When Richey James was hospitalised earlier this month suffering from 'nervous exhaustion', many people wondered what the hell was happening with Manic Street Preachers. Now, with Richey still in hospital, and the Manics set to release their third album 'The Holy Bible' - and preparing to play Reading as a three-piece - Taylor Parkes talks to a band on the edge and finds out the truth about Richey, the new LP and the last six 'nightmarish' months.
"We were a band before we even picked up guitars. And we didn't even know how, but we knew that Richey had to be a part of of it." (Nicky Wire)
Childhood pictures... clean and so serene / Whole days throwing sticks into streams / I have crawled so far sideways..." ("Die In The Summertime")
"When you've got nothing, you've got something pure that no one can take away. As soon as you've got something, some c***'s gonna come and take it off you." (James Bradfield)
"I've finally come to understand life / Through staring blankly at my navel" ("4st 7lbs")
"There's a poem by Tennessee Williams called 'Lament For Moths', one of the first poems we ever read, which is about how the moths, the sensitive people, will always be stamped on and crushed by the mammoths - that really hit us, the sudden realisation that we were the moths of the world..." (Nicky Wire)
"F***ed up, dunno why - you poor little boy" ("Of Walking Abortion")
Part One: Analyse, Despise And Scrutinise / I Know I Believe In Nothing But It Is My Nothing
Searing. Endearing. Enduring. Enticing. Incisive. Indecisive. Divisive. A mingling of masochism and machismo. Manic Street Preachers are the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world at a time when rock'n'roll means nothing at all.
I once wrote that the Manics' triumph is that, when they could have been the full stop at the end of rock'n'roll, they chose to be a question mark. That still stands: their taut, ravished rock - heavy with contradiction, loaded with self-loathing - has more in common with Artaud (a quasi-surrealist writer whose utter nihilism led to his ostracisism from French literary circles) than Arthur Lee. While so many others seemed so keen to be "The Last Great Rock'N'Roll Band" (but why play with ashes when you could be playing with fire?), the Manics never hid their hatred of rock'n'roll, all its baby foot-stamping, all its bully-boy chat.
But the Manics have always played rock'n'roll - as if, by drawing on the past, they could destroy it; as if by destroying themselves, they could "destroy rock'n'roll".
And God, the contradictions! They claimed they'd split after the first LP - this month, they release their third. They swore they'd "never write a ballad" - the new album boasts many moments of quiet, bleak beauty.
"We always knew we were going to f*** up," claims Nicky Wire. "Everyone knew we were going to f*** up. We were really saying, 'Let's forget notions of contradiction when it comes to bands, everyone f***s up, everyone lets you down. Contradictions are meaningless. There's nothing to betray'."
But, in truth, the Manics were always fuelled by contradiction, hacking at their ankles that they might climb even higher, whipping their hinds that they might run even faster.
And the band played on.
It was always inevitable that, sooner or later, something to going to happen (from despair to where?). At Glastonbury this year, after the Manics had played the show of their lives - all white heat and rough edges - it was obvious to everyone that this was a band approaching terminal velocity.
"Something's going to give", I remember a friend remarking. "Something's going to happen..."
And then - Richey.
Richey, who claimed to believe in nothing, yet claimed he just wanted someone to love him - who dreamed of "playing in the rubble of London's palaces", yet shuddered to recall the night someone threw some cider onstage and "I got it in my eye" - Sweet Richey, well read and breathtakingly beautiful, impossibly intense, the brightest star. Had he been born into an another age, he would have sipped coffee laced with absinthe in gilt-edged drawing rooms, hurled grenades over buckling barricades. But Richey found himself here, and now. And so he drank a bottle and a half of vodka a day "to get to sleep", hacked chucks from his body because he found it "sexual", spent his last night on tour in Thailand wandering the streets of Bangkok in search of whatever degradation the city could offer.
When I finally meet the Manic Street Preachers, Richey is lying in a clinic; two days previously, the band's press officer released a statement announcing that "he has decided to seek psychiatric help, to deal with what is basically a sickness."
