The Art Of Falling Apart

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On February 1, 1995, Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers seemingly vanished off the face of the earth. Six years on, Stuart Bailie looks at the extraordinary life and strange disappearance of rock's most famous missing person.

It is mid-April, 1994. The Manic Street Preachers have almost finished their third album and are in the midst of a photo session on London's Fulham Road. Richey Edwards, who has authored many of the new songs, passes some spare time by filling in a questionnaire for a regional magazine. The second answer concerns the issue of suicide, wanting to know if Richey has given it some thought lately. Apparently not. "Never have," Richey writes. "Self-mutilation is a very different issue to suicide. It is a controlled pain personal to you, allowing you to live/exist to some degree."

These are the questions that Richey has routinely answered for the past three years, ever since his habit of self-laceration became public. The interest has been quickened by the recent suicide of Kurt Cobain. Richey-watchers also understand that he is mourning the death of his co-manager Philip Hall. The Manics played a charity tribute for him in London in March, bringing Bernard Butler, late of Suede, on for a few songs at the Clapham Grand. What isn't generally known is the fact that a college friend, Nigel, has just taken his own life. Richey's mood is blackened further by the fact that his old dog, Snoopy, is going blind and is losing control of his back legs. Edwards is also depressed by the growing trend of historical revisionism. He even makes a point that Schindler's List is dangerous in its attempts to "humanise" the Holocaust.

Some of these emotions find their way into the questionnaire, which later appears in DV8 magazine. As is often the case, Richey pulls together a startling image for the end. The final poser asks him what he would do in the minutes before an all-out nuclear war. What message would he leave for the next inhabitants of the planet? His misanthropy blossoms in response: "I'd cut off my cock, nail it to the wall with a message. 'If you can learn to live without this you might do a better job than humanity'."

Thus, Richey's ideas telegraphed across the music press. Sometimes he was provocative or gave spiky entertainment. Four years before he was an introverted student with bad skin, sometimes venturing to the indie disco in Swansea. Now he'd found his platform. Bob Stanley was on the rise with Saint Etienne as the Manics started their own ascent. He used his former trade as a journalist to place the band's first review and feature with Melody Maker. Today, the memory of Edwards' impact remains as strong as ever: "Richey was the one who came out with the best quotes; he was the most lucid. I got the feeling he was the driving force. He was very intense, very inspiring. Plus he looked fantastic. He looked like a star. He was very quiet and seemed intelligent.

"You know that thing when you can't tell whether something is really funny or really brilliant? That's what the Manics were like when I first saw them live. Richey first got in touch with me. He wrote, 'Dear Bob, inspire me, Richey.' I've got a T-shirt he made me. It says 'Revolution Flower' on it. And there was a letter explaining how to make a Manics-style T-shirt. We did, actually. Saint Etienne did a tour with the Manics, and me and Pete [Wiggs] had made these T-shirts, with 'Ballroom Blitz' and '48 Crash' on them. We thought they'd really be pleased, but they thought we were taking the piss. You know, I never really thought it was that odd what he did afterwards. After what they said about committing suicide on Top Of The Pops [an early Manics declaration]. I didn't know him well, but it seemed like he really meant it."

Richey went missing by the River Severn on February 1, 1995. You can make strong enough case for suicide. Then again, there are some plausible hints that he contrived his own disappearance and is presently fixing up an entirely different life. In the past seven years, Richey's vaporous presence has hung over the Manics as they have carried off a shelf-load of awards, have toppled the UK charts, heard their biggest anthems bellowed across football stadia while a sub-industry of Welsh music (Cool Cymru to some) has followed in the band's trail. None of this was a given seven years ago.

Actually, in 1994, the Manic Street Preachers were a hit-and-miss band whose singles tended to skid across the lower end of the UK Top 30. Their debut album hadn't sold a fraction of the promised 16 million copies, nor had they imploded at the heights of international cool. Instead, they put together a rather dull second LP, supported Bon Jovi, said a few petty things to upset the liberals and relied on a cult following for their sustenance. Their ability to fascinate the music media had diminished and their manifesto was apparently in bits. Elsewhere, the first skirmishes in the Battle of Britpop were being fought, as Blur and Oasis thrashed it out, prompting a surge in the youth market. The Manics, it seemed, were so far away from the drift that they weren't especially relevant.

