Living in Wales in the 80s was shit. Unemployment shot up, spirits were down and in the wasteland that fell between came the Manic Street Preachers.
"Where we come from, there's a natural melancholy in the air", Richey Edwards said the year before he disappeared. "Everybody, ever since you could comprehend it, felt pretty much defeated. You've got the ruins of heavy industry all around you. You see your parent's generation all out of work, nothing to do..."
I can relate. I grew up in a tiny village with no vowels in its name and a community so small that police officers were addressed by whatever their nickname was in school. You can’t get to a bank without taking two modes of public transport, but you can visit three generations of the same family on a single terraced street. The neighbours knock when they’re passing to say hello or inform you that so-and-so from Number 19 just died. The Christmas decorations stay up all year round.
It’s nice, to a point. There’s definitely a certain nostalgia attached to the freedom of spending childhood summers rocketing down an abandoned colliery on a piece of slate with absolutely no regard for personal safety. Or spying on the guy who used to go around painting the fronts of people’s houses for fun regardless of whether or not they asked him to. But the underlying dullness is always there. And it’s been there for decades.
The Welsh landscape in the 80s was troubled by violence, unrest and depression. Thatcher pulled the coal industry out the country like a rug from underfoot, throwing the working classes into an identity crisis so devastating that the effects are still being felt today. Unemployment shot up, everybody's spirits spiralled down, and from the wasteland that fell between came the Manic Street Preachers - who understood the dullness better than anybody.
The doldrums that swept across the Valleys after Thatcher was a massive driving force for The Manics. “If you built a museum to represent Blackwood, all you could put in it would be shit,” bassist Nicky Wire said about the town they grew up in. Faced with a society in which people were barely surviving let alone living, the band kicked back with purpose. But they also embodied the very things they were railing against - cynicism, anger and despair: the three words most often used to describe their third full-length album The Holy Bible.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, The Holy Bible is significant not only as a stand-alone work of art but as the last album Richey Edwards – the band’s guitarist/primary lyricist – would be involved in before he disappeared on February 1st 1995. The record - which was described by Nicky Wire as "full of disgust with humanity" - is a ruthless outburst of Richey's struggle with depression, alcohol abuse, self-harm and anorexia. By the time the album was released, he was hospitalised at the Priory Hospital in Roehampton.
Like Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, and all those who came before him, Richey Edwards’ legacy is coloured by a combination of tragedy, mystery and romanticism. And how could it not be? Lyrically he was beautifully brutal – a combination of Camus, Rimbaud and Ballard – yet his speaking voice, which was soft monotone and almost timid, was more like something you’d find reading the shipping news. Basically he was smart and charming – a classically handsome Dylan Thomas with a less terrifying voice – and people fucking loved it. He was so warm that his childhood nickname was “Teddy Edwards”. But the portrayal of him as a Bambi-eyed “tortured artist” feels off-colour, not just because the notion of the “tortured artist” is total crap, but because it’s impossible to talk about somebody’s persona without recognising the things that helped shape it in the first place.
Richey mattered to people because he talked about issues like depression and anorexia openly, honestly, and with a dark sort of humour. And in that respect it’s hard not to draw parallels between the nature of his personality and the nature of his socio-economic surroundings. In many ways, his depression was reflective of the collapsing economy as much as it was a sense of artistic yearning. He hid himself away from things, but only because he understood them all too well.
“We've always been cynical and miserable,” Nicky told The Guardian, in 2008. “We embody the destructive working-class thing, mixing stupendous intelligence with nihilistic destruction” - a perspective that peaked on The Holy Bible, where Richey’s lyrics are so visceral and violent that singer James Dean Bradfield’s first reaction when he read them was, “You crazy fucker, how do you expect me to write music to this?” But presumably that “craziness” was something they could all tap into one way or another, because the album opens with a song written from the perspective of a prostitute and the line “For sale? Dumb cunt's same dumb questions.” Surprisingly, their plans to release it as the album’s fourth single didn’t quite pan out.
The isolation that can come from being trapped inside or completely out of touch with your home surroundings is very real, and the thing about Richey was that he was so great at illustrating the things he considered to be ugly, or beautiful, or a combination of both through someone else’s eyes. It was almost a form of sadistic escapism. Those eyes could belong to a politician or a prostitute – it didn’t matter. The point was usually the same and the point was usually that people are the worst.
The Holy Bible is littered with a Romantics-inspired contrast between the ugliness of human nature and the beauty of nature itself. For example, "4st. 7lbs" is preoccupied not only with the obvious issue of anorexia, but with the twinned idea that the human body is a vessel that can never be clean and that people are inherently corrupt - “I want to walk in the snow/And not leave a footprint/ I want to walk in the snow/And not soil its purity”. And maybe that longing for unachievable purity can be traced back to the kind of childhood you have in a secluded area like Blackwood, or anywhere in the Valleys.
"I don't know, maybe that's what fucked us up,” James says in Manic Street Preachers book, In Their Own Words, “Not that we had bad childhoods, but that our childhoods were too good. That sense of freedom - we weren't just reading books or watching films, experiencing second-hand culture. We were, y'know, building a dam, messing around in dirt, things like that, which, looking back, seem much more worthwhile… I suppose that's what it comes down to. You can never retain that sense of freedom."
The Valleys are greener now; but only on the surface. The suicide rate in Wales increased by 30% between 2009 and 2011 and prescriptions for anti-depressants have rocketed over 100% in the last six years. Obviously recessions aren’t great for suicide rates because the psychological effects of economic downturn coupled with a lack of access to services puts added pressure on the NHS, and even more so on victims of depression. But even so, many areas of the Valleys have remained frozen in time for the last three decades anyway - stuck in a cycle where ambition has almost been bred out and children are taught to step into the shadows of their parents to continue the same lukewarm legacy. For anybody living there now, it’s not difficult to imagine what it would have been like growing up through the worst of it – all you have to do is take a look around you and work backwards. “Something in the Welsh psyche rejects success,” Nicky said, comparing The Manics’ music with that of other Welsh artists like the Super Furry Animals, “There's a self-destructive streak. The place is littered with people like us.”
Would things have turned out differently if their roots were planted elsewhere – somewhere more pastoral? Musically speaking, almost definitely. In terms of Richey Edwards’ life, it’s impossible to say and unfair to ask. The fact remains that Richey spent a great deal of his adult life battling multiple demons to which he presumably lost. And if we’ve learned anything at all from the recent death of Robin Williams it’s that the media has little idea how to deal with that. “The older you get, the more life becomes miserable,” Richey told a smug, sniggering journalist the year before his disappearance. Perhaps that sums up how most people treat mental illness – as something that can be laughed aside as casually as a joke about Liam Gallagher’s personality. And perhaps that lack of empathy is an even bigger threat to people like Richey than any form of political legislation.
Before Richey disappeared, he handed Nicky a big binder with pictures of Bugs Bunny on the front and “opulence” scrawled across. It contained masses of lyrics, poetry, collages, extracts from Ballard and Kerouac – something personal he’d obviously been putting together for a while. He made copies and gave them to James and Sean. Six months after The Holy Bible was released, Richey disappeared, almost as if he poured himself into the record and handed over whatever was left to his friends. The Holy Bible is now considered to be one of the greatest albums in the history of alternative music.
Richey Edwards left behind a legacy that will continue to inspire, comfort and mystify in equal measure. But we should be careful not to reduce that legacy to something as two-dimensional as “tortured artist” when he was much more than that. Richey Edwards wasn’t a tortured artist, he was a child of depression – both medical and economic – who was able to turn a desolate circumstance into something beautiful and enduring.
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