Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide
Ben Myers interviewed by Alan Kelly.
3:AM: In the canon of pop culture mythology you have chosen a figure who has achieved a morbid iconic status. Was it your aim to dispel the hyperbole by crafting a novel which is one thread speculative biography, one thread diary retracing his last steps? What first moved you to tell that story, his one?
Ben Myers: I think you’re exactly right, Alan. The idea was to get beyond the myth of a rock star who has indeed reached iconic status. I chose to write about him because Richey Edwards was a more fascinating and complex subject than most – on the one hand he subverted the idea of rock star by drawing on his literary intelligence and peppering his interviews with iconoclastic declarations, yet on the other he completely played up to that role: the look, the rhetoric, the descent into an addiction of sorts. So you have two perceptions at play at the same time: the Byronic beauty staring out at you from the cover of NME, and the nice young man who reads books, walks his dog and enjoys Sunday dinner with his family. I wanted to explore this contradiction: how do you reconcile one role with the other? At what point does the contrived rock star creation begin to dominate? I fear than it attempting to demystify the wider public persona of Richey Edwards as a self-destructive nihilist – and talking to people that seems to be how he appears beyond the band’s existing fan base – I’ve possibly inadvertently contributed to this culture of mythology instead.
Mind you, I’ve actually met too many rock stars to be a huge believer in the deification or elevation of humans to God-like status simply because they can play a bit of guitar (or in the case of Richey, merely looking good holding one). But I know that pop also thrives upon the mythologisation of its protagonists too, so Richard straddles the divides between fact and fiction, literal truth and perceived truth. All that aside, Richey Edwards’ story is one shot through with light and shade, and I don’t think the hefty pile of news clippings offer the full story – only the end. So I’ve attempted to tell a version of it.
3:AM: Your novel affords the reader an insight that goes beyond the haunted kohl-sticky eyes, the slight awkward body, the thrift store chic, the fey mannerisms and obscure literary references that most associate with the doomed lyricist. While researching the book, were there any areas of his life which you would like to have explored, but couldn’t due to legal barriers?
BM: The fact that you call him ‘doomed’ is interesting and a point I try to explore through the fictionalisation of his life. Can someone from a good home and who is educated, good looking, well-liked and outwardly successful be doomed? Is life pre-ordained or do you choose that path? That’s why I include some quotes from Hamlet in the book actually – because that play concerns similar themes.
The book is very much written as a novel in order to explore these deeper truths about who Richey Edwards was – it’s an approach that David Peace used very successfully in The Damned United. There may have been the odd inaccuracy about his portrayal of Brian Clough, but the essence was there and I think it worked. Yet you also have to be careful not to stray too far from the plausible truth, and also avoid the possibly of causing upset to Richey Edwards’ family and friends. While researching the book I was told quite a few personal anecdotes from many people who knew him that I ultimately chose to leave out, not because they were contentious or controversial, but because they were personal and wouldn’t necessarily have added to the narrative. This series of anecdotes raised some interesting points though, such as the realisation that every person is as much a composite of the recollections, opinions and memories of others, and their self-perception almost becomes secondary to that. It’s the same with history isn’t it? History is not what really happens, but how it is written down. I didn’t feel hugely restricted in what I wrote about though, and hope that people who read Richard will realise this isn’t some salacious cash-in, but a modern novel about modern problems.
3:AM: You didn’t correspond with the other members of the Manic Street Preachers, his family or friends. Does it worry you what their reactions might be, if there will be a negative backlash?
BM: Of course, yeah, a negative backlash is a concern. No-one wants to be seen as a failure, especially when I’ve tried to tread as sensitively as possible, and I don’t want to cause upset either. I hope the band at least appreciate what I have attempted with this book, which is essentially a literary rendering of a story that befits Richey’s own literary tastes – tastes which influenced a lot of people, I should add, including myself. I have actually had some brief correspondence with the Manics camp though.
3:AM: Your writing – particularly this story – has a tantalisingly broad scope, which takes into account very real issues of the consequences of celebrity on the individual, depression and the subsequent self-abuse which can arise from that condition, especially the physical manifestations – the drinking, the cutting, the insularity Richey imposed upon himself. In your story he struggled with a hectoring part of himself, almost a voice which came from somewhere distant to him. That ‘voice’ is a part of ourselves we can all identify with to some degree. Was making your way into Richey’s head a difficult trip? Could you explain your writing process, how you got there?
BM: I think Richey Edwards would probably have experienced depression even if he hadn’t had to endure the pressures of being a band. The signs were certainly there in his teenage and university years. I think he suffered in a way that many people do; most of us these days have had direct experience of depression one way or another, so he wasn’t entirely unique. But I think what was already there may have been exacerbated by a combination of exhaustion, fame, travel, too much alcohol, an eating disorder and the general pressure of trying not to disappoint the faithful. I think also he maybe realised that fame and ‘success’ can change your lifestyle but not what it is that makes you you. In other words: where do you go when you achieved your goals, and still feel dissatisfied?
Trying to write that internal conflict was less about trying to get into Richey’s head and more about writing it from a personalised perspective. I’m a pretty private person with a relatively small circle of close friends – and I’m terrible at handling alcohol – so I’m fairly certain that life in a touring band would crush me. So on that very basic level I could relate. Similarly, depression is something I think I know a bit about. I’ve seen many friends who are intelligent, well-liked and talented suffer because they are sensitive to the ways of the world. People for whom just reading the newspaper can have a very destructive effect. We all have internal voices too; we’re all engaged in a constant dialogue with ourselves, consciously or sub-consciously. I tried to transfer that onto paper to show the push-and-pull of Richey’s indecision about his future, his doubt in his abilities, his alienation from society and so forth.
