It's nearly four years since the Manic Street Preachers' Richey Edwards vanished. But when lyricist Nicky Wire visited the house they shared, it was as if time had healed nothing.
Nicky Wire stands outside the house, staring at it. He is crying. In the bright afternoon sun, the tears roll down his face until he can taste the salt on his lips. He has wanted to cry all day. Now he can't stop. This is the house, in King Edward's Road, Swansea, where Nicky used to live with Richey Edwards. Just over 10 years ago, the two best friends, who grew up deep in the Welsh valleys, in the mining village of Blackwood, went to Swansea University. They sat in their bedrooms and wrote the lyrics to songs, to "Motorcycle Emptiness". Together, they dreamt of becoming the biggest band in the world. Of selling 20 million copies of their first album and then splitting up.
Today is Sunday 20 September 1998 and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, the Manic Street Preachers' fifth album, has just entered the charts at number one. The band are on a mini-tour of Britain and tonight they play in Port Talbot, a 15-minute drive along the coast from Swansea.
James Dean Bradfield, singer, guitarist and songwriter, is at the venue; after each soundcheck in each new town, he has dinner with the crew. His cousin, Sean Moore, drummer and co-songwriter, is in his hotel room watching Arsenal beat Manchester United 3-0. Nicky Wire, bass player and lyricist, is scheduled to do this interview. He is nowhere to be found.
Martin Hall, the band's manager, tries to call him but the phone is off the hook. Perhaps he's in the shower, Martin suggests. As Nicky will only stay in hotels with Sky Sports, I wonder if he is watching the game in peace. After an hour or two, Martin becomes agitated. "Nick's never like this; he's always on time... although he was a little strange at the soundcheck."
Finally, Martin disappears upstairs. When he returns, he looks unhappy. "I'm so sorry, but Nick's in a bit of a state. He's been for a walk on his own and now he's up in his room drinking a bottle of red wine. I tried to make him sit down and talk, but he won't. He's pacing up and down. I'm not quite sure what's wrong. Perhaps it's got something to do with playing a gig in Wales."
At 8pm, I take the lift from my room down to the lobby. The doors open and there is Nicky Wire, looking shocked and terrified. His hair is wet and he clutches dripping swimming trunks in his hand. "Hello. I'd better go and put some make-up on." Head bowed, he presses the lift button as hard as he can.
I Hate Myself And I Want To Die.
On 1 February 1995, Richey Edwards went missing. Like one of his heroes, Joy Division's Ian Curtis, he chose the eve of an American tour; unlike Curtis, who made it easy by hanging himself, Richey Edwards's body has never been found. All anybody knows is that Richey left his London hotel, left his passport and credit cards and drove, in a silver Vauxhall Cavalier, to the motorway services next to the Severn Bridge. Although the bridge is an infamous suicide spot, Richey's body is still missing.
Which leaves Richey's family and the Manics with a little, just a little, hope.
Another hero of his, Kurt Cobain, suffered from chronic stomach pains and would talk of suicide as a permanent way of stopping the agony. Richey dealt with pain, more mental than physical, by abusing his body. Drinking to excess became normal, so he used to stub cigarettes out on his arm and, infamously, in answer to a music journalist's criticism that the Manics were a phoney band, once carved "4 REAL" with a blade on his arm. When cutting was no longer a release, he would starve himself.
In the 18 months before his disappearance, Richey Edwards was probably as low as he had ever been. The band's friend and original manager, Philip Hall, had died young, of cancer. Richey responded badly. He spent some time in an NHS mental institution, drugged-up and numb. He was virtually anorexic. Before, he had written lyrics with Nicky Wire; on 1994's album The Holy Bible, his mood was so black that he often wrote alone. You only have to listen to "4st 7lb" for a glimpse into the bleakness of his world: "See my third rib appear / A week later all my flesh disappear... I want to walk in the snow/And not leave a footprint."
During the Port Talbot gig, Nicky Wire does scissor kicks, plays bass lying on the floor, wears a red Spanish Civil War hard hat, puts sunglasses on, takes them off. He grabs the microphone and starts screaming into it. What he says is inaudible: the only decipherable word is "Richey".
The Manics have done extensive tours throughout Europe, but still they play as though their fourth member is sitting a song out. There is a space on the left side of the stage where Richey should be playing guitar.
