Monday, 4 February 2013

I Love You, BUT...

So last night, the ever-brilliant Jenny Trout (@Jenny_Trout - if you don't follow her on Twitter, WHY NOT?!) set a challenge to blog writers.  To show the fans of 50 Shades of Grey (and of course, EL James herself) that it's possible to do so, we are to talk about something we love, but which we know is problematic.  I.E. Something we think is great, but which we realise others could easily look at and say "WTF?!" about, much like many of us cannot fathom the appeal of a man like Christian Grey.  So in the interest of fair debate, I thought about whether there's anything I really love, that might be off-putting to others.  And I realised at first that my tastes are... Well, all a bit vanilla.

Yum.
 
In fact, I struggled to think of anything I really love that could genuinely be problematic for others.  Taste in film, music and books will always differ from person to person, after all.  But my love of Blur, for example, shouldn't really cause offence to anyone.  And focusing on bands, my love of the Manic Street Preachers simply couldn't offend, right?!
 
Well, maybe wrong.  Because as a Manics fan, I categorise myself as a "Richey girl."  And that, for some, has connotations.
 
For those not acquainted with the band, let me give you a quick music history lesson...
 
The Manic Street Preachers are a rock band from Wales.  They burst onto the music scene in the early 90's, clad in white jeans, frilly blouses with spray-painted slogans on, leopard print coats and feather boas.  They wore eyeliner.  They sang about politics and they said they wanted to sell sixteen million copies of their debut double album and then split up in a blaze of glory.  They were like nothing else happening at the time and you either loved or hated them.
 
Love.
 
One of the members of the band, Richey Edwards (second from the left in the above picture) admitted that he couldn't really play his guitar and was often unplugged ,or at least had his amp turned down low on stage.  He was, however an incredibly gifted lyricist, tackling subjects as diverse as early 90's pop culture and the holocaust with equal poetry.  he was also the band's mouthpiece; doing more interviews than anyone else, preaching the Manics' own gospel and personally contacting journalists to ensure the band got the press attention he believed they deserved.  
 
His was also, however, deeply troubled.  A virgin until 21, he was - in spite of his eye-catching dress and tenacity when it came to band promotion - deeply insecure and shy.  Crippling depression led to self-harm and an addiction to alcohol.  As the band gained fame and success, Richey's demons took him to the brink.  Borderline anorexia, alcoholism and depression led him to be admitted to The Priory clinic in 1994.  The band's album from the same year, The Holy Bible, contained lyrics that now seem to provide a worrying glimpse into an increasingly fragile mind.  In their last concert of the year, the band smashed all of their equipment and Richey, looking frighteningly gaunt, smashed himself in the forehead with his broken guitar, over and over whilst staring vacantly into space, before leaving the stage for the final time.
 
On February 1st 1995, Richey was due to fly to the USA with the Manics' lead singer, James Dean Bradfield for a promotional tour.  They stayed at The Embassy Hotel in London the night before, sleeping in adjoining rooms.  When Richey failed to meet his bandmate in reception on the morning of February 1st, James headed up to his room.  Richey was gone.  He had left behind a box, containing letters and gifts for a girl known only as "Jo."  A toll receipt found in his flat in Cardiff proved that he had headed back there from London, but there was no sign of him.  Two weeks later, his car was found at a service station close to the Severn Bridge.  The battery was flat and there was evidence that it had been lived in.  Despite extensive appeals, "sightings" and police searches, Richey Edwards was never found.  In November 2008, his family took the decision to declare him legally "presumed dead" and the police "missing" file was officially closed.
 
The last known picture of Richey Edwards.



So why could being a self-confessed "Richey-phile" be problematic?  Surely he's just a troubled rock star, with a mysterious disappearance that still leads to the odd "sighting" in all corners of the globe?  Well yes.  And no...
 
Manics fans are notoriously precious about "their" band and speaking as one, I know that to speak ill of Richey is, to some, almost blasphemous.  I have, for years, referred to Richey Edwards as something of a hero of mine and I shall explain why later, but this blog is meant to be about admitting that you like something that could be problematic, so let's tackle that part first and hope not to incur the wrath of my fellow fans.
 
Although writers such as Caitlin Moran described Richey as "a cause celebre among depressives, alcoholics, anorexics and self-mutilators, because he was the first person in the public eye to talk openly about these subjects; not with swaggering bravado and a subtext of "look how tortured and cool I am", but with humility, sense and, often, bleak humour," there were - and are - many detractors.  And with some reason.
 
