It's almost a year since Manic Street Preachers singer Richey James walked out of the Embassy Hotel, Bayswater, never to be seen again. Alex Bellos on a mystery that has sparked an unprecedented reaction among his fans
For most music fans, 1995 was defined by Britpop and trip-hop - the most exciting 12 months of homegrown rock and pop for years. But as its official history begins to be written, the year is also being remembered for a mysterious event, the impact of which is only now being felt.
When he disappeared from a London hotel on February 1, Richard James Edwards, the 27-year-old guitarist from the Manic Street Preachers, was just another up-and-coming rock star. The band had had a string of 14 top 40 hits in three years and their third album, The Holy Bible, was also doing well. They hadn't cracked the US, but they were booked in for a 30-date tour and many tipped their crossover rock/metal sound to succeed where others failed.
Richey James, as he called himself, was the angry, androgynous core of the band. He wore make-up, quoted Sylvia Plath and Primo Levi, and used situationist slogans - what you might expect from a punkish rebel with a degree in history and politics.
But in the same way that it took the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994 for most people to realise that his nihilistic songs went beyond posturing, Richey's disappearance prompted closer scrutiny of the Manics.
'There was an awful lot of resistance when they started,' says Stuart Bailie, the NME writer who covered the band. 'We thought they were a dodgy punk band from Wales. But then people began to realise that they were trying to deal with something no one had tried to deal with before. We didn't realise it at the time, but they plainly struck an amazing chord.' Richey James's on-stage charisma and on-page darkness had always attracted obsessive fans. He was not the first to suffer from an eating disorder - Karen Carpenter and Elton John are more famous examples - but none had dealt with the trauma as openly as he did, like in the song 4st 7lb. He was also the first to make self-mutilation an issue. When he cut the statement '4 Real' on his arm in front of a journalist, rather than alienating his audience it brought them out in increasing numbers.
If the influence of a band can be measured by the size of its postbags at the NME and Melody Maker, then there are is none bigger than the Manics. After Richey James went missing hundreds of fans wrote in saying they were cutting themselves. Several included photos of bleeding limbs. Staff were frightened into approaching the Samaritans for help, which led to articles on depression and a compilation CD raising money for the charity.
'In terms of the way they affected teenage thinking, the Manics are pretty much the British Nirvana,' says Melody Maker's features editor Paul Lester, who puts them up there with Oasis, Blur and Pulp. 'The nearest you got to that in the eighties was Morrissey, but that now seems like bluffery. The thing about bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Manics is that they really did seem to mean what they said.' The reassessment of Richey James has spawned a cottage industry of theories about why he went and what has happened since he walked out of the Embassy Hotel, Bayswater, leaving only a packed suitcase, a packet of Prozac, a box of books and a note with the words 'I love you'. It was quickly established that he drove in his silver Vauxhall Cavalier to his flat in Cardiff, where he left his passport and credit cards, and then drove off again. But nothing more definite is known.
Once it became clear that the disappearance was not a bad taste publicity stunt, his parents went public and appealed for their son to come home. The following day, February 17, the car was discovered at Aust service station near the Severn Bridge. It had been parked there on Valentine's Day. Police found no clues inside, although the proximity to the bridge led many to fear the worst. Had he joined the ranks of those who have jumped off, the strong currents mean that the body may never be recovered.
Police were trying to piece together what was going through Richey James's mind in the weeks before he vanished. His depression and self-abuse were well-documented, as was his obsession with famous people's suicide notes. 'La tristesse durera,' Van Gogh's last words, was the name of a Manics single. Journalists searched through their notes for clues. He had once said he would be happy to be like JD Salinger, to build himself a bunker and lock himself away. But an inexplicable optimism also emerged, suggesting that Richey James was somehow still in control.
Stuart Bailie echoes the thoughts of thousands when he says: 'A lot of people want him to be alive. I have a gut feeling that he still is.' There are flickers of what really might have happened in the two weeks before the car was found. David Cross, a 19-year-old student at Gwent College of Higher Education, offers perhaps the most credible sighting. On February 5, he took a bus to Newport bus station. He saw a man standing outside a newsagent's who he believed was Richey James. Cross is a penpal of Lori Fiddler, a US Manics fan who he knew was friendly with the band. Cross's statement reads: 'I said to him 'Hello Richey, I'm a friend of Lori's'. He said to me 'How is she? How's she doing?' I said 'She's OK'. He looked at me and then said 'I'll see you later'. I noticed he looked withdrawn and pale.' Two days afterwards, Newport taxi driver Anthony Hatherhall had an 'extremely strange' journey with a man he later told the police looked very like Richey James. Mr Hatherhall was called at 7am to the Kings Hotel, Newport. A tall, slim man with a gaunt face got in and asked in a Cockney accent - which the cabbie thought was put on - to go to Uplands. The passenger asked if he could lie down on the back seat.
At Uplands, Mr Hatherhall was asked to go to Risca. He said he needed the money upfront, and he was given £40 straight away. The passenger admitted he didn't know exactly where he wanted to go, because he was looking for his boss who had broken down in a lorry. He then asked where the nearest train station was. The taxi driver said there wasn't one and instead drove to the bus station in Blackwood.
On arrival, the passenger immediately said 'this is not the place' and asked to be taken to Pontypool station. He made a call from the station and then asked to go to Aust services via 'the scenic route', because he was always driving along the motorway. The fare was £68.
Last May, a German friend of Richey James told the investigation she had received a postcard from him dated London, February 3, sending his greetings. She refused to send the card because it was personal, but instead photocopied a card he had sent her before as 'proof'. If Richey James didn't return before August 20, she said, she was going to travel to Cardiff to say goodbye to him by throwing flowers in the sea.
Another sighting was reported in June in Skipton, North Yorkshire. Lucy Winter, a 16-year-old, says she saw someone who looked like Richey James and who looked 'haggard and ill'. She told police: 'I had a good look at him and still think it's him.' But the weirdest correspondence in the police file came at the end of the year from Bob Whitmore of Palma, Mallorca. After studying some of the darker Manics lyrics, he suggests connections with mysticism, and perhaps the writings of Aleister Crowley: 'Was Mr. Edwards a member of an esoteric or fraternal order?' The police then called the Mandrake occult bookshop in Oxford, and were told the same day that Mr. Whitmore had misunderstood Crowley. Another dead end.
In late December, the LWT show Missing featured an appeal for sightings of Richey James. Eight people called the programme. He was spotted that week in a gay pub in Brighton, begging in Liverpool, reading in London, and busking in Cambridgeshire.
'We don't have any real tangible sightings, just maybes,' says Detective Sergeant Stephen Morey, who is leading the hunt.
Since that programme, the three remaining Manics have played their first gig, supporting the Stone Roses at Wembley, and are planning an album for the spring. They are no longer waiting.
DS Morey has no sentimental attachment to the band, only a hard-edged realism borne out of 12 years in the Met: 'I would say it would be relatively difficult to have remained this anonymous for this period of time in this country. Possible, but difficult. For me, personally, he is no longer with us.'
[Originally published: The Guardian, 26 January 1996]