa in a pair of black underpants. Back in the 2000s, I frequently used to see him around east London, trailed by acolytes and hangers-on, but I never once saw him asleep or even at rest. To his fans, it looked as if he was lost in his own poetic world (his critics sneered that he was lost in crack and heroin). But here he is now, having a mid-morning snooze in the home he shares with his wife, Katia de Vidas; his Siberian husky, Zeus, at his feet. No one expects an interview with Doherty to start on time, but my train back to Paris leaves in three hours, so I give his shoulder a gentle tap. He snuffles awake. “Oh, hey! OK, just give me a minute, I’ll get some clothes on,” he says in his fey and gravelly voice, and disappears. Laura, the Guardian’s photographer, and I wait nervously. Will he give us the slip? Or fall back to sleep?
Instead, he confounds our expectations and reappears within 30 seconds, dressed in a black T-shirt, shorts and slides, cap on his head, looking if not fresh then at least awake. I tell him the plan: I’ll interview him here, then Laura will take his photo in the garden, and then I’ll catch my train.
“No, that’s not gonna work,” he says, already on the move. “I wanna drive you somewhere, let’s go.”
He opens his car door and Zeus jumps in. As it happens, the last thing my editor said to me before I left for Normandy was: “Whatever you do, don’t let him drive you anywhere!” I get in the car.
“Um, what time will you be back?” Laura calls, still standing in front of the house. But Doherty doesn’t answer. And off we go.
So many men and women of my generation were in love with Doherty. Never before had a musician seemed so charismatic, so romantic, and yet so accessible. We stalked the pubs he hung out at, joined message boards to know when the next gig would be, copied his style. He and his on-again, off-again best friend Carl Barât founded their band, the Libertines, on their vision of Arcadia, which was all about communality, a world built on art and creativity. That dream fell apart when Doherty decided it should mean hanging out with packs of fellow drug addicts, much to the chagrin of the more business-minded Barât, which led to Doherty being chucked out of the band several times. But initially, at least, it meant treating the fans as part of the band, pulling us on stage and inviting us to after-parties. And the music! No other band better captured what it felt like to feel young and stupid and glorious in Britain at the beginning of this century. A zillion copycat bands mushroomed in their wake, but none came close to the Libertines. They only released two albums at their peak, 2002’s Up the Bracket and 2004’s The Libertines (Anthems for Doomed Youth followed in 2015), but they were the iconic band of the era.
Now, recalling the intensity of my feelings for Doherty makes me cringe, like remembering a misguided early relationship. Recent years have been especially discombobulating for Doherty fans. He was always a magnet for the tabloids, which used to follow him around hoping to catch him shooting up or overdosing. Now, aged 43, he gets papped trundling about Normandy with grey stubble and a paunch. “Pete’s swapped the heroin for cheese!” sneer the headlines. Before I arrived in Normandy, I felt as nervous as if I were going to a high-school reunion. Would he be a reminder of my youthful foolishness, or a reflection of my middle-aged dullness, and which would be worse?
“Shall we go get a coffee? Oh – no, that road’s closed,” Doherty says as we drive through a local village. The car is making a worrying beeping sound. Does he want to see what that is?
“Yeah, it’s weird, that,” he says. After about 15 minutes, we realise it’s Zeus standing on one of the backdoor latches, half-opening the door. Hanging out with Doherty in 2022 is, in some ways, not massively different from hanging out with Doherty in 2002. I show him a photo a friend took of the two of us in 2005, back when he was living in a horrible little hotel on Brick Lane in east London, and I was living in the flat next door.
“So that’s when we were hanging out? I thought I remembered you,” he says with a smile, which is a sweet thing to say, but extremely unlikely given the amount of narcotics he was on at the time. Does he remember much from that period?
“I try not to. That’s why it was a bit weird with the book. I just couldn’t be doing with it.”
