Richey Edwards with fellow members of the
Richey Edwards with fellow members of the "’Manic Street Preachers’

Mystery of the vanished rock star

Richey Edwards was one of the biggest rock stars of his generation.

As the lyricist and guitarist in Manic Street Preachers, Edwards penned songs of suffering, with his lyrical content focusing on eating disorders, self-harm, prostitution, the Holocaust, serial killers, and suicide, among other dark topics.

Gaunt and angular, with dyed black hair, smudged mascara and an androgynous glam punk vibe - landing somewhere between Brian Molko and Courtney Love - Richey Edwards' intense anguish, dotted literary references, and traditional good looks attracted a legion of complicated young fans looking for their generation's Morrissey.

 

Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers, 1992.
Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers, 1992.

But where Morrissey was dry and witty, Edwards was raw and dark, and would talk openly in the press about mental illness, eating disorders, and the relief gained from cutting oneself. The band's third album, 1994's The Holy Bible was their magnum opus, and was relentlessly bleak.

During the recording of the album, Edwards' health was rapidly deteriorating; he was drinking in the early morning, self-harming to an alarming degree, and had fallen into the throes of a dangerous eating disorder. In April, he slashed his chest with a knife given to him by a misguided fan.

He started to starve himself, eating nothing but dark chocolate. His mental state fell further when he learned of the suicide of a close friend. In July, a month before the record came out, he cut himself so badly that he was taken to hospital, after which he was transferred to a psychiatric facility. By this stage, Edwards weighed 38kgs and looked like he may die. The Holy Bible contains a song named 4st 7lbs, which he learned is the weight that, below which, death is medically unavoidable.

As the album came out in August 1994 to great acclaim, Edwards was hospitalised at the Priory Hospital, a private mental health facility, where he received treatment for his anorexia nervosa and alcoholism. By late September, he was back on the road again, touring in support of the album.

He had curtailed his drinking - Andy Cairns of band Therapy?, who was on the same European tour as the Manics, recalled Edwards "always seemed to have early nights", instead busying himself with a pile of books and by taking part in a table football tournament - although he was still self-harming.

Still, the promotional duties rolled on, and the Manic Street Preachers were performing at their sonic peak. The tour wrapped up in December, and the band enjoyed a brief period of downtime before recommencing duties.

RICHEY VANISHES

On the first day of February, 1995, Edwards and vocalist James Dean Bradfield were due to fly to the United States for a promo tour.

The previous morning, Edwards grabbed his passport, some Prozac, and his wallet, and checked out of his hotel at 7am. He left his suitcase and toiletries. He then drove to his house in Cardiff, dropped off his passport and wallet, and disappeared.

The night before, Edwards had decorated a cardboard box with a collage of images and quotes from novels, and filled it with an assortment of books, plays, and videos. He addressed it to 'Jo', writing simply 'I love you', and left it with the front desk.

He also saw a friend the same night, and gave her a copy of the 1934 Russian book 'Novel with Cocaine', imploring her to read the short intro - which explains how, following the writing of the addiction novel, its mysterious author checked into a mental asylum, then vanished into thin air.

 

James Dean Bradfield, Richey Edwards, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore outside Buckingham Palace in 1991.
James Dean Bradfield, Richey Edwards, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore outside Buckingham Palace in 1991.

In the years that have passed, many have attempted to trace Edwards' movements during the two weeks between his disappearance and when his car was discovered abandoned at a service station.

Witnesses spotted him at the passport office in Newport, Wales. At a bus stop nearby he also chatted to a fan who was unaware of the headlines about Edwards being missing.

On February 7, a week after he first vanished, a cab driver reported picking him up from a hotel and driving him around various places, including Edwards' childhood neighbourhood. The driver claimed Edwards was lying down on the backseat, directing him in an unconvincing fake Cockney accent that he kept dropping out of, back into his Welsh lilt.

The driver dropped Edwards at Severn View service station where he had left his car. The vehicle was discovered abandoned there a week later, with a dead battery. There were signs that Edwards had been living in it. Many believed Edwards took his own life.

He was 27 at the time. His body has never been recovered.

WARNING SIGNS

The first undeniable sign of Edwards' mental anguish is still perhaps the most shocking. It was May 15, 1991, and the Manics had released three independent singles, and were being hyped as the next big thing: somewhat prematurely according to some members of the press.