After the gig we wait outside the dressing-room. Chris the tour manager goes in and runs straight out again. His shirt is soaked. "You wouldn't believe what's going on! Champagne!"
In the dressing-room, Nicky Wire is eating ice cubes out of a bucket and drinking Jacob's Creek straight out of the bottle. His eyes are stained with kohl. He is soaking wet: hair, T-shirt, white jeans. He has tipped an entire bottle of champagne over his head. As he talks - nonstop, about how useless Wales's football manager Bobby Gould is, about the gig, about nothing - he bites ice cubes and drops them into his half-empty wine bottle.
Tight around his neck is a necklace with the word "SEXY" written in diamanté. "I need a slash," he announces. On his way, he grabs a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich; before he shuts the toilet door behind him, he leans out, opens his mouth and lets the half-chewed food fall on to the floor.
Martin Hall looks worried again. "I've never seen him like this."
"I'm never like this," says Nicky, back from the toilet.
Nicky slumps into a leather armchair and covers himself with fluffy, white towels. He looks pleased with himself. "I only do this once a year," he says, to no one in particular. He stands up again, takes off his sodden nylon jacket and pulls a khaki T-shirt over his head. The word "TOLERATE" is written across the chest; one of the band's tour T-shirts. James wears one with "TRUTH" on it.
Sean Moore goes on to the tour bus early. James Dean Bradfield is drinking Jameson and Coke and joking around with Martin. Nicky is talking. "When Richey and I used to live in Swansea, I played golf and gambled. Richey never played golf..." He giggles. "He'd have been so crap, he'd just have hit himself over the head with the club."
More people come in. Nicky is introduced to Peter Hain, the Welsh Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. As Hain talks, Nicky swigs from the bottle and lets Jacob's Creek dribble out of the corners of his mouth. The minister pretends not to notice; James looks on appalled. "It's OK," says Nicky hysterically. "I'm doing it on purpose."
On the tour bus, on the way back to the hotel, Sean tries to interest Nicky in some Ribena. He never drinks beer, but is asking for a Miller. He slouches on the sofa upstairs, his hair held out of his eyes with two diamanté clips, and blows soap bubbles from a child's toy. "I wish I'd had this stuff on stage," he says, looking like a little boy. "My wife, Rachel, has gone to see the Cardiff Devils. Rather watch ice hockey than see us. Oh well. "
We arrive at the hotel and Nicky grabs hold of Martin in the lobby. "I'm soaked. Can I go for a swim? Can you open the pool, Martin? So I can do a Brian Jones... Ha ha!"
Where Are You Going With That Gun In Your Hand?
It's late - 1.30am - but Nicky wants to talk. We sit in the hotel restaurant because it's quieter than the bar. On the other side of the net curtain is the swimming-pool. "I've had two fantastic swims in there today," says Nicky quietly. Now that his audience is down to one, he is a little calmer. Which apparently is more familiar behaviour than the anarchistic antics in the dressing-room; they may be the biggest rock band in Britain, but the Manics' reputation lies more with being in bed before midnight than smoking spliff and talking bollocks till dawn. To give some perspective, in recent interviews promoting the new album, Nicky has talked about how many Dysons he has in his house (one for upstairs, one for downstairs and one spare).
Ordering a white wine spritzer, Nicky attempts to explain his bizarre behaviour. "I'm not pissed, honest. A bit tipsy. I'm just bored. Today is the first time I've ever been bored. I must admit that I never thought success would avalanche into some kind of mediocrity, but it has a little. Our first number one single with 'If You Tolerate This...' and then a number one album today; selling 140,000 albums in your first week when the highest figure before was 50,000. I want it. But it's a bit of an anticlimax."
The drinks arrive. "Nice lady's drink this," he smiles. "I've wished for this kind of success since the age of 16, since I gave up football. It's the one thing that kept me going. Trying to be better than everyone else. And now it's happened, it's a bit of a let-down. People think our lives should be perfect. I wish mine was."
As we talk, it becomes obvious that Nicky is a little jumpy about the press. He feels vulnerable; the lyrics on This Is My Truth... are the first he has written entirely on his own. Even on the last album, Everything Must Go, there were some of Richey's lyrics. A few of the harsher reviewers have accused Nicky of being in Richey's shadow, of writing trite political songs (particularly "SYMM" aka "South Yorkshire Mass Murderer"; apparently to some of the press Hillsborough is a passé subject. Ironically, Nicky guessed as much, for the song opens: "It's really not the sort of thing that people want to hear us sing... It's still unfashionable to believe in principles").