Right, the book. I’ve come to Normandy to talk to Doherty about his memoir, A Likely Lad, which he co‑wrote with Simon Spence. It’s full of anecdotes that evoke the scuzzy chaos of London’s indie music scene in the early 2000s. (Typical example from the book: when the Libertines broke into a pub in Clerkenwell to put on an early gig, “The only person to turn up was [Razorlight singer] Johnny Borrell. He turned up in a gas mask and did a folk set with these two black gospel singers. He was quite good, actually.”) As the most infamous member of the Libertines, and then his second band Babyshambles, Doherty wasn’t just at the heart of that era, he defined it, in ways both good (his poetry, his idealism, his stylishness) and bad (the drugs, the convictions, the wasted talent). Who better to capture the excitement but also the bleakness of that period than him? But nothing is simple with Doherty. Not only did he not write his memoir – he talked to Spence, who then had the unenviable job of putting all the tales in chronological order and fact-checking them – but he hasn’t even read it.
“It’s too weird reading it because it’s in the first person,” he says.
Was that not what he expected?
“No! The initial agreement was I would talk to him on the phone and it would be in the third person. But when the book arrived it was all ‘I’, ‘I’, ‘I’. It’s completely shocking.”
So he’s a bit upset about it?
“Well, yeah, you can imagine. My agent’s words to me were: ‘Just think of the money.’ But we’d already spent the money.”
Worse, he says, “they’ve taken all the good bits out, because everybody’s lawyer had to read it. Carl had a good look at it, Kate [Moss]’s lawyers wanted to see it. I kept saying, ‘You gotta keep that in, it’s funny!’ But they kept saying, ‘No, no, no.’ Plus, my wife was a little bit concerned, but I said to her: ‘If you don’t read it and I don’t read it, we can just pretend it doesn’t exist.’ But that’s not how she does things.”
De Vidas plays the keyboard in his current band, Pete Doherty and the Puta Madres, and they got married last October. What did she take out of the book?
“Loads of stuff about other girls, obviously,” he says, and it’s true that several of Doherty’s girlfriends and the odd fiancee are notably absent. Similarly, singer Lisa Moorish, the mother of his 18-year-old son, Astile, and model Lindi Hingston, mother of his 10-year-old daughter Aisling, barely make an appearance. But he and Astile, an aspiring film-maker, have a good relationship, he says. He hasn’t see Aisling since his relationship with Hingston broke down.
One ex who very much does appear in the book is Moss. The pair were together for more than two years, and the combination of Britain’s most notorious musician and the world’s most rock’n’roll model made them the ultimate celebrity couple. Things briefly imploded for them in 2005 when photos of Moss appearing to take cocaine in a studio where Doherty was recording with Babyshambles ran on the front of the Mirror. There were rumours that Doherty himself had sold those photos, which he has always firmly denied, and Lord knows he had plenty of hangers-on who would have sold photos of their dead grandmother for a tenner. But surely he knew that Moss – a famously private person – would hate him writing about their relationship?
“I don’t think there’s anything about Kate in this that hasn’t been written before,” he says.
So you left out all the stories about Kate Moss going to crack dens, I say, as a joke, but he gets all jumpy: “Kate Moss didn’t go to crack dens! She never had an interest in all that, and, if I’m honest, that’s why we broke up.”
Does he regret choosing crack over Kate Moss?
“Do I regret breaking up?”
“No, course not. What kind of question is that?” he scoffs.
Despite the lawyers, the book still packs in plenty of good-value celebrity anecdotes, from a member of the Strokes nicking Doherty’s cocaine, to the time he and Moss went on holiday with – of all people – Sarah Ferguson, which ended with him being deported: “And the next thing, I woke up at Heathrow in a pair of Thai policeman’s shorts,” he writes. It is also very good at capturing the absolute chaos of Doherty’s life: on one page alone, his house gets flooded; he goes to court for driving offences; 13 wraps of heroin fall out of his pocket while in the courtroom; and a friend seriously injures a man while driving Doherty’s car, which neither of them were insured to drive. No one ever made being a drop-out sound more exhausting than Doherty.
