"I was completely cabbaged. I didn't want to go out anywhere, I didn't want to speak to anyone. I wanted to be sick all the time. I had agonising pains in my wrists, in my ankles, my legs, in my back. Sometimes I prayed I'd never wake up."
(Gill Armstrong, Manic Street Preachers fan, MM, 8/4/95)
On February 1 1995, Richey James of the Manic Street Preachers went missing. He was last seen coming out of the Embassy Hotel in Bayswater at seven am. He drove off in his car, a silver Vauxhall Cavalier, and was reported missing when he failed to turn up at the airport from where he was due to fly out to America for promotional work. Police put out a description of a young man aged 28 with a shaven head and the words "USELESS GENERATION" tattooed on his arm. A few days later, his car was discovered abandoned at a service station near the Severn bridge. He hasn't been seen since.
It was reported that Richey had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital the previous August, apparently on the point of anorexia and nervous depression, conditions from which he had never recovered. He had also been in engaging in acts of self-mutilation, a behaviour trait which first came notoriously to light when he slashed the words "4 REAL" into his forearm during a press interview when a music journalist openly doubted whether the Manics really "meant it".
Initially, there were those around here who doubted whether all this was 4 Real. Volatile rock star misses flight, goes AWOL, big deal. But, as the weeks crept by with no news, no sightings, concern grew.
Readers and fans, meanwhile, reacted with almost immediate consternation. On March 18, it was reported that Sally Allen, a 17-year-old schoolgirl who had been "deeply upset" about Richey's disappearance, had gone missing, too. A steady flood of letters began arriving to Backlash, unusual in their quantity and their anguish. Even the death of Kurt Cobain a year earlier hadn't prompted quite such a huge and emotional response, even though there had been no doubt as to his fate. The depths of despair in these letters, mostly from young women, shook some up here. In this post-modern age of No More Heroes, with rock music disseminated by an ever more efficient corporate machinery to a supposedly more hard-boiled generation of consumers, some of us had forgotten that someone like Richey could still mean so much to some of you. Distraught fans wrote of their own experiences of desolation and even self-mutilation. "At a time when I felt alone and depressed, it was comforting to know someone felt the same," was a typical sentiment. More often, letter were brief and imploring; "Richey, where are you?"
Confronted with this outpouring of despondency and alarmed by the number of correspondents who described their cutting themselves, we felt a little out of our depth. The words, "Pull yourself together, he's just some f***ed-up rock star, get a life of your own," sprang too quickly to mind. Buck your ideas up. Take cold showers. Smile and the world smiles with you. But it was no time for flip put-downs and brutal panaceas. Consequently, we put together a special issue in which we sought more expert opinions. Emma Borton of the Samaritans wrote that, "Self inflicted pain focuses inexpressible emotional pain. But it is a non-expressive verbal scream that can make others shut their eyes in horror and incomprehension." Consultant Clinical psychologist Dr. Keith Stall suggested that anorexics starved themselves because, "such actions provide feelings of control, since they feel that they control so little else in their lives." As if to say, "It's my body and I can do what I want with it."
A week later, we invited in a selection of readers and musicians, including Thom of Radiohead and Russell of Pulp, to discuss the question of whether or not there was currently a "culture of despair". In spite of Richey's disappearance, however, in spite of the dislocated nihilism of Radiohead's "The Bends", in spite of the scowling, downbeat tones of Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Hole billowing across the Atlantic like a bank of black clouds, no one could really offer any conclusive evidence that the nation's youth as a whole was currently in the grip of gloom. After all, these were the days when the boisterous blue skies of Britpop were smiling down on us.
This, however, was not what the wider media wanted to hear. The response to our Samaritans issue was extraordinary. From being flooded with Richey-related letters, we were now flooded with requests for interviews from everyone from "Today" to the Mirror and The Star to the BBC and ITN. MM journalist Andrew Mueller, who himself was once diagnosed as depressive some years ago, found himself in the position of spokesperson on these occasions. Patiently, time and again, he attempted to put the matter in context, talk about the impact the death of Kurt (which had gone woefully under-reported in the mainstream media at the time) and the disappearance of Richey had had on many of our readers, explain what we had tried to do in terms of sign posting sufferers to the appropriate counselling services, at the very least assure them they were not alone.
What the mainstream media wanted, however, was a Story. They wanted to hear that Britain's youth, that gullible and homogenous entity, were being "swept" by a wrist slashing cult inspired by sexy, wasted, missing pop star Richey. The tabloids reprinted distraught letters from past Backlashes, even made up letters when we refused to show them the ones we had received, in an attempt to sensationalise the misery of the minority - albeit a substantial one - of these who had been deeply affected by Richey.
A classic example of how news gatherers pre-write stories in their heads then go out and hunt down the "facts" that suit their angle came from the team from the BBC's "Six O' Clock News". Having come up to Maker Towers to interview Andrew Moeller, having packed away their lights, big umbrella and sound equipment, their reporters/researchers desperate to find hard evidence of a Culture Of Despair, started casting around the office asking if anyone new the names of any rock records whose titles indicated the current dark mood. They were working to a deadline, they had an hour to get to Tower Records and...any ideas? No? Oh well, thanks for nothing, goodbye...
That evening, the news skipped barely comprehensibly from a clip of Richey, to the Samaritans, to an interview with a bewildered Damon of Blur (not exactly Mr. Misery), to Mueller and then, in authoritative, "This Is The News" tones announced, "that there is a culture of despair in today's rock music is all too clear. The Smiths made a single called 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' and there is a band called Suicidal Tendencies." No mention of Kurt Cobain. Who's he? And so, on the basis of a 12-year-old self-mocking single and a defunct psychoid skateboard band, the case rested.
By the end of the year, the flood of letters had abated, the "culture of despair" all but forgotten as the Britpop explosion gave us a million reasons to be cheerful. So what prompted all that deranged grief? The ravages of Major's Britain? Hardly. The, release of Joy Division's "Permanent" this year was a reminder of a time when indie angst could be more tangibly rooted in social woes-when Joy Division emerged in 1979, the first wave of recession was hitting the North and, globally, there was a genuine fear that events in Iran and Afghanistan might lead to an escalation to all-out nuclear war.
Life is no bed of roses today, but the letters we received never referred to outside social ills, talked instead in intransitive terms of grief, despair, a sort of existential isolation. Depression is an implacable condition that doesn't require social deprivation to bring it on. Andrew Mueller wrote that having a lifestyle almost tailor made for him and a supportive network didn't stop himself from occasionally feeling so paralysed by depression that he could barely bring himself to speak. Look at Kurt, he had it all. Look at Princess Di. She's been a victim for years. There was no "culture of despair". The impact of Richey's disappearance was to enable those who had been cutting or starving themselves for months, years, to come out, talk about their problems, share their experiences. You can't legislate against this sort of depression-even Michael Stipe's immortal words of consolation, "Everybody Hurts" aren't quite adequate because not everybody hurts like this. Sure, there were probably a few "copycat slashers", sad posers who regarded self-mutilation as a glamorous appendage, like pallor and high cheekbones. But no one could argue against the sheer volume of correspondence we received.
This was 4 Real. If anything good came out of all of this, it was that a whole range of hitherto unacknowledged adolescent (and post-adolescent) conditions were no longer being suffered in silence.
A recent documentary, "Inside Out", about Gill Armstrong, one of the more articulate readers to have participated in the whole debate, might have gone some way to bridging the gap of ignorance.
But none of this has brought Richey back from wherever he is. Ten months later, he's still missing.
[Originally published: Melody Maker, 23 December 1995]