The lost soul

Alan Jackson

The Times, January 27, 1996

A year after Richey James Edwards disappeared, the fate of the Manic Street Preachers' guitarist is still unknown. Alan Jackson searches for clues in the world he left behind.

STEP BACK ONE YEAR. A young musician disappears, is missing, possibly dead . .. no one knows. He and his band are not quite household names, so concern is initially limited; there are news reports in the rock weeklies, a column or two in the national dailies. Gradually journalists begin to remind us of the suicide a year earlier of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, alternative American hero, and wonder if yet another name must be added to pop's long list of casualties.

Is it symptomatic of a new Zeitgeist? Is today's youth embracing a culture of alienation and despair? What, oh what, has gone wrong? While the glib questions are posed, the young musician - Richey James Edwards, rhythm guitarist with the Manic Street Preachers - is still missing, possibly dead. No one knows.

Two months later, the situation is unchanged. His father has appealed to his absent son, "Please make contact with us. Everyone is very worried about you." But no contact has been made. Meanwhile, the wider impact of the disappearance has begun to make itself felt. In Yorkshire, a 17-year-old schoolgirl goes missing, and her mother draws a parallel: "She's a huge fan of Richey's and hasn't been right since she heard the news." She had copied her idol's latter-day look by cutting off her hair and becoming dangerously thin, we are told. The police appeal for anyone with information to come forward.

The days pass but there is no news of the 17-year-old or, indeed, of the young musician. He was last seen in the early morning of February 1, 1995, when, on the eve of a promotional visit to America, he walked out of the Embassy Hotel in Bayswater Road, London, leaving behind a packed suitcase and assorted medications. It is believed he then drove via the M4 to his flat in Cardiff Bay, where his passport, credit cards and the Prozac he had been prescribed to combat long-term depression were later discovered.

On February 2, Edwards was reported officially missing by his manager Martin Hall. Fifteen days later, police discovered his silver Vauxhall Cavalier parked at a motorway service station in Avon. Because of its location, close to the Severn Bridge - the scene of countless suicides - it was inevitable that many felt the case to be solved. No body was ever washed up along the river banks, however, and when it was revealed that the musician had withdrawn £2,000 from his bank account over the ten-day period preceding his disappearance, others were relieved to take the opposing view. Although the bank account remained untouched subsequently, he had enough cash with him to effect an escape, they pointed out. Surely it must have been a carefully planned disappearance, some kind of scam even.

"Obviously, if it was a vulnerable juvenile who had gone missing, we would continue to search actively for him or her until they had been found," says Detective Sergeant Stephen Moray, based at London's Harrow Road police station, and the officer in charge of the investigation. "But you have to accept that every adult has the right just to go missing."

The publicity surrounding Edwards's disappearance has prompted a steady flow of information and reported sightings, some from as far afield as Germany and America, but none of it has led to Edwards. Now, though any new information will be looked into as a priority, the case remains open but inactive - one among a total of 319 currently on the books of the National Missing Persons Bureau.

"If he needs time to be on his own, that's OK," said his father, Graham Edwards, at the family home in Blackwood, South Wales. "If he has any problems he needs help with, I hope he remembers he's always had strong support from his family and all the lads in the band." And those lads - Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore announced that they would make no further records or perform again in public until the mystery was solved.

Meanwhile, Melody Maker was actively soliciting the reactions of its readers, and letters had begun to pour in, the majority of them from young women, some traumatised by the situation and contemplating self-mutilation (a well- documented habit of Edwards's) or worse, others ready to admit that they, too, habitually suffered from low self-esteem and the impulse to harm themselves, so had identified with the musician and made him an object of empathy and reverence.

Jasmine of Sunderland: "I cut Richey's name into my arm because I'm so depressed... I love the band and only a couple of friends understand what I am going through."

Elizabeth of Harrow: "I almost died when I heard he was gone, and have thought about killing myself several times since. I have to hurt myself to stay calm."

Jane of Brighton: "I feel my whole life's been ripped in two. I'm so scared of what lengths I'll go to if the worst comes to the worst."

For the pop star was still missing, possibly dead. Still nobody knows.

BLACKWOOD'S COMMERCIAL CENTRE is distinguishable from those of other small working-class towns across Britain only by its situation, high in the valleys of Gwent. On a dull, wet Friday afternoon, shoppers are trailing home bearing plastic carriers of groceries from Tesco or Somerfield. Every other vehicle pushing along the narrow main street seems to be a coach or bus, heading to or from the outlying estates and villages.

