The Manic Street Preachers were a band that disturbed: nothing to do with the oasis of comfort and the blur of teen love. The life of Richey Edwards, their presiding spirit, was one lived on the edge. Then, this time last year, he stepped off it and went nobody-knows-where. Emma Forrest reports
It is almost a year since Richey Edwards vanished from a Bayswater hotel in west London. Wherever he is, the guitarist and lyricist of the Manic Street Preachers may be amused to know that he figures in the other big British pop story of the last 12 months: Britpop. On the surface, the Manics couldn't be further removed from the brittle sugar-pop scene that celebrates itself. They've never had a Late Show Special made about them. They didn't, like Blur, win a record four Brit awards. Although they made it into the Top Ten, they've never had a number one single like Oasis. They've never been on the cover of Sunday supplements like Pulp. The Manics have probably never had a conversation with any of these bands, detesting, as a rule, any form of mateyness or self congratulation in pop.
But the Britpop groups have the Manic Street Preachers to thank for America's notorious reluctance to embrace the next big thing from the UK. In the most important record market in the world, Blur are a laughing stock and Oasis can barely get arrested. The legend goes that, inspired by the hype surrounding them in Britain, the Manics played their debut New York gig, whereupon bassist Nicky Wire told the industry-heavy audience that "the only good thing this town ever did was shoot John f***ing Lennon". They were not asked back.
Wire followed up the New York outburst with a statement at their Christmas 1992 gig in London that "In this season of goodwill, let's hope Michael Stipe goes the same way as Freddie Mercury." It seemed an unbelievable remark, especially coming from a group who are themselves sexually ambiguous. But, in the UK, the band easily survived the furore. The Manics' philosophy had always been rooted in political incorrectness, making everything they did unassailable as far as their fans were concerned. After all, how many rock bands have a philosophy, beyond "Good evening, Philadelphia, it's great to be here!"?
Here was a band who littered their debut album with quotes from Camus, Ibsen and... Valerie Solanas. A band who, at their 1993 gig with Bon Jovi, sold T-shirts that read all rock n roll is homosexual. A band who wrote a song about the power men wield over women, and gave it to ex-porn star Traci Lords to sing: "No God reached me/Faded films and loving books/Black-and-white TV/All the world does not exist for me". Traci Lords turned out to be a survivor to outsurvive Drew Barrymore, so the words don't ring true. They say a lot more about the boy who wrote them, the lyricist, spokesman and rhythm guitarist of the Manics, Richey Edwards.
Edwards couldn't actually play guitar, but because he looked, with his sad brown eyes, pointed chin, upturned nose and ink-black hair, like Natalie Wood, he was allowed to join. Wire had the venom. Drummer Sean Moore had the musical training. And, although James Dean Bradfield had the guitar talent, searing soulboy voice and iconic name, to all intents and purposes Richey Edwards was the Manic Street Preachers.
In their first major interview with a teen magazine, Edwards urged his fans to kill themselves before they reached the age of 13. When a music journalist suggested that they were only cartoon punks, Edwards calmly engraved 4 real into his arm with a razor blade.
On 2 February, 1995, the band were due to fly to America to promote their forthcoming tour, the tour that would establish them as international stars. On 1 February, 1995, Richey Edwards walked out of his Bayswater hotel and never came back.
One of the Manics' first television appearances was filmed in their home town of Blackwood, a disused mining village in South Wales. The best hope of work there now is a three-month stint at the Pot Noodle factory. Men who spent their lives down the mines are asked to learn how to type. Richey's father, Graham Edwards, is a miner who became a hairdresser. Nicky Wire softly explained: "Our romance is based on where we come from and the desire to escape." Richey, dressed to match Nicky in leopard-print jacket and thick eyeliner, nodded: "Our romance is having total power because we know we have nothing to lose. We're secure in the knowledge that we already lost a long time ago."
Before he joined the Manics, Edwards planned to become a teacher. Exceptionally bright, he achieved three As at A-level, then read Political History at Swansea. As so often with unusually intelligent people, Edwards had a simple side, so pronounced it was tragicomic. He couldn't work out how to use the washing machine in his Cardiff flat, so he took his dirty washing to his mum's. Talking to him was like chatting with a mini Rain Man. He could be describing in minute and obscure detail the corruption of Winston Churchill, only to become distraught at the prospect of missing his favourite television soap opera. At 3am, watching lousy late-night television, blind drunk and chain smoking, he could convincingly articulate an argument for the return of Soviet Communism. As a student, Edwards took to drinking vodka in order to sleep. At the same time, he discovered that if he cut himself, with knives, razors and compasses, it helped him concentrate. That's how he got through university, and that's how he got through life.
