When someone vanishes without a trace, you're concerned. When that person has lived to explore the myriad horrors of the 20th century, and become an icon of alienation in turn... concern is hardly enough. Gina Morris looks at Richey James Edwards' bleak journey from Blackwood to the Severn Bridge.
1988: Richey Edwards is 22, and he weighs just under six stone.
In his third year studying Political History at the University of Wales in Cardiff, he's diligently revising for his finals, but he's having difficulty sleeping. It's important to rest properly, but there's so much noise at night that he just lies in bed waiting for unconsciousness. So he starts drinking vodka, just to get to sleep at the right time, to be in control. Progressively, he begins to drink a lot and eat very little. But when the exams start, alcohol no longer provides enough control for him.
One day, poring over his revision, he reaches across the desk for a compass. He digs the point into his arm and draws it slowly across the flesh in a series of straight lines. A lot of other people at university have cut themselves like this. But it's to be the first time Richey's friend James Dean Bradfield has ever seen him wilfully injure himself.
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In the past four years, the Manic Street Preachers have burned themselves into the popular imagination in a way that, once, no one would have thought possible. When they arrived in kohl, blouses and a welter of contradictory sloganeering, they were laughed at, widely detested and, frankly, not very good. Now, after three scabrously brilliant LPs and a decade's worth of trauma, they're held in genuine affection and respect, and their following is as fanatical as The Smiths' ever was.
The Manics' achievement has been to take the boiling stew of rage, hatred and alienation that we usually suppress and dismiss as adolescent angst, and make it as relevant to an older audience as it is to a teenager. Listen to 'Motorcycle Emptiness' or the later, more sophisticated songs like 'Faster', and you'll feel that resentment rising again. Other bands allude to modern culture's bankruptcy and corruption: the Manics confront it squarely, time and again, and their moral revulsion has never faltered.
Much of this is down to the ideological wing of the band, Nicky Wire, and ever more dominantly, Richey James. Being an angry pop band is not all that difficult - all you need is a guitar and a sneer - but there's little mileage in "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me". What the Manics managed, in their transition from the comical soundbite Rude Kids of 'Suicide Alley' to the sophisticated nihilists of 'The Holy Bible, was to stay intellectually angry without lapsing into pretentiousness or sermonising.
Richey was once lampooned as a kind of blouse-wearing Bez. But by the time of 'The Holy Bible' he was unquestionably the band's lynchpin, and James Dean Bradfield once said that "If it ever comes to the point where Richey's not coming back, we won't continue." His words became less song lyrics than fight-them-to-the-last-paragraph ideological battles, both at odds with Sean and James' anthems, and exactly what made the Manic Street Preachers so important.
But Richey's ever desperate struggle with the world outside involved him in an internal arms race that, even with his arsenal of literary weaponry, it seems he could never win. On February 1 this year, on the eve of a promotional American tour, Richey disappeared without a trace.
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Richard James Edwards was born on December 22, 1966 in Gwent, South Wales. He had a happy childhood no different from that of thousands of other kids all over the country. He was brought up by his grandmother and his parents - in the bungelow at the foot of a steep cul-de-sac in Blackwood where they still live. They treated him well. He had a dog he christened Snoopy. He went to school, came home and football in the fields. He went to chapel on Sundays. "A lot of people," he said later, "had terrible childhoods, but up to the age of 13 I was ecstatically happy."
Even so, from an early age Richey believed that everything that happened to him was part of a wider pattern. Maybe he thought about things too much... even at infants school, if something happened to him he'd be convinced everyone was against him. And as he grew older, he became a shy, private youth with very low self-esteem. He kept himself to himself. He didn't feel he had the right to intrude on anyone else, and didn't think anyone should necessarily want to listen to him. By the time he started Oakdale Comprehensive at the age of eleven, the blissfully content child was already withdrawing.
