At last, Richey James is ready to talk. About insanity. About anorexia. About alcohol. About mutilation. About suicide. And Simon Price is ready to listen.
The Horror, The Horror
I have been summoned. It's pitch dark in here. There's been a power failure on the silver Phoenix tour bus, and I am led stumbling to the back. What little light remains in the Rue De Voltaire outside is screened by heavy velvet curtains. Through a tiny gap, Richey James' face is illuminated by a flickering neon sign. I feel like I've walked into the scene in "Apocalypse Now" where Martin Sheen finally meets Brando's Colonel Kurtz.
"Hello, Simon. I heard you wanted a chat."
People Send Postcards, And They All Hope I'm Feeling Well
I hear you think you've been misrepresented.
"Um... I wouldn't say any more than usual. I can't think of anything specifically. It's difficult for me to talk about something like that without seeming really petty."
The way it all blew up in the media, it would be easy to imagine that you just suddenly flipped out and lost it one day, spent two months as a complete nutter, then, equally suddenly, you were cured. Presumably it's a little more gradual than that.
"I think that is an assumption that an awful lot of people do make, and it's completely wrong. That never happens. You don't wake up one morning and say 'Oh, bad day !', and, like, here we go. It is something very gradual, and I don't think you even realise what's really happening. You've got a different perspective on yourself and what's actually going on. It's fairly difficult to explain. It just comes to a point where... your mind thinks that it can cope but maybe your body can't carry on. You can't physically do anything, which is what happens: you actually can't move. And again, people think when, the minute you check out, everything's okay. Which it's not. At all. I've got a good smile..."
He smiles a good smile.
"Not as good as Nick's, admittedly. With him, everything's always okay, everything's all right, everything's fine. That's just the way it is. With most people, it's not worth saying how you really think you feel. People say 'How are you?' and if you go 'Actually, I'm f***ing feeling shit', they don't wanna know. So instead it's 'Feeling all right, feeling fine'. That's just the way everyone does it, me included."
It saves a lot of embarrassed silences.
"Yeah, of course."
Insanity #1: I've Been Too Honest With Myself, I Should Have Lied Like Everyone Else
I suppose I veer towards the liberal, romantic view of madness: that people who are unusually sensitive and creative are especially prone, and are misdiagnosed as "insane ". "Um, I don't think... I mean... a lot of letters I've got have said 'Oh, it's natural, it always happens to poets'. Which is f***ing bullshit. When you're in the places I've been in, the first place especially, it's just any job, any occupation. Housewife, bricklayer, plumber, somebody who works for South Wales Electricity Board, whatever. It doesn't pick or choose people who pick up a pen. When you write something down, it's not like, here we go. It's something nobody really knows anything about, apart from that some things work and some things don't, to stabilise you again. It's very romantic to think 'I'm a tortured writer', but mental institutions are not full of people in bands. They're full of people with so-called normal jobs. Or were full. 68,000 beds have been closed down in the last couple of years, which I wouldn't have been aware of unless I was actually in one."
I often think that the "insane" are those who have ceased to block out thoughts which most of us do, to be able to get on with life. We're all borderline cases, just about holding it together.
"I think people who get through the day, every day, are far stronger than me. Getting completely paranoidly - if there's such a word as 'paranoidly' - upset about tiny little things is nonsense. Maybe I'm in the luxurious position of not allowing that to worry me, because I haven't got children to feed, I haven't got payments to make to an ex-wife, I haven't got to worry about my rent or mortgage. So my mind is not cluttered with the day-to-day necessities of staying alive. I'm not worried about 'If I don't pay this bill today, the gas is gonna get cut off'. Because I just chuck some money to somebody, and it gets paid."
You sound as though you feel guilt.
"I haven't got guilt about that at all. I lived with my parents til I was 25. I was never bothered about being a homeowner or anything like that. I saw my flat one day, and I bought it the next, just like that. I hadn't thought about it before. I was just passing by, and Nick said 'Oh, let's go and have a look at these',and I thought 'This is all right'. I asked her how much it was, she told me, so I said 'I'll buy it'. And I just moved in. I didn't really know what to do, I just paid the bills. I don't feel guilt about that."