While interviewing Edwards backstage in Norwich, New Musical Express (NME) journalist Steve Lamacq questioned their authenticity. Edwards responded by carving '4 REAL' into his arm with a razor blade.

The band's manager was quickly called and Edwards taken to hospital. As an ambulance pulled up, Lamacq was left standing outside the venue, "confused, shaken up and drawing rather desperately on a cigarette".

The incident required 17 stitches. Four days later, the band signed a major record deal.

A photo of Richie holding a blood-soaked cloth, showing the engraving to a no-doubt-shocked photographer was printed in the next issue of NME, after a lengthy editorial discussion on the ramifications of publishing such an image.

"The arguments raged as people took it in turns to examine the slides," Lamacq recalled in 2000. "Would the pictures prompt fans to copy him? Was it the best rock'n'roll statement of the year?"

 

Richey Edwards performing live onstage.
Richey Edwards performing live onstage.

In the end, they published it on page three, in the news section, to great controversy. The band themselves later used the image on their American promotional posters.

Those who believe Edwards may still be alive somewhere often point to a quote he gave NME, a few months before he disappeared. He was keen to demystify the romance of mental illness as an artistic folly, explaining how the Priory "was full of people with so called normal jobs" before dismissing talks of suicide.

"In terms of the S word, that does not enter my mind," he explained. "And it never has done, in terms of an attempt. Because I am stronger than that. I might be weak, but I can take pain."

PRESUMED DEAD OR ALIVE

Like Elvis and Jim Morrison before him, there have been unconfirmed sightings of Edwards in various far flung places since his disappearance in early 1995: Richey has been seen everywhere from a flea market in India, to the Canary Islands.

In 2002, after the required seven-year period, the family could legally have opted to have Edwards declared dead, but refused to do so. A statement released by label Sony in 2003 read "For the family of Richey Edwards and the members of the Manic Street Preachers nothing has changed," explaining how the band continue to pay royalties into a bank account for him.

Despite this optimism, in 2008, 13 years after he vanished, Edwards' parents finally obtained a court order to have him declared "presumed dead".

While this may now legally be true, his band members refused to believe it, with bassist Nicky Wire telling NME that same year "There's still things that don't add up."

"The band has been aware this was coming," their publicist Teri Hall said upon the announcement.

 

Rachel Elias, Richey Edwards sister.
Rachel Elias, Richey Edwards sister.

"It is hugely emotional for all of us. This is the parents' choice and the band is happy to go with what the parents decide is best. We all dream Richey will come back one day. You hope he is still around somewhere.

"But it is no longer a realistic hope and if this offers some kind of closure then the band will be content with that."

In 2009, the band released their ninth album, Journal For Plague Lovers. The songs lyrics come entirely from a folder of lyrics, haikus, colleges and art that Edwards handed to Wire a few weeks before disappearing.

A VITAL CLUE EMERGES

This February, the family discovered new evidence that changes the trajectory of Edwards' final day. They learned a toll booth receipt used to trace his movements had been misread, removing a vital window of time.

"We were told that Richard crossed the bridge at 2:55pm," his sister Rachel Elias told ITV.

"And we have the toll booth receipt that says 2:55. So we were led to believe there was an eight hour window between his time of departing the hotel to crossing the Bridge on that same day.

"But it's since come to light by tracking down the person who made the machines and making inquiries that that was a 24 hour clock, it always was. So that meant 2:55 was 2:55am.

"So we were appealing to people to have seen him at certain times that day when actually those times are meaningless now.

 

Richey Edwards and James Dean Bradfield performing live onstage.
Richey Edwards and James Dean Bradfield performing live onstage.

"We are hoping that it will establish a new line of inquiry because this is vital information that changes everything and turns it all on its head and needs to be looked at again."

While this detail ultimately won't change whether Edwards is still alive, it could lead to new information and possibly some closure for Edwards' loved ones.

"When someone dies you have that acute loss," Rachel said in 2015.

"It sounds like a cliche, that bereavement is a process - but it really is. But when someone goes missing you are left with this ongoing uncertainty.

"Not knowing makes it worse."

The Manic Street Preachers continue to tour and release records. They have sold 10 million albums worldwide. They continue to put royalties into a bank account for Edwards.

- If this story has raised issues of concern for you or someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au or contact the Butterfly Foundation National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 or visit their website thebutterflyfoundation.org.au

- Nathan Jolly is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @nathanjolly