And I'm wondering why things had to happen this way. And I'm wondering whether they could have happened any other way.
* * * * * * * * * *
When I finally meet the Manic Street Preachers, it's on a wet night in high summer; all day James and Nicky have been talking to the press, fielding endless questions about absent friends - they're dog tired, though impeccably courteous.
When I finally meet the Manic Street Preachers, it's in James' new Bayswater flat (I pass Sonya from Echobelly on the way there - "yeah, it's f***ing media central round here," he says by way of apology). The move to London is not, he's keen to stress, to be "in the bosom of the media" - it has led to constant appearances in gossip columns and, as a result, James' new media image as "Superlad", the "Loaded" reader incarnate (I mean, I read it, but I don't frame every copy or anything - I read 'Hello' as well, but I'm not a f***ing wannabe aristocrat. I just like a f***ing drink...")
When I finally meet the Manic Street Preachers, they are in the middle of the biggest crisis of a career that has elevated crisis into an artform.
When I finally meet the Manic Street Preachers, there are more important things to talk about than their new LP.
But first... we talk about their new LP.
Part Two: There's No Part Of My Body That Has Not Been Used / Everything's For Sale
It's the third Manic Street Preachers album.
"We recorded 'Gold Against The Soul' in a f***ing £2,000 a day studio," says Nicky. "Snooker tables, swimming pools - and I thought, 'Shit, I'm turning into Primal Scream,' you know, just hanging out, spending money. Something had to change, so we wrote, rehearsed and recorded this album in four or five weeks in some shithole studio in the red light district of Cardiff, not going out, just working and working, listening to Joy Division records, working, working some more..."
It's the best Manic Street Preachers album.
"Well, this time we seemed to be capable of saying everything we wanted to say. We weren't shoehorning the lyrics in this time, the lyrics suggested the melodies, these beautiful, beautiful melodies - James is so happy with this record, and he's not a man who's easily pleased."
And it's the most terrifying thing I've heard this year.
"Generation Terrorists" was the sound of ideas raging against an inability to fully articulate themselves. "Gold Against The Soul" a calm, lucid statement of utter disenchantment. But "The Holy Bible" sounds as though it was created under so much f***ing pressure that songs that would once have been fat, rampant anthems have buckled, been crushed and flattened, broken down, emerging as thin, white-hot strips of purest vitriol.
Nicky nods slowly.
"That's pretty accurate. I mean, I'm glad that things have come to a head, actually - we've got this record out, we're all happy with it, and now we're being forced to think about the future. Because I can tell you now, the last six months have been absolutely f***ing nightmarish.
"Right now, I don't wanna go out, I don't wanna make any friends, at the moment all I want to do is make enemies. I've never felt this much contempt for everyone and everything in my entire life. And I don't feel the need for anyone to like me any more. Jesus, it's hard enough to like myself."
He takes a deep breath.
"Basically, we've reached a point now where we feel as if we've prostituted ourselves so f***ing much, just given and given and given, that we've given everything away, and we've got absolutely f***ing nothing left of our own. and we played up to that, you know - 'culture sluts'. But these things... these things catch with you.
There's a song on the album called 'Yes'" which is about this, the feeling that you've just been completely used up. I mean, I remember dressing up as sperm for some Italian fashion magazine, do you know what I mean? That was our credo: say yes to everything."
Dada in reverse.
His thin face swells with a huge, empty grin, "We were like the TSB: The Band That Like To Say Yes."
And then he stops smiling.
"We always thought that, deep down, we were in control. And we weren't. We f***ing weren't. The last six months have just been completely f***ing horrible. I mean, I hate whining rock stars but, Jesus, for the first time in my life I feel as though I've got the right to be miserable.
"This is the first time in my life I've ever felt cheapened. I don't feel like I've got anything of my own left at all.
"Absolutely f***ing nothing at all."
"I knew that some day I was gonna die," intones a blank American voice at some point during side one of the new Manic Street Preachers album. "And I knew that before I died, two things would happen to me. That number one: I would regret my entire life - and number two: I would want to live my life over again.
