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Richey's Final Mystery - NME, 16th May 2009

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Title: Richey's Final Mystery
Publication: NME
Date: Saturday 16th May 2009
Writer: Emily Mackay
Photos: Mitch Ikeda, Andy Willsher

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When Richey Edwards disappeared, he left a book of lyrics in the safe hands of Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield. Now, just for NME, the Manics unravel the dense brilliance of the guitarist's words used on their new album.

Responsibility, the flipside of love, can be a terrible weight. Or it can be as light as A4 Ryman ringbinders. Just such a modest bequest was placed in the hands of Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore by their childhood friend and guitarist Richey James Edwards early in 1995. The folders contained lyrics, typed on Edwards' beloved, cumbersome Olivetti typewriter. Some were short, haiku-like. Others were sides and sides of dense prose. Some were totally inscrutable.

"There were some which actually seemed like the key had just been chucked away to the meaning of them," says James fidgeting in a light-flooded corner of the NME office.

"He was reading fucking six books a week!" adds Nicky, twitchily imperious in Hepburn shades, doodling furiously between answers. "He had really terrible insomnia. He just seemed like he had an utter inability to switch off... You'd need to do quite a lot of research just to spot the references."

"In the past, just because he handed you some lyrics that seemed impossible to put music to, didn't mean that they weren't written as lyrics," says James.

Nicky Wire cackles. "He wasn't looking for an Ivor Novello, was he, the boy? He was looking for a Pulitzer Prize,"

"He was never looking to be compared to any other lyricist," adds James.

"No, he wasn't, no," says Nicky, calmly. "He just wanted to be JG Ballard."

An artful, audacious polemicist at the tight-knit centre of one of the most ambitious, endlessly fascinating rock bands that ever spraypainted a slogan, Edwards had been on a downward spiral. Following the release of the band's monolith of negation 'The Holy Bible', he'd spent time in mental care in a hospital in Cardiff and in The Priory centre. The new words he'd written were hardly breezy, but they did take a different tone from the furious multi-targeted rage of The Holy Bible'. Some of the songs were demoed at the House In The Woods studios in Surrey in January 1995. Mere weeks later, of course, Richey went missing.

Skipping over the pain and confusion of that period, we'll follow the fate of that notebook instead. Five Of the lyrics made it on to 'Everything Must Go' the astounding, graceful album with which the band masterfully shouldered their involuntary new three-piece status. The rest, around 25 in total, were put away. Not forgotten, but placed aside as the band felt out their new boundaries. "Nick's version of the book, the original, is all perfectly spotless where he preserved it, whereas mine is all sort of crumpled, because I kept getting it out over the years and then putting it back in the drawer because it was too scary. Like that scene from Friends, putting a copy of The Shining in the freezer because it's too scary. And I could feel the drawer going (mimes violent shaking) 'Bam-bam-bam... Let me out! Let me be!'" laughs James.

The notebook finally had its way: a year after Richey Edwards was legally declared dead, the Manics are issuing their ninth album, 'Journal For Plague Lovers', with lyrics entirely written by Richey, with a little, minimal editing by Nicky. "I'd forgotten how much I missed him as a lyricist, how much of a fan I am of his intellect, his fierce, rigorous critique Of culture," he says.

"It was a relief to not actually trade in hearsay or myth or speculation," says James. "We can try and interpret something that Richey actually did. Something he actually felt."

To create a fitting vessel for that interpretation, the band set about engineering a powerful symmetry with 'The Holy Bible', previously seen as Edwards' definitive statement. It had 13 tracks; 'Journal For Plague Lovers' has 13 tracks. 'The Holy Bible' featured a forbidding cover painting by Jenny Saville. The new album also features a Saville-painted sleeve. The producer is Steve Albini - he produced Nirvana's 'In Utero', released within a few months of 'The Holy Bible', and of which all the Manics were all huge fans. A tape of 'In Utero' was found in the stereo of the car that Richey left abandoned at the Severn Bridge.

However, those who come to the album expecting 'The Holy Bible Part Two' will not get it: 'Journal For Plague Lovers' is quite a different beast.

"The lyrics are different to 'The Holy Bible'," confirms Nicky. "There is a sense of more calm. It's like he's been through this process of doubting everything and questioning everything. And the conclusions he reached, they're not particularly happy. But they are...rational, even?"

