by Sylvia Patterson
Before he vanished, Richey Edwards left his bandmates his bleakest set of lyrics. Fourteen years on, they've finally been set to music.
In March 1992, a month after the Manic Street Preachers released their debut album, Generation Terrorists, to an equally thrilled, bewildered and appalled musical universe, they attended the Irish equivalent of the Brit Awards, the Irma Music Awards, in a hotel in Dublin.
The Manics had arrived on a post-rave musical landscape dominated by gloomy grunge and Ned's Atomic Dustbin a year earlier. A sloganeering glam-punk spectacle in make-up and stencilled blouses, they were in love with The Clash, Guns N' Roses and the Situationist political art movement. Their first single on Heavenly Records, Motown Junk, heralded the lyrical slaughtering of the first of many sacred cows: "I laughed when Lennon got shot."
I went with them to the Irma, as a reporter for pop gazette Smash Hits, and a rock-art riot of fur coats, make-up and vodka-induced bedlam ensued. Nicky Wire, serenely detached bass player and verbal extremist, lay face upwards, wasted, on the ballroom floor having popped all the balloons. Legendarily silent drummer Sean Moore shouted, "Boring!" throughout proceedings and acutely intense singer James Dean Bradfield was inches away from a punchup with the unimpressed TV host. Meanwhile, guitarist and chief polemicist Richey Edwards - forearm still healing after carving the words "4 Real" into it after a gig in Norwich 10 months earlier - poured several bottles of free wine into the ice bucket on the table of their label, Sony, added salt and pepper and watched as the bucket overflowed and the table was removed altogether. The Sony representative declared the band were "scum" and "should be thrown out of here!".
I still have the interview tapes from this event, including the conversation with Edwards in the hotel bar the next day, when he drank Guinness for four hours and wrote a list of recommended books (the works of George Orwell, Valerie Solanas, Albert Camus, Sylvia Plath, many more, a list sadly now lost). Listening to this interview the day before meeting the Manics in 2009 was an intensely surreal, infinitely sad reminder of how much we miss Richey Edwards's voice, in every way. "Our manifesto," he implored to the perky Smash Hits readers in his eloquent, gallows-funny, profoundly gentle Welsh way, "is kill yourself on your 13th birthday!" After that, he explained at length, you were doomed to grown-up exploitation and bitterness forever.
"Not the Irma..." cackles Nicky Wire 17 years later. "Fucking hell, the shit I must have talked then!" Today, in a photo studio in East London, Wire is wearing a large blue badge featuring an Andy Warhol quote: "I like boring things." "But that's what you've got to do when you're young, in a rock'n'roll band," he marvels. "God, I don't feel like I have that power any more. To be fearless and utterly stupid and irresponsible. It's the curse of growing up. It's also a less intelligent culture now, a much more sensationalised culture."
In 2009 the Manics remain unique to rock'n'roll: not so fearless, perhaps, but courageous enough to write a single, Your Love Alone Is Not Enough, about, notes Wire, "suicide and connections with people who are gone". After spending much of the decade creatively confused, 2007's Send Away The Tigers was, as the bassist frankly puts it, "a glossy, glamourous comeback when we thought we'd had it", reigniting their confidence and allowing them to finally record a follow-up to The Holy Bible.
Released in 1994, The Holy Bible, to many, is the Manics' greatest art statement of them all: lyrics 80 per cent written by Richey Edwards, his visceral poetry detailing an actual vortex of psychic pain via the Holocaust, anorexia, fascism, self-harm, US political hypocrisy and suicide.
"When The Holy Bible came out, Park Life was out, Definitely Maybe was out," says Wire with a smile. "So we did feel totally isolated. And that's how we feel again now: Fucking brilliant, we're making something that doesn't sound like anyone."
Their ninth studio album, the thundering, sorrowful, poetic Journal For Plague Lovers sees Edwards's voice returned to us, artistically, once more. Approximately five days before he disappeared on 1 February 1995, Edwards gave a file of new lyrics and artwork to his bandmates (original file to Wire, copies to Bradfield and Moore) in a studio in Surrey, during the sessions for what would eventually become 1996's Everything Must Go. After the disappearance, five lyrics were used and then, the more Edwards stayed disappeared, the more the remaining Manics stayed away from the file, each locking it away for more than a decade.
