Vanishing Point - Melody Maker, 31st January 1998
Dave Simpson, Melody Maker, 31 January 1998
It's now three years since Richey James disappeared — and he's still "The Most Sadly Missed" in The Maker Polls. We trace his early, confused life in Wales through to the Manics' huge success and try to piece together the mystery…
MAY 15, 1991, Norwich Arts Centre
Journalist Steve Lamacq is interviewing guitarist Richey James Edwards of up and coming rock band Manic Street Preachers. During the interview, Lamacq voices concern about the perceived cartoon nature of the band's image. "Some people might regard you as just not for real," he says, fatefully.
In response, while continuing to chat regardless, Richey James produces a razor blade, and proceeds to gouge "4 REAL" into his forearm. The blood congeals (James will later require 17 stitches), while the guitarist blankly admires his horrific handiwork.
"He didn't look in any pain whatsoever," Lamacq recalls later. "He could almost have been writing it in Biro." This incident is a defining moment in the Manics' career, ensuring that never again would they be taken anything less than very, very seriously. It also, sadly, marks a turning point in Richey's life, the first instalment in his very public crack up.
Richey James Edwards was the moderately famous, particularly talented and inordinately beautiful guitarist and writer with the Manic Street Preachers. He became an icon for an alienated generation, and for the last three years he has been Melody Maker Readers' Most Sadly Missed person.
Richey grew up in Blackwood, South Wales, where his childhood was, according to him, blissfully happy. But adolescence brought problems, and a collapse in self-esteem. Highly intelligent and acutely perceptive, Richey withdrew into a private world of thoughts and books. Stripped of the innocent blinkers of childhood, the more he found out about the world, the more it would upset him.
At the age of 14, he became interested in the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, and the idea that somebody could fast as a personal, political protest. The fact that Sands died while on hunger strike did not deter Richey's fervency. In fact, Sands' subsequent martyrdom may well have added to the fascination. At the age of 22, Richey Edwards was studying Political History at college, by which time he weighed just six stone.
Around this time, Richey's fragile health was further plagued by his drinking, which began after he discovered that sinking a bottle of vodka would cure his insomnia and dull the pain of daily living. Around the time of his exams — a mass of tension and frets — Richey began mutilating himself.
Those close to Richey James thought his problems were behind him when his band Manic Street Preachers began to enjoy success, but the onset of fame and notoriety seemed to exacerbate the guitarist's difficulties. Immaculately well-read, Richey knew more than most about the horrors of the human condition, but fame gave him the opportunity to explore it.
In Thailand, Richey actively sought out prostitutes' dens; at the same time, fans asked him to sign photos of his scarred arms, and another gave him a set of knives, requesting he look at her while cutting himself onstage. Later, the Manics visited Dachau and other concentration camps. Perhaps the once innocent child wished to see just how low the world could go?
Richey's experiences gave the world the Manics final Richey-era album, the harrowing The Holy Bible. Meanwhile, his depression, drinking and self-abuse were escalating badly. Richey spent the summer of '94 in a private hospital, but there was no miracle cure.
Wednesday February 1, 1995
Prior to an American tour, Richey checked out of the Embassy Hotel in Bayswater, London, and left behind a packed suitcase and a note reading "I love you", a box of books for a mystery woman and a mysterious photo of a house for the band.
He drove to his flat in Cardiff, where he abandoned his Prozac, credit cards and passport. Two weeks later, his silver Vauxhall Cavalier was found at Aust Services, near the Severn bridge, a notorious suicide spot. And that was the last the world saw of Richey James.
There have been sightings since — a couple in and around Newport immediately after his disappearance, a possibly significant one in Goa last year and innumerable even less reliable glimpses — but nothing concrete. No body has ever been found (although the currents below the Severn Bridge are particularly strong), and despite hours of video surveillance footage, no image of Richey on the bridge has ever been unearthed.
There is no evidence to suggest Richey has come to harm, but, equally, nothing to suggest he hasn't. The police file remains open, but inactive (the Metropolitan Police sergeant who had led the inquiry has now been transferred).
So what happened to Richey James?
Love's Sweet Exile?
