Manic Street Preachers in LA - speed, sex, scuzz-not! It's total alienation, celibacy, introspection and 'Motorcycle Emptiness' for the four "poxy British white kids in the heart of this grim nation of corporatism", actually. But guys, Stuart Bailie still loves ya! Taking the Mickey Mouse: Pennie Smith
Upstairs at The Rainbow, Sunset Strip, there’s a nervy-looking guy wearing a fur coat, tennis shoes with purple laces and a pair of punky Sid shades. Maybe he’s faking it, but his unhappy moanings make it sound like he’s having the worst time of his life.
“I cannot believe it,” bleats Nicky Wire. “I just went into the toilets and there it was, this ‘Generation Terrorists’ mat in the urinal, especially put there for tonight. That’s really taking the piss, isn’t it?”
A few of us trade sympathetic glances, but everybody else in The Rainbow is unfazed by this corruption of the group’s baby manifesto. California’s best liggers are too busy unloading pizzas and buckshee liquor to care that much; it’s only when they dab their mouths with a Manic Street Preachers napkin (a replica of Richey’s tattoo), or pocket an MSP bumper sticker (with Prague crucifix image) that there’s any real sign of the motive behind this record company jolly at all.
During the evening, the Manics are asked to group together for a photo opportunity or to sign a poster (complete with huge NME quote) for one of the fur-toting wannabe babes. A radio plugger steps over to tell them that ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ is the most added-to track on the Metal stations, and that it’s doing fantastically well on AOR radio too. “The ultimate accolade,” mouths Nicky, glazed and confused.
Over the PA system, James Dean Bradfield is singing about neon loneliness, while I’m watching the group’s induction to Paradise City - how they’re beginning to quantify their place on LA’s main strip, to sample the hot splurge of speed, sex, scuzzy rock lore and venal excess, and to measure that up to their own, ultra-critical value system. The Manics look pissed off and alienated already. Just the way they prefer it, probably.
“It’s really fucked me up,” Richey protests. “People just seem to want so much over here, they’re not content with anything. I’ve been completely celibate on this tour. We could have fucked every night - in Europe and Britain we did - and in America I just haven’t slept with anybody. It just doesn’t interest me. Everything just seems for sale.”
“It’s made me much more inward,” Nicky says. “I haven’t gone out at all. I’ve been reading more than I’ve done in the last three years. Every gig we’ve done girls have brought us books, and I’ve become really insular - I’ve gone back to the days when I used to love Morrissey.”
Pretty soon, though, the Manics could be enjoying masses of respect from this pariah, an eventuality that makes all of their moanings seem twisted and weirdly funny. The night I saw them play the Whiskey they were immense - a big, blamming show that left me all choked and proud. Their record company are awfully keen to accommodate them as well, even if they’re not precisely au fait with these spiky polemics yet. Just a little more topspin, you feel, and the LA lot may take to this act like they’ve already gone for less interesting Joes like, say, Billy Idol and The Cult.
And then the Manics have to figure out if it’s really worth having. As I unpool the memories of the band’s final three days in America, that’s where I remember the source of the drama lay - the painful wrestlings about scruples, the Manics’ sadness for their fast-fading punky era, and the epic resolutions that still have some coinage in their controv-heavy career.
Daytime on Melrose Avenue, and Richey’s just blown his wad on a bleached-out jacket and some postcards. One of the cards is a groovy take on the philosophy of Descartes - ‘I Shop Therefore I Am’. Another one shows a Barbie doll fixed up in gold lamé, surrounded by consumer desirables. There’s a speech bubble coming out of her mouth that reads: “Every morning I wake up and thank God for my unique ability to accessorise.”
Richey’s in chatty form, telling us how LA’s alternative radio station, KROQ, played the Manics’ ‘Slash ’N’ Burn’ (and Fabulous’ ‘There’s A Riot Going On’) to commemorate the LA riots. It was especially disturbing Richey says, because their song is about Third World economics and deforestation policies, not a call to arms.
I mention how I’d expect the band to be more animated, that the throbbing, sexy rush they’d affected so well in Britain would have empowered its way over here, vindicating itself in full, mojo-rising effect on Sunset Boulevard. Yet Nicky’s gone back to bed - he’s “too feeble” - and Sean’s not around. Richey says that he’s already digested it all on TV, and that he’s not so thrilled to catch America first hand.
