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Traumatic For The People - NME, 23rd December 1995

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Title: Traumatic For The People
Publication: NME
Date: Saturday 23rd December 1995
Writer: Stuart Bailie
Photos: Kevin Cummins

NME231295 (1).jpg NME231295 (2).jpg

It's now more than ten months since Manic Street Preachers' guitarist Richey Edwards went missing. News of his disappearance sent shockwaves through the rock 'n' roll world and beyond. So what was it about the Manics that meant so much to a generation and which turned their troubled guitarist into a cult figure? Stuart Bailie remembers his time spent with the group and looks at how this passionate Welsh band affected so many different people.

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, ...yaketayyakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars." - Allen Ginsberg, Howl 1956

The Manic Street Preachers cued up a tape of Allen Ginsberg reading from his revolutionary poem Howl on the last date of their 1992 American tour. This was no casual gesture - nothing in the band's history has ever been lightly done - and as the horrific statement boomed out over the speakers, the crowd shivered.

Allen Ginsberg had tried to define the shell shock of his era, just as the Manics would snarl themselves up in the psychic mess of the '90s. The American artist had conceived his poem in a psychiatric ward in Columbia and some of the Manics' lyrics would come from a similar place. Playing that tape of Howl in a grubby Los Angeles club was a beautiful stroke of empathy. Nobody dwelt on the gesture that night, however, since the gig at the Whiskey A Go Go was remarkable in many other ways. The songs from the band's recent debut, 'Generation Terrorists', were sharp and thrilling. James Dean Bradfield had become a roaringly great guitarist - now able to match the outrageous, sawn-off syntax of the band's lyrics. Bassman Nicky Wire minced gamely beside him in his Kylie T-shirt, wilfully uncool. Near the end, he ripped open a pillow-case, covering the venue in white feathers while James yammered the words to the old Dead Kennedys tune, 'California Über Alles'.

I remember feeling very proud of the Manics that night. Here was a group that had often been ridiculed in Britain - dismissed as a gimmick, a punk throwback, a silly interruption to the real business of Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, shoegazing and house music - now resplendent on Sunset Strip. People from Guns N'Roses and the Chili Peppers were checking them out, maybe confused by this mix of premium rock and political dialectic but impressed alright. The average Brit band would have been happy with such a reception. After all, that's how the Manics had prevailed in the UK; playing to small but passionate crowds for a while, beating cynicism away, getting their records higher in the charts, causing everyone to take an extreme stance, demanding involvement. But when we met later that night - further along the Strip at The Rainbow bar, the Manics were in miserable form. They disliked America. "Everything just seems for sale," Richey said, using a line that would later open 'The Holy Bible' LP. Besides, the LA riots had just subsided - Compton was literally still smoking - and they felt that the actions of a little Welsh band were pathetic in comparison.

The following day, we visited Disneyland and then Compton in the space of two hours. Nobody said much as the van steered for the official destination, a TV studio over the valley in Anaheim. There were a few business conversations as we drove - the band's A&R man was planning some future recordings which shocked me a little (weren't they going to split, as promised, after their one and only grand statement?). And it seemed bizarre and anti-climatic to realise that their American manager also looked after Billy Joel.

In the studio, the video jock began priming the group with all the usual stuff - how the LA scene loved the band, how they were gonna be stars, and the boys nodded politely. But this smooth patter was disturbed by the behaviour of the Manics' guitarist. Richey had picked up a paper-clip, straightened it out, and was now gashing the flesh of his hand. A few minutes later, he'd broken the skin between his thumb and forefinger. Now he began to work at it, making the wound deeper and wider. He was oddly matter-of-fact about this self-laceration. The girl who was conducting the interview couldn't take it any longer.

"Pardon me, but would you mind...?"

I remember lots of things from that trip. The colours and smells of the band - the Manics were the most fragrant musicians, male or female, that I've ever met. I recall the 'Useless Generation' napkins at the record company party and the ridiculous Manics splash mats in the urinals. We discussed Morrissey, Mickey Mouse capitalism and Richey's obsession with the perfect circle. He quoted Van Gogh on man's inability to draw a perfect object. "The only perfect circle on a human body is the eye," Richey figured. "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."

