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Catherine Woodward
Pete Doherty – Bum or Bard?


Pete Doherty is one of those celebrities who has long surpassed the role of celebrity and transformed into something infinitely greater and all the more disparaging for that. He is a celebrity of whom everybody has something say, regardless of how much, or in most cases, how little they know. And the ordinary people, including you and I, who persist on having things to say about him, are completely understandable. The fact that we insist on talking and insist on prying is no sign of the times, it is not celebrity culture gone mad, the fact is that Pete Doherty has unfortunately ceased to be a person in the eyes of the public and is now instead the figurehead of an issue and an argument, one that people will never stop talking about, even when Doherty is gone, since it precedes him and engulfs him so completely. Poor soul.

In fact Doherty is the poster child of a lot of arguments and I’ve chosen to insist on just one of them here – in the light of Doherty’s lifestyle can we still think of him as an artist? Or is he a criminal, a bum?

Personally, I take umbrage at the idea of artistic integrity, why does Doherty’s lifestyle, no matter how infamous, have any bearing on his status as an artist? It follows that the vocation of the artist is somehow tied up with morals and that without them no ‘legitimate’ art can be created. But art is art, isn’t it? It reminds me of the alchemists, who purified themselves first and foremost over their powders and potions because only a pure soul could achieve a grand discovery of science. Both alchemy and legitimate art seem a bit absurd to me.

In 2003 Doherty had his first major legal difficulty when he broke into a flat belonging to his fellow Libertines band mate Carl Barât and was sentenced to six months in prison, of which he only served two on appeal. It was the culmination of a string of crimes that Doherty committed to feed his heroin addiction, including drug dealing, male prostitution and robbery. Upon the band’s insistence Doherty checked himself in for drugs rehabilitation but was unable to shake his habit. In 2004 the Libertines split as a result of Doherty’s continuing drug addiction and went on to follow other projects without their former front man. Since then Doherty has been the centre of numerous media scandals as a results of his addictions. In 2007 a photograph was released that supposedly showed Doherty forcing his cat to smoke a crack pipe. In 2008 the media revealed pictures of Doherty sporting a certificate which proved he had passed a drugs test while in prison - this sadly didn’t last. In December 2009 heroine fell out of his coat pocket while he was in court for drugs and driving offences, after the court he was immediately taken to a police station and re-arrested. The following day he was charged with offences in connection to a serious hit and run incident. Between these was a jail sentence for breach of probation, numerous drugs and driving offences, a charge of robbery and black mail and trips in and out of various rehabilitation centres.

I don’t want to condemn or condone any of Doherty’s crimes, regardless of moral standpoint he has committed crimes, his acts are illegal. What I want to show is that Pete Doherty is both a bum and a bard.

I find it difficult to think of Peter Doherty without Arthur Rimbaud, the infamous child prodigy of the 19th century, pioneer of symbolism and one of the major literary turning points that brought on the modernist movement. Precocious and scandalous, Rimbaud’s youth is almost a moral and intellectual mirror of Doherty’s, the difference being that 136 years after Rimbaud’s poetic explosion, we still regard him as one of the most important and influential artists in the history of poetry.

‘I get paid in beers and bottles’ wrote the seventeen year old Rimbaud to Georges Izambard, his former teacher, in 1871 ‘Right now I’m depraving myself as much as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working at making myself a visionary.’ Arthur Rimbaud ran away way from home when he was sixteen and fled to Paris, he was immediately arrested. He was eventually returned home by Izambard but the young poet escaped once again and after a couple more attempts stayed in Paris, supported by poet Paul-Marie Verlaine. What followed was a four year debauchery, wallowing in absinth and floating in clouds of dope, during which Rimbaud wrote reams of the most bizarre and revolutionary poetry. It is widely held that the two poets, Rimbaud and Verlaine, were carrying on an illicit love affair during this time which ended abruptly when in a drunk and hysterical fit, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the hand. Verlaine was arrested and Rimbaud returned to his home in Charleville. The two met only once after the incident and then never again.

At the age of fifteen Rimbaud was already an astoundingly talented poet and his most famous poem The Drunken Boat was written even before he had met Verlaine and embarked on his scandalous Parisian interlude. Despite his profligate lifestyle between the ages of sixteen and twenty (incidentally, after which he never wrote anything ever again) Rimbaud is still a highly regarded poet, and often he is highly regarded because of it. Many famous artists, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith for example, were inspired by his experimental lifestyle, both in drug use and sexually.