Richey was notorious for wanting to make a "statement."  He once gave an interview to teen magazine Smash Hits, in which he told the young readership: "Don't do it, kids.  Don't get past 13."  In the early days of the band, when then NME journalist Steve Lamacq asked Richey whether people would believe that the band were "for real," Richey took out a razor blade and carved "4 REAL" into his arm.  He then posed for photos of the wounds, which inevitably ended up in newspapers and magazines, gaining him enormous notoriety.  The injury required more than a dozen stitches, but Richey didn't seem particularly bothered about whether his actions might influence some of the band's young fans.
 
Indeed,the band's followers, whether "inspired" by Richey, or simply because he, as a rock star, had made them feel better about what they were already doing, began appearing at gigs with self-imposed scars adorning their bodies.  A so-called "Cult of Richey" formed, with fans copying Richey's look; daubing on the eyeliner and making homemade t-shirts to wear to concerts.  These obsessive fans began referring to Richey as their idol; suggesting that only he understood them. They viewed him as "purity itself" thanks to his outspoken pro-feminist views and vulnerability. Anorexia being a predominantly female illness, girls began being drawn to Richey as they felt he shared their pains.  Seeing him as something of a tortured poet, these followers wouldn't hear a word against Richey or his behaviour.
 
Richey with "4 REAL" scars on display.
 
Although it would be unfair to suggest that Richey actively encouraged this entourage of copycat self-harmers and adoring fans, it would be deeply naive to suggest that he was unaware of it, or that he actively discouraged them, either.  In fact, Richey developed a rather unnerving habit of slashing open his chest at gigs (so much so that a fan once presented him with a knife before a concert and told him "look at me when you do it") and of taking advantage of these girls, by using them as his groupies.
 
The Manics have long attracted a band of fans who feel that they are, for many reasons "outsiders" and therefore, Richey's groupies were frequently wide-eyed, adoring girls, sometimes suffering from their own depression, which made them doubly vulnerable. 
 
Whilst on tour in Bangkok, it's no secret that Richey used the services of a prostitute, despite having earlier written the song Little Baby Nothing as a feminist rant against those who do.
 
By the time the Manics recorded what is still considered by many to be their masterpiece, 1994's The Holy Bible, Richey had almost entirely gone off the rails.  He was, by this point, drinking a bottle of vodka a day and scouring the post-gig autograph hunters for a fan to sleep with.  He'd give interviews to the press, describing sex as being something he didn't even enjoy ("nature's lukewarm pleasure") and which made him feel used.  His slide deeper into depression led him to confess to not wanting to go on stage.  In November of 1994, Richey purchased a meat cleaver, supposedly so that he could cut his own fingers off, in order to have an excuse not play guitar at concerts anymore.  In early December, the band's European tour was curtailed early, after bassist Nicky wire discovered his childhood best friend sitting outside the band's hotel, hitting his head against the wall, over and over, until blood streamed down his face. 
 
On The Holy Bible, the lyrics sometimes make for uncomfortable listening.  From lines on self-harm, to anorexia, the album isn't exactly the kind of music you'd play in the background at a dinner party.  Richey was, by this point, steering the band to a dark place.  Musically and in his own personal life.
 
The "Richey-phile" stereotype is of a person who loves Richey so unquestionably, that they refute any question of his glorifying self-abuse by cutting himself so publicly.  They will not tolerate talk of Richey's vulnerable groupies and the troubling "cult" that he passively allowed to grow up around him.
 
I am not one of those "Richey-philes."  I can fully accept that my love of this deeply troubled man, could be considered unacceptable by some.  That he could be viewed as a very bad role model.  I'm  inclined to agree to a point.
 
BUT...
 
Richey remains a man I admire in many ways.   I welcome debate on his behaviour and I'm not blind to his faults, but those who say "oh God, he was a selfish, attention-seeking drama queen who obviously killed himself, thus causing his family and friends unimaginable pain," will not change my mind.
 
I do hate him for having better eye make up than I ever have, though.
 
