On December 29, 1995, Manic Street Preachers made their first public appearance since Richey Edwards vanished last February. In this four-page special, Simon Price explains why the Manics were for him the most important British band of the early Nineties and talks to fans at Wembley about their reactions to the bands' return, while [below] Everett True reviews the Manics' long-awaited and emotionally charged comeback show.
Survival's Natural As Sorrow
I still believe that Richey Edwards walks among us.
When I say this, people look at me with a certain concerned pity. It's not as if I'm not prepared for the worst - I'm not stupid - but after 11 months of rumour and counter-rumour, it's just an instinct. (And nothing more. I'm often approached by Manics fans who think I must "know something." Once and for all, I don't") Call it denial, but despite the pessimistic prognosis of case officer Det. Supt. Stephen Morey, the evidence I've heard - the fact that his passport was missing, the £2800 he withdrew from his account, the sightings (I'm talking about the credible ones, not the ones from the sort of sad freaks who probably reckon Elvis and Jim Morrison are still alive) - I reckon it's at least as likely, until I hear otherwise.
You'll understand, then, why I talk about Richey in the present tense.
Revolution! Revolution! Revolution!
I first met Richey Edwards in the spring of 1991, backstage at the Manchester Boardwalk.
I was immediately struck by his physical beauty... as were two local rock chicks. Later, in the bar of an unglamorous Rusholme B&B, I watched for hours, as he tried to engage his new "friends" in discussion of politics and pop culture, before eventually capitulating and ushering them upstairs to give them what they obviously wanted.
The third Manic Street Preachers single, "Motown Junk", had just come out on Heavenly, and spent the preceding fortnight glued to my turntable. From the opening Public Enemy sample - "Revolution!Revolution!Revolution!" - to the flat-batteries slower-and-slower ending, it was a magnesium-white flare of adrenalin amid a year of dope smoke and little fluffy clouds, an alarm call to a snoring pop scene. The live experience too, was a vivid riot of tinny, trebly guitars and starjumps, "a mess of eyeliner and spraypaint" (from Day One, the Manics wrote their own reviews, dictated their own agenda). In the context of 1991, this was genuinely provocative, an ECT jolt to a complacent, comatose generation.
More than anything else, the Preachers left me confused. The Manics made me love what I do not love (heavy rock music), and almost as often, believe what I do not believe. For that, they instantly became my favourite band. They have been ever since. At the time, this wasn't a fashionable view (I was threatened with the sack from Melody Maker, only semi-jokingly, by the then Features Editor for giving "Generation Terrorits" a good review.) The Manics were seen as good copy - slap 'em on the cover, sit 'em around a microphone, wind 'em up, watch 'em go - but dare to take them seriously and you'd be laughed out of town.
The cartoon leopardskin-and-lipstick image of Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards - The Glamour Twins - meant that most people took a while to differentiate between the two. Gradually, The Wire became notorious as the nihilistic superbitch, dispensing soundbite spite with a Cheshire Cat grin. Richey, meanwhile, carved a reputation as the more reflective, melancholy of the pair. "We know we have nothing to lose," he told BBC2's "Rapido", "because we know we've lost already."
14 top 40 singles, three ever-improving albums and innumerable shock-horror scandals (4 REAL, Michael Stipe, hospitalised bouncers, you know the plot) later, the Manics were no longer a laughing stock. They had achieved the sort of significance which goes beyond mere record sales, chart positions and concert attendances. They were always too difficult, too insoluble to reach Oasis-size (the Guns N' Roses pop-metal riffs jarred with the inscrutable Fall-style syntax), but more than any band since The Smiths, they mattered to people.
For some reason - and not just simple lust - they appealed particularly strongly to girls. Nicky and (especially) Richey were feminised males ("I don't want to be a man..."), and if their songs about female experience were sometimes clumsy ("Little Baby Nothing"), just as often they were uncommonly empathetic ("4st7lbs"). Richey's obsession with Solanas and Plath, his utterly non-sexual fixation with skinny supermodels, even his anorexia (rare in males although not as rare as you might think), were all glaringly unmale traits. For this, as much as anything, the Manic Street Preachers were/are revolutionary, "our Nirvana", arguably the most important British band of the 1990s.
By the summer of 1994, after a miserable series of catalysts (the death from cancer of Manics mentor/manager Philip Hall, the suicide of an old college friend), Richey's self-abuse spiralled dramatically. Shortly after a (triumphant) appearance at Glastonbury, Richey's parents found him at his flat in Cardiff's docklands, after a two-day cutting binge which has since been interpreted as a suicide attempt. He was taken to the local Whitchurch hospital, which Richey later described in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" terms (with lobotomies replaced by Prozac), then relocated to the private Priory clinic in Roehampton and placed on an alcoholic rehab course.
