Over the past week I've read two books (I'm a relatively fast reader, as you have to be when you're an English student). One was fairly reliable fact, the other was liberal fiction based on fact. Both left me feeling confused and sad, and both were about Richey Edwards.
I was just over 2 years old when Richey went missing. Although I've never met or seen him, I still realise he was (and still is in some ways) an important part of my favourite band. Like every other fan I know the facts - he was the unofficial leader of the Manic Street Preachers, he couldn't play guitar but he wrote some great lyrics. Despite the band frequently sharing their fond personal memories of Richey, the most commonly reported view of him now is of a 'rock icon', which I'm pretty sure he didn't want to be (at least by 1995). Thanks to this, he's still pretty much an enigma to a lot of people, which is why it's not surprising there is such a selection of books written about him and the band. But somehow I feel no closer to getting any further past the 'mystery' of him despite reading two books in close succession (not on purpose I might add!).
The first book I read was essentially a biography, written by music writer Rob Jovanovic. Despite having written other music biographies, Jovanovic obviously had a personal interest in the subject of Richey's life, as he states in the Author's Note at the start. He talks in first person about the research he'd undertaken - travelling to the area where Richey was last seen, attempting to contact the police to access the missing person's files. Also included were historical and fictional accounts of other famous disappearances, which really interested me. I'm not sure if all this improved the book or anything but it certainly gave it more credibility through the eyes of a fan. There's a lot of unreliable, contradictory and untruths written about Richey (mainly on the internet of course), but if someone wants to find out about him then this book is a good place to go to.
The book itself treads over the basic story of Richey's life that I already knew, although I did enjoy reading more about his earlier years and time in education. Unlike most rock bands, the Manics come with a prescribed reading list of the darkest and most unusual literature out there, and it's clear from the book that Richey was into it all from a very young age. On a lighter note, there were a lot of nice anecdotes from people who knew Richey when he was younger - I particularly enjoyed the part when at university, he was besotted with a girl ("a veritable Patsy Kensit lookalike" apparently) whom he describes in a letter as "mega". Sadly he made a fool of himself in front of the girl by getting drunk and never ended up with her. The type of thing that wouldn't be mentioned in a typical piece about Richey, these little stories made him seem more human and relatable than the 'tragic genius' we usually hear about.
Obviously much of the book is written in light of what eventually happened to Richey, but Jovanovic doesn't dwell on events such as the start of his poor eating habits at university and his growing dependence on alcohol during the recording of the Manics first album. Neither does he seem biased towards the whole question of "Is Richey dead or alive?". He presents all of the possibilities before putting forward his own respectable idea that Richey went to some religious retreat such as a monastery, at home or abroad. By the time I reached the end, I felt genuinely sad, even though I've known the details of his disappearance for years now. All of this meant I really respected the book (I'm not sure enjoy is the right verb) - it treated the subject of Richey's life well and didn't fall into any of the clichés it could have easily done.
The second book was 'Richard' by Ben Myers, was a bit different. Regarded with some suspicion and mistrust, it's easy to see why many fans decided not to read the book, and having talked to other fans about it, I wasn't exactly thrilled at the idea myself. It did seem a bit dodgy to be writing a fictional book about someone whose friends and family are still around and very much still thinking about him. Thanks to the Manics 'mythical' beginnings and rollercoaster career, they've had some interesting stuff written about them, but this is a real first. The easiest thing I can compare it to is an imagined autobiography. It's Richey detailing his life, his thoughts and feelings leading up and during his disappearance over 16 years ago. It runs in first person from the time he disappears, with flashbacks to his past written in second person throughout. By the closing page, both threads meet at the point of 1st February 1995, the day Richey disappeared.
In some ways I thought it really played up to Richey's 'image' in the media. His character seemed overly moody and negative. Of course there's lots to say that Richey was similar to this in real life, but it got to the point where I felt exasperated and bored by it. Looking at the language, clichés were frequently employed and the monologues were made of semi-existentialist ramblings that I could have come up with if I tried. If you're familiar with Richey's lyrics, it makes it even more unlikely he would think like this. I remember reading something once that said "If people think Richey was only ever sad and miserable, they are just as bad as his hardcore fans who worship him" which is really true. He was human and had a whole range of emotions, which didn't come across in 'Richard' as well as 'A Version of Reason'.
I also think maybe the idea of trying to fill in the gaps immediately after his disappearance worked better in theory than in practice. The main plot device in the novel seems to be that as Richey wandered around the landscape of South Wales alone to ponder the mysteries of nature and life, Myers could explore his past memories up until February 1995. There's nothing to say Richey didn't do this, but it just didn't see right to me. It was too vague and unrealistic, but then again this was purported to be a fictional book. The conclusion was especially unsatisfying; Myers seemed to write himself into a corner both literally in the plot and metaphorically, which meant it tailed off into thin air, leaving the reader no more enlightened than they were at the start. Maybe this shows the unwillingness of Myers to commit to an answer of the "Dead or Alive?" question, which could be viewed as admirable or disappointing depending on your viewpoint.
All that said, the book did have some good points. After a puzzling start, the middle of the novel did have some genuinely enjoyable parts, both in the past and present threads of the plot. Richey's interactions with the rest of the band made me smile and as always it was nice to revisit the heady times of their early fame, reflecting on why the band appealed to certain people and why the formed it. Myers' style of writing, with short clipped sentences and plenty of pop culture references also suited the subject matter well. There's also the fact that by the end I sometimes found myself thinking of Richey, the band, his family and others as fictional characters. Seeing as I'm very familiar with most of them from a fan's point of view, this was an achievement by Myers if it was what he wanted to do.
So less than a week later, I'd read over 500 pages all about Richey Edwards, in his real and fictional incarnations, and still I was no closer to understanding it all. We've all got theories, but what makes Jovanovic's and Myers's more or less valid than mine? The common consensus I got from the books was this - Richey was at the very end of his tether and in such a low position that the only option left was to withdraw himself from the life he had. I think if you don't find it sad that another human being, rockstar or not, felt like that then you'd have to be a pretty unfeeling person. Maybe back in 1991 he would have wanted to make a massive 'statement' in disappearing or committing suicide; the alarming thing is by 1995 he just seemed to give up on anything like that.
Whatever the outcome, Richey Edwards or Richey James or even 'Richey Manic', as we knew him, is dead. He killed off his own creation when he walked out of that hotel on February 1st. He cut all ties from a life that he no longer found satisfying or worthwhile. Whether he created a new life for himself after that is probably something we'll never know. He was certainly intelligent enough to do so, and to do so successfully. There are plenty of options, all of which were explored in A Version Of Reason; find an accomplice, hitch a lift, buy a fake passport, be smuggled abroad. When you compare these with the other option of suicide, I can't help thinking Richey would choose something more complicated. Similarly, I can imagine him being acutely aware of what everyone would suspect and theorise about after he left - would he realise that he'd given enough ammunition to the theories of him living or dying in the previous years?
In conclusion, one thought I had repeatedly throughout reading these books was "What would Richey think if he knew people were writing stuff like this 16 years after anyone has heard from him?". I hope he would find it amusing, entering the realms of 'rock mythology' that so interested him during his life.