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The Duke On Richey James Edwards And “The Holy Bible”

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It’s weird, man. All sorts a bizarre ironies come to a fellas skull when pondering the legacy of Richey James Edwards. For one damn thing, it’s amazing that when a fella looks back, or even reaches down for to press play on Generation Terrorists or The Holy Bible, what run around the old subconscious are morbid whispers of death, isolation, misery. “Culture, alienation, boredom and despair”, as some fucker or other once put it.

It’s hard to picture a time when nobody thought anything of the like regarding this ever-so-handsome, mascara drenched, leopard-print, philosophy-spouting creature. Back in the day, man, what folks saw was the coolest, most arrogant, most illogically exciting motherfucker anyone ever laid eyes on, a guitarist standing on the side of a stage battering away at his instrument when everyone knew it wasn’t even plugged in.

He couldn’t play a note, is what.

Back when the New Art Riot and the Generation Terrorists were making their way in the popular culture, what a fella was exposed to was a riot of color and glamour and stencilled-slogans spray-painted across t-shirts. They stole ruthlessly from The Clash in so far as the old “look” was concerned, and they stole ruthlessly from LA rock in so far as the old “sound” was concerned, but The Manic Street Preachers at least knew which houses to burgle, is what.

Had they been shit, maybe it would’ve all fizzled away and Richey James Edwards would still be on stage with James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore, maybe he’d even have learned to play by now, although he often waxed hilarious with regards how “fucking sad” learning to play guitar was.

Maybe they’d have split up, even. Who knows?

Ain’t anybody ever going to know, is what, because, alas, the Manic’s went ahead and revealed themselves to be ever so fucking wonderful, and so adulation, hatred, screaming admirers and The Cult Of Richey were all just around the corner.

At least, on this side of the stereo that’s how things would pan out. On the other side, what was gonna happen was that Richey James Edwards would alternately endure and relish bouts of self-mutilation, alcoholism, severe depression, anorexia and any number of related horrors. There would be the infamous back-stage argument with Radio 1 DJ and NME writer Steve Lamaq, when the journalist would question the intentions of the Manic Street Preachers, and Edwards would respond by producing a razor blade and slicing 4 REAL into his forearm.

On 5th February 1995, Richey disappeared from the face of the motherfucking earth, in so far as anyone can tell. That his car was found next to the Severn Bridge, a spot notorious for its attraction to potential suicides, seems to suggest that he just jumped the hell in and that’s all there is to it. Dead. Immortalized, but he ain’t gonna be scribbling no more awe-inspiring lyrics in a hurry.

Some other shit, though, points to a different scenario altogether. For one thing, he emptied his bank account in advance of his disappearance. For another, he left a photo of a house, which his band-mates since attempted to identify, to no avail. And then there’s his admiration for J.D Sallinger, the fact that he adored the idea of just disappearing. Just saying fuck it and walking away and no-one knowing what the hell happened or where the hell you went.

And then, most importantly, there’s the fact that no body was ever recovered, although, granted, plenty have leapt from the Severn Bridge before, and never been found.

But whatever happened, the fact is that it’s fast approaching ten years since Richey wandered off wherever the hell he was headed. The Manic Street Preachers carried on, achieving the kind of success they always boasted about, but which seemed destined to elude them.

Their intention, as has been widely quoted and mocked, was to sell 16 million copies of their debut album and then split up. To out-sell Guns N Roses and then vanish.

Richey got the vanishing part right, I guess. He just never bothered waiting until the prophecy was properly fulfilled.

Anyhow, before he went, Richey contributed 75% of the lyrics to the band’s third record, The Holy Bible. Co-lyricist Nicky Wire was content to take a back-seat this time around, noting that he was pretty happy at the time, actually, and didn’t have much to complain about.

Richey was far from happy, and, subsequently, the lyric sheet for The Holy Bible has become almost mythological in stature. It tells a tale of suffering, of inhumanity, of nihilism, of self-disgust, of deep, dark holes in the soul that most folks would rather not peer into, to be honest.

To take nothing away from the primal rage, the streamlined intellect, the incomparable feats of language contained within Richey’s bile-drenched attacks on himself and his obsessions, the notion of The Holy Bible as some impenetrably bleak, crushing gallery of torment does it a serious disservice.

On the DVD included in the immaculate tenth anniversary edition of the album, James Dean Bradfield admits that, yeah, pretty much we’re never ever going to be that good again.

For all the unfathomable misery that went into much of the lyrics, the music in The Holy Bible is utterly astounding, life-affirming, challenging and unforgettable. It’s remembered as Richey’s Album, and it is, but it’s also a product of James Dean Bradfield’s own torment, the result of which was the most captivating music offered by a British Rock band since fuck knows when.