So why do I love him?  To answer that, we have to go back to that Caitlin Moran quote from earlier.  Because for all his flawed behaviour, Richey really was the first celebrity (or one of them) to openly talk about depression and self-harm in an honest, humble manner.  He may have cut himself on stage, but he didn't attempt to make light of it in the press.  He talked about self-harm as his only release for the pain he felt internally:"I'm not a person who can scream and shout so this is my only outlet."  And whether he meant to influence an entire sub-culture of fans or not, his honesty did help countless youngsters who were dealing with the same issues and who felt incredibly alone.  The dangerous hero-worship that followed is not something to admire Richey for, but then I disagree with anyone who suggests he created it through his own actions - at least not willingly.  Upon being handed the knife I mentioned earlier, by the fan who asked him to look at her whilst he cut himself, Richey was said by his fellow bandmates to be appalled and felt his depression was being trivialised and turned into something he felt deeply uncomfortable about.  Whilst his ego was stroked by his army of fans, Richey was not about to willingly become their God.  He spoke often of simply wanting to "get better."  His searing honesty about depression, alcohol abuse and self-harm encouraged others to open up about their own problems - indeed, weekly music magazines at the time received endless letters from teenagers who had previously thought they were alone in dealing with their issues.  Who said that if someone as well known and successful as Richey could suffer, then clearly anyone could, but if he was battling his demons, they'd find the strength to do so, too.
 
Also, I am a writer.  I struggle for pretty metaphors and flowery language at times, but to Richey, it came as naturally as the changes in the season (see what I mean about the metaphors?!).  That he could turn a subject as horrific as the ravages of anorexia into deeply moving poetry ("I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint") is a sign of his enormous intellect - for Richey is acknowledged by all to have been a man of huge academic intelligence, if not emotional.  People criticise Sylvia Plath's poetry for being "too depressing" (and unsurprisingly, Richey was a big fan), but I have always loved her rawness and her refusal to sugar-coat issues.  Richey was similarly passionate and direct in his words.  "If you stand up like a nail, then you will be knocked down. I've been too honest with myself, I should have lied like everybody else" (from "Faster") remains one of my favourite lyrics of all time.  They're raw.  They're not trying to say "oh yeah, I'm fine, tra la la," they're admitting to some pretty intense stuff going on in the writer's head.  To me, that ability to put something horrendous into such beautiful prose, is worthy of tremendous admiration.
 
Richey was a man with deep, deep flaws.  But he didn't hide from them.  He spoke out about them and he challenged people's perceptions in many ways.  He used his position as joint lyricist within the band to write songs that tackled subjects that would have other bands running scared and in doing so, he helped cement the Manic Street Preachers' position as one of the most important bands of the late 20th century. To this day, in spite of the fact that Manics have continued for 18 years without him and have released other material, with some excellent lyrics (I have a Manics tattoo with the words "This world will not impose its will, I will not give up and I will not give in" on my back, as the lyrics genuinely helped me move on from my abusive relationship), it is to Richey's words that generation after generation of teens head when looking for someone they can identify with. Why? Because nobody has articulated the pain of depression, the agony of self-harm or the feeling of helplessness better in lyric form than Richey James Edwards. I was one of those teens. I sought comfort in knowing I wasn't alone. And I can't forget that. I thank Richey for his words.
 
I'm not going to suggest that Richey's use of vulnerable young fans as groupies is okay.  It wasn't and he should have known better.  But I'm also not going to presume any knowledge as to what was going through his mind back then, because a) I wasn't there and b) Richey was going through such an intense depression and struggling with such addiction that I'm not sure even he knew what was going through his mind, let alone a fan, writing about it 18+ years later.  So I don't excuse his behaviour outright and I fully accept criticism of it, because I can see that there's a big problem with a celebrity sleeping with troubled young fans on a regular basis, but neither can I out and out condemn him, because there is no question of him ever using force or deliberately harming anyone other than himself.  I am able to separate the reality of his questionable behaviour off-stage from the equal reality of his incredible gift as a writer, his awareness-raising on the subject of depression and his part in ensuring the success of my favourite band of all time.  I do not blindly hero-worship Richey Edwards and I understand and listen to the opinions of those who criticise him.
 
I will, though, remain a fan.
 

 
 


 
 



2 comments:

  1. Wow, this is brilliant. I love the fact that you mentioned his groupie action for a few times in a text, because I think that from one side, it was a way for him to feel better about himself (wanted, or pursued by others), but on the other side, he was also disgusted by his own actions. And I'm not sure that he said that, by sleeping with them, he was being "used", I actually think that he meant it like "we're both using each other, we're both getting what we want" (something like that, I'm not entirely sure). Anyway, it doesn't even matter now, I just want to thank you for this post, you made me really happy today:)

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  2. I've literally only just seen this comment, sorry! And thank you. :)

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