It's five years since the Manics' Richey Edwards disappeared - another in a line of talented and tragic young men who just couldn't cope. Caroline Sullivan on music's missing souls.
Five years ago next Tuesday, Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers left a London hotel and entered pop legend. His abandoned Vauxhall Cavalier was found two weeks later at motorway services on the English side of the Severn Bridge, but of Edwards himself there has been no trace. Dubious "sightings" occur regularly, with the guitarist having been spotted in Goa, the Canary Islands and Newport public library, 15 miles from his hometown of Blackwood, Gwent. The police inquiry is still active, but if Edwards hasn't reappeared by February 2002, he will be officially pronounced dead.
What's interesting is the mythologising that's gone on since - a reluctance to let him lie, as it were. His disappearance following a long period of depression touched a nerve that isn't often touched by the loss of a rock star. In the last decade only the deaths of Kurt Cobain and perhaps Jeff Buckley, who drowned before he could follow up his soaring debut album, have occasioned the same mixture of soul-searching and regret.
Had it been, say, the Manics' blokey singer, James Dean Bradfield, who vanished, it's safe to say that the reaction would have been much less emotional. Bradfield is a nice guy, but he's a Welsh terrier who can take care of himself, thanks very much. But Edwards was less resilient, with depression and alcohol problems that led to two hospital stays in 1994. His frailty made him perversely glamorous - the sensitive one who was adored by self-dramatising 15-year-old girls and found it all too much in the end.
Along with a handful of others, including Cobain, Buckley and his father, Tim, a 1975 drug casualty, Ian Curtis and Nick Drake, he's rock's equivalent of James Dean - a lost boy who has become synonymous with unrealised talent and beauty.
Ironically, the Manics have since achieved the commercial success that eluded them when he was around (on his last album, The Holy Bible, he reached a crescendo of radio-unfriendliness with songs such as 4st 7lb, inspired by his own eating disorder). But when he went he took the confrontational intellect that made the Manics the most loathed and loved band of the 90s, and many fans feel nothing has been the same since.
A group of them are planning a vigil on Tuesday, starting at the Severn Bridge and ending in Blackwood, where they plan to... well, what? Hang around the small valleys town in the feather boas synonymous with the sadder breed of Manics fan? Simon Price, author of the group's biography, Everything, is unimpressed. "His parents don't really need these ghouls in leopardskin hanging around outside their house. They're using Richey as a stick to beat the new Manics with. He's supposed to be the pure, beautiful one and the other three are sell-outs."
Sell-outs simply for still being around, while Richey exists only in photos, frozen in time at the age of 27. He's best remembered for what has become a classic archive shot, taken moments after he cut the words "4 Real" into his arm with a razor to "make a point" after a concert. The bloody bandages and his unnervingly serene expression indicate a textbook act of self-destruction but at the time it was construed as heroically cool.
Bassist Nicky Wire remembers: "It was kind of compulsive viewing, that was the scary thing. It was one of those things that you couldn't help watching even though you knew you shouldn't." In a recent NME series on the 100 most rock'n'roll moments in history, it was number one.
Who's to say that if Edwards had stuck around, he wouldn't have ended up as much a "sell-out" as the other Manics? By leaving he manipulated the way he'll be remembered. He'll never grow old or disappoint the fanbase with a bad album or a goatee; he'll always be the one who was too "pure and beautiful" for an undeserving world.
The relationship between him and his people seems to be fanned rather than dimmed by the passage of time: every month the lonely hearts column of Select magazine is full of teenage girls advertising for "Richey Manic lookalikes" - emotional problems optional, presumably. Edwards's troubles were never a secret, and contributed to his icon status even before he left, but by disappearing he has become untouchable and inviolate.
Part of the fascination of lost boys is the combination of physical beauty and early demise. And beauty is the right word, for most of them had that ambiguous, feminised quality that especially appeals to girls. "Doomy adolescent girls love the idea of beautiful sacrificial boy-gods. They're at an age where they hate the macho thing," says rock critic Jennifer Nine.
If the looks are accompanied by a complex, poetic personality, there's an idol in the making right there. Unfortunately, those who possess these alluring qualities are often plagued by insecurity that's aggravated by getting to the top of the rock heap and realising that nothing has changed. Some opt out at the peak of their youth and talent and pass into legend.
Maybe Sid Vicious thought that, by overdosing on heroin at 21, he would join the lost-boy elite. He didn't; merely dying young is no guarantee of immortality. In a forthcoming Sex Pistols documentary, The Filth and the Fury, he's no one's idea of a hero, mumbling in a Hyde Park deck chair like a narcotised zombie.
Drugs certainly didn't help his charisma. Sid lacked what U2 called "the unforgettable fire" - he may have been as emotionally fragile as Edwards, but was missing the intelligence that makes fragility so appealing. Vicious ruined his life so we don't have to, but no one cared - except his mother. Her death a few years ago was more poignant than her son's. Unable to come to terms with losing Simon, as she called him, she took her own life in a sad footnote to the whole sorry affair.
Mere self-destructiveness doesn't count, either. Iggy Pop used to cut himself with broken glass at gigs, but failed to rouse the kind of protective instinct that lost boys do. It's hard to get too concerned about someone with a torso that could give Mr. Universe a run for his money, though he clearly needed someone to stop him from being so silly.
What links so-called lost boys is the sense that they needed looking after, protecting from the elements. They cause strong feelings of affinity in their fans, many of whom also suffer from depression. When Edwards vanished 10 months after Cobain's suicide (Cobain and Joy Division's Ian Curtis were particular heroes of Edwards's, incidentally), an emotive discourse on depression sprang up in the music press.
Melody Maker devoted an issue to it, using the Manics song title From Despair to Where? as a headline. "I almost died when I heard [Richey] was gone, and have thought about killing myself several times since. I have to hurt myself to stay calm," one girl told the paper. Another said, alarmingly: "I'm scared of what lengths I'll go to if the worst comes to the worst." Concerned at the glamourisation of mental illness, Melody Maker concluded that it was healthy to admire edgy stars like Edwards, but not to emulate them.
Not that it will do much good. There's a sense that some fans blame themselves for whatever happened to him and to the others. They consumed his art and he vanished, so somehow it's their fault that he couldn't cope. When Ian Curtis hanged himself in 1980, aged 23, one journalist took it so personally that he famously wrote: "This man died for you". Even long-deceased pastoral folkie Nick Drake, who took an overdose of antidepressants in 1974, evokes peculiar guilt feelings. The many features that appeared about him when his back catalogue was re-released a couple of years ago were almost apologetic in tone - he's gone but we're still here, managing to get by in the world that proved unendurable for him.
Some artists do get through bad patches. Iggy and Lou Reed, who didn't look as if they would survive the 70s, are now respectable elder statesmen. Keith Richards, who supposedly used to have his blood changed the way other people have hot dinners, is a piratical grandfather. Whether it was luck or survival instinct, they lived to tell the tale.
It's those who didn't who fascinate us. The stars who were in touch with something "other", who felt too much, whichever romantic way you want to describe their lack of coping mechanisms - they're the ones who make us realise how lucky we are.
[Originally published: The Guardian, 28 January 2000]