As the audience bayed for more, Nicky Wire dragged himself offstage, slung his bass and dissolved into tears. His band, Manics Street Preachers, had just played a stunning set in a downstairs bar at Manchester's Hacienda club, as a warm up for the weekends Maine road shows with Oasis. It had gone extremely well by any objective meausure, but this was the first time in 18 months that the Welsh trio had performed in such intimate surroundings. Wire could see straight into faces turned towards him, and recognied many of them. The vacant space on the right side of the stage seemed to grow bigger the closer you got to it. It wad an awful, bitterly painful experience. The next day he would sit down to the second of two interviewshe and his colleages had agreed to before the realease of their new album, in the hope that they could leave the events of the past 18 months behind.
Its not easy to give interviews when you know every article will begin with the same words - and there is no other way to begin: on February 1, 1995, Richey James Edwards (his full name), guitarist/lyricist with the Manic Street Preachers, walked out of the Embassy Hotel in Bayswater, London, at 7am, drove to his flat in Cardiff and vannished. Seventeen days later, his Vauxhall Cavalier was discovered in the car park at Aust service station near the Severn Bridge. The Severn Bridge is a notorious suicide spot. Strong currents below ensure that bodies are seldom recovered. In his hotel room, he had left behind a packed suitcase, a packet of Prozac and a note reading simply, "I love you". There was also a box, wrapped up like a birthday present and addressed to a mysterious woman friend, containing books (James was a voracious reader) and a couple of favourite videos, Equus and Mike Leigh's Naked. A few literary qoutes, which James collected as other people collect stamps, were scrawled on the side of the box.
There were two reasonably credible sightings in the fortnight between James's disapearance and the discovery of his car; one on February 5 by a 19-year-old college student in Gwent and another, two days later, by a a Newport taxi driver. There have since been many more, less convincing ones.
At this stage, nobody can say for sure whether the troubled 27-year-old jumped or contrived his own disapearance - there are reasons for believing both hypotheses; though as time goes on, the latter comes to to seem more fanciful. In the months leading up to February, he had not been well and had spent time in a private mental hospital, suffering from alcoholism, depression and anorexia. He'd been cutting himself with knifes and razors, as he had done since finals at Cardiff Unversity, where he had been a keen student of history and politics. In the previous year, however, things had got worse. It was as though he had decided to live out the bleak lyrics he had provided for the bands clastrophobic last LP, The Holy Bible.
The question friends and fans alike are asking is, why ? It is difficult to overestimate the worth or importance of Manic Street Preachers in the scheme of 1990s pop music. When they first came to notice in 1991, they seemed like a provocative concept than serious contenders. They found a manager not via the traditional means of trudging round the local pub curcuit, but through a vigorous campaign of letter writing. At that point, they could hardly play at all, but they gave a great interview: four lippy, working class Welsh lads who had known each other since junior school, all punky fake fur and mascara, surfing a tide of anger and spite.
None of which could have been more out of (or, as it happens, ahead of) its time. Independant minded rock was going through its worst slump ever, burried under the success of the dance music explosion and the "third sumer of love" that acompanied it. Manic Street Preachers wanted nothing more than to rain on that summer of pills and hippie-dippie platitudes. In effect they were their generations Sex Pistols, and most of the young groups coming through now cite Manic Street Preachers as one of their inspirations for forming.
It was for these reasons that, when James went missing, the weekly music papers were deluged with letters from distraught fans. The response sparked a national debate on adolecent angst, depression, anorexia and self mutilation, some which was useful, but none which went anyway towards explaining what had happened to the man who had prompted it. Normally, one would look for some sort of childhood trauma. On the surface, any such convienient explanation seems strikingly absent.
"Deep down, its my gut feeling that he's alive," says Wire, speaking in the long, tortuous syntax of of someone struggling to reconcile emotion with reason. "But thats not based on any logical evidence. I just try to tell myself that hes done what he wanted to. Whatever that is" Wire identifies two turning points in his friends condition. The first was a bizzare week long trip to Thailand, where Manic Street Preachers, in one of those strange pop-cultural exchanges, are the most popular group in the country. Fans besieging the hotel were asking him to sign photos of his scarred, self mutilated arms. During the first show he sliped offstage and slashed his chest with a set of knifes given to him by a girl fan ("Look at me when you do it" she'd said). He was drinking half a bottle of vodka just to get to sleep, though he remained as perversly punctillious and in control as he always was when he was off stage.
Afterwards the group went on holiday to Portugal, where James detoriated further, When they returned, he locked himself in his flat and subjected himselfto two days of physical and mental torment. His weight had droped to six stone. Following this, he was booked into a private hospital, where they operate a 10-point programe, which some feel made matters worse. "They say they've got a cure in places like that" Wire says, angrily, "but all they do is completely change the person you are. I dont think thats a cure. They loved him in there, because he's so intelligent and sharp-witted, and he got into it. played along with them. But they ripped the soul out of him. The person I knew was kind of slowly ebbing away. I think he knew that too - Though its hard to speak on behalf of Richey. I mean, I've known him longer than anyone and I think of him as my best friend, But I still cant say that, deep down, I know him. I thought I did. The week before he disapeared he was in the best spirits I'd seen him in since te first breakdown, and I thought he was getting better. Sometimes now I think that he was happy because he knew he was going to do something."
What made Richey the way he was ? "There is no dramatic thing, thats the scariest thing of all. To be honest with you, I think that, if anything, its because his childhood was so happy that when he reached the age of responsibility, he couldn't handle it. He genuinly loved being young. But when you leave school, that's when the real world hits you, Thats the most traumatic thing, having to grow up and realising - as he would put it - that everything was shit. Richey used to say, 'Your born unmarked,' then he'd look at himself and go, 'Now Im scarred.' They do say that 27 is the optimum time for males to commit suicide or break downm usually because of a longing for a disapearing youth."
Another possible explanation which Wire acknowledges, is thatJames felt under pressure to live his songs. He hated being called a fake. When an NME journalist did so once, in the early stages of his career, James carved the legend "4 REAL" in his arm, in front on the horrified accuser. Until Britpop came along with its injection of irony, pop had been going through a phase where artists were espected to mean it, to experience their words if not literally, then spiritualy. Perhaps it was rock'n'roll that transported Jamesto wherever hes gone. Or just some mere chemical imbalance in his brain. Maybe as his mate chances: "He'll disapear for five years and come back with the greatest book ever written, a huge beard, and really happy."
Either way, its a shame, because the group's new album, Everything must Go, released tommorow, is by some margin their most pleasing work to date: a grand, curiously uplifting record characterised by the clear maturation of James Dean Bradfield as a singer and his partners as lyricists. Almost half of the words are James's, including a tune called Kevin Carter, which is about a photographger who shot to fame on the back of a picture he took of a child dying in Rwanda, then, unable to stomach the ensuring celebrity, killed himself. Whatever the signifigance this held for James, he'd have wanted to hear it sounding as impressive as this.