Suffering 'nervous exhaustion' and anorexia, Richey James was admitted to a psychiatric hospital three weeks ago, marking a pivotal - maybe even final - chapter in the Manic Street Preachers story. Keith Cameron finds James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire struggling to understand their friend's nihilistic self-destruction in the wake of recording their third album, 'The Holy Bible'.
The picture is no more than three-and-a-half years old, yet the four faces have changed so much they seem only vaguely familiar now.
Just look at them. James wears purple and a look that tries to be indifference but is much nearer surprise. Hair neatly trimmed, put him in a suit and he could be a nice, young insurance salesman.
Next to him is Sean, more incongruous still in black, yellow and blue with "F---..." something or other stencilled across his chest. Whatever time it is, he should have been in bed hours ago, and with his page-boy haircut flopping over one eye he is a cute, puppyish dead ringer for Helena Bonham-Carter.
To his right stands Nicky, and suddenly the Boots No 7 kicks in. All in white, Nicky is apparently the only one of these budding cracked actors to have both grasped the brief and come anywhere near executing it convincingly: the cheekbones, the if-I-could-be-bothered sneer and the garter belt round the wrist. Oh well, two out of three.
Finally there's Richey. Cut from the same cloth as Nicky, he has followed his You Too Can Be In The Clash And New York Dolls, Simultaneously! guidebook a little too religiously and as a consequence looks ridiculous: comatose expression, a gormless posture and too much eye shadow. Significantly or not, his is the only spray-painted slogan fully visible. It reads, "Kill Yourself".
Like a flashback from some half-forgotten dream, this is how the Manic Street Preachers were in January 1991, infant generation terrorists on the cover of soon-to-be-deceased music weekly Sounds. The image is poignant, and only partly because they look so young. Hindsight's unforgiving glare lets us see how much neater it would have been had they, as promised, split up after 12 epoch-making months and more album sales than "Appetite For Destruction". The legacy would have been complete, enshrined forever in rock's mythic tomes, while the boys themselves could retire to their country seat, a place where all would be well with their world; nothing to do but sup ale, watch cricket and dictate their memoirs.
Reconciling their high ideals with harsh reality has been a slow and painful process for the Manics. What gave their cause such nobility - a gloriously naive refusal to acknowledge the possibility of failure - left them ill-equipped to deal with its less than total realisation. Their second album was difficult... but of course, seeing as they had expected to make only one. America was not broken... but since when was being able to tour for 12 months out of 12 a token of greatness?
Desperate to make the process of being Just Another Band as tolerable and, to their way of thinking, dignified as possible, the Manic Street Preachers, intensified their very Manic Street Preacherness. Children of the music press, the front covers were hungrily sought and eagerly given, regardless of who was screwing who. Love bites, self-mutilation, body-painting, nudity. Anytime, anywhere...
The Manics would, it seemed, do anything. They became, as Nicky now ruefully admits, rock's equivalent of the TSB, "the band that likes to say 'yes'". And hindsight, as well as common sense, reminds us that saying yes so much can eventually leave you bankrupt.
Here is a band whose every collective act since that first front cover has been framed by the distorting lens of the media. That they quite willingly offered themselves up for public dissection doubtless explains the confusion that now racks James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire as they contemplate the most immediate fact of their Manic existence: the presence of Richey James in a psychiatric clinic following what is often unhelpfully known as a 'nervous breakdown'.
"It came to a point where his self-abuse had reached a peak, in a lot of ways - his drinking, he'd virtually become anorexic, his mutilation. Everybody just got really scared when we saw him. We're in a position where we don't know what to do."
Nicky Wire sits on the edge of his hotel bed, head shaking. It's ten days since the Manics were forced to play their first ever gig as a three-piece, the T In The Park festival near Glasgow ("It felt like a betrayal"), the result of Richey's hospitalisation at first in Wales, then a private institution in London. This weekend they'll play their second, at the Reading Festival. Next week sees the release of their third album, titled with uncomfortable reserves of portent, 'The Holy Bible'.
The Manics are that rare thing, a band who actually could be the last gang in town and who did indeed grow up together. Their close friendship has often appeared to insulate them from the cruel facts of life in the world beyond, and now the reaction to this crisis is somewhere between dismissiveness and depression; the-show-must-go-on versus what's-the-bloody point? This could be what shock is like.
