From Albion to Shangri-La consists of collected excerpts from Peter Doherty’s journals, circa 2008 to 2013, with an added selection from his tour diaries, all rounded off with a previously unpublished interview with editor, Nina Antonia – the rock journalist’s rock journalist, no stranger to the darker excesses of some of rock’s more elegantly wasted sons – whose sharp eye and clear ear have been called upon to assist in this literary distillation, as explained in her Introduction.
So, here is a brief download of life-behind-the-scenes with the selective concentration and short attention span of a pipe-fuelled fly-on-the-wall, flicker-finger on the fast forward of a secret video diary – cut-up surveillance footage to try and keep tabs on what the kaleidoscope of chemically accelerated and trance-translated selves have been up to. The dramatis personae included at the beginning tips the wink to the fact that this is the most fictional of literary creations of them all: True Life Confessional, the reportage of simple facts about a far from simple life – it’s all there, folks – only the names have been changed to protect the guilty, the innocent needing no such cover. (As Doherty sings on the latest album’s Fall From Grace : “If I had to tell the truth, I would be lying.”)
The tour diaries themselves are a confusion of times and places (“I think we are in Leeds”), blurred half-memories of shows well played, shows that deteriorate into random violence, and seemingly never-ending encounters with the young who are the loyal subjects of this uncrowned prince of all the rebels-without-a-clue, timely reminders of just what he means to them:
A 17 year old girl on the crush barrier, saw her briefly afterwards. She works in a jam factory. Left school at 14. Lives for music – says that Babyshambles, Libertines, me, lyrics, helped her through depression, boredom, through life. Her father died from a heroin overdose when she was born. Her mum hadn’t let him see the newborn baby. He went home. Banged up. Checked out . . .
It is because Doherty appears to speak to them, and for them, appears to be one of them – if only writ tabloid large, like them, only moreso – that “the kids” (of all ages) keep the faith. They feel that his successes are their successes, his failures are their failures, and that if he can come from little-or-nothing and succeed, and fail, and still survive and show the hope of succeeding again (even if only to fail again, then try again – try again), then maybe they can, too. It may not be Samuel Beckett, but it’s something. And something has got to be better than nothing. (“Nothing Comes To Nothing” the most recent single declares.)
From Albion to Shangri-La can proudly and rightfully take its place among all the other great works that fill that most singular of literary categories, the drug confessions of sensitive poet souls, along with William Burroughs, Jim Carroll, Jean Cocteau, Richard Hell and Alex Trocchi (to name just a few I can see on the shelf with a half-turn in my chair.) Not forgetting, of course, the grandaddy of them all, Thomas De Quincey: his Confessions of An English Opium Eater sets the basic blueprint, after all, and he and Mr. Doherty would find common-ground, agree over much familiar territory – although De Quincey might just wonder at all the references to Galton & Simpson, Edward G. Robinson and Colombo, or blowjobs from très chic French schoolgirl nymphets! All the reasons, justifications and excuses, the pleasures and pains, the inner-directed flight that almost inevitably ends with inertia – but also the jewels among the darkness, the moving heart-warming beautiful flashes of insight that illuminate this human condition we all share. “Spiritual Beings having a Human Experience” – which is really just a more palatable, New Age way of re-stating that age-old Gnostic dilemma: we are beautiful, pure spirits, mired in a fallen world of suffering, pain, and frightened, nagging flesh . . .
Speaking of which, one of the more striking – at times unsettling – aspects of such memoirs is the notion they project of Self-as-Object, the almost scientific detachment from the body shared by the religious ascetic and the hardcore drug-abuser. I’ll spare you the details, delicate reader, of the autopsy-in-progress, but I’m sure you can guess . . .
Indifference to discomfort and squalor. Intravenous self-mortification. Stigmata of the syringe. The body re-sculpted into a psychic launchpad, more fitting vehicle for the exploration of the endless interior. Outside is hostile, and to be defended against or escaped from. So much a cosmonaut of inner space that even their own bodies – never mind their actions, failings, feelings, or possible consequences – become distanced from them, a distance ever harder to bridge. Epiphanies of a Midnight Sun, too much in the moment, yet too much outside of time . . . The unthinkable becomes the everyday, and the everyday becomes unthinkable . . . Like a former prize-fighter or grizzled warrior, proud of their scars – each one read as a badge of honour, the sign of a scrape emerged from (just!) – the subliminal tattoos in which a whole hidden history can be read.
