From Despair To Where
By Darran Anderson.
Richard, Ben Myers, Picador, 2010
‘I am nothing and should be everything.’ – Karl Marx, New Art Riot EP.
There’s an old quote from the play Schlageter by Hanns Johst that’s often (mis)attributed to Hermann Göring ; “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my revolver”. Despite it’s dubious origins, it’s a sentiment that often springs to mind when confronted with what passes for culture in this cruel cruel world, 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 (if that sounds like the embittered ramblings of a prematurely-aged nobody then you’d be right). In the early morning of the 1st of February 1995, Richey Edwards checked out of the London Embassy hotel and vanished. He was due to fly to the US with his bandmate James Dean Bradfield on a promotional tour for their masterpiece The Holy Bible. In the two weeks preceeding, he’d withdrawn the maximum amount of cash from his bank account via the ATM every day. He’d also given his bandmate Nicky Wire a folder marked OPULENCE containing a series of drawings and poems (on the subject of the doomed Bang Bang Club war photographer Kevin Carter, Elvis, self-harm, Chomsky, Marlon Brando, Sylvia Plath and the painting Odalisque by Ingres), which the band would much later put to music on Everything Must Go and Journal for Plague-Lovers. He’s reportedly seen over the next few days in various locations in his native Wales before his car is found abandoned at the service station by the Severn bridge. The battery is run down, a cassette of In Utero is in the tape-deck, photos of his family litter the seats. He hasn’t been seen since.
The cult of celebrity has reached its apex (and nadir) in the years since Richey’s disappearance. Entire industries (from ghost writers to paparazzi), like modern day alchemists, are engaged in turning shit into gold and back again. Such is the prevailing level of cynicism it’s engrained in us all that the prospect of a book revisiting Richey’s disappearance and imagining what was going through the man’s mind, raises all manner of questions of sensationalism, intrusion and exploitation. You find yourself expecting the worst. You find yourself reaching for that revolver. It’s with great relief then to find that Richard by Ben Myers is a superb, contemplative and above all compassionate study of a man at the edge.
The fictional depiction of factual events (or “faction” writing as it’s revoltingly known) has a chequered history, calling to mind sleb hagiographies and first person depictions of Diana, queen of hearts, propelling herself down the stairs or hugging an Aids kid. When it’s done well, the results can be incredible – Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Gordon Burn’s Alma Cogan, virtually everything by David Peace. But these are a tiny minority of cases. And even when successful, the writer can still get burned (Peace had to settle out of court with an aggrieved Johnny Giles following the footballer’s depiction in The Damned United). It’s such a troubling medium, fraught by pitfalls, both legally and morally, that any success is doubly impressive. How can you navigate it without losing any edge or insight, without insulting or falsely flattering those involved? How can you tell the truth in a medium that exists almost solely for the telling of beautiful lies? Somehow, with great diligence and empathy, Myers succeeds.
Myers’ choice of accompanying quotes from Hamlet to introduce each section of Richard is an inspired, revelatory one. The parallels between the two run deep: the narcissism/introversion (“self disgust is self attention honey”), the heady mix of doubt and mad ambition, righteous ire and alienation. To impressionable introverted youth kicking around small-towns, Richey was irresistible; fiercely articulate, proudly working class, defiantly outside. In comparison, the old idols were either distant and decadent (the Jim Morrisons), useless (Sid Vicious) or died before fulfilling their potential (Johnny Thunders). In contrast, Richey was authentic, open-hearted and, if we’re honest, pretty fucking stunning to look at. In a way, he demonstrated the still-potent allure of the romantic ideal, that painting of Chatterton elegantly sprawled out in blissful opiated oblivion that still haunts us. Of course, we’re all postmodern now, we’re all cynics, everything is passé, everything is to be regarded with a smirk, all genuine feeling to be laughed at, disguising the fear deep down that we all have that we are just shades, just shadows that never really touch or inhabit anything. The fear that all the tricks and poses of postmodernism amount to very little and the nagging feeling that there must be something deeper than Pavement or American Apparel, Jeff Koons or McSweeneys. Richey was our guilty conscience. An echo of times when stuff mattered. When people believed in things. Initially, at least, the critics poured scorn on them, with mildly-racist Londoncentric jibes at these upstarts from the valleys who dared to quixotically try and combine Guns N’ Roses with Public Enemy. But an authenticity, unfashionable as it was or still is, shone through all the rhetoric, culminating in the infamous ‘4 Real’ incident where Richey tried to win over a sceptical Steve Lamacq by slicing his arm down with a razor blade right through the muscle. You look at the photos now and realise there’s no sneering at the depth of that cut.
Yet in showing us the lingering attraction of the Romantic ideal, Richey was also an example of the limits of it. What the Chatterton spectre misses, the live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse or leave it all behind, do a Rimbaud and fake your own death hare-brained schemes, is the human details; the family left behind to pick up the pieces, the heartbreaking loss of what could have been, that entire life that’s just gone. One crucial element to Myers’ book is not just the attempt to understand the world through Richey’s eyes, the methodical research or the considerate lightness of touch when dealing with such weighty subject matter, it’s this sense of sadness, not just Edward’s melancholy but the sense of what could’ve been, the absence that this unique presence, a surprisingly rare thing in itself, left behind.