In August 1994, Edwards was hospitalised for "nervous exhaustion". Insiders claim he was rushed to hospital after a bout of self-mutilation went too far. Transferred to a private clinic, he was diagnosed as an alcoholic and borderline anorexic. The band, who visited him daily, told him that he could leave the Manics, or just write the lyrics and not tour. He could teach, become a poet, or write his great novel. And he seemed to agree. But, hours later, Edwards would call them in hysterics, begging not to be kicked out of the group.
In October, he rejoined the Manics on tour. Free of make-up, and hair slicked back, skinny but muscular, he no longer looked like Natalie Wood - more like Alain Delon. More like a man than he ever had. The Holy Bible, the album that had been released while he was in hospital, was a huge success. Richey's lyrics seemed to herald a turning point. Before, they had been manifestos, not really lyrics at all. The Holy Bible contained startling imagery: "I have crawled so far sideways, I recognise dim traces of creation." More importantly to their record company, Sony, this was going to be the album to establish the Manic Street Preachers in America, to make them superstars.
On 2 February, 1995, James Dean Bradfield went to collect Richey from his room. When they broke down the door, they found 30 sheets of lyrics for James to set to music, but no Richey. His father found his son's passport, credit cards and Prozac at Edwards's Cardiff flat. On 17 February, the police found Richey's car at Aust service station, near the Severn Bridge - a notorious suicide spot.
The night before he disappeared, Richey gave a friend a book called Novel with Cocaine, and instructed her to read the introduction. Written in the early Thirties under the pseudonym M Ageyev, Novel with Cocaine was sent, unsolicited, to a Paris literary journal for Russian emigres. Its subsequent publication proved a succes de scandale, and the mysterious Ageyev was invited to Paris, stardom beckoning. Instead, he disappeared for ever without trace. All the introduction can reveal is that Ageyev spent time in a mental asylum before vanishing. The book itself is a deeply impressive tale of adolescent addiction and the extremes of joy and sorrow the protagonist feels under the influence of cocaine. The choice of drug is almost irrelevant to the plot. It is simply about the terrifying conflicts that the hero experiences as he tries to navigate the adult world.
It is almost a year since Richey went missing. Although he left them enough lyrics to fill three albums, they have decided to start again from scratch. At their Wembley Arena comeback gig a few weeks ago, they played five new songs but nothing from The Holy Bible. Judging by the performance, they are on their way to becoming a more traditional rock group. They seem, to the bewilderment of their fans, to have grown up. And that's what happens, unless you're James Dean or Kurt Cobain.
There is a scene towards the end of George Sluizer's psychological horror film The Vanishing where the abductor confronts his victim's boyfriend: if the boy drinks a sleeping potion, he will show him exactly what happened to the girl who apparently vanished into thin air. Or the boy can walk away a free man and wonder for the rest of his life. The boy and the audience realise that it is not her disappearance that bothers them so much as not knowing what had happened to her. Richey Edwards has done this: he has left us wondering for ever.
How can a grown man drive off one morning and never be seen again? The River Severn was dredged, but turned up nothing. Police say that if Richey did jump off the bridge, his body may have been carried straight out to sea. Friends joke that Richey always had to be different, he couldn't just do something as rock-star obvious as choke on his own vomit. Richey had to buy into something more complex than plain rock mythology. As ever, his life fell somewhere between Homeric tragedy and old Hollywood high drama.
Could the rock star who didn't know how to use a washing machine have engineered the perfect disappearance? Should we be looking for clues in Novel with Cocaine? Or is this Richey's first and last act of unselfishness: by leaving his car at the service station and his passport at home, was he telling us exactly where he went? One thing is clear. Wherever he is, he isn't coming back. In the words of the boy who lived his life by Albert Camus and Elizabeth Taylor, who would have been the archetypal angry young man if he weren't so detached from his own feelings, "You can't change yesterday or tomorrow. You can change only this present moment. I try thinking, 'there's only today. I'll do what I can do today'"