Here’s the rub: if Doherty turned up on time, clean and sober and freshly washed, didn’t misbehave, played well and spoke articulately, there wouldn’t be much of a scoop and one wonders how much interest there would still be? The sensation-hungry media, all surface and scandal, has no real interest in taking time over story or substance, especially where an all-too-predictable (they think) commodity like “Potty Pete” Doherty is concerned. The irony is, of course, he might just turn out to be an intelligent and sensitive poet, with something to say about the human condition worth hearing, over a well-crafted twin-guitar-based catchy song. But at the rate things have been going . . .
Irvine Welsh, himself no stranger to chemically-inspired creativity and attendant controversy, once dismissed fellow countryman, the infamous Beat junkie writer Alex Trocchi, as “The George Best of Scottish literature.” It’s a comparison that might Peter Doherty might appreciate, constellating as it does precocious talent, literary notoriety, junk and even football – but the greater concern at stake here, surely, is that he doesn’t follow the likes of Trocchi (or Best, for that matter) into a self-thwarting internal exile, or worse. Mercifully, however, Doherty has survived long enough to disperse the grinning vultures, those who just could not wait for him to join Brian, Janis, Jimi and Jim, Kurt and even his talented but tragic friend, Amy, in the infamous “27 Club” – without doubt the one Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall-of-Fame nobody in their right mind should aspire to.
(An all-too-grim reminder that this is a game played for keeps is to read the line written into Doherty’s open diary by one of his friends – “I solemnly swear I am not going to die” – and then do a double-take at the signature: Peaches Geldof.)
One can only hope that having survived this long, his obvious love of music, poetry, and love and life itself that have got him this far – with their combined powers to excite, inspire, intoxicate, soothe and sustain beyond anything that can be found in the chemist’s, or at the darker end of the street – will continue to matter enough. As Nina Antonia observes in her Introduction:
When I asked Peter why it was so hard to rest, he replied like a child on Christmas Eve . . . ‘Because there’s too much going on.’ The substance of the giddy tornado of his mind now romps across the pages that follow.
As a veteran of life with Johnny Thunders, the New York Dolls, and enigmatic narco-reclusive Peter Perrett of The Only Ones (whose Another Girl, Another Planet surely stands as one of the all-time invocations of the exhilarating confusion of the rush of love and love of the rush) – all of whom she has known intimately, and written about candidly and insightfully – as well as her near-decade of working in the field of substance misuse, Nina Antonia must know better than most that, in the end, there really is nothing much to be said and done.
In the interview with Antonia that closes the book, Doherty reflects:
Talking to kids now they just don’t feel confident taking off to a new city, getting a job behind a bar. Now it’s so much more difficult to get a cash-in-hand job, find a flat, find a squat, the world is so much more sterile.
This is precisely the reason why we need poets, songsmiths and writers like him, as an antidote to the bland conformity and soul-sucking sterility that is on the rise all around us. In May this year, interviewed by Barcelona TV for a launch of his paintings, Flags of the Old Regime, Doherty was asked what his art meant in his life, and he replied, characteristically playfully but also tellingly:
It is my life in the same way that, y’know, a baker smells of flour. It’s my life, I live inside songs and with crayons and y’know – I like the sea, and love – but, y’know . . . I spend my time . . . here [taps forehead] trying to devise a way out of reality, and . . . sooner or later, if you spend enough time inventing a world, you can convince yourself it exists.
Let’s hope that Peter Doherty never gives up on his dream of inventing a world that he can call home, and carries on inspiring others in the process. God Bless the Good Ship Albion in her continuing voyages in search of Arcady and Shangri-La!
(Photos courtesy of Nina Antonia)
Some videos from a recent book signing:
From Albion to Shangri-La is published by Thin Man Press and is now available on Kindle and in paperback from July 1st. Buy it here with a 30% special web discount.