Only a few weeks out of hospital, and Richey James is back on a stage, scarred, skinny, bloodshot, but still beautiful. It's a dangerous move, but it does mean that the reunited Manic Street Preachers are, once again, the most vital live band on earth. A feverish and emotional Caitlin Moran forays into deepest France to report.
And, when I get home, I have fever. Ill when I went out, ill when I came back. Things stay in my head - circling endlessly, certain events playing themselves out over and over again: and I try to understand them. Comparing the lyrics to the interviews to the photographs to the stage performance to the actions to the man...
The corridor is deserted. In the far distance, a soundcheck has just finished, and it takes a while for the echoes to finally seep away. Silence returns unwillingly; broken by a member of the crew shouting "F***" in the toilets, over and over again, to amuse themselves. A stereo somewhere kicks in too, too far away to make out anything but the vocals and the bass. It sounds like someone has stolen or mislaid the rest of the music. Richey suddenly appears, and passes by; tiny white-faced shadow with huge, huge Bambi eyes; framed and half-hidden by a large cowl-like hood. The moon shines fat and bright, like a plate - and in the darkness of Richey's eyes, a seed-pearl reflection quietly glimmers. His T-shirt says "Fairy".
"Everyone's got a corner of their hart you can't quite understand" - James.
In the dressing room, sitting on one of those chairs they have in the canteens at school, nose ringed with blood after playing Equipment Golf with his guitar and a bank of monitors, Richey is unfailingly courteous, as always. He sips water, chats with friends, makes jokes. His eyes are bruised with lack of sleep - a delicate tracery of red and soft purple smudges. He still looks beautiful.
"I also had nightmares. Somehow all the feelings I didn't feel when each things had actually happened to me I did feel when I slept" - Andrea Dworkin, quoted on Richey's set list. And, onstage, he simultaneously embodies and supersedes the role of rockstar; his interpretation is definitive, brilliantly observed, played out in full and heart-felt and, in having studied his subject so well, he a) becomes a Master in Iconography - and therefore an icon himself - and b) proves the whole art form redundant; he highlights the weaknesses in a career which will be, in the end, a couple of gold discs on the wall and a clutch of laminates slung around the bedroom door-knob. As Taylor Parkes said in his Glastonbury review, "The Manics triumph is that, where they could have been the full stop at the end of rock'n'roll, they chose to be its question mark." Richey embodies rockstar and rockstar values so well that he makes the notion of rockstar obsolete. The Manics have appropriated every extreme, and every music industry touchstone as their own - smalltown rage; ridiculously self-aggrandising claims; sloganeering; trashed beauty; alcoholism; lipstick boas; breakdowns; anthems ... these are out of circulation, now. No other band will be able to use them again. The Manics have made rock and roll their own. And it's in question whether they want it or not.
"... Ultimate nihilistic love ..." - Tennessee.
And so as a support band for Therapy? (James: "We lost all pretence of humility a long time ago. We know what our stature is"), they come onstage to an audience born to mosh (repeatedly punching each other in the back of the head is optional) and stick PCP, Faster and Revol in the back of the net before you get a chance to think, "I'd really like to hear that line about Stalin being a bisexual epoch." The audience most, and repeatedly punch each other in the back of the head. Contrary to popular opinion you can hear Richey's guitar, and it does make a difference - the sound is fuller, fatter and denser than Reading. And contrary to, like, absolutely no opinion at all, Sean is a brilliant drummer - I realise this half-way through Intense Humming of Evil. Unfortunately, this follows the hat trick of the opening, and the audience realises that this is the Slow Meaningful One, and stand around bewildered. It's a shock to watch a Manics' gig where the audience don't know every single word; where the boys look like boys, and not some glitter fantasy from the mind of an arcadian pop-fantasist; as usual. Half the audience is reclaimed for Yes - listening to it prompts wonderment at why James and Sean chose a relatively up-beat melody and arrangement for the lyrics Richey provided; it's reminiscent of the way Nicky and James make nervous jokes about Richey's recent actions, twitchily calling him "a nutter" to defuse difficult interview situations, and lead the questioning away from such a delicate subject. They throw in a two-minute version of Motown Junk, which is too punky for the audience (only rockrockdirtybastardrock music will do, apparently) and too brilliant for me - I start crying fever-tears.
I apologise for mentioning myself so much during this interview, as I generally believe all that 'Imemine' shit takes up valuable space where the words "brilliant", "dolphin" and "f***" could be more usefully employed - but I can't really theorise or externalise about the Manics any more; I can only relate to them internally - can only trust the hairs on the back of my neck, the electric-lacing feeling across my skin, and the wild desire to smoke cigarettes cooly while jumping up and down like Shampoo on hotel beds. For all the Manics' fierce intelligence, verbose media whorism, and grasp of pop-theory (externalisation, essentially) they're still one of the most instinctive, internal bands. We don't just love them for their minds - we love them because they quicken the blood and heat it until the finger-tips feel like they're going to explode.
And so, during Repeat, the Controversy Alarm goes off in The Wire's head, and he grabs the microphone, reeling off a list of prominent French politicians which ends with "Jean Marie Le Pen, Francois Mitterand - all scum. All f***ing fascist SCUM". He then give the audience the microphone stand, which prompts six roadies to dive into the crowd and thereby stopping the audience from using it like a battering ram on the heads of the people in front. Repeat turns into You Love Us, at which point the audience, who have been ungrateful swine so far, decide they really do love the Manics, and all of Hell breaks loose and runs around the venue shouting "Look at me! I'm Hades!" Richey slowly takes his guitar off - and, with time running in slo-mo, takes the most graceful of swoops at the monitors with it, bounces it off the floor, and leaves the stage. The crowd replicates a Haitian food-riot and bellows, "Man-eeks! Man-eeks!" Finally justice has been done. So, the news. Apparently, Richey feels his recent actions affronted himself, and let the band down badly, and is being super-disciplined with himself now. "He's wanted to cut himself on this tour," James says, wincing, "but he hasn't. And that's a first." Richey looks well - very well - and, more than that, beautiful; and seems reasonably happy. Things are stabilising.
The tour - apparently, the French are going a bundle on les "Man-eeks" and when they tour with Suede (true, and vaguely bizarre) in November, the whole country will start walking around with shirts that say, "Destroy All British Livestock" - sorry, "Destroy All Work". And the forecast - magnificent, bloodied, unrelenting, walks-with-kings, and more necessary than ever.
Looking good, with occasional outbreaks of stormy weather.