"For a long time the lyrics were too much for us to handle," admits Bradfield, who instigated this new project after the unexpected success of Send Away The Tigers. "But the mist has cleared, we just wanted to be in the room with him again."
"He obviously left them to us to be used," adds Wire. "We felt compelled."
It's also a very Manics thing to do: follow unexpected commercial success with a desolation opus, as they did with The Holy Bible, released just a year after the glossy Gold Against The Soul. Journal For Plague Lovers, though, won't even feature singles.
"Richey didn't wanna write a single ever again," declares Bradfield. "So, let's release an album lyrically wracked with doubt, no singles, in the biggest economic downturn of our lives. Brilliant!"
"And the whole thing just sounds like us," decides Moore, Bradfield's life-long sonic partner. "This is what we are, really."
It's 21 years since the Manic Street Preachers pressed 300 copies of their debut self-financed single Suicide Alley, 21 years as an almost preposterously singular rock'n'roll construct: working-class boys from Blackwood on an urgent mission to shine white-hot intellectual light onto hypocrisy, corruption and the blackness at the core of humanity while wearing pink feather boas and bawling glorious glam-pop anthems. The week before today's shoot, Bradfield is perched in a well-appointed brasserie near his home in Chiswick, West London, drinking a standard white coffee at 11am. Now a married 40-year-old, he's wearing a black, Fred Perry-style top with white piping, is whiskery of chin and cheerful of demeanour, even if, when he talks about Edwards, he screws his eyes tight shut, searching for precise words.
Richey was pronounced officially dead - his parents' decision - last November. How were you personally affected?
James Dean Bradfield: It had no bearing consciously or subconsciously. I used to have these B-Movie thoughts [knocks rapidly three times on the table] and it's not gonna happen, is it? You don't think he's gonna walk in the door. It's very clear. He left us these lyrics, he bequeathed them to us. Even though that wasn't obvious at the time. Bu the obviously planned what he did very, very well. If somebody leaves a car by the Severn bridge they're either saying, "I'm gone" or "I want you to think I'm gone and I want to be left alone, forever". This album is done posthumously. You come to terms with the fact that things don't get resolved.
As the singer, what lyrical themes are you hearing this time?
JDB: Some are quite prophetic. Me And Stephen Hawking deals with how we've all become such voyeurs and want to observe one another fail. But the bottom line is doubt. When you're a teenager it's all about nihilistic anger and then that anger turns to disgust and the big hurdle is what does that disgust turn into? And for him, I think it just turned into doubt on every level: personally, politically, idealistically, whatever. This was the first time I became aware of perhaps how Richey failed to deal with things. He didn't have any perspective. His anger turned into disgust turned into just doubt. And that left him flailing.
On the tape I have, Richey said about you: "James is the most intense person I've ever met." You were intense...
JDB: Nah! I think he misunderstood my lack of ability to communicate with words. But feeling that intense made me really happy. Me and Sean, we were excited, we realised we were in this band with these two people who were writing lyrics like nobody else's. So you felt you were on duty. I was waiting for lyrics all the time. I was like a sheep dog [cocks ear to the sky, whistles]: "Got any lyrics? Got any lyrics?".
When you first had a guitar, he said, you practised for 18 hours daily and became so good you could play all the guitar solos from the Stone Roses album behind your back: "He just had to be able to do it."
JDB: He's over-cooked it! He would've been a great politician. I showed him the solo at the end of I Am The Resurrection... doo, doo, do-do-roo... [carries on through entire solo] and showed him a bit like that [mimes playing guitar behind his neck]. I couldn't do the whole record like that! Lying bastard. Me, obsessional? He's got a fucking cheek!
There's so much written about the miserable times, but when were you at your happiest?
JDB: I think at the start when we were touring Motown Junk [in 1991], we had our Transit van and we were doing our first ever proper tour, that was probably the most exciting time in my life. Because you've no idea what's going to happen. Sometimes there were four people there, sometimes 400. Some people wanted to punch you after a gig, some treated you like sexual deviants, other like heroes. And we were all together. Just us four, no one else - it was brilliant. Also when A Design For Life was Number 2, there was a bittersweet happiness. To know we could still be the Manics without Richey was a kind of a shock to us. And people were happy for us.
After Everything Must Go, you spent a lot of time in celeb hangout the Met Bar in London. With the Manics' no drugs policy, the others would've been obliged to throw you out the band if you'd become a cokehead...
