One Foot In The Past

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The disappearance of Richey Edwards was one of the defining stories of '90s rock and roll. He's now immortalised on an anniversary DVD edition of The Holy Bible. Andrew Collins remembers him this way.

Richey James Edwards spent the summer of 1994 at The Priory, Roehampton's psychiatric hospital of choice for the rich and famous. Scaling back his role in Manic Street Preachers while doctors attempted to cure his predilection for self-harm, alcohol abuse and anorexia, he was visited daily by his three bandmates, friends since junior school in Blackwood, South Wales.

They brought artwork to approve and reviews to read, maintaining an important sense of normality at what was, even for this square peg of a band, a pretty fucked-up time. For James Dean Bradfield, singer and gifted songwriter, there were also guitar lessons to administer. Despite Richey's vital role as co-iconographer and lyricist (with bassist and best friend Nicky Wire), guitar was never his strong point. He looked good wielding one onstage - legendary, in fact - but plugging it into actual amplifiers was not generally encouraged.

So imagine Richey's horror when The Priory's own Norman Stanley Fletcher dropped by. Though others have reason to believe Richey may have embellished or even invented this story, they want it to be true and so do I. Eric Clapton, an unpaid volunteer within those walls, apparently popped his head round the door and said an old timer's hello to the latest musician on the wing.

"Perhaps I'll bring my guitar round next time?"

Richey was mortified at the prospect of jamming some 12-step blues. "Just what I need," he told James after the visitation. "I'm going to be confronted by God, and God's going to realise that I can't play the guitar."

It's OK to smile. It might help shade in the colouring-book picture of Richey many people still hold in their minds: that of a drawn, troubled, depressed individual, a butterfly broken upon that oft-misquoted wheel. Certainly, Richey was not a happy rock star, four years into a career that had brought front covers, a fanatical following, Top Ten hits and a unique notoriety. But he was no lobotomised zombie and nor did the band treat him like bone china, even when hospitalised. Despite their outward seriousness and total conviction, the Manics have always used humour as a defence against the world, and Richey was especially funny, by turns amused and amusing, ever conscious of the farcical circles in which he now moved.

His stay at The Priory was punctuated with bright moments and gentle ribbing. How tickled they all were at Richey's indignation when tests on his liver revealed he hadn't been drinking quite as much as he'd claimed. He bemoaned the fact that the staff didn't believe he was mad (But you're not mad!" James would insist). Richey spoke of "the token gestures of insanity" - hiding in bushes, barking orders - and considered putting an éclair on his head and "talking to an imaginary giraffe." When building his weight back up from rock bottom 9an alarming six stone), the band called him Mr. Blobby.

If anything, perhaps Richey's self-awareness, entertaining though it seemed, was his undoing. Was it, in time-honoured rock and roll fashion, Too Much Fucking Perspective that sent Richey off into the night?

By the way, I realise I've broken a golden rule of hard-nosed journalism in referring to my subject by first name rather than second, but it seems appropriate in this instance. Not because I'm here to reveal the inner workings of The Richey Only I Know, simply that he never used his surname, preferring to be credited as Richey or Richey James. Only when he disappeared on Wednesday 1 February 1995 and became the subject of police appeals and national newspaper investigations did his full name seem to become forever formalised.

That was almost ten years ago. So why are we still idolising him, this guitarist who couldn't play the guitar, this lyricist whose lyrics didn't scan, this icon who couldn't bear being an icon? Because the remaining Manic Street Preachers have given us their explicit blessing. Even though they're currently touring brand new mainstream rock album Lifeblood, their fourth as a trio, they are simultaneously reissuing 1994's The Holy Bible. This was their third and last extant Manics album. For some fans it remains their finest hour. None of which makes its repackaging an obvious move.

We are talking a digitally remastered 10th anniversary Special Edition bearing unseen photos, new sleeve notes, live tracks, demos, Radio 1 session, unheard US mix and DVD containing footage from Top Of The Pops, MTV, Glastonbury and Reading, plus a new 30-minute interview with the band, all delivered in lovingly-tooled digipack with slipcase and booklet. This is the kind of fanfare and deforestation usually reserved for a conventional Classic Album like Dark Side Of The Moon, Diamond Dogs or London Calling - even Definitely Maybe. But The Holy Bible? A record whose lyrics sheet's fourth word is "cunt" and whose tracks includes The Intense Humming Of Evil, Archives Of Pain, Mausoleum and surely the only recorded reference in rock music to serial-killing nurse Beverley Allitt?