But two things happened that year to redefine the band's standing. Firstly, they made a great album, The Holy Bible, mauling the cheery consensus. The record dealt out vicious lessons on the Holocaust, serial killers, European despots, and America's dishonest foreign policy. The band members weren't exempt from the critical heat, as they itemised their own failings and debasement with considerable disgust. The music was suitably infernal and the lyric sheet was a shocker. This related to the second aspect of the Manics' tough passage through '94. Richey Edwards was dangerously self-obsessed, increasingly unwell.

The dysfunctional markers in his public life were already a matter of record. In earlier times, Richey had worn his alien status with pride, rubbishing the under-achievers of indie rock, and quoting the big thinkers with the confidence of an ultra-sharp Humanities student. He had used hatred as artistic fuel and avoided intimacy outside of the band. He famously caused a rumpus in 1991 when he carved '4 Real' on his forearm to persuade then NME journalist Steve Lamacq that he was, in fact, on a serious mission. This wasn't an isolated case. Twelve months later, I was in his company when he took an allergic reaction to the tequila he'd been knocking back. His arms turned pink and swollen, thus highlighting dozens of scars, burns and lesions, road maps of an anger turned inwards. There was a fresh hole on one hand that he'd dug out earlier that day with an unwound paper clip. Around the gash, he'd drawn a series of concentric circles. It looked like a target. With some irony, he called these creations his "war wounds". Possibly without meaning to, Richey had founded his own section within the Manics sub-culture: the cutters, anorexics, bulimics and sundry distressed souls who empathised with his situation. Meantime, Richey tried to conquer chronic insomnia with alcohol, medicating himself with vodka, clearly not thrilled by the constant touring and dread that battered him so relentlessly.

On April 22, 1994, the Manics played the first of two shows in Bangkok, ahead of the Holy Bible campaign. Fans were clearly hip to Richey's history and many of them at the signing sessions held up pictures of the guitarist in his various phases - the seditionary with mascara and stencilled blouse, the spirit-soaked existentialist of '92, plus the more recent shots that demonstrated the results of a fitness regime that included 1,500 sit-ups per day. Richey looked slightly embarrassed when the Thai locals gave him a welcoming garland. Disturbingly, a boy also presented him with a set of little knives.

Richey chose his moment during the acoustic session near the end of the gig at the MBK Hall. James Dean Bradfield was singing an acoustic version of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, allowing the others a chance to leave the stage for a bit. In the toilet adjacent to the dressing room, Richey took one of the knives he'd been given and sliced at least 10 strokes on his chest. He then sat down and lit up a cigarette. Presently, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore sat beside him on a sofa, and they passed a few minutes quietly before returning to the stage for Motorcycle Emptiness and You Love Us.

"Richey showed me the note," recalls Kevin Cummins, who photographed the incident. "He'd been sent these ceremonial swords, which were like a table-top gift. And this kid had said, 'Would you slash yourself on-stage for me?' Richey said to me, 'That's ridiculous. It's just exhibitionism. Why would I do that?' So he cut himself backstage instead."

Publicly at least, the band tried to make light of it. Sean's response was that "the only people who are disturbed by Richey cutting himself are those that don't know him." But this wasn't just another sporadic case. When the remaining Manics reviewed the Thailand trip in 1996, they admitted that their friend had reached a new, troublesome threshold. And frankly, they added, they hadn't known him quite as well as they thought they had.

* * * * * * * * * *

Richey had been the last to join the Manics. Before playing live, he had driven the band and hauled gear as they promoted their debut single, Suicide Alley. He officially signed up on December 11, 1989. He'd been a longstanding mate of the others, sharing schools in Blackwood, South Wales. The band already had a name, an identity of sorts, and rough versions of songs like Motorcycle Emptiness were at hand. What he offered was the tireless effort of a theorist and propagandist, spinning the potential into a well-formed scheme, ripe for the coming information war. He wrote fan letters to bands such as Big Flame and The Jasmine Minks, looking for encouragement. He badgered labels and music biz contacts with long, intriguing declarations, lined with quotations, beat-style riffs and challenging throw-downs.

Kevin Pearce, who was involved with the Hungry Beat fanzine and Esurient Records, received a letter every week, often several pages long. Richey would enthuse about Dexy's Midnight Runners, Paul Weller, and lesser-known acts such as The Hellfire Sermons and The Claim. Richey would literally outline his reasons for living, and communicate his feelings of loneliness and desperation, particularly when he was at Swansea University. "He had enough energy to fuel the nation," Pearce remembers fondly.