JDB: I've still never done and gak, ever. Nor pills. But that was funny, I think it was slightly nouveau riche-esque. A working-class valley boy just going, "Fuck it, the only responsibility I've got is the band, let's get pissed!" But it was [Everything Must Go producer] Mike Hedges's fault, he had membership of the Met bar. And he's 6'6" of drinking machine. [Suddenly aggrieved] Somebody showed me my Wikipedia entry and it says, "Admitted to being a borderline alcoholic." I was never a borderline alcoholic! I was just a good drinker. And I still enjoy a good drink.
At 40, are you astonished you're still in the Manic Street Preachers?
JDB: No, I remember when Nick and Richey said, "One album and we're gonna self-immolate on Top Of The Pops" - I was fine with that. "Everybody should kill themselves" - I was fine with that. "One album and we're splitting up" - "What? Fuck off, I wanna be in a band! If you want Never Mind The Bollocks we can try that, but I also wanna do London Calling. And Give 'Em Enough Rope. And a fuck-up album like Sandinista." One album? Fuck that, no way.
What would have happened to the Manics if Richey had never disappeared?
JDB: The studio would've been a more fraught place. After The Holy Bible he wanted a fusion of [Primal Scream's] Screamadelica, Nine Inch Nails and Einstürzende Neubauten. But I like Guns N' Roses and Queen, too - sometimes I just wanna write a good fucking tune. So it wouldn't have been shocking to think that the band perhaps would've ended. Whereas at the moment I can't think of the band ending.
If you want to be romantic about it, maybe when he went, he gave you the gift of the band. In a way...
JDB: He did, yeah. He did. We had the chance.
Who would play you all in the movie?
JDB: [Colossal cringe] I would never want any involvement. I dread somebody doing some kind of B-movie bullshit with all that stuff, y'know? I hate to think what they would do to Rich, let alone me. [Bawls, unfeasibly, like a cockney gangster] "Richey, mate! What's wrong, mate? We've got free beer, free coke, free girls! Don't fuck this up, man!" And "Richey" would be sitting there going, [adopts 1000-yard stare]: "The horror, the horror."
* * * * * * * * * *
The Langham Hotel in Central London, opened in 1865, still specialises in Victorian-era "service with poise". Inside its crisp, plainly upholstered suites the only splash of vivid colour comes from the box of stationery on the wooden desk, in vibrant fuchsia. Within the box, the white A4 paper is edged in pastel pink, embossed with a golden floral flourish and bears the top-right inscription "In Residence".
Nicky Wire likes this hotel specifically "because of the stationery". At 40, he's been married for 15 years to his childhood sweetheart, has two young children, is an obsessively ordered soul with OCD tendencies who has owned up to four Dyson vacuum cleaners at a time and today is casually dressed in a cosy blue hoodie and drainpipe beige trousers, no make-up below his multi-streaked hair.
We're leafing through a stack of rectangular laminated sheets that Wire introduces with the words: "And this what he left me, the Holy Scriptures". It's surely the last will and testament of his best friend, meticulously collated out-takes of Edwards's last file. The typed lyrics on white paper are stark and ordered amid photocopied images from magazines and comics (The Watchmen, 2000AD), doodles, random written phrases from himself and others (especially JG Ballard), a shot of Bugs Bunny with "Opulence" etched on his cheek. A cover from gay magazine The Advocate asks, "Is God Gay?" near the words, "A free man should fear nothing of death. Is there a God. Where is the truth?"
Much of the file, depending on clearance, is to be released in album booklet form, while the cover art is a striking painting by artist Jenny Saville (who also provided the cover for The Holy Bible) of a boy with raven-black hair, half his face seemingly daubed in blood, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Edwards.
Wire is less comfortable talking about the circumstances of this album than Bradfield, continually putting on and taking off a pair of huge red-tinted sunglasses.
"James has developed an ability to take things as they are," he says. "He doesn't need to write obsessional lists like me. We take the piss that he sweeps things under this mythical giant carpet. I'm very, very jealous."
How do you feel about the file now?
NW: I feel weird about letting it go. I love it and bothers me, a lot. It's the responsibility. [Produces paper from trouser pocket] I've written a note: "An inescapable sense of responsibility" is how I feel. To do him justice.
The song William's Last Words, which you sing and wrote the music for, is a really emotional goodbye song. That must have been hard. You've recorded a very vulnerable vocal.