And then, of course, the civic unrest in New York, Toronto, San Francisco, LA - all towns the Manics have passed through - have acted as a horrible backdrop for their efforts. “It just puts it all into perspective,” Nicky reckoned earlier, “being poxy British white kids in the heart of this grim nation of corporatism.”
Wary of them repeating a Clash-pose-in-Belfast scenario, the Manics are happy to miss the wrecked buildings and check out the intact sections of town. So Richey’s digging out books in Melrose about especially freaky Siamese children (“you’d make a fortune if you looked like that now”), rapping about serial killers, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction, plus the footballing fortunes of Luton Town. The only shop that’s been done over on this avenue is a branch of the London shop, Boy. “At least the looters had a bit of taste,” Richey supposes.
As we turn into Bleecker Bob’s record store, there’s a welcoming blast of ‘Generation Terrorists’ - the extended UK version as opposed to the tidy, chunky US one - and James is already looking anxious. But Richey has found the British rock press - only a week old - and he gets wrapped up in the gossip that he’s been missing on tour. A shopkeeper realises who it is. “Hey, how are ya, Richey! Are ya lookin’ after that arm of yours?”
Next thing, I realise that James is legging it out of the shop, throwing weird, panicky shapes as he breaks for the door. I’m confused. Richey is giggling oddly inside, nodding to my left. A bloke from behind the counter has just whipped out a copy of ‘Suicide Alley’ - they very first Manics’ single. He’d asked James to sign the cover and the singer bolted instead.
“Where the fuck did you get that?” says Richey, overcome with laughter. “There were only 300 of these pressed up. And just look at Sean on the cover - he looks about 12 there!”
So what’s with James and the dramatic exit?
“Well, he’s such a perfectionist really, that he can’t bear to think of those early singles and the way they sound. Ask him about ‘New Art Riot’ and he’ll talk to you for a couple of seconds and then just walk away. That’s the way he is.”
It’s just gone mid-day at the hotel and Richey’s fixing to eat a plate of sushi (“I don’t want this, but you’ve just got to do it, haven’t you? That’s why this country is so messed up”). Nicky is playing Mr Sensible, sipping pure orange and tugging at his Traci Lords T-shirt, saying how she’s meeting up with them soon for a video for the lovely ‘Little Baby Nothing’.
The sight of the Glamour Twins without their pan-stick throws you a bit, but then so does the realisation that these are likeable, clued-in, expressive people. I start to remember the good things I’ve heard about their personal dealings - how they gave Jeff Barrett of Heavenly Records a cut of the LP profits because he’d helped them early on, or how they’d helped to get Caffy, their indie promotions friend, a good job with the management company when they signed their big deal. All positive accounts, no hint of a self-serving rock-monster lifestyle. So let’s talk about values for a minute, Nicky.
“Lester Bangs said that pure rock’n’roll music can lead to a better life. In an abstract way, it just does. It gives you clues about life, literature and everything. That’s a naïve thought, but I will believe it.”
Richey: “Our lives haven’t changed at all. They’re just better. We were really pissed off before, but at least something made a bit of sense. You could relate to it.”
One of the hopes that the Manics always seemed to uphold was that there was a shiny possibility of finding glamour beyond your normal, cruddy lifestyle. How does that go down with the Los Angeles experience?
Richey: “They only bands that ever interested us were traditional rock bands like The Clash, the Stones, The Who, and a lot more glam rock bands like Guns N’Roses, or whatever. But we were never interested in moving to LA, buying a Harley, cruising up and down, singing songs about girls and sniffing cocaine off beautiful models.
“That was all crap - the thing that offended us about rock music was that they would never try to have any sensitivity or soul. It was all just enough to go out and go, Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me, and that was the thing that people got wrong about us from the start.”
Nicky: “If we looked like we felt, then we would have come onstage as Joy Division. We made a massive effort to be a glamorous band, because inside we know we’re not particularly glamorous, really.”
The thing I liked the most about the early Manics gigs was the theatre, uncertainty and dissent - people weren’t sure what the band was about, and how to react. Much of that’s gone now. Instead you’ve got a consensus, like at the last big Astoria show in London. It was fun but everybody knew exactly how to behave...
Richey: “The difference is that we’re the only band in London that gets accused of something like that, because no other band is putting demands upon themselves. If any other band did a show in a place like the Astoria no-one would question why is should be better. Everyone loved the show, but they expected more, which is good.”
In New York, though, you went for the blow-out, mouthing off about how the only good thing about the town was that it killed John Lennon...
