Peter Doherty – The Fantasy Life of Poetry & Crime
Peter Doherty, the poetic rock star ‘legendaire’ exhibits his art in Montmartre in Paris. What is it about? And how come Love Love is one of the rare magazines to be invited to talk to him about it?
It’s a Tuesday in December and I’m working from home in my Parisian apartment, as a good citizen, in my pyjamas. When I get a text from Thomas Baignères asking me if I want to interview Peter Doherty. Thomas knows that I’ve been trying to get a hold of Peter, since over a year now. I’ve been asking around for his address, sending magazines to some place that I later find out is just a warehouse. I really badly want to include Doherty’s art and lyrics in a Love Love print magazine.
Peter Doherty – photo (still) Phillipe Fist, collage Lisa Marie Jarlborn
I get dressed in a flurry, writing down questions and getting in the mood with some of Doherty’s songs, messaging my little Love Love team to see if they can also magically get ready in half an hour to help with taking pictures and recording. I am nervous, stressed out, super excited and I am out the door. Katia de Vidas (Doherty’s girlfriend and member of The Puta Madres), Thomas Baignères (musician & poet), Alexandre Gilbert (the owner of the gallery), film-maker Philippe Fist, photographer Alain Bibal and a few others (journalists, photographers) are standing outside. Peter is inside being interviewed by the radio.
We wait in the freezing cold, smoke cigarettes and chat for quite some time. I am frozen stone cold when I finally get to see Peter. Alain Bibal snaps a few photographs of us and I get to give Peter some Love Love magazines. He flips through it and seems to instantly like it. Even though he says he’ll read it before deciding what he thinks!
Peter is wearing rain boots. Are they the same as the ones from those famous mud walks in Coachella I wonder.. He has a rustic, rainproof coat on. He looks very countryside. Perhaps it’s the living in Normandy, because that’s where he’s been spending his time lately.
The exhibition at the gallery is opening the next day, even though a very few will be able to see it because of the lockdown. It’s called The Fantasy Life of Poetry and Crime and it includes more than 30 of Peter’s recent paintings. We go inside.
Peter is drinking a beer. We’re walking around his exhibition together. It’s still a bit messy, the hanging isn’t finished, but the artwork fills the space well. The colour white is dominant, then there is the neon pink, the yellows, the greens, the quick graffiti spray expression…Stencil typewriters and typed lyrics pop up everywhere, rapid pencil drawings, outlines of faces and forms. Someone says there is blood on one of the paintings. I try to find it later, but forget to ask Peter about it.
He’s looking through Love Love magazine and gets stuck on illustrator and artist Neal Fox’s pages:
Peter: These are fucking amazing. Neal Fox ah? There’s Charles Bukowski! And Tom Waits!
LM: Yeah, he puts these artists in made up situations…
Peter: There’s Mickey Mouse with a gun
LM: Because Bukowski is sleeping with his girlfriend (Minnie Mouse) see?
Peter: Ha ha ha, and that’s Ginsberg?
LM: Yeah, that’s Ginsberg having a mushroom trip with Dionysus.
Peter: He never shuts up about cocks does he Ginsberg
LM: And assholes
Peter: Assholes yeah yeah.
LM: There are a lot of beat poets in the magazine. Like Charles Plymell for example. Who was great friends with Neal Cassady and Burroughs
Peter: Yeah, he used to live in that weird building, when Burroughs lived in Paris, didn’t he? In that strange building near the bookstore, near Shakespeare and co. I think that was the guy that lived there, they stayed in the house together and they went to see Céline on a day trip and he was really just a grumpy old man, an old fuck
(I find out later from Charley that he wasn’t the one to visit Céline, so who this mystery person was is yet to find out)
Then we sit down to start the filmed interview for Love Love Tv. Peter lights a cigarette.
LM: When did you first know you were a poet Peter?
Peter: Well, when my mom told me I was a poet…I don’t know
Long before I was one. I just had a calling I think
LM: Do you remember something of the first thing that you wrote? Was it a song or a poem maybe?
Peter: It’s really embarrassing but I think I was two or one and a half and my mom was putting me to bed and she said ‘lay down your head’ and apparently I sat up and went
‘head and bed, head and bed’
and I learned my first words. It’s a true story.
LM: I love it.