"Richey was absolutely fantastic, the way he spoke and wrote about things," says John Shepherd from Aberdeen act The Jasmine Minks, who were once signed to Creation Records. He received his first Richey letter when the Suicide Alley single came out. In the note, Richey maintained that his band had taken their name from a Jasmine Minks mini-album, 1234567 All Good Preachers Go To Heaven. "He was just this mad agitator. The way he put things across to me - the music didn't actually live up to it. I always thought it was like Stiff Little Fingers, it was old hat. But the way he spoke about South Wales and the mentality there, it really spurred me on, and lots of other people, I'm sure. He'd just stop in the middle of a letter and there'd be two pages of his own poetry before he came back to the point. Obviously, his brain was buzzin'."

In a letter from Swansea to Steven Gatehouse, an old friend, Richey noted: "Manic Street Preachers - I don't know why everyone hates me for associating with them... whatever you think of them it's obvious that they got the songs to smash this fucking apathy. Now MSP may hate me, but that's not the point. That doesn't detract from the point that they are good."

Richey's time as a prolific artist was book-ended by Shaun Ryder singing, "I don't read, I just guess" and Liam Gallagher admitting that he'd only ever read one book, The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. In contrast, Richey and Nicky used their library tickets with intent. They presented themselves to the media as the Glamour Twins, name-checking gay authors and revolutionaries, revving on Rumblefish, scented in Cacharel, clothes by Miss Selfridge, cosmetics from Boots. Withering dismissals and purring sarcasm were a speciality. While a generation of children were getting touchy-feely on Ecstasy, the Manics necked Babycham and pointedly refused the out-stretched hand of Carter USM.

At his best, Richey was a happy shopper and a terrible gossip. He could stretch the name of an adversary around the extremities of his mouth, sour-facing and queening in a style that John Lydon and Kenneth Williams would have appreciated. Like Morrissey, he obviously enjoyed putting space between himself and people he judged unworthy. He made tremendous sport out of this. He could steer a conversation around the footballing fortunes of Luton Town and the mishaps of minor league rock writers. This Generation Terrorist played a passable game of golf and irate when BBC2 cut its darts coverage in 1992. He was gentle with children and polite to old ladies. He kept unopened cans of beans in the fridge, fearing they would go off. He took his laundry home to his mam's because the workings of a washing machine were beyond him. When the drink hit him favourably, he could do the Moonwalk like Michael Jackson. Bedazzled journalists wanted to be his friend. Fans decided to be his confidants and many were inspired to come out, sexually or creatively. Groupies saw a prestigious catch for the collection. And for a time, Richey liked the job.

He preferred the services of veteran groupies for sex because it involved no sentimental attachment: he'd later refer to his desires as "nature's lukewarm pleasure". Sometimes he took younger fans to his room for the equivalent of a rock 'n' roll slumber party, when he'd bring out his Snoopy make-up bag, and they'd share tips on mascara and nail polish. It was fine as long as there was no unnecessary touching. And hugging was just about out of the question.

This vivid era effectively dimmed when the debut double album Generation Terrorists was completed. The residential sessions at Black Barn Studios, Ripley had over-run by an age and cost a reported £500,000. During their 23-week stay, Richey and Nicky had decorated the walls of their shared room, Joe Orton style, with collages of actresses, Warhol prints, punk icons and Expressionist art. When it was time to leave, an emotional Richey made a bonfire out of the cuttings. On the coming tours, the band would entertain themselves with Walkmans and Sega games. Some of the camaraderie, the urge to sustain two-day arguments over the aesthetic of Guns 'N Roses (million-selling rock 'n' roll) versus McCarthy (indie cred, political dialectic) had already declined.

Actually, the recording sessions for The Holy Bible had revived some of that togetherness. The Manics had decided to work out of Soundspace Studios in Cardiff, a relatively cheap location by the red light district. This was partly a reaction against the compromised sheen of their second album, Gold Against The Soul. Normally, Nicky would have delivered half of the lyrical ideas. This time he worked on songs like This Is Yesterday, but he recognised that his writing partner was unusually prolific. So instead he was guiding the process, doling out a title like Faster and then marvelling as Richey fetched up the opening lines, alluding to his self-lacerating ways: "I am an architect, they call me a butcher/I am a pioneer, they call me primitive." James wore a balaclava for the Top Of The Pops rendition of the song in June, cranking the anxiety level up some more.

