There’s a passage in Stephen King’s plague novel The Stand where Stu Redman, an ex-factory machinist from East Texas, remembers covering a deadshift at a petrol station in the early eighties when a guy drives up in a convertible. ‘He wasn’t old and he wasn’t young,’ Redman remembers: the driver struck you as someone who ‘had been looking into the dark for a long time and has finally begun to see what is there.’ The driver said he was going to New Orleans. He made jovial back-and-forth. Redman remembers saying ‘If you’re who I think you are, you’re dead.’ ‘You shouldn’t believe everything you read,’ the man replies, and drives off. The stranger, Redman is convinced, was Jim Morrison.
King always had a fascination with the singer (there are echoes of Morrison in Walter O’Dim) and might even have claimed to have picked Morrison up as a hitch hiker, again in Texas. The point is that the Jim Morrison of this memory inside a postapocalyptic dream is how I’ve always liked to imagine Richey James Edwards after his disappearance: a man cleansed of his insecurities by anonymity, tooling down to New Orleans at peace with himself and the world. Hey, kid, get away from all that shit. You’ll feel better.
Ben Myers splices snapshots of Edwards’s career velocity with passages on his wanderings immediately after abandoning his car at the Severn bridge. The Manics are famed for their erudition, and Richey’s wide reading of literature, history and politics is more striking still in a contemporary musical landscape of illiterate self-obsessives. His songs dealt with everything from the Holocaust (‘The Intense Humming of Evil’) to sex slavery (‘Yes’) to the conditions of zoo animals (‘Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky’). When you consider that Edwards wrote lyrics rather than prose, his achievement as an artist is even stronger. The Holy Bible is a masterpiece of compression to rival Eliot. In Richey’s imagined journey taxi radios and B and B televisions tell us about the OJ trial and the killing of Bosnian Muslims. Richey’s inexhaustible curiosity about the world is reflected in the text.
Initially I thought Myers needed a bigger campus – it would have been interesting to see Edwards age and travel in nameless exile. But I have a tendency towards wishful thinking and Myers’s scenes of solitary travel in the Welsh ruggedlands carry not just a greater sense of realism but far more emotional charge – I was close to tears towards the end of the book and while writing this piece, which isn’t typical for me: I haven’t listened to the Manics for years, but there must still be some of the Manics fan left in me after all.
For all that he had a hard time in the small town of Blackwood, Edwards always returned to his roots: he could have got into Oxford but studied at Swansea, he visited his parents often, he loved the Welsh landscape. (‘Childhood pictures redeem, clean and so serene… I recognise dim traces of creation.’) The impression is of a home and family centred man who loved his country. Myers seems to have captured something like the moment of death – the failing separation between the molecules of the physical self and the molecules of the physical world: thoughts, memories, impulse, emotion also becoming part of this absorption of the one into the everything. Richey’s predominant thought is of his pet dog.
If you like, you can read this Guardian review, which like all its literary criticism is condescending, removed and dismissive – a house style that goes for maturity with all its strength and becomes a scream of its own inexperience. (Edwards’s fellow undergraduates ‘insist on viewing everything from behind a screen of irony or a detached and highly juvenile sense of post-modernism.’) 3:AM‘s piece is better, naturally, but Darren’s snipes about celebrity culture (‘a world where Lady Gaga is heralded as the new Bowie and mumbling some drivel about ‘Albion’ over shambling rent-boy versions of ‘Boy’s Don’t Cry’ makes you the next William Blake’) ignore the fact that Edwards admired stars, icons and mainstreamers: he championed East 17, pitched for Kylie to sing on Generation Terrorists and did Smash Hits singles reviews. He preferred all-out commercialism over the anti-intellectual, muso-twat cult of authenticity that is the dominant aesthetic today: ‘why go to university and get degrees only to live a life of poverty and relative obscurity? Why press five hundred records when you can do five hundred thousand?’ Lady Gaga is someone Richey would have loved.
The urge for understanding and recognition is one of the great drives behind creativity and fame – as the Wildhearts lyric goes: ‘If I stand on top of the world maybe I’ll find someone I know.’ So many people I knew grew up in small communities of knife-edge conformity. First in the city you could tell the men and women of your type and generation – their left arms looked like shit. I used to think: the beautiful people, the shining ones, every one of them once sat crying in small rooms with a razorblade in one hand and a copy of The Holy Bible in the other. Edwards’s fame told people that it gets better, that the world is bigger than this, that pretension is a risk worth taking. A fan urges Edwards shortly after his disappearance to ‘think of everyone you’ve influenced or inspired. There are loads of kids out there who’ve been turned onto new music, new books and new ideas because of you and your band.’ There’s no doubt that the 4 Real stunt encouraged self harm. But I’m convinced that Richey Manic saved lives.