Insanity #2: Endless Hours In Bed, No Peace In This Mind
Then there's the Victorian view of "asylums", full of irredeemable cases walking up and down Cuckoo's Nest-esque corridors, banging off the walls.
"I think NHS hospitals are people banging off the walls in long corridors. Long, endless corridors. In communal wards, nobody sleeps. They can give you as many drugs as they want, but the noises in there are pretty horrendous. Then the next day, you wake up, have your drugs and sit in a big communal room, and you don't hardly see any f***er. And then you just, if you're like me, try to keep out of everybody's way. Know your place. Don't get in anybody's shadow."
Did you ever think "I don't belong here"?
"I think I had just as much right to be there as anybody else. When I got taken to hospital, they didn't know who the f*** I was, y'know? I'm not in Take That, I'm not even in The Stone Roses, I'm in a moderately successful British band. I wasn't there in my Manic Street Preachers' T-shirt. They didn't have a clue."
In the eyes of those who do have a clue, however, your breakdown has put "The Holy Bible", indeed everything you do, into a different, revisionist perspective. Like, "Oh, he was 4 REAL after all". (At this moment, I do not mention Kurt Cobain. I don't need to.)
"Mmm. I can understand that. It's fair enough. You get judged by what you write - although I always thought we were more than just what we wrote. Everything else about us always came before our words, and our music to a certain extent. But, you know, that's our own fault, and that's the way the media's gonna judge us."
Even your apparently objective, second/third person lyrics seem to refract back onto yourself. "All art is autobiography", and all that.
"Yeah, I can understand that. If I use 'we' or 'you' or 'they', it doesn't necessarily mean what it says. But I think most lyric writers would say that. It sounds really corny to say 'Yeah, I can identify with a prostitute', which is not exactly what 'Yes' is about, but there's certain things I do feel affinity with. Not prostitution, but the nature of the things that happen to her body physically.
"People have still got the stupid idea, you know, that I'm a loud, aggressive person..."
I don't think anyone thinks that, Richey.
"...That, by the things I've done, I'd be hyperactive, talking all the time, running round going rrarrarrarr, smashing people in the face, kicking down doors, which is not the case. I've never destroyed anything in my life. Apart from a few guitars."
I Am Stronger Than Mensa...
Today, Richey has been walking the streets of Paris with some Rimbaud lines about mutilation scrawled across his arse.
"Rim-bored. Rim-bough. How do you say it?"
"Rimbaud", I say, in French.
"I insist he's called Rim-bough. Sounds better than Rambo. Like Americans always say Von Gogh 'Von Go',"
That other self-mutilating asylum-dwelling artist...
"And make the 'Go' go on forever: 'G-o-o-o-o-o'. It's Van Goff to me. I know it's wrong but I don't care. One thing I am f***ed off about, being misrepresented, is I don't think people believe I read books. I think they don't even - it's all they all the time isn't it? I don't know who 'they' are - but they think the quotes just come with the sleeve, and I don't even choose them. I am not stupid. I might come across as stupid. That's nothing to do with academic qualifications. I think there's a difference between intelligence and knowledge."
Shades of the David Thewlis character from "Naked", here.
"There are plenty of people with letters after their name who only know figures and dates. It's possible to know a lot of facts but not know anything at all. I think you can have no qualifications to your name and be one of the most intelligent people in the world."
Scratch My Leg With A Rusty Nail... Sadly It Heals
I have a theory that all self-mutilation, right down to tattoos and even ear-piercing, springs from a desire to symbolically, and permanently, vandalise the perfection your mother brought into the world.
"There's something in that. Also - this is a bit of a superficial argument - as the belief in God has faded, there has been a reversal to tribalism, you know, piercing, branding. I know it's vain, but I don't think it's to do with loving the body. It's to do with detesting the body. That's why you choose to mark it. It's also a question of knowing you can do it to yourself. A tattoo does not hurt. It's just like a pinprick. A piercing does not hurt. But knowing you can actually do something which the body does not like... I'm weak, all my life I've felt weak compared to other people, if they want to crush me they can - but I know I can do things that other people can't. Then they turn round and say to me 'I don't wanna do it anyway'. Which is not really my point."
Does it take a certain skill to hurt yourself just enough without severing a major artery?
He laughs, confused.
"A certain skill?"
