So, once again, the Manics, Britrock's trump card, try to crack the States. We meet up with them in New York and see the stunning opening show...only for them to blow out the second.
It puts you in a dead soppy kind of mood," says James Dean Bradfield, sliding down yet another Jameson's and Coke and stretching out across the table. ands not clear whether he means the booze or the first of two sell-out shows he's just played at Manhattan's celebrated Bowery Ballroom. Probably both. Maybe neither. We're in a grottily splendid Irish bar in the unlikely zone of Manhattan's opulent Central Park South. We're sweaty, we're a little woozy, but we've found the only place still serving booze in the city that lies about never sleeping - so, most of all, we're happy. And none of us is happier than James, still buzzing after the show.
"It's strange playing a lot of a new album when you've got to play a lot of old favourites too," he twitches and shrugs and grimaces, never quite happy with words.
"You're constantly reminded of your past: all those people in the audience going: 'Play "Motown Junk"! Play "Spectators Of Suicide"!' And you're thinking: 'Huh?' But I did love it tonight. It was cool."
So, do you think you're going to break America this time, James?
"No!" he blushes, splutters, mocks. "Ahhh, come on! I don't think in terms like that any more. I'm far too old for all that stuff. It's just a gig, isn't it?"
Hardly. This tour matters, not least because it represents a resumption of duties after two months of sadness and loss. Originally due to have taken place in July, these 16 North American dates were first rescheduled after the recent death of James' mother. Then the first three dates of the rescheduled tour were cancelled, too. Inevitably then, their arrival in the States is hugely significant for the band. Add to that the school of thought (and it's a good school) that believes that, having gone about as far as they can back home, the Manics have nowhere left to go but Stateside, and the importance of these shows seems even more acute.
Problem: Uncle Sam and the Manic Street Preachers have never seen eye to eye, Nicky Wire having once described the US as a "country that floats on a huge sea of shit and piss" and, another time, as "the most washed up shithole I've ever been to". Which would be fine, were America not the biggest market in rock and the Manics not (at least originally) rock's most ambitious band. From the outset, they always planned to sell 16 million albums and split up, but you can't sell 16 million albums in Leamington Spa, and America was always the unspoken goal.
Besides, this is a good time to go west, now that the band seem finally to be bathed in goodwill from their new US label, Virgin, not to mention MTV, who debuted their current US single, "You Stole The Sun From My Heart", only last night. Moreover, now that the British promotion for "This Is My Truth..." is done and dusted, and seeing as how the next album's still some way off, this is the Manics' first clear window for ages. The only question is: is it just a one-way window, or are the American people staring back, wide-eyed and eager, through the other side?
When we arrive on Monday afternoon, the Manics' profile is low, the small gig listing in Time Out New York notable for both its rarity (we see no others) and its cynical dismissiveness. "An ungodly Clash/Queen hybrid," it sneers, "utterly British." Which probably doesn't help. But Josh Madell (right), who works in New York alternative record store, Other Music, tells us: "There's definitely Britpop fans in New York, people who'll buy anything that's reviewed in Melody Maker. So we do all right with the Manics, maybe a little better here than in the mainstream chain stores."
Jeff, the gloriously enthusiastic bag-check man over at Tower Records, agrees. "It's possible they could do well over here," he gabbles, "but most people nowadays don't wanna get involved with a radical band like the Manics. Sludge rises, good stuff sinks."
Outside the Bowery Ballroom at 4pm, 16-year-old Wyna Liu stands with her "Motown Junk" EP and her tiara and her boa and her devotion. She's waited three years for this and she's so excited she might just burst, spraying feathers into the smog. "No one's heard of them over here," she grins, "but that just means I get to see them really close! I think they'd like to be Number One, but it's just not gonna happen here, where everyone's into yucky Ricky Martin and Britney Spears. Still, how great would it be if the Manics got huge in the States then f***ed it all up? Threw it all away like they said they would originally!"
An hour later and others start arriving, including an old Manics fan (yup, they exist here too!) called Paul. A "f***in' huge fan", in fact. "One of very few."
