by Nathan Bevan
On February 1, 1995 Richey Edwards checked out of his London hotel room never to be seen again.
A fortnight later his Vauxhall Cavalier was found abandoned near the old Severn Bridge and his passport uncovered at his Cardiff flat.
Next week, 14 years after he disappeared, his band Manic Street Preachers will release a new record consisting entirely of the lyrics he left behind - an album which, according to James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire, they had no choice but to make.
"We hadn't really discussed Richey with anyone in any way for, like, 10 years, thought it wasn't right, wasn't tactful," said Blackwood bassist Wire, adding he was almost "too scared" to look at the folder his 27-year-old friend had given him weeks before he vanished.
"We decided instead to keep it all to ourselves for a long time, but I now feel a real pride in displaying what I've always considered to be Richey's amazing words, and reading them has made me a huge fan of him all over again.
"They made me realise just how much I missed him and his fierce intellect, his ability to go to places I couldn't or didn't want to go and the perfect symmetry we had as a band. I felt that by doing this, in some dreamlike way, we could get that back for a year or so - and maybe what we've made here is a kind of tribute album."
Journal For Plague Lovers is, if nothing else, a fiercely uncommercial effort that, in following 2007's hugely successful Send Away The Tigers, could only have been the next logical step from a band that has always revelled in its own contrariness.
"Usually all the suicidal, stupid ideas are mine, you know, like going to Cuba and stuff," laughed Wire, referencing the Manics decision in 2001 to be the first popular Western band to play there.
"I was like, 'This Is Your Truth has sold four million copies: hey, let's not get any bigger, let's go and do a gig for Castro and annoy everyone in the world'.
"'Let's spend 300 grand doing a gig for a communist system we don't really believe in'," he added.
"So when James came up with the idea of this in the back of the car one day, it was a relief to be honest."
It was something that Bradfield said he felt compelled to do.
"We'd been saying things like, 'F****** hell, it's going to be hard following up a No 2 album like Tigers, but we've got to start'," said the singer.
"A week before I'd been looking at Richey's lyrics anyway, I'd get them out and look at them about two or three times a year. And every time it was always the same reaction: I'd imagine putting music to them, but then I'd get scared and put them back in a drawer.
"But this time I'd looked at them and, for the first time, I couldn't stop turning the pages."
At the time the band didn't think the folder, stuffed with 30 or so potential songs, artwork and adorned with a picture of Bugs Bunny and the word "opulence" scrawled underneath, had any real significance.
"Richey was so prolific at the time, he was always writing and couldn't switch off and would always be handing us stuff," said Wire, adding that Edwards would also leave him and the other members little gifts.
"They were nothing big, just little bundles - for example, he'd give me a Daily Telegraph and a Mars bar, two things he knew I liked, but I just saw it as an act of kindness for the fact that he'd been pretty difficult."
Richey's "difficultness" is a reference to a turbulent 1994 during which the guitarist's drinking and self-harming had spiralled out of control, culminating in the time, during a tour of Thailand, when he'd slashed his chest on stage with a knife and a subsequent spell in an NHS psychiatric ward back home.
It was followed by time in a private clinic where he was treated for alcoholism.
"That period was miserable and I felt like I was losing Richey," said Wire.
"Suddenly I found myself unable to communicate with someone I'd sat round a table writing with for years."
An exasperated Manics soldiered on without him, promoting their new album, The Holy Bible, a record filled with increasingly dark lyrics written by Edwards which seemed to document his deteriorating mental condition. He rejoined them in time for a Christmas gig at the Astoria in London, a now infamous show which ended with the band trashing both their equipment and the venue's lighting to the tune of £26,000.
Wire said everyone was on the verge of cracking up at the point.
"That whole period consisted of hospitalisation, no money, drudgery, hateful, miserable, awful," he said.
"It felt like Richey was drifting away. He'd call you up at all hours about some documentary he'd just seen, I think he was finding it really hard to sleep.
"People talk about the wounds or the blood - (Edwards notoriously once gouged the words '4real' in to his arms when a journalist questioned his commitment) - but the only real tragedy is losing someone kinetically, someone you've known since he was five who you've done all these things with but can no longer even talk to."
But in those last few weeks, Wire added, a kind of calmness and serenity seemed to settle on Richey,
"Suddenly he was laughing more, the pathos and the irony were back," he said.
"Maybe he'd reached some conclusions and he just felt some inner peace. We did a recording session and came up with some great tracks, so maybe the Daily Telegraph and the Mars bar were a little 'things are going to be OK', you know?" sighed Wire
"But, as far as Richey was concerned, there are just different meanings of OK, I guess."
Edwards was finally declared officially dead by his parents at the end of last year, bringing, in some nominal way at least, an end to almost a decade and half of fevered fan speculation as to his whereabouts and rumours that he'd been sighted in places as far-flung as Goa.
Even Wire himself admitted to looking for clues and secret messages in the words his friend had left behind, but not Bradfield.
"As soon as I realised everyone was trying to do a Columbo on Richey, I stopped looking in bags for notes, for hidden meanings in lyrics because I knew they weren't there," said James.
"Richey wouldn't be that crass."
And even after they'd finished recording the pair still had doubts about whether they'd done the right thing.
"I said, 'Let's just f****** dig a hole and bury it and make it even more of an art statement, say we've made this great album, but it's just too much to give away," said Wire.
"But James was like: 'After I've done all that work? F*** off!'."
So instead, they've delivered something which, even if it's not the best album they'll ever go on to make, is probably the greatest statement of friendship and love they could've ever come out with.
"Deep down I knew that we couldn't have changed that much, couldn't have forgotten about Richey to the extent that we couldn't do this," he added.
Because if we couldn't reconnect with him and couldn't make this album then we'd have already lost a big part of ourselves without even realising it."
Journal For Plague Lovers is released a week tomorrow
[Originally published: Wales On Sunday, 10 May 2009]