Richey was the only Manic with a driving licence, so he brought the band to the studio each day. He'd drink a bit, catch some sleep during the recordings, and then drop the others off when the daily shift was through. He worked on the visuals for the new record and furthered his reading profile into the texts of Mishima, Octave Mirbeau, Dennis Cooper and J.G. Ballard, a journey into the body politic. In a summer Select issue themed around the issue of porn, Richey name-checked the above writers and praised the Japanese movie, Tetsuo, The Iron Man, in which the central figure melds with machinery with gruesome consequences. "I find it really sexy," he reckoned. "I think people are becoming more machine-like and that's the imagery I like. Also sex and death are closely linked. Sado-masochistic imagery, bleeding..."

Sometimes after recording sessions he'd go on the town with James, taking in a disco, indulging in what the singer called "a bit of pullage". The Welsh music scene was getting busy by this stage, partly due to the Manic effect, and Richey would socialise with some of the characters around Newport. One of his closest mates was Byron Harris, known as Bun. He was a family friend from Risca, south of Blackwood, and had cut a flamboyant style with a band called Suck. Richey also spent time with champion carousers the 60 Foot Dolls. The band's drummer, Carl Bevan, remembers some of the débàcles around town.

"Richey was into some serious alcohol abuse, which seemed to be symptomatic of something - which I can say, knowing piss artists and possibly being one myself. He liked nothing better than to get absolutely trashed. You'd see him in the Murringer or Le Pub, drinking a lot of vodka. His head was in his hands, or in an ashtray, or something. Bun adored him. He was proud of his mate for being in a famous band. And Bun used to look after Richey. Which if you met Bun, was amazing."

After the wrench of Thailand, the band got into messy circumstances in Portugal. Richey was crying uncontrollably. The band had last played there when their co-manager and friend Philip Hall was dying of cancer the previous December. They held things together until Glastonbury, June 24, when the band mocked the hippy ideal with their military chic and jungle netting. Nicky suggested the site would be better under concrete. Richey acted like he'd had a decent time, and the festival series was apparently under way.

His rudimentary guitar playing was still a problem, however. He had this fantasy about a mythical chord that would fit every song. Failing that, what about a song with only one chord? The nearest he got was when the Manics did a live version of the Happy Mondays' Wrote For Luck, and he could indeed busk the entire piece without moving his hands around the frets. He was delighted. But most of the time, Richey just made do. His playing was mostly absent from the studio sessions. On-stage, you could hear him playing low in the mix, a basic scratchy soundtrack. He stood to James' right, hacking at his Telecaster, observing the fans.

"When we used to play From Despair To Where," Nicky remembered, "there's a point at the start where Richey would have his whiskys lined up, and when James was doing the intro he'd be kneeling down, going 'Boosh! Boosh! Boosh!' It always used to make me laugh. He'd have a big smile on his face."

After Glastonbury, though, Richey went back to his flat by Atlantic Wharf in Cardiff. He was gripped by some kind of hypermania. On breakfast television, he saw a clip from Paint Your Wagon, in which Lee Marvin was singing Wand'rin' Star. He spent a couple of days musing over the import of the line "Hell is in hello", triggering some kind of metaphysical meltdown. When his friends found him, he'd been cutting himself more and his weight had crashed. "Everybody just got really scared when they saw him," Nicky explained a few weeks later. Richey was sent for treatment and the press was informed that he had succumbed to "nervous exhaustion".

On September 16, we arrived as scheduled at the Blue Stone Studios, by the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire. The Manics were preparing for some French dates with Therapy? and their instruments were installed in the airy outhouse. As ever, James' gear was set up in the middle. Richey's guitar was propped nearby. The band had already performed as a trio at Strathclyde's T In The Park on July 30 and Reading, August 27. Richey, recently discharged from the clinic, had insisted on joining them again.

He had also agreed to an interview for the NME. In his two-month absence, the others had promoted The Holy Bible. Like many durable bands, the Manics had become versatile under pressure, with members taking the strain in turn. James was always a powerful figure on-stage, and there were times during the Reading gig when he shouldered everything. It was a deeply affecting sight. In the past, Bradfield had ducked out of interviews. He was tense and self-conscious, unable to articulate his piece. Now he was accepting that job alongside Nicky, and managing well. Nicky looked over the previous months with distaste. "The Zeitgeist of this year in general is fucking death and destruction."

