Richard (Richey) James Edwards, Rock Star. Born December 22 1967; declared dead November 23 2008
When Manic Street Preachers guitarist Richey Edwards, who has been declared dead after being missing since 1995, carved the words ‘4 REAL’ into his arm during an impromptu NME interview with Steve Lamacq, it was a stunt that would give him iconic status as a poster-boy for a new generation of doomed, poetically inclined youth. It was also a major signifier of the fragile state of mind he was in, and would mark the way for a catalogue of self-harm, anorexia nervosa, alcoholism, a short stay at a psychiatric hospital and The Priory and, aged twenty-seven, what is believed to have been a suicide jump from the Severn Bridge.
At the time of the ‘4 REAL’ incident, which took place after a sparsely attended gig in Norwich, The Manic Street Preachers were struggling to get attention beyond a confrontational stance and a penchant for mascara, faux fur and leopard-skin. Once a close-up of Edwards’ bleeding arm had adorned the cover of NME, however, everything changed. At the time of Edwards’ disappearance, the band’s third album, The Holy Bible, which featured a larger than life front cover painting by Jenny Saville and a set of lyrics penned by a heavily Sylvia Plath influenced Edwards, had transformed the band into a major rock act that was a long way from their proto-situationist beginnings as a set of bookish auto-didacts from South Wales.
If Edwards was aware of the even greater success that followed a year later when a new album, Everything Must Go, almost topped the charts, he never let on, despite a multitude of alleged sightings by fans caught up in what has now become one of rock music’s greatest legends for all the wrong reasons. Edwards himself understood the power of rock, even if he could barely play the guitar he wielded onstage, with the volume largely turned down low. That didn’t matter. With his elegantly wasted frame, he played the part all too perfect.
Richard James Edwards was born in Blackwood, south Wales, and attended Oakdale comprehensive school. It was a town decimated by the aftermath of the mid 1980s miners strike, and Edwards’ father was forced to retrain as a hairdresser. In 1986 Edwards studied political history in Swansea, and by the time he graduated had become friends with Nicky Wire, becoming roadie and driver for an early incarnation of the band Edwards would eventually join. It was he and Wire who would provide lyrics, ideas and image for the Manic Street Preachers, who, fleshed out with James Dean Bradfield on vocals and Sean More on drums, issued their first independent single, Suicide Alley, in 1989.
Despite initial attention for the New art Riot EP and Motown Junk single in 1991, the Preachers’ carton punk look appeared out of step with the times, and it was only after the NME cover in 1992 that the band were signed to Sony Records. A debut album, a double, Generation Terrorists, sold 250,000 copies. A cover of Theme From MASH (Suicide Is Painless) charted at number seventeen, by which time Edwards was adored with a similar wave of devotion that Pete Doherty receives today. By this time Edwards’ mental state was looking increasingly fragile, yet, while 1993 album, Gold, was patchy, The Holy Bible was a breakthrough on every level.
Edwards and Bradfield were booked to leave for a promotional tour of America on February 1st 1995. Edwards’ room in a Bayswater hotel, however, was empty apart from thirty sheets of lyrics left lying on the bed. Edwards hasn’t been seen since. On February 14th, Edwards’ abandoned Vauxhall Cavalier was given a parking ticket at a service station close to the Severn, and known to be a notorious suicide black-spot.
There are obvious parallels with Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, who hung himself on the eve of an American tour, and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who shot himself at the height of the band’s fame. Edwards’ family, however, and the band he defined spiritually if no musically, never gave up on him. His parents had the option of declaring their son dead seven years after his disappearance, but kept on hoping. Only now have they opted for closure. A space has been left onstage for Edwards whenever the Manic Street Preachers play live, and a share of all royalty payments continue to be paid into a bank account for him.
A new Manic Street Preachers album, tentatively titled Journal For Plague Lovers and featuring the lyrics by Edwards found on the bed, which the band have held onto since his disappearance, is scheduled for release in spring 2009. Edwards is survived by his parents, Graham and Sherry, and his sister Rachel.
The Herald, December 2008