I know you like William Blake. Anything in particular by him, like a favourite poem?
Peter: The one about the little boy “piping down the meadows wild” you know uh
A vision of rural archetype
LM: I can only remember
“Tiger, Tiger burning bright
In the Forests of the Night”
Peter: Yeah, it makes me think of the Mentalist now.
LM: …I wouldn’t know, is that a TV-show?
Peter: Yeah, it’s a series about a serial killer and he’s obsessed with
“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
in the forest of the night
What immortal hand or eye”
Then we end the quote together:
“Dare frame thy fearful symmetry”
LM: Do you have any other big inspirations, poets or maybe musicians who are up there with William Blake for you?
Peter: William Blake is like some mystical grandfather figure that I can’t really touch or be with. It’s quite distant. The world was a much more unspoiled place. And the kind of poetry you wrote, about complete freedom of nature. But yeah, there are too many people who I genuinely relate to and are influenced by. Lots of writers. A lot of what I call ‘Honky Noir’
LM: It’s what you’ve written on Samuel Beckett (in pink neon spray paint on one of the artworks of the exhibition)
Peter: It’s people like Nelson Algren or Dashiell Hammett. Do you know Nelson Algren? He wrote the Man With The Golden Arm. It’s about the American Dream, or the American Nightmare if you like. And Hunter S. Thompson, do you know him?
LM: Yes I really like Hunter S. Thompson. Both Blake and Thompson were illustrators like you, no wait..Thompson didn’t make his own drawings
Peter: No, it was Ralph Steadman yeah. But they worked amazingly hand in hand though. I don’t think ever…or Roald Dahl didn’t make his own pictures did he? I don’t think there’s ever been a greater meeting of artists in prose than Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman. And they were really good friends as well
LM: Can you tell us a little bit about the paintings of the exhibition?
Peter: Yeah, I mean I can try. This is about being in in Normandy and in a certain frame of mind. “The Fantasy Life of Poetry and Crime” as expressed in, shall we say Maurice Leblanc. But if Maurice Leblanc had been born 100 years later
LM: So how long did it take you to make these?
Peter: I don’t know, half an hour
LM: Oh, for each one?
Peter: No, I’m joking, I’m joking. But it’s been a bit of a mad rush lately, the last couple of weeks. There is a couple that are a little bit older. It’s mainly stencils and using lyrics from some songs I’ve written recently
LM: Is this your “lockdown” art then? Have you been over there (in Normandy) during the lockdown?
Peter: Yeah, in complete lockdown. That’s what the world is like now
LM: Where do you work? Do you have an atelier?
Peter: Yeah, this lovely fella called Frank, who owns a restaurant in Étrétat called the Marie-Antoinette, he rented me a little space, on the other side of the valley. I think he’s going to live there eventually, but at the moment it’s just an empty huge, cold warehouse. So yeah, I got some rum and some of my favourite books and then I just immersed myself in Honky Noir really
LM: How long is a session of work? Can you stay in there all day?
Peter: That’s the dream isn’t it? To be able to go three or four days at it, like I used to. But I don’t really take drugs like I used to, so I feel a bit different, I can’t do three or four days anymore, so it’s more like, I don’t know, 40 hours…is a good time
LM: 40 hours!
Peter: Yeah, 40 hours is a good time to get into the space, without having to worry about the dogs or the outside world and just get stuck into writing and reading, drinking and listening to the audiobook of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ which is a fantastic book
LM: I love that book
Peter: I can’t get enough of that book. The whole atmosphere
LM: It made me write in my journal compulsively
Peter: Yeah, it does make you wanna write letters as well
LM: Any movies that you saw lately that you liked?
Peter: I do watch modern films intermittently. But I’m a little bit obsessive about the films I watch. I watch the same films over and over
LM: What are your favourites?
Peter: John Huston’s ‘Beat the Devil”, with Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart. It’s on YouTube. You can watch it anytime you like. And The Man with The Golden Arm, the movie of the book. It’s one of the rare times that the book is matched in glory by the film.
And Maltese Falcon, do you know it?
LM: No (embarrassed)
Peter: Yes you do! There’s a black falcon incrusted with jewels and Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade, the private detective. There are too many films to watch again and again and again and again. So yeah, I just sink into that atmosphere and the ambiance of film noir, I love it
Peter and I get up and start walking around the exhibition, talking about Peter’s artworks.