A few others come to mind; Coleridge and his opium addiction, the influence of which gave us Khubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner among others, and of course Lord Byron with his mountainous debts and scandalous love affairs.

Even our most revered poets weren’t morally pure but we haven’t discredited or disregarded their work and we certainly haven’t stripped them of their titles as artists. And in most cases their debauched lifestyle has superseded their work. Byron’s life is as much a reason to love him now as ever his work was, and Rimbaud’s life is romantically reduced to ‘bohemian’ particularly after the 1960’s made such a lifestyle artistically profound. It would seem that history reconfigures the meaning of a debauched lifestyle, turns it into an antique quirk which raises the poet gloriously above his well behaved counterparts. It may be possible that time will use the same process on Doherty, that through the rosy lens of nostalgia he will be more admired and respected than he ever was in our time. So once an artist always an artist and after a while, even more of an artist. But this brings us elsewhere, what do we mean by artist? And consequently, how is it possible to not be one?

The Drunken Boat at the very least attests that Rimbaud was an artist ‘Lighter than cork I revolved upon the waves/that roll the dead forever in the deep,/ten days, beyond the blinking eyes of land!/lulled by storms, I drifted seaward from sleep.’ And popularly Pete Doherty’s music attests to his being an artist. It is a little sad though, I think, that under scandal and inde rock music, Doherty’s other works of art go popularly missed, and it’s particularly sad of his very early work. In 2006 Doherty signed a deal with Orion books to publish his journals, scrap books of pictures, poetry and drawings entitled The Books of Albion. When he was 16 he won a poetry competition which lead to a tour of Russia organised by The British Council. Doherty had remarkable talent for poetry and boundless potential. The Books of Albion, available for viewing on the internet, are a wonderful testament to that fact. A Rebours, one of the numerous journals contains a beautiful poem: ‘SNAKE DREAMS FROM YOUR HAIR/MY PRETTY CHILD/TONIGHT IS THE DAY/THE DAY/THE FIRST DAY OF YOUR DIVINITY......../I STROKED HER THIGH AND DEATH SMILED.’ (AWAKE) The ending is particularly breathtaking ‘PETE+PETE FEEL THE BREEZE, BRUSHED BY THE WINGS/OF MADNESS.’ It has a remarkable sensitivity and sadness.

Along with the course of history I too believe that once a man is an artist, he always is an artist, and I think that the strength of one piece of art, be it Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat, Doherty’s Awake or Coleridge’s Kublah Kahn may be enough to earn him that title and to attest to his artistic identity. While an artist’s art still lives he cannot be unmade an artist, bum, bard or otherwise. We have seen as much from history.

Other definitions of ‘the artist’ however, do exist. Rimbaud himself had much to say on the subject.

‘I have realised I am a poet.’ Rimbaud wrote to Izambard ‘It’s not my doing at all...so what if a piece of wood discovers it’s a violin, and the hell with those who can’t realise, who quibble over something they know nothing at all about!’ For Rimbaud an artist is born an artist, they are a particular kind of person who only needs the right treatment to bring out their artistry; the difference between Rimbaud’s artists and ordinary people is the same fundamental difference between violins and pieces of wood. As his theories spill out and onwards however Rimbaud arrives at something like a paradox ‘The problem is to attain the unknown by disorganising all the senses. The suffering is immense, but you have to be strong, and to have been born a poet’. To have been born an artist is not enough; in Rimbaud’s mind the artist only achieves his full potential through gruelling self destruction, experiencing the greatest depths of suffering (a violin must be tuned before it is played). Rimbaud elaborates rather dramatically ‘A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systemised disorganisation of all the senses...Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest strength, a superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great invalid, the great accurst – and the supreme scientist! For he attains the unknown!’ Hence the poet’s scandalous, destructive hunt for the muse.

It is reasonable to expect then that Rimbaud would laud Doherty as an artist for his addiction, his crime and his self destruction. By the young poet’s proclamation Doherty has raised himself above all others for plumbing the unknown, the evil and the fearful. True to the prophesy the singer and poet has become something like the nation’s invalid, it’s adopted medical case and certainly the great accurst of celebrities, like all famous addicts alike. Perhaps he was right, after all how many artists go so far into such darknesses? How many have come to own such a paradigm of sufferings? Who has tuned themselves to such a pitch as Pete Doherty?