'Journal For Plague Lovers', then, is an opened time capsule of prophecies, unresolved issues, unsolved mysteries. Perhaps most fascinating though is the way the words, stuck in a time and mindset long past to the mature Manics, react fascinatingly with their newer, subtler sound, sometimes pushing them into the more jagged, ferocious shapes of their youth, sometimes flowing willingly into mellower melodies and bringing a strange sort of, if not resolution, conversation between past and present. "It gave us all a chance to be, in a strange way, musicians. Just musicians interpreting somebody else's words," says James.

Although understandably reluctant to give any definite interpretation of the words without Edwards around to explain them, his closest friends and partners in intellect are better placed than anyone to give insight into the riddles of 'Journal...'. Here is their truth...you can work out yours...

'Journal For Plague Lovers' Track by Track:

Peeled Apples
NW: "It starts with an audio clip from The Machinist. If ever there was a film made of us, Christian Bale is the one person who could play Richey. Or maybe Michael Sheen. Both Welsh. Both mental. Obviously Richey never saw it, but it sets the tone."
JDB: "'The figure eight inside out is infinity'. It stands for the Scalextric of his mind: racing around and sometimes crashing and getting back on."
NW: "He was obsessed with the perfect circle and Van Gogh's figure eight and all that. It was a kind of recurring theme that he never seemed to get to grips with. But I don't know whether we relate it to that either. It might just be like James said, the internal maelstrom..."
NW: "'Riderless horses in Chomsky's Camelot...'. It goes back to 'Faster', 'I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer/ I spat out Plath and Pinter'. I love the insane ambition of his intellect."

Jackie Collins Existential Question Time
NW: "A lot of people in the '70s wore badges, you see it a lot in photos, that read 'Mummy, what's a Sex Pistol?' on it. It's just a sort of cultural reference point, I don't know if it's any more loaded than that. The song, I find, is pretty impenetrable. Greil Marcus was a massive influence on all of us... it does seem to make some sense [Marcus' book Lipstick Maces explored the links between situationism and the Sex Pistols]. The way everything seems to be connected. And Jon Savage's England's Dreaming... Lipstick Traces was much more than just a book on music, I could definitely see that, the same idea of recurrence."
JDB: "Most of the songs I've got a definite idea about what I think they're about. That's the only one where I'm very, very uncertain."

Me And Stephen Hawking
NW: "There's the mad line '100,000 watch Giant Haystacks in a Bombay fight'. He was obviously a famous wrestler in our time, he was the bad guy to Big Daddy. I'd love to know if Giant Haystacks fought in a Bombay fight and was watched by 100,000 people. Because if that's true... I don't know what the fuck it's about. It's just that amazing mixture, Richey was never afraid of mixing low art and high art. And that's why it's never elitist, it's just knowledge."

This Joke Sport Severed
JDB: "This song did feel like a dead flower to me, because it's got the possibility of just giving up on conjugal relationships or love. And that emotion is not turned to anybody in particular except himself. It's just saying, 'Perhaps I'm not worthy of love, or love in relationships doesn't work for me'."
NW: "I just thought it was another one that seemed to come to a conclusion after a process. 'I endeavoured/To find a place where 'became untethered', it just feels like he's looked at the possibilities and a lot of the conclusions aren't pretty or positive, but they are...rational. It's just nice to know, I think, well, I know for a fact from the last 10 days that we were with him, that he'd reached a place where he was much... not happier..."
JDB: "Calmer."

Journal For Plague Lovers
JDB: "I think it talks about when the malady doesn't fit the cure. And how the cure sometimes homogenises the person. Like, 'PG certificate, all cuts unfocused'... the cure will sometimes bring a bland focus to what is a real problem."
NW: "Because, of course, The Priory is a mixture of all pseudo-God and religious bollocks and doctors trying to cure you. He quickly realised that the cure means having to destroy the entire entity that you are. And I don't think he's prepared to do that for the sake of survival... [ironically] in the modern world. Fucking turning into a therapy session, this. Although when he was in The Priory and Eric Clapton was there and he offered to come round and jam, that was one of those moments where you couldn't write anything funnier, in a tragic situation."
JDB: "God bless Clappo, he wasn't being nasty..."
NW: "He wasn't... he just thought, 'Hey, rock'n'roll musician, come on.' I would love to have been there to see Richey's polite, 'Well, maybe not...' 'Matron, bring my Strat, close the door.' And Richey's like, Fuck, I'm getting out of here!"