"Raindown (sic) alienation, leave this country" — 'Love's Sweet Exile', lyrics by Richey James
If we discount the tiny possibility that Richey was abducted (unlikely, because from his actions he was obviously planning something), we're left with two possible fates — that he committed suicide, or disappeared to find a new life free from consuming stresses. This is not entirely far-fetched. There have been several celebrity disappearances, including Labour MP John Stonehouse and Lord Lucan, and it's not as if this idea wouldn't have crossed Richey's mind. One of the riddles about his disappearance is that many of his own icons either committed suicide or managed to disappear.
In his last public days, Richey was photographed wearing a shirt decorated with verses by Rimbaud, the 19th century French poet. Like Richey, Rimbaud was a brilliant academic, and his teenage masterpiece, Les Illuminations, uses dream images to express dissatisfaction with the material world. Like Richey, Rimbaud also drifted into drunkenness, principally because he was disappointed with the critical reception afforded him in France. Finally, aged 19, he destroyed all his books and disappeared, prompting the poet Verlaine (with whom Rimbaud had a homosexual relationship) to republish Les Illuminations as by the late Arthur Rimbaud.
Is it significant that shortly before disappearing, Richey also destroyed most of his writings (giving the remaining writings to Nicky Wire)?
The parallels may or may not end there. While French society thought him dead, Rimbaud was in fact alive and well, gun-running in Africa and blissfully ignoring, rather than being ignorant of, the sensation his poems were causing.
It's simply inconceivable that Richey James was unaware of the Rimbaud disappearance.
Similarly, and much more recently, is the curious tale of J.D. Salinger. The famous author of The Catcher In The Rye was a primary influence on Richey. His seminal novel gave us the character of Holden Caulfield — an alienated youth trying to find what he considers honesty in a corrupt and materialistic world.
Salinger's 1951 book quickly made him the guru of disaffected youth, a status much like Richey's. He too became embroiled in drink, possibly a by-product of a nervous breakdown that followed his experiences in the war. With his early flush of fame, Salinger was already withdrawing and speaking of devoting his life to one great work, with no separation between that work and his life… and then in 1963, he simply vanished.
Could Richey have done a Salinger?
"He was, in any real life sense, invisible, as good as dead," comments Ian Hamilton in In Search of J.D. Salinger. "He was famous for not wanting to be famous. He claimed to loathe any sort of public scrutiny and yet he had made it his practice to scatter just a few misleading clues."
An abandoned car at the Severn Bridge, anybody? Not exactly — just a fictional character called Buddy Glass — who disappears to a lost room of typewriter and books. Since the author's real-life vanishing, a disturbing Cult Of Salinger has sprung up (much like the Cult Of Richey), a procession of fake interviews, sightings, et cetera, all adding to the myth and the Salinger industry. Precisely the same fate that has — unwittingly — befallen the remaining Manics.
And if you think that's weird, try this: 35 years on, J.D. Salinger is now known to be living in New Hampshire in rural seclusion, free to be silent.
As an arts and media psychologist working with musicians in London, Andrew Evans is familiar with the Richey Edwards case, hails from Bridgend, South Wales, and has an intrinsic knowledge of the Severn Bridge area. After due consideration of the various crises leading up to Richey's disappearance, he is guardedly positive over whether someone as disturbed as Richey would have the presence of mind to fake their own death.
"That's the million dollar question," ponders the psychologist. "But there's certainly nothing to contradict that possibility. This is just speculation, but in the two weeks before his vanishing he was chaotic, but in an experimental way. He could easily have formulated a plan."
If Richey did abscond, he would have needed some money. Reportedly he systematically withdrew £2,000 from his bank account prior to February 1st… then again, a musician preparing for a trip to America would want to take plenty of spending money.
He would also (presuming he was heading abroad) have needed a passport. He had abandoned his own, but this could have been another disingenuous red herring along with the car. Nowadays, it's relatively easy to obtain a false passport on the black market. There were (unconfirmed) reports that Edwards was seeking such an item in Newport. (Whoever supplied it would be committing a criminal act, so they're hardly likely to come forward.)
And what of the picture of the house reputedly left behind for the band?