As Richey approached adolescence, he became an insatiable learner with a huge appetite for knowledge, particularly of history and politics, At 14, he was fascinated with the IRA hunger strikers in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison, who refused to eat as they protested for political status. Later, he said that he felt Bobby Sands, who finally starved to death on May 5, 1981, made "a better statement than anything else that was going on at the time, because it was against himself."
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Blackwood is one of those small towns you could easily drive all the way through from one side to the other without really noticing it. Richey, James, Nicky Jones, and Sean Moore, who had all met at primary school, were in their early teens as the once-thriving pit town went into terminal decline along with the rest of the mining industry. The locals found work on three-month contracts at the Aiwa and Pot Noodle factories, and filled their leisure time with a brutalising regime of lager and after-hours brawls.
Alienated by the dead-end culture around them, the four boys became ever closer friends. Yearning for the excitement and inspiration of the world outside, they became a gang who would hang out in James' bedroom, obsessing about pop music. While other kids spent their nights in pubs, the foursome spent all their time together, drinking tea, reading William Burroughs and Hunter Thompson, watching telly, devouring the music press and writing to almost everyone associated with the music business.
No one making records at the time could sum up how they felt about life. No one could articulate the bitterness and rage Richey felt. He wanted a band that sang about politics, that sang about a culture that said nothing, a culture that made him feel like a nobody, treated him like shit. Inspired by the ten years of punk celebrations of 1986, James, Nicky and Sean formed a band of their own, including one Flicker in their line-up. In the meantime, Richey had begun his University course in Cardiff. He had started drinking and had become increasingly burdened by his lack of self-worth and feelings of isolation and paranoia. He'd got three As in his A-levels, but he didn't think they were as good as other people's As; other people would look at him as if their As were better. He'd always set himself ridiculously impossible targets, expecting to fail.
He left University in 1988 with a 2:1 in Political History. Convinced that his decision to cut himself and not eat very much had paid off.
"I found I was really good during the day. I slept, felt good about myself, I could do all my exams. I got a 2:1 so I wasn't a 100 per cent success, but I got through it. I did it."
In 1989, Richey replaced Flicker - because he was good-looking and had a smart guitar - as rhythm guitarist in the Manic Street Preachers.
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In August 1989, the band had pooled their giros and put out 300 7-inch singles of 'Suicide Alley'. They sold some through classified ads and sent the rest to bands, journalists, promoters, agents and record companies. At a gig in the small backroom of The Horse & Groom pub in central London in 1990, playing to about 30 people, they met Ian Ballard - the one man operation known as Damaged Goods Records - and agreed to record a one-off single, 'New Art Riot'.
Ballard was surprised at how informed Richey was: "He must have read books from day one while the rest of us were watching telly. He's very intelligent, I think he finds it difficult talking to people who aren't similarly educated. He'd sit there quoting things and I'd be nodding, thinking, I don't know what you're talking about."
It wasn't until 1991 that the Manics really came to public attention, releasing the singles 'Motown Junk' and 'You Love Us' on Heavenly Records. At this time they were befriended by Philip Hall, a devoted London PR who then became the band's manager. Not only did Hall understand what they were trying to do, but he believed in them enough to virtually finance them before they got a deal, lending them £45,000. He invited them all to stay in his home. Along with Philip's wife Terri, the six of them lived together for almost a year. Every day, while Philip was out at work, they set about cleaning his house. At six o'clock every evening, the Manics would gather in the kitchen to prepare his tea. As scary, destructive and rock 'n' roll as they appeared in public - with their protestations about hating Slowdive more than Hitler and spraypainting senseless Situationist slogans on their clothes - in private they were immensely charming and polite. Philip liked to say they were sweet.
In May, the band signed to Sony. They had their first music paper cover, and, with their make-up and slogans, quickly became a deeply contentious prospect. Misunderstood by people who refused to accept that their ideas were genuine, they were seen as a cartoon Clash espousing early learning punk rhetoric. This both hurt and deeply affected Richey.
"The difference between me and Richey," Nicky Wire said last year, "is he always wanted to be understood and I prefer to be misunderstood. I don't feel the need for people to love and respect me. Richey really did. He couldn't take strength from the fact people didn't like him."
