Archives of Pain: The Holy Bible
By Daniel Lukes and Guy Mankowski.
On the occasion of the publication of Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible, by Rhian E. Jones, Daniel Lukes, and Larissa Wodtke (Repeater Books, 2017), Daniel Lukes spoke with Guy Mankowski, author of How I Left the National Grid (Roundfire Books, 2015) which was in part inspired by the disappearance and enduring legacy of Richey Edwards.
DL: We often tend to think of Richey Edwards, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, as sympathetic characters – when we’re not railing against them. Yet I found Robert Wardner, the disappeared frontman in How I Left the National Grid, a rather menacing presence. What was your intention and your thinking behind this portrayal?
GM: Robert Wardner was a mix of influences – you rightly identify Richey Edwards and Ian Curtis, but I didn’t want to fictionalize these people in a “straight” way as I didn’t get to know them and felt it would be disrespectful, not to mention impossible, to portray such people. Mark E Smith was also in the mix, with Wardner being based in Manchester and deeply influenced by the postmodern architecture of the city. I can see why you found him menacing, given his anger is directed outwards (with Wardner almost killing a record company executive in his car at one point) but he is distinct from Edwards in that respect, who was apparently softly spoken and whose anger was seemingly self-directed. Edwards’ anger only ever seemed to be expressed outwards, in his art.
DL: Tell me something about the research involved in writing How I Left the National Grid: what exactly did it entail? What materials did you read, and what other kind of research did you do?
GM: I spoke to people who had first-hand knowledge about Richey, like Simon Reynolds. I spent a lot of time listening to music of that era, watching interviews, and walking the outer limits of the urban places described in the novel so I was as familiar with them as my characters. I visited monasteries, the kinds of places such a person might have found solace. I also interviewed post-punk artists like Savages and LoneLady who I got into an extended correspondence with a takeaway below a knocking shop in the Northern Quarter. These musicians helped me to slowly understand the autodidactic nature, and will to render art real, that was distinctive in post-punk. And I consider The Holy Bible to be the most post-punk of albums.
DL: What exactly do you mean by The Holy Bible being a post-punk record? I love that everyone has their own take on the album: for me, at the time, I discovered it in the context of 90s music – grunge, industrial, and alternative rock, and I liken it more to Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, Tool’s Undertow or Therapy?’s Troublegum.
GM: I think it uses the post-punk aesthetic of negation- you see it in everything from the harsh stripped back aesthetic on the sleeve to the arrangement of the songs with their minimal overdubs. The album is post-punk in that it takes the punk idea that ‘everyone can express themselves and they don’t need to be a muso to do that’ and marries it with the post-punk intellectualism that saw artists in that movement turn to authors such as JG Ballard for answers. I think the textures on the album are very ‘after punk’- they have the brutality of punk but are more nuanced, to reflect a troubled state of mind.
In your section of Triptych you explored various novels connected to Richey. To what extent do you think these books reflect Richey specifically during The Holy Bible era or do you think they just illuminate him generally? Are there certain authors that, through your research, seemed to represent Richey’s worldview particularly well?
DL: Strangely, I sometimes found myself looking at or for authors that weren’t explicitly there in the album’s references, but I nonetheless felt cast their shadows over it: T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Philip Larkin. I’d always put off reading Yukio Mishima before, and diving into his works, I felt a strong influence on Richey, especially the concepts of political purity, intransigence, eroticized pain and masochism, self-sacrifice in the name of a higher virtue, discipline. Reading Richey-approved authors for months on end ended up being quite depressing, and also limiting. I feel his canon would have grown and expanded, had he stuck around, and in many ways it represents the limited and limiting worldview of a young person. Toward the end of my writing process I felt there was not enough mind-expanding, generous, or empathetic material in Richey’s reading list, and too much existential horror, self-loathing and political nihilism. I did enjoy watching Pinter film adaptations, in particular The Caretaker, and loved discovering Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser (1983), with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay: a phenomenal performance. But as you discuss later in this interview, more accurate biographical work would certainly help with the question of the timing of Richey’s influences: when specifically he read certain books, and the chronology of how they shaped his thought and aesthetic.
