Thirteen years ago, Manic Street Preachers' lyricist disappeared. As the police file on him is closed, Nick Hasted considers his legacy
Richey Edwards officially "died" this week, but there has been a hollow ring to the obituaries that newspapers have finally been able to print.
The police closed their file on the Manic Street Preachers guitarist-lyricist at his family's request. His old band's announcement this month that their next album, Journal for Plague Lovers, will consist entirely of old Edwards lyrics now seems their own acknowledgement that he is not coming back. But ever since Edwards' empty car was discovered near the Severn Bridge in February 1995, everyone has known in a corner of their hearts that he was lost. Suicide occurred several times in his lyrics, and the high bridge into rushing water, surely, was where he fell.
Edwards, who breathed rock'n'roll and counter-culture mythologies, cannot have been unaware that at 27, he was like Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones and so many rock corpses. His vanishing propelled his band to monumental pop success. The Manics' Everything Must Go (1996) was the sort of gleaming pop-rock machine they had tried to make with their first two albums, but infused with public awareness of the loss, grief and developing myth Edwards left them.
Edwards became the Manic Street Preachers' conscience. Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield are jovial interviewees these days, but Richey's still unquiet, spitting, 27-year-old spirit remains at their shoulder. So slick situationist stadium albums were followed by the most feral, antagonistic No1 single this century, 2000's "Masses Against the Classes". It was also revealed, in 2005, that they continued to pay a quarter of their royalties to an account set up in Edwards' name.
Carving "4 REAL" on to his arm with a razorblade was the most characteristic and worst thing he did. It happened in 1991, when then-NME journalist Steve Lamacq questioned the band's commitment. Edwards cut the words so deep, the blood running in front of the stunned journalist, that they had to be stitched. His action led up to them being signed by Sony. At the same time, the act quoted and reached for the imagined commitment of his pop-culture and political heroes. "We want to put Rumble Fish to music and make it sound like the Jesus and Mary Chain," he told Manics biographer Simon Price of "Motorcycle Emptiness", their finest early single. Gloriously, Nye Bevan was a greater influence.
The Holy Bible (1994) was his testament: picking at the self-harm, alcohol abuse and anorexia (in "4st 7lb") which was consuming him with a cold scalpel. It was a commercial suicide-note. But Edwards' anorexia, especially, such a feminine sickness, was a more considered equivalent of Cobain screaming "Rape me!" The cult around The Holy Bible, and Edwards, has not changed markedly since his death. Alongside Nirvana's In Utero it is the most extreme, damaged excuse for a commercial, major-label album in the last 20 years.
His death shouldn't define him. Instead, we can look back at a unique pop lyricist, steeped in old South Wales community values, and a hunger to escape them. In doing so, there's little sadness left.
[Originally published: The Independent, 28 November 2008]