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Richey had now taken to cutting himself frequently. In the evenings as they sat around Philip and Terri's living room watching TV, he would distractedly carve away at his arms. Often, someone would cough and nod at him to stop and he'd apologise. But it had become a habit. He subconsciously drew blood in the same way others would chew their nails.
But it was four days after the band signed their major label deal - on May 15, 1991, backstage at a gig at the Newport Arts Centre - that Richey's tendency towards self-mutilation became graphically public. An interview with Steve Lamacq, then of the NME, developed into a passionate argument. Lamacq expressed concern that the Manics' cartoon image would drag them down. He concluded by saying that "some people might regard you as just not for real".
After the interview, Richey asked Steve if he had a minute and they stood talking at the side of the stage. During their conversation Richey picked up a razor-blade and, as he talked, began, slowly and deliberately, to carve something into his arm. Lamacq was dumbfounded. He couldn't believe what he was seeing: the words 4 REAL appearing in striated red slashes across Richey's skin. Lamacq was so shocked that the idea of trying to stop Richey didn't even occur to him.
"He was so calm, absolutely calm, and didn't look in any pain whatsoever. One of the things that was so strange and frightening about it was that he was so calm. You didn't even feel like he was making a point. He could almost have been writing it in biro."
Afterwards, in the casualty department of Norwich General Hospital, Richey insisted that all the patients with accidental injuries be seen before him, anxious not to waste National Health time on a self-inflicted wound.
The following morning, Richey rang up Steve to apologise for any distress he may have caused him.
"It never occurred to me he may be fucked up," says Richard Lowe, who interviewed Richey for Select shortly after the incident. "He seemed really level-headed. But running through the Manics was this 'life is futile, life is crap' idea. He really believes that. Everything for him is sad, he's not a happy-go-lucky person. He takes everything seriously, not just music. That's his problem. He feels personally burdened by everything horrible in the world. It upsets him and hurts him. That's the sort of person he is."
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The 4 REAL incident was a clear demonstration of just how much the Manics in general and Richey in particular, meant what they said. Other bands would have just punched a journalist they disagreed with; Richey had a more effective means of emphasis. In the same way that he felt cutting himself had helped him through his degree, 17 stitches had proved his point. In his already unstable mindset, negative actions had positive effects. He felt vindicated.
"I never shout at anybody," he said later. "So if I cut myself or stub a cigarette out on my arm, to me it's a release.
"If somebody pushes me or punches me when I'm out in Cardiff, that hurts me more than having a couple of stitches in my arm. That's someone taking their frustration out on me, if I have a fair deal of contempt for humanity it's because it's never honest with itself. I'm weak.
"All my life I've felt weak compared to other people. If they want to crush me then they can. But I know I can do things that other people can't."
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The recording of the Manics' first and, according to their original manifesto, supposedly last album 'Generations Terrorists', was enormously stressful. In the studio Richey indulged in every kind of abuse. He cried a lot. And although he seemed able to sort himself out again quite easily, James was more worried about him than he had ever been before. It became common knowledge around this time that Richey had told James that if the band ever split up, he would have nothing left. The band continued. The LP was released in February 1992. Richey was rumoured not to have played a single note on it. The rest of the year they spent touring, including their first American dates. By December they were back in Britain in time for Nicky Wire's bizarre comments about Michael Stipe, onstage at their show at Kilburn National.
When they returned at the start of 1993, they began recording 'Gold Against the Soul': some of it in a £2,000 a day studio in Surrey, complete with snooker tables and a swimming pool, the rest in the red light district in Cardiff. It was then that James, Nicky and Sean first realised Richey was having real problems. He was drinking increasingly more and his moods were at a constant low.
Andrew Collins (then Select features editor) who met Richey in the studio says: "Drink was his only recourse. It probably would have done him some good to have taken drugs. He never wanted to take E, hated the idea of it, he never wanted to take a drug that made him happy. He couldn't imagine anything worse than a drug that made everybody happy - he didn't think there was anything good in everybody being happy and thinking everyone was OK. He preferred the traditional route of drinking to dull the pain."
