Three men and a ghost picked up the two big Brit Awards. Andy Beckett on a self-destructive talent
Late last Monday night, near the weary end of the televised blare called the Brits Awards, three dressed-down Welshmen - two small, one awkwardly tall - shuffled onstage and collected the two biggest prizes. Amid the make-up and mini-skirts, the dry ice and chrome of our music industry's annual ceremony of self-congratulation, the Manic Street Preachers seemed as sober as social workers. Handed a statuette for best album of 1996, the singer raised an eyebrow. Given another for best British band, the bass player made a speech, level-eyed and brief, about the benefits of comprehensive education.
Then they played a song. Its opening lines, rasped out from the same garish stage earlier pranced by the Spice Girls, were: "Libraries gave us power/ Then work came and made us free". For five ringing minutes the melody swelled and subsided and swelled, until, at the last chorus, a slogan flashed up on a giant screen behind the band. It came from George Orwell: "Hope Lies In The Proles". In the audience, for a moment, even the owners of the record companies seemed moved.
Over the past year, the Manic Street Preachers have become used to such unlikely epiphanies. Giddy pop music, critics and consumers usually agree, makes a poor vehicle for political thought. Yet these stern Welshmen with their melodramatic name have sold, in their hundreds of thousands, singles about working-class entrapment ("A Design For Life"), emigration ("Australia"), even a war photographer's suicide ("Kevin Carter"). The Manic Street Preachers' most recent album, Everything Must Go, an hour of existential despair with reference to Jackson Pollock and Japanese cinema, went straight to No 1. In the music press last year, teenagers voted the band to the top of every possible poll.
All this has seemed a perfect coup. Except that, as the Manic Street Preachers roared away before Richard Branson at the Brits, the size of their slogans and sound could not quite hide a certain tentativeness onstage. The three of them were a huddle, too few for that big gaudy space. They were missing Richey Edwards.
He joined the band in its infancy in 1989. As the Manic Street Preachers scrambled upwards, he played guitar, co-wrote the words, helped invent the stance they now sell to the world. Then, just over two years ago, aged 28, he disappeared.
Edwards was last seen for certain leaving the Embassy Hotel in west London early on the morning of 31 January 1995. The band were due to fly to America for interviews, but Edwards drove past the airport and kept heading west, all the way to his flat in Cardiff. There he left his passport and his credit cards, and slipped away.
His silver Vauxhall Cavalier was found two weeks later, at Aust Service Station beside the M4. Its car-park overlooked the Severn Bridge, a favourite spot for suicides. But no body surfaced on the tides of the Bristol Channel, and out of this spirals of myth and mystery soon grew. Edwards had withdrawn over pounds 2,000 from cashpoints before he fled. He seemed to have been living in the car: its battery was flat from playing tapes. Nobody quite knew how long the Cavalier had been left.
Someone might have met Edwards at Newport bus station on 5 February. Two days later, a taxi driver drove a strange young man from Newport to Blackwood, Edwards's home town; his passenger asked him to avoid major roads. Then, after February, there were possible phone calls to friends, sightings in Liverpool, Whitby, New York, all over Wales - Edwards diffused into folklore, like a rock 'n' roll version of the lost nationalist Owain Glyndwr.
The appetite for his return has grown with his band's sales. The Internet is stacked with disappearance theories; the letters pages of Melody Maker still shriek with bereavement, open letters to Richey, and, most painfully, attacks on his bandmates' output without him. All the intelligence in the Manic Street Preachers, all Edwards's unusual ambitions to create songs from important books, only made the autograph hunters worse.
Then again, Edwards began as a pop obsessive himself. Blackwood was boring for teenagers. It was fine for children: Edwards and his friend Nicky Wire, who became his co-writer and bass player, had their own street football teams; they played for a trophy Wire's dad had found on the rubbish tip. As they got older, though, and the jobs at the mine became short- term jobs at the Pot Noodle factory, Edwards and Wire withdrew into each other's bedrooms and the infinite consolations of books and records. While the other lads learnt about beer and brawling, they drank tea and tried William Burroughs and Echo and the Bunnymen.
They were good students. Edwards got three A's at A-level and, in 1986, began a history degree at Swansea University. Wire studied political literature; Edwards specialised in Russia and Germany's diplomatic relations between the wars. His tutor, Eleanor Browning, was impressed: "He was thoroughly capable intellectually. A serious young man - he never let his interest in pop music interfere with the work."
