by Richard Balls
It is seven years ago today that the Manic Street Preachers troubled guitarist Richey Edwards vanished, and, as his body has never been found, he can be declared legally dead.
So was he another rock n roll suicide and did his act of self-mutilation at a Norwich venue signal a slide into depression and ultimately his death?
The rather eerie, crypt-like Norwich Arts Centre would not feature in a list of rocks most legendary landmarks. It was, however, in the converted church in St Benedicts Street, that one of rock n rolls most infamous and horrifying photographs was captured, in all its gruesome detail.
Moments earlier, Richey Edwards, then guitarist and songwriter with the Manic Street Preachers, had, in the middle of an interview with NMEs Steve Lamacq, produced a razor blade from his pocket and gouged his arm, creating the blood-splattered message 4 Real.
The distressing picture, which has been voted number 16 in Q magazines Top 100 Rock Photographs Of All Time, shows the ethereal Edwards clutching a rolled up bandage in his hand and baring the full and terrible extent of his self-mutilation.
What adds to the pictures discomfiting, but strangely transfixing quality is that less than four years later, the deeply troubled Edwards had disappeared, believed to have thrown himself into the waters of the River Severn.
He has never been found.
Jody Thompson, a former EDP reporter and now news manager for NME and NME.com, was one of those who witnessed the incident, which is now part of rock n rolls rich, and often tragic tapestry. Then a 20-year-old student at the University of East Anglia who was interviewing Edwards that night for her own college radio station Livewire, she is still haunted by the scene which unfolded after the Manic Street Preachers had played to a handful of people at the Norwich venue.
"I was sat on the steps which led from the auditorium to the back bar and as Steve was talking to Richey, he got a razor blade from his pocket and without brandishing it about, started slicing", recalls Thompson. "I did not know what was going on at all. Then Richey got up and went to the bathroom and someone said, 'God, did you see what he did?'. Then we went into reception and he came out.
"We bandaged his arm up. It just looked so revolting. He had gone right through to connective tissue it was really quite something. I am really squeamish and I'm still amazed to this day that I didn't pass out.
"A photographer asked if he could take a picture of it so Richey pulled down the bandages we had put on and we said to him, 'That won't be sterile now.'"
The sequence of events which followed were equally bizarre. Edwards would not let anyone call an ambulance to the Arts Centre, despite the profuse loss of blood, but when Jody offered to travel with the group in their minibus to the hospital he agreed to go. First though, his fellow Manics, Sean Moore and James Dean Bradfield and two groupies in fake leopard skin, were taken to their hotel on the Thorpe Road, via the KFC for take-away meals.
"We went off to the Norfolk and Norwich and Richey would not be treated until everybody else there before him had been treated and he sat there hysterically. I was saying to Richey, 'I can't understand you messing around like that', because I had a friend who had died some years before. He was just saying, 'This is something I do and you don't understand.'"
A whim it might have been on Edwards' part, but the words he carved so painfully into his skin suggested a deeper motive.
On that fateful night of May 15, 1991, the Manic Street Preachers were still in the process of trying to win over the music press and on the night in question, Lamacq had agreed to take one more look at the Welsh band. Edwards wanted it known that underneath the thickly applied mascara and glam clothes, the Manics were serious, deadly serious, and what better way of driving his message home.
"Everybody thought they were a fraud band, a New York Dolls for the 90s and no cop, and they were justifying themselves then", says Thompson. Don't forget that the Manics were so into making statements then.
Nicky Wire (bassist) has since said that it was the most rock n roll thing he had ever seen. That whole thing has haunted me because it was so bizarre. He has been missing for so long and there have been no confirmed sightings. My gut feeling is that he threw himself into the River Severn and is dead.
The gig had not gone well. The small, stone-floored venue was virtually empty and the Manics had made little impression on the few who had turned up, including Lamacq, who, as NME's live reviews editor, was an influential figure. Sensing defeat, it was Edwards who had followed him to the bar offering an interview.
"So I went backstage", Lamacq recalls in Mojo magazine, and I said, "I don't think you guys are for real. And he got a razor blade and wrote 4 Real on his arm while Im standing there watching him. We carried on talking for another three or four minutes and, by that time, he was dripping blood all over the carpet."
Later, Edwards is said to have explained that he did not know what to say to Lamacq to make him understand where he was coming from. "Other bands hit journalists and its very macho. I would never want to do that", he said.
Ed Sirrs, the man behind the lens, told Mojo that Edwards volunteered to have his freshly cut wounds photographed. They knew they would never get another major NME live review after such a dire performance, so he had to do something. And a week later they'd signed a deal with Sony.
Whether this attention-seeking stunt marked the beginning of a slide into long-term depression and mental instability, we will probably never know. But four years later, after many more incidents of self-abuse, and suffering from alcoholism and anorexia nervosa, Edwards disappeared.
On February 1, 1995, he had been due to fly to the US with Bradfield on a promotional trip and the pair checked into the Embassy Hotel in London's Bayswater Road the night before. When he failed to meet Bradfield at the hotel reception in the morning, he asked the porter to unlock room 516. It was empty, except for a curious-looking box, covered in literary quotations, collages and strange pictures. Some Prozac tablets and a packed suitcase containing Richey's clothes were also there.
It is thought he had driven to his flat in Cardiff, where his passport, a credit card, a toll receipt for £2.70 and 30p in change were found by relatives.
What happened next no one knows, but more than two weeks later, his silver Vauxhall Cavalier was found abandoned at the Severn View service station, near Bristol.
In the car were cassette tapes and a carrier bag containing pictures he had taken of his parents. Its battery had been completely run down.
This scattering of possessions provided no real clues, but the service station, positioned on the Aust cliffs and overlooking the Bristol Channel, is a notorious place for suicides.
Six weeks before, he had been admitted to a private clinic suffering from mental exhaustion and depression.
It is thought that he had withdrawn about £2800 from cash machines in the two weeks before he vanished, although his account has remained untouched ever since.
That his favourite artists included Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, Sylvia Plath and Tony Hancock, all of whom took their own life, points towards him following in their tragic footsteps, but his sister Rachel later claimed that he had become obsessed with the perfect disappearance. This could give credence to the Reggie Perrin theory.
What is certain is that even in rock n roll's colourful and tortured back pages, his absence stands as one of its biggest mysteries.
"Personally, I think he's alive, although I've got no physical evidence or reason to think that he is, but I do", Nicky Wire has said. "How can you accept that hes dead, when there's no body, no evidence whatsoever? Its irrational."
Today is the seventh anniversary of his disappearance and legally he can now be declared dead. The Manics have been putting a quarter of their royalties into a trust fund during that time and a death certificate would allow his parents to open the account.
But Graham and Sherry Edwards cannot bring themselves to accept that he is dead. We want our son back, not the money. We will never declare him dead, Mr Edwards told the Mirror. As far as we are concerned he is still alive and we have always felt the same.
[Originally published: Eastern Daily Press, 1 February 2002]