Meanwhile, the rest of the band continued to play the remainder of the festival season - T In The Park and Reading - as a trio. "It felt like a betrayal" Nicky admitted, explaining that they only did it to pay Richey's hospital fees.
Against this background the band's third album, "The Holy Bible" was inevitably seen as Richey's album (apparently he wrote 70 per cent of the lyrics), the Manics' "In Utero". Each song was a dwarf star of ultra-compressed imagery, a horrific, harrowing tour of the most shameful corners of the dying 20th century (dictatorship, prostitution, anorexia, suicide, genocide), a merciless doomsday judgement of what e e cummings called "manunkind". "We all are of walking abortion..."
Soon - perhaps too soon - an apparently recovered Richey rejoined the band for two low-key European tours supporting Therapy? and Suede.
So Damn Easy To Cave In...
I last met Richey Edwards in Paris, in November 1994, in the back of a darkened tour bus, for what was to be his final British interview.
The most striking thing was his ability to analyse his sickness in a detached way, act as a doctor and patient. (Playing an unmarked blank tape recently, I found the interview and was astonished to hear him laughing and joking about his problems.) It is this prismatic clarity which makes me question whether Richey was ever "insane" at all.
If anything, Richey is too sensitive and intelligent for a brutal and crass world... but we shouldn't think of him as a victim. His desire to experience everything drives him to extremes of degradation (his notorious night in the red light district of Bangkok) and purity (the discipline of anorexia, the rigour of his mind). His dead pupils voraciously devour the world, with the fermented misanthropy of Larkin and the piercing intellect of Chomsky: a razor to his flesh, Occam's Razor to the rest of humanity. As I once wrote, "the mortuaries are littered with people who were too sensitive for this world. What sets Richey apart is his ability to actually articulate the horror."
In December, the Manics played three shows at the London Astoria, by turns emotionally draining an very funny. Comedy was an attribute which I - perhaps alone, admittedly - had never attached to the Manics. In the space of 30 minutes on the last night, we went from James in a Santa hat singing Wham!'s "Last Christmas", to Richey beating himself about the head with the splintered remains of his guitar, and, with a disturbingly calm smile, dive-bombing into Sean's drumkit.
There was a strange mood of finality about it all (as well as the hits and "The Holy Bible", they played long-lost Heavenly B-sides, which seemed somehow ominous, and Nicky destroyed their proper, expensive gear, as opposed to the cheap substitutes which usually got trashed).
Shortly afterwards, in January, Japanese magazine Music Life visited Richey at home and found him with the shaved head and striped pyjamas of an Auschwitz inmate, and (coincidentally, perhaps) the same black suede Converse sneakers found on Kurt Cobain's corpse. He'd also recently thrown most of his carefully kept notebooks into the river, he told them. A final Bonfire Of The Vanities.
Solitude, Solitude, The 11th Commandment
On the morning of February 2, Manics press officer Gillian Porter rang me at home to tell me I ought to know that Richey had vanished from London's Embassy Hotel at 7:00am the previous day, and that there were would be an official joint announcement from the Manics' management company, Hall Or Nothing, and the Metropolitan Police. It wasn't the first time that Richey had done this sort of thing, but I knew that the fact that Gillian had taken the trouble to tell me personally before a formal statement was issued, and that this time the police were involved, meant it was serious.
There was a short-lived eruption of media interest, almost all of which - from highbrow "Culture Of Despair" pieces to tabloid "Slasher Cult of Rock Star Richey" screamers - missed the point in exactly the same cart-before-horse, egg-before-chicken way. Richey had been cutting himself with a compass and drinking to the point of blackout as a student at Cardiff University, but the clichéd press analysis was: rock star can't take pressure, rock star goes mental. Worse still, they seemed convinced that a legion of girls had suddenly started slashing their arms in imitation. (Although this was true in a very few cases, far more common were girls who'd been mutilating themselves for years and, through identifying with Richey, found confidence to "out" themselves).
On Saint Valentine's Day, his car was found at Aust Services, near the Severn Bridge. And then... silence. For those who care, this is perhaps worse than a simple suicide: the gnawing uncertainty, the not knowing. Never a day goes by...
Spectators Of Suicide...