LM: I like this one, with the pencil drawings
Peter: That’s Edward G. Robinson He’s an incredible actor…he’s about here somewhere (pointing). So I see a lot of film noir and use the characters in them..and characters the way I imagine they’d look from books that I’ve read
LM: Do you have any self-portraits?
Peter: Well, they’re all sort of self-portraits…I think there’s only one which really started as a self-portrait, but didn’t end as one. Which is here. (pointing
That was my silhouette and that’s The Man with The Golden Arm too. And there’s Nico, I don’t know what she’s doing there…
LM: Oh yeah, I see it.
Peter: I suppose this guy is a bit of a self-portrait, even if he has shorter hair…but he or she pops up in a lot of nationalities and guises and sexualities and she or he’s going to be a character in a future book I haven’t written yet
And that’s Nancy Carroll, she’s cool
I’d watch any film with her
LM: So you’re gonna write a novel?
Peter: Nah, that’s a dream, I don’t really have the discipline or the solitude, but…
LM: Do you know what it would be about? Would it be about you or would it be a fictional story?
Peter: Oh, I wouldn’t want to speculate…
LM: Your memoirs?
Peter: Yeah, I’d just be a glorified version of myself right
LM: Who do you identify with in a novel?
Peter: When I first read Brighton Rock I thought I was Pinky for a little bit, but that’s not very aspirational and not very positive. It’s not a good place to be, it’s not the person to want to be. I don’t know really, maybe Humphrey Bogart in Beat the Devil
Only because he’s just in a really bad spot and somehow he manages to navigate the waters of ethics, though he’s not really that ethical actually, he just wants to make some money but, he ends up doing right at the end…
And that’s really not a film noir at all, since it has quite the happy ending I suppose
LM: I was gonna ask you this, which is maybe a bit presumptuous…are you happy Peter?
Peter: You can’t hesitate can you? If you’re happy you don’t hesitate. You know you’re happy.
No I’m a bit sick because of this fucking van that’s been taken by the “Mairie”, you know the council. I’ve got all my journals in there and it would have been perfect to give you some stuff for your magazine. It just pisses me off also before we get back to Normandy we gotta find the van, so that’s just a personal complication, but uh I am happy enough yeah
I do know what real happiness is and I’m looking forward to feeling it again sometime soon
LM: What do you think love is?
Peter: What do you think love is?
LM: I think it’s something unexplainable…
Peter: Well there you go, that’s not much of an answer is it
LM: Well it’s just it’s invisible you know, it’s like the soul, you know it’s there but you don’t know what it is
Peter: This is what you think or you what you know?
LM: I’m just saying what I’m thinking right now, like I don’t know, absolutely not, I’m just improvising
Peter: Love is improvisation.
LM: Maybe love is happiness…I’m always thinking that when I ask people if they’re happy, that maybe people who have a lot of love in their lives or are feeling loved or loving at the moment feel happy
Peter: I think that’s very uplifting
LM: If you don’t have love around you, you can feel that life is a bit worthless
Peter: Even more so though, like if you see love and you recognize love and you know what love is but you don’t know how to love yourself…that’s what creates
hate I think. Knowing that something exists and you can’t have it
LM: Envy. It’s hard, it’s like when you’ve been broken up with and you just keep seeing couples everywhere…well that happened to me, I don’t know if it happened to you?
Peter: Nah! I wish you more luck eh. No, that just fills me with joy, seeing happy couples. Or does it? How dare they be happy?
LM: It fills me with joy to see so many typewriters
Peter: I know! Well it’s the same one stencil but I’ve got a bit of a collection… it’s one of my guilty secrets, my typewriter collection…I have 140
Peter: Yeah. I like your shoes.
LM: Oh thank you, I have loads of leaves here
Peter removes the leaves from under my shoes.
Peter: I’m gonna send you some stuff for your magazine
Peter flips through Love Love again.
Peter: It’s really nice to see this sort of magazine. I feel like we have kinship here
The exhibition has been extended through Saturday, January 30th, 2020 at Galerie Chappe, 2pm to 8pm every day.
21 rue Chappe, 75018 Paris
A video version of this interview is now available on LOVE LOVE TV !