The record starts with the hissing ambience coating a quote from the documentary flick Pimp’s Pro’s, Hookers And Their Johns. “You can buy her”, says a fella with a thick New York accent. “You can buy her. This one’s here, this one’s here, this one’s here. Everything’s for sale.”

The song that follows, Yes, is among the very best track-one, side-one’s of all ever. It’s up there with Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn or Celtic Soul Brothers, with London Calling or Smells Like Teen Spirit, with the sneering “Hi, I’m Johnny Cash” and then Folsom Prison Blues from Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison.

And probably none of those open with a lyric as mesmerisingly bizarre as;

“For sale? Dumb cunt’s same dumb questions,
Virgin? Listen, all virgins are liars honey.”

And that’s before the chorus arrives, with its oddly rousing suggestion;

“He’s a boy, you want a girl so tear off his cock,
Tie his hair in bunches, fuck him, call him Rita if you want.”

Bradfield admits he hadn’t a clue what it was about, how the hell he was supposed to construct a melody around it, how the hell he was gonna sing the damn thing. In fact, there’s almost a comical challenge being issued by Richey’s lyrics, a sniggering mischief, an attempt to see just how far he can push James’ melodic abilities. Not many folks could carve a tune out of a line like, “I eat and I drink and I wash and I can still say thank you, puking – shaking – sinking, I still stand for old ladies can’t shout can’t scream, hurt myself to get pain out”, and make it catchy, by God. It feels odd to be so elated by the delivery of such harrowing sentiments, but a fella can’t help it.

Yeah, motherfucker! Puking shaking sinking! Whoo! And so on.

Richey’s lyrics also namedrop throughout, flinging out references and surnames like nobody’s business. Nicky Wire, himself no stranger to a paperback or seven, admits he hadn’t a notion what half these things were, who half these people were, what were even names and what were movements, who can tell?

He was reading five books a week at the time, by all accounts, and so the lyrics are alive with musings on whatever he was devouring at the time. “I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer”, he announces in Faster. “I spat out Plath and Pinter.”

The subsequent release of Faster as a single allowed for one of the most memorable moments in Manics history. Their Top Of The Pops appearance in support of the release, included on the DVD, is fantastic, and provoked a record number of complaints. The band look amazing, each member decked out in military garb, and James Dean Bradfield sporting a black balaclava with the word JAMES scrawled across the forehead. Behind them, pillars of fire rage towards the ceiling.

Hard to imagine what’s most alarming, though. The fact that the band are so visually commanding, or the fact that here they are on the highest-rated, most-commercial music show on British TV, at time when the chance of seeing a guitar on the show was as likely as seeing the corpse of Sam Cooke propped up with a brush shaft, spitting out sentiments along the lines of “I am idiot drug hive, the virgin, the tattered and the torn, life is for the cold made warm and they are just lizards.”

Faster is a defining moment in The Holy Bible, a defining moment in the career of The Manic Street Preachers, a defining moment in British Pop, and a defining moment in the writing of Richey James Edwards. Specifically, it fetishises his disease, his illness, addresses the issue of his self-mutilation not in mournful, agonized tones, but in valedictory fist-raising defiance.

“I am an architect”, it begins. “They call me a butcher.”

Even this, though, is relatively mild compared to the intensely distressing narrative of 4st 7lbs. It is one of the few moments in The Holy Bible when the imagery of the lyrics, rather than being countered with the instrumentation as in Faster or Of Walking Abortion, is matched by an arrangement that is by turns angular, sinister, and unbearably poignant, and as a result, remains intensely unsettling.

Richey relates the tale of his own anorexia by presenting it as the thoughts of a teenage girl suffering the same. The track opens with another sample, this time taken from a BBC2 documentary dealing with the same subject matter. Prior to the clanging, rhythmic guitar line and ascending bass, a quivering female voice states, “I eat too much to die, and not enough to stay alive. I’m sitting in the middle waiting.”

The lyrics proper are scarcely any more comforting.

“Days since I last pissed”, it begins, “Cheeks sunken and despaired.”

“Stretching taut, cling-film on bone, I’m getting better.”

“I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint” announces the chorus. “I want to walk in the snow and not soil its purity.”

“4st 7, an epilogue of youth, such beautiful dignity in self-abuse,
I’ve finally come to understand life,
Through staring blankly at my naval.”

I think J-Lo is planning a cover version.

What it amounts to, is that The Holy Bible is one of those incredibly rare records that can be read as well as listened to. You could sit for hours reading the shit that Dylan spits in Bringing It All Back Home. You could lose yourself in the lyric sheet of If I Should Fall From Grace With God. Same goes for The Queen Is Dead, Murder Ballads, Workers Playtime and not a hella lot else. Even Lennon and McCartney fail to light the page like they do the ears. On record, In My Life sounds like the most beautiful words you ever heard uttered. On paper, it seems a bit sparse.