Any book of this kind will inevitably make us reconsider where the subject fits in the grand scheme of things, what the legacy of the Richey-era Manics is (the continuing incarnation of the band are meanwhile enjoying a new lease of life with two recent superior, often exceptional, albums). Looking back, the Manics were a mass of contradictions. The situationist band who revelled in the spectacle, who proclaimed “we destroy rock n’ roll” while reviving rock in an era of dance music and hip-hop, the nihilists who had principles, the bullshitters that actually meant it. They were a mass of contradictions but none of it mattered. It didn’t matter that Richey couldn’t play the guitar, all the better – no fret wankery or hiding behind his fringe and guitar pedals, building sonic cathedrals from feedback, like the apologetic shoegazers of the time. His lines didn’t scan, the Manics crammed entire essays into the songs – again it didn’t matter, even at their clumsiest, they far bettered the “high/fly/cry” Dr Seuss knuckle-headisms of Gallagher and co. Given they celebrated their Hanoi Rocks/New York Dolls/Clash predecessors, looking back, beyond the eyeliner and leopard-print, it seems strange to identity The Smiths as their most immediate ancestors. In a way though, they inherited the vacant throne of Morrissey and Marr; the working class auto-didactism, the absolute lack of intellectual snobbery, the us versus them attitude that made them seem invincible, the covert pop sensibility (that hidden stack of C86 records), the inclusiveness and contrariness that bred a cult rather than a mere fan (like The Smiths you either despised the Manics or adored them, no-one sat on the fence), minus the Wildean disdain and touch of puritan abstinence. Similarly, whilst the cover of a Smiths record might send you off to check out Cocteau’s Orphee, L’Insoumis, the Angry Young Men or Warhol’s Factory, the Manics sent you out searching through the whole counterculture. The sleeve of Generation Terrorists alone was an education; Ibsen, Plath, Rimbaud’s A Season In Hell, The Futurist Manifesto, Camus and Nietzsche, Miller and Burroughs (to say nothing of songs about Patrick Bateman, RP McMurphy or Van Gogh’s last words), thrilling discoveries each, ones that you never shake off. Personally speaking, it was worth more than any literature syllabus.
One aspect continually overlooked concerning the Manics is their humour. Critics never picked up on this but it’s there right from the start, evident in their pouting excess and homoerotica in the early videos, their insistence on sending manifestos to say Smash Hits in response to inane questions (along the lines of “What is your favourite colour?” answered with a lengthy quote from Octave Mirbeau, Bakunin or Simone Weil). From the beginning, there’s a knowing wink that the critics failed to notice. The band delighted in their own ludicrousness (see the video for ‘You Love Us’ for evidence), recognising the truth that all great bands are ludicrous. Rock n’ roll itself is patently absurd (as demonstrated by the groupie scenes in Richard which, far from being some Hammer of the Gods-style bacchanalian excess, are grimly familar and down-to-earth – “You’re going up in the world though,” Richey thinks of the band during one such encounter, “At least you have your own beds now”). Take the ludicrousness out of rock music and you end up with Coldplay and no-one wants that. Richard reminds us of the humour, whether in depictions of the band provoking a riotous Glaswegian crowd, a cuntish Oxbridge soiree or in a plan of unparalleled daftness hatched by Richey in the middle of the night to play on the Falls Road, Belfast during a riot,
“Do you think we’d get shot?”
“Probably just kneecapped…”
“It’s a terrible idea, isn’t it?”
Richard is, of course, about Richey but also it’s about Myers. His eye for the poetic, particularly for the wonders and yearnings of childhood, nature and solitude. These scenes are amongst the most affecting of the book, containing a wide-eyed innocence that you detect watching old interviews with Richey. Whether any of the internal monologues are accurate, whether it crosses the truth of what happened or what was thought, well the chances are sadly we’ll never know. What is sure is Myers’ skill for storytelling; the absence of any cynicism, a certain hypnotic meditative pace he successfully employs that draws you in as the novel progresses and a mood of melancholic nostalgia, a tantalising nostalgia for a time not long passed but gone forever, before social networking and mobile phones, when NME was samizdat and music, art, culture were things you risked getting your head kicked in for. And a nostalgia for places and people, of course, who are no longer here.
In the book, Richard himself comes across as those close to him would have recognised; tender, funny, hyper-sensitive, hyper-literate (his masterpiece The Holy Bible, features lyrics on prostitution, American imperialism, Foucault’s theories of pain and punishment, anorexia, the Holocaust and the sex lives of Soviet demagogues for starters). In a sense, it makes the book all the more painful that it is so successful in capturing his image and recreating his thoughts so that when the final realisation comes it’s all the more shocking; that all the success, credibility, self-belief, camaraderie, authenticity, all the knowledge in the world, all those books and songs were ultimately not enough. Richard doesn’t offer any answers but it stirs up a multitude of questions as all great literature should.
It’s tempting to recall the words of Richey’s hero, that other lost boy-wonder Arthur Rimbaud, from A Season In Hell, “My daytime is finished; I am leaving Europe. The sea air will scorch my lungs; lost climates will turn my skin to leather. To swim, to tread the plains, to hunt, above all to smoke; to drink strong drinks, as strong as molten ore, – as did those dear ancestors around their fires. I shall return with limbs of iron, with dark skin, and wild eyes…” And imagine that he followed suit, gave up on the West and headed off to obscurity and adventure in some distant corner of the world, wishful thinking though it sounds. The world is rarely that benevolent. Instead then consider the quote from Hamlet that both opens and defines the book, a book which is a testament to its subject and its writer, “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson is an Irish writer and 3:AM’s resident Joseph Merrick.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 4th, 2010.