Spence writes in the book’s introduction that he had been asking Doherty’s manager for years about the possibility of collaborating on a book, but was told not to hold his breath. Unexpectedly, in late 2020, Doherty agreed to do it. Money was undoubtedly a factor – Doherty tells me he only agreed to do the Libertines’ 2019 tour to pay a tax bill – but there was something else: in late 2019, he finally kicked his longstanding heroin and crack habit, and so felt sufficiently stable to embark on the project.
“Where are we today? 2021? July?” he asks.
“OK, so it’s been three years now since the end of – or at least a long pause in – this mission of mine to constantly get obliterated on crack, heroin and ketamine, which is a mission I took pretty seriously for 20 years, and every aspect of my life was affected by that mission. Even this, being able to jump in the car to get to a place where Zeus can run around – that feels new, and it’s good you’re here to see it,” he says.
The story of Doherty’s return to sobriety will probably not be adopted as a model by Narcotics Anonymous, given that it began with him being arrested in Paris twice in 48 hours – first for buying crack; then for beating up a motorcyclist who – Doherty writes – was driving “his scooter towards one of my dogs”. Then at the Paris police station, “I pulled my pants down and pissed all over the counter, was shouting stuff about the war … When they came to interview me, I was just in my QPR shirt and my pants and a piss-soaked blanket,” he says in the book. He was put on probation on the condition he go on Buvidal, which is an injection to block the effect of heroin. Also as part of his probation, he needed a permanent address. He’d hoped to go back to the Albion Rooms, the Libertines’ somewhat improbable hotel in Margate, Kent, where he’d been staying before the tour. But he had been banned. “I kept bringing various characters there, and it was no good for the vision Carl has for it as a business,” he says. So instead he went to De Vidas’s family home in Normandy, which is where they are still living. Then the pandemic hit.
“It’s not a big drugs area here. Then, of course, everything stopped. So all the circumstances combined to make it easier to be clean, even for a conniving scoundrel like myself. It just wasn’t worth the aggravation,” he says.
But 10 years ago, not even probation, a blocker and a pandemic would have come between him and drugs. Has he lost his appetite for self-annihilation?
“Maybe. I don’t know. Before the tour [in 2019], when I was living in the hotel in Margate, there was a fair bit of annihilation and chaos like what you saw on Brick Lane. I wasn’t dead, somehow, and that was more or less enough for me. But it’s true: 10 years ago, I absolutely wouldn’t have moved here.” His life in France is pretty quiet. “I try to just keep my feet up and walk the dogs. Read. Find a good gaff. Talk to people. Go to church sometimes.”
“Yeah. Katia doesn’t come. But it’s nice.”
In his book, he writes that the first time the Libertines played together “my heart was completely in it. In the same way I was a true believer in Jesus and how the love of God could save your soul when I was 14, now I was sold on rock’n’roll.”
Does he ever have moments when he thinks how different his life is now from how it once was?
“Yes, definitely moments when I think: how strange. But I suppose this is what I’ve always been searching for.”
“I think so. I don’t think I could have this kind of life in England. I get too easily distracted. Here, I get left alone,” he says. Once he romanticised England: “More gin in teacups / Leaves on the lawn / Violence in dole queues / And a pale thin girl behind the checkout”, he sang in Albion by Babyshambles. Now, he says, with a proud tug on his hat: “I’m a good Frenchman.” (He’s not getting French citizenship, however; instead he hopes to get an Irish passport, thereby ticking the EU box.) His French, he says, is “pas mal, mais pas parfait”, and he’s become a big fan of pétanque. He and De Vidas are looking to buy a house in the area.
We park the car on a rocky beach. I ask if I should bring Zeus’s lead. “Nah, he’ll be all right,” says Doherty, and Zeus immediately takes off for the shoreline.