He was right. Hillary Clinton had already given off to the New York Times, condemning the national wash of "alienation and despair and hopelessness". The required text for the period was Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation, a more understanding anatomy of the mood, which noted: "One of the creepiest moments for me was discovering that six million Americans had taken Prozac. As a Jew, I had always associated that number with something else entirely."

Douglas Copeland's Generation X had prompted a media interest in a supposedly disenfranchised youth, with poor job prospects and a dwindling demographic power. Richey knew the book and, at the start of 1994, he got the chance to meet the man. Julie Burchill had arranged a party at her home to welcome Copeland to London. Richey arrived as the "quasi boyfriend" of teenage journalist Emma Forrest. He wore the yellow 'Fairy' T-shirt, a pastiche of the washing-up brand. Burchill's partner at time, Cosmo Landeman, was prompted to remark: "That is one of the most beautiful men I have ever met." Then he added: "He's not long for this world." The group adjourned to the Groucho Club, and Richey held his own, quizzing the American about his involvement in sleeve design and marketing. In turn, he was talking about his spheres of interest. At one stage, he asked Copeland who his favourite writer was. The answer was Joan Didion. Richey was horribly ashamed because he didn't know who she was. Other people would have shrugged and got on with a pleasant night. But Richey was totally bummed out.

Kurt Cobain killed himself on April 5. The last Nirvana album, In Utero shared many themes with The Holy Bible. Nirvana's Rape Me, like the Manics' Yes, was the admission of a creative spirit all carved up and commodified. Richey liked the record. He'd learned of Cobain's death when the band were mixing their own album at Britannia Studios, the same place where Ian Curtis had committed his bleak lyrics to tape with Joy Division. The Manics had put Cobain's Pennyroyal Tea in their setlist for Reading and then Europe. It was soon joined by a version of PiL's Public Image, John Lydon's 1978 declaration of freedom from the Sex Pistols and wasteful notoriety.

Richey didn't look well at Blue Stone, but he was in better physical shape than the rumours suggested. His skin was waxy and he was certainly thin. On his combat trousers he had scrawled a line: "Even rats know where their tails are." He wore a girl's skimpy parka that he'd bought in a children's shop in Fishgate. But his demeanour was most unsettling. He was operating in slow motion, possibly stoned on prescription pills. And his eyes, which had been so commanding in the past, were locked into a different focus. It was like the stare of a war veteran, abstracted, out of reach.

The band posed for photos at Cardigan Bay, splashing in the water, petting dogs, touching and reassuring each other. Richey was again detached. He drove us back to Blue Stone in the band's silver Cavalier, In Utero blaring on the tape deck. He then posed for a solo shot in the garden, taking off his coat, revealing fresh scars on his upper arm. He put his arm around a stone statue and hugged it tightly. Kevin Cummins, who took the shot, found this image more disturbing than the bloody scenes in Thailand.

James sat by Richey in the bedroom as the interview commenced. On an adjacent bed, Richey had lined his books into tidy rows, tomes on the war poets, Eastern religion and '40s movie stars. And as he talked, he regained some of the old composure. As before, he argued his case quietly, his lilting tones falling at the end of each line. "It just went wrong," he supposed. "My mind subjected my body to things that it couldn't cope with. Which meant I was ill. For the first time, I was a bit scared, because I always thought I could handle it."

He worried that this interview would be perceived as a sales pitch, using his illness to up the profile of The Holy Bible. So he stressed the record's political themes - chiefly that right-wing historians were questioning the authenticity of the Holocaust. He reminded us that Die In The Summertime was written from the perspective of an old man, and that 4st 7lb was about a girl's self-image problems. Sure, Richey had been anorexic, but not to that extent. This wasn't autobiography, he maintained. It wasn't writing as therapy, and if he ever found himself doing that, he would leave the band. Neither was the record put together as a last will and testament: "In terms of the 'S' word, that does not enter my mind, and it never has done. In terms of An Attempt. I am stronger than that."

He mentioned the Spanner Trial, a 1987 operation directed by the Greater Manchester Police, who had studied hobbyist videos of consensual sado-masochism. Men were attaching fish hooks to their penises and branding each other. At one stage, a nail was hammered through a scrotum while a recording of Gregorian chants played in the background. Sixteen men were arrested under the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act. The trial led to imprisonment in 1994 when it was ruled that consent was not a valid defence in court. Richey didn't agree. "Justice Templeman said he was sending them to prison because 'cruelty was uncivilised'. What right has he got to say that - in terms of an individual's democratic right to choice?"