Which is fine, man, some folks would just rather the words and the music operated as one. It’s nice, though, to look through a lyric sheet and be blown away before you ever put the damn disc in the player.

And that’s another reason why The Holy Bible is so exceptional, and why James Dean Bradfield’s arrangements can’t be underestimated. Reading this stuff, you can’t imagine for a second how it’s gonna sound. You can’t tell where a chorus starts and ends. You imagine certain things are going to be depressing, contemplative, and then you hit play and the motherfucker tears lumps out your damn speakers.

How many high-profile rock bands would take a risk like this? The Manics’ first two albums were glam rock to the core. For sure, the lyrics may have harped on about;

“Economic forecasts soothe our dereliction,
Words of euthanasia, apathy of sick routine”

but the sound was all big-production, choruses the size of Arkansas, guitar licks straight out of Slash’s back pocket. Generation Terrorists may have attributed quotes to each song, motherfuckers like Camus and Confucius and Rimbaud, a reading list for to browse at soonest convenience, but the music was far from overly high-brow or elitist. It was cock-rock without the cock.

The Holy Bible, though, was something the fuck else. It’s a record that sounds nothing like Generation Terrorists or Gold Against The Soul, fantastic albums both. It’s a record that incorporated discordant post-punk long before Franz Ferdinand and so on were digging out the old Metal Box of an evening.

It’s a dark, scarred reflection of Talking Heads, a band who were hardly the cheeriest motherfuckers on the sofa to begin with. Talking Heads yacked about Buildings And Food. The Manics’ yacked about the architecture of the body, and a dangerous lack of food of any damn sort.

And the Holocaust. Let’s not forget that.

Richey was blessed and cursed with a deep concern for humanity, and a cripplingly obsessive mind. The fact that detestable motherfuckers were spouting rancid filth about how the Holocaust never happened, shit like that right there kept him awake for days on end. That such intense, impenetrable suffering could be so easily mocked by these fuckwit “historians”, he couldn’t cope with the weight of that injustice.

To this end, we get The Intense Humming Of Evil and Mausoleum. “No birds”, hisses the latter, “The sky is swollen black.” The former, an industrial death-march grind, is unbearably explicit;

“In block 5 we worship malaria,
Lagerstrasse, poplar trees,
Beauty lost, dignity gone,
Rascher surveys us butcher bacteria”

Unforgettable, deeply, deeply disturbing. Utter genius. Alongside 4st 7lbs, it’s one of two tracks on The Holy Bible that I routinely skip. Not because they’re bad, but because they’re so fucking good. They’re too intense, too painful to listen to. The melodies are beautiful, the playing is immaculate, the vocal performance is stunning. And death and loneliness hover over both like the terrible memories instrumental in their creation.

The Intense Humming Of Evil is, I would wager, the aural equivalent of Pasolini’s Salo. Like Salo, it’s a howl against fascism, and a tormented cry at the unspeakable horrors humanity is capable of. Like Salo, it’s a commanding piece of work that never flinches, that even when presenting to us images or ideas that we don’t for a second want to contemplate in anything other than a coldly intellectual manner, still captivates us. Like Salo, its creator vanished shortly afterwards.

Except Pasolini had a helping hand from a disgruntled rentboy and the flick of a blade.

On those two tracks, The Intense Humming Of Evil and 4st 7lbs, The Holy Bible becomes, for The Duke at any rate, something akin to Closer by Joy Division, something that is undeniably special and important, but something I can’t for a second enjoy hearing.

For the rest, however, for those other eleven tracks, perhaps the most accurate comparison one could make, and it has been made ad naseum, is to Nirvana’s In Utero. That was another record knee-deep in frustration and hurt, but it sounds phenomenal. It’s not depressing for a second. It’s touching, and occasionally sad, and it’s complex and pained, but not depressing. It’s joyous.

Just like The Holy Bible is joyous. It’s a musician stripping apart everything he has created hitherto and assembling something unique, daring, razor-sharp. It’s a fella writing things only hinted at in the, admittedly fun, sloganeering of his previous scribbles. Same goes, in fact, for Nicky Wire, who, whilst only providing 25% of the material, went ahead and ensured that said 25% would be remarkable. Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitswholeworldwouldfallapart is a brilliant rush of dissent and anger. “Compton, Harlem, a pimp fucked a priest / Unimportant, just another inner-city drive-by thing.” The final line is among the most quotable in the whole damn discography. “If God made man the same, then Sam Colt made them equal.” It’s a band sounding as tight and focused and fucking raging as they ever would.

