Havana, Cuba, 1958. Wormold, a frumpy British expatriate who makes his living as a vacuum-cleaner salesman, goes into the restroom of Sloppy Joe's bar. He is approached by an undercover agent; words are exchanged; a room key is handed off. The salesman has just been covertly enlisted into the British Secret Service. From that day forward he is their spy in Havana. Months pass and the salesman uncovers nothing worth reporting. Nagged by a sense of professional obligation, he begins filing false reports with the bureau back home, submitting blueprints Of vacuum-cleaner parts and claiming that they are maps of missile silos that the Cuban government is building out in the countryside. It all a sham, except for one thing: mysteriously, the false reports he been filing begin to come true.
This is the plot of Graham Greene's classic novel Our Man in Havana. It also parallels the life of the rock journalist who, told to report on the insurgency, instead submits details of the mundane for the audience to interpret as it desires. There are the exceptions to this deception, however, moments when the bluster and hyperbole and anticipation are gratified, when a truly great band makes it all come true. These exceptions are the few, the priceless, the beautiful. Enter the Manic Street Preachers. Our Man in Chicago, Greene would title this story, because that's where the Manics are playing their first US show in nearly five years.
Smeared in rouge, pissed at Thatcher and sporting blouses stencilled with agit-prop slogans stolen from their spiritual forebears the Clash, Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield, Richey James Edwards and Sean Moore stared down the world with fierce panda eyes and transmuted their childhood friendship into the artistic endeavour of a revolutionary rock band. As the Manic Street Preachers, they were like grape leaves stuffed full of the insurgent writings of Chomsky, Gogol, Marx, Burroughs and Plath. Reeking with youthful purity of intent, they released the peak-pressure blister-punk of "Motown Junk," its Public Enemy-sampled run-in groove of "revolution... revolution" heralding the best single of 1990. What followed was the overreaching ambition of a debut double album Generation Terrorists, the patchy rockisms of '93's Gold Against The Soul, and the never-released-in America The Holy Bible—a record that makes the phrase "difficult third album" an understatement. (Nicky Wire on The Holy Bible- "In terms of the human spirit, no other album comes close to its lyrical damnation.")
Then, on the eve of a February '95 promotional jaunt to the U.S. that would have predated the current Britpop invasion, Edwards, having long suffered from manic depression, alcoholism and self-mutilation, disappeared. His car turned up near a known suicide bridge, but no trace of him has ever been found. While a rational conclusion is that Richey is dead, some maintain Richey is alive ("He knew enough to grow a beard and disappear," Nicky has said.) Most agreed that it was a bizarre ending to the unfulfilled promise of the Manic Street Preachers.
But later that year, the remaining Manics reconvened. After the first practice, they knew they would go on as a band. They entered the studio and recorded Everything Must Go, an album that abandons their nihilistic past, pointing instead toward a cautiously optimistic future. Eschewing their previous G n' R obsession, the album—from the sweeping Philharmonics of "A Design For Life" to the Freddie Mercury bombast in James' soul-inflected voice on "Interiors" is by far the group's finest collection of songs. Massively successful in the U.K., the germane Manics now prepare to take on the United States once again.
Make the investment; get Everything Must Go. If the modern soul is a billfold, the Manic Street Preachers will fill yours. And if the money metaphor seems crass, consider why this band—who have sold 300,000 copies of their comeback single "A Design For Life" in the UK, played to a quarter of a million people over a two-day period opening for Oasis at Knebworth and retained the power to reduce the most jaded music fan to tears—have never survived the transatlantic exchange to become bankable in America. Consider what the Manics are singing now-"freed from the memory/escape from our history/and I just hope that you can forgive us/ but everything must go, "and take heed. In the U.S. there is little awareness of the history of the Manies. Yet, with their mature, streamlined music the Manics' chances of cracking the American market are better than ever, although they poo-poo the possibility.
Pressed with the hypothetical scenario of Stateside success, James and Nicky are asked if they would want to call a time-out and acknowledge Richey's absence.
James: "No, I wouldn't. I'd feel comfortable with people starting with this record as Year Zero for us. You've still got some quintessential Richey moments on there; it's still got the quintessence of what we're all about." Nicky: "If this album sold a million copies as a brand-new album by a brand-new band, to reinterpret our past into that would be really difficult. I'd want to do it but... people would say we're blander, but that's only because we've been so unpalatable in the past. 'A Design For Life' is still about the decline of the working class. It's not 'I love you baby." When the time arrives for formal interviews, drummer Sean Moore is out engaging in one of his favourite pastimes: shopping. "You'll have to interview me and James separately," Nicky grins, "cos every time we're interviewed together James just takes the piss out of me."