Although I rarely see him these days, I still consider Nicky Wire to be a long distance friend. James Dean Bradfield, as most of London can testify, is one of the friendliest people on the planet. I've always got on OK with quiet little Sean too, when I've met him. I met Richey countless times - I will always picture him in some hotel or other, on the Cardiff-Paddington train, or hanging around a TV studio, nicking my fags and sharing his Jack Daniels, arguing about Pearl Jam, and the state of Welsh football - but I'm not going to lie to you and weep melodramatic tears about "my lost friend". Richey isn't the sort of person who makes friends easily.
I feel slightly embarrassed to admit this - it does feel vaguely foolish to idolise someone who is almost exactly my own age (we were born two months and 20 miles apart) - but my relationship with Richey is that of uncritical admiration, of fan to hero. His picture is the only one which hangs on my wall at home.
Intelligence is the only criterion upon which I discriminate in human intercourse, and Richey Edwards is the most intelligent person I have ever known. It barely needs stating that Richey has no such high opinion of himself. His feelings of inadequacy run deep. That this man for whom humility - a politer term for self-hatred? - is second nature has become an icon is the ultimate paradox.
I don't know why I identify with Richey (it certainly isn't just for superficial reasons of generation and geographical proximity, or the noble savage/educated prole aspect). I've never suffered from depression, I've never damaged myself any further than dyeing my hair or piercing my ears, I always know when I've had enough to drink, and anorexia has never really been a problem. I have been depressed, very depressed, but that's different - it's always traceable to a direct, identifiable cause.
But perhaps Richey's isn't classic manic depression either, the quasi-physical illness which descends like a stormcloud quite regardless of external circumstances, but the same sort of cause-and-effect depression we all suffer. Richey is disproportionately affected by... everything.
This may explain what I can only describe as the Christing of Richey (ever since the hospitalisation, the idolatry has stepped up a gear, beyond mere canonisation). To some he's become a stigmata martyr - "He Bleeds For Our Sins". There has always been an element of ghoulish voyeurism to the Cult Of Richey, we are all of us (would-be) spectators of suicide, hypocrites happy to live a 4-REAL life by proxy. Stay just f***ed up enough to write all those great songs, we seem to be asking, but not so f***ed up that you aren't around any more. This is why a few of us (see Wembley fans) now feel some degree of guilt.
Outside, Open-Mouthed Crowds Pass Each Other As If They're Drugged...
The 29th time I see the Manic Street Preachers is in a barn full of c***s.
In the autumn, it was announced that the Manics would support a popular Led Zeppelin tribute act from Manchester at Wembley on December 29th. Previously, James had said "if it ever comes to a point where Richey's not coming back, we wouldn't continue". This fuelled the tempting theory that if the remaining Manics didn't know Richey was all right, surely they wouldn't ever consider playing Wembley... so he must be OK. (If this is true, incidentally, the unselfish view is to pray he never, ever considers rejoining the band.) I had my doubts about a comeback. But I also knew that, all things considered, I had to be there.
I'm not saying they shouldn't have done it, and yes, it was f***ing brave of them to do it at all. But I am saying - in retrospect - they shouldn't have done it like this. It was going to feel like a wake whatever happened, so it should have been a cathartic, emotional one. Close friends and family. Two thousands of us, that is, but us not the Adidas-clad baggy throwbacks and Northern Uproar lookalikes gathered to see the headlines. Nonetheless, friends of mine were in tears. I was expecting to be moved, one way or another. I felt numb. They just walked out there, solemnly did the job, and walked off again, James in a pecs-enhancing white T-shirt, Nicky in a Cardiff Devils ice hockey shirt, Sean in his usual Bosnian mercenary gear. No make-up, no slogans, no lippy pronouncements from The Wire apart from an opening "calm down, it's only us!" So it's just the music... (Which band are we talking about again?)
On a stage this size, James' decision to occupy Richey's habitual Stage Right position just shifted the gaping abyss to Centre Stage instead. If the new Manics intend to bear any resemblance to the old, Nicky needs to step into the Richey role: the face, the mouth, the mind. But these days, Nicky's happier existing in reclusive domesticity in Gwent than playing the agent provocateur. (Which is his prerogative, but...)