What is forgotten is this: apart from some of the more brutal songs on The Holy Bible, Nicky and Richey used to write together. Nicky without Richey is simply the Manics without the rawest and most unstable of emotions. Perhaps the detractors have also overlooked the fact that Nicky wrote "A Design For Life" three months after Richey's disappearance. A paean to political and emotional alienation, it rivals Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and REM's "Everybody Hurts" for greatest angst anthem of the Nineties. At the height of Oasis mania, Noel Gallagher said he wished he'd written it himself.
"A journalist in one of the Sunday papers called us 'little trolls', because we're Welsh. Well, I'm 6ft 3in and I'm the sexiest rock star in the world! I've never tried to copy Richey's lyrics. I've always tried to have a lot more clarity and simplicity. Because I don't read as much as Richey, I don't consume as much as him. People just never understand that he was our best friend. I've known him for such a long time... We used to call him Teddy Edwards, for fuck's sake." Nicky shuts his eyes, leans his head back. "Because he looked like a teddy bear."
He fishes ice out of his spritzer and crunches it till it's gone. "Today I went back to where me and Richey lived when we were at university and it was just fucking... devastating. I don't want to be pretentious about it but he invented a meal called 'white noise'. It was his meal: rice, jacket potato and corn on the cob." He laughs to himself. "We used to listen to records together. We wrote 'Motorcycle Emptiness' in that house... There was a review by some knob who said the band had benefited from Richey's disappearance, but they don't realise how my personal life has been completely and utterly fucked. They don't realise that every time someone rings and hangs up without speaking, I press 1471 hoping it's Richey."
We have no language for death at the best of times, but this is worse; there is no conclusion. "That's it. I can only find comfort in thinking that perhaps it's the way Richey would've wanted to leave it. A gigantic question mark. I don't think he thought it was funny - he probably thought it was intelligent... in his warped mind. It's a rock 'n' roll mystery. Just the fact that he was in a Vauxhall Cavalier was much more Reginald Perrin than Lord Lucan. It's real. He was genuinely doing what he had to do."
Nicky and Richey were best mates, but there was always a competitive edge. At school, Nicky's estimated A-level grades were three Ds. He studied in Blackwood library, read the books his mother gave him (Malcolm Lowry and Philip Larkin)and got two As and a B. He changed from Portsmouth Polytechnic to Swansea University. "Richey got three As. The cunt. I suppose that was the difference."
When Nicky and Richey were at university, both studying political and modern history, Richey was, surprisingly, the more normal of the two friends. "He was obviously an academic, I wasn't. I was the one who was underweight and I just fucking dossed around. I got Richey to do some of my essays; he finished a year before me, being a year older. I got a 2:2, which I was fucking surprised about. Richey was devastated that he didn't get a first; he was 2 per cent away. He used to go out for dinner with his tutors. He had a leather jacket and a jumper that was weird. People don't understand; we've got so many fond memories of Richey..."
Nicky puts his head in his hands. "It just doesn't add up to us. It's just done my fucking head in. I've got this vision of Richey before he left us; it was a Monday and he brought me The Daily Telegraph. He was so happy because he knew how much I love the sports section... You get Boy George promoting a comeback single on TFI... saying: 'Oh yeah, Richey, it's an Agatha Christie.' It's fucking not! You've got his family and the band with lives completely fucked up."
Does he feel angry with Richey for leaving? "Um... I don't know. I think he's the coolest person who ever lived. Anger mixed with respect. If he turned up at my house tomorrow... the thought of writing a lyric with him again would just be the most joyous thing. People can't understand. Sitting in a room writing lyrics together. It was an unbelievable sensation."
He must have utterly trusted Richey. "Yeah. When we lived here in Swansea, I was having a bit of a rough time, women-wise, and we'd just sit around listening to dodgy records and writing songs together. Lyrics. We couldn't play guitar. When Philip was our manager, I slept in the same bed with Richey for six months in his house. I woke up with the vodka seeping out of Richey's skin. Poor old Terri [Hall; Philip's wife and now the Manics' press officer] shouting at Philip: 'Why don't you go and sleep with those dodgy old Manics!' He came home pissed once and said: 'Why don't you sound like The Faces?'" Nicky laughs and toasts absent friends.