3:AM: Since his disappearance, there have been reports of sightings around the world, do you think it is possible that he deliberately went into hiding, that because of his depressive nature he needed to withdraw from the world?
BM: Yes, I think that is possible. The interesting – and particularly tragic – aspect of this story is that at after fifteen years with little in the way of a breakthrough any outcome is possible. The thing I’ve tried to avoid with Richard is giving people further fuel for speculation; this book is about his life and final days, and not what happened to him. We’ve already seen the emergence of a strange sub-culture of sightings. I’m sure some of them were well-intentioned but still… I mean, I can’t begin to imagine how a disappearance such as this effects those left behind. The lack of information coupled with a fading but still tangible sense of hope must be hard to handle. Lots of people have asked me what I think happened to Richey Edwards and my answer is always the same: I have no idea.
3:AM: I only ask because I loved the metaphysical landscape where Richard finds himself towards the end of the novel, the elderly feral old man he encounters and his descriptions of the wild remote Welsh countryside is dazzling. You relocated to the country quite recently, do you feel that your writing is now somehow influenced by your surroundings?
BM: Yes, about two months after I finished writing Richard – but before it was signed by Picador – I moved from London to the Yorkshire countryside, so the book was actually written in Peckham, South London, where I had lived for 12 years. I’d actually been wanting to move to the countryside for a long time – all my life I’ve walked up mountains and enjoyed the outdoors, and I felt like the city was having an adverse effect on me. Also my girlfriend is a farm-girl who similarly found herself pining for nature. So who knows, perhaps the rural setting during the book’s latter stages was partly my own selfish attempt to write myself out of the city. I certainly think that the British countryside can provide solace or act as a tonic; there’s so much drama in the weather and the landscape, and nothing quite puts things in perspective more – both literally and metaphorically – than walking up a remote hillside and looking back down at the distance you’ve traveled. Facing geological structures such as valleys and mountains that have been carved by glaciers millions of years ago you tend to appreciate the insignificance of your own fleeting life. I tried to incorporate that into the book by stripping away the ephemera and clutter of Richey’s existence, and portraying him walking into the Welsh landscape is less of a literal plot-line and more of a metaphor for him rejecting his life up to that point.
3:AM: In your next novel you’re taking a very different direction. Could you tell me a little bit about it?
BM: I’m working on a couple of other books at the moment, neither of which are remotely related to music. Like Richard they both involve lone men of sorts. Actually, I’ve recently realised that, writing-wise, I’m generally drawn to people who feel detached from mainstream society – those who tend to be on the outside looking in or who exist on the fringes. I feel like a voyeur myself a lot of the time anyway. So I’m working on a couple of stories featuring such characters. Loosely speaking one book is partly about the violent impulses within man and whether such as thing is within the DNA of all of us from birth. The old ‘nature versus nurture’ discussion. It’s also about Durham and the north-east of England.
The other book is about sexual desire and greed. Insatiability, I suppose. I tend to write first and see how things come out, then work on tightening the plot, so whether they will see the light of day remains to be seen. Sometimes I read things back and realise with horror that I’ve just squandered months and months on something that has strayed so far from my original goal it no longer makes much sense. Other times – and in this case of this novel – I’ve picked it up three years later, re-read it and thought: this isn’t completely shit. A book not being completely shit is the best start you can hope for, I think.
3:AM: Are there any other public tragedies – by which I mean people liked Richard and Kurt Cobain, other people with similar fates – you feel warrant investigation, and if so, why do you feel this is necessary?
BM: I’m beginning to appreciate that truth really can be stranger or more interesting than fiction, so I think there are always real life stories that warrant investigation. I actually have a cardboard file that I fill with snippets torn out from newspapers because they’re so bizarre or implausible – yet true. The true crime genre has produced some amazing books which explore tragedies too – I’m thinking of something like Gordon Burn‘s Happy Like Murderers, about Fred and Rose West. Burn wrote it like a novel, yet its power lies in the fact that it is true. There are things in that book that went beyond anything that most of us could imagine in our very darkest moments, and that’s a precarious state for a writer to put himself in. That book was so dark and so well written that it completely did my head in actually.
At the moment I don’t think I could write anything that is music-related or centred around someone such as Kurt Cobain, though I do think his public persona is probably quite far from the truth true. I remember Nirvana as witty, funny, irreverent people, but that doesn’t get mentioned so much. Again, history has decided he was a tortured junkie and that is that, which must be frustrating for those that really knew him.
I have been through a bit of a late-70s L.A. hardcore phase and I think that the world would make a good setting for a novel. There was so much going on that you could draw from – Darby Crash of the Germs in particular was a fascinating figure. I suppose such a book could be a sort of proto-Less Than Zero. Or a flipside to it. Actually maybe that could be the pitch: “Less Than Zero, as written by an English nerk.”
3:AM: With Richard I think you finally gave him some peace, by creating a hypothetical timeline that delivered him to a place of light and air, where he could escape his demons, where he could escape himself. Yet Richard was still ambiguous and never exploitative. What do you hope readers will take away from your novel?
BM: I suppose I hope that the reader – even if it’s just one reader – is emotionally moved by the book in the way. Also, now that everyone is a critic, it would be nice to help steer the concept of music writing in a new, hopefully more poetic and less hysterical direction.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 9th, 2010.