The choice of songs seems fairly meaningless: a chance to try out the new stuff, and a few famous oldies that a neutral Arena crowd would recognise ("Motorcycle Emptiness", as featured on the "Drive Time" CD sold in petrol stations, between Chris Rea and Dire Straits). But for those of us who were here specifically for the "second support act", the set list was weird. The five new songs - "Elvis Impersonator", "Design For Life", "Enola Alone", "Australia" and Everything Must Go" - did sound incredibly poignant (in context, how could they fail to?), a shift away from the gothic intensity of "The Holy Bible" back towards the melodiousness of "Gold Against The Soul". But so much depends upon the lyrics, indecipherable tonight - always a problem with the Manics, that. (The band are currently refusing to confirm which are Richey's and which are new Bradfield/Wire/Moore compositions.)
But hearing the us-against-the-world fusillade of '91's "You Love Us" in the context of '96 was at best anachronistic and hollow, and at worst sickly, Motown Junk" likewise. (Will the reunited Beatles record a song that goes "I laughed when Edwards f***ed off"?) "Roses In The Hospital" never was much of a song, a re-write of Bowie's "Sound And Vision" with added "Radio Ga Ga" handclaps, a false sense of community from this most alienated of bands. Strangest of all, there was nothing from "The Holy Bible", their latest LP, and their best... and the most strongly associated with Richey.
I wasn't expecting a guitar stood stage right with a wreath around it, or a back-projected B&W photo saying "RICHEY JAMES EDWARDS, 1967-?", or for Bradders to behave like it was the Freddie Mercury Tribute - "This one's for you, Richey!" - but their complete refusal to acknowledge the situation was uncomfortable.
As if nothing had happened.
... A Fear Of The Future?
So what happens now?
(Don't think for a moment that this is "none of our business". The Manics, of all people, know better than that.)
Most of the fans polled at Wembley expressed absolute certainty that the band should carry on. But they were the ones who turned up (I know many others who stayed away on principle).
Whatever, The Manics WILL carry on in some form. James' deeply ingrained work ethic demands it, and it's hard do imagine James, Nicky and Sean doing anything other than making music (condemned to rock'n'roll...?) But as a fan, the "they need to make a living" argument just won't do. This isn't any band. This is the Manic Street Preachers.
There are a number of possible outcomes.
Back in February, I hoped for a neat and tidy finale: record an EP with four tracks' worth of Richey's bundle of bequeathed lyrics, release it on the anniversary in memoriam, no live appearances, then bow out with dignity.
Worst case scenario is the wounded, limping animal, like the sad rump of The Clash which hobbled on for a year or two after Mick Jones left, or the farcical attempt to continue The Sex Pistols after Sid Vicious died. Unlikely...
Barely better is the possibility that they'll continue as a moderately popular indie trio, like Therapy? or the f***ing Foo Fighters. When they finally do split up, no one will even notice. Conceivable...
Maybe, armed with a back catalogue of catchy, melodic rock songs, they will become bigger than ever, pawn their souls against gold, while quietly losing their original, devoted fanbase. (If Manics still want to crack America, then a barn full of c***s isn't a bad place to rehearse.) Possible...
In some ways, either of these last two case scenarios would be fitting, a certain defeatism has always been inherent, as has a built-in Hypocrisy Clause which meant that any accusation you threw at them could be accepted and absorbed with a Nicky Wire shrug, a grin and a "we always said we were sluts/liars/(fill in the blank)".
But a more positive model is the way New Order rose from the ashes of Joy Division, and went on to create even more magnificent music than their original incarnation. The similarities are more than superficial: even without Richey, the Manics remain a brilliant musical unit with an underrated lyricist. (But in this case, shouldn't they stop trading as the Manic Street Preachers and rename themselves?)
It seems indecently hasty, after one shaky live performance, to be asking these questions. But I pray - and I do have a certain faith - that they'll make a record of such undeniable excellence that all preconceptions are atomised (not least, my own). My mind switches back and forth daily, even hourly. I still love this band, and I can't love anyone who doesn't. (It may seem an arbitrary way of choosing friends but some things are fundamental.)
I hope they give me more of a reason than sentimental affection.
The Manics have made a career out of keeping the most impossible of promises and breaking the simplest of trusts. They said they'd split up after their first album: they said they'd never play again if Richey were dead. So what are we to infer from tonight's show, their first since Richey's disappearance, as support to The Stone Roses? Especially after his sister appeared on TV a couple of days beforehand, pleading with Richey to let his family know if he was still alive. That the Manics just don't care? But what else can they do? Give up?
Tonight... f*** it. Tonight, I feel numb, desensitised. So life goes on, after all. How reassuring.
Tonight, I curse every last, unfeeling Stone Roses fan who can't be arsed to bear witness to the Manics' painful return, instead preferring to swill over-priced beer outside - and that goes for you too, Noel Gallagher, Mark Morriss, Danny Supergrass and Pearl Powder. You'd think these people would have a sense of occasion, at the very least.