Nicholas Allen Jones was born on January 20, 1969. Nicknamed "The Wire" because of his height. James on Nicky: "He's the emperor of taste." Gracious, graceful, handsome like a young Tyrone Power; in short, a lovely person.
Was becoming more direct with your lyrics on the new record a conscious decision?
NW: Richey was always obsessed with so many references. Even I didn't know what half of them were about... My job was to make some of our lyrics understood. In terms of the Jackson Pollock quote which I used in the album, ["The pictures I contemplate painting would constitute a halfway state and an attempt to point out the direction of the future without arriving there completely"], we've got a lot left to achieve. When we arrive there completely, that's when we stop being a band, and that's when we give up. With all the quotes this time, we haven't used any from writers. I chose architects and painters. We've released 18 singles in Britain off four albums and every single one of them has some sort of quote. It's nice to look back on. And they've all been in the Top 40, which is a bit of a record in Britain. Madness have had 20 consecutive Top 20s, so we're after them. I'm still proud of things like that.
"Australia" is a song whose metaphor is a floating continent. "I want to fly and run till it hurts/sleep for a while and speak no words. "What was going on when you wrote that?
NW: At the time in Britain, the media, with Richey, was high profile. It was our own little Kurt Cobain. Having real scummy tabloid journalists outside your door is incredibly unpleasant. I just wanted a symbol of escape. Also, I've always been obsessed with Howard Hughes and his hypochondria. I clean an awful lot—all those symptoms—and I tried to merge the two.
How have the band's aspirations for the U.S. changed over time?
NW: When we started, what we thought we could be in America was a sort of Bruce Springsteen—blue collar, loads of energy. We thought we could mix the Sex Pistols with that, lyrically. I can understand if people in America don't like us, because it doesn't work well in the translation. We've been away for four and a half years. We can't pretend to say "you must love us" anymore. The gig we played in L.A. [in '91] was really good. Rough as f**k, but I did my feather-pillow trick, opened up a pillowcase over the audience. We were too antagonistic for L.A. I think one thing that fucked us up more than anything is [that] conflict between hand and audience doesn't really exist in America. People just thought we were arrogant, but we'd been used to it as a kind of two-way thing, you know, feeding off each other, being heckled. That, as much as anything, drained our confidence, people just watching. Yet there are certain people in every country you go to... and the only thing that can fill their void is us. There's no other band that can do it.
Are there any current American bands that you care for?
NW: Our preconception of American bands are their preconceptions of us. So f**ked up through glam metal, they don't know what to make of us. I don't think there's any American band that likes us, except for Motley Crüe. I really admire Dave Grohl for what he's done with his lot. I love "Big Me." I've still got a lot of time for the Chilis. They've always had a bit of an entertainment value, with the light bulbs on their heads. I used to love Beat Happening, "Foggy Eyes." When I was young, I was indie schmindie. I find it really hard with Sebadoh. I want to like them, but there's something, perhaps the lack of ambition, which is what's good about it. Perhaps that's what I'm looking for, that desire to be a superstar. But it's good that there's bands like that—we can't all be Liam Gallagher.
What are the good parts of matrimony that have helped you as a person and helped you continue as a member of the Manics?
NW: People say the best things about being in a band are sex, getting pissed, taking drugs and travelling, and those four I don't really like doing. I like being at home with my wife. I've never taken any drugs 'cuz I'm too scared. I don't drink. Not in an Aerosmith way, it's just I've got a bit of a bad liver. I don't mind getting to places, but I hate travelling, I hate flying. So people call me a moaning, horrible old git, but the main joys of being in a band are quite basic, and I don't partake in them. It would be nice today if we had time to go around Chicago and go to an art museum or buy a few books. When we were in Oslo we went to the Munch Museum, which was fantastic, seeing "The Scream" before it got nicked. Fantastic! But I don't think I would've carried on the band in the band after Richey if I hadn't been married. They don't mix very well, being married and being in a band.
Amidst all the punk band reformations, are there any bands that you were interested in seeing?
NW: Because we weren't around when punk happened — it was secondhand for us—the Clash and the Pistols stood out by miles. Those were the two bands that seemed more than punk, they seemed social and political and rock-and-roll and American. The essential part was that the Clash broke America and the Pistols tried to destroy America. Wire and Magazine [are] great to listen to in the house, but I never wanted to see them. I don't blame the Pistols for reforming for the money. I don't want to see them because I think they're the most perfect band ever, but I still think they're better than Green Day or Rancid. Steve Jones is a God. He's our Ace Frehley. I think maybe the Clash could still make a really interesting record, with Joe, Mick Jones' dance stuff, Paul's bit of reggae, and if they got Topper back.
