by David Owens
Rachel Elias opens her heart on how the missing guitarist has become a rock myth and wants to 'reclaim' him as simply Richey, her brother
It's the 20th anniversary of the disappearance of missing Manic Street Preachers' guitarist Richey Edwards.
For the musician's sister, Rachel Elias, and her family it will mark another painful milestone - one of many they've had to endure in the two decades since his disappearance from a London hotel on February 1, 1995, on the eve of a promotional tour to the US.
When his car was found abandoned near the Severn Bridge a fortnight later, many assumed he had taken his own life.
His body was never found but he was legally presumed dead in 2008.
In that time the mythology surrounding the Welshman has grown into an industry of its own, fuelled by the mystery surrounding his enduring story - a rock 'n' roll icon forever suspended in time.
However, for the musician's family the heartache never subsides. They are the ones left to pick up the pieces, the very human side of their story invariably glossed over in favour of the image of their son and brother as a the ultimate kohl-eyed, dagger-tip haired, tortured rock star.
In a wide-ranging and emotional interview, Rachel Elias reveals how she wants to set the record straight as she speaks out about:
'A lot has happened in two decades'
"It has been very difficult because I guess 20 years is a watershed period," says Rachel Elias, reflecting on the time that has elapsed since her brother's disappearance.
"It catches you. Two decades, and a lot has happened since then.
"To be honest it's something that you carry with you every day anyway. I understand that the press will pick up on it because it's 20 years, but it's not something that ever goes away."
In that intervening period, landmarks have come and gone - Rachel has married, while her father sadly died from cancer in 2012, never knowing what had happened to his son.
However, from the very outset the musician's 45-year-old sister has never stopped searching for her brother. Her long-standing work in particular with Missing People - the UK charity that works with young runaways, missing and unidentified people, and their families - has also brought focus to her life.
"It's not something you can escape from. You have to deal with the perpetual uncertainty of it all and I'd rather deal with it in a constructive way rather than wallowing in the what ifs, and where is he. It's better to do things, be active and try and keep up the search instead, rather than not doing anything. Even though that may not influence the outcome, I may never know, it's something I feel is more positive.
"I have met lots of other families that are going through it," she adds of her work with Missing People. "There are so many people that go missing. I wish I could say that Richard's story was a one-off tale, but it's not."
Even though Richey's DNA is registered on the missing person' database, Rachel reveals how she regularly takes on the gruesome task of checking the recently launched Unidentified Database - a list of more than 1,000 unidentified bodies and body parts that date back to the 1950s, illuminating the torment those searching for loved ones have to go through in their quest to discover what happened to a missing family member.
"Some of the pictures of deceased people are quite harrowing and they are quite shocking," says Rachel. "But other pictures are maybe of a tattoo or a wallet that has been left.
"There are different parts of the country that you can access, as well as different years, so you can streamline the search. I often go on there because there are 10 bodies and body parts a month additionally being added to the website.
"But that said, on the flipside, I have no evidence that Richard is dead, so I have to hold on to the hope that he's alive as well."
Does she believe Richey is still alive?
Ask Rachel if she believes her brother is actually alive and she pauses, before answering:
"I don't know is the answer to that. Without him returning or us knowing he is somewhere even if he doesn't want to make contact or until we recover his body, I do not want to say either way.
"Even though we had to declare Richard legally presumed dead in 2008, it's only a presumption.
"In respect to his fate you don't have closure," she adds. "Which is very much different from bereavement isn't it. As difficult as that is, there is a general acceptance eventually when someone dies. But when a person is missing and you don't know where they are it is constantly with you."
The summer before he disappeared, Richey - who self-harmed and had problems with anorexia, alcohol and depression, was treated at psychiatric units at Whitchurch Hospital in Cardiff and The Priory in Roehampton.
However, he checked himself out of The Priory early and as the band started to promote the recently released Holy Bible album, it was noticed how Richey had seemed at peace with himself and it was observed he had achieved some sort of serenity.
Rachel believes this was because her brother had decided on the course he was to follow. And she is also convinced Richey was sending her subtle messages and laying the groundwork for his disappearance in the weeks and months before he vanished.
'I think he knew that was going to be his last gig'
"I remember before Christmas he had bought us all presents and he had a university friend he sent some presents to as well," she recalls. "He made an additional effort of saying to people including myself, which he wouldn't normally have said, encouraging us to go to the London Astoria dates (the band played three dates at The Astoria culminating in Richey's last show with the band on December 21, 1994, the day before his birthday on December 22).
"I think in retrospect whatever he did, he planned, and he knew that was going to be his last gig. So when you say serenity, I think he had possibly made some kind of decision - now obviously I don't know what that decision was - if that was to disappear and exist somewhere else or to end his life."
Since his disappearance the musician has become the ultimate cult rock 'n' roll icon, re-purposed and rebranded to fit the myth that surrounds him.
To millions worldwide he is the epitome of the tortured artist, to his family however he is a much loved and cherished brother and son.
The cult of Richey
Rachel admits a frustration that it feels as if her sibling has been taken ownership of by other people.
"This cult of Richey, I think there are even a few websites called that, that's what it is. People have taken ownership, they have given him labels. They have said that he was this, this, this, when he wasn't.
"It's difficult for us but what annoys me more is that it must be even more difficult for him, because if he was out there, there are people who are talking about his work and his albums and theorising over them, and he was the writer and he's not even here to give his view.
"So that is annoying because it's not an accurate reflection of who he is and his true identity."
I asked Rachel if enough respect was paid to her brother, that it's just easy to use him as a throwaway icon in pop culture, but it's forgotten that he has a family who continue to be affected by this?
"That's absolutely true. It's that narrow image of him (as a rock star). It's easy to see him as some form of commodity that you can wheel in and out when you want. And that has built up over 20 years."
Rachel, who hasn't spoken to the rest of the Manics since her father's funeral in 2012, also admits she had felt an unease at the releasing of the Manics' 2009 Journal For Plague Lovers album, which was recorded using lyrics that Richey left behind - as well as the recent release of the 20th anniversary edition of The Holy Bible - the album for which the missing guitarist wrote the majority of the lyrics.
"For JFPL the band approached my father in 2008 and asked him would he object to that (the use of the lyrics) and he said no, so that's why they proceeded with releasing it.
"But in terms of can any of us say he truly wanted that I can't answer that. I wouldn't like to assume that in his absence he wanted those lyrics used on that album, because he never said and he didn't leave instructions for that. But equally he didn't leave instructions not to use it."
Now Rachel says she wants to reclaim Richey - take back the real person behind the rock star myth - and reveals the church has helped her to find meaning beyond her brother's disappearance.
"I would like eventually to readdress that in some way. I'm not sure how to do that at the moment. It's been on my mind. Otherwise my mother and I could die without ever knowing (what happened to Richey) and only one version of his story will be written in history.
"How I remember Richard is in memories now more than anything because so much time has passed," she adds.
"But in terms of coping with it in the last few years, I go to church. That has really helped me make sense of it.
"I've tried to establish the fact that while I don't know now - I will know. If it's not in this life, then in another dimension, in another life perhaps. It's certainly something that helps me.
I've realised that there are some things beyond your control that you have to accept, things that you don't want to, but also realising that there is someone up there who does know."
Rachel along with other volunteers has recorded a song I Miss You to raise funds for the Missing people charity. The song was written by Peter Boxell, whose son Lee has been missing since 1988. For more information visit www.missingpeople.org.uk/imissyou
[Originally published: walesonline.co.uk, 31 January 2015]