Tonight, I howl soundlessly at the vast gaping chasm that underpins the Manics' final song, an uneasy, clumsy, painfully bare version of "Motorcycle Emptiness", and wonder how it is that we can so badly miss - aurally - a guitarist who didn't even have his instrument plugged in onstage most of the time.
Tonight, I hug deep inside myself and wonder just what it is that keeps us all going. (Christ, I'm so glad the Manics weren't around when I was 19. I'd be even more f***ed up than I am now.)
I'm staring at my notes from that show right now. They tell me... what? That Manic Street Preachers played five new songs, including the opener, a flustered newie, "Elvis Impersonator". (Yeah, the Manics played five new songs, and each song sounded like a clarion call to carry on living, cos life can be fun, and life can be rewarding, and passion doesn't automatically imply depression, and... f*** it. I've never wanted my rock stars to tell me that they're coping. I want to know how they're falling apart.)
What else do they tell me? That Manic Street Preachers avoided playing any songs from "The Holy Bible". (It was Richey's most personal LP.) That Manic Street Preachers revived "Motown Junk". (Why? It was fine when they were in Clash mode. But it never translated to Guns N' Roses mode.) That Manic Street Preachers played for 40 minutes and 40 minutes only, no encore. (Twenty minutes more than I was expecting, admittedly.)That the sound was dreadful five minute soundcheck and way too loud. That none of the band said much, beyond a few muttered thank you's. (What did we expect?) That the trio were augmented by a keyboard player, name of John Green. (Nothing unusual there: even with Richey, the Manics sometimes used to go out as a quintet.)
F*** it. Notes never tell you anything. Only emotions can do that.
But I feel so... blank.
Which is wrong, isn't it? Especially when "You Love Us" sounds so absolutely defiant, desolate, desperate - tonight, it comes across as a plea for succour of any kind, as opposed to the arrogant f*** you, us-against-the-world, statement it started life as. Especially when James' guitar on "From Despair To Where" sounds so brittle and alive, so cold. Hot tears prickle my eyelids, threaten to overcome me briefly. But then the Manics follow with a couple of new songs, songs that clearly can't mean anything to me right now (especially as it's always been notoriously difficult to make out what James is singing), and waves of emptiness engulf me again. And I never did like the arena rock slant of "Roses In The Hospital".
Two days later, at four in the morning on New Year's Day, I speak to a Welsh lady on the phone who tells me Richey turned up on her doorstep precisely a year earlier, lonely, miserable, nowhere to go. Her son's crying. I tell her the last time I spoke to Kurt was on Christmas Day the year before, cos he had no one else to phone. I don't know what these signs mean. I just know the holiday season is a pile of f***ing shit. Loneliness intensified to an unbearable degree.
(Oh, and I'm sorry to drag Kurt in here, but it does occur that the new Manic Street Preachers could well become to the old Manics what Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters are to Nirvana; a bouncy Prozac version, minus all that annoying attendant angst and whining. Many Foo Fighters fans never even liked that "whining little creep", Kurt. Will the Manics fans of the future make similar comments about Richey? Yet what do I seriously expect James, Nicky and Sean to do? Give up?)
Yeah, so my notes... the new songs are in order of merit, the aforementioned "Elvis Impersonator", "Design For Life" and "Enola Alone" (where James appears to be hollering "I wish I had a bottle" - whether any or all of these songs were written from Richey's lyrics, I don't know), the tumultuous "Australia" and the strangely Foo Fighters-esque "Everything Must Go". In places, these songs sound leaden, choked-down. In others, soaring, impassioned. Some rumble sullenly, and some brandish passion like it's the only defence left. All seem burdened by the weight of recent history. (Right.)
Tonight, the Manics sound... well, they sound pretty much as they've always done. A good-to-occasionally-great hard rock trio, fun to leap around to. (But what they sounded like never, ever mattered - not really. What mattered was their soul, their poise, their passion. Put bluntly: Richey, his angst. What mattered was the way they so effortlessly transcended their roots, through their all-conquering self-belief, their earnestness. They KNEW they mattered. And so did we. It was all so transparent.) The problem is, minus Richey, there's a very real possibility that's all the Manics will ever be. And they used to mean so much, so very much more.
After all they've been through in these last 12 months, their greatest challenge still awaits them. I sincerely hope they succeed.
Because we need a band like the Manics, more now than ever before.
[Originally published: Melody Maker, 13 January 1996]