If Richey was constructing a riddle, he did an expert job. Between his vanishing and the retrieval of his car two weeks later, there were various sightings around Cardiff and Newport. It wasn't as if he drove straight from London to the bridge — Richey was definitely up to something.
"Basically, whatever he was doing, he was looking to escape," says Andrew Evans. "People often get that with fame. If you're too long in a situation that's stressful, the desire for escape becomes paramount. Then again, it's entirely possible he was disoriented, and trying to sort out his head by returning to his roots, memories and home surroundings, trying to piece together a puzzle. But he was certainly clever enough to escape."
However, according to Evans, who knows the area well, the Severn Bridge would be an unlikely place to escape from, because it's largely inaccessible, other than by motorway.
If Richey did abscond, he would have needed an accomplice. Somebody with another car, presumably.
"All he had to escape with was money. But he could have done it with someone, in Wales, maybe," says Andrew Evans. "Someone who he could trust implicitly, perhaps an old friend, dating back to school days. Why did he go back to Wales? Was there another person involved?"
"To disappear for three years you'd have to tell somebody from your past life," he continues. "There's too much planning involved. But if there was a friend involved, it would be another story entirely. Whatever he was up to, he didn't want to be followed. He could have easily adopted another identity because he was at ease with experimenting with himself."
Again, this is all speculation, but supposing Richey did escape, where would he go?
Just under a year ago, there was a reported sighting in Goa, India, which gains more feasibility in that it was made by a college lecturer from Swansea, who had previously actually met Richey. According to police, no one has checked into India under the name Richey Edwards… but then, he wouldn't have, would he?
"If he wanted to escape to a more spiritual existence then you would find him somewhere like India or one of these spiritual places," says Andrew Evans. "From his background, it is entirely feasible that he may have flipped out of capitalism into spiritualism. I've known people — musicians — who've gone off to India because they simply couldn't hack it here. India's a good place to escape and be introverted and not talk to people. You can live in monasteries, isolated places, no questions asked.
"If he has done something like that he hasn't regretted it. If he was out there he'd find it increasingly hard to come home, really. It'd be too much of a culture shock."
Richey has certainly escaped, but what kind of escape was it?
Spectators Of Suicide?
"All removable, all transitory, passing always… Aimless rut of my own perception, numbly waiting for voices to tell me, voices to tell me" — 'Removables', lyrics by Richey James
"Boy, when you're dead, they really fix you up. I hope to Hell when I die somebody has the sense enough to just dump me in the river or something" — J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
The second and most obvious possibility is that Richey committed suicide. While there is plenty of evidence in his writings and his favoured icons to point to a disappearing act, there is at least as much to suggest he may have brought about his own demise.
Everything Must Go includes his song about Kevin Carter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who shot to fame on the back of a picture of a dying Rwandan child and, unable to cope with his own revulsion, killed himself.
Richey's favoured artist, Van Gogh shot himself at the scene of his last painting, following a history of self-mutilation and asylums. Richey also admired famous suicides Sylvia Plath and Primo Levi, and the Japanese existentialist poet Mishima. But what there most blatantly isn't is any direct evidence to prove or disprove the suicide theory.
Perhaps Andrew Evans can provide a glimpse into what was going on in Richey's mind that eventful February. Evans makes it clear again that anything he says is purely speculation, but firstly he considers Richey's background of anorexia and self-mutilation.
"Anything involving self-mutilation is pretty disturbing," the psychologist states. "It points towards suicide, which is the ultimate self mutilation. The weight thing is more common in women, but if he was anorexic, these are all clinical signs. He was attracted to Bobby Sands… maybe because of this thing of self-mutilation as protest. Bobby Sands was making a carefully controlled, controlling statement. So maybe — if Richey did commit suicide — he did it in a carefully controlled way that he'd worked out would have an effect. Which it did."
If indeed he did it. Evans agrees that Richey's cultural indulgences point either way.
"It's a bad sign that Richey was into Mishima in that there's a slight cult of suicide that surrounds him," he says. "So maybe he'd been thinking about it, but if he was, it could well have been in a strategic, existential way."
Richey was unlike many famous rock stars crack-ups in that he was disturbed before he was famous. Would Richey have benefited from not being in the public eye?
