Part II of III. Last week, we joined Alec on the rain-soaked streets of Paris as he encountered Pete Doherty, the perpetually high frontman of Brit band Babyshambles.
Once I've been introduced to Pete Doherty, I'm at a loss for words. Do I start making up questions to ask him? No, he hates interviews. Do I tell him I like his music? He's heard that a million times before from countless, nameless fans.
Sepi is less star-struck than the rest of us and immediately begins asking Doherty questions, talking slowly and concisely as if speaking to a child. This manner of speech is accepted without question around him, since it's clearly the best way to communicate with the spaced-out rock star.
We feel as though we must treat Doherty delicately, so as not to upset his fragile state of ethereal unconcern. Doherty seems to know one general emotion, or emotionlessness — a detached, slightly curious mood that's an unusual combination of childlike wonder and drugged complacence. He spooks easily, withdrawing completely at the first sign of any quick movement or aggressive question, so we tread softly in our actions and words.
We learn that Doherty's just made a surprise appearance at the Elysee Montmartre, the local concert venue. He says he's in Paris for a few days to write and do a few gigs.
Sepi asks what he's been writing. "I've just had me journals published," Doherty says, referring to a decade's worth of personal diaries.
"Congratulations," Sepi says, after waiting a beat to make sure he's done talking. It's not always easy to tell — Doherty fades in and out, frequently trailing off and starting again unexpectedly.
He's easily distractible as well, and soon he decides to show Sepi some of his artwork that has recently been exhibited. He begins eagerly rummaging through his battered army-green rucksack, releasing a cascade of museum-exhibit pamphlets from within its depths. Doherty searches through them, occasionally commenting on the contents. The piece he's looking for is an abstract work made from his own blood, saved from shooting up heroin. Soon he's triumphantly displaying a small reproduction of the red-splattered canvas, which carries no distinguishable form or meaning. But it's a Pete Doherty product, so we ponder it with due respect.
"I've been told if you want to make it in this game / You got to have the luck, you got to have the look." — "The Man Who Would Be King"
The most important tenet of the cult of rock stardom, and of celebrity in general, is the praise of genius whether it exists or not. In a way, all of Doherty's work is like the blood-painting he shows Sepi — it inhabits the murky grey area in between brilliance and stupidity. Even among hardened music aficionados, the merit of his work is debatable.
A possible comparison is the Italian artist Piero Manzoni, who took a shit in a can (in fact he took 90 shits in 90 cans for his 1961 "merda d'artista" series) and called it art. One of his shit-tins was eventually bought by the Tate in 2002 for $61,000. When listening to the loose, barely-finished songs on Babyshambles' debut, which can sound like a band of tweens trying to play a pop hit they once heard on the radio, it's easy to wonder if Doherty didn't essentially take a shit in a can in a recording studio. But this, of course, is part of the appeal: Depending on your perspective, Doherty's shit-in-a-can may be great art.
Manzoni purportedly created his merda d'artista series to protest the state of the art market in 1961; Doherty could be staging a similar protest against the music industry in 2006. But his motives don't really matter in the end, because whether it's great art or shit, it's the selling point that counts. And Doherty has sold himself very successfully, inadvertently or not.
Doherty possesses a kind of half-accidental marketing genius, one that allows him to publish practically any piece of schlopp he might create. Case in point — Doherty's "prison diary," the most memorable part of which may well be a prison-themed parody of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." Would these rambling, cluttered passages really have been published if the author was anyone other than Pete Doherty?
Yet at the same time, Doherty has managed to set himself apart as a musician, crafting a loose, scatterbrained sound that's all his own, and that mirrors his lifestyle perfectly. The all-too-appropriate name of his new band, Babyshambles, encapsulates in a word the combination of doodling guitars and warbling vocals he first developed with the Libertines. Every song sounds like it was laid down on the first take, and never mind the playback.
It may be out of necessity that the under-produced sound has become Doherty's trademark (since it must be incredibly hard to get him into the studio for any significant amount of time), but it's unique nonetheless. And since short spurts of amazing creativity break up sections of ill-conceived and poorly-executed rehash, you can neither dismiss the style as amateurish nor laud it as great.
You face the same problem with Doherty himself. There seems to be a disarming intelligence lurking behind his unfocused brown eyes, but you can't be sure since it's mostly obscured by a drug-induced haze. This, in effect, is Doherty's great enigma — is he an innovative new kind of performance artist living his music, or a drugged-out hack who's stumbled upon superstardom?
It's an enigma that tantalizes fans and critics alike. Doherty isn't really famous for his music, although that has won him some critical acclaim. He gets far more press just for being Pete Doherty. He may be hard to track down, but he's easy to keep tabs on — just grab the nearest tabloid or music magazine. Doherty is almost a permanent fixture of Rolling Stone's bi-weekly photo spread, most recently for arriving at a Stockholm airport too drugged out to walk (he was transported by wheelchair).
He doesn't seem to mind the fact that his persona has eclipsed every other aspect of his career; in fact, he seems to welcome it. Doherty knows exactly how to keep himself in the public eye, no matter what he's doing, to the point that you wonder if at least some of his spontaneous behavior is actually premeditated. I wouldn't put it past Doherty, who for all his perceived delicacy and drugged wonder retains a cold intellect, just barely to be glimpsed through an occasional glint in his eye.
Alec Luhn is a sophomore intending to major in journalism.