The disappearance of Richey Edwards has rekindled all sorts of fears and rumours, from the possibility of suicide to the seemingly inevitable split of the Manic Street Preachers. John Harris looks at Richey's long history of illness and its possible consequences.
"The only perfect circle on a human body is the eye. When a baby is born, it's so perfect, but when it opens it's eyes, it's just blinded by the corruption and everything else is a downward spiral." - Richey, May 1992
The episodes now appear to stretch into infinity. They began, after an initial flurry of hyperbole and outrage, when Richey Edwards (nee James) carved the legend '4-Real' into his forearm, to convince NME live editor Steve Lamacq that his group was something other than a shallow contrivance. They flowed on, taking in the tragic death of PR Philip Hall, the group's mentor and constant parent figure; the further self-mutilation in Thailand; the breakdown which caused the band to perform for several dates as a trio; the release of 'The Holy Bible', a record whose air of psychosis was all but overwhelming...
And now this. 'Missing cult pop guitarist sought', as The Guardian put it. Nicky Wire telling them, "If Richey doesn't want to come back, that's fine - but we just want him to give us a call or send us a postcard." Another occurance that makes the idea that rock music is founded on abandon and hedonism and irresponsible frippery looks absolutely laughable.
"In terms of the work I do, I've never been late for anything. I've never missed a flight, I'm not undisciplined. I'm not a member of Happy Mondays or Primal Scream or whatever. I'm always on time. I haven't got many things to cling to, but I cling to that." - Richey, October 1994
What's befallen the Manic Street Preachers over the last three weeks is riven by a strange paradox. However the mystery that currently surrounds him is resolved, Richey Edwards has done something that, in the light of what's happened before, isn't surrounded by absolute surprise. And yet, the circumstances of his disappearance run so counter to the ties that bind him to his group it simultaneously seems completely out of character.
The Manics are held together by a closeness that makes them look like brothers. Mutual obligation, affection, roles that were defined when they used to sit and dream in each other's bedrooms... there's always been a glowing bond between them that sometimes took on the appearance of a protective force-field. In the context of their work, it sends students of rock mythology into raptures about the beauty of the gang; when it comes to their outside lives, it gives them the appearance of a family.
In the course of the last five years, the impression was heightened when James talked about how they phoned each other almost every day; when they called each other nicknames that the outside world was ignorant of; when they sat jammed onto provincial dressing room sofas like people whose reliance on each other seemed to verge on absolute dependence.
And yet Richey gave the others no notice of his disappearance. His three closest friends know no more about his whereabouts than the journalists and radio reporters thrown onto a story about a 'cult star' of whom they've barely heard.
Another source of mystery is this: when Richey's breakdown occurred, among the mental shrapnel hurtling around his head was an obvious sense of guilt. Between the lines of the interview he gave to NME in the aftermath was a clear sense of regret: that he'd let James, Sean and Nicky down, compromising the group's devotion to a heartfelt work ethic.
He'd toyed with the idea of assuming a kind of semi-detached role, carrying on filling his notebooks and working on all the baggage that came with the music - but his loyalty wouldn't let him.
"I'd seen Nicky and James go down to the front door," he said, "and when they'd gone, I was really upset. I couldn't think what I was going to do, 'cos it's not enough for me just to do the words. I kind of think I'd be cheating on them, because the touring part is the worst bit - the bit that no band really enjoys. I felt bad thinking, 'Well, I'll just stay on my own in the flat and just write words.' That's not enough."
They're words that drip with the idea that Richey had to stick with it: go on the road, stand by the others, remain a card-carrying member of the group. Despite all that, he's departed into god knows where on the eve of a crucial phase of the group's progress.
And this doesn't look like a breakdown. Far from being incapacitated to the point of stammering, shaking lethargy, he's carefully made plans and executed a positive act that may throw his protestations of diligence, duty and renewed purpose into hideous confusion.
As Sony MD Rob Stringer told NME last week: "Richey is a very ritualistic person. He doesn't act arbitrarily. And the scary thing is, he's the most well-read person I've ever known - he would be able to tell you the last words of all the world's famous suicides, he would know the content of Kurt Cobain's suicide note off by heart and he would know 20 different ways to disappear completely. He will have planned it. He may be in Tibet for all I know..."
"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 Preacher-ness. 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..." - Keith Cameron, NME, October 1994
One word is streaked through the unerringly candid quotes that Richey has dispensed to NME ever since the Manics ceased portraying themselves as mascara'd enrages and started to publicly trawl through their psyches: "control".
He said it's what underpinned his frequent acts of self-mutilation: "It's all about control. About proving a point to yourself, which I did very easily." He talked about experiencing some kind of anorexia and writing '4st 7lbs', in which the notion of seizing possession of his own life was implicit.
"Anorexics do see themselves as having complete control," said Nicky. "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."
Note the 'always'. The demons that fly around Richey's mind have been there, in some shape or form, since his early adolescence; but there's little doubt that being put through the mincer as a member of one of the most lauded, written-about groups in recent memory has increased their size, accelerated their onslaught.
From the outset, the Manic Street Preachers willingly compiled with the all-too-familiar process that turns sensitive human beings into garish cut-outs. At first, they were "the most articulate, the most politicised, the most furious, the sexiest white rock band in the entire world." Then degeneracy entered the picture, and they (or rather, Nicky and Richey) became love-bitten, androgynous sleazoids railing against the amorality of the adult world while all but dissolving in it.
On and on it went: with the release of 'Gold Against The Soul', the Manics' politicised aspect was smothered in the world-weary anxiety that had been there since the start - and it was taken to headspinning extremes on 'The Holy Bible'. Such was the final work on a two-dimensional sculpture that lay far from the complexities of any human being. 'Richey Manic,' read the catalogue description... 'cartoon victim of dysfunction.'
Some people are wary of baring their soul in the presence of journalists. Richey never was, which begs several questions. How do you feel if, each time you pick up a magazine, some stranger is writing cod-psychiatric prose that maybe translates as 'Freak'? What happens if the yawning gap between the cartoon and the genuine you is exacerbated by the pressures of being in a rock group, tied to the demands of a multi-national company? What happens if you want to re-assert the fact that you're Richard Edwards, not Richey Manic - and finally seize back that beloved control?
"In terms of the 'S' word, that does not enter my mind. And it never has done, in terms of an attempt. Because I am stronger than that." - Richey, October 1994
There may, of course, be more straightforward explanations of what's occurred. Perhaps, having emerged from the breakdown and played British and European tours, he found the prospect of the upcoming American trek (26 dates that would inevitably be surrounded by demoralising grind) far too much to take. Maybe the consequent fear of letting the others down left him no option but to vanish in silence.
What's largely certain is that panic theories concerning Richey's withdrawal from Prozac are unwarranted. The drug, in medical parlance, has a long half-life: meaning that, when it's not being taken, it stays in the metabolism long enough to maintain its effects for around a week. After that, withdrawal symptoms - anxiety, sleeplessness - can set in, but they're far from the kind of mental dislocation that would explain Richey's disappearance.
There are hideously dark thoughts circulating at the moment; thoughts so obvious that they hardly need elaborating. The events of the last three weeks are still suffused with a possibility that will put paid to a group whose fans' devotion is frequently astounding, who have created some of the most astounding music of the last decade, who are hallmarked with the kind of importance that most of their peers can only dream about.
In August last year, Nicky Wire spoke to the NME about Richey's breakdown. Plunged into a predicament that stopped him assuming his usual bullish interview persona and made him sound hesitant and ever-so-slightly confused, he said this:
"If it ever comes to the point where he's not coming back, we won't continue."