Your novel is concerned with fans and fandom: what effect do you think the disappearance of Richey or the suicides of Cobain and Curtis have had on their fans, especially across an extended time period – decades now? When I was a teenager, the death of Cobain and the disappearance of Richey made me feel that the end was near. Over time, a sense of life’s precarity has stayed with me. What do you think about the long-term cultural and psychological impact of these events?
GM: I speak to other “followers” of Richey’s – for want of another word and, as I explored in the book, I think he has become a blank space onto which people can project their fantasies, particularly regarding the exile narratives they would like to play out about contemporary life. I’ll speak for myself. By capturing the dishonesty, hypocrisy and sickness of our age with such accuracy – and using the physical form as an extended metaphor to do that – Richey convinced many people, like me, that he had answers. When he withdrew from normative life there is therefore the implicit idea that he has judged this life and decided it is so lacking that he wants to go somewhere else and so for me he makes the idea of withdrawing from the neo-liberal world enticing. I think to some extent Curtis and Cobain’s deaths carry a similarly powerful message. These people were symbolic of an “other” in their life and their departure makes that “otherness” a more pressing question.
You said that the disappearance of Richey made you feel the end was near and I share that, and your sense of life’s precarity. I think Richey’s long-term cultural and psychological impact will deepen. I understand that the writing used on Journal For Plague Lovers was not intended to be lyrics. Regardless, it demonstrates for me Richey’s psychic removal from the life we take for granted. As the world we live in becomes more and more different from the world Richey left behind, his departure from it will seem more and more like an enticing departure point for the rest of us too. Like a figurative metaphor for the idea that Richey left the world at that point because that was the point it became intolerable. It is like he cracked the answer to life with The Holy Bible – and so whatever he did next will become a more and more intoxicating question the more time goes on and the deeper the impact of The Holy Bible becomes.
Why did the disappearance of Richey make you think the end of near? Is there something about him or his disappearance that speaks of “the end of days”? To paraphrase one of his favorite films, that sense that we are at the end of the river and Colonel Kurtz has almost been found? I wonder if Richey loved that film and was so deeply influenced by it (not least during The Holy Bible era) because that narrative, in which one eventually finds a painful answer, appealed to him. What do you think? What is your personal theory of what happened to Richey?
DL: As a teenager I didn’t make too much of a distinction between my inner turmoil and the world at large, though I was probably responding to the same pre-millennial tension that influenced a lot of the culture of that time. That said, the film Sometimes in April, about the Rwandan genocide starting in April 1994, makes a well-needed point about how Cobain’s suicide looms overly large, in the Western consciousness at the time, at the expense of thinking about the Rwandan genocide. As for what happened to Richey, before researching this book I was never really aware of the extent of the theories that would still have him alive: I always assumed he was dead. What would Richey think about the last two decades since his disappearance? I think he’d probably agree that across the world things have gotten worse. As for the tableau of his hotel room belongings, I think we should be wary of reading too much, or anything, into that. I think maybe at that point, as Ben Myers considers in his novel Richard, Richey is being carried along by forces beyond his desire to live amongst us.
GM: I think Richey was adept at symbolism. By wearing boiler suits quoting Rimbaud’s ‘A Season In Hell’ (‘then a man who would mutilate himself is well Damned, isn’t he?’) he framed the idea that he was reaching some sort of closure. I agree that he was probably drawn to films with narratives after which a painful journey ends with some state of realization- he had Dante’s Circles of Hell tattooed on him in later years. My own theory, for what it’s worth, is that he probably had a psychological collapse (which seemed a long time coming) and then reinvented his identity in another part of the world under a different name. I just don’t think we can assume he’s dead when there is no body. I recently read Sylvia Patterson’s I’m Not With The Band which recounts a lot of first-hand experiences with Richey. In that book Nicky is quoted saying that Richey’s cynicism ‘calcified’ and, to paraphrase, he says that if a love of humanity and an empathy had dissolved that calcification he would have been better able to cope. It seemed his frame of mind had reached a dead end.
