When Richey Edwards disappeared the Manic Street Preachers seemed finished. But like the post Brian Jones Stones, loss has sparked their best work. It's not been easy, they tell Caroline Sullivan
Other bands must regard the Manic Street Preachers with a mixture of horror and fascination. Since the disappearance on February 1, 1995 of Richey Edwards, the fractured, anorexic guitarist of the cultish Welsh rockers, the three remaining members have been stuck in limbo, unable to escape from the past or plan the future.
The grief aroused by the departure of Edwards, who had a history of depression and self-mutilation, shows no sign of abating, as witnessed by the fan letters his bandmates Nicky Wire, Sean Moore and James Dean Bradfield still receive. 'Some of them are written in blood, and you just feel powerless to help these people,' says bassist Wire.
The Richey story vied with Kurt Cobain's suicide as the most reported pop event this decade, but from a career point of view it could hardly have happened at a worse time. Their 1994 album, The Holy Bible, a hellish metaphorical chronicle of Edwards's emotional turmoil, had been their biggest critical and commercial success to date. Their first full American tour was planned for 1995 - though one wonders if the Manics, with their penchant for cross-dressing and Situationist babble, were ever destined for Stateside success - and at home they seemed on the verge of serious stardom. They had erected an unbreachable cordon sanitaire between themselves and Britpop, a club they, weirdo Welsh outsiders, would not have been invited to join anyway. This not only heightened their standing with their pale young following, it convinced Epic Records that a Manics-led Britrock explosion was nigh. The label planned to keep the band busy throughout 1995 with heavy touring. Then Richey changed everything.
His colleagues retreated - Wire to Wales, Moore to Bristol and Bradfield to London, where he spent the rest of the year 'being a bit of a boy'. That might have been the end of the Manic Street Preachers, who were so co-dependent that the loss of any member would be shattering.
But they decided to continue and, in best pulp-fiction tradition, they've just made the best album of their career. Everything Must Go, recorded early this year, is a sprawling, string-laden epic that, in terms of sound, is to their early work what Good Vibrations was to Surfin' USA (an apt analogy, as Bradfield is a champion Beach Boys fan). It has already been preceded by the biggest-selling single of their six-year history, A Design For Life.
Through all of this, the Manics have been incommunicado, emerging only to play a handful of support gigs with the Stone Roses and Oasis before holing up again. With Everything Must Go, they relaunch themselves, but feel unable to go on without discussing Edwards, which they are having to do publicly for the first time.
"It was in the last six months that he really deteriorated. I could feel something was wrong. He'd call me late at night and talk about Apocalypse Now or Naked for two hours, trying to get some sort of idea across, and he just couldn't," says Wire over a Highland Spring in a hotel in his least favourite city, London.
Though he's been in residence there for four days, he hasn't yet been smoked out by fans, for which he may be grateful - their decision to continue as a trio has distressed a faction who believe they should have disbanded. Pragmatically, though, their loss didn't affect the musical side; as a guitarist, Edwards was barely competent and 'never had any musical ideas', according to Wire. He has taken over as principal lyricist, but Edwards' role as spouter-off about popular culture and author of sheafs of apocalyptic poetry they have not attempted to fill. His spectre hovers, ensuring things will never be as they were.
"The album isn't a goodbye to him. We could never say goodbye. He was my best friend. We talk about him all the time between ourselves. It's easier to live with now because we're getting busy again, but you still wake up every morning and think about it,' Wire reveals in a delicate lilt that conveys some of South Wales's 'endless rain and hills".
He credits the weather there with making the Manics what they were, by instilling 'a feeling of melancholy that drew us together. We're all attracted to drunks, suicides and doomed romantics.' To their way of thinking, Kurt Cobain's death was 'incredibly sad, yet incredibly beautiful'.
The four had been an insular clique since school, the only boys in Blackwood who could give considered opinions on Jacques Derrida and abstract expressionism. They applied the same cultural-sponge technique to their music, ending up with a brew that sounded like the Sex Pistols with lyrics by Camus. Visually, they were a glam-rock, lipsticky mess, with Wire sometimes w earing a dress just to annoy.
Yet they were more emotionally resilient than that makes them sound. Even Richey, Wire maintains, was essentially stable until he came into contact with fame. He worked out with weights - how geezerish can you get? - a revelation that will disappoint those who cherished the gaunt androgyny he projected the autumn before he vanished. "He was half Ian Curtis, half Iggy Pop, a really strong intellectual. But after Thailand (a tour in May 1994, which precipitated his breakdown), he lost his strength. He stopped working out and doing his weights, but he was still obsessed with getting a flat stomach, so in the end he stopped eating," remembers Wire, who shares with his bandmates an improbable boyish freshness. (He has both a cold and a bad back when we meet, and claims to be 'a sickly mammy's boy' who's prone to numerous small ailments.)
What did Wire do after Edwards vanished? "I played golf, I gardened - I wasn't at all interested in rock 'n' roll pursuits. We decided to carry on in April, after two months of waiting by the phone and feeling ill and exhausted. We were really paralysed and unable to do anything. We thought we'd been so close, and in the end we couldn't do anything for him. It's sad to think that perhaps he didn't like you."
Wire is unexpectedly forthcoming, expounding his own theory about what has become of Edwards. "A man of his intelligence could have gone missing very easily. He could be dead - a lot of signs point to him being dead - but he could be living a really mundane existence somewhere, which might appeal to him, because he's a cardigan-and-slippers man. He even had slippers at university. (Another preconception dashed.) If he's alive, he could be in a monastery, or something, because, if you think about it, nobody would ever know. His sister wrote to every monastery she could think of, and they wrote back saying they couldn't say...so he could easily just be living a quiet life somewhere."
For the Manics, the success of Everything Must Go, which would certainly have been a number one album if not for George Michael, will be bittersweet. "It's tainted by the knowledge that it's not the four of us enjoying it together."
It's impossible not to be saddened by the album's lyrics. Five songs had been left by Edwards before his departure confirming he was in the grip of a depression that might have made living seem the less endurable option. 'Wanna get out, won't miss you...all removables, all transitory, passing always,' he wrote. Wire's songs are the rejoinder that came too late: 'All I want to do is live, no matter how miserable it is'.
Everything Must Go is out this week on Epic Records