by Nick Kent
Seven years ago, Richey Edwards went missing. Officially he can now be declared dead, the latest to join that great supergroup in the sky.
"Once you are dead, you've truly got it made," observed Jimi Hendrix, not long before his own premature departure. Hippy-era rock deaths were almost all drug-related, but as is often the case among people with too much time on their hands and too much pot smoke running around their brains, the truth of the matter was often wilfully ignored in favour of conjuring up improbable conspiracy theories.
Instead, Jimi/Janis/Brian/Jim were inevitably all killed by the CIA/FBI because their music was getting too subversive for the Man, etc. In 1969, a rumour was started that Paul McCartney was dead. It was sick and silly, but ultimately fairly harmless; it even boosted Beatles record sales. With the advent of punk in the late 1970s, rock's romance with self-destruction turned even more dangerous. Sid Vicious's death was the pivotal episode of that era, proving that you didn't even need musical talent to become a rock legend: just look good in photographs and then self-destruct as quickly and as dramatically as possible.
In 1980, New Musical Express ran an interview with Bernard Rhodes, the Clash's manager, a month after Joy Division leader Ian Curtis hanged himself. Rhodes had facetiously exhorted anyone with similar impulses to contact him via the paper. He promised to make them stars on one proviso: they had to kill themselves just as their careers were starting to peak. The response was shocking: bedroom-bound youths with "death or glory" fantasies blazing in their heads wrote back by the score. It would be interesting to go back and re-read some of that correspondence, if only to see whether among the flood of applicants there was the name of Richey Edwards, the Manic Street Preacher guitarist and lyricist who went missing seven years ago and who is now on the point of being declared legally dead by the British courts. Probably not. Edwards would only have been 12 years old - he was 27 when he vanished - and still happily at school. "Up to the age of 13 I was ecstatically happy," he once said. "Then everything started going wrong... When a baby is born, it's so perfect but when it opens its eyes, it's just blinded by the corruption and everything is a downward spiral."
He was clearly a very sensitive individual, who drank too much to cope with the pressures. He developed a hideous talent for self-mutilation, often posing for photographs with his latest blood-caked creation. This in turn inspired a cult of deeply disturbed young people - anorexics, cutters, teenage Sylvia Plath-heads - to follow him around like dysfunctional puppy-dogs.
On January 31, 1995 Edwards - along with the rest of the Manics - checked into the Embassy Hotel in London on the eve of a flight to America. Everyone present claims that he seemed fairly upbeat that night, but the next morning he was nowhere to be found.
A police investigation discovered that Edwards had driven to his Cardiff flat, where he left his passport and his Prozac before disappearing off the face of the Earth. On February 12, his car was found abandoned in a service station by the Severn Bridge. Since then, nothing, beyond the occasional groundless "sighting". "Before he disappeared," his sister Rachel told The Sun, "Richey had become obsessed with the perfect disappearance."
Edwards' disappearing act has made him a major-league rock icon. True, he couldn't sing, rarely played on his group's own albums and had only a minimal grasp of the basic principles of rhythm guitar-playing. Still, his lyrics are provocative and display a well-read if twisted imagination and, lest we forget, he had the beautiful face of a tortured elf, somewhere between Marc Bolan and Montgomery Clift.
Most of all, he understood that in rock 'n' roll you have to go to extremes to get your point across. He and Kurt Cobain came from the same generation - that deadly earnest, second-generation punk "we mean it, maaan" bunch who inherited the 1990s.
Cobain was facing marital problems and extreme drug addiction when he shot himself in April 1994, but there had always been something discomfortingly vulnerable about the Nirvana leader, a sense that he genuinely loathed being inside his own skin. Edwards gave equal expression to his own self-loathing, most pointedly when he cut his arms and chest and then exhibited the wounds in public. Ten months after Cobain's dramatic suicide, Edwards was certainly aware of the media implications of his own impending act, and of its chances of ensuring his status as a rock 'n' roll legend.
You never know... he might still be alive, perhaps trapped in some mad fan's bedroom like James Caan in Misery, being fed Prozac and vodka and forced to write reams of lyrics that no one will ever hear or read. It's unlikely, though. The consensus leans firmly towards the belief that he died in 1995, killed by his own hand even though he stated that "suicide does not enter my mind, and never has done... I am stronger than that."
His disappearance has made him an icon and doubtless helped the remaining Manic Street Preachers to attain the massive mainstream success they now enjoy in Great Britain, but there's still something very wrong about his case - no body, no explanations, something unresolved. It will be interesting to see whether his parents dispute the verdict handed down by the court. Death may be groovy for record sales, but it's a different matter when it visits your home.
More than ever, Edwards's strange, self-absorbed vanishing act needs to be unravelled so that his loved ones can ultimately enjoy what he never thought long enough to provide for them: a chance of closure from questions and heartache.
[Originally published: The Times, 1 February 2002]