It sounds flippant, but I mean it. A discipline.
"Mmm. Probably does. Go on say it. What were you going to say? You may as well say it."
It's often said that anorexia and self mutilation are attempts to exert control in a life that's lost all control. It's a bit of a cliché...
"No, but it's completely true! The best thing is knowing that no one can do f***ing anything about it. When I was in Whitchurch... People can't actually hold you down and force food into your mouth. They just can't do it. And someone can't be near you 24 hours a day to stop you doing something to your body. And ultimately they've got no right to anyway, because it is your body. Justice Temple saying cruelty is uncivilised - he should take a look around."
Schizophrenia #1: I Wanna Be So Skinny That I Rot From View
On "4st 7lb", you want to "walk in the snow and not leave a footprint". But surely, the very fact of doing what you do exhibits a desire to leave a mark on the world.
Am I taking it too literally?
"NoNoNo, there's definitely something in that. In terms of never wanting to be noticed, I've never wanted that. When I was young especially, I used to keep myself to myself. I don't feel I have the right to intrude on anyone else, and I don't think anyone should necessarily want to listen to me. I think my lyrics are valid. I can't speak for the music, all I can talk about is my words. I think I'm a good lyricist. I don't think I'm up there with the greats, but I'm doing all right. So I guess it's egotistical to publish your lyrics, but we always publish them because I want people to read them. So I guess I wanna be noticed in that sense. In another sense, I wanna pay the f***ers back. There are so many people I would love to... just shove something down their f***ing throats."
Around the time of "Faster", you seemed to find a new urgency. As if you suddenly realised "this is not a rehearsal".
"I think we did realise that. With the second album it was 'Yeah you're on a major label, yeah you're good, you can go to a beautiful studio, spend 100 grand doing the artwork, yeah you get a swimming pool, yeah you get a four-poster bed, yeah you get food cooked for you'. It's all bollocks. When we started writing new songs for 'The Holy Bible', none of them sounded like they belonged in a place like that. So we just decided to do it in the demo studio in Cardiff. Which was not great, but I'd just gear my day so I could pick the others up in the day while I was still sober, get them down there, try to finish my words for James, get them so he could actually fit them in the lines (never an MSP strongpoint), get everybody else back home, then just get off my 'ead."
Schizophrenia #2: Self-disgust Equals Self-obsession, Honey
You deride self-obsession. Yet on the notes which accompany "4st 7lbs", you say "Anorexia=Vanity", just another form of self-obsession.
"I don't necessarily understand the contradictions myself, but in Ecclesiastes there's a line: 'All is vanity ', and I do really believe that. I think everybody's first love is themselves. Some more than others. Some can divide themselves, and give something of themselves to another person. Which I've never been able to do, because I've never trusted another person enough to do that. I don't feel strong enough that I could cope with the rejection if they left me. A lot of people don't cope with it, if something like that happens. I would not allow myself to be used like that. And also I'd feel humiliated.
"And like it was all done deliberately, if you know what I mean. Maybe I think about things too much, but everything that happens to me I do feel is deliberate. And that's been the same since I was a child. If something happened in Infants' School I'd be convinced everybody was against me. Which is self-obsession, because the world does not revolve around you. People don't give a f***. People don't do things because it's you. When I'm driving in my car and traffic lights turn red, I think it's because I'm in the car. I feel persecuted. I feel that if anybody else had been in the car they'd have gone through."
Isn't it always the way. You wait an hour for a bus and then three come along at once.
"I've always felt that. When I got my 'A' Levels, I got straight As, but I thought they weren't as good as other people's straight As, they would look at me as if their As were better. We didn't get percentage marks, so three As weren't enough: I wanted to know I'd got, like, 95 per cent. Three As is meaningless unless you're arrogant enough to think you're as good as them. Which I'm not. I need to see it written down to know."
The government's educational "league tables" might have an unexpected friend here.
"If they had 98 per cent and I got 95 per cent, I could handle that. It's knowing that they've got an A and I've got an A minus what the f*** does that mean? If they're a confident person, they're gonna walk all over you. If I had one per cent more... they could still walk over me, but I'd feel better."
It sounds as though the flipside of vanity is an inferiority complex.
"That's what it is. I think so. Linked with a 'victim mentality', maybe."