DL: Another of the themes of your novel is the idea living in songs, especially as a teenager or outsider: I especially like the line “It sounds mad, but sometimes I think I can almost experience the thoughts behind the songs I love.” What songs or artists meant the most to you growing up, and what function did they fulfill exactly? How did they help or enrich your life? To what extent is How I Left the National Grid a response to this way of relating to music?
GM: The Manics, The Smashing Pumpkins Suede, PJ Harvey, Placebo and The Smiths spring to mind. They all carry a similar faded glamour and all but one have a certain exhausted Englishness – with their lyrical topography of nowhere zones around normative life in which freaks like me spend their days. The function they fulfilled was to make me feel as if I wasn’t mad, and I felt comforted by these distant, kindred spirits. They did enrich my life but I’d go further and say that without the Manics and PJ Harvey I may have gone mad. How I Left The National Grid is a love letter both to that era and a description of the extremes that loyalty to music can take us to. Few albums affected fans as deeply as The Holy Bible. Even the Manics joke about the sort of people that love that album!
DL: The ending of your novel makes me think a bit of Candide, and the notion of tending your own garden, of turning your back on the world of society, politics, culture – and it also makes me think of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, in which the garden-tender is burned-out. Under what circumstances might it be the right thing to turn one’s back on the world?
GM: I think when the world demands you turn you back on it, it can be if not the right thing to do then understandable. I don’t think the current government can really honestly say they expect the younger generation to cope with the circumstances they are dealing with now, or that they would live with them.
I’d say in the last five to 10 years it has become slowly apparent that the systems young people are supposed to engage with to become adults – from the job market and wages, to the student loan system, to the housing market, have all been entirely burned up by the previous generation. It is something I examine in microcosm in my new novel, An Honest Deceit – which is what I think the world has become. Yes, I personally think that hurting your loved ones by absenting yourself has always seemed to me a step too far when dealing with that struggle but at the same time living in such conditions does, in all honesty, feel to various degrees intolerable. Do you think Richey’s departure was to do with just his mental health – as some seem to suggest – or was there more to it than that?
DL: I think that Richey was an intensely political person, and acutely aware of the injustice of the world and of history, and that his mental health problems prevented him from stepping back and protecting himself from those realizations about reality. As teenagers we suddenly see the world in all its horror for the first time, and as we grow into adulthood we build mechanisms to come to terms with that, and perhaps those ways of coping didn’t quite work for Richey, and he held on instead to a certain adolescent view of things. The ugly clarity of The Holy Bible is beautiful and truthful, but also unsustainable. What are your thoughts on that album?
GM: I think the book I want to read about Richey Edwards – speculating in detail about his disappearance, the hunt for him and covering his creative and writing habits, is yet to be written, frankly. There is a gaping hole there and it would take a very good and committed writer. I’d love a book to go deep into that subject and I think the biography genre has more room to develop to encompass a person as complex as Richey probably was.
My thoughts on The Holy Bible are that its use of language and the brutal honesty of that language set a new benchmark for what art can do. The album managed to be a forensic indictment of the age we live in before that age was fully realized, and it therefore shows uncanny and remarkable vision, which we will only credit more with time. Its artwork and lyrics challenge ideas of the physical self. It is a record that proves to me that all art should be political and that if its not it is shying away from a necessary challenge. Lastly, the music on The Holy Bible, to my mind pushed the envelope in terms of how harsh sounding a top ten record could be. So it was boundary breaking then, in every sense.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Daniel Lukes has a PhD in Comparative Literature from New York University and currently teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. He has written for rock and metal magazines such as Kerrang!, Terrorizer, and Decibel.
Guy Mankowski is an academic whose PhD concerned post-punk literature. He is also the author of How I Left The National Grid: A Post-Punk novel. His latest novel, An Honest Deceit, was published in 2016.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 20th, 2016.