Celebration, man, that’s what a record of this quality should induce, not mourning.

But you do mourn. And the tenth anniversary edition of this record provides ample opportunity. The interviews with the remaining band-members are as touchingly honest as any I’ve heard. Nicky Wire, James Dead Bradfield and Sean Moore discuss how painful it is looking back at the archive footage, not only because their best-friend is still standing beside them in those brilliantly frantic performances (barring two gorgeous acoustic performances by Bradfield and Wire), but because they’re acutely aware that their current middle-aged incarnation can’t ever dream of being so striking.

This Anniversary Edition was released virtually before the last song on the most recent studio album, Lifeblood, had reached conclusion. Lifeblood, too, is a brilliant record. “The Holy Bible for 35-year-olds”, as Wire quips. It’s the best thing they’ve done since Everything Must Go, light-years ahead of the forgettable material on 2001’s Know Your Enemy.

It shows, then, just how important The Holy Bible is not only to us lot, and to us it’s important as fuck, but to the fellas behind it. When you’ve just created the best thing you’ve put your name to in nigh-on a decade, you usually try to drum folks in that direction. What they’ve done is what most bands in a similar position would avoid like all frozen fuck. They’ve said here’s our new record, and oh yeah, here’s our motherfucking masterpiece, one of the best records ever made, and now it’s got the US mix and stuff, and a DVD all about how fucking amazing we were back then. We know we should be answering all the questions about the new one, but turns out folks aren’t that bothered, not when there are magazine articles to be written regarding the time when we were untouchable.

If you’re only gonna buy one, what are you gonna choose?

I’ll be honest, man, if I had to choose between the first three records or the last three, I’d be heading off with a pocket full of You Love Us, is what. What has happened, though, in light of the humility, the sheer lack of ego on display here, is that I have approached those later records again, and maybe head things, noticed things I never gave much thought to before. They don’t sound as angry anymore, but those idiosyncrasies, those quirks, that shit that made a fella fall arse over tit in the first place, that’s all still in evidence. For sure, we’ve come to expect shit like If You Tolerate This, Then Your Children Will Be Next, but how many other “chart acts” are doing it?

Popular Culture misses Richey Edwards, is what I’m guessing. The Duke misses him, too. But thank fuck his band-mate’s are still out there, man. Still releasing records like Lifeblood.

After four motherfucker;

“The first time you see your-self
Nak-kid you cry-aye”

Cheers

The Duke resides at Mondo Irlando – “Makes me ashamed to be Irish” – “Carl”

Hear The Duke’s Bitter Recorded Legacy

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About The Duke

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    hells bells. thats the third time i’ve used the word “fetishised” in almost as many articles. That Word Of The Day toilet-paper sure works better when a fella’s got the runs…

  • godoggo

    re: fetishise: Your’e in America now, if I’m not mistaken. Allow me to introduce you to the letter Z.

    That said, what in heaven’z name is LA Rock?

  • http://www.wallybangs.blogspot.com wally bangs

    Brilliant stuff, Duke. I bet you “laughed when Lennon got shot” too.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    godoggo, i’m still residing in the UK, but it’s a valid point. I keep forgetting to include the “z”, which is odd, since is not only is it Costa Gravas’ best flick, but it’s a much cooler letter than s. I keep wondering why the MT desktop client has red lines under things i know are spelt correctly, and that’s always the cause.

    Wally, thanks man. And i didn’t, probably, but i still roar along like as if i was there man. “Motown… Motown Junk!!”

  • valeria

    Here come the crazy urges to listen to the Holy Bible again, for maybe the millionth time in my life. It might be your incessant quotes that just beg a singalong, it might be that this article was just absolutely perfect.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Duke De Mondo

    Valeria, thank you! What a compliment it is, to have someone urged towards a re-listening of The Holy Bible on account of my scribbling.

    and this reminds me, i really must pick up that grand new Everything Must Go set sometime soon…

  • Drunks off my bollocks

    Brilliant article. Expresses the importance, spirit and meaning of THB well. Doesn’t slag off Lifeblood, which is also a bonus… 5 years old? The joy of teh_intarwebz and it’s collectivist Elephantine memory. Well done, squire. Well done.

  • Remedial_gash

    Just picked up ‘Journal for plague lovers’ – a year late I know, and was revisiting earlier albums, in the age of ‘random play’, I don’t think I’ve listened to an album since around 2005 (when this piece was written).

    Anyway, what a fucking excellent piece of work, and please don’t use ‘z’s – it’s offensive to my eyes.

    Gash

  • http://my-horror.com/ Pris

    Great article!

    Hope I’m not intruding, here’s my $.02 on Richey.