On the eve of Manic Street Preachers' coronation as NME Godlike Geniuses, Nicky Wire opens his heart - and photo album - to James McMahon about lost bandmate Richey James Edwards.
We used to call Nicky Wire and Richey James Edwards the Glamour Twins. Androgynous, panda-eyed, working-class glamour pusses who spouted often facetious, often contrary, always inspiring rhetoric, born from a diet of The Clash, Tennessee Williams, Public Enemy, Marlene Dietrich and socialist C86 types McCarthy. From such disparate influences they'd take ideas an ideals, and bolt them on to the guitar hero-heavy noisescapes constricted by their schoolfriends, James Dean Bradfield and his younger cousin, Sean Moore. Their band, Manic Street Preachers, recalled such big-balled raunch rock as Guns N' Roses and Hanoi Rocks, while at the same time being more anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-idiocy than any other group of the era. They came from South Wales. They described themselves as 'young, beautiful scum pissed off with the world'. They were sensational.
Like Aerosmith's Toxic Twins Tyler and Perry and the Stones' Glimmer Twins Jagger and Richards before them, Wire and Edwards were inseparable. Onstage, while the twin with the red-raw scratches on his arm would flap away at his (often not plugged-in) guitar, the gangly one would scissor kick and thwack his bass until it occasionally fell to pieces. Offstage, they were fucked off with everything: U2, the Conservative Party, the emergence of ecstasy, new age travellers, the shoegaze bands of the early '90s. "You know how Catholics always hate every other religion," mused the smaller, softer spoken of the two. "Well, we will always hate Slowdive more than we hate Adolf Hitler." This from a man who'd already penned a lyric with the iconoclastic spite of 'I laughed when Lennon got shot' on their third single 'Motown Junk'. One time, before the twins were due to be photographed for their first NME cover in 1991, they conspired to get lovebites for the photo shoot. Nicky had no problem obtaining a whole cluster of shag stamps, but after Richey was knocked back by any girl he asked to participate, he decided to carve the words HIV into his chest instead. Using a mirror to aid him, he carved the letters VIH.
Together they flounced across a dour pop scene like the New York Dolls' bastard brainiac brethren. By 1993 they'd downplayed their glamour, upped their hard-rock fantasies, but never lost their fiery passion, before finding themselves drunk on existential angst in 1994 and making and releasing 'The Holy Bible', the record that would forever define them. By 1995, they were one half of the most intelligent, sexy, exciting, goddamn best-looking rock'n'roll band the world has ever seen. Then one of the twins went away. He didn't stop to say good-bye.
"Richey was unlike any other rock star of our era," says Nicky Wire, 'the gangly twin', at his Cardiff home. "He towers above so many people in popular culture. I was reading this piece by Mark Larson the other day - he used to do Newsnight Review - and he said that, when you mix high art with low art, both are just as important and deserving of scrutiny. When you combine them both, that makes the most interesting art. That's what Manic Street Preachers had the ability to do. And no member more so than him." Richey James Edwards turned 40 years old in December last year. We'd have sent a birthday card if we knew where he was. We don't. No-one does.
Ravaged by depression, Richey disappeared on February 1, 1995, the day that he and James Dean Bradfield were due to fly to America for the start of a promotional US tour. In the two weeks prior to his disappearance, he'd withdrawn £200 a day from his bank account, before checking out of west London's Embassy Hotel at 7am and driving to his flat in Cardiff, Wales. In the two weeks that followed he was spotted in the Newport passport office and the town's bus station before, on February 7, taking a £68 taxi ride around his and the band's childhood home of Blackwood. He got off at the Severn View service station. He was never seen again. Ten days later, his Vauxhall Cavalier was found with a flat battery and with evidence that it had been lived in. The following spring the now three-piece Manics' regrouped for their acclaimed fourth album, 'Everything Must Go'. The message was clear: 'Life goes on'. But for the band, it did little to heal the wounds left by Richey's disappearance.
"I think about Richey more than every single day," says Nicky. "My biggest regret about him going when he did is that I think it would have been fascinating to see how he could have bestridden this country when we'd got really big. I would have loved to have seen him at the Brit Awards [in 1997] when we won for 'Everything Must Go'. Can you imagine him onstage at Cardiff Millennium Stadium in 2000? For all his emptiness at the end, he did really enjoy certain elements of stardom. It's not all about the negative question mark that is his end..."
What follows is a celebration of Richey James Edwards - the human being, and Britain's great lost rock star. It's also the story of the Glamour Twins, told by the twin who stayed to tell the tale: his best friend and bandmate, Nicky Wire.