Speaking to Nicky Wire it becomes clear that he is the architect of this lavish repackaging, not Sony Records. Since Richey's departure, Nicky has willingly allowed domesticity to engulf him, retreating between albums to his house in Blackwood where he watches sport, sees to his baby and takes Sellotape to the dog hairs on he and his wife's soft furnishings. A 35-year-old man who makes no secret of a near obsessive-compulsive desire to keep his house in order (his self-mocking t-shirt at the Brits in 1997 read I HEART HOOVERING) he's a natural candidate to, in his own words, "take control of the catalogue."

But this not just about quality control; the special edition Holy Bible exists as a memorial, albeit one for a man who has never been pronounced dead and is fervently hoped by friends and fans to be still alive. Nicky speaks with touching candor when he says, "Sometimes Richey goes off the critical radar and I feel guilty about it. I really do. People need to be reminded how amazingly cool and great he was."

Richey James Edward: cool and great. It's not a bad epitaph - should we ever need one. There's no way I'd be allowed to be in any other band in the world!" he once told me. James used to describe Nicky and Richey as his two wingers.

For a forensic account of Richey's last days in circulation I refer you to Simon Price's biography Everything. Suffice to say, shaven of head and recently bereaved (his dog, Snoopy, had died at the age of 17 in mid-Janaury 1995), Richey left few clues when he drove the band's silver Vauxhall Cavalier from London to his "yuppie flat" in Cardiff, then parked it at Aust services by the Severn Bridge. Lurid press reports inevitably leapt to the suicide conclusion, wrong-headedly grouping Richey with accidental rock martyrs like Hendrix and Vicious (he would have preferred Curtis and Cobain), but his body has never been washed up and Elvis-like sightings in the years since - including one in Goa - have mostly amounted to wishful thinking.

As Price points out, an estimated 250,000 people go missing each year in the UK, a good 14,000 cases remaining unsolved at any one time. With more of that palliative good Manics humour, Wire described Richey's vanishing act as "more Reginald Perrin that Lord Lucan."

* * * * * * * * * *

The last time most of us outside of the band's inner circle saw Richey was at the triumphant London Astoria gigs in December 1994. Playing the backside out of The Holy Bible, this was a band at the top of their game, the anti-Britpop messiahs, somehow energised in aptly Nietzschean fashion after a European jaunt supporting Suede that had almost killed them. They smashed up their equipment on the last night. An £8,000 orgy they could ill-afford with Priory bills outstanding and diminishing commercial returns, it proved to be their final act as a four-piece. A fitting curtain call from a band who'd arrived on the baggy London scene in 1990 seemingly fully-formed.

They weren't the first rock band with a gang mentality built on childhood friendship and smalltown disaffection, nor the first to stencil slogans on their shirts - indeed, they were precisely the second - but this studied love-hate relationship with rock history was their making. They read the NME from cover to cover, awaiting their moment.

It was all about context; the effects of Ecstasy and Acid House had softened rock music edges in the latter years of the 80s and a hybrid form we rather quaintly called "indie-dance" held lolloping sway. The Manics existed as a self-styled antidote. For the weekly music press they were a gift. They had a look, a manifesto and gave good quote.

Having had my initial doubts blown away by their first, audacious singles for the Heavenly label in 1991, Motown Junk and You Love Us, I joined the band as an NME writer at the residential Black barn studios in leafy Ripley in Surrey, where they were locked into the recording of their debut double album for Columbia Records, Generation Terrorists. (The one they'd swaggeringly promised to sell 16 million copies of and split up.) It was here that I first witnessed the unique and efficient division of labour that underpinned the Manics. James and drummer Sean Moore wrote and recorded the music; Nicky and Richey provided the lyrics and decorated the walls of their bedrooms, Joe Orton style, with Munch photocopies and cut-out pictures of Axl Rose, Brigitte Bardot, lipstick and Cherokee Indians.

