By way of an irony peculiarly appropriate to rock & roll, Welsh rockers Manic Street Preachers find themselves riding a discomfiting wave of popularity in the wake of apparent tragedy.
On Feb. 1, 1995, founding member and guitarist-lyricist Richey James Edwards disappeared from London's Embassy Hotel, just as the band was preparing for an American tour to promote its third release, The Holy Bible. Two weeks later detectives found Edwards' abandoned Vauxhall Cavalier under the Severn Bridge, near the Wales-England border. Continuing investigation - as well as a segment on Crime Watch U.K., the British analogue to Unsolved Mysteries - has yielded no further clues.
The mercurial 28-year-old Edwards had established himself as the figurehead-cum-firebrand of a band that made its name with politically strident lyrics, a musical bent that incorporated glam rock, punk, even Motown leanings, and a public image marked by anything-goes hedonism and self-destruction. Not surprisingly, Edwards' proclivities toward anorexia and self-mutilation elevated him to cult hero, particularly among the band's younger devotees.
Gleaning an avid if not mainstream fan base in Britain over the last six years, the Manics became hitmakers this summer with the strikingly undogmatic, accessible Everything Must Go, their first album recorded without Edwards.
Though the band - whose remaining members are vocalist-guitarist James Dean Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire, and drummer Sean Moore - deliberately did little press before the album was first released in the U.K. in May, they are still mindful of the prurient-interest hype that ostensible martyrdom can bring. With Everything just out in the States, and on the eve of their upcoming American tour - roughly half of which consists of headlining dates and half as openers for Epic label mates Oasis - Bradfield admits, "I would be very uncomfortable in the event that [Edwards' disappearance] becomes a marketability factor."
When he talks about Edwards, Bradfield unconsciously veers between past and present tense. "Richey was an absolutely amazing lyricist, as well as a drop-dead cool f---er. The thing people missed is that he's very political; he sums up a certain 20th-century sort of nausea. At the end of the day, he was an academic."
Bradfield and his band mates refuse to hazard a guess as to the reason for Edwards' vanishing or its outcome. That doesn't mean they're not haunted by his spectre. "There have been times when I've turned on stage and expected to see him there, but I guess that's just kind of an emotional reflex," Bradfield concludes. "All I can say is, I never catch myself thinking that he's dead."
[Originally published: Entertainment Weekly, 11 November 1996]