Return to Memorial Hall stirs memories for rock star.
Manic Street Preachers' James Dean Bradfield helped open part of the newly-refurbished Newbridge Memorial Hall yesterday and revealed the huge role the historic Valleys landmark had played in his own life.
The Blackwood singer was on hand to open the library in the Grade II-listed venue's revamped Institute building, the completion of which represents the end of phase one in a £5.6m Lottery-funded project dedicated to restoring it to its former glory.
The Memo, as it's known locally, was originally built using contributions from the town's miners in 1924 to commemorate those in the local community who gave their lives in World War One, a fact that resonates greatly with Bradfield.
"The thing that strikes you most about this place is that it stands for an entire generation of people that will never be topped," said the 44-year-old rocker, who unveiled a plaque dedicated to the late Elizabeth Bronwen James, a local author who was a regular donor and patron.
"It was a community which had been forged from a really hard and dangerous industry, but one which had heart, soul and imagination too. And what they lost in the war - fathers, sons, brothers - was just as great.
"So it's good to see how people like Howard Stone, the chair of the Memo's trustees, and Lord (Don) Touhig have worked tirelessly to get the project off the ground.
"What I really hope now is that everyone makes good use of the building and defines it, just as the Memo defined their ancestors. To see it returned to them is very satisfying."
And Bradfield also revealed what the venue had meant to him growing up.
"It was 1986 when I first stepped through these doors - I remember coming to see a blues band called Red Beans and Rice," he laughed.
"It wasn't long after that I was offered a job here as a barman. I must have been about 17 and it was the first proper paid work I'd ever done aside from the paper round I'd had as a kid.
"I was probably a bit too young to be pulling pints but I take my hart off to them for being the only ones in the whole borough of Islwyn brave enough to employ me.
"Let's just say my demeanour back then didn't exactly inspire others to want to hire me."
The Manics' frontman - who, along with his bandmates, became official patrons of the Memo a few years ago - added that those rough and tumble teenage years went a long way to shaping his later stage performances.
"This place was a real chamber of humanity and full of joy, but it had an earthier side too. Sunday night would be blues night and the place would be rammed with rugby boys and guys from the local chapter of the Hell's Angels - it was quite an education," smiled Bradfield, "The promise of violence was always in the air, and I suppose that went some way to formulating the Manics' onstage behaviour.
"There'd be a similar vibe in our early audiences and we'd feed off it - it was something I'd learned from being at the Memo and it made us play better and become a stronger band."
He even got to experience it as a performer when he returned to play a concert there in 2006, shortly after he released his solo album The Great Western.
"It brought back a lot of memories, like the time I accidentally got locked in the art deco cinema upstairs - I'd gone up there to eat a Chinese takeaway one night after my shift, but didn't get out until the following morning.
"No heating, no electricity and in the middle of winter - I nearly froze," he laughed, adding that he planned to keep close links with the building as the second phase of redevelopment continues later this year.
"If there's space here for a recording studio for local musicians then we'll supply the equipment - I'd also like us to do a concert here and donate all the takings," he said. "It'd be nice to think young kids might come here one day to see us perform and feel the same inspiration I did when I was their age."