So James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers comes to talk to me in the coffee bar of the Paramount Hotel. He's there to talk about their new album "Everything Must Go" whereas I am there to talk about books.
It's 10 am; desperately early by rock star standards (even be mine truth be told) but he looks pretty chipper so we dive in with the token discussion of their new CD; I'm keeping my hidden agenda close to my chest at the time. Four years ago my second ever interview for Cake was with the Manic Street Preachers; at the time they said they were going to be the biggest band in the world and generally floored the critics with such bravado that they forced people to take them seriously. They were a bit of a precursor to the "new wave of new wave" fad in Britain; the punky air they projected on-stage belied the AM-friendly riffs of numbers like "Motorcycle Emptiness".
That interview was followed by a live show at the Limelight, remarkable not for their live performance ("we were shit", comments James) but for that of the support band, Blind Melon ("After that I still have no idea how they got to be so big.") who were so awful as to defy description and thus make the Manic Street Preachers look pretty good by comparison. Three albums later I am back here with James, and try as I might to prevent it, the ghost of Richey Edwards haunts our conversation (despite, or perhaps because of, a special press release which discusses the subject at length and then says "it is hoped that this will avoid the need for future questioning on the subject"), as we tried to discuss what the band have been up to without quite mentioning the subject.
The new CD "Everything Must Go" reveals many more facets than one, might expect; it's almost as if Richey was a filter blocking out everything except the dark side of the Manics, in much the same way as Ian Curtis' death was the catalyst for New Order to grow beyond the teen angst of Joy Division, and sure enough the Manic Street Preachers of 1996 are broader and more mature. There is the occasional soul-wrenching number (e.g. "The Girl Who Wanted to be God") but a close examination of most of the songs reveals Edwards' hand in their composition.
James admits to occasional worries that it's not seemly to carry on without Richey: "Occasionally, when you're playing live you catch yourself thinking "We shouldn't be doing this", but quickly you stop yourself." Despite the opportunity for instant fame, James steadfastly (and wisely) resists any attempts either to try and recreate the sound of the old Manic Street Preachers, or to categorize the new Manics into the yawning chasm of Britpop. Anyway, I feel it's now time unsubtly to move the focus of our discussion away from the album to books.
The movie "Trainspotting" had just been released, and as the book and its author, Irvine Welsh are the vanguard of a major literary revival in the UK, we start there. Welsh is suddenly the focus of a new movement in literature- their audience in Britain stretches far beyond the typical audience for books and is book readings have the air of a rock concert, or even the chill-out room at a rave. "Have you got the first edition of 'Trainspotting' with the skulls on the cover?" asks James. "You know the one with the quotes on the back cover?" I remember one quote, from a reviewer who said "Absolutely the best book every written by man or woman." "Well, he wrote all those himself, y'know". Got to admire that. So what have you been reading lately, I ask.
"'The Life and Times of an Antichrist' by Alexander Kropotkin, 'The Virgin Suicides' by Jeff Eugenides, and the collected works by Dylan Thomas", he weighs in with. Plus Yukio Mishima, which he is "not understanding a fucking word of. It's making me feel like a fucking dunce. It's like Lipstick Traces- I read that 3 times because it made me so annoyed I didn't understand it." Turning the subject to what young Americans should be reading, I wonder if anyone in the US will make reading cool again like Irvine Welsh did. "Well, there's your Douglas Coupland isn't there." he offers, but I get the impression nobody ever read his books, they just liked to be seen carrying them, and anyway that Generation X thing has such a bad rap these days.
Books still have no cachet except in the roomier bookstores where people use them as an opening gambit for hitting on people. The biggest selling books are those vacuous self-help "Celestine Prophecy"-type books, which is a scandal in any intellectually developed nation. In the subway people are either reading technical manuals for computers or staring morosely into space.
"How about 'The Atrocity Exhibition'", he offers brightly. "No, too much Britishness in there. Or Emily Dickinson. That should put a bit of iron in their soul." I can't see Emily Dickinson catching on big round these parts, to be honest, but everyone needs a bit of iron in their soul so I'm happy to tie my colors to the mast.