But more than anything these days, I think about that tape recording of Howl and the haunting parallels between the poet's vision and the history of the Manic Street Preachers. Allen Ginsberg wrote his piece to honour his friends, the "lamb-like youths" who were falling apart under the conformist, corporate systems - dying on train lines, burning their arms with cigarettes, hacking at their limbs, jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Howl was dedicated to New Yorker Carl Solomon, a teenage prodigy who travelled to Europe and hung out with avant-garde thinkers. One of his favourite texts was Antonin Artaud's essay on Van Gogh, 'The Suicide Of Society'. But just after his 21st birthday, the over-sensitive Solomon cracked up. He shaved of his hair and presented himself to a West Coast psychiatric institute and asked to be "suicided" - given a lobotomy.

The last photo session with Richey Edwards was taken for Japan's Music Life magazine at his Cardiff home on January 23 this year - nine days before he went missing. His head was shaved and his faraway eyes were red-rimmed. He wore striped pyjamas - maybe significant when you remember that January the 27 marked the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

His living room looked fastidiously kept - tidily racked with books and CDs, set off with potted plants and framed pictures of Liz Taylor. In one shot he sat on a chintzy purple settee set off with a pleated valance. It's a cosy enough scene until you notice that he's wearing black suede Converse trainers, just like the ones Kurt Cobain wore when his body was discovered. Another photo framed Richey in front of a poster for the Vietnam war film, Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola based his movie of Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, a book which follows the terrible degradation of an idealistic coloniser in the Belgian Congo. By the end of the story, Kurtz, the central figure, has gone crazy, deep in the jungle. His last words, "the horror, the horror" fit closely with Richey's mankind-hating view throughout 'The Holy Bible'.

The songwriter's bleak vision which imagined "Hitler reprised in the worm of your soul", is even harder to take now. There's no cop-out in Richey's words; only death camps and irredeemable killers, social dislocation and people who always let you down. In earlier Manics songs, you felt that the band were at least buzzing off the music and their fandom, a kind of solidarity against a rotten world. But Richey didn't even allow for that in the last songs.

At least Howl ends with a recognition of "the supernatural extra brilliant kindness of the soul". Ginsberg's characters get drunk, have sex and score drugs en route to the madhouse - some of them even transcending this to find a new ideal for a holy life. The only happy figure in Richey's last LP is an anorexic girl who's euphoric for all the wrong reasons.

Some of 'The Holy Bible' was written in a condition of hypomania - a state of worsening mental health, leading up to Richey's hospitalisation in August '94. This fact actually allows you to grasp at a more positive argument. You can choose to believe that once Richey had rejoined the band after his psychiatric treatment, he allowed a tiny hope of deliverance back into the world. One bearable detail of his disappearance story is the fact that he was inking 'LOVE' on his fingers during the last gigs he played. Another optimistic pointer is the note that Richey left on his bed at the Embassy Hotel on February 1, 1995. It was addressed to Jo, a female friend, probably the girl he discussed with the Music Life reporter. Richey said he was "involved" with her, even though he'd never been open about his affection.

Remember, the Manics swore they'd never write a love song; they felt that such gestures were weak and futile. It was Nicky who outlined this self-reliant discipline in 1991. "The main reason that we got into this band," he said, "is that we chose never to have any friends. Once you've got a girlfriend and you're in a band, you've got to start caring about someone else." Richey's note simply stated, "I love you".

I last met Richey on September 16, 1994. He'd just returned from a check-up at the Priory Hospital in Roehampton - a specialist centre for mental disorders where he'd spent the previous month. Apparently the doctors were pleased with his progress, that his eating had improved and he was taking an interest in his music and appearance.

The band were rehearsing in Wales for an upcoming tour with Therapy? in France. One of the covers they were practising was PiL's 'Public Image' - the first song that John Lydon wrote after he walked away from the ruins of the Sex Pistols. Again, it was a sharp reference point - Lydon was singing about the crushing restraints of a showbiz role. "Two sides to every story", the song goes, "but somebody had to stop me/I'm not the same as when I began..."

Richey's face was haggard and he had a distant gaze like a war veteran, but still he spoke powerfully. He stressed his new resolve - how he was practising his guitar, wanting to tour again because he felt he was "cheating" the band by missing out on gigs like the Reading Festival. He dismissed any suggestions of a suicide bid but fretted over his self-obsession, even worrying that the interview might be seen as an "angle" - using illness to sell records.