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In the middle of last year, in the whirl of interviews that accompanied the release of the Manics' eighth album 'Send Away The Tigers', Nicky Wire went on a charm offensive. He started talking Richey again. For years, he'd been scared of 'using' the memory of his friend and admits to not writing "any words about him for a very long time". Then Nicky Wire did what Nicky Wire has always done brilliantly. He opened his gob. He became driven in re-establishing his friend's place within the pantheon of rock'n'roll.
"There's a bit about him in 'Australia', but I didn't really reference any of it until 'Cardiff Afterlife' on 'Lifeblood'. I was obsessed by the band not using him. Now, I just feel people are missing out if they don't know about him. The biggest misconception about Richey was that the last six months of his life was how he was all the time. It just wasn't, y'know."
When was the first time you met Richey?
"I first met him playing football when we were little. He lived in Woodfieldside and everyone used to call him Teddy Edwards because he looked a bit like a teddy bear. I lived on the different side of the street and we'd go on the field and played for this little crappy trophy my dad had found in a skip. He was a decent right winger. That's my first memory of him."
All of the Manics went to Oakdale Comprehensive. What was Richey like at school?
"He was voracious in terms of knowledge. Sometimes, by the age of 26, 27, I thought he'd almost chewed everything up that he could. You could see his intellectual arrogance in the whole 'I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer' thing. Richey kind of used education as a revenge tool. When he got his A-levels there was a TV crew outside the gates of our school. They go, 'What did you get, Mr Edwards?' and he goes 'Three As.' They go, 'And what were you expecting?' He looks right at the camera and, completely deadpan says, 'Three As.'"
Then you went to university in Swansea together. What was that like?
"I'm a year younger than him, so I came a year later, but he was the most dedicated student. I remember sitting in his room eating a Fray Bentos pie and chips he'd cooked me, reading NME. Or there's the time when him and his coursemates dressed as sperm for rag week - I took the piss out of him so much for that! Another time we almost poisoned ourselves. We were in this little room with only half a window open and we were spray-painting these white T-shirts for the band, and realised we felt really ill from the fumes. His only real disappointment from then was when he didn't get a first for his degree - he wanted that so much."
Richey started off driving the van for you, and was the last to join the band. What do you remember from that time?
"Sleeping in the same bed as him for six months when the Manics moved in with [late manager] Philip Hall in Shepherds Bush. I'd sleep on one side of the bed, him on the other, and the stench of vodka emanating from his side was unbelievable. He'd say stuff like, 'I think I have an orange growing in my stomach. Nicky! I can feel it' because he used to drink so much vodka and orange. That and playing gigs to 50 people a night - gigs where people would fill syringes with cider and try to squirt them in our eyes."
In May 1991, during an interview was NME's Steve Lamacq where he questioned the Manics' punk credentials, Richey carved the legend '4 Real' into his arm. Tell us about that...
"I still think it's an absolutely brilliant artistic statement. I did at the time and I do now. I don't think you can equate that with self-harm or disappearing or whatever. It was a statement. There was a point to it. And it showed how much the band meant to him. When we were sat in the hospital with the nurse treating him, we both actually felt a little bit guilty at wasting NHS time. Thing is, I still can't believe it wasn't the cover of the NME that week! I remember talking to Richey afterwards and him saying, 'I did all that and it wasn't the cover?'"
That's my favourite Richey photo. What's yours?
"There's hundreds. There are loads of stupid ones at the start. Like in Japan, where we're just genuinely baffled and excited that there's thousands of people who love us. There's this mad picture of him on a rollercoaster and his hair is flying everywhere, he's got his eyes closed, screaming and it just kind of shows the other side. And I love the one of him in the catacombs in Paris for the Melody Maker cover in 1994 (pictured on previous page). I think towards the end he looked like The Man Who Fell To Earth. He'd absolutely his own style be then. He looked transcendent. He never lost that feminine beauty that you don't see so much today."
You obviously miss him hugely. How have you learned to deal with him not being here?
"It's always hard, but I learned to try and understand his perspective of it. I've learnt to channel all the energy that I remember about him being good - playing football or cricket together when we were 10 years old, or writing lyrics together, which is a pretty special thing. I can't think of any other two people who sat down and wrote lyrics like we did. I can remember being in my bedroom at my mum and dad's writing 'Motorcycle Emptiness', and literally writing those words, line by line, together."
Which songs were he most proud of being involved in?
"It's hard to say. I think he probably became pretty dissatisfied towards the end. Lyrically, I think he always felt the next song was going to be the greatest, because he was putting so much work into it by the end. I know he was really proud of 'Die In The Summertime' and 'Archives Of Pain'. He probably doesn't realize it but looking back I think a song like 'Kevin Carter' was pretty out of this world. James actually played him the rough version of the song on acoustic guitar, pretty much the night before he disappeared and I found the lyric sheet the other day (pictured above). It's a shame he didn't get to hear the glory of the recorded version."
With the themes of the Holocaust, anorexia, death and greed, 'The Holy Bible' is essentially Richey's album. How much did he write?
"It's about 80-20 in his favour. There wasn't any point in me writing more for it because I couldn't write anything better than what he was putting in front of us. But there are things on 'The Holy Bible' where I don't understand what he was trying to say, even now. I never listen to the lyrics looking for clues any more, but I do listen to them to feel close to him. The flow of the words on 'PCP' floor me, and 'Revol' is the most baffling lyric. 'Mr Stalin/Bisexual epoch/Brezhnev married into group sex'? Do I understand what it's about? Not at all, and he did try to explain it to me."
Who took it hardest when he left?
"His family, definitely - I don't see them as much I used to, just because of kids and stuff, but they're just waiting like everyone else. His mum and dad have kept a real sense of dignity, but they get doorstepped a lot. Me, James and Sean didn't see much of each other for a while afterwards. Those three or four months are a bit of a lost period in my life. I remember painting a lot. All pretty crap, but there's some stuff in there about how I was feeling. The worst things at the time were all the fake sightings and rubbish documentaries. But then you can imagine what it would be like now - it would be 100 times worse, because of the tabloids really. There wasn't all this Amy Winehouse sort of stuff back then. In some ways it wasn't that showbiz. It was much more real to us. A Vauxhall Cavalier in a crappy little service station. It was much more Reginald Perrin..."
After he disappeared, there were a lot of Manics detractors saying you'd blanded out and the like. It's easy for journalists to go, 'Richey wouldn't have liked this', but have you ever felt that musically, post-1995?
"More so in the way we look, to be honest. It's very straight these days. Sometimes I get onstage and think, 'Fuck me, if you could see us now...' It's different with 'Everything Must Go' though, I think. It's like New Order coming back after Joy Division. Coming back looking like we did was kind of saying, 'Look, we can't be "The Holy Bible". We just can't.' All bands go through it, though. I can't understand bands that aren't like that really. It must be boring being in Coldplay thinking, 'Every album sells millions, we can't fail...'"
Because of the bond between you and Richey, it seems that you were out there on your own afterwards...
"Yeah, it was difficult - it was the difficult thing and we still struggle with it to this day. We always admitted from day one that he was irreplaceable. Musically I think we just about got away with it, but we never ever wanted to be like a power-trio. Looking at old pictures there's perfect symmetry between the four of us. Visually it's something else. There's this strength right down the middle in James and Sean pounding away, keeping the beat; then there's just two loonies on either side of them - barely playing and incessantly talking. Such perfect symmetry."
You told NME in 1996 that what hurt you most about Richey's disappearance was the idea that, "Perhaps he just didn't like us any more." Do you still feel like that?
"From his family's point of view, I understand them feeling utter abandonment. Now I just see it as he had to do what he had to do. He made the ultimate choice. Whether it's disappearing or suicide, I take some solace in that he knew exactly what he was doing, although obviously that meant leaving people with a lot of debris and unhappiness. I've learned that you can't judge people when they're in that state."
When you talk about him, you use both present and past tense. Have you given up on ever seeing him again?
"I don't know if I have, really. I'm genuinely so baffled by it sometimes. I know, with his intellect, that if he had wanted to disappear, he could have pulled it off. He could be living down the fucking road. I know that everything leads to suicide, and I think that 9/10 people would think that he's not alive anymore. But knowing his brain as I think I did, I can never actually convince myself that there is any outcome yet. There's still things that don't add up."
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Whatever the outcome of his disappearance, what follows isn't a question that can be asked without feeling ridiculous. Nor one that can be answered without delving into the realm of pure speculation. Even so, it's fascinating to imagine what Richey would be like, had he worked through stuff, today.
"I've been thinking about this a lot recently," says Nicky, "with him turning 40 and all that. I genuinely think he would have been uncontrollably creative. I think we would have seen acceleration in him mastering his art, which would blossomed into something more controlled, like novels, or graphic novels which he was really into, to film scripts, to lyrics. I think he would have been a writing machine. I think he could have written the most amazing novel. I would have loved to have seen that blossom. There's so many great things he could have done."
Yet, for all the great things he didn't do, there won't be one soul who witnesses the Manic Street Preachers picking up their NME Godlike Genius award this month who won't thank Richey James Edwards for the things he did.
[Originally published: New Musical Express, 9 February 2008]