She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach
JDB: "There're some people he met when he was in one of the two places having treatment and I think he just digested other people's stories and experiences."
NW: "Especially the NHS hospital in Cardiff. Obviously everyone was trying really hard, but it wasn't a nice place to be. Visiting there, it did wither your soul. I don't know, is this song about that? He was capable of a kind of pettiness towards any idea of marriage or love, or relationships. There's a deeper way, but there's also...he just couldn't fucking understand it, you know? It wasn't for him. Back in university, when I got dumped by a girl, he would laugh and mercilessly take the piss out of me for weeks on end. In a funny way, but in a (laughs) kind of savage way as well."

Facing Page: Top Left
NW: "The institutionalisation of beauty, and trying to be all those things that you're never gonna get to. This seems to say, 'I've given up on all that bollocks'. 'I've long since moved to a higher plateau' - I think that line from '4st 7lbs' really counts on here. On this album he really does reach that plateau of... the disgust has perhaps turned to ultimate realisation. Kind of got over the disgust and [quietly] just reached a new level."

Marlon JD
NW: "A few of the lyrics to this are stolen, well, borrowed from the film, Reflections In A Golden Eye. Marlon Brando does actually say in it (adopts Brando wheeze), 'I'd like to live without clutter, live without luxu-reee'. The film itself is beautifully shot. Richey did have a fascination with the idea of Brando, with someone that was so beautiful."
JDB: He loved him because he was the idealisation in his mind of what the ideal man could be, but also because he turned to shit as well."
NW: "Exactly, yeah. The idea that he walked around his island in a nappy, eating and fucking..."
JDB: "That's why he's his kind of the perfect role model, because he rejected his innate beauty and talent and turned into Jabba The Hutt."

Doors Closing Slowly
NW: "'Silence is not sacrifice, crucifixion is the easy life'. It's just a classic Richey line. That's him pressing buttons that he knows he's pressing. His religious obsession or rejection of it is quite strange."
JDB: "It runs deeper than you would ever have thought."
NW: "It ran really deep and it's not something I don't think we've ever felt. Religious oppression, it just hasn't been a realisation in our time, in our country."
JDB: "(Jokingly) No, we've always thought there's been a really good separation of church and state."
NW: "(Laughs) Exactly. I mean, he went to Sunday school for a couple of years and he always talked about how he really hated it, but it does seem to have had more of an impact than just that."
JDB: "I think the supposed beauty in religious art, like the depiction of death as being beautiful and glorious, kind of troubled him and inspired him by the same turn."

All Is Vanity
JDB: "I loved 'I would prefer no choice, one bread one milk one food'. That's showing his slightly unfashionable side, his left-wing authoritarian side: 'Sometimes I'd prefer to live in a utilitarian Eastern Bloc culture where I don't have to worry about choice and how glorious or glamorous I could be, I just wish I was restricted."
NW: "And that still resonates with us so deeply today. The idea that there's so much choice now, that when we apply that to music, people think it's great that there's so much music and that's so obviously not the case because so much of it is utter drivel."

JDB: "It mentions Une Odalisque by Ingres [a painting which caused scandal in the 19th century because of the way its female nude is unnaturally distorted], and talks about the idealisation of beauty, or 'What is ugliness?' I love the way that 'All Is Vanity' deals with one issue and 'Pretension/Repulsion' seems to resolve it for me. In a twisted way."
NW: "It's one of the greatest rock couplets ever: 'Shards, oh shards, the androgyny fails/Odalisque by Ingres, extra bones for sale'. That's never gonna appear by anyone else. It shouldn't work, but it does. I just bow down at the altar of that as a lyric."

Virginia State Epileptic Colony
JDB: "You get the overall cynicism of treatment trying to subjugate the intelligence of the patient. Somebody saying, 'There's not one thing you've told me that is gonna make me better'. You get the overall cynicism of someone saying, 'Just get the fuck out of my room and let me try and solve these problems myself'. And it is heavily laced with sarcasm. I also feel it's Richey doing a bit of research here and integrating the story of the Virginia State Epileptic Colony [a US hospital that involuntarily sterilised 4,000 patients deemed 'unfit' to reproduce between 1920 and 1972] into his own experience."