He continually returned to the theme of the Holocaust. The Manics' recent song, 'The Intense Humming Of Evil' had been written with Dachau concentration camp in mind. When the band visited there, they were aware that 700,000 bodies were buried underfoot. It was oddly quiet in the camp - not even the noise of a grasshopper, never mind a bird singing. All they could sense was an awful, droning sound.

Richey, who studied Nazi/Soviet foreign policy at university, was distraught at the notion that certain politicians and writers were now playing down the horrors of such a place. The French politician Jean Marie Le Pen called the holocaust a "minor detail". Revisionist historians like Arthur Buntz and David Irving were giving this idea respectability. Richey even felt that the humanitarian message of Shindler's List was "dangerous", distracting from the main story.

He cared an awful lot. Even in the delirium of his illness Richey still found himself giving up his seat for old ladies. He would scourge himself for feeling numb but at the same time couldn't sleep because of anxiety attacks and fearful dreams. He demanded total commitment from his fans - indifference and cheap liberality were always prime targets in the songs. But his perfectionism meant he couldn't allow himself a lasting relationship.

Richey was more sensitised than anyone I know. Manics' songs cast up themes and emotions that were fresh to rock 'n' roll - the evils of corporate banking, neurotic ailments, Third World deforestation policies, eating disorders, the tobacco industry, self-abuse. Nicky is probably right when he reckons that 'The Holy Bible' is "so dense that it'll take a lot of time for people to understand".

That's why Richey's disappearance is so appalling. One of the finest minds of this generation - acute, unflinching, considerate, a fierce scholar - has been missing for over ten months now. All we can do is wait for news and remember how we valued him when he was around.

Practically straight off, Manic Street Preachers related to gays, teenage girls, old punks, art students, ravers, Spandex rockers, indie kids and revolutionary socialists. Their gigs became a howling communion of such fringe-dwellers - lashed along by controversy and relentlessly great songs.

Richey and Nicky emerged as The Glamour Twins; their skin mottled with love bites, proudly necking Babysham cocktails, blousy and panda-faced. Their quotes were inflammatory and they were famous for sexual candour. Richey claimed he didn't lose his virginity until 1990 and still found comfort in masturbation.

"Sexual alienation is massive in this country," he claimed in 1991. "That's why girls are so amazed when you go down on them. Even if you run your fingers through their hair. They expect you to get there, f*** 'em and kick 'em out." Nicky gradually calmed down, swapping drinking for gardening and matrimony when alcohol caused him to say too many wild things on stage. His comment about AIDS and Michael Stipe at the Kilburn National in December '92 were only understandable when you later realised that the band's manager, Philip Hall, was dying of cancer.

But this media double act was largely over. Richey's most public cutting incident - slashing '4 REAL' on his forearm in May '91 - was important in shifting the fans' attentions. As well as signalling the fact that the guitarist was reckless and scary (the razor blade just missed a major vein), '4 REAL' instantly became rock 'n' roll shorthand for total, bloody commitment. How could Carter, Mega City Four or The Senseless Things ever rate against 17 stitches, girlish good looks and a history of mental malaise? He wasn't just the band's chief propagandist; Richey was now a significant cult figure. As he became more isolated, the allure became stronger. Just as a gay singer is attractive to young girls because he's unobtainable, so Richey's inability to form a relationship made him even more appealing. This phenomenon grew just as Morrissey was withdrawing his emphatic values - hanging out with young ruffians rather than addressing the lonely and dispossessed. So Richey took on that job too.

The letters that have reached the NME since Richey's disappearance suggest that there's another huge constituency of fans out there - the cutters, anorexics and bulimics. In the past, there's been no-one to represent these individuals in popular culture. Cutting and fasting has traditionally been a hidden thing, as the sufferers try to exercise control over their lives or to express an inner rage.

Many of these people plainly felt that they were sharing a 'secret' with Richey. He made them feel better, less like freaks. His physical improvement after therapy gave them hope. Now that he's gone, their levels of anxiety, as revealed to this paper, are almost too awful to contemplate.

So far, the music papers have been retrained in their coverage of Richey's absence. While it's the most powerful story of the rock 'n' roll year, nobody wants to be melodramatic. Kurt Cobain's death broke a lot of people's hearts. Even those who didn't care for Kurt's music were moved by the human wreckage of it all - and maybe felt guilty about the cavalier style in which his earlier troubles were sometimes reported.