"Mmmm… it's very hard to say because the effects of fame are very high on the scale of a number of serious life change factors," says Andrew Evans.
"All this sudden fame with pop bands changes so many things, so quickly. Statistically the repercussions tend, often, to be physical and mental illness within the following year."
Fame, fatal fame? It may be worth noting that not only was Richey uneasy about the whole music business environment, but he was always plagued by low self-esteem and found any criticism — particularly public criticism — acutely wounding.
Richey was very vain, but also crippled by a chronic insecurity complex.
"The trouble with fame is that, for most of us, our reality is fairly ordinary," says Andrew Evans. "So that allows us to have a fantasy about being much better and a fantasy about being much worse. If you're in the middle, your fantasy about being an undiscovered genius is on the back burner. At the same time, your fantasy about being a fraud is on the back burner because you're somewhere between. Suddenly becoming famous throws your interior balance, because suddenly you are all your dreams about being an undiscovered genius. People say, 'Hey, you're a real genius. You're fantastic,' and so on. So the only fantasy you've got left is 'I'm a fraud'. And that sort of doubles and triples for all sorts of reasons.
"You start asking yourself, 'Am I that good?' So you don't believe it. And the media starts to bring you down. I know Richey didn't get that much publicity — he wasn't hounded like Liam Gallagher. But with any good performer, they get ten good reviews and it's the one bad one that tends to stay with them, until they learn to handle it. They tend to either become professional — and this applies to lifestyle as well, because the lifestyle of a musician is extremely stressful — or they drop out."
For Richey — the poet of the spontaneous, the master of the iconoclastic gesture — the very idea of becoming professional would have been untenable.
So did Richey commit suicide?
Andrew Evans points out that alcohol abuse is another bad sign. However, following his summer of '94 12-step recovery plan, Richey had — he insisted in January '95 — stopped drinking. However, he was still mutilating himself, and in the month before he went, Richey was further hit by the death of his beloved dog Snoopy, his companion for 17 years. It's not difficult to imagine the impact this would have had on someone so painfully sensitive.
For his last interview in January 1995, Richey wore pyjamas, which along with his shaved head (which he said was a mourning gesture for Snoopy), gave him the appearance of an Auschwitz inmate. Shorn of his trademark hairstyle, he was far less recognisable (which would certainly support the disappearance theory), but led Ian Curtis' widow Debbie to comment on the repeated haircutting that immediately presaged her husband's suicide, again on the eve of an American tour. (Repeated, obsessional haircutting also presaged the suicide of one of my own friends.)
"He was experimenting with his body — by fasting, by mutilation," considers Evans. "Mutilation certainly shows a much more serious… something underlying it, which may well go back to early childhood. Maybe there was stuff in early childhood that… oh, I dunno, repressed memories, something he wasn't even aware of, gnawing away."
But it's all supposition.
What's your gut feeling?
"Talking it over, I'd have to say I'm probably 70:30 towards suicide," says Andrew Evans. "I can see someone, in a state of high stress, before a tour, sitting in a service station thinking, 'Oh God, I can't stand this.' The Severn Bridge area is quite something. From the eating area in that service station, you can see the bridge very clearly. You can't not look at it."
"So if he was sitting there in contemplation looking at the bridge… he may have just thought it was the way out. It's possible to conjure up a picture of a desperate person sitting in a lonely way, and something just clicking.
"I could easily see him, maybe impulsively, getting into a weird mood. Instead of going back to his car, he's wandered up to the bridge. Maybe he's gone up and thought, 'Well, I'll see what I feel like.'"
And then — who knows?
Richey James Edwards has not been in contact with his family, his friends or the band. Andrew Evans muses that it does seem unlikely that such a sensitive person as Richey would not contact his family, were he still alive, but points out that when Stephen Fry disappeared, he didn't tell his family. Scores of people leave home and don't tell their families.
Equally, Richey may have chosen the Severn Bridge to exit because he did not want to distress his family with a body. But surely he'd have left a suicide note if he were dead?
What is the truth behind rock's strangest mystery?
Poring over the Internet while researching this piece, I became struck by an answer Richey had given in an early, obscure interview.
The question was... what would you most like to be?
His reply was simple and unequivocal.
"Any animal that hibernates."