NW: It is. It's a proper goose-bumps moment. I'm not looking forward to singing it live. Just that line, "Leave me go, Jesus, I love you/Yeah, I love you, just let me go/I even love the devil, even though he did me harm/Don't keep me any longer cos I'm really tired/I just wanna go to sleep and wake up happy". What poetry that is. It's beautiful. [Puts sunglasses on] But if you're compelled to do something, as James would say, give it your best shot.
"Best shot"... "carpet"... Next!
NW: [Cackles, takes glasses off] Oh, James and Sean dealt with this much better than me! I found the whole process very problematic just because Richey's obviously not here to say anything about it. There was this flight to Hong Kong and by the end of it I'd just gone so mad about it, James went, "That's fucking it, we're not doing it." I'd just wanted to do a fucking Bill Drummond and put [the album] in a canister, bury it and film it and just not play it to anyone. But I guess that was never a reality.
What effect did his being pronounced legally dead have on you?
NW: It had no relevance other than legal. The only thing I found really hard was all the obituaries. [Ruefully] It was the best press he'd ever had, he'd never been that much in the broadsheets before. But there were lots of inaccuracies and that made me on edge and frustrated. But I wanted to know.
You don't feel like you need the body for confirmation, as some seem to?
NW: We've just dealt with all that stuff. We don't need closure and we don't need confirmation. I don't know how we've come to that decision, maybe just through work, but we've dealt with it. And if the situation [of his body being found] came up in the future, we could handle it. So we deal in the reality of now. We're centred on just framing this as the work of a great artist, a 27-year-old genius.
It was strange hearing his voice again on tape. That cheerful voice saying relationships are a compromised lie, men are the Devil, mankind is the worst thing that ever happened to Earth and he was only happy "when I'm asleep". So where could he go from there?
NW: Fuck, I know. And unfortunately, even though there were periods when he got better, those feelings stayed. He never got beyond that. I read this interview with Bruce Springsteen the other day and he said great artists that keep going, there's always something eating away at you, a mole, and the trick is to keep using that mole because otherwise it consumes you. I think we kept our mole, the bitterness and anger, but in Richey perhaps it just devoured him, just overwhelmed him.
The Manics' legacy: what's it to be? And where are the new Manics, anyway?
NW: In terms of inspiring bands, we've been bloody awful. We're too awkward, too complicated, our politics are confused, our attitudes are off-kilter and there's working-class rage that, unless you've lived it, you just don't get it. We're the Julie Burchill of music sometimes. But I've had so many people tell me they've gone on to education because of us and got their masters on subjects we've talked bout. That's our biggest influence, I think, the Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus, secret society thing. When I heard Allen Ginsberg on [The Clash's] Combat Rock I had no idea who he was. Or Morrissey talking about Oscar Wilde. That's what missing today from bands. There's a lyrical retardation of British music. No depth of soul. People look at Alex Turner as a great lyricist - I know it's Alan Bennett and it's all good, but it's character, there's nothing really autobiographical, the dark heart of someone.
Why is that? I always thought the youthful dark heart was eternal.
NW: Maybe it's because up until now they've never experienced a recession. It has been a really decadent 10 to 12 years with endless consumerism. Perhaps now the harsh realities of life will kick in. And it's so much easier to make music now. But just because you've made something in your bedroom on your laptop doesn't mean it's good. There needs to a band amnesty where they hand their instruments and their computers it to the police and stop polluting the fucking country with this dreadful, average, mediocre, amateur music.
What do you make of the 21st century so far?
NW: It's totally unrecognisable to the world Richey left. It's cataclysmic change. The internet is the grandest illusion ever created. It makes people think they're really informed, they're really popular, they have loads of friends, they're part of a community. And they actually have a voice. They don't actually realise that like all of us, they're completely fucked and powerless. That was always our starting point as a band: "You are fucked." "I am fucked." It is delusory, it can create unbelievable misconceptions of the self... it's all about self-ish, how popular you can be. We grew up thinking we should be unpopular and people should dislike us! One of the raisons d'être of being in a band was to be an alternative. There are still good bands out there, like Crystal Castles, but there's no integrity and tons of fake intellectuality. Fucking Alex Kapranos. And if people look up to Brian Eno as an intellectual God, we are in trouble. He made Coldplay sound like Enya! But I've got a grudging admiration for Coldplay, to be honest. Because they made the effort. To sew some clothes together and look like the French Revolution. I always admire that credo.