Edwards graduated with a 2:1, membership of the fledgling Manic Street Preachers, and a tendency when stressed to go to bed with a bottle of vodka. Blackwood had contracted further in his absence: he went on the dole and wrote bitter songs about the miners' strike. In 1989 Edwards and Wire recorded a single with two other local boys. It was called "Suicide Alley".
They planned their pop entrance. When the Manic Street Preachers first played in London, in 1990, and, soon after, began to be noticed by the music press, they styled themselves as a "New Art Riot": gouged-out eyeliner, spikes of hair, women's blouses sprayed with slogans. They hated every other band; they would be huge; they would make one classic album and split up - Wire and Edwards talked up a soft-voiced storm in interviews. There was only one problem: 15 years earlier, London had heard something rather similar from the Clash and the Sex Pistols. Music journalists scoffed. "Every headline was a leek and a daffodil," says Wire.
Edwards decided on a gesture. After a concert in Norwich, he took a reporter aside and, while they argued, quietly carved "4REAL" in his own arm with a razor. Edwards went to hospital, where he refused to accept attention until all the genuine accident victims had been treated; his photograph, bleeding and impassive, went to the NME. Now the band needed an album.
At first, Generation Terrorists (1992) seemed as absurd as it was ambitious: over an hour of old-fashioned punk diatribes, released in an era dominated by blissful electronic dance music. Edwards, it was rumoured, had not been proficient enough to contribute a single note. But the bravery of the record was elsewhere, in his and Wire's lyrics. These did not try to rhyme or swing; instead they jammed together political aphorisms - "everyone's a victim"; "your joys are counterfeit".
Edwards saw oppression everywhere; his band's conservative music, deliberately chosen for the widest possible appeal, ensured that teenagers took his grievances home. With the singing so hoarse and rushed, they needed to. Yet the Manic Street Preachers already knew the limits of their form: "You can never get across your true meaning," says Wire, "but things seep in."
His band quickly grew up. They made the second album they said they never would, slower and thicker for American radio. Edwards's writing was deepening: from marching banner phrases to a less specific despair. A delicate song called "La Tristesse Durera" (The sadness will go on)" took its title from Van Gogh's dying words. Unfortunately, its verses described what was happening to Edwards only too sharply: "I retreat into self-pity/ It's so easy/ Where they patronise my misery."
Success was damaging him. Touring offered boredom, fear and too much vodka. Worse, songwriting meant dredging up demons - and provoking fans to call up their own. By 1994 the Manic Street Preachers, for all their crystallising melodies, were increasingly associated with the single skinny frame of the unmusical Richey. And he was growing too skinny.
Edwards had stopped eating anything but chocolate, and slid into anorexia. In April, he slashed his chest with knives provided by a fan. By August, he was in Cardiff hospital with "nervous exhaustion" while his band played the summer festivals without him. The same month, they released an album, The Holy Bible, as full of dread as a mere record can probably be. Edwards's songs were called "Die In The Summertime", "Mausoleum", and "4st 7lb" ("such beautiful dignity in self-abuse"). Wire felt a distance: "Richey had become internally politicised, wrapped up in his own lack of peace."
Six months later, head shaven and gaunt, he was gone. The steepness of his decline baffled. A bright boy, hard-working and self-improved, always courteous, close enough to his family to have shared their bungalow until the age of 27, Edwards had shrunk with self-loathing. There were a few catalysts - failure with potential girlfriends, the death of his childhood dog - but none huge or rare. Except for his songs.
Yet, the rest of the band has seemed able to bear their weight. Three months after Edwards's disappearance, they began rehearsing again. And what Nicky Wire writes now has an uplift to its melancholy, edging it closer to the English pop traditions of the Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys. Without Richey, the Manic Street Preachers are more crusading about their Welshness, happier to collaborate with others, singing and selling better.
And that may not be a callous conclusion. The police stopped searching for Edwards seasons ago, but they won't rule out a voluntary exile. The self-dramatiser left no tragic note. "I have no problems with him coming back," says Wire. "Coming round and drinking tea like he always did. But with the press, I'd be very nervous for the boy."