What's the best stencilled shirt slogan ever?
NW: [laughs] Do you know Smash Hits? It's a real teenie-bopper magazine. Richey stencilled "Kill Yourself" on a Smash Hits shirt. That's probably the most extreme for 14-year-old kids. I don't know if that's the best, but it was quite funny at the time.
James Dean Bradfield was born on February 21, 1969. Nicky on James: "He's the musical dictator." Looks like a cross between Groundhog Day Bill Murray and On The Waterfront Marion Brando. Stirs sugars number five and six into coffee while massaging his bicep, whose heart tattoo reads, "Anxiety Is Freedom."
Jackson Pollock said to Willem de Kooning, "You know more, but I feel more." Does that quote apply to the band?
JDB: I think that Nick would like to modify the phrase slightly and say that I've experienced more but he feels more. Because I've had long periods where I've kind of anesthetized myself through alcohol and sex, and he's always kept his nerve ends open. There've been points in the band where I've f**ked up personal aspects of my life because I was devoted to Nick and Richey's lyrics. I've had to work at making that sacrifice, but Nick feels it's his birthright.
Do you sense an unconscious link between the uplifting music and optimistic lyrics this time around?
JDB: Yes. That's always been one of our best points, we've all managed to arrive at the same point subconsciously, without even speaking. And I wouldn't call it more uplifting; I'd call it more cinematic. It's come out like that because we needed to afford ourselves a bit of human grace. Subconsciously I was just trying to create something we can actually affordably live within. I've always felt like all our albums in our history were like family albums, and The Holy Bible is the one I leave untouched under the dustcover. I wanted to kind of change that round a bit.
Can you relate a story involving fisticuffs?
JDB: I don't have any stories involving fisticuffs. [pauses] Actually, I just have a problem with people talking about fights. It constituted 30 seconds of an interview, and they've made it look like I was trying to be the tough guy of rock. But my first proper fight was with somebody who was about six-foot-two, and I was much younger, shorter than I am now. I didn't triumph in the fight. He beat my face to a pulp, but at the end of the fight he was crying because he'd hurt his fists so much that he had to go to the hospital. I thought, "Yes, I will win no matter what."
That taps into the working-class rage that you manifest in a very positive way with the Manics. In the United States the working class doesn't really exist as an identifiable class with any sense of unity. Given that fact, what segment of the American population do you relate to?
JDB: The one thing that really does bug me is [that] in America, there's always been a media conspiracy to indoctrinate journalists with that question, "You English guys talk about class. We don't have that over here." It's like, of course you P*king do. I've been to your towns. You've got class, and it's not necessarily black ghetto class. It stretches to every population in the United States. I find it unbelievable that there's this kind of conclusion that you can't find a working class in America, just because the closest thing to a working-class history is something like Jimmy Hoffa. America's a country that has a short-term history anyway, so why should it have a problem finding a class history if it hasn't got any history?
Well one of the things America is based on, as a nation of immigrants, is multiculturalism, and it appears that we've reached a stage now where class and ethnicity are nearly synonymous.
JDB: That's part of the liberal psychosis that's really scared journalists from actually defining a working-class genre because essentially it's ethnic, and that really bothers the liberal conscience of journalists.
I don't think that's so much a function of liberal-journalist paranoia as it is government policy. This year, Congress passed a bill making English the official language of the United States, meaning that no government documents and no voting information will appear in any language other than English. The United States is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.
JDB: I think that this very confused libertarian argument sometimes goes too far. Wherever that kind of ethnic language barrier exists, it should be catered for, definitely, because that's the only way a person can buy into a country's culture, by electing and by understanding what the process is. But I do think that if you go to a country, you should buy into its culture too. Also, that country should accept that you're making it that much richer by being more ethnic.
But even the bands that summon the courage to talk about class Chuck D, Rage Against The Machine—these are middle-class, educated men.
JDB: That's always happened. Joe Strummer was the product of an upper-middle class. Tony Benn, one of the greatest members of Parliament of all time, he had a f**king knighthood bestowed upon him that he had to renounce in order to get his working-class rights back. So that middle-class, benefactory spirit has always been there. There's no shame in it.
One of the rationales that you've given for the continued existence of the Manics was that the band lies, if not in opposition to, at least in contrast to other voices in British pop music. Can you make a case for the continued existence of the band as you try to crack America again? JDB: Number one, when we recorded this album, we didn't think of America once. The only thing we thought of while recording this album was reaffirming ourselves in Britain. 'Cuz that's where we live and that's where we come from. There were no concessions made to anything on the album, except where we come from and where we live.