During a conversation illuminated only by the flickering recording lights of a ghetto blaster playing one of Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion albums, I fell under Richey's spell as he demonstrated his innate knack for distilling into a soundbite entire swathes of cultural theory: "We will always hate Slowdive more that we hate Adolf Hitler."

You should have heard the withering contempt in the way he mouthed the words "Loz from Kingmaker" when comparing the year's model of NME indie decency to Vivien Leigh. Meanwhile, out in the converted barn, songs as good as Motorcycle Emptiness and Little Baby Nothing were being committed to tape.

Only a band this lovable could get away with a song called You Love Us. They only half-believed they'd sell 16 million albums so when they actually sold 200,000 and stayed together, it was too unwieldy a stick to beat them with. There was little point in accusing them of selling out. I'd tried that at the time of their first, disappointing single for Columbia, Stay Beautiful, produced by Steve Brown (Elton John, Wham!, The Cult). I'm rather ashamed to say that I accused them, in an NME review, of "going soft now that they're firmly positioned upon corporate dick." They didn't hold the sentiment against me. Indeed, Nicky virtually quoted the 13-year-old line back to me when I spoke to him last week.

Perhaps the only disturbing aspect of my trip to Ripley was the sight of Richey's left arm, whose healing scars still read "4 REAL", six months after carving the letter with a blade to make a point to my colleague Steve Lamacq in Norwich. A disturbing display that telegraphed things to come and provided one of the decade's most haunting rock and roll images, I vividly remember the hoo-hah in the NME office the next morning when photographer Ed Sirrs first slapped the transparencies on the light box. Could we run them in colour? Could we run them on the cover? (We compromised on both counts.) We all worried for Richey from that day on, even those who thought him an idiot. I found the image hard to reconcile with the gentle soul I always met.

The struggle to be taken seriously was collective, but for Richey it had a physical manifestation. The life of a touring rock band is shallow. Most anaesthetise themselves into compliance or pound themselves at the hotel gym, but Richey was too intelligent and too tuned in to ever tune out. He would drink himself to sleep but his mind would be brimming over, fighting against it. He nodded out once while we conducted a late-night interview, Paula Yates style, on his bed at Hook End Manor studios outside Reading in 1993. He was babbling to the end of the Smirnoff bottle: "fuck knows, I don't know. It's not the same thing is it? Twelve per cent...Steve Lamacq knows what you're talking about...you too can lie in a bed like this... you too...very Morrissey...don't hate 'em all...bit too reverential about Suede...forgive Suede...forgive themzzzzzzz."

As James recalls, when they were holed up in London for mixing, rehearsal or promo, woozy with hiraeth (the intense Welsh form of homesickness), Richey would expose himself to the seedier side of life and allow, say, a prostitute he saw at King's Cross to get under his skin. This is a band who became enraged by Ned's Atomic Dustbin, so you can see why a little knowledge of the world might go a long way for a person as sensitive as Richey James.

For an album that still sounds so serrated, nihilistic and cross, it's instructive to know that it was recorded in an atmosphere of total togetherness and trust - serenity even, according to Nicky. "Everything came together, image, lyrics, artwork, we all believed in the same thing at the same time. It was telepathic". When it was released and the military touring uniforms were chosen, James remembers feeling "valiant." It sold less than 100,000 copies. Two years later, Everything Must Go, the reconstructive post-Richey album, sold over a million.

Though they have yet to crack America, and never actually sold 16 million, the Manics are now a major, award-winning, triple-platinum British rock act whom journalists describe as "a power trio" at their own risk. Yet most of the fans have never experienced the glorious symmetry of the original quartet live.

Their first gigs without Richey, five festivals during the Priory summer of '94, revealed a glaring hole. though Richey wanted them to play, James admits, "We've never recovered from it." The clip from Reading on the Holy Bible DVD confirms the misery of the other three, going through the motions in the name of Protestant work ethic and a £20,000 healthcare bill.

James says they put it on the DVD to illustrate the chasm. Listen out too for "the death rattle in the corner" - as a mark of respect they'd plugged a guitar in for Richey.


The Holy Bible 10th anniversary edition by Manic Street Preachers is released this month on Epic.

[Originally published: The Word, January 2005]

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