The ruthless contradictions of pop stardom seem to have claimed another victim in Richey James. Does the industry drive people mad, or do they start that way? Both, says Alex Kadis.
It was no accident that Richey James, the guitarist and chief visionary of doom in the rock group the Manic Street Preachers, had become the icon for a disaffected generation. "Love is an impossible concept," he once said, and the nation's troubled youth nodded appreciatively. He was on their side, you see, without so much as a trace of perceptible cynicism, and for that he became a hero. The problem was that James was not acting. While the majority of his fans would come through their teen-angst years fairly unscathed, this fragile man was slowly but surely losing the plot.
Considering his tortured past - in recent years he has suffered from insomnia, depression, nervous exhaustion, self-mutilation and anorexia - it came as no big surprise when the 25-year-old pop star walked out of the Embassy hotel in west London on February 1, just before the start of a 30-day tour, and failed to return. Last week, his deserted silver Vauxhall Cavalier was discovered a few hundred yards from the Severn Bridge in Avon, a local suicide spot.
James is not the first pop star to wander into the wilderness and very likely he will not be the last. The pop music industry has always had a knack of churning out stars who are disturbed or, at the very least, eccentric. Just a quick listen to the babblings of he who is no longer Prince at last week's Brit awards is confirmation enough. "Prince... best... in concert... free... on record... slave... get wild... come... peace..." the weeny one inarticulated, but his behaviour is acceptable to us because it is off-beat, it is funny and, as yet, there is no tragedy attached. This is not always the case.
Perhaps the most famous pop casualty of all time is Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett. Prior to his disappearance from the pop scene in 1968, it was obvious that he was steadily going insane. He turned up for a television show in 1967 with an entire pot of Brylcreem mixed with Mandrax tablets poured over his head and seemed not to notice it there.
In 1970, Fleetwood Mac lost two members of their group. Guitarist Jeremy Spencer left the band's hotel in San Francisco in the middle of an American tour for, purportedly, a pack of cigarettes, and never came back. It transpired that he had joined a religious sect, the Children of God. That same year, Peter Green, then 23, decided he was going to give away his thousands. "I am not a nut, why should some people have more money than others?" he declared, and promptly disappeared.
It all begs the question: does the pop world tend to push stars over the edge or are some of them mad on arrival? Alan Cooper, a London psychotherapist, explains that it is widely accepted that there is a direct link between genius and madness. "It's what I call the Van Gogh syndrome," he says. "Both Green and Barrett were geniuses, they were highly creative people and were therefore predisposed to neurosis. They both became detached from reality. Highly creative people are living on the edge of sanity anyway."
Tim Byrne, a producer of pop music TV shows, points to the fact that it is often insecure people who want to become pop stars. "I have often found that it is those who feel inadequate in some way who seek fame. It is often a substitute for something lacking in their own lives. Madonna is the perfect example. Her mother died when she was very young and her father gave her very little attention. She admits freely that her quest for power and fame is a result of her psychological condition. People who want to be in the public eye want to be loved. The problem is that the love a pop star receives from his fans is a false love; people out there are worshipping an escapist fantasy figure. When the pop star realises that fame does not bring you love and happiness, that's when they crack." Cooper confirms that neurosis can be linked to upbringing.
So overwhelmed was John Lennon by The Beatles experience that he spent five barren years between 1974 and 1979 in a darkened room in his apartment in the Dakota building in New York. His background was not dissimilar to Madonna's. He was brought up by an aunt because his mother was too young to look after him herself, and his father had all but disowned him. Nevertheless, he loved his mother dearly. When he was 12, she was killed in a road accident and he never recovered from the trauma.
Sinead O'Connor is one of many stars who freely admit to an unhappy childhood. "I was abused as a child and the only reason I open my mouth to sing is so that my story can be heard," she said in 1993. In 1994, she almost throttled a fan after he asked her for an autograph. Later that year she gave away her £500,000 LA home after seeing an appeal for Somalia on television.
She and Green are not the only lolly-laden stars to have released themselves generously from the burden of their millions. Youth, when he was still the guitarist with Killing Joke, allegedly withdrew all his money from the bank in the late 1980s, took it outside and burned every last penny of it.
Groups such as Oasis and Blur, however, have led the march away from angst-ridden pop. Last week's quadruple Brit winner, Damon Albarn of Blur, has on several occasions voiced his lack of patience with rock's tragic cases. Albarn's attitude is certainly refreshing, but then he does come from a middle-class, secure background. Anybody who observed the rapid decline of the more deprived Kurt Cobain could see that his pain was most certainly real. When his parents split in 1975, Cobain, still a child, fell into a vicious moodiness and became highly destructive. By the time he was 17 he was developing all the signs of a classic neurosis: inexplicable and excruciating stomach pains, insomnia and deep despair. On April 5 of last year he took a lethal dose of heroin and Valium and shot himself.
Even those who have arrived on the pop scene via a happy existence have a lot with which to contend. Barry McIlheney, former editor of pop magazine Smash Hits, feels that even a short existence in the pop world can push relatively sane people off their trolley: "Their sense of reality becomes completely distorted. At Smash Hits you would see these people who one minute were literally nothing - Bros, Brother Beyond and so on - and the next minute they would be on the cover of Smash Hits, winning awards and accumulating more money than they could have dreamed of. It is the speed with which it happens that pushes them over the edge. The pop world is unreal. Suddenly a star has money, they stay in nice hotel rooms, there is always somebody to clean your backside and to laugh at your jokes. Sting said one of the best things about being a pop star was that everybody laughed at your crap jokes."
It takes only a mild dose of fame to bring the sycophants out of the closet, and sycophants, says Cooper, are dangerous. "Their presence creates a distortion of the self-image. The music industry is essentially a world where double standards apply. It is a place where two and two can make five. Contradictions are allowed. There are, on the one hand, groupies at your beck and call and, on the other, you've got a system where you are supposed to be saint-like. Drugs and drink are easily available and yet you're supposed to be clean-living. The internal contradictions within the system are simply mad. To disappear, to run away, to burn your money, to shun the system is often the only way pop stars can regain control of their lives."
"We all need space," says McIlheney. "We all go through that need to escape to some extent, but we rarely experience anything as powerful as the sort of thing a pop star has to go through. Who'd be a pop star, eh?"
[Originally published: The Sunday Times, 26 February 1995]