We could go on and on like this if we were to share Rimbaud’s belief, but Rimbaud himself proved the theory wrong within the brief spate that was his own disorganisation of all the senses. Eventually drink and drugs dulled the poet’s imagination, he lost his spark and his vigour, he saw no visions, he turned sour. Once at an after dinner poetry reading the drunk Rimbaud spouted abuse throughout the performances, when photographer Carjat attempted to eject him Rimbaud attacked him with a sword cane. He was the sport and viscous joke of the Paris papers and what’s more, according to Paul Schmidt, translator of Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works, despite his holy debauchery ‘the visions never came. Everything he wrote, the songlike poems that Verlaine delighted in, the prose poems, were ending now in dissolution, as the golden vision crumbled.’

Where Rimbaud expected to soar into atmospheric heights, he eventually dissolved into nothing. It was a similar story for Coleridge; at the height of his opium addiction he was scheduled to deliver a series of lectures on Shakespeare and Milton, and as a result of his habit, among other things, the renowned professor delivered a spasmodic series, often poor, highly variant and digressive. Both great artists and thinkers found themselves falling apart and their talent slipping away from them as a result of their lifestyle.

It was no different with Doherty. Doherty’s solo career has been blighted by his systematic disorganisation; he has become notorious for not only turning up late to his own gigs but for not turning up at all, in early 2009 fans were impressed when he turned up to The Picture House in Edinburgh ‘sober and coherent’, a big difference to the Doherty who two years before had attempted to score drugs at a venue after one of his own performances. Though even this apparently optimistic period was mixed; in the same month as Picture House gig an unimpressed crowd at Grimsby Auditorium bombarded Doherty with drinks, coins and other detritus. Reviewers have denounced the artist a ‘mumbling, stumbling junkie’ and even though we have witnessed sporadic comebacks and assertions of Doherty’s health, he has remained generally in the public mind as a sad, defeated case. The most recent reminder occurred in Ibiza, not long ago in early June.

This year Doherty opened the Ibiza Rocks event and while staying in the Ibiza Rocks hotel daubed the logo of the event in his own blood, surrounded by a bloody heart on the walls of the penthouse suit occupied by the band Bombay Bicycle Club. This wasn’t the first time that Doherty had used his own blood in a piece of artwork; in 2008 an exhibition of blood paintings called Art of the Albion took place in the Chappe Gallery in Paris, all the same it was a strange shock for the band who had apparently ‘found it funny but also very weird’.

It is difficult not to leap to conclusions about such a gesture, but it has emerged as desperate, extreme and disturbing. The Sun summed it up as Doherty’s ‘typically grim fashion’, and that is possibly the most upsetting thing about the whole incident, that in those three words a newspaper can reduce what may be the most desperate kind of expression and all other expressions before it, to a mere joke or nuisance. If this reduction really stands in the popular mind then maybe Doherty no longer is an artist; like Rimbaud before him his addled life has lead him to be read as a joke, not a poet and like Coleridge and his lectures, he is a disappointment, unreliable and a nuisance – not an artist.

Perhaps it is after all possible to be an artist once and then to be an artist no longer. The concept of the artist is a strangely sacred one. The romantic ideal of the artist is of someone who is more that human, someone beyond the human, who suffers and creates ‘A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth’ said Shelley ‘A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds’. For a long time the artist has been almost like a god, but as that eternally repeated Nietzschen sound bite goes ‘God is dead’ and when even God can be deposed what hope does an artist have?

What all this comes down to is an admittance that in Doherty’s life time Pete the bum may well replace Pete the bard, if it hasn’t happened already, and if not in essence then at least in appearance. After all, for Doherty to be perceived as either requires a public to perceive him and the whim of his perceivers will fix his identity and possibly his destiny. But while we still have record of his art work (his paintings, his journals, his music and his poetry) I don’t doubt that he’ll go the same way as Rimbaud and all the others like him, raised with the passing of time to the position of a suffering saint and great pioneer. The next question to ask would be ‘how long will it take?’





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