Back in 1994 I attended the gig that what was to become the Manic Street Preachers last show as a four piece band at the Astoria in London. The band’s creative and troubled guitarist Richey Edwards went missing soon afterwards. His body was never found and suicide was the suspected cause. Sixteen years later Picador published Richard, a novel by the music critic Ben Myers. It filled in the gaps and imagined Richey’s last days in fictional form.
As a fan researcher, I very became interested in how the Manics community had interpreted Myers’ work. After some investigation, I found that not only, as I expected, did some fans see Richard as a kind of unwanted textual poaching of Richey’s story, but also that the book itself explored celebrity, mythology and fandom. Even though its portrayal was somewhat unsettling, I realized that the novel was worthy of more attention as a complex intervention in ongoing debates about the operation of popular music culture.
In 2011 and 2012, I gave talks at two conference on the subject: one at the Litpop event in Newcastle, and the other with my friend Paula Hearsum at La Nouvelle Sorbonne in Paris.
After completing Richard, Ben moved on to write the highly acclaimed Pig Iron(2012). He recently approached me and asked to have a look at my research. Since Paula and I haven’t published anything as yet, I suggested that we might stage a blog interview to gather some research material. Ben agreed and answered all my questions. The result is this fascinating, frank, unedited interview…
How did you get started with Richard: what made you consider Richey as a subject for your writing?
The book came out of a conversation that I had with my girlfriend circa September 2008 in which I expressed a desire to re-write Knut Hamsun’s classic novel ‘Hunger’ in a contemporary setting. That sort of dove-tailed with another conversation we had about what Richey Edwards might be doing if he were still alive, and also discussing the practicalities of disappearing in the modern age. How would you do it, where you would go. Somehow these thoughts all coalesced into a short experimental piece of writing that I did which explored the idea of a person walking away from everything and everyone that they knew. Just checking out of a hotel room and walking. And then the more I wrote of it, the more the reality of Richey’s situation sort of…emerged.
What were your priorities when creating Richard and how did you conceptualize your role as a writer? Were you a fan, historian, insider/outsider, or do none of those labels work?
I wanted to write a novel that represented various key themes truthfully – all things that I have experience of having played in bands, worked as a music journalist at Melody Maker and come of age in the same era: pop fandom, the music business in the 1990s, the false promise of ‘success’, the then-emerging perceptions of depression and the treatments thereof. The Prozac Age, if you like.
Once I realised that this story was ultimately about the journey of one young man from adolescence through university and onto a very specific type of success in music, I was able to view it as a bildungsroman – the psychological journey of a solitary protagonist. The fact that I chose a real person as the focus obviously set it apart from other literary devices and meant that fact and fiction would have to somehow co-exist within the framework of the novel.
To what extent do you think that your background as an English literature student and music critic prepared you to write Richard?
Writing Richard, I entered into it with writers like Hamsun, Genet, Celine, Camus and Dostoevsky in mind. I saw it as a book as part of that tradition of European existentialism – novels about young men seeing the world for what it really is and struggling with that – but obviously at the close of the twentieth century. It was a culmination of old literary influences brought forward into the rock n’ roll milieu.
I studied literary theory and journalism and have been reading and writing all my life. But it is still a great leap to take, from academia and/or the music press to writing a novel, which requires a very different thought process. Novels tend to be judged as commercial entities first too, and then critically. I don’t know. The ambition to write was just always there and still is. I was certainly apprehensive writing this book though – I thought: am I insane for doing this? Am I a creepy weirdo? Before I wrote a single sentence I knew it would bring me much criticism. But I was not so apprehensive and gripped by self-doubt that I gave up. I still think it was a very strange thing to do, but I a stand by the end result.
You said in interviews that you were outside of the Manics’ inner circle: what advantages and disadvantages did that give you as a writer?
A sense of impartiality was the main thing. All the best journalism and biographies are written by outsiders, I think. Would Norman Mailer have been able to write The Executioner’s Song or Capote In Cold Blood if they had grown up with their subjects, sharing life experiences and so forth? I suspect not. Nick Tosches’ Hellfire was another inspiring book, which presents Jerry Lee Lewis’s life in the manner of one of Faulkner’s flawed characters. It’s a very powerful interpretation written not by a friend or family member but by an outsider.
There is a lot to be gleaned from forensic levels of research, undertaken as an outsider. I felt I knew some of the inner workings of the Manics and witnessed a lot of their significant moments as a fan at the time, on the outside looking in as it were. (That said, I do know some of the other people in the book and spoke to them while writing and researching.)
I always thought ‘Richey Edwards’ / ‘Richey James’ was a constructed character, a very concerted effort to be a bold and beautiful pop star – as opposed to ‘Richard Edwards’, the son, brother, scholar. I often wondered where the division between the two got blurred and if this in some way contributed to Richey’s unraveling; the idea that this sweet, quiet, intelligent guy who was happiest with his books and his dog, was expected to be a clichéd rock star? I mean, he did embrace that side early on, but perhaps by 1994 he realised that rock music, like the music industry, is essentially based on empty bullshit, and that being famous was never going to be fulfilling. Nearly two decades on we can now see in new and more vulgar ways the degree to which ‘celebrity’ is a whistling vortex of nothingness sitting at the epicenter of culture.
What sort of Manics fan do you consider yourself? How did role come into play when constructing the book?
