From Manic Street Preachers to martyr of the new miserabilism.
Since his disappearance in February 1995, Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers has had rock'n'roll immortality conferred on him. He's become an emaciated icon of blood and mascara. Anorexic, alcoholic, a self-mutilator, he remains in the forlorn, overheated adolescent imaginings of his hardcore fans as a martyr to despair, St Sebastian-like, even Christ-like.
His iconic status is all the more potent in that we don't know for certain that he has died. His is an unprecedented form of rock oblivion. As Simon Price put it in his Manics biography, Everything: "Elvis grew and grew until he just plain blew up; Richey shrank and shrank until he faded from view completely."
Yet Richey Manic wasn't really a musician. He didn't sing. He could strike a pose with a guitar and that was it. He was co-lyricist of the Manics and helped scribble the first welter of slogans and manifestos that brought them to the public eye. He was, in a sense, the conscience of the band.
The Manics grew up in the same town of Blackwood, Gwent. Though all, Richey included, enjoyed "idyllic" childhoods, adolescence was a different matter. It was like a throwback to the Fifties -
youth had ceased to be catered for. No cinema, no nothing. Bright but disaffected, Richey and best friend Nicky Wire threw themselves into an inner life of French literature, rock'n'roll and
the weekly morsels of discourse that surrounded it in the form of the music press. The culturally overfed, blasé hacks who wrote for the NME and Melody Maker might have been a little ashamed at
the voracity with which Nicky and Richey ate up their reviews and recommendations - especially when they went out and bought the records and they turned out to be bloody rubbish.
The Manics decided they had no time for the motley ragbag of shoegazers, baggies, crusties and no-hope noiseniks who made up the apology for a counter-culture back in 1990. In a letter to the
press that prefigured any actual musical release on their part, they called for a return to "heroin-tinged rock'n'roll", decried indie losers, celebrated Hanoi Rocks over The Smiths, dreamed of
stadium-swelling rock that would make the walls of the city shake. They craved a return to decadent and debauched glam values, yet did so with a curiously austere and puritanical zeal.
The Clash-inspired rockism of singles like "Motown Junk" and "You Love Us" raised a few laughs among some sceptical critics to boot. The laughter was suspended, however, in 1991, when Richey, by way of a practical demonstration to a sceptical Steve Lamacq, carved the words '4 Real' into his arm during an interview. Male onlookers were stupefied by the gesture; some female fans, however, understood. The Manics began to get letters from girls penned in their own blood.
When their album, Generation Terrorists, appeared, they declared their intention for it to sell 16 million copies - after which, having made their point, they would retire quietly to South Wales. Anything less would be a "failure". Critic Simon Reynolds noted, with eerie prescience, the nihilism, the impossibilism, underlying the Manics' brash optimism. "The Manics have set themselves such preposterously high targets that they're almost guaranteed to fail. Their masterplan is a suicide pact."
The Manics did "fail" commercially - however, they were in there, albeit with the sort of indie credible career they purported to despise. And in fairness to them, the contradiction did get to
them, Richey most of all. Though he and Nicky seemed to speak with one voice lyrically, differences were emerging between them. Wire spoke unabashedly of a cosy return to unrock'n'roll domestic life someday. None of that for Edwards. "Once you're reduced to a couple, alone together between your four walls with your TV set, you're cut off," he snorted. Anything that dampened the fierce, adolescent glow of his impossible idealism was not on. He had sex (more out of a sense of duty to his assumed role as rock'n'roll debauch) but not relationships with women. He was himself "cut off", "staring blankly at my own navel", turning in on himself with consumptive intensity, taking things too much to heart. As singer James Dean Bradfield commented, it was as if Richey lacked the layer of skin the rest of us have that keeps us relatively insensitive. "He had this strange vision of purity...problems I'd snip off with a pair of scissors in two seconds would get to Richey."
The next two Manics albums, Gold Against The Soul and the even more disturbing and disturbed The Holy Bible, featured lyrics largely written by Richey, chronicling his decline, neither revelling
in self-pity or lashing out in rage but in stark, matter-of-fact terms. No more cut-up neo-Situationist sloganeering. Now Richey was cut up 4 Real. On "4st 7 lbs", his paean to anorexia, in
which he imagined a girl systematically starving herself, the lyric went: "I choose myself, I starve to frenzy ... legs bend, stockinged, I am Twiggy/And I don't mind the horror that surrounds me..."
Living on vodka and baked potatoes, admitting to the "sexual" release of pain he enjoyed when he cut himself, Richey was eventually admitted to Cardiff psychiatric hospital, on the verge of
anorexia. The experience didn't shock him out of any romantic, traumatised posturing. He saw nine-to-five everyday people with the same problems as himself. He witnessed the inevitable horrors of such an institution, even in the benign late-20th century. He kept his head down, remained stoically resilient - and un-"cured".
One of Richey's last photo sessions took place for Melody Maker, amid the catacombs of Paris. Looking drawn, smiling resignedly, Richey at one point gently kissed one of the skulls. Three months later, on February 1, 1995, on the eve of the Manics' American tour, Edwards checked out of the Embassy Hotel in Bayswater in west London. Frantic attempts to trace him during the rest of that week drew a blank. Then, on February 7, his silver Vauxhall Cavalier was found abandoned on the English side of the Severn Bridge. His passport, credit cards and some anti-depressant pills were found back at his flat in Cardiff.
At first, his disappearance didn't cause much concern - hadn't Joe Strummer pulled a similar stunt a decade earlier? But as days turned to months, it was clear this was no stunt. The pages of the music weeklies were flooded with letters, mostly from women (Edwards was an "unman" they could relate to), bewailing Richey's death but also sharing their experiences self-mutilation, creating an "archive of pain" on a subject previously not much discussed in popular culture. The media dubbed the phenomenon a "culture of despair", like a dark cloud passing over pop - but it was merely a
phenomenon that had always been there, that had only dared speak its name following the "example" of Richey Manic.
Surveying Richey Edwards and those troubled fans who surfaced in his wake, it's easy for we, the healthy and complacently robust of mind, to cry out, "Get a life, you nutters!" Edwards was certainly accused of self-indulgence. After all, there were people out there with "real" problems. His problems were about nothing. Notwithstanding the fact that Edward's problems were clearly all too real, the fact that they appeared to be unmotivated by any external adversity, personal or political, was precisely the point. Edward's condition was intransitive, unconditional - it just was. That's the unknowable nature of the black dog.
Without Richey, the Manics have gone on to unprecedented success as a trio - but there's a hollowness about their success, in their glum photo shoots, in their empty, ringing powerchords. Something is missing. Their conscience? Maybe it's out there somewhere...