Martin is hovering around. "He's staying up because he thinks I'm wrecked out of my head," says Nicky, giggling. "I'm slightly tipsy but... I'm emotional. It's depressing. I didn't ever want things to turn out like this. Imagine what it's like for Dave Grohl and Kirk [Krist] Novoselic or whatever he's called. Dave Grohl is talented. He's not a fucking mong. The Foo Fighters would have made it even if Nirvana had never existed. Poor old Kurt. I just hope he's up there with Richey jamming a Fall song. Real spazzy fucking dodgy song. I just hope they're playing the most shite punk rock in the world. Screaming their fucking heads off."
He orders another spritzer. "The last tour we did with Richey, the Suede tour, we watched the Nirvana video every night. Kurt's got a dress on and he just goes to the camera and gobs. Constantly, every song. I know it's trivial but... The greatest line Kurt ever wrote was this: 'I miss the comfort of being sad.' It's the same with Richey: people think you get to a certain level and you can no longer be sad. Richey is more astute than anybody..." Nicky confuses present and past. "He fucking drove off in a Cavalier to the Aust motorway services. You're not fucking pissing around when you do that, you're fucking fucked out of your mind."
Martin appears at the table. "You all right?"
Nicky takes the opportunity to go to the toilet. "This is very tipsy for him. He never normally drinks at all," says Martin.
"Why are you so worried about me?" Nicky is back. "Honestly. I'm all right."
Martin says he's off to bed.
"Call me at 8:15," shouts Nicky. "I want to go swimming." He whispers to me. "He thinks I'm absolutely whazzed. I'm not talking that badly am I?"
He eats the ice from his drink. "I've had three spritzers! Do you know what? I've never had a drag of a cigarette in my life. It's the saddest thing. Must have been because my dad smoked 60 rolly rolls a day. People don't realise. I slept with Richey, I wrote with Richey. I played with Richey. Football and music. People are never going to understand what we went through. Fucking hell, I think I must be drunk now. All those fucking stars down the Met Bar and I'm in the Swansea Marriott drinking a fucking white wine spritzer!"
There is a long pause. Nicky shuts his eyes again. When they open, they are strangely sparkly. "He left 50 or 60 songs. Three to five weeks before he went missing, Richey gave us these songs. It's pretty hard to look at them. But I think with the next album we'll feel duty bound to make a book of Richey's lyrics or have half mine and half his. Some of them are pretty fucking astounding. If we use them, they're going to a million times overshadow mine, which I can deal with... There's one, 'Doors Close In Slowly' or perhaps 'Doors Slowly Closing' which is absolutely amazing. Total Ian Curtis... Fuck it, we were all in love with Ian Curtis. Joy Division were fantastic. Every fucked-up icon, we were in love with. When you're 19 and live in a shit-hole in Wales, you genuinely are in love with that kind of stuff. I was. Whether it was Betty Blue, Rumblefish or Ian Curtis, we were all in love." He whispers melodramatically. "Till now. Till we all became sorted, superior adult human beings."
A woman starts vacuuming in the far end of the restaurant. "It looks like we're here for breakfast." He peers over at her. "That's not a fucking Dyson! I love seeing my Dyson suck up Molly the dog's black hair. I've suffered from OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder] all my life. There was a point, when I was about 16, when I'd turn the lights on and off maybe 50 times a night. I just laugh at it now. I went home to Blackwood, just for one night, and it's sad, but the first thing I did was Hoover. Cleanliness. I love it."
It is past 3am. Nicky decides to go to bed.
The next day Nicky is ill. He can't stop vomiting. Around midday, there is a wave of panic when Martin wonders if the gig at Stoke might have to be cancelled. Against all the odds, Nicky makes it out of his hotel bathroom and on to the tour bus.
That evening, Nicky can barely stand. He arrives on stage on his hands and knees and, after 90 minutes, crawls back off.
A Design For Life
The day after Stoke, Margate. The Winter Gardens. I haven't seen Nicky since Swansea. I wonder if he will be embarrassed by his emotional outpouring, about the frankness with which he spoke of his love for Richey. He is, it turns out, more concerned about his health. In the tiny dressing-room, he hides behind an eight-page letter from a fan. "Oh no! I was sick six times! It's the first time I've had a flat stomach in ages. I'm not going to drink again for two years."