Not being the sort of person you could tell to just stop drinking, the band sent him to a health farm. Twice. They practically forced him both times. He came out recuperated. But, once separated from the daily routine, he soon deteriorated.
In December Philip Hall died of cancer. The band were shattered. The death of their manager, mentor and friend seemed to signify the start of their worst year ever. It made them realise, James said, that "things were coming to a head."
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In 1994, Richey Edwards finally moved out of his parents' home. He was 27. He saw a flat, liked it and bought it the next day. For the first few months of the year, Richey was smoking 40 cigarettes and drinking a bottle and a half of vodka a day. Everything he already ever was, felt and feared had massively intensified. The problems he experienced getting to sleep at university had escalated, he was now actually scared to go to sleep, things got into his head he didn't like. He'd tried sleeping pills but didn't like them either, and so he achieved what he described as a "blank sleep" from turning once again to alcohol.
In April they toured Bangkok, where Richey's second public display of self-mutilation occurred. He had been given a set of knives by a fan at a gig, who asked him to look at her when he cut himself. Horrified, he told her: "I'm not going to be anyone's circus sideshow freak." Even so, he took the knives backstage and proceeded to slash a series of lines across his torso, before walking onstage.
He spent the night walking around the seediest parts of the city, alone. He went to a massage parlour and paid for a hand-job. "I'm not a very sexual person," he said later. "I don't need the physical closeness of a relationship and I'm afraid of the pain that goes with it, to be honest. Sleeping with someone, for me, is a change from wanking."
Richey had never been in a relationship. His idea of a sexual act was cutting himself. He's admitted to having slept with groupies, but insisted he'd only felt dirty afterwards. But his lack of interest in a relationship went much deeper than merely not enjoying physical closeness. "Some can divide themselves and give something of themselves to another person. I've never been to do that because I've never trusted another person enough to do it. I don't feel strong enough to cope with the rejection if they left me."
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By August, 'The Holy Bible' was about to hit the shops. Their third album, it was unmistakeably Richey's. Sweeping away the shiny big rock sound of 'Gold Against the Soul' in a squalling punk howl, it was a terrifying black hole of shrieking misery, a vision of the world almost too bleak to bear: anorexia, the Holocaust, totalitarianism; songs like 'Die In The Summertime' and 'She Is Suffering'. Since the band started Richey had been writing more and more of the lyrics, and for the seething horrors of 'The Holy Bible' he'd written three-quarters of the words.
In the weeks immediately before the LP's release, he told his management he needed psychiatric help. He was suffering from nervous exhaustion and clinical depression. He was intensely irritable. After the previous health farm attempts, James admitted he never really thought it would go this far, that it just all went off, very unexpectedly. "There's a trigger in him that he can't control. He has a mental illness. It's not schizophrenia or anything like that, he's mentally ill. Manic depression."
The decision to seek help was Richey's. He knew his mind wasn't functioning well and that his mind was stronger than his body: he was subjecting his mind to things his body couldn't cope with. He knew he was ill. Before, he had always felt he could handle his own problems. Now, for the first time, he was scared.
On the verge of anorexia, he went to a Cardiff hospital. There, he was drugged on Prozac to the point where he couldn't even talk. This was no good. After eight days, Martin Hall, who took over management of the band after his brother's Philip's death, discharged Richey and took him to a private clinic The Priory in Roehampton.
In the following months, the Manics played Glasgow's T In The Park festival and Reading without Richey. Tracing his friend's life over the preceding four years, Nicky Wire concluded that he'd been "walking the artistic abyss and he just fell in". Anorexia, he thought, was the ultimate act of self-control, a kind of suicide where you don't have to die. He had faith enough in Richey's sense of humour and humility to suggest that when he re-emerges he'd probably quip "I'd rather be mad than a moron." When Richey did re-emerge three months later, looking relatively healthy, he was apparently functioning normally: or, at least, as normally as he ever had.
