On 1 February, Richey Edwards walked out of a hotel in London with £2,000 in his pocket. Nobody has seen him since. As a member of the Welsh rock group The Manic Street Preachers, he is an idol to thousands - especially readers of the New Musical Express. But he also has a history of suffering mental illness and depression. Since his disappearance, the letters column of the NME has been full of fans confessing that their hearts are broken and asking: "Richey, where are you?"... Story: Robin Gwyn
The story of Richey Edwards is a story of the 90s. Image is everything.
On the face of things, the 27-year-old guitarist and rock composer from Blackwood in Gwent enjoyed life as a famous star. His group, the Manic Street Preachers, was one of the most successful ever to have come from Wales.
In the age of MTV, they understood thoroughly how to play the press and media game. In order to secure the oxygen of publicity, they specialised in using incisive slogans to preach disillusionment and prophesy woe.
In private, Richey Edwards was a sufferer from depression, anorexia, sleeplessness, overwhelming weariness, and even the tendency to self-harm. It seems that the image had developed into reality. But his personal destruction during the last two years is insufficient to explain what happened on 1 February this year. On the threshold of the Manics' first tour of America, Richey Edwards disappeared from the face of the earth.
Before walking out of the Embassy Hotel in London at seven o'clock in the morning, he had taken £200 a day from his bank account over the period of a fortnight. According to South Wales Police, it is likely that after this he drove his Vauxhall Cavalier to his flat in Cardiff Bay. There, he left his passport, his credit cards and his supply of the drug Prozac - the medication he was taking to treat his depression.
On Valentine's Day he left the Vauxhall, locked, in the car park at the Severn View Services near the village of Aust on the English side of the Severn Bridge. The newspaper The Sunday Times has drawn attention to the fact that this is a "local suicide spot". The police came upon the car on February 17 but there was no pointer to Richey Edwards' state of mind. According to a spokesperson, there have been no developments since then.
His parents, who keep a hairdressers' shop in Blackwood, are "anxious" but believe that he is alive. In a special interview for Golwg [the Welsh-language weekly] last week his father insisted that the reasons for his complete disappearance were (unknown) to his family also. Despite being a Welsh-speaking Welshman, Graham Edwards preferred to speak in English.
'We have contacted everyone that we and Richey know, on a personal or a professional level,' he said. 'We have thought of every possibility, contacted the police, and made an appeal via the BBC. But the trail is completely cold, as it were... In the beginning the media were interested but the big papers aren't paying any attention now...'
Although he accepted his son's choice of career, Graham Edwards confesses that he doesn't understand the rock and roll dream and that there is an unbreachable gap between the generations. He had never seen the group play.
'It's very important to boys to be part of the world of rock and roll these days. It's a very hard profession to be in and I think that some of them carry it over into their private lives. And, in this case, things have often got too much for him...
'It's true that he had a bit of a breakdown last year and that he spent some time in a private clinic in London. Maybe what's happened now is a repetition but it has taken a different form... He didn't say anything to us - we had no idea that he was going to do anything like this.
'Like the majority of parents, we think we are on a different level to our children in truth... So his music wasn't something we could enjoy together. But we get on well as a family - generally a very happy family - maybe a bit boring.'
Something which has rubbed salt into the family's wound, he says, is that some reports have suggested that Richey Edwards' depression points to a clash between the values of his background in the Valleys and the evident temptations of his new life - and that somebody should have intervened.
'People write a lot of rubbish and if they don't know something they just make it up - but if we had known he needed help we would have offered it... You don't just ignore problems...
'It seems to us that a lot of kids go into this sort of clinic; we thought, of course, that he was better, normal again... we thought he agreed.
According to research carried out by Golwg, there is no striking evidence in Richey Edwards' background to explain his disappearance.
After leaving Oakdale Comprehensive School, he went to Risca College and achieved three 'A'-levels at grade A. Despite being friends with the rest of the group since their primary school days, it was only after they all went to Swansea University that the group was formed. According to a fellow student at the time, she had no idea that he was in a rock group - there was nothing unusual about him at all: 'He was just like everyone else - a great lad.'
The obvious - but maybe too simple - conclusion, is that the fame which followed the release of the Manics' first album in February 1992 is part of the answer to the mystery. With the help of their management company, Hall or Nothing, Generation Terrorists put two fingers up to convention "situationist slogans, glam homo-eroticism, and furious 4 real rock 'n' roll" - and the group became a favourite with the NME hacks.
Looking back, the NME drew attention to events such as when Richey Edwards carved "4 Real" in blood on his arm during an interview to prove that he and the group were serious. In the rock world, going off the rails is par for the course - and shocking people fitted the Manics' marketing strategy of being the voice of a generation which was disillusioned with everything.
But according to some who know him on his own 'patch' - TJs club in Newport - Richey Edwards is a man who is different on a personal level.
'I used to see Richey around Newport from time to time - he was always the one you'd meet in the pub and say hi to', said Andy Barding, a journalist at the South Wales Echo and owner of the record label and fanzine Frug.
'He was always ready to talk to you but, on the other hand, he is a quiet, very intelligent sort of man. He isn't big-headed because he's become famous. He's a 'down-to-earth' boy, a 'Gwent Valleys Lad'... but also a sensitive soul.
'It's open to discussion whether his fame affected him or not, in my opinion. He always displayed a professional attitude. If the group had a photo session at nine in the morning, he would always be there. He treated it as a job and fulfilled his obligations within the band.
'Maybe he's ill but he doesn't cut himself off. Even when he was in hospital last year, he worked from his bed, checking artwork and so on. He's a central part of the band... with the ability to write words which grip people's imagination.
Richey would take his role seriously but he doesn't have an ego - he'd talk to you about everyday things... You can only try to guess what was worrying him. It's a mystery... It has shaken the rock community to its roots, people are totally confused. I wouldn't say that people think the worst - but they are sick with worry.
'He was in TJs every other week if the group weren't working... there were some there who would try to wind him up. But he had an innocent way of dealing with them: "Why are you saying that?" he'd ask. At a personal level, he was very different from the group's public image as rebellious outsiders. He's a very nice boy - not like a pop star at all.'
The disappearance of Richey Edwards as a blow to both the staff and readers of the NME. The fans keep sending in dozens of letters every week appealing for answers. A fortnight ago, the paper ran a news story about a 17-year-old girl from Yorkshire who had imitated her hero and had run away from her home.
Although the Manic Street Preachers are never likely to be as famous as greats of the international rock world such as U2, Richey Edwards has already developed into the focus of a special cult.
'This is part of the problem', said Iestyn George, a journalist at the NME. 'Unfortunately, because he is a member of a group in which the NME has shown a lot of interest, the greater part of the other media, especially in Wales, has ignored the whole thing. What makes me angry is that this has been the worst sort of example of the fact that the press ignore people in groups like this through a failure to understand or show interest in their culture.'
The Manics have drawn a special type of person to follow them - people who are the antithesis of 90s people in a way, introverted people... like fans of The Smiths in the 80s. They are a band which tends to change the lives of a comparatively small group of people, rather than giving brief pleasure to many.
'The whole thing is a tragedy, there's no doubt about it... I don't know whether fame is the problem. It could be a problem in the group but that might not be the reason - it's some kind of contributing factor.'
Whatever the answer to the mystery, Richey Edwards' family remains hopeful that there is a light at the end of their personal tunnel. According to Graham Edwards there is no point fearing the worst.
'It's not a question of how we feel - the important thing is to find Richey and see how he is... we are confident that he is out there somewhere.
'No news is good news; we are hoping to get a phone call any day now.'