"I heard 'Little Baby Nothing' and 'Stay Beautiful' on a college radio station eight years ago," he coos, nostalgically. "I've followed them ever since - amazing band, amazing attitude. But no one here's gonna get the politics. Even with rana, people didn't notice Kurt wearing a dress or any of that shit. So they'll never notice f***in' Nicky Wire." F* * *IN Nicky Wire is brandishing his boa-entwined mic stand high above his high head. F***in' Nicky Wire is purring: "So, whaddya think then? Shall I wear a dress tomorrow?" The crowd roar. They've noticed him all right. Everyone noticed him back when he scissor-kicked his balletically violent way through dre the first song, "You Stole The Sun From My Heart"; they noticed him when he Yankily drawled: "I'm having a bit of a bad hair day today. I look like someone from 'Friends"'; and they definitely noticed him when he giggled: "I know what you're thinking: 'Great band, but the bass player's a wanker!"'
They noticed - and they disagreed.
The show is astounding. New-album heavy, for sure, but carrying all the fizz and fury of the Manics' inflammatory T In The Park performance; stadium-sized behemoths like "Tsunami" and "No Surface, All Feeling" turned warmer, tighter, grander, in the Bowery's tiny, 500-capacity hull. But the common assumption tat the Manics' more recent, gentler songs are also their most transatlantically commercial proves leakier than a leprous colander - in actuality, it's the likes of "Motown Junk", "You Love Us" and the sheet-metal-rage of "Kevin Carter" that light the American touchwood tonight. Maybe it's because, for this hour anyway, no one's really thinking about sales pitches, radio playlists and Sam Goody pre-sales. Everyone's just going mental. Hence the Manics' cover of The Clash's "Train In Vain". Hence the riot of limbs and pulses and screams.
"You may never have heard that one before," sneers Nicky, after the jagged euphoria of "Faster", "cos our old record company were such f***ing twats they never released it!" Bitter? Not unduly. Liberated? Oh yes. Because, the more songs they play, the more it does look like this is gonna become a mission to recapture the colonies, Nicky sprawled out across the stage during "Motown Junk" like the Pope kissing a foreign airport's Tarmac, James begging the crowd to "take me seriously" during a shockingly crisp "Black Dog On My Shoulder". He's joking, of course, but only just.
"They were fabulous," squeals numberone-fan Wyna Liu after the show. "Nicky seemed so happy and full of venom, so spiteful! I like it when he says, f***'!"
"Absolutely fantastic," coo Cliff and Dvora Zierer, a couple in their late 30s from Connecticut. "America's gonna love the Manics. . . if they ever get to hear them." OUR memories of America?" repeats James, back in the venue's downstairs bar an hour later. "Well, they've all been shit so far, but that one was good. I thought that tonight they'd all be really aloof- New York being New York - but I was really surprised how into it everyone got"
Over in the corner, the band's manager and friend, Martin Hall, ties up some remaining business, before greeting The Maker and explaining what tonight means to his charges. "The gig was really, really good," he beams, "the best American show they've ever done. Everyone from Virgin's here, plus a huge media guest list, so I'm delighted."
And we're thirsty. Luckily enough, so's James, and a short cab ride later, we're drowning in blarney and whisky and The Pogues at the Irish bar near the park, listening to JDB's take on things. "It's a massive misconception that we're still so gung-ho," he insists, "that breaking America is our big dream. It hasn't been since our first album! We got rejected in such a spectacular, mean-spirited fashion the first time around that we knew we were never gonna be what we want to be in America.
"We just want to sell 50,000 or 100,000 records here," he adds, gulping down some air between countless puffs of smoke. "I know that's strange for diehard fans to hear- they want to hear that fierce, unabridged ambition. But we haven't got that! We've had a lot of results in other places, and I can't lie and say that that hasn't pleased us, cos it has. But, when we come here, we're much less ambitious."
Haven't you done everything there is to do in Britain, James? Isn't this the final frontier?
"Pffft!" he splutters, indignantly. "If we'd done everything we could do in Britain, we'd split up tomorrow. We really would. What's left? To make our perfect album! I can't lie: it doesn't feel as if we've gotta do everything any more, but we soooooo want to make our perfect album. That's important for us, that's important for our history. We want our history to be whole. We want our history to be crystalline clear. It just wouldn't be right to finish on 'This Is My Truth. . .'."
It's strangely reassuring. Reassuring because it shows how the Manics still regard themselves as a cause, a stance, a movement all of their own. Not just a band. Never just a band. "There are quite a lot of sentiments on 'This is My Truth...' that are very transitory," he adds, as the noise gets louder, the drinks get stronger, the swirling Manhattan atmosphere dizzier.