He'd been prescribed Prozac to combat his long-term depression. He agreed to do interviews and spoke candidly about his experiences in an institution, on a 12-Step Recovery Plan. He talked positively about the upcoming dates in France with Therapy?, knowing he could use them to ease himself back into the road and playing live.
He'd been out of the clinic one week and seemed to be making good progress. Only Step Three had been causing problems: 'Reconcile yourself to a god of your understanding.' Richey regarded other people's choice of icon - friends, relatives, cats, dogs - as nonsensical. Surely their gods would one day die, something gods just aren't supposed to do. Nature seemed a good idea for a while, until he remembered how cruel nature can be. Never mind. He had no other obvious choices, but he'd figure it out sooner or later.
At the time, Richey called himself a melodramatic drama queen. He couldn't help the way he acted. In anything literary he'd always identified with the victim. Although he talked like someone fresh from a programme, he did his best to think positively. But when he took off his parka, there along with the mottling of scar tissue from old cigarette burns, gashes and deep cuts, there were other, redder marks. They were the new ones.
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Richey Edwards disappeared at 7am on February 1 from the Embassy Hotel, West London, on the same day he and James Bradfield were due to leave for America on a promotional tour. In the wake of the success of their three albums, along with current British successes Radiohead and Blur, the trip almost certainly would have broken them in the States, making them one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Bradfield's stadium power chords, with Richey's poetic lyrics of despair and self-loathing, would have reached an entirely new and considerably wider group of people. Part of the baffling tragedy of his disappearance was that it happened on the verge of his band becoming just what he'd always wanted; a band who could articulate his bitterness and rage to a huge audience.
Early in January Richey shaved off all his hair after Snoopy, his dog of 17 years, died. A severe reaction for someone who made "all is vanity" his favourite epithet, lied about his age and periodically stopped eating in an attempt not to look fat or blotchy from alcohol abuse. At the same time as he shaved his head, he threw 80 per cent of his notebooks - filled with his lyrics in scribbled note form - into the river outside his house. Those which he deemed good enough to keep, he bundled up and handed to Nicky. A few days later, he disappeared.
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The story of Richey James Edwards is much more than the tale of another tragic rock star. Richey is not a rock 'n' roll burnout, someone who fried themselves on a cocktail of drugs, publicity and international travel. His is a darker story of something that has perhaps been waiting to happen to him for years. The grim possibility is that what made him such a brilliant artist, and the Manics' records so unique, is precisely the same thing that drove him over the edge.
Even the rest of the band, his closest friends for most of his life, seem not to know. At the end of 1994, on the European leg of the Manics/Suede tour, the normally taciturn Sean Moore sat at a bar in an Amsterdam night club. Appalled at how people regarded Richey's illness, he offered his own opinion. "No one knows anything about Richey, perhaps not even us. No one knows anything about what's happened with him this year - it was serious total depression. And you don't know anything about that until it happens in your own head, do you?"
"Repeat after me...Fuck Queen and country." Manics lyrics have always been brutal, vitriolic and sometimes utterly impenetrable. Stuart Maconie looks for sense amid the chaos.
A couple of autumns ago, a music paper ran its usual student pull-out. With its "gosh, aren't we potty! We stayed up till half past one last night" larkiness it made for depressing reading. But among the articles on buying marijuana in Middlesbrough and advise from Swervedriver on how to live on cider and Pot Noddles, Richey James' contribution stood out like a beacon of righteous self-belief. No, he didn't think university was one long party. It was a brilliant opportunity to improve oneself. There were huge libraries, repositories of the most profound thought of a hundred generations, not normally available to the children of the working-classes. That's where students should spend their time, not at some indie disco. The scorn was genuinely withering.
Such conviction has always characterised the Manics. It runs through every word of every song. Their lyrics are always credited to Richey and Nicky, though Richey has recently taken on the lion's share of the writing. When they emerged, their linguistic bent was one of their most noticeable characteristics. Their clothes were daubed with disjointed slogans that defied explanation but set an agenda for the group "Spectators of suicide" "Useless generation" etc.