"It was obvious that he had to go to hospital," says Nicky. "There was no other option. He realised it, we realised it, his parents realised it. He's just really ill, in a lot of ways, at the moment. I don't want to get maudlin about it, but obviously something's gone a bit awry."
Has being in a band helped him?
"Well, that's the hardest thing to think about. I think he feels deep down it would have come to this whether he'd been a teacher or a bank clerk or anything, but I personally think being in a band has accelerated it. I don't know. You go to visit him and you become the psychiatrist for half an hour, and I can't make those judgements.
"Basically, the way we see it is that he'll be back as quick as possible and if it ever comes to the point where he's not coming back we won't continue. It's impossible to say what will happen. It's just a wait. He won't be doing Reading. And if he can't do the tour in October I don't think we'll do it. He wants to do it. It's depressing."
Nicky bravely smiles his angel-on-remand smile but the body language says it all: this wasn't in the script. Except, of course, to an extent it was. The Manics have espoused the glamour of nihilism since their inception. A large part of this band's enduring fascination is their remarkable aptitude for living out punk rock's archetypal bedroom fantasies, and to do so apparently on their own terms. Just because the kid wore a shirt saying "Kill Yourself", it didn't mean he actually meant it. Did it? Lest we forget, this is the same man who hacked away 22 stitches-worth of his left arm in order to prove a point to a sceptical NME journalist.
"The zeitgeist of this year in general is f---ing death and destruction," sighs Nicky. He's not exaggerating. Towards the end of 1993 the Manics' manager and mentor Philip Hall died of cancer. Four months ago, Richey's best friend from university hung himself. Around the same time as Richey's breakdown James broke up with his fiancée. Hall's death, in particular, was a harsh awakening.
"No-one in my immediate family's ever died, so it was the first funeral I'd ever been to," says Nicky. "He wasn't just a manager, unfortunately. We lived with him for virtually a year, he lent us about £45,000 before we got a deal, virtually financed us. It just made us realise things were coming to a head."
These "things" do so in quite sensationally graphic fashion on the new Manics album. 'The Holy Bible' is a feverish piece of work, bleak in tenor and initially overwhelming in its rush of apocalyptic imagery. Two songs, 'Mausoleum' and 'Intense Humming Of Evil', concern the Holocaust. 'Archives Of Pain' challenges the cult of the serial killer and champions the rights of murder victims. 'Ifwhiteamericawastotellthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart' crams River Phoenix, Tipper Gore and the man whose Super 8 film disproved the official explanation of the JFK assassination into a critique of the USA as hysterical as its title.
Yet instructive though these are to the Manics' unremittingly pessimistic end-of-the-millennium diagnosis, they could all to a lesser or greater extent be said to conform to existing MSP culture bunkers. More harrowing - for obvious reasons in view of recent events - are a trio of wired missives from the verge of some personal abyss: '4st 7lb', 'Die In The Summertime' and 'Yes'.
Gone is the escapist bluster of 'Gold Against The Soul'. Musically, these are brittle, jagged rockscapes - Joy Division and Wire feature prominently on the tape James and Nicky have brought for the photo-session - wound up and awkwardly set around a torrent of ugly, hateful words. "For sale?" begins 'Yes'. "Dumb c---'s same dumb questions/Virgin? Listen, all virgins are liars honey/And I don't know what I'm scared of or what I even enjoy... Can't shout, can't scream, hurt myself to get pain out..." The last line runs: "These sunless afternoons I can't find myself".
'Yes' is the Manics' TSB song, their acknowledgment that things went too far. Nicky's milky pale complexion appears to blanch still further as he admits that for this album Richey's lyrical contribution far outweighs his own.
"You might think it reads about prostitution but it's the prostitution of what we've felt over the last three years. It catches up with you, in all honesty. It caught up with Richey.
"I think we've always been searching for some kind of truth and we came to a lot of conclusions about what happened to us. Our protective shield had just been blown away. It's not to say we've hated every moment of being in a band, and I don't know if we betrayed ourselves in some kind of way, but there's a line in there, 'There's no part of my body that has not been used', and I think that might start with me and Richey having love bites on the first NME cover, then escalates to Richey or whoever sleeping with groupies to cutting yourself. It's like what Red Indians believe, that your soul is taken away when you're photographed constantly. It does get to a point where it feels like that.
