Undoubtedly a controversial figure in the rock ‘n’ roll scene of the 2000s, one thing that has always been pure about The Libertines and Babyshambles’ own Peter Doherty, is his complete immersion in his work and lifestyle. While during the indie explosion Doherty acted as a figure of constant, head-scratching beauty, he mirrored it, like so many romantic poets, with flirtations with jail time.
Often caught red-handed with drugs, usually while on reprimand for a similar offence, Doherty has spent more time at her majesty’s pleasure than most would believe. Never set to live out his life as an army brat, Doherty took the books he adored and acted them out on the streets of sprawling London. Like any former prisoner will tell you, the incessant boredom is the worst thing about spending time in jail. As such, one needs a tune to keep one going. For Doherty, it could only have been The Beatles.
The Beatles may not have been a band that Doherty and his partner-in-crime, Carl Barat, were wildly obsessed with during their time in the mire of the garage rock scene. Still, there is such an obvious lineage of style that it would be silly not to recognise the group as influencing The Libertines. Doherty, himself, was a devotee of Oasis, and therefore, the presence of the Fab Four would have likely been as ubiquitous as the squawk of the Gallagher brothers. And, as luck would have it, The Beatles would find themselves comforting Doherty as he faced another stretch.
Speaking with The Guardian as part of the Soundtrack your Life feature, Doherty shared how the band, and one song, in particular, got him through his time in jail. The track is the classic ‘Free as a Bird’, a song initially recorded by John Lennon in 1977 and then finished by the remaining Beatles, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in 1995 as part of the Anthology series. For many, the song is a hybrid of bittersweet joy, but for Doherty, it was salvation, if only for a moment.
He tells the publication: “There is a corner of some skanky Victorian gaol cell that is forever Billy Bilo’s [Doherty’s playful name for himself] and it was there that I squashed my ear up against the crack in a cell door and listened to ‘Free as a Bird’ coming out of the Screw’s transistor radio from the landing below. ‘Turn it up, Guv’, I begged.” It’s the kind of tableau one might expect to find in Charles Dickens novel, not a 21st-century prison.
The vision of life at Wormwood Scrubs continues, as Doherty recalls the answer to his question: “He turned it down. ‘What’s that, Doherty?’ ‘Can you turn the radio up, please, Guv?’ ‘Listen to him, will ya? He thinks he’s at the Camden Palace; this is Scrubs mate’. ‘It’s called Koko’s now, you fat northern c*nt’, I muttered under my breath. ‘No,’ came a voice from the next cell. ‘It’s definitely Scrubs.’”
While the poetry of the song’s title was likely not lost on Doherty, the sincere connection he has to the track makes this story all the more pleasing. The truth is, with good music, you can do almost anything, like see out your conviction at Wormwood Scrubs.