With 'Generation Terrorists', it became obvious that the words "moon" were rarely going to be seen in conjunction with "June" in a Manics lyric. Instead, like Xeroxed telegrams from someone uniquely pissed off with the world, they spewed out bile and invective: "We blur into images of state coercion/classified machines die misunderstood."
Mostly the lyrics were scathing about society and bore the hallmarks of the Situationists, alluding to their concept of spectacle, of how we are forced to observe rather than participate in life. Organised politics is one of the worst forms of spectacle, and the Manics lyrics openly despised it. "Parliament's a fake life saver" ('You Love Us'); "Democracy is an empty lie" ('Spectators of Suicide').
Sometimes the message is unequivocal: "Repeat after me, fuck queen and country" is hardly likely to have its ambiguities pored over on Late Review. Sometimes conspiracy theories are at work. 'Another Invented Disease' seems to be saying that AIDS and drug addiction are created by governments as a means of social control.
Some are just impossible to fathom. What does "review with avant-garde lips, motherfucker" ('Condemned To Rock And Roll') mean? Why is EST, a form of self-help therapy, mentioned in 'You Love Us'? What have the big clearing banks done to goad Richey into the hilarious 'NatWest Barclays Midland Lloyds'? Here was the rub. Manics lyrics owed nothing to any past lyricist. This made them striking enough, but they had none of the slangy swing of your traditional rock lyric, a situation compounded by the fact that the singer didn't write the lyrics. You got the impression that they often hadn't even been tried out in the mouth. Listen to the way James Bradfield has to stretch out "disease" to make it scan...
They were the kind of lyrics that got you noticed. No jokes, a selection of words - like "itemise" "feudal" "nihilistic" "epiphany" - that surely had never appeared in a rock lyric before, and subject matters like consumerism, fiscal corruption and the decline of the American Indian that were not often found on a Paris Angels record. One such subject was the objectification and abuse of women, sung by porn starlet Traci Lords in 'Little Baby Nothing'. So distinctive were they, that parodying their style - "15 To One is economic deathcamp/Quiz show Nazi in Armani belltent" - became as popular a pub game among music writers as inventing Fall titles.
'Gold Against The Soul' had the same quotient of obliqueness. "I am the raping sunglass gaze of sweating man and escort agencies" begins 'Nostalgic Pushead', but there was also a tendency toward unsentimental introspection. 'Yourself' dissects everyday life: "Your ritual everyday/a mild shower soak in aftershave best clothes do your best/look in the mirror go on/belittle yourself."
On 'Life Becoming A Landslide' there is more identification with women and the revealing line "I don't wanna be a man". But nothing on either of the first two LPs prepared the listener for 'The Holy Bible'. Brilliant, but bleak and harrowing, even James Bradfield remarked that it was not a record you would play very often. 'The Holy Bible' presents a world without hope. 'Of Walking Abortion' takes a line from Valerie Solanas' man-hating manifesto and applies it to a morally, spiritually bankrupt human race through revealing juxtapositions: "Mussolini hangs from a butcher's hook" while someone washes the car in his X baseball shoes. 'Archives Of Pain' recommends the slaughter of murderers on moral and socially therapeutic grounds. 'Mausoleum' and 'The Intense Humming Of Evil', present the Holocaust as a parable of human sickness. These songs can ruin anyone's day. But the best lyric here, probably the best Manics lyric to date, is '4st 7lb' - a despairing voyage into the world of an anorexic that captures the contradictory delight and disgust in the bodily state: "Days since I last pissed... so gorgeous sunk to six stone... I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint." Critics had always mocked the stencilled sloganeer aspect of their work, but this is something else. It ends tellingly with a line beginning "Such beautiful dignity in self-abuse".
It was once doubted whether Richey was for real. This is more sincerity then anyone could have wanted.
[Originally published: Select, May 1995]