Nicky: “We still get mouthy, but where the situation is right. If we’re actually enjoying a concert, and we think it’s going well, I never really think about it - it’s a bit of a fake if you’re mouthing off. In New York, everyone was just so brain dead, it was just the right thing to do.”
Is there any reason to guess that the Manics are already having a bearing on the greater scheme of things?
Nicky: “I always thought we’d be like The Stooges, destroying everything, just holding our heads up, or else a huge band. At the moment, we’re close to being either, really. Whatever happens, we’ll always be an important band.”
Richey: “In terms of something explosive, I don’t think it will happen. People just aren’t interested any more. They’re too selfish.”
Nicky: “We’ve made indie bands realise - even on the smallest level - that they can be stars again. You’ve got all these bands like Adorable, The Verve, Suede, you know that they’ve realised you can be a star again, and that’s all down to us. Musically and lyrically, they’re not gonna take anything from us. I know that - they’re too scared.
Like I said, the Whiskey gig was such a thing: joyful and rowdy-responsive, while the activated rumble of James’ Les Paul filled the place out with masses of greatness and anxiety and vim. Stuff your spiky associations, the Manics are now a terrific rock’n’roll band...
The taped intro was a fine idea; the sound of Allen Ginsberg in a stoned-out rendition of his poem ‘Howl’, the hipster apocalypse from ’56. A useful context for taking in ‘Stay Beautiful’ and ‘Democracy Coma’ or more especially when ‘Repeat’ goes veering off into a steal from Dead Kennedys’ ‘California Uber Alles’ - they’ve an excellent sense of occasion, these boys.
Like he does, James rips off his shirt and you see his abdominals all bunched up tight, partly nerves and also down to his obsessive road training programme. If he’s Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire - all inarticulate shrugs and animal reflexes - then Nicky is Blanche DuBois, a Southern (Welsh) Belle, flouncing around in a Kylie shirt, ripping up a feather pillow near the end and transforming the Whiskey into a mad, fluffy landscape. A classy act.
Gilby Clarke, the new Guns N’Roses guitarist, is there watching the form - he seems to like it. Next day, Flea from the Chili Peppers calls the hotel to forward his good wishes. The West Coast rock constituency is taking to the Manics with a lot fewer reservations than their hung-up Brit colleagues. My solitary moan is that they don’t do ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’, the Manics’ new single and epic discourse on the myth of speed and the loneliness of the human lot. So what gives, Nicky?
“At the end of the day, ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ is just one of the best records of the year - more than anyone ever expected from us, and that song is four years old. We never played it early on; when you’re jumping up and down at the Rock Garden you’re not gonna do something like that, really. We don’t want to play it live until we can do it perfectly. We are a perfectionist band.”
After the show we turn back up the strip to The Rainbow, where Richey will pass out on a table and I end up sitting next to Sean, the drummer, the first Manic I ever met.
That was at an especially unhappy party two years ago, when I was set on by a band whose LP I’d (deservedly) slagged off in the paper. I’d been cornered in the toilets and threatened with violence, and I felt rotten. Then Sean came over and started talking about burning down the universe and stuff, and how all the other bands were shite anyway. He made me feel better. I got inspired again.
I don’t get that vibe off him now, sadly. His physical appearance (like Steve Earle on a rough day) and body language all suggest that he’s feeling miffed with his situation, and is storing up all those bad vibes. Not good.
The other Manics seem a little put out by his hermit style (they aren’t healthy outgoing sorts either!), but they reckon that Sean doesn’t need to be around people at all. Richey takes an old American Indian line from Carlos Castaneda: “Those who speak do not know, and those who know do not speak”.
Sean tells me that he was much happier working in the recording studio in Sussex - a time that Nicky also calls “The Golden Era”. There was a lot more control then, says Sean, a freedom from outside contacts and “all the bullshit”. The band were able to regain their self-sufficient drift and be creative like never before.
Now it’s all dispersing, he says, his arms scooping in the air, drawing graphs of band potential versus the reality of it all; ideals nosing downwards under the influence of touring and the Yankee dollar.
Earlier, Richey had been talking about the fun times in the past, driving to London in the Transit, having two-day arguments about whether the indie band McCarthy was somehow more ideologically correct than Guns N’Roses. They were always trading ideas, forming declarations.
“Now you get in the van, and it’s like four people with CD Walkmans, Sega games, just sitting like that. An existential nightmare!”
