Manic Street Preachers were on the verge of super-stardom when Richey James, their guitarist, disappeared 15 months ago. But a fine new album proves they have survived, reports Andrew Smith.
As the audience bayed for more, Nicky Wire dragged himself offstage, slung his bass and dissolved into tears. His band, Manic Street Preachers, had just played a stunning set in a downstairs bar at Manchester's Hacienda club, as a warm up for the weekend's Maine Road shows with Oasis. It had gone extremely well by any objective measure, but this was the first time in 18 months that the Welsh trio had performed in such intimate surroundings. Wire could see straight into faces turned towards him, and recognised many of them. The vacant space on the right side of the stage seemed to grow bigger the closer you got to it. It was an awful, bitterly painful experience. The next day he would sit down to the second of two interviews he and his colleagues had agreed to before the release of their new album, in the hope that they could leave the events of the past 18 months behind. It's not easy to give interviews when you know every article will begin with the same words - and there is no other way to begin: on February 1, 1995, Richey James Edwards (his full name), guitarist/lyricist with the Manic Street Preachers, walked out of the Embassy Hotel in Bayswater, London, at 7am, drove to his flat in Cardiff and vanished. Seventeen days later, his Vauxhall Cavalier was discovered in the car park at Aust Service Station near the Severn Bridge. The Severn Bridge is a notorious suicide spot.
Strong currents below ensure that bodies are seldom recovered. In his hotel room, he had left behind a packed suitcase, a packet of Prozac and a note reading simply, "I love you". There was also a box, wrapped up like a birthday present and addressed to a mysterious woman friend, containing books (James was a voracious reader) and a couple of favourite videos, Equus and Mike Leigh's Naked. A few literary quotes, which James collected as other people collect stamps, were scrawled on the side of the box.
There were two reasonably credible sightings in the fortnight between James's disappearance and the discovery of his car; one on February 5 by a 19-year-old college student in Gwent and another two days later, by a Newport taxi driver. There have been many more, less convincing ones.
At this stage, nobody can say for sure whether the troubled 27-year-old jumped or contrived his own disappearance - there are reasons for believing both hypotheses; though as time goes on, the latter comes to seem more fanciful. In the months leading up to February, he had not been well and had spent time in a private mental hospital, suffering from alcoholism, depression and anorexia. He'd been cutting himself with knives and razors, as he had done since finals at Cardiff University, where he had been a keen student of history and politics. In the previous year, however, things had got worst. It was as though he had decided to live out the bleak lyrics he had provided for the band's claustrophobic last LP, The Holy Bible. The question friends and fans alike are asking is, why?
It is difficult to overestimate the worth or importance of Manic Street Preachers in the scheme of 1990s pop music. When they first came to notice in 1991, they seemed like a provocative concept rather than serious contenders. They found a manager not via the traditional means of trudging round the pub circuit, but through a vigorous campaign of letter writing. At that point, they could hardly play at all, but they gave a great interview; four lippy, working-class Welsh lads who had known each other since junior school, all punky fake fur and mascara, surfing a tide of anger and spite. None of which could have been more out of (or, as it happens, ahead of) its time. Independent-minded rock was going through its worst slump ever, buried under the success of the dance music explosion and the "third summer of love" that accompanied it. Manic Street Preachers wanted nothing more than to rain on that summer of pills and hippie-dippie platitudes. In effect they were their generation's Sex Pistols, and most of the young groups coming through now cite Manic Street Preachers as one of their inspirations for forming.
It was for these reasons that, when James went missing, the weekly music papers were deluged with letters from distraught fans. The response sparked a national debate on adolescent angst, depression, anorexia, and self-mutilation, some of which was useful, but none of which went any way towards explaining what had happened to the man who prompted it. Normally, one would look for some sort of childhood trauma. On the surface, any such convenient explanation seems strikingly absent.
"Deep down, my gut feeling is that he's alive," says Wire, speaking in the long, tortuous syntax of someone struggling to reconcile emotion with reason. "But that's not based on any logical evidence. I just try to tell myself that he's done what he wanted to. Whatever that is." Wire identifies two turning points in his friend's condition.
The first was a bizarre week-long trip to Thailand, where Manic Street Preachers, in one of those strange pop-cultural exchanges, are the most popular group in the country. Fans besieging the hotel were asking him to sign photos of his scarred, self-mutilated arms. During the first show, he slipped offstage and slashed his chest with a set of knives given to him by a girl fan ("Look at me when you do it", she'd said). He was drinking half a bottle of vodka just to get to sleep, though he remained as perversely punctilious and in control as he always was when he was offstage.
Afterwards, the group went on holiday to Portugal, where James deteriorated further. When they returned, he locked himself in his flat and subjected himself to two days of physical and mental torment. His weight had dropped to six stone. Following this, he was booked into a private hospital, where they operate a 10-point programme, which, some feel, made matters worse.
"They say they've got a cure in places like that," Wire says angrily, "but all they do is completely change the person you are. I don't think that's a cure. They loved him in there, because he's so intelligent and sharp-witted, and he got into it, played along with them. But they ripped the soul out of him. The person I knew was kind of slowly ebbing away. I think he knew that too - though it's hard to speak on behalf of Richey. I mean, I've known him longer than anyone and think of him as my best friend, but I still can't say that, deep down, I know him. I thought I did. The week before he disappeared he was in the best spirits I'd seen him in since the first breakdown, and I thought he was getting better. Sometimes now I think that he was happy because he knew he was going to do something."
What made Richey the way he was? "There is no dramatic thing. That's the scariest thing of all. To be honest with you, I think that, if anything, it's because his childhood was so happy that when he reached the age of responsibility, he couldn't handle it. He genuinely loved being young. But when you leave school, that's when the real world hits you. That's the most traumatic thing, having to grow up and realising - as he would put it - that everything was shit. Richey used to say, 'You're born pure and you're born unmarked,' then he'd look at himself and go, 'Now I'm scarred.' They do say that 27 is the optimum time for young males to commit suicide or break down, usually because of a longing for a disappearing youth."
Another possible explanation, which Wire acknowledges, is that James felt pressure to live his songs. He hated being called a fake.When a NME journalist did so once, in the early stages of his career, James carved the legend "4REAL" in his arm, in front of the horrified accuser. Until Britpop came along with its injection of irony, pop had been going through a phase where artists were expected to mean it, to experience their words if not literally, then spiritually. Perhaps it was rock'n'roll that transported James to wherever he's gone. Or just some mere chemical imbalance in his brain. Maybe as his mate Wire chances: "He'll disappear for five years and come back with the greatest book ever written, a huge beard, and really happy."
Either way, it's a shame, because the group's new album, Everything Must Go, released tomorrow, is by some margin their most pleasing work to date: a grand, curiously uplifting record characterised by the clear maturation of James Dean Bradfield as a singer and his partners as lyricists. Almost half of the words are James's, including a tune called Kevin Carter, which is about a photographer who shot to fame on the back of a picture he took of a child dying in Rwanda, then, unable to stomach the ensuing celebrity, killed himself. Whatever the significance this held for James, he'd have wanted to hear it sounding as impressive as this.