Do you have a favourite Manics T shirt? Mine is "All rock'n'roll is homosexual".
NW: I liked "Who's responsible?" on the front; "You fucking are" on the back. [Cackles head off]
Are there 21st-century things you love?
NW: TV is now the superior art-form. Films, I've got no interest in. I despise the cinema experience, giant bottles of fucking Coke and popcorn and yakkety-yakking fucking people. There's no film in the last 20 years that gets close to the great comedy we've had, be it The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Nathan Barley... The Rise Of The Idiots was pure genius. BBC4, brilliant. Sometimes [waves at TV screen in suite] that is my world. That's all I need.
Is your TV set-up at home fabulous?
NW: It's not over-the-top. A Bang & Olufsen, built-in DVD, no clutter involved and it's blocked off from the kids. I hate digital flat-screen TVs. This one's got a small back and it hides everything so you can't see any leads. It's my pride and joy. I polish it every night and that's no lie. Cos I do have a clean up every night in the house before I go to bed. I don't hoover or I'll wake the kids up.
So polishing is the new hoovering?
NW: Yeah. My wife does the hoovering in the mornings because she gets up early and likes to get there first. I will have a sneaky one when she's out, though. On the carpet on the stairs.
Have you ever felt you needed to see a professional about your OCD tendencies?
NW: No, but it's a funny thing, talking about that. When The Holy Bible came out, we were due to go on tour in America [on the day Edwards went missing] and whenever we go on tour the suitcase is packed, the outfits, the make-up, all laid out, at least two weeks before. But for that tour I never felt like we were going. I really didn't. Not because I felt Richey was gonna go missing, but it never seemed like a reality to me. I never got my suitcase ready.
A subconscious instinct?
NW: Yeah. And I don't think I wanted to go. It was post the [London] Astoria shows [their final three shows as a four-piece, in December 1994]. I think when we walked offstage the last time, when we really trashed everything, there was a sense of finality. We weren't rich, we trashed 26 grand of equipment and lights after a miserable year. If there is any kind of catharsis, it was that night, actually. Of trashing your band. Proper "end of" scenario.
Did you ever imagine this could happen to Richey when you were actual kids?
NW: Probably. When we were young kids playing football, no, but a soon as we got in a band. I've got millions of regrets, the things I've said and all that crap, but there's not many regrets as a band. But I do really, really, really, really, really regret that he wasn't around when we were on the Brit Awards or playing to 66,000 people on Millennium night in Cardiff. Just for him to see that scale. Cos we all wanted to be fucking gigantic. I remember picking up the Brit Awards when we did A Design For Life and thinking, "There's 10 million people watching this on telly" and what would he have done? Would he have set himself alight on stage? If he could carve "4 Real" into his arm in front of 14 people? In Norwich? Imagine! Some brilliant art statement. Blank and Situationist and cryptically cutting. At the Millennium Stadium James sang Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky and 66,000 people, couples, blokes, were singing [sings] "Harvest your ovaries/Dead mothers crawl!" That is phenomenal, that is fucking subversion. He was a true original. A true star. And this album is like a tombstone. No, an obelisk.
* * * * * * * * * *
The following week, when we meet again at the shoot, Wire says he wants to send me "a list". Some things, he feels, he "didn't articulate as well as I wanted to". And so, 17 years after Richey Edwards's handwritten reading list was lost, Wire's own handwritten list arrives in the post, on the beautiful, pink-edged stationery from the Langham Hotel.
Tucked inside the envelope he's included a printed quote from George Bernard Shaw: "A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing." The list is on both sides of one piece of paper and four Tippexed corrections throughout 14 numbered and underlined statements in large, clear handwriting, statements which include: "With this record we feel utterly disconnected from everything apart from ourselves, our music and our history", "A blank page of paper and a pen is the greatest invention - it's so exciting to be confronted by possibility", "I love the BBC and all it stands for - but I resent paying my licence fee to subsidise U2's album campaign", "The sensitivity involved with 'Journal For Plague Lovers' is crushing and inescapable. I hope we have done his words justice."
In the top left-hand corner, he's placed three stickers in a neat rectangular shape: a disembodied hand holding a black fountain pen, Andy Warhol's signature and perhaps, for him, the most significant Warhol quote of them all: "I never think that people die. They just go to department stores."
[Originally published: Q, June 2009]