Archiving Pain: Richey Edwards disappeared 20 years ago, but his genius with the Manics lives on

This Sunday marks 20 years since Manic Street Preachers guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards disappeared on the eve of a North American promotional tour. The missing Manic has turned into somewhat of a legend, spawning unconfirmed sightings everywhere from Indian hippie communes to middle America. But without a body, alive or otherwise, we’ll probably never know for sure what became of Edwards after he stepped out of a taxi at a service station near the Severn Bridge which connects England to the band’s home country of Wales.

After Edwards’ disappearance, the remaining Manics continued on as a three-piece. Their sound shifted from the militaristic glam-punk found on Edwards’ last album with the band, 1994’s The Holy Bible, to more radio-friendly rock, as evidenced on 1996 comeback record Everything Must Go. Today, the Manics continue to tour and sell out arenas. To celebrate The Holy Bible’s twentieth birthday, the band played the album in full in the UK and are bringing it to North America this spring with a handful of shows, including a Vanyaland Presents gig at the Sinclair in Cambridge on April 24.

Mystery and legend aside, Edwards’ legacy has prevailed two decades later. It’s been well documented that he was a terrible guitarist, often having his amp turned down low during shows and band mate James Dean Bradfield recording his guitar parts in the studio. But Edwards was a very intelligent man and a gifted writer; the lyrics that he penned with band mate Nicky Wire encouraged Manics fans to explore the works of French philosophers like Albert Camus and become more politically conscious. The Manics inspire a fierce devotion from their fan base, largely in part to the lyrics which are often insightful and relatable.

Below I’ve listed my five favorite Manics songs that showcase Edwards’ (and sometimes Wire’s) lyrical genius.

5. “Starlover”

This 1991 song was a b-side to “You Love Us (Heavenly Version).” It’s a glam-tinged criticism of obsessive fans, somewhat ironic now that the Manics have reached cult-band status. “We queue consuming anything/Hate all songs, aesthetic slavery now,” sings Bradfield. This song also contains the brilliant line “Leper cult disciples of a stillborn Christ, I worship stone so lance my eyes.” And the record companies wondered why this band couldn’t break America!

4. “Peeled Apples,” off 2009’s Journal For Plague Lovers

Edwards’ family had the option to declare him “presumed dead” in 2002, but chose to keep his case open until November 2008. Shortly after, the remaining Manics released Journal for Plague Lovers, an album featuring lyrics entirely pulled from the notebooks that Edwards left behind. The record was a true return to form with aggressive music similar to that on The Holy Bible. The lyrics are pure Edwards, referencing everything from Noam Chomsky to consumerism. The first line sets the scene: “The more I see, the less I scream.” Later in the song, Edwards reminds us that “the Levi jean will always be stronger than the Uzi.”

3. “Roses In the Hospital,” off 1993’s Gold Against The Soul

Sophomore album Gold Against the Soul was often panned by critics for lacking the arse-kicking confidence of Generation Terrorists, but it’s an important album in the Manics’ discography that cannot be overlooked. Many of its lyrics foreshadowed the themes that Edwards would go on to explore on The Holy Bible, especially the track “Roses In the Hospital.” The lyrics chronicle Edwards’ struggles with self harm and mental illness. “Stub cigarettes out on my arm/Want to feel something of value/Nothing really makes me happy/Heroin is just too trendy.”

2. “Little Baby Nothing,” off 1992’s Generation Terrorists

When the Manics made their debut with Generation Terrorists, they wore lots of eyeliner and leopard print while playing poppy glam-metal. It’s only natural that when they wanted to collaborate with a female vocalist on “Little Baby Nothing,” they invited former underage porn star Traci Lords to the studio. I heard this song for the first time when I was an acne-ridden 13-year-old constantly being teased by her classmates for my large nose and weird taste in “obscure British bands.” “Little Baby Nothing’s” opening line “No one likes looking at you/Your lack of ego offends male mentality” immediately struck a chord with me. I knew then that I had found a band that got me. That’s one of the things that Edwards, and in turn Wire, always got right in their lyrics. Sure they were males, but they always seemed to understand the societal problems faced by women.

1. “Yes,” off 1994’s The Holy Bible

It’s hard to pick on a song from The Holy Bible that best displays Edwards’ prowess as a lyricist. On previous albums, Edwards and Wire shared lyric writing duties equally but Wire has stated that The Holy Bible’s lyrics were about 75% penned by Edwards. “Yes” opens The Holy Bible; Bradfield’s vocals are sometimes hard to make out, but the lyrics deliver one hell of a punch. After the intro clip from a prostitution documentary, Bradfield comes in with the first line: “For sale? Dumb cunts, same dumb questions/Oh virgins? Listen, all virgins are liars, honey.” The song touches on everything from pornography to gender roles to self harm. It’s a masterpiece for sure but like the rest of The Holy Bible, it’s a grim reminder of Edwards’ fragile state of mind in his last days.