Richey Edwards is the only guitar hero revered more for his brains than his power chords. Over the next six pages, NME celebrates our countless run-ins with the troubled star, considers his influence on Pete Doherty's generation, unearths one of his last ever interviews and muses on his disappearance with Manic Street Preachers bandmate Nicky Wire.
It's still one of the most astonishing rock 'n' roll statements ever made. There he is, a little punky guy from Wales, talking to a sceptical music journalist. He pulls out a razorblade and, while he's explaining the sincerity of his art, he starts carving a mission statement into his forearm. The first slash goes the deepest, almost chopping an artery. But he goes on, until the legend '4 REAL' is revealed, raw and concise.
His name is Richey Edwards, sometime van driver for the Manic Street Preachers, now - in 1991 - one of the band's chief songwriters and media shakers. For the past two years, he's been writing long, impassioned letters to NME writers, to other bands, to fansizes and managers, willing his band to rise out of the isolation of Blackwood, South Wales. For the most part, he's been successful. But he sometimes meets people who question the band's intent.
Steve Lamacq, then an NME writer, cares for the ideals of punk rock, and doesn't want to see them abused. So on May 15, 1991, he travels up to Norwich Arts Centre, where he sees the Manics play, and he talks to them afterwards. Richey can't convince Steve, so the razorblade appears. There's blood all over the carpet, while his shirt, emblazoned with the slogan, 'Spectators Of Suicide', is a write-off. Understandably, there's panic afterwards, but Richey still has time for some NME photos, removing the bandages to show all the damage. His arm looks bad, but it's the eyes that really shock. He's rushing on pain and his body's endorphins. He's out of it.
Their tour dates are affected, but they still make it to the Marquee in London. By then, the Norwich photos have appeared in NME and many more people are curious. According to reliable rumour, Richey will use this opportunity to kill himself onstage. Really. We're watching him and his bandaged arm, realising that anything could go off. But instead of onstage suicide, the band play a song called 'You Love Us', which finds them effortlessly mocking the boring old ceremony of rock 'n' roll. It's hilarious and arrogant and postmodern and it rocks.
From then on, Richey is unmissable. His words and actions are always fascinating. He says he's going to set fire to himself on Top Of The Pops. The Manics, he claims, will sell 16 million copies of their first album and then combust. He tells students to work hard instead of getting pissed. He talks at length about Nazi foreign policy, which he studied at university, and he hates the bogus scholars who try to deny the Holocaust. He also enjoys slagging off the indie underachievers. "We will always hate Slowdive more than Adolf Hitler," he deadpans.
Richey and bassist Nicky Wire are the band's Glamour Twins. They get loaded on Babycham and they're doused in perfume. Nicky digs Marilyn Monroe, but Richey is pure Liz Taylor with all that drama and eye-liner. They model leopardskin and love-bites, they plaster their records with reading lists and they despatch character assassinations at will. Yet even from the beginning it's clear that, while Richey enjoys the support and the attention of his friends, he's increasingly lonely and unwell.
A year after the Lamacq incident, and I'm sitting with the Manics in Barney's Beanery, a Los Angeles bar. The LA riots are barely over and the band's first American tour has been muted. Richey tries a tequila slammer, likes it, and tries some more. Unfortunately, he has an allergic reaction, his skin turns pink and his arms puff out. Since the scar tissue is still thin, '4 REAL' rises out of his arm in 3D relief, a scary reminder of the recent past. And the other arm isn't so pretty either. Cigarette burns and slashes, the stories of so many, other unreported incidents. He calls them his "war wounds". Earlier that day, he had even started a new one, gouging a hole in his hand with a paper clip. He can quote medical textbooks, talking about the "euphoric agony" of mutilation. But if he ever understood the causes of his condition, he certainly couldn't stop it.
Next he's drawing circles on beermats, and explaining why we're all doomed. "The only perfect circle on a human body is in the eye," he reasons. "When a baby is born, it's just so perfect, but when it opens its eyes, it's blinded by the corruption and everything is a downward spiral." Another drink...
Since the Manics were one of the last bands to break before the internet arrived, a great deal of their correspondence passed through the letters pages of NME. This was also a time when bands like Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses were in decline, when the escapist promise of ecstasy was going wrong. In contrast, the Manics had apparently liberated a whole new culture of listeners, who wanted intelligence and clarity in their music. Many of these new converts were female, and a subsection of these concentrated on Richey.
Bands hadn't really written about anoerxia, bulimia and self-harming before this. But Richey was there, delivering 'Roses In The Hospital' on their second album, 'Gold Against The Soul', and then getting totally immersed in the body politic with 'The Holy Bible', their terrible masterpiece from 1994. He was also writing about sleep, or the lack of it. Night-time was always difficult for Richey, because he couldn't put his mind to rest. "The things I get in my head, I don't like," he reckoned. "Nothing else happens in my mind, I just get swamped with one idea." Hence the deluge of alcohol to help in that quest for a "blank" sleep.