I am someone who got into the band in my mid teens, in 1991 just as they got signed, and was into them quite heavily for five years or so. I enjoyed their commitment, their sense of humour. Their solidarity and disdain for complacency. I respected the fact that they discussed literature in interviews, which was not something that happened in rock music at that time. Most bands played dumb – or were dumb. But I always enjoyed lots of other bands at the same time too. Yes, I went through a Manics eyeliner phase but I was a fan of Hanoi Rocks and Guns N’ Roses and Iggy etc before I discovered the Manics. (I am fortunate in that I have older siblings with good musical tastes.) The Holy Bible was the soundtrack to my troubled, vodka-drenched first year at university. By the time I started working as a music journalist in 1996 while still a student my interest was starting to wane. I think that was partly because the band were starting to wearing chinos and trainers at that point.
Would it be fairer to see the fannish critics of Richard as loyalists (blind fundamentalists to their text) or empathetic guardians (curators of key knowledge)?
That’s a good question – and very difficult to answer. A bit of both perhaps? Perhaps there is no such things as a “Manics fan,” though they do tend to share certain characteristics: loyalty, literacy, intelligence, insight. There are also those fans – myself included – who see their interest in the band as something that is consigned to a key period in their/our lives (in most cases those life-changing teenage years). I found there was a contradiction in some fans being angry with me for writing the book, but yet who themselves spend a lot of time on the internet making great assumptions about the man they didn’t know either.
One of the questions that the book hopefully raises is: how well do any of us really know anyone? And another one: to what extend do fans ‘own’ the recipients of their devotion? You often hear pop stars says “You guys are the greatest, without you I am nothing” – yet inevitably those fans do stray or mature or move on in life so the other question is: are pop and rock stars prepared to be “nothing” when the roar of adulation disappears? The business is littered with people who “had it” but then “lost it” and one of the great tragedies is that, in a wider pop context, Richey is often viewed as just another mythical casualty – a member of the (oh Jesus Christ) ’27 Club’ – when really he was leagues ahead of people like, says , Sid Vicious or Keith Moon. He didn’t lose adulation – he lost himself.
What did you learn about fandom from writing Richard?
I learnt that pop stars, certainly in the West, have, since America came up with the concept of rock ‘n’ roll to help boost the post-war export economy, slowly replaced religious icons as objects of worship and that fandom, though often fulfilling, does not always offer succor to those who need it. Human beings have always needed to elevate other humans; it is something we have been doing for at least two or three thousand years. We like to weave myths about ourselves and we like to invest the select few with almost superhuman powers. Fandom is not new, though it is rapidly changing in the internet age.
How did you intend to portray Manics fans in Richard? Why do you think reviewers never discussed the books portrayal of fans?
I tried to offer a balanced view, from the intense diehards to those who just ‘got’ the band. Without wishing to sound like a flailing apologist “some of my best friends are/were Manics fans”. Some reviewers did mention the cult-like aspect of the band: the devotion they inspired.
The Manics offered a lot to cling to: a look, an aesthetic, an ideology. A design for living, as it were….
Richard sometimes paints quite a pessimistic picture of fans, for example as people crucifying their heroes. It draws on the punk approach to fandom: that fans are only proper people if they relinquish their attachments and abuse their star. I know you were trying to explore Richey’s depressed perspective, but wasn’t this likely to unsettle his following? Was that an intention on your part or a bi-product?
I’d say that mental illness is unsettling. If Manics fans aren’t unsettled by what happened to poor Richey – and by extension my attempt to catalogue that – then I’d be inclined to think they have no sense of empathy towards his (or anyone else’s) plight.
Why do you think that fans failed to consider parallels between what cultural strategies Richey used in his field (role different playing identities in music, establishing his identity through a carapace of quotations) and what you did as a writer?
This is a great question that really hits the nail on the head. I tried to write a book in the spirit of the Manic Street Preachers – and part of that was to challenge and criticize from an informed standpoint. Nicky and Richey were excellent critics, and excellent critics need to be prepared to be painfully honest so I wrote it is someone who has read all the books they read, seen all the films – and not just because the band told me to but because I come from a similar background of a smalltown boy with a hunger to understand the world through culture. As a critic I don’t mind saying that the Manics have made some terrible records yet I will always read an interview with them. We should also remember that the Manics weren’t entirely unique in 1991 as there were other long-forgotten bands doing a similar brash/outspoken punk revival thing at the same time – Birdland and Fabulous being two examples…
Richey was quite Zelig-like though in, as you say, playing different roles – femme pretty boy, loudmouth iconoclast, destructive hedonist, withdrawn star in exile – and I wanted to depict the fallout of that: what you see when you peel back the layers. ‘Carapace’ is a good word too, because he really did conduct a lot of his career from behind an armour or from within a shell. He’s not alone in that. Interestingly, like so many, he often wore sunglasses indoors or during photoshoots – sunglasses of course perennially being the rock star’s armour of choice….a black, blank barrier against the world….because the truth is always in the eyes, you see….
From some of the reviews, it would be easy to conclude that Manics fans saw you as a kind of ‘textual poacher’ trespassing on “their” (imagined) version of Richey. Did any fans say that they enjoyed Richard or that it gave them a sense of closure?
I was a textual poacher trespassing on their various versions of Richey by offering / creating my own. So really I was fine with that. It would be churlish of me to moan about fans being unduly happy with what I did – all I asked at the time is that people read it, and then offered an opinion. When they did, the critical responses ran right across the board, from people who really seemed to understand what it was I was trying to do – or at least saw the book in the context of literature rather than biography – to those who despised me on principal. I thought all responses were valid. The oddest responses came while I was still writing the book; speculative reviews appