The Long Goodbye

Back to the Articles: (2003 - 2008) page

On 1 February 1995, Manic Street Preachers guitarist Richey Edwards walked out of a London hotel and vanished. His three bandmates were left to cope with his loss and pick up the pieces. This is their story.

Ten years after it was released, Manic Street Preachers' Everything Must Go remains as fresh, sincere, pained and passionate as any British rock album could hope to be. It has a timelessness, but it is a record that is intimately bound up with a moment: the traumatic disappearance of the band's lyricist, agitpop artist and spiritual centre, Richey Edwards.

Early in the morning of 1 February 1995, singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield knocked on Edwards's door at the Embassy Hotel in London's Bayswater. The pair were due to catch a flight to New York later that day. There was no answer.

When Edwards didn't open up, Bradfield called the band's manager, Martin Hall. "I can't get any answer from Richey's door," he told him. Hall was instantly anxious, too. Over the previous months, Edwards's behaviour had become increasingly erratic.

Richey Edwards had always cut a dramatic figure, oozing desperation and unhappiness. When the press first noticed the band at the start of the '90s, they stuck out like a sore thumb against the monosyllabic shoegazing scene of the time; the press regarded Edwards, a verbose, made-up, small-town Welshman, who quoted Albert Camus and Sylvia Plath, as a joke. During a famous Steve Lamacq press interview on 15 May 1991 after a gig at Norwich Arts Centre, Edwards became so enraged at Lamacq's apparent cynicism that he carved "4 REAL" into his arm with a razor blade.

From the early days of the band, the schoolfriends from Blackwood, South Wales, had closed ranks around Edwards, valuing the fierceness of his intellect and the power of his self-loathing and misanthropy. A voracious reader, he'd pepper conversations with quotes from the French situationist Guy Debord, or Jean-Paul Sartre, or even actor Lee Marvin, whose dark bon mot "Hell is in hello" he was particularly fond of.

As a band the Manics always had their own idiosyncratic modus operandi. Best friends Edwards and bassist Nicky Wire wrote the lyrics. Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore turned these outpourings into songs. Edwards was the band's image-maker, designer and politburo chief. But the respectable success of the band's first two albums, 1992's Generations Terrorists and the following year's Gold Against The Soul, had done little for Edwards's depressive streak. His drink intake soared; the bouts of self-harm continued, through now an army of fans cooed at his self-inflicted wounds.

Depression never just affects an individual - it draws in those around. For third album The Holy Bible the Manics allowed Edwards's increasingly bleak vision to dominate. With some misgivings, Wire allowed Edwards to write the majority of the lyrics for the first time. The result was dense and unremittingly dark songwriting, as Bradfield and Moore wrestled Edwards's often metrically unwieldy lyrics into some sort of shape. It's not easy singing, "Kill Yeltsin, Hussein, Zhirinovsky, Le Pen, Hindley and Brady, Ireland, Allitt, Sutcliffe, Dahmer, Nilsen, Yoshinori Ueda, Blanche and Pickles, Amin and Milosevic", but they gamely turned the line into song. The lyrics - about murderers, dictators, prostitutes and anorexics - screamed pain.

Edwards's increasing depression had been deepened, undoubtedly, by the death of their beloved publicist/manager, Philip Hall, of cancer on 7 December 1993. Hall had discovered the band, put his own money behind them, stuck by them when the press initially ridiculed them, even put them up at the house in which he lived with wife Terri. After his death, Terri continued as the band's publicist and Philip's brother Martin took over as manager.

As they worked on material for the album, the suicides within weeks of each other in April '94 of Kurt Cobain and an old university friend seemed to amplify Edwards's obsession with self-obliteration. His depression expanded into alcoholism and anorexia; he stopped eating and lost weight dramatically. As he wrote on the Holy Bible track 4st 7lbs, "I wanna be so skinny that I rot from view". Unable to cope with normal emotional relationships, he visited prostitutes.

That same month, the Manics played two shows in Bangkok. Edwards was given a set of knives by fans who wanted to see him cut himself. He used them to slash at his own chest in private, appearing onstage covered in blood.

On that trip in particular, Wire found himself dragged down with Edwards into madness and anorexia. "Thailand is just the darkest stain," says Wire. Ten years on, Wire is more relaxed, more gregarious than he used to be. "I don't like to talk about nervous breakdowns, but I'm pretty sure I experienced one there and thereafter. I just felt genuinely bereft of any kind of positive feeling."

Up until that point, Edwards's obsessive personality had helped inspire the band; by now they could only watch, appalled. "Up until then there was a common thread to our psychoses," says Wire, "but the places he was going now were just incomprehensible".

Back home Edwards continued to plummet. After the Manics played the Glastonbury festival, Edwards shut himself up at home and went on a drinking binge. When in July his shocked family found him at his new Cardiff flat, emaciated, disorientated and scarred from self-harm, they checked him into the nearby Whitchurch Hospital. From there Martin Hall enrolled him into The Priory and its 12-step programme.

"It didn't help Richey," says Terri Hall, still working as the band's publicist today. "When you're so over analytical and you put yourself in that environment, you start to think yourself into oblivion, picking over scabs constantly."

In August The Holy Bible was released and received a critical thumbs-up; the band played live, promoting it. By Christmas that year it looked like they'd weathered the worst. In the week before his disappearance Wire noted a change in his friend. "He was the most normal and happy he'd been for years," he recalls.

Looking back, he now believes it possible that Edwards may have finally made up his mind: "He'd made a decision to do something."

* * * * * * * * * *

Martin Hall had a sinking feeling the moment he heard about Edwards not answering the door. Edwards had been about to fly to America to promote The Holy Bible - an album he believed in, that he'd been passionate about making.

At the reception desk, he demanded keys to the room. When staff let him in, the room was empty. The bath was full of water. Hall waited for Edwards to return. At one point, hearing a rattle at the door, he thought Edwards had come back; it turned out only to be the chambermaid.

It was the start of the "Will he? Won't he?" uncertainty that would hang over the making of Everything Must Go. After calling Edwards's parents, Sherry and Graham - both hairdressers in Blackwood - to see if he'd been in touch with them he contacted the police and began filing a missing-persons report: "Subject has made a previous suicide attempt and is taking antidepressants."

Hotel staff would tell police they saw Edwards leave at around 7am. He apparently drove from there to his flat at Anson Court in Cardiff, where he left his credit cards, passport and some of the Prozac he'd taken with him from the Embassy Hotel.

When Nicky Wire heard that Edwards had disappeared from the hotel, he drove from his Newport home to Anson Court; the flat was already empty. Looking back, he now believes he may have only just missed Edwards leaving. His parents put adverts in the press; Martin Hall hired a private investigator to check hotel records.

Nothing.

Fifteen days later, on 16 February, Edwards's Vauxhall Cavalier was discovered at Aust Services, close to the Severn Bridge. It had been parked there on the 14th, a few Embassy Regal packets scattered on the back seat.

"I got the phone call," says Martin Hall. I can't remember whether it was from the police or Richey's family, but it was a shock - that they'd found it there, near the bridge. It made you think, Oh Shit."

The band were baffled, stung. Their friend and collaborator had vanished, leaving them no explanation. Ten years on they still all refer to it as Edwards's "disappearance", not a suicide. A sense of pain and confusion still lingers.

The three remaining members retreated into silence. Sean Moore, famously a man of few words, immersed himself in DIY, boarding the attic of the house he had bought with his wife in Bristol. He cancelled all his newspapers, turned off the TV, not wishing to hear the speculation. "I just carried on," he said.

The rest of the band reacted similarly. Wire stayed at home with his wife; his reaction to Edwards's madness had always been to retreat into exaggerated domesticity; he'd announced himself to be a fan of vacuum-cleaning. "Yes, it was a plea for normality," he says, "and also it was quite subversive. I can be the polar opposite of what everyone expects of us."

At the time of Edwards's disappearance, Bradfield was living in London's Askew Road, at the home in which Philip and Terri Hall had always made them welcome.

"I just became 'party-boy' at that point. I don't know... I was insulating myself from everyone around me." Bradfield, formerly the one who was scathing of the superficiality of London, now immersed himself in it. "It was my time to enjoy myself, as brutal as that sounds."

Terri Hall remembers Bradfield being less invulnerable than his version suggests. Some of the people with whom he ended up drinking remained cynical, believing the whole thing to be a publicity stunt. "I remember James coming home one night really upset," recalls Hall. "A journalist had made one of those snide, 'Great PR scam' remarks. It was like a dagger to the heart."

"It hurt. It really hurt," says Martin Hall. "We thought we'd done something wrong. He didn't leave anything behind for us to understand why he'd done it."

"There was nothing 'Kurt Cobain' about it," says Wire, sadly. "The everyday normality of it, the grinding inertia of it, what it does to you and to his [Edwards's] family - it is just grim."

Bradfield and Wire phoned each other every day. They barely discussed Edwards; it was too difficult. "All I can remember is me and Nick endlessly talking about sport. We found it hard to talk about the band."

Neither was keen to confront the question: should the Manic Street Preachers continue as a band? Even before Edwards's disappearance the band's career had been on the slide. Commercially, The Holy Bible turned out to be a flop, selling a mere 70,000 albums; its bleakness looked absurdly out of place against the shiny arrogance of the emerging Britpop scene. "I remember," says Martin Hall, "having conversations. Where do we go from here? If we do continue, how will we be perceived?"

* * * * * * * * * *

Most days Wire sat at his black MFI desk in his bedroom at the top of his house in Wattsville, near Newport; the walls were covered in Edwards-esque collages of torn-out photos and poems. Occasionally he'd scribble down a line or a song title. Nothing worked. "It felt like every lyric was going to be determined by the circumstances - which just didn't feel right."

But then in April '95, something changed. Part of it was anger at the success of Oasis and Blur; not so much their music - he loved both bands - but their caricatural depiction of working-class life; Liam Gallagher was claiming he'd only ever read one book in his life; Damon Albarn was embracing supposed prole values through greyhound racing and a love of Chelsea FC. Part of it was a Cracker story he'd seen on TV; in Jimmy McGovern's script, Robert Carlyle played a factory worker so incensed by the way the tabloids and the police treated Liverpool football fans after the Hillsborough disaster that he turned to murder. Out of this suddenly flowed two lyrics: The Pure Motive, inspired by Cracker, and A Design For Life, a hymn to working-class aspiration. He sent them to Bradfield in Askew Road. "Those first lines: 'Libraries gave us power/Then work came and made us free...' Nick actually stepped up to the plate with that lyric," says Bradfield. "The pressure was on him - him more than anybody - and he'd lost his writing partner."

But it was Bradfield who amalgamated the two sets of lyrics into a single song, A Design For Life. Finished, he picked up the phone and sang it back to Wire in Cardiff. "It's very rare that James is hugely enthusiastic," Wire says. "But he phoned me up and said, I've got this thing - it's like a waltz with Phil Spector strings."

Bradfield: "I remember saying there was a touch of R.E.M. to it, a touch of Ennio Morricone, a bit of a Tamla backbone to it as well."

After the hair-shirt convolutions of The Holy Bible, this was a whole new direction. Wire: "It sounded really simple and great. Richey would try to make something more complicated than it needed to be at times, which is why I loved him, and why he was so brilliant, but that set of rules had been broken. We could have choruses that repeated the same lines and glorious pop moments without thinking about any kind of credibility issues. It was a release."

There was an almost guilty realisation: however much Edwards's disappearance pained them, it had also freed them to write a different type of music. The band set up a meeting with Edwards's parents, to sound out their feelings about the trio continuing in Edwards's absence. Edwards's parents OKed the idea.

Tentatively, on 8 May, they set up a rehearsal in Soundspace studios in Cardiff. When the band played A Design For Life it felt like a cloudburst.

Over the summer, Wire and Bradfield fell into writing songs for the new album. Hanging over everything they did was the thought: "What will Richey think about this?" But Wire now felt able to confront the band's demons head on. The defining moment was the title-track lyric: Everything Must Go. The song wrestles with the complex emotions Wire and the band were feeling, struggling to carry on without their friend.

Bradfield: "It was a purge - a kind of cathartic gesture. It was saying, literally, everything must go. Please forgive us. Understand. But there is something within us that exists without Richey.

Terri Hall: "It's like - aren't we allowed to be happy? I remember Nicky telling me at the time, When I smile, I feel guilty."

The band quickly settled on veteran Mike Hughes as a producer; impressed with his '80s work with Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Associates and Pete Wylie, they'd discussed using him for The Holy Bible, but he'd been unavailable. It turned out to be a perfect choice. Not only was he an expert at the richer alternative rock arrangements Bradfield was looking for and a fatherly figure the band found instantly trustworthy, but he insisted that they record the album at his Château de la Rouge Matte studios in France. In the evenings everyone at the château gathered for gargantuan, wine-fuelled meals. The sunny domesticity allowed them to distance themselves from the wounded months of winter.

Though Wire had the file of Edwards's last notes, given to him days before the disappearance, he has never felt it appropriate to turn any of it into music. Most of it is too dense, too strange. "It's just way too personal," says Wire.

But the band did record five songs they'd been working on before Edwards disappeared. Removables and Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky, both Edwards's lyrics, were poignant premonitions of self-destruction or suicide; Kevin Carter was a song about the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who had killed himself, unable to come to terms with the celebrity his photographs of dying children had brought him. The Girl Who Wanted To be God and the album opener Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier were collaborations with Wire.

"What makes Everything Must Go such a great record is that Richey's lyrics are still on there," says Wire.

The sleeve was the final act of transformation. Previously the band's artwork had veered from the glammy Guns N' Roses-wannabe sleeve of Generation Terrorists to the deliberate ugliness of The Holy Bible. Now Wire and designer Mark Farrow opted for a clean break. The band, visually known for their draggy over-made-up punk image, now dressed anonymously in jeans and T-shirts, looking for the first time as aggressively ordinary as they could.

Just completing the album was an achievement; for it to become such a substantial hit was inconceivable. Yet shortly after releasing first single A Design For Life in April '96, the mid-week prediction for the chart position came back: Number 1. (The single would actually chart at 2 - held off the top by Mark Morrison's Return Of The Mack.) "We were just absolutely gobsmacked," remembers Moore.

There will always be a flicker of doubt. Was it a sympathy vote? Undoubtedly in some part, it was. But the Manics were selling in quantities that went way beyond their original fanbase; something profound unleashed in the music, in the complex set of emotions they'd dealt with over the last years, appealed to a new audience who had barely heard of Richey Edwards.

The Manics, the one-time awkward squad, misfit Welshmen, were suddenly at the epicentre of the Britpop era, alongside Blur and Oasis. It was the most astonishing turnaround.

* * * * * * * * * *

Booked to support Oasis at Maine Road, the Manics played a warm-up at the downstairs bar of the Haçienda on 26 April 1996. Onstage that night Wire bumped into Bradfield, burst out laughing and turned to where Edwards should have been standing - for him to share the joke. He suddenly felt his absence harder than he had for weeks. Backstage, he broke down, sobbing, crying for hours.

"In typical Manics working-class fashion we had just got our heads down and worked through it. I think that was just waiting to happen," he said.

A new roller-coaster ride had begun for the Manics, as Everything Must Go became one of the albums of the year, and the band won two Brit awards - for Best Album and Best Group.

For the Manics themselves, it has never seemed an absolute triumph. It is too trite to talk of an album laying ghosts to rest. The band still pay a proportion of their earnings into a trust fund in Edwards's name that the family administers; in 2002, seven years after the disappearance, his parents had the opportunity to declare him legally dead. They chose not to take it.

Not a year goes past without some "sighting" of Edwards. The Severn Estuary has the second highest tide in the world; currents there are fierce. Every year some body is discovered, but the body has never been Edwards's.

But with the massive success of Everything Must Go, the confirmation had come that - even without Edwards - they were capable of greatness.

"I don't think that struck me for a while," admits Bradfield. "It wasn't until the Ivor Novello awards [in June '97] that I finally came to terms with the fact that this was three of us now, not four."

Looking back, Bradfield is amazed they managed to make the album at all. "Why wasn't I wracked with nerves? I think about the way Nick must have felt when he first put pen to paper. Jesus Christ," he says. "I never feel as scared as I do looking back at it."


Missing In Action

Rock's other great disappearing acts.

JOE STRUMMER
Clash manager Bernie Rhodes had a cunning publicity stunt to launch 1982's Combat Rock: singer Joe Strummer was going to "disappear". Strummer outfoxed him by vanishing for real. The band sent a detective after him. Strummer grew a beard and managed to run the Paris Marathon before surfacing after six weeks of the radar.

BRIAN WILSON
In September 1978, the Beach Boys' troubled genius stumbled away from his LA home and kept going. After playing piano in a gay bar and drifting into Tower Records wielding a light sabre, he was finally arrested for vagrancy in San Diego, shoeless and penniless. He spent the next six weeks in a psychiatric unit.

JEREMY SPENCER
Fleetwood Mac's 1971 tour had hit LA when guitarist Spencer popped out to a bookshop. Five days later, they learned he had joined the Children Of God - a controversial cult accused of advocating sex with children. He had cut his hair off and was leaving the band. Spencer remains a member of the cult, now called Family International.

[Originally published: Q, December 2006]

Top of the page