Part Three: The Only Way To Gain Approval Is By Exploiting The Very Thing That Cheapens Me
James wants to talk. Which is fair enough; no one ever talks about him.
Which is strange, since, far from being simply The Butch Singer (he never writes lyrics, but is completely involved with every level of the band - "I have to totally understand everything I'm singing, it's not just a throwaway thing. I think of myself as a redeemable Roger Daltrey"), he's one of the most intelligent men I've ever met - it's a powerful intelligence, an intelligence rooted in a solid belief in that most unfashionable and patronised of quantities: working-class pride.
"For me, the greatest figure in British history is still Anairin Bevan (inspirational Welsh Labour politician of the early 20th century). It just f***ing sickens me that people have been conned into believing that you can't think in terms of class any more. As soon as working-class people lose their sense of belonging, they lose all their humility, and you get a classless society in the worst possible sense.
"I read something by Johnathan Dimbleby's wife the other day - she came from a dirt-poor working-class background, and now she's been assimilated into this middle-class media world - and she was saying, 'Ooh, I can still be a complete hedonist, the other night I drank a bottle of wine and danced around to jazz all night'!
"This is a woman from even more humble beginnings than me. As soon as she could she grabbed every f***ing middle-class token going, and so her language, her whole personality has been completely obliterated - which just suggests to everyone that the working classes don't have any f***in g pride.
"And the media are so into this idea of 'Generation X' at the moment", he goes on. "This f***ing concept of teenage discontent. But they're just celebrating these kids saying, 'Ooh, we've always had money, but the second they took the spoon out of our mouths we decided maybe we never really liked our life after all, and - hey - maybe we won't get a job', and they'd never f***ing publish anything by some scummy junked-up bastard from Manchester, they're only concerned with willing underachievers from the upper middle classes."
Douglas Coupland himself (author of the book "Generation X" on which this whole absurd media charade is based) was in London recently. Julie Burchill - still considered a rebellious figure by the Sunday papers, for whom she now writes - held a "Generation X Dinner" in his honour at one of London's more exclusive establishments. Which meant finding some young people to invite. Unfortunately, she didn't know any.
And so invites were sent to Caitlin Moran, The Sunday Times' teenage columnist Emma Forrest, Alan Coren's sometime-journalist daughter Victoria - hardly disillusioned dropouts with nowhere to go - and Richey James.
According to unconfirmed reports, at one point during the meal, Coupland turned to Richey (resplendent in a pink T-shirt bearing the legend "FAIRY"), extended a hand and asked, "So, what do you do then?"
He was greeted with a cold stare, and total silence.
Part Four: Archives Of Pain / Such Beautiful Dignity In Self-Abuse
The most beautiful song on "The Holy Bible" is called "4st 7lbs".
The title is a reference to the weight at which those suffering from anorexia come face to face with death; the song itself vividly details the slow deterioration of a teenage anorexic - "Lift up my skirt, my sex is gone / Naked and lovely and 5 stone 2, may I bud and never flower".
So I was going to talk about how the Manics have surely perpetuated the male equivalent of the supermodel ideal (the skinny-arsed rock'n'roll aesthetic the runs from the Stones to The Stooges and Primal Scream), I was going to discuss whether they were also referring to a kind of cultural anorexia (the late-20th century phenomenon of stripping away all one's personal idiosyncrasies in search of some kind of phoney social purity) - but one thing kept pulling me back.
The last lines, as the song dissolves into lapping waves of smooth acoustic guitar, sung by James in a parched, yearning whisper, are: "Self-worth scatters, self-esteem's a bore / I long since moved to a higher plateau / Discipline so rare so please applaud... such beautiful dignity in self-abuse".
"That song's very personal to Richey," murmurs Nicky Wire. "When they took him into the hospital, they said he was on verge of anorexia, and I think that point of view in the song is perhaps his point of view - anorexia as the ultimate act of self-control, total withdrawal, no one can get to you, a kind of suicide where you don't have to die."