Within the pre-weekend bustle are tableaux of stillness, though... A young girl sprawls on the stone steps of a memorial to the war dead, the pages of a magazine flapping unread on her lap. Nearby, a youth sits unblinking at the wheel of his parked car, a crimson Alpina; "Safe As F'' reads the sticker across its rear window. Lone faces look out from the dark windows of Ted's Snooker & Social Club ("Disco Every Friday"; "Karaoke Saturday") and the Everest Tandoori, then disappear within. At Supercig, pensioners queue motionless as statues to buy tickets for the National Lottery.

This is Edwards's hometown, and that of all the Manic Street Preachers. Born on December 22, 1969, he was raised in the bungalow his parents still occupy and, apparently, had a normal, contented upbringing. He played football, walked his dog Snoopy, went to chapel on Sundays. "Up to the age of 13, I was ecstatically happy," he told one interviewer. And already he had become friends with his future musical partners, all of them pupils at the same primary school. Aged 11, they transferred together to Oakdale Comprehensive.

As boys, each of these eventual band members appeared bright and well-rounded. Nicky Wire captained the Welsh under-16s soccer team. Sean Moore joined the South Wales jazz orchestra. All were above-average academically. And whether because or in spite of the depressing prospects for Blackwood school-leavers - the former pit town now can offer little more than short-term contracts in factories making hi-fi components or Pot Noodles - they showed themselves to be diligent, willing students.

It has been said there was a darker side to Edwards's thirst for knowledge of history and politics. He was fascinated by the IRA hunger-strikers in Northern Ireland's Maze prison, for example, and once spoke of his admiration for Bobby Sands, whose death by self-starvation was announced in May 1981. " He made a better statement than anything else that was going on at the time, because it was against himself," he is reported to have said. WX Coincidentally or not, by the time he was 22 and revising for his degree in political history, he would weigh less than six stone.

Meanwhile, as secondary-school classmates spent their evenings attempting to get served in local pubs, he and his little gang would stay home, obsessively reading the rock press or books by William Burroughs and Hunter S.Thompson. Nothing so unusual in that. But those who knew him at the time have described Edwards as shy and withdrawn, burdened by low self-esteem. Like his three friends, he dreamt of finding through music a way of commenting on the culture of alienation he saw around him. The others would actually go on to form a band, but Edwards, with three A-grades at A Level, was headed for Cardiff University: a son any parent would be proud of.

But Edwards seems not to have been proud of himself. He is said to have felt that his A-grades were not as good as those of other students and continually set himself impossibly high standards of achievement, particularly as his finals approached. The rock journalist Gina Morris described this phase of his life in Select magazine. "He is having trouble sleeping," she wrote. "It is important to rest properly, but there's so much noise at night that he just lies in bed waiting for unconsciousness. So he starts drinking vodka, just to get to sleep at the right time, to be in control.

"Progressively, he begins to drink a lot and eat very little. But when the exams start, alcohol no longer provides enough control for him. One day, poring over his revision, he reaches across the desk for a compass. He draws it slowly across the flesh in a series of straight cuts..."

That he subsequently passed his exams convinced Edwards this course of action was a wise one, Morris reported. Edwards himself said, "I found I was really good during the day. I slept, felt good about myself... I got a 2:1 so I wasn't a 100 per cent success, but I got through it. I did it."

At that point, his old schoolfriends invited him to join their band.

POST-PUNK REVIVALISTS in their earliest incarnation, the Manic Street Preachers launched themselves at the rock world in a flurry of bluster, bile and self-aggrandisement. They certainly provided good copy, proclaiming variously that each new generation of bands should trash the legacy of that which had gone before, that their peers Slowdive were more hateful than Hitler, that they themselves would make one brilliant, multimillion-selling album and then implode. They were contentious and cocky and, in 1991, finally attracted cult attention with a third self-released single, Motown Junk. Shortly afterwards, they signed a deal with Sony.

Most other people would have taken this as a massive endorsement of their potential, but not the increasingly dysfunctional Edwards. By now he was cutting himself frequently and habitually. And four days after the signing of this recording contract, he was involved in an incident which passed immediately into music industry legend. During an interview for the New Musical Express, conducted backstage at the Norwich Arts Centre, journalist Steve Lamacq, now a Radio 1 disc jockey, voiced concern that the band's worth could be obscured by its too-provocative image. "Some people might regard you as just not for real," he said.

In response, and while continuing to chat inconsequentially with Lamacq, Edwards produced a razor blade and proceeded to carve "4 Real" on his own forearm. "He didn't look in any pain whatsoever," a shocked Lamacq commented afterwards. "He could almost have been writing it in Biro." A photograph taken at the time shows him presenting his open wounds as if they were nothing more than Hammer Horror make-believe. At Norwich General Hospital's casualty department, where he insisted on all accidentally injured patients being treated before him, he required 17 stitches. The next morning, he telephoned Lamacq to apologise for any distress he may have caused him through his actions.