Whatever he'd learned during his recuperative period, he still couldn't be deterred from the idea that life after childhood was a case of dwindling prospects. This was something we'd discussed back in 1992 when the tequila was flowing and there was still scope for humour. Richey was smiling as we slouched in a Los Angeles bar, drawing poor approximations of circles on beer mats and talking philosophy.

"The only perfect circle on a human body is in the eye," he figured. "When a baby is born, it's so perfect, but when it opens its eyes, it's just blinded by the corruption and everything is a downward spiral." The 1994 version was no easier. "Up to the age of 13, I was ecstatically happy. Then everything started to go wrong. In my twenties there's nothing that's been that spectacular since."

Initially, Richey had been treated for eight days at Whitchurch NHS hospital in Cardiff. He was heavily sedated and his friends were appalled when they saw him there. Their manager, Martin Hall, found him a place at The Priory in Roehampton, a private establishment with a white gothic front and a more strident programme of treatment. At the time, the clinic was headed by Dr. Desmond Kelly, who spoke openly about his belief in "Divine Providence". The Doctor also countered accusations that this was an exclusive rest home for the rich and decadent. "The Priory is not for the worried well. The people here are seriously ill." Other veterans have included Paula Yates, Paul Merson, Michael Barrymore, Caroline Aherne and Kate Moss.

The Priory method used questionnaires, drama therapy and yoga, among other things. Patients were encouraged to keep a log book and to read from a book called Believing In Myself. Even when Richey was being treated, Nicky was sceptical about some of the ideas, especially the drama. "Those are obviously things that Richey will not do. I can't see him putting up with that 'I am a cushion' stuff somehow." The dilemma was plain. Their friend needed help, yet the Richey they cared for was the sum of many spiky, valuable parts.

Presently, he'd taken to writing LOVE down the length of his fingers and quoting from Leviticus and Ecclesiastes. But when I spoke to him later, he was ambivalent. "Religion has always been pretty central in my thoughts. I'm surprised people think The Holy Bible is a strange title for an album. I've read the Bible back-to-back and what I find in it is not what they taught me in church. I was made to go to church when I was young - my parents didn't go, but I was made to go. You're a little kid and you're five minutes late or you miss a Sunday, and some appallingly fat old man in his eighties is screaming fire and brimstone in some little Welsh Elim Chapel. I could never reconcile that with what I'd read in the Bible."

The core of the Priory system was a 12-point recovery programme. One section asked each patient to reconcile themselves with a higher power. Richey could only think of nature as a likely answer, but realised cruelty was also part of that scheme. However, he reckoned, he had plenty of time to think that issue through in the coming weeks. The French tour had started reasonably enough, leading to UK dates and then back to Europe for shows with Suede, starting on November 7. But the stress grew steadily. James was drinking heavily now and Nicky was in bits. The latter wrote his first ever love song, Further Away, "When I decided I wanted to go home." Richey had cut a vertical slash on his stomach in Amsterdam requiring 36 stitches. He was obsessing over the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now and the last days of Def Leppard guitarist Steve Clark, who had been so distressed with his lot that he'd considered chopping his fingers off. The tour ended in Hamburg, December 14. In the morning, Richey was found outside the hotel banging his head against a wall.

In the midst of this, Edwards managed to write an NME tribute to the situationist thinker Guy Debord, whose work had inspired the Paris riots, punk rock and ultimately, the Manics. Shortly after Debord killed himself, Richey declared: "True force. No copyright. No rights reserved. No motorcycle emptiness. No modern life is rubbish. No time. No history. The time of life is short, and if we live, we tread on kings."

His last shows with the band were at the Astoria in London, December 19-21. Like many of the people there, I watched the first night with a mixture of affection and ghoulish compulsion. Richey was actually playing his guitar quite well by this stage. He had a fresh set of tattoos on his shoulders: arcane maps, possibly Dante's circles of hell or some other purgatorial design. There was a shrill mood at the event, and apparently the band were suffering nosebleeds each night due to some unfixable fault in the sound. There was a special resonance to You Love Us at this moment; a many-layered discourse between the band, the media and the howling fanbase. This was their closing song on December 21, as the Manics trashed the stage, venting so much nervous energy. Pennie Smith took a memorable photograph of Richey on the drum riser, dismantling Sean's kit, one day shy of his 27th birthday, looking absent-minded in fierce surroundings.