And so these fan letters piled in to NME, some written in blood, others chopped together from beauty mags and problem pages. There was too much bad poetry and even a bunch of cynical putdowns, suggesting that Richey was a chancer and an attention-seeker. Mostly, though, the writers felt an intense empathy with Richey. They too had suffered some of those problems with self-image and with internal pain. And they were pleased that he was airing these issues, making it less secretive. The other person to go into this area was Princess Diana, although she probably had a different fanbase.
"I've always found it hard to express how I feel," he figured. "Even from when I was a little child. It's a very British emotion - they keep things bottled up inside them. Some more than others..."
So Richey wrote '4st 7lb', with the pay-off line, "Such beautiful dignity in self-abuse". Then there was that memorable single, 'Faster' with the self-cutter's manifesto: "I am an architect, they call me a butcher". To their credit, the other band members created music to match this vision. Their references were post-punk explorers like Joy Division. And while the album's content was grim, the band enjoyed the camaraderie of working in a cheap studio, Soundspace, in Cardiff's red-light district.
Richey wasn't bothered about playing guitar. James Dean Bradfield took care of all that, and when it came to the recording process, drummer Sean Moore was another dependable talent. Richey was the driver, and during the sessions he worked on the words and the record's artwork. It was almost 50 years since the concentration camps had been liberated, and Richey was determined to mark that occasion. Hence 'Mausoleum' and 'The Intense Humming Of Evil'.
The required reading in 1994 was Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation. We were still reeling from PJ Harvey's album 'Rid Of Me', the diary of a severe breakdown. And of course Kurt Cobain had killed himself, leaving us to ponder the dark corners of 'In Utero'. Richey liked it, of course. In retrospect, you can understand why so many people were so eager to enjoy the Britpop lark that was just beginning. Everybody needed a break.
In April 1994, NME was backstage with Richey at the MBK Hall in Bangkok, Thailand. Physically, he had changed. He was doing 1,500 sit-ups a day, and he'd lost weight. This wasn't necessarily a good sign. A fan had given him some ceremonial knives earlier, and so he put them to work, leaving a dozen slashes on his chest. Ten weeks later, he was in an English hospital. Officially, he was "very ill". A press release explained that "he needs professional psychiatric help to help deal with what is basically an illness."
We met him again on September 16 at Bluestone Studios in Pembrokeshire. James, Sean and Nicky had played a few summer festivals as a threesome and they did their best to promote 'The Holy Bible' in his absence, talking up those fearsome songs. Now they were preparing to tour Europe with their friend again. They reckoned it was better to travel with a sick Richey than to leave him behind on his own.
And Richey wanted to talk. He looked glazed after his time at Whitchurch NHS hospital in Cardiff, followed by a stay in the Priory. But his thinking was still acute, and he was often aware of the dark humour in the story. But the gist of the interview wasn't a cheery one. It dealt with a sensitive artist who had hauled himself into a brash kind of celebrity. He could never deal with intimacy. He was self-obsessed. And he had lost it, alone in his Cardiff flat, obsessing and cutting. Hence the treatment.
"My mind wasn't functioning very well," he explained quietly. "And my mind was stronger than my body. My mind subjected my body to things that I couldn't cope with. Which meant I was ill. For the first time, I was scared."
We talked Kurt Cobain and 'In Utero' and the alarming parallels with 'The Holy Bible'. Richey knew where this conversation was headed and he denied that his lyrics were some kind of a public farewell. Let's remember, this was a band who had deliberately decided to cover the old M*A*S*H theme, 'Suicide Is Painless', only a few years back. But the guy wasn't having any of this. "In terms of the 'S' word", he murmured, "that does not enter my mind, and it never had done. In terms of An Attempt. Because I am stronger than that."
But the Manics' dates at London's Astoria in December were bleak. The sound was completely out of control - the band members were getting nosebleeds onstage. The new songs had a monstrous quality, and Richey looked vacant and gone. On the last night, he and his mates trashed their equipment, momentarily happy. This was his last public gesture.
He went missing on February 1, 1995. His car was recovered in a service station by the Severn Bridge on February 17. There have been no confirmed sightings since. The band say he was rather calm during those last days, but that can be ominous, too. Strangely, he had been taking money from his bank account on a regular basis in those final weeks. There was always the chance that he had faked his disappearance. "He could be working in a sewage farm in Barry," Nicky supposed later.
The Manics eventually regrouped with a wonderful, compassionate song, 'A Design For Life', and a new career as a big-selling band. 'Everything must Go' revisited some Richey lyrics, and these were severe but not unexpected. We had to wait 'til 2003 to hear an unreleased song, 'Judge Yourself', from the sessions of January 1995. Once again, the Reaper was paying a visit: "Blessed be the blade, blessed be the scythe, Dionysus, here to crucify..."
You can't glorify Richey because he was unwell from an early stage of life. And yes, he did some unpleasant, selfish things in his time. But he was also a rare presence, with his poetry, his jokes and his sense of rebellion. We loved him.