Such behaviour would have merited little attention had the Manics not been on the verge of critical and commercial success. Their debut album Generation Terrorists reached number 13 in the British charts in February 1992, while their Theme from MASH (Suicide is Painless) cover version became a top ten single. A second LP, Gold Against the Soul, reached number eight the following summer, confirming the band's potential. But its members admitted they had been unprepared for the attendant pressures, and were further shaken by the death from cancer that December of friend and mentor Philip Hall, the brother of their current manager.

As early as 1993, Nicky Wire had claimed in print that Edwards was an alcoholic. A year later, concern for his wellbeing had become acute. On stage in Bangkok, he paraded chest lacerations made with knives given to him by a fan. And although the band's third album, The Holy Bible, largely written by Edwards, was showered with praise, many who heard it were shocked by the bleakness and inherent misery of his vision.

Shortly after the record's release, he acknowledged finally that he needed psychiatric help and was admitted first to an NHS hospital, then a private clinic. A statement issued on his behalf said he was being treated for mental illness. Later he spoke of having had treatment for alcoholism, anorexia and self-mutilation.

In late January of 1995, when he gave the last interview before his disappearance to Midori Tsukagoshi of the Japanese magazine Music Life, the picture Edwards presented of himself was scarcely less disturbing. Wearing a pair of striped pyjamas as if they were a suit, and with his head closely shaved, he spoke of his new sobriety, but also of the fact that he had never been able to have a lasting adult relationship.

"Of course, I'd love to love somebody seriously... but I feel nobody would want to live with me." His dog Snoopy had just died, too. "He was 17 years old. I've had him since I was little," Edwards said.

A YEAR ON from Kurt Cobain's death and with Edwards still missing, Melody Maker chose cover photographs of the two for its issue of April 8, 1995. "From Despair To Where?" asked the headline to a six-page transcript of a round-table discussion of related issues. A panel of indie stars, writers, fans and a lone counsellor would, it promised, "attempt to demystify and destigmatise the means by which depression affects people, and find out whether there is a solution to this most troubling of contemporary malaises."

A tall order, even when the user's guide to participants revealed that one had had a friend who had committed suicide by jumping from a bedroom window, and that others were diagnosed depressives. "Have we concluded anything. Was there a point to any of this?" the chairman asked in eventual summary, towards the end of the article's sixth page. No and no again, one was tempted to answer, as those involved reached a consensus that weall have our particular problems, to which no easy solutions exist.

Looking around for someone who might talk of 26-year-old Edwards in terms no more sociological than straightforward love and concern, I turned to the band's manager. A written request to meet Martin Hall brought a brief, polite but unyielding fax. "Whilst I appreciate why you would like to talk to me, the band and I have made a conscious decision not to talk to the press regarding this unfortunate situation," it read. "I'm sure you can understand our reasons behind this."

Almost a year later, that resolve remains unwavering - those close to the Manics hint that there is revulsion at the virtual cottage industry of Edwards-debate that has been sustained in some quarters of the rock press. But despite its original intention not to perform or record again until the situation was resolved, the band has taken tentative steps towards a future career as a threesome. They have been working in France on a collection of new songs, some with lyrics handed by Edwards to his writing partner James Dean Bradfield only days before his disappearance. They also contributed what was, in the circumstances, an eerie version of Bacharach and David's standard Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head to the Britpop-for-Bosnia LP compilation Help, and at New Year supported the Stone Roses at Wembley Arena - a comeback performance that was, inevitably perhaps, analysed in cruelly microscopic detail by the self-appointed Edwards experts.

Is he alive or dead? Opinions are polarised. The initial rush of supposed sightings has trailed off and, although the police file on his disappearance remains open, the investigation is no longer an active one. Private investigators, too, have failed to come up with conclusive proof, one way or another. True, no body has been found. But that a man known for his loyalty and sensitivity should not seek to reassure his family and friends of his wellbeing makes one wonder if it is not just a matter of time.

In the midst of all the conjecture, one writer at least has reached the heart of the matter. Another of those Melody Maker readers, her words appeared in an issue published soon after the disappearance. "It was Richey who first attracted me to the Manics," she wrote. "By chance, I stumbled across an interview he gave just after he came out of hospital. He seemed like such a nice person. At a time when I felt alone and depressed, it was comforting to know that someone out there felt the same.

"He hasn't encouraged me to harm myself, but just made me feel less alone. Richey is a very special person who has touched many people with his lyrics and brave, honest interviews. I just hope he's OK."

Helen of Ashford's closing sentence is the one thing on which everyone should be able to agree. For the young musician remains missing, possibly dead. Nobody knows.