Richey says that Sean was withdrawn from school too - a “totally scary” figure who was massively gifted, but wouldn’t answer the teachers back when they asked him dopey questions. He was consequently shoved in the CSE stream. There’s a touch of that reserve in his dealings with journalists too, Richey infers, Sean has a comprehensive knowledge of jazz and classical music, but then gets written off all the time as the drummer in a dodgy punk band.
Sean has been estranged from his parents for a long while: there was some horrible family history, so he grew up sharing a room with cousin James. Then, shortly after the Manics made the Top 20, Sean got a letter from his dad, saying that he’d like to be his friend, and maybe they could meet up again. Sean drank a lot and smashed up his room with a pool cue. “He said it was because of the drink,” say the Manics, “but we think he was upset by the letter.”
In Barney’s Beanery, where Janis Joplin once twatted Jim Morrison over the head with a Southern Comfort bottle, the Manics are chilling out, trying to make sense of their last full day in California. We’d been to Venice Beach, now patrolled by squaddies from the Peace Corps - against what, we weren’t sure. Afterwards, an appearance at a TV studio in Anaheim developed into a mad photo session around the corner in Disneyland, with the band strolling around in fake jungle clearings wearing plastic Hawaiian leis. And we noticed how all of the attendants looked so perfect, almost phoney, before we took blasts on the ghost train and the truly wiggly star ride (imagine a rollercoaster in a planetarium on drugs) and generally had a good time in an ideologically suspect sort of way.
Now Richey’s fretting about all that stuff, and the ride back to the hotel that took us past the outskirts of Compton, another kind of famous adventure park. The whole Disney trip is a lousy cultural swap, he decides at last, with Europe giving the Americans Fritz Lang and Hollywood repaying the compliment with a cartoon mouse.
Richey tries his first tequila slammer, likes it, and is on to a new, stranger riff. One of his fave artists, he says, is Van Gogh, who had this thing about perfect circles - how there’s some awesome symbolic value in that.
“The only perfect circle on a human body is the eye,” he explains. “When a baby is born, it’s so perfect, but when it opens its eyes, it’s just blinded by the corruption and everything else is a downward spiral. You can’t draw a perfect circle, but you can put a man on the moon - really bizarre!”
Soon we’re all drawing crap circles on our beer mats, and I sneak a long look at this squiffy assembly. Sean is quiet, and is planning to go back with Nicky, who feels unwell. James, who has been threatening to punch out this enormous long-hair at the pool table (he’s twice James’ height), has calmed a little, and is now sticking with us, poking his buddies in the absence of any spoken words.
The Manics are a very physical band, always reassuring each other, which is nice. James is king of the touching; the singer is last sighted practically on top of his manager’s shoulders, massaging his neck and feeling the bumps on top of his head. I feel like I’m part of a David Attenborough film.
Then Richey has an allergic reaction to the tequila and he starts to go pink, and then swells up. His arm just inflates, and presently you’re looking at something that’s stranger than anything out of a Cronenberg fantasy, as the letters 4 REAL start to rise out of Richey’s forearm.
And afterwards you start looking at his right arm, and that’s queer too; burns, scrapes, slices, lesions - a lurid pink testimony to a sustained programme of self-mutilation. “What?” says Richey calmly, looking up from his circles. “Oh, they’re just my war wounds.”
So is there any truth in the theory that people who damage themselves on purpose are trying to externalise some awful, inner pain?
“I dunno if that’s true, I’ve always found it hard to express how I feel, even when I was a little child. It’s a very British emotion - they keep things bottled up inside them. Some more than others.”
The Manics are ready for the morning flight to Japan - to binge out on Sega software and to compensate for those celibate American nights.
Nicky’s talking about his fruit machine habit, and the urge to beat the machine. His back’s a real mess too, he says, a problem with all the tall blokes in the ‘Wire’ household. Dad actually gained six inches in traction. The brother has had vertebrate worked on. Nicky is the band’s medical bore - he will arrive in Japan claiming to have contracted malaria.
Richey has a present for me. He passes over the Barbie doll postcard he got on Melrose two days before. On the other side, he’s written some of the things he wanted to say about Disneyland last night, but couldn’t quite express.
Here’s what it says: “Hollywood and Disneyland are the legacy of Europe’s cultural imperialism. We gave them nursery rhymes and they gave back film. Televised riots are as American as Barbie/Big Macs. Tomorrow the riots will be forgotten but Mickey Mouse will still be there. Welcome to Disneyland. Love, Manic Street Preachers.”
And you thought they were just a Mickey Mouse band?