A lot of the lyrics to this LP seem very, very personal - yeah, there are a few upbeat, declamatory song ("Revol", "PCP"), but others seem impossibly dense, frighteningly intense, betray a haunted, unbelievably bleak vision. I'm reminded of the lyrics Kurt Cobain wrote for "In Utero" - near-unintelligible snatches of internal dialogue (a friend with some understanding of psychoanalysis threw down "The Holy Bible" lyric sheet halfway through the first song, "Yes", and shuddered) - and, while it would be offensive to attempt O-level psychology here...
"It's not O-level psychology," says Nicky calmly, "it's just f***ing obvious. You're talking about 'Yes', '4st 7lbs', 'Die In the Summertime' - these are all Richey's songs. He's written about 70 per cent of this album. He just kept handing us complete lyrics that were absolutely perfect, absolutely beautiful, and yeah, very personal. I mean, he's not here to speak for himself, but I think he's explained himself pretty f***ing perfectly in those songs."
And so, finally, we talk about Richey.
"Obviously, we're not gonna talk about actual events," says James, "because that's private. But, equally obviously, we have to talk about the situation. And first of all we want to clear up all the speculation and outright f***ing lies we've read in the last two weeks. There is absolutely no tension in the band and there never has been. And it's not some kind of f***ing hype about Richey either - he's genuinely very ill."
"Richey just reached a point where something clicked," explains Nicky. "His self-abuse has just escalated so f***ing badly - he's drinking, he's mutilating himself, he's on the verge of anorexia... there's a line in 'Yes', 'hurt myself to let pain out' - Richey just found it so hard to say no to anybody, and that really was his way of letting out pain."
What is it in Richey's head that makes these things happen?
"I think he just feels things so f***ing intensely. He always had this vision of purity, or perfection, a kind of childlike vision, that became completely obliterated. A misprint on a lyric sheet, or whatever, would just upset him so much, and he got to a stage where he just couldn't stop himself from doing anything.
"But when we played in Glasgow without him it was horrendous. It just felt like a massive f***ing spiritual betrayal, and it looks pretty certain now that we're going to have to play Reading without him too - I mean, we thought of just doing nothing, not doing press, cancelling gigs, but we talked it over and decided that we were duty-bound to fulfill certain responsibilities - but we'll be so f***ing resentful that he isn't there that a lot of f***ing anger is gonna come out, I tell you. But, you know, right now he just needs to get better."
James: "It's strange. Richey never had as many setbacks as a kid as me, he's more acutely intelligent than me, he's more beautiful than me - and yet he has more problems. Problems that I'd just snip off with f***ing scissors in two seconds flat really get to Richey.
"But he has a very acute perception of things, and you can't lose that perception. It's just a matter of how you channel it. And this is it. It sounds insultingly flippant to say, 'Ooh, these things happen' or something, but - basically, what is is, we all saw Richey's problems getting to a stage where things were gonna get very, very nasty, and now he's going to see a psychiatrist and try to nip that in the bud. That's the true story. Those are the facts."
And I'm wondering why things had to happen this way. And I'm wondering whether they could have happened any other way.
James nods out of the window: the street is crazy with rain. It's falling like a fist, battering the pavements, washing back up from the drains. the night is flooded - across the road, a bright, wet church stands dripping, haloed by streetlamps, drenched and ornate. Brief sheet lightning opens up the sky, then slams it shut; the window-pane is pearled with swarf.
"It's beautiful out there, isn't it?"
I put down my drink, scramble up from the floor to see.
Tomorrow we will discover that a fortnight's rain has fallen in three hours, cutting off main roads, flooding the Underground, dragging London to a standstill.
"Beautiful", I reply, turning back to James.
But he looks away. "Oh, it's nothing really," he mutters. "It's only the rain."
He stares at the carpet.
"Don't worry. It's nothing."
'The Holy Bible' is released by Columbia on August 30
[Originally published: Melody Maker, 20 August 1994]