"We were dealing with a lot of success and with personal happiness - something we'd never had, not for a long time. On 'The Holy Bible', we felt shit miserable, but we didn't turn away from that; we represented it. On 'Everything Must Go', we felt a strange kind of euphoria that we felt free from a lot of things. To a lot of fans, that would be almost a kind of sacrilegious thing to have done - to actually say, 'Richey's gone, but we feel free.' It's strange that they couldn't understand, but we still represented that."
He's barking now, slamming the table as he slams back the drinks, happy drunk, good drunk, excited drunk. Drunk enough to threaten to ram my head up my arse for comparing the middle-eight of a well-known Manics song to the backing music on an even-better-known PlayStation game. "We never shied away from the things that we felt at any given time," he yells, returning to his previous theme. "And that's why 'This Is My Truth...' is not the album to finish on - and neither do I think the next one is either." The next one?
"Ha!" he smiles, obviously unwilling to divulge, but even less willing to restrain. "Me, Nick and Sean are talking a good fight at the moment. We're actually saying: 'Yeah, we're gonna root down and it's gonna be a very unfinished record.' And I think it is - it's gonna be that. And we're saying: 'R's gonna be "Exile On Main Street" with inverted explosions!' We're bullshitting each other, which is the stage we usually get to just before we go into the studio -- except we're not going into the studio yet, so this is really strange for us."
"Listen," he concludes, as daylight begins to break from the east and staggeringhome time seems close at hand. "I still think, mostly, that we're a million times better than most other bands. That's a good enough reason to carry on."
A lone balloon bobs over the heads of the second night's crowd at the Bowery Ballroom, shunted about by countless excitable hands before the show. There's joy here, high expectations from those who didn't come last night, even higher from those who did. Then - Bang!- the balloon bursts and everyone looks around to see where the popping sound came from. When they turn back towards the stage, there's a man in grey stood there, telling them bad news.
"I have bad news for you," he says, nervously. "The singer, James Dean Bradfield, is really sick. It's a really bad case of laryngitis. We've tried to do everything possible, but we're sorry. We'll refund your ticket price, of course." He can't answer when someone yells: "So why've we been stood here waiting for two hours?" He can just shrug, just sigh: "Everyone in the band's real sorry."
"Tell the truth!" screams another furious fan. "Richey!" wail some more, though God knows why. A horrible thought occurs to us: was keeping James up last night really such a great idea? He was drinking and smoking a hell of a lot, even for a man with a legendary capacity. We haven't f***ed up the Manics' prospects in America for good, have we? Shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit. Deciding it's probably best not to share this thought with the punters who storm towards us, intent on venting their frustration, we just nod and cuddle the ones who've started to cry. Ones like Abby Parsons, who's travelled all the way from Bristol on her student loan for this show. It's her 18th birthday. Happy birthday, Abby. "I don't give a f*** if James doesn't feel up to this tour," she says, as her friend Michelle wipes a glittery tear from her face, "He hasn't paid to get over here."
"They're lucky we don't repeat Woodstock '99 here," snaps Bill Miekina from Chicago. "I'm ready to set something on fire! If I saw the Manics now, I'd spit in their faces, the f***ing pussies. God, I so wanna take a tack-hammer to their albums right now, just grind them into little fruity pebbles."
"I love their music," nods his friend Spencer Lewerenz,"but this has soured everything."
The next morning, we phone Martin Hall at the band's hotel, where James is waiting for a doctor to examine him, before moving on to Boston. "That's never happened before," he says, sadly. "Not with the band actually in the dressing room, ready to go on. James is a trouper, but he just wasn't able to do it. His voice had been bad all day, so we cancelled the soundcheck and hoped he'd pull through. But he tried to warm up before the show and his voice was still totally f***ed. So I had to make the call, unfortunately. Not an easy thing to do, I'll tell you."
Will something like this damage their chances in the States, Martin?
"No," he says, mustering up some confidence. "I don't think so. Obviously, it's been a bit difficult for me today, talking to people, but I don't think this'll cause any lasting damage."
And the rest of the tour?
"Well," he sighs. "We're gonna see how it goes in Boston today, but James might just have to rest his voice for a while. We really, really want to do the rest of this tour after all the rescheduling, and he wants to do it too. He really wants to do it."
So it ends somewhat strangely, the Manics' return to America, the country that never dealt them a fair hand and possibly never will. We're reminded of something that James said last night, high on whisky and possibility. "Coming full circle?" he laughed, as we spoke about that Clash cover they they'd played earlier. "Ah well, you know - we're a full circle kind of band, aren't we?" The problems never seem to end, but the Manic Street Preachers will overcome. And overcome. And overcome. That's just what they do...