The 'real' press have been indifferent or else sloppy in their treatment of Richey, preferring to get in a lather over Stephen Fry's more comic disappearance. Illness and instability are only sexy when there's a megastar involved. When Princess Diana spoke frankly to Panorama about her eating disorders, her arm-cutting and suicide bids, it was applauded as a brave move, setting up these problems for public debate. This was a significant step, but hasn't any tabloid writer been listening to rock 'n' roll over the past five years?

In March, 1995, the Daily Mail wrote: "When he (Richey) reached the top, he found he couldn't cope and fell into a destructive cycle of depression, alcoholism, self-mutilation and anorexia."

This is insulting, clichéd and wrong. Richey was cutting, starving himself and drinking himself to sleep when he was at college. In numerous interviews, he said that he stopped feeling happy around the age of 13, therefore reaching "the top" was never the cause of his problems. Fame may have given him a set of additional worries, but the real trouble started more than 15 years ago. So, unless something dramatic happens - or at least until the looming anniversary in February, the Richey story is left to the music mags. It's a perilous path - we're aware of the possibilities of a big story, wary of the feelings of thousands of distraught fans, unwilling to push the point when we meet James Manic at another band's gig. Also, in contrast to Kurt, many British journalists have met Richey at some time, so that makes it even more troubling.

That's probably why the happy tones of Britpop have been welcomed unconditionally by the press this year. It's comforting to salute Oasis as the hardy survivalists and to welcome in Jarvis as the outcast finally made good. And after a couple of stark musical years, it's naturally a tonic to hear something as lively and uncomplicated as 'Alright'.

Sometimes you realise there's a neurotic mania behind all this cheerfulness - the desire to keep moving, to keep introspection at arm's length, to prolong the escape. You sense this especially in Blur's 'Country House', where the heart of the song, "blow me out, I am so sad I don't know why" is passed over with terrible haste. Even Polly Harvey, who recorded her own breakdown on the 'Rid Of Me' LP, is now keen to dress up and sing her songs through the pain-filter of imagined characters. Yet Richey continually haunts us - Banquo's ghost at the Britpop party. If he was around, he'd be accusing us of dropping standards and leaving so much unsaid in this miserable country.

Many of the bands around now owe plenty to the Manics for encouraging flamboyance and raging, personal pride in music again. None of them appeal to so many different rock 'n' roll tribes as the Manics. Nobody else has that same depth of insight and passion.

There's another kind of escape suggested in Allen Ginsberg's Howl. Some thin-skinned individuals in the '50s simply quit bohemian life. One girl vanished into "nowhere Zen, New Jersey". Others boarded trains and ships for any place wild and anonymous. Another desperate gut jumped off Brooklyn Bridge but miraculously, "walked away unknown and unforgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown".

Richey was certainly planning a dramatic act last January. Sorting out his notebooks and dumping those he didn't like into the river can be construed as a preamble to suicide but it could also be a sign that he was ready to move on. Certainly, the fact that he withdrew lots of money in the days before he quit would suggest that he intended to stay alive.

In the early days, when the Manics were still planning to split after a world-shaking debut album Richey constantly alluded to the writer JD Salinger. The latter, of course, was the novelist who wrote The Catcher In The Rye - a hyper-sensitive review of the phoney and compromising rituals of modern America. Salinger himself had suffered a mental breakdown during World War Two and the urge to protect his well-being led him to shun publicity after the success of the book.

Salinger lives in isolation in a redwood cottage in New Hampshire. He hasn't addressed the outside world or published anything for 30 years, writing instead for pleasure. Nobody knows how he took the news that his book had indirectly caused the death of John Lennon (Mark Chapman was a fan), or that a bunch or Welsh firebrands would sing "I laughed when Lennon got shot", on their first big single.

"Salinger built himself a bunker and basically locked himself away," Richey remembered in 1992. "And that's it. That's all he did. And we'd be content to do that, we'd have no problem with that at all. It's all we ever did when we were young anyway." That's a nice image; a fine way of visualising Richey's present situation. It's certainly better than other eventualities we'd imagined over the year. And it's also better than my last memory of the guy; of driving around the back roads of Wales 15 months ago, in Richey's silver Cavalier, watching his sunken face, listening to 'In Utero'.