"There's one shot that gives me the creeps," Pennie remembers, "only in retrospect. Richey's looking at me and through the camera. Even when I took it, I thought, What was that look for? Not making anything bigger of it, but he didn't usually catch the camera's eye, he was usually too busy. He was like in his own sweet world, but maybe knew the camera was there. It's like you're locked into something that's nothing to do with the gig or the audience. Sometimes you know what it is, and sometimes it's in the abstract and later it makes sense. Yet I did some group shots at the time, and in a lot of the pictures he was just really laughing."

Emma Forrest says she was an "acquaintance" of Richey's in the run-up to The Holy Bible. "The reason he liked hanging out with me was because I was young and he thought of me as non-sexual. But I was starting to feel sexual, so to be around this beautiful man who I know had absolutely no interest in me was just so tortuous. I did stay up all night talking to him, or slept at his hotel room, but again these were entirely non-sexual things. I was learning from the wise master, how to be a teenager - how to be miserable and self-loathing, how to be totally selfish and self-obsessed."

Richey's illness was compounded by the fact that he had tunnelled himself into a place in rock 'n' roll that was uniquely, unhappily his. He'd never had a proper relationship; he was so hung up on perfection that it ring-fenced his potential for regular experience. And then he talked about it, bringing those issues into the public, the planks on which the Richey character existed. Which was fine for his iconic status, but not much use for his humanity.

"I remember seeing all these fresh cuts all over his arms," Emma remembers. "He was always so flip about them, almost boastful. And like a retarded teenager, I said, Wow, those are so cool! And he was so angry. That night, he was so drunk that I think I saw a level of honesty I never saw before or after. He said, 'That is not cool. It's pathetic.' Actually, after that, we never had any profound interaction. Maybe it's because I'd seen behind the curtain."

Back in his college days, Richey had written to his friend Steve Gatehouse about music's potential: "I have always, always, only sanctioned music with a moral purpose... to me, punk is Isaac Newton". Compare this to a much later interview in Sheffield, printed in the Molotov Cocktails fanzine: "The fucking tragedy about human life is that it means like, so fucking little, unless you are like Einstein or Newton, you are just, like, fucking continuous raw cattle that has no control over what it does... that's the tragedy of human existence, that it is so fucking pointless... the only people who matter are the Newtons and the Einsteins, they're the only things that count. I think if you can beat nature you're worthy, if you can't you're another dying thing."

One of the last books Richey endorsed was Novel With Cocaine, by a mysterious figure called M. Ageyev. It's the fictional account of Vadim, a Russian student between the First World War and the Revolution. He's a libertine and a cynic, infecting his sexual partners and debasing his mother. Then he experiences an ideal, intellectualised love but can't reconcile it with his desires, and this schism leads to a torrid binge of drugs and self-questioning: "The feelings I experienced under the spell of cocaine were so potent that my power of self-observation dwindled to a state only found in certain mental illnesses. But the moment the cocaine was gone and the misery took over, I began to see myself for what I was; indeed, the misery consisted in seeing myself as I had been while under the influence of the drug."

Richey, the post-modern, reflexive rocker, who manifested pain and then pulled away to view himself in the abstract, was familiar with Vadim's drift. In January 1995, he decided that he'd had enough of this caper.

The last part of the story is worn with retelling, but it's still a terrible sequence, an accident that nobody, certainly not the band, could have avoided. The Manics had a firm structure of business friends around them. It couldn't really be suggested that they worked him of a cynical desire to make capital. The collective decision was that he was dangerous on his own, when he had too much time to think, and so they appreciated his stated desire to keep working. Thus in early January, Richey joined the band for several days of rehearsals at the House In The Woods, Surrey. They were thinking up ideas for the Judge Dredd soundtrack. Richey was also writing for the new album, which he figured might sound like "Pantera meets Nine Inch Nails meets Screamadelica". He made copies of the lyrics for everyone, and passed a few presents around. In spite of his anorexic dramas with chocolate bars, it was an upbeat time, and songs such as Kevin Carter and Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky were developing. Later he handed in a second cache of lyrics, including a piece about ballerinas getting their feet chopped off. This was left unused.

He was upset when Snoopy, his dog, died on January 14, but Nicky was glad that he was shedding unscripted emotion, rather than relying on Priory speak. He shaved his hair off and turned up at a 60 Foot Dolls gig at Le Pub in Newport. Carl Bevan and many others didn't recognise him. "He had a loose expression, like there was something loose in his head."