As we walk, we talk about his 2012 payout from the News of the World, after the tabloid admitted hacking his phone. In his book, he says his mum, Jacqueline, and older sister, AmyJo, were also targeted. “Sometimes I think it wasn’t so bad. I used to get away with quite a lot as well,” he writes about the hacking. Is that really how he felt about being hacked? He looks at me as if I’m deranged.
“No, of course not. Where did you read that?”
In his memoir.
“God. No, what a ridiculous thing to say. It was incredibly distressing,” he says.
How did he feel about being such a mainstay of the tabloids for so long?
“Well, if they’d been celebrating the music and I looked half-decent, it would have been the dream!” he smiles a little sadly.
But they just wanted to write about drugs and Moss?
“Yeah, it was confusing.”
I tell him some people said he sold stories about himself to make money to buy drugs.
“There were times when the tabloids would want to talk, and I’d sometimes take their money on the condition that they’d write about the music.”
But they’d just write about Moss?
“Yeah, that’s all they wanted to write about.”
How does he feel now when the tabloids make fun of how much he’s changed physically and publish photos of him, say, eating a gigantic fry-up?
“I hear whispers about it, but I don’t see it. I was always quite good at tuning things out. And it becomes like a badge of honour, doesn’t it? Like, you think, ‘All right, some thick bastard in a Canary Wharf office wants to write about me, and I can take it.’”
Yet in his mother’s heartfelt and very sad 2006 memoir, Pete Doherty: My Prodigal Son, she writes that he is very “fragile”.
“Yeah that’s true, too. I do still feel fragile.”
Is that why he sought annihilation in drugs?
“If it was, that didn’t make any sense because heroin puts you in pretty vulnerable situations,” he says, and, after reading his memoir, no one could doubt it. It is, frankly, astonishing that he is still alive, especially as so many in his circle are not, including Amy Winehouse and Peaches Geldof, who both make appearances in the book.
“Amy was always moving so fast and I think she didn’t know what to do with herself when left to her own devices,” he says.
Other less well-known people around him died, including Mark Blanco, an actor who fell from a balcony after trying to talk to Doherty at a party, and Robin Whitehead, a member of the Goldsmith family, who died of a heroin overdose after spending the night with Peter Wolfe, a member of Doherty’s close circle. Doherty was absolved of any connection to either death, and he writes vehemently about his innocence in the book. But he doesn’t seem to draw the obvious conclusion here, which is that if you surround yourself with sketchy characters, people will get hurt. He and Wolfe, he says, will “always be friends”.
Doherty wants a coffee, so he sets off on a harum-scarum chase of Zeus, which takes about 10 minutes, and we head into a beachside cafe. He orders a black coffee and a glass of calvados, which he drinks with pleasure.
So he’s given up the heroin and crack, but still drinks alcohol?
“Yeah, but I think this has to be the next to go. I can’t perform without a drink, and that seems like something to work on,” he says. He recently DJed in Milan and had, he says, “some rum and coke beforehand”.
It’s good that drinking doesn’t then lead you into taking more drugs, I say.
“No, I mean, rum and coke,” he says, and I can’t help but laugh.
“But I then went to bed after my set finished. I didn’t feel the need to pursue it, so I think I handled it quite well,” he says.
Until he went so completely off the rails in his late teens, Doherty was happy, stable and studious. He grew up in a military family, the middle child between two sisters, and the family moved around Britain and Europe frequently. He got excellent GCSEs and A‑levels, but dropped out of university after a year, met Barât, formed the Libertines, and that was that. In her book, Jacqueline Doherty strenuously denies suggestions that her son had an unhappy childhood, although his father, also called Peter, was strict, and later disowned his son in despair at his drug taking.
“I had a very happy childhood,” Doherty agrees. Drug taking was partly about self-annihilation, he says, “but more so about adventure and romance. I’d love to set out to sea in a time before the world was mapped. I grew up in a very mapped world. So it was about going out into uncharted territory.”
