By Guy Mankowski.
Triptych, Rhian E Jones, Daniel Lukes and Larissa Wodtke, Repeater Books, 2017
The Manic Street Preachers’ album The Holy Bible is, in many ways, a contradictory record. It’s not just the letter ‘R’ on the album’s typeface that flips backwards. The content of the record seems to actually defy itself too.
The album presents itself as ‘the last word’. In fitting with this it is often also interpreted as the last will and testament of lyricist Richey Edwards before he vanished. The covers triptych of images by artist Jenny Saville are also bold and resolute. Yet the album’s lyrics are fractured and asyntactic, and they frequently rely on the reader to complete their meaning, and piece together the broken images with the help of a decent library. The song ‘P.C.P.’ contains lines like ‘bring fresh air / king cigarette snuffed out by her midgets.’ A lot is asked of the listener. Even the albums co-lyricist, Nicky Wire, has admitted to still not knowing what some songs (particularly ‘Faster’) are about. Roland Barthes proposed the idea of the ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ text, with the superior, writerly text requiring the audience to finish the work. The Holy Bible, for a document that purports to be the ‘final word’, feels very writerly. It thereby also lends itself to works of interpretation such as this fascinating volume from Repeater Books.
With Triptych, the word ‘interpretation’ seems key. I doubt any dedicated Cult of Richey members will unearth new material here, and nor is that the point. Here, three authors cleave open the heavy headstone of this album to create space to interpret what lies beneath. Aptly, they use the Triptych artwork of the album’s cover as their own conceptual frame, presenting three sections of the book which allow each author to journey into their own labyrinthine avenues. This album, and Edwards’ departure, provoked much analysis and so the form seems apt. The book starts with a section by Rhian E. Jones, who contextualises the album as borne from an era in which ‘the newsagent stocked three copies of the NME’. Jones talks about how, in issues commemorating Kurt Cobain’s suicide, such music papers ‘ascribed meaning to a meaningless time’. She resists the temptation to indulge in fuzzy nostalgia, acknowledging how it can be ‘difficult to reconstruct the texture of nineties fandom’; an era at which fans were often physically remote to one another and yet psychologically very intimate. Despite her note of caution, Jones reconstructs the texture of nineties fandom with precise recall. She describes sleeping in bus stations to follow tours, and waiting days to hear back from a fanzine that a postal order had been hopefully been sent to. If fan subcultures have always suffered from a lack of room in which to express themselves, (what academic Giacomo Botta called ‘a lack of miraculous free space’) then Jones at least offers some such space for Manics fans within her rich writing.
She nails too the political and musical context in which this strange album was conceived. The Holy Bible connected with teenagers like me because, as Jones writes, adolescence is a time when one attempts to apply ‘the rules one has absorbed from the institutions of an earlier generation — parents, schools, political or religious establishments’ and, as she rightly says, we then ‘find that world severely lacking.’ The Holy Bible maps the anatomy of our sense of adolescent ‘lacking’ with an almost academic rigour. This is fitting, as for this album the band treated each song like an essay, collecting lyrical ideas for each title before compressing these ideas (just) into a rock-pop format. This process led to the record setting a new benchmark for what a pop album can conceptually achieve. I struggle to think of another record that has come close to that achievement.
Jones also correctly identifies the albums ‘gothic’ nature, with it being a record in which lyrically ‘nothing is healed, nothing is overcome’. In a sense, Jones’ reading is itself gothic in this respect. It allows the traumas described by the album to seem objective, rather than just a subjective account of Edwards’ brilliant, overreaching mind. On The Holy Bible the relentless chronicling of modern-day evils becomes overpowering. Here the effect of the essay is – perhaps in tribute – similar. Yet, as an account of an artistic era, a description of a political context, and as an interpretation, Jones’ essay is validating. Its framework joined the dots of various concerns I have long had about the politics of the late twentieth century. It left me with a portrait of that time which focused my own worldview.
Jones is also confident when it comes to analysing the representation of the female on the album’s tracks. On the harrowing ‘4st7lbs’ Edwards personified the ‘she’, mentioned in the lyric as ‘desire’; or as a figure gaining control through self-punishment in the form of anorexia. Jones recalls that when Courtney Love also represented deconstructed female form on her album Live Through This it didn’t stop her being ‘demonized and notorious,’ while, as she observes, ‘Richey has transcended his existence with his legend mostly spotless.’
In the second essay in Triptych, Daniel Lukes states his admirable objective to ‘try, and surely fail, to do two things. To explain what The Holy Bible meant for me, and why it was so important.’ This undertaking requires an exhaustive trawl through the rich literary canon linked with the album, and to Edwards in particular. It is a journey which takes us into arguably tenuous territory – the works of Eliot, and Selby, and perhaps more aptly the writing of Plath and Mirbeau. At this point the book becomes a bit of a literary Richey Edwards themed free-for-all. Fans who have been aching for news about him will enjoy the rich spectacle.
In the final section of the book, Larissa Wodtke reoriented me to the idea of The Holy Bible as a writerly text. Yet Wodtke goes further, and takes this premise to a fascinating extreme. Her section of the book considers the way the album links with philosophical ideas of memory. But most interestingly for me, she looks at Jamie McKelvie’s haunting comic book series ‘Phonogram: Rue Britannia’. This book featured an ‘eyeliner-smeared, boa-wearing apparition standing on an overpass stubbornly waiting for Richey Edwards.’ It turns out in the story that this apparition is in fact a ghost itself; what Wodtke describes as ‘a consignment of memories, an exterior archive’ in which the insoluble identity of the troubled Manics fan remains preserved. This idea is not only fascinating for the way it renders a pop identity as permanent. Here, Wodtke nails the haunting, writerly quality of Edwards’ actions. His sudden vanishing invites us to complete his story and to complete the syntax of his statements where they were (deliberately?) removed. Wodtke talks of how spectators of his disappearance ‘intuit meaning by staring into the void of the lost signifier’ and Wodtke brilliantly describes how such mythologies then become a kind of ‘lovely knowledge’. A knowledge that takes on a life of its own, but fails to address painful questions about his disappearance. In this age of painful truths, where we long for any kind of anesthetic, the search for ‘lovely knowledge’ seems understandable.
In so doing Wodtke exhilaratingly resurrects the phantasmagoria of this album. She takes in various literary, philosophical and psychoanalytic models to assist her along the way. This is the sort of writer who will happily describe a lyric as ‘Ubermenschian’ and cheerfully expect the reader to keep up. If you don’t know your Nietzsche, you may be left in the cold. A harsh critic might bemoan this use of assumed knowledge, but the Manics themselves always had an admirably high expectancy of their audience, and so Wodtke’s high intellectual benchmark is apt. This book rightly asks a lot of the audience and in exchange delivers a lot back to them – just like The Holy Bible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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: Thursday, February 23rd, 2017.