February 17th 1995. The police found an abandoned silver Vauxhall Cavalier at the parking lot of the bridge across the Severn river, a notorious suicide site. Its owner Richey James Edwards, member of the Welsh quartet Manic Street Preachers that hijacked the British music scene a few years earlier with a mixture of social counter-activism and archaic rock’n’roll glamor, pushing aside the dancefloor psychedelics and painfully apolitical sounds of Madchester, was missing since February 1st.
As the author of the Manics’ manifesto, lead lyricist and chief public relations officer, Richey embodied the most visible of the many faces of the band, despite never hiding the fact that his musical contributions were minimal and his guitar, hanging down to his knees in finest rock star fashion, was nothing but a stage prop. This demeanor went hand in hand with his nihilistic idea of disintegration and subsequent destruction of rock’n’roll, where the mythologized musical persona takes over the cornerstones of reality in an ultimate triumph of style over substance.
Richey was well acquainted with the power of provocation and used it to perfection. The notorious interview for NME, during which Richey responded to journalist Steve Lamacq’s relentless taunting about the authenticity of the band, by calmly carving ‘4 REAL’ across his forearm with a razor blade, was followed by countless other bizarre convictions and planned media manipulations, like the demand to wrap their debut album in sand paper so it will destroy every other record in the listener’s collection. The perks of two-way publicity weren’t lost on bass player Nicky Wire either, as the intrepid motormouth demonstrated by stamping the Manics’ 1994 performance at Glastonbury, the epitome of British musical pride and tradition, with a rant that they should “build some more fucking bypasses over this shithole”. Ah, those were the days!
Manic Street Preachers were aware that in this wicked day and age, even intellectualism is a matter of presentation to the audience. They packaged their message in the epiphanic slogan of ‘Culture, Alienation, Boredom and Despair’, paired with an intense sense of urgency, as if they knew that their carefully crafted system wasn’t built to last. Too many big words for each line, too many grandiose ideas for each song, a devil-may-care approach as if every performance was their last with the mandatory destruction of their instruments as an ultimate showdown of rock’n’roll imitation and disgust – all this were the Manic Street Preachers in their naïve subversive early phase.
The synthesis of a thorough mass consumption of books, records and video cassettes and the boredom of a small mining hometown in South Wales made sure that Richey’s lyrics weren’t conceived as a cohesive unity, but rather as an egalitarian mixture of fragments where the influences of pop culture had the same value as the classics of literary and political history. It was all but uncommon that the ideas and images of Karl Marx, Kate Moss, Yukio Mishima, The Clash, Albert Camus, Fidel Castro, Harold Pinter, Kevin Carter, Bret Easton Ellis, Madonna, Stephen Hawking, Sylvia Plath, Public Enemy, J.G. Ballard, Noam Chomsky and Traci Lords weathered under the same roof.
Through his whole tenure with the band, Richey was battling with melancholic alienation, substantially worsened by his elephantine alcohol intake and random bouts of depression and anorexia that slowly paved a thick black fog over his undeniable charisma. Even his self-professed heroes – Ian Curtis, Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now and Johnny from Mike Leigh’s Naked – were nothing but a shadow-casting premonition of things to come. After a lengthy stint at the prestigious Priory Clinic, on the eve of a long-anticipated US tour to promote the band’s latest masterpiece The Holy Bible, Richey checked out of the Embassy Hotel and vanished into thin air. After a very public and much-criticized police investigation, he was officially declared ‘presumed dead’ in November 2008.
The band decided to carry on, achieving unimaginable greatness. But that’s another story. James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore honored their lost childhood friend with every step they took on the slippery slopes of success, making sure that even now, 18 years after Richey’s disappearance, j’accuse-ridden words still dance barefoot on the shards of crystal glasses with their middle finger poking at the rectum of false morality in true Manic Street Preachers fashion. Never forgotten, Richey’s legacy lives its own life, for real and forever, both as a memory and a reminder that death doesn’t always have to be the end.