William's Last Words
JDB: "It's important as a lyric, whether it's semi-autobiographical or about somebody else, because you spend an entire record sometimes listening to Richey speak in tongues, and on this lyric you get genuine traditional warmth. It's almost like reading a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem or something. And it gives you the hint that, during the process of writing all these lyrics, Richey hadn't lost his essential humanity. It sounds overblown, but that's the impression I get... It was the only time I ever got close to what you might call a soft-focus B-movie moment in the studio. Close-up: will you see a tear fall from his eye?"
NW: "There's two ways I look at it. Either it genuinely is about someone else, because I know when he was in the institution in Cardiff, he was writing a lot. Either that, or it's a giant analogy from The Entertainer and Archie Rice, that sadness at the end of the career. I know he loved that film and it reminds me of that. But I didn't pick those lines out on purpose, it isn't like I wanted to make it seem more applicable to the situation, I was just drawn phonetically and in terms of the music, because I write quite simple songs. When I played it to James and Sean, they weren't shocked, but there was a lump in the throat. There is a sense of calm in it."

Bag Lady (hidden track)
JDB: "'Bag Lady' is the most reminiscent of 'The Holy Bible'. Perhaps that's why we shied away from putting it on the record, as well as just aesthetic symmetrical reasons. Sonically, it actually sounds like 'The Holy Bible', sounds more claustrophobic, crammed with just a bit too much stuff. And also because it's not as resolved, the lyric itself. This is the only lyric that really weighed me down, I wouldn't wanna inhabit that lyric too much. The push and pull between pretension and repulsion, between being vain and rejecting any notion of what is ugly or beauty, must have been exhausting at this point. On the record it rejects ideology, it rejects God, it rejects love, it rejects possibility. There you go! The perfect album for our worst economic downturn of all time."

Richey's Bedroom Collage
By Nicky Wire

This photo (right) was taken in his Cardiff flat four or five months before Richey disappeared. The collage gave him comfort. We'd watched Prick Up Your Ears, where Alfred Molina plays Kenneth Halliwell, Joe Orton's lover, and his bedroom in the film was like this. Everything [on it] has overtones of tragedy, that idea of constant striving where the artist never thinks they've got there...

1. Eric Morecambe
We were all fans of Morecambe & Wise, it was just that thing of growing up in the '70s. But also there was a lot of hidden sadness to Eric Morecambe's life. People never hear about that. We watched hours of comedy. TV was just a huge part of our lives.

2. Painting by Egon Schiele
Sometimes a painter or a writer can illustrate something a lot better than a band can. It's like that stage when you're 15 or i6 and everything leads on to something else; Morrissey namechecking Oscar Wilde, or Allen Ginsberg being on 'Combat Rock'. Music is a huge educational tool, that's why we always namedropped so much.

3. Kurt Cobain in a wheelchair at Reading 1992
It's a brilliant image and a brilliant bit of sarcasm on Kurt's part. The first time we heard Nirvana we were completely floored - and completely gutted because they were so good. We were kind of glam-rock around 'Generation Terrorists' and it felt like we were totally out of step. But with 'The Holy Bible' it kind of felt like we were making the British equivalent of 'In Utero, a more claustrophobic, post-punky record. We were all obsessed with 'In Utero'.

4. De Niro in Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver is such an important film for every thinking person. That idea of training yourself and discipline, and of revenge. Richey's revenge was always verbal rather than physical, of course.

5. Brian Jones
He was a huge fan of Brian Jones. There was just something about the way Brian Jones was seen as the man with the ideas even if he didn't write the music. That film by Jean-Luc Godard about the making of 'Sympathy For The Devil'... Brian is a really sad and tragic figure.

6. 'You Love Us' collage
I love the idea of a collage within a collage. On tour, the PA monitors always looked so ugly, so he made about eight massive collages to cover everything, so that the crowd could look at them instead. The tour we did with Suede through Europe, the whole fucking bus was covered with it by the end.

7. Francis Ford Coppola and Matt Dillon
It's either from Rumble Fish or The Outsiders, which Francis Ford Coppola shot at the same time. Coppola looks amazing in this, he looks totally mad.

8. Drugstore Cowboy
It's a good film, but it wasn't that fucking good! James was very into Matt Dillon at this point. There was that thing with Richey that he was drawn to this idealised vision of beauty, but that had all become utterly rejected by the end.

9. Kate Moss
He didn't admire her in a real sense, but in a 'vision of beauty' sort of way. He wasn't obsessed, but he did kind of see her as his ideal of female beauty. Well, that's what he said anyway. This is pre-Pete, of course. There's a real superficial aspect to a lot of these images, he wasn't getting meaning or depth from them. He was getting enough of that from himself, anyway.