"I think we realised there should be an end and we've either got to start again, which I think we have on this album, or end with dignity. Attitudes within ourselves became blurred. As much as anything, we just wanted to make an album that reflected the way we felt, which was much more depressing than our previous albums."
"'Yes' is the song I find hardest to sing," offers James. "It doesn't put a lump in my throat or anything, it just makes me feel that I can't do it justice. It makes it feel a bit futile, a bit cabaret."
The young man whose Herculean task it is to weave Richey and Nicky's spiel into song asks to be interviewed separately from Nicky on the grounds that his more self-confident pal would take the piss out of him otherwise. Fiercely self-critical, James holds himself responsible for not interpreting the lyrics on the previous album as well as he should have. Of the new record he says simply that these are the best lyrics he's ever seen and so he just tried to be as truthful as he could.
"I was probably much more worried about Richey at other points than this year," he says. "Like when we recorded the first album, he was royally f---ed up then in terms of every kind of abuse. He would cry a lot. But it always got back on an even keel quite easily. This last Christmas I felt he was the oldest and yet the youngest of us all. He'd only experience things by forcing himself into situations. He was quite immature in terms of what he'd experienced in life, never been in relationship, things like that. So perhaps then I realised that he definitely was beginning to feel emptier. No matter what I said there was nothing I could do to make him feel better. But it's still a surprise when something happens."
'4st 7lb' is an appropriately grotesque account of anorexia that neither glorifies nor condemns but rather captures all too plausibly the typical sufferer's contradictory thought processes: "I don't mind the horror that surrounds me/Self-worth scatters, self-esteem's a bore/I long since moved to a higher plateau". It is, says Nicky, 100 per cent Richey's lyric.
"And it's pretty obvious. Anorexics do see themselves as having complete control. Wanting to withdraw into themselves so that the 'state' - banks, shops, everything - is obliterated and they feel some self-control, which has always attracted Richey. I could tell Richey was getting really thin but you try to make him eat and what can you do?"
When did his weight become a serious problem?
"I never thought it was. But on top of everything else it probably had more impact. It's just self-abuse in general with Richey, there's always been something. I mean, when you think back to it he must have been f---ing mad to put '4 Real' into his arm! Everyone thought that was a hype."
What did you think when he did it?
"See, because we've grown up so close and on the same things, I still think it's a magnificent gesture. That's just the way we are, unfortunately. Hype is, whatever... Oasis walking off stage and having a fight. It's much easier than taking a razor blade to your forearm. So I suppose you can say you see signs, but at the time it mattered so much to us, being a band, that that's what Richey felt he could do to express it."
So much of your rhetoric now seems all too much like self-fulfilling prophecy.
"I know. That first Sounds front cover, the first song we ever wrote was 'Suicide Alley'... The first time I ever saw Richey cutting himself was in university, revising for his finals. And he just got a compass and went like that (draws invisible blade across arm). But I knew a lot of people at university who did that, so when he did '4 Real', obviously I was really shocked. And you know, like with the Thailand thing, it just gets to a point where we feel so cheapened as individuals that it is like a freakshow and you think you've got to do something to prove something or make it more interesting. We want things to be perfect, and not just what we read with loads of other bands."
It's a question of walking that precipice without slipping over.
"And I always thought Richey had the strength to do it. We'll just have to wait and see. 'Die In The Summertime' has got one of the most frightening lines ever, where it goes 'A tiny animal curled into a quarter circle'. That really scares me." He smiles the smile again, shaky this time. "It's hard to explain some of these things without Richey being here."
The next morning Nicky will take a train back to Wales, his wife and house and "generally boring" non-Manic life. This teetotal non-smoker who's never done drugs gardens in his spare time.
Whether his band makes another album or not, 'The Holy Bible' certainly feels like the end of an era for the Manic Street Preachers. For such well-read students of pop culture, James, Nicky, Richey and Sean have always been innocents abroad, like little children who knew about snow but were still blissfully unaware that it could fall in blizzards and do you harm. They need to find another ideal for living, one that allows them to see that being the Manics isn't a life or death thing after all. It's a though love, but their age of innocence is now over.
"I think the disillusion was always there," ponders Nicky. "But it's the first time we've admitted it to ourselves. It's the first time we've ever felt that we have lost lots of dignity. Sometimes music is the least important thing in the world, unfortunately." Amen.
Manic Street Preachers play Reading Festival main stage on Saturday evening.