On January 23, Richey spoke to Midori Tsukagoshi from the Japanese magazine Music Life. He posed for pictures in his pyjamas and shaven head. He wore Converse sneakers (just like Kurt Cobain's) on his feet, while his eyes were rimmed with insomnia. He talked of Mishima and Morrissey, explained that he'd been "abandoning things", such as imperfect lyrics and notes, and throwing them in the river. He explained that his abstinence from alcohol allowed him more time to be creative, and sounded positive about the Manics' future. "The band is getting better and better. The lyrics are too. I've found better ways to express myself. Though I don't need to know if my words have become more acceptable than before, I hope they have."

There was mention of a potential relationship, although it wasn't exactly straightforward. "Since the band started, I've only really been involved with one girl... but I've never told her I love her. I've known her for years, but I've only kissed her once... that's all. How can I explain? When I love somebody, I feel sort of trapped."

"The last time I spoke to him, he was in a very positive mood," says Midori Tsukagoshi. "As usual, he was a very artistic person."

Richey and James checked into the Embassy Hotel on London's Bayswater Road on January 31. They were headed off to America for a promotional trip - ahead of a US tour. James knocked at room 561 at 8.30pm, and asked his friend if he wanted to go out for a bit, but Edwards declined. "He said he'd see me in the morning. He was smiling, running the bath. He was in a good mood."

Richey parcelled up a box of books, pictures and videos (including Equus and Naked) for a friend - apparently it was for the girl he'd mentioned in the Japanese interview - with a note: "I love you." He rang his mother, mentioned that he wasn't keen on the upcoming trip, but he didn't sound overly troubled.

But contrary to their plans, he left the hotel at 7am on February 1 and drove to his flat in Cardiff, where he dropped off his Prozac and some other affairs.

"He left his passport neatly on the desk in his flat," his sister Rachel told The Sun, "and there was a toll receipt for £2.70 and 30p change nearby. I have been over and over in my mind what he was trying to say by leaving that receipt. Before he disappeared, Richey had become obsessed with the perfect disappearance."

He'd been withdrawing £200 per day in the fortnight leading up to his departure. The silver Vauxhall Cavalier was found at the Auste Service Station by the Severn Bridge on February 12 and identified as his two days later. The battery was flat, suggesting that he'd been sleeping in the car for a time, using the heater or playing the radio. But there's nothing that we know for sure after February 1.

There have been supposed sightings in Goa, Fuerteventura, Liverpool, Shropshire, Swansea, London, and many other places, but no substantial evidence has been forthcoming. The Manics hired a private detective, but again, nothing. Richey's family continue the search. After all, he expressed a keen interest in artists like Rimbaud and J.D. Salinger who had ditched their public lives, the former lighting out for Africa and the latter building a secluded existence in the countryside.

Conversely, though, many of Richey's favourite artists (Sylvia Plath, Mishima, Ian Curtis, Tony Hancock, Kurt Cobain, Guy Debord) were suicides. But most of these figures left with a grand gesture, a summation at least. Richey just walked off the stage.

After months of stasis, the Manic Street Preachers started writing and recording again.

"Carrying on," Nicky explained, "was more easy than just staying in and waiting by the phone. Just worrying."

Their first new song as a trio was the song Design For Life. Nicky's sentiments were compassionate and inclusive: a discourse on the welfare state, national pride, working class stereotypes, economic policy and old socialist values. The tune was grandly melancholic and it charted at Number 2. They had become popular band.

The subsequent album, Everything Must Go featured some of Richey's lyrics, and admissions of his loss were deep in the music. It certainly wasn't a flip process. During the mixing sessions, the three friends were obliged to sign sheaves of documents, setting up a trust fund for Richey's royalties and making provisions for the worst eventually.

James felt it was "the most final thing". Nicky agreed. "That was really depressing, doing all that legal shit. You've gotta wait seven years until he's declared dead. We wanted everything to be proper. But doing that, it just makes him seem like a number. It was really sad."

Unless something hugely dramatic happens before February 1, 2002 the courts will declare that Richey is legally dead. It's not a story you would wish on anyone.

Thanks to the following for their help: Colin Carberry, Andrew Collins, Vivian Campbell and Claire Catman.

[Originally published: Mojo, February 2002]

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