Drugs always reduce those taking them to cliches, and for a long time Doherty seemed destined to become another classic rock star casualty. Yet for all the messiness around him, he always came across as a gentle soul, which is partly why he accrued such adoration from fans. Whereas others around him seemed just angry and scary.
“Yeah, I think that’s true. I think Carl had a lot of anger. But now he has an enormous amount of happiness with his kids, and he just loves the time he has with them,” he says. (Barât lives with his longtime girlfriend and their two sons in London.)
Barât and Doherty had one of the most fractious relationships in music, which included Doherty burgling Barât’s flat and then going to jail. One of the Libertines’ biggest hits, Can’t Stand Me Now, was about their falling out – but the two of them sang it while sharing a mic, so close they were almost kissing. The intensity of their bond was palpable, I say.
“Absolutely. You’re making me quite emotional,” he says, his eyes suddenly filling with tears.
Both men went on to have other bands – Barât formed Dirty Pretty Things – but they didn’t match the success of the Libertines. How are things between them now?
“Good! We still feel there’s unfinished business and there are more songs to write. But he doesn’t want to do it in England, or in France, which he sees as my turf. So the plan is to go to Jamaica and try to make another Libertines record.”
Doherty has another calvados, and a beer, and we talk about how he’s changed physically, although it’s not nearly as dramatic as the papers suggest. And, hey, who hasn’t put on weight over the past 20 years?
“It’s a bit embarrassing, isn’t it?” he says, patting his tummy. “But, yeah, the cheese, man. The cheese in this area – the brie, the camembert. There’s something special in the grass, you can taste it in the milk, it’s different here, it’s so creamy. I drink it by the pint. And the butter, and the bread, and the saucisson … ” He looks almost high on the thought of it all.
I tell him we’ll have to hurry if I’m going to make my train. He makes an exaggerated show of looking for his wallet and I reassure him the drinks are on me.
“Oh good, because I seem to have forgotten my pocketbook,” he grins.
We head out of the cafe, at which point Zeus tears off again. Doherty runs after him, and I mentally say goodbye to making my train. Fifteen minutes later, he drags Zeus back and we look for his car; it turns out Doherty had left the engine running for the past hour. On the drive back, we talk about US politics, about which he turns out to be very well informed.
“I got quite into CNN during lockdown. When you have something like 6 January [2021, when Trump supporters attacked the Capitol] you don’t want to be messing around – CNN is where you wanna be,” he says solemnly. He largely stays away from the internet; he doesn’t have a laptop and gave up his phone at the same time he quit drugs so he couldn’t contact any dealers.
I ask about his relationship with De Vidas, whom he’s been with for five years, and how she coped when he was still using.
“It was hard because she doesn’t do any drugs and hardly drinks, but I found I used much less when I was with her, because of that. And now it’s great. I’m a married man. And I take that very seriously,” he smiles.
Things with his parents are good, too. “They really love Katia, and at my wedding the Libertines performed and my dad did the singing. That was a really beautiful moment. Everything just came together.”
We make it back to his house just as Laura is about to give us both up for lost, and I give Doherty a hasty hug goodbye. “No, no, have another calvados!” he says cheerfully. Ah, why rush for a train? Hanging out with Doherty today has been like revisiting the silliness of youth without the sadness; when there were no rules, but also no plunges into the abyss. We hold up our glasses and he grins: “Cheers!”
• A Likely Lad by Pete Doherty and Simon Spence is published by Little, Brown (£20) on 16 June.To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. Peter Doherty will be in conversation at Earth, London on 14 June, 7:00 pm.
• This article is from Saturday, the Guardian’s 100-page magazine that has everything you need for inspiring weekends. If you subscribe to the Guardian on Saturdays you’ll never miss an issue, and can even get the paper delivered to your doorstep. Click here to find out more.
• This article was amended on 14 June 2022 to remove text related to A Likely Lad’s writing process that was added during editing and not intended for publication.