Drummer Sean Moore doesn't like interviews - he'd much rather sit around and talk about why he's got a shiny silver Nokia mobile and three GameBoys - but he agrees to talk on the tour bus. Sean is very clear about his role in the band: he helps out with the songwriting and plays drums. He is a rock star by night and a normal bloke by day. He has always understood that separating the public and private keeps you sane. The most rock 'n' roll thing he's ever done is turn up for a radio interview drunk on his birthday. "I've already seen one person consumed by rock 'n' roll and I wouldn't say it's an experience I want to live through again. A nice, pleasant, polite human being turning into a... shell of his former self."
Sean wouldn't care if he never had to pose for a photo again, never again had to answer questions about the band. He has, he says, a life. "When I'm at home in Bristol, I go out on my Vespa. Ride down to Weston, have my tea on the beach and then ride home. I'm very solitary. I enjoy my own company. When James moved up to London, it was full-on parties every night. I'd rather be at home watching Sky Sports or films."
When he was still young, Sean's parents divorced and he moved in with James's family. He thinks that this might be why he enjoys his own company; not that he didn't feel loved, just that he had a different surname to James. I ask him what he'd do if the Manics split up. "I'd never start or join another band. Definitely not. When James and I wrote a little ditty for Kylie Minogue, it was four days of misery. It just seemed utterly pointless. If the Manics ended, I wouldn't ever play again. I don't feel like I could put the commitment in for anyone else except James and Nicky. The Manic Street Preachers is a collective. If you take one of the elements out, it becomes unstable. The last thing we want is James fronting the Manic Street Preachers with session players - like some dodgy Clash reunion."
James comes and sits with us and Sean makes his excuses. I tell him I'm touched, really impressed, by the band's solidarity and intimacy. The four lads who met playing football in the local park could never have imagined where their friendship would lead them. Richey's disappearance could have broken the Manics, but instead the bond between the remaining trio has heightened.
James is the most macho of the three, not in a laddish way, just in a firm handshake kind of way. Nicky is a great hugger, of men and women alike; James likes to keep his distance. He becomes nervy the moment interviews begin, and says that the brutal truth about the Manics is this: if Richey had stayed around, the band would have disintegrated and they would have reverted to being friends.
"If Richey had carried on with us after The Holy Bible, I think we'd have made Holy Bible Mark II rather than Everything Must Go. Nick and Richey's lyrics are so different. Singing Nick's lyrics is a purifying experience for me and they lend me a certain sense of humility and humanity. Richey's lyrics were a challenge and they were always confrontational to my nature. I had to dive headfirst into them. I said I didn't think there would be a band any more... yes, well maybe I'd have plunged into Richey's lyrics again, allowed him to go further and further, and I think that might've ripped the band apart. I don't think it was a staple diet we could exist on."
Yet the band still perform live as though they're waiting for Richey to return. "Yeah, I know." He sighs. Runs his hand through his hair. "It's not a symbolic gesture. On stage, I just don't like being that far away from Nick at the end of the day - he's my touchstone for everything. If we're not together, I speak to him on the phone twice a day. This sounds really dodgy - no, sentimental - but I always liked to feel close to Nick, Richey and Sean when I was on stage with them... I'd like to try and take some of the closeness out of the equation now. We've become so close it's almost awkward. Blokes being that close." He smiles. "After all these years, being thrown together - you have to try to keep some, dare I say, creative tension."
James, like Nicky, is dissatisfied with the status the Manics have reached this year. "I thought we'd be bigger," he says perfectly seriously. "Nothing will ever correlate with the mad idea that myself and Nick had when we were 15 years old and wrote our first song. We had a preposterous fucking big ready-made myth in our heads. I don't think anything we ever do will live up to that."
Back in the dressing-room, 10 minutes before they are due on stage, the Manics drink coffee, Purdeys Gold and Ribena. Nicky looks at today's presents from fans. A black and brown dress from Oasis. Nicky holds it up against his body, thinks maybe yes, maybe no. He hasn't worn a dress on stage in a while, but the urge might still take him. He leans into the mirror, applies the eye kohl which will give him panda eyes halfway through the gig. Fans send so much make-up, he never has to buy any himself.
Sean and James change from shirts and combat trousers into slightly smarter shirts and combat trousers. Nicky brushes his teeth.
"Look at us," says Nicky as they line up to go on stage. "Aren't we clean and lovely?"