Can you say something about what being Welsh means?
JDB: It's really hard because all the Welsh defining moments have slowly disappeared. As I find myself settling in London, I'm very aware of how much my history's adrift. Being Welsh is always about playing rugby and your friends' parents working down the street. It's a very kind of male-dominated society, yet the women in that hierarchy were very strong. For my generation, a lot of people have been completely in awe of their mothers, caught in the cusp of the '70s and growing up in a very male-dominated culture that was threatened with the closing-down of the coal industry. Being Welsh really just means strength in places you would never imagine it to exist in. Also, just growing up completely agnostic and being such a cynic about so many things, I start feeling spiritual and just don't understand why. Plus I think there's a Welsh obsession with trying to command language, whether it be Richard Burton or Dylan Thomas or Nick or Richey.
Name a musical genius, and then tell me who you would've named when Generation Terrorists came out?
JDB: It's probably between Burt Bacharach and Ennio Morricone. And at the time of Generation Terrorists it probably would've been Chuck D or Slash or Joe Strummer.
"They have left out man alone so far, perhaps to watch. Anyway he's a canny bird," wrote Graham Greene. And so Our Man in Chicago is privvy to:
FOUR MOMENTS WITH THE MANICS:
1) August 27, 1996: The Manics are set to play before Oasis in Chicago the night after the Democratic National Convention has opened in the city. The last time the Convention was in Chicago was 1968, when riots ensued as police beat down students protesting the Vietnam War. The Manics—onetime rousers of "The New Art Riot"—have likewise been away quite awhile. James Dean Bradfield, delayed in Canada with visa problems, races through Chicago's O'Hare Airport to join his bandmates, past late-night airport workers watching the televised convention. The convention is a near-debacle of botched speeches, missed cues. To save the night with sentiment, the Democrats wheel out Christopher "Superman" Reeve (a Republican) to speak. In a cab; James hears the radio convention commentator says, "All you can hear is the rasp of Christopher Reeve's breathing apparatus." The mawkishness is overwhelming. An exhausted James screams in frustration. "The irony of 'hey it's Superman; he's paralyzed but he's still a super man," James says, shaking his head. "Modern people, especially our generation, are just too scared to be sincere. Look at Bob Dole—I don't think I've seen anyone less sincere in my life! To see sincere people with inner peace is to assume that they're lying, because irony is such a part of our makeup."
2) "I f**king hate these things," swears James Dean Bradfield as he and Nicky Wire pile into a white stretch limo that'll zip them into downtown Chicago to record a radio spot. The press officer hands Nicky a folder containing the first batch of U.S. press they've gotten on the new record. "Listen to this," Wire begins, reading aloud from an article by a Richey-obsessed journalist: "I will keep my vigil for the beautiful lost one until the inevitable death certificate passes through my own hands." James stares out the tinted window stoically. "F**king hell!" Nicky sputters, incredulous that this is the treatment they're still receiving in the press. Later, Nicky confides, "A couple of days ago in Toronto, these fans painted a picture of us, and I was at the bottom cutting someone's throat out. Wherever we go, we're always going to be identified by some people who are so psycho. Sometimes you just want to let that baggage go because it's not much fun. It can get to you."
3) Pre-show, in the bowels of Chicago's Rosemont arena: "The cork is completely dried out 'cuz it's six years old," Sean Moore explains, struggling to open a bottle of wine to fortify himself against the obligatory handshakes of the meet-and-greet that's about to begin. "Hell is other people," Nicky tells him, flashing his bestest cheesiest grin as industry stiffs flood the Manics dressing room, "Sartre said that." "Hell," Sean mutters, "is not being able to get this f**king bottle of wine open."
4) Among American women of my mother's generation, there are a significant number named Enola in homage to the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, killing approximately 200,000 people. Significantly, the women in this Enola age group were the last generation of American women with little sense of self-determination. They went to school, by and large, only to become nurses or teachers. Otherwise they became housewives; further ambitions were discouraged, leaving many women feeling alone and unfulfilled. "We're from Wales," instructs James Dean Bradfield as the Manics take the Rosemont stage, "and this is 'Enola/Alone." They crash into the song, James bellowing the Nicky Wire-penned lyrics 'My heart aches for Enola! from my birth... all I want to do is livel no matter how miserable it is. "Within the cavernous, slowly filling hockey arena, the poignancy of the moment is clear." 'I don't give a damn about men who are loyal to the people who pay them," Our Man in Havana says, a speaker of Truth but a disciple to Beauty. So it is with Our Man in Chicago, loyal to the Manics, Truth and Beauty Personified.