For 20 minutes, I have been stuttering, trembling and obsessively checking that my tape recorder is on, the pause button hasn't slipped, the microphone is correctly plugged in and it's making a reassuring whirring noise. And he feels inferior.
"But say if I was in a pub and someone attacked me, and I knew I'd done nothing wrong, I would quite happily take a beating without doing anything, and feel really superior. I would never hit someone back if they hit me. If I'd done something wrong it's different. But if I was minding my own business, I could easily take a kicking. I'd think 'I don't give a f*** cos you are scum, you're way down there and I'm above you cos I can take it'. It's a bit Biblical, 'turn the other cheek' and all that, but I like people like Gandhi. And when I see people get picked on, when I see them vainly throw a punch back, half-heartedly, I think they've lost. Any chance they had has gone because they lowered themselves."
Schizophrenia #3: I Hate Purity. I Want Everyone Corrupt
I can't figure out your feelings on puritanism. Sometimes it seems to disgust you, but surely anorexia is an extreme form of puritanism?
"Oh yeah. Again, I think my views are completely flawed. My idea of purity is completely split down the middle. It's in denial with its own logic. The idea of not eating food, the idea of a political prisoner, say the Maze Block going on hunger strike, when I was young, I thought it was so beautiful, the best thing anyone could do. It's all about injuring yourself to a certain extent. But for a reason, for an absolute reason. That's why I liked Bobby Sands [IRA martyr and Republican icon who died in the Maze protest]. That's why I thought he was a better statement than anything else that was going on at the time, because it was against himself." An arm, belonging to a passing James Dean Bradfield, reaches out of the darkness and hands me a Coke. A Diet Coke.
"I like the idea in 'Archives Of Pain' I took from Michel Foucault, when he advocates a return to 19th century values of execution and capital punishment. You know, it appeals to me, but you shouldn't only bring back capital punishment. It should be compulsory that your body be kept, have oil poured over it and be torn apart with horses and chains. It should be on TV, and four or five year olds should be made to watch it. It's the only way. If you tell a child 'That's wrong', he doesn't really learn. But if you show a body being ripped to shreds, after 'Blue Peter', he's gonna know. But then, that's really right wing. Which I'm not. On things like censorship I think everything should be allowed on television. You know, I mean anything. I don't know who believes that any more. Every left-wing party says there should be some degree of censorship, that some things are bad taste. But it's unjustifiable for anyone to decide what is bad taste."
A Happy Death
Richey's spell in hospital began, one lurid rumour goes, after a suicide attempt. The myth goes like this: Richey tries the old slit wrists/hot bath method, and, surprised to wake up the next morning and find himself alive, phones up his mother to say "I've done something a bit stupid... I think you'd better call an ambulance". Is this true? And what of the statistical evidence that a high percentage of attempted suicides eventually succeed?
This is the question I don't ask Richey. As soon as I get home, I feel a complete coward. He seems like he wants to talk, like he wants to set the record straight. I know he'd have answered. I do, however, question him on another rumour: that, while in hospital, he "found God".
"Found God? The Big Chap? No. It's something that interests me, but you've only got to look at our name, we've got Preachers in our name, I was made to go to chapel till was 13, on our first album you've got 'Crucifix Kiss', a cross on the cover, a quote from Nietzsche about Christianity, so it goes deeper..."
Than the typical rock'n'roll religious imagery?
"Madonna uses religious imagery, and I think that's totally justified. I think she was f***ed up by the Catholic church. Pearl Jam use religious imagery, and I can see through it a mile off. It's just really sad. And also, I've spent my whole life studying history, and most events are shaped by some antagonism or fundamentalist belief in God. I dunno if I'm agnostic, atheist or a believer, but I think there's something in people that's really flawed in that sense. Why spend all your time denying something which you believe doesn't even exist? 'It's all bollocks, it's all bollocks, he's not there.' If you don't believe it, don't even bother talking about it. But it's obviously something that's there in the middle of man, just there to think about. It's a question of, everyone knows they're gonna die, so everybody wants to know where they're gonna go. That's why everyone wants to die 'A Happy Death', to quote Uncle Camus."
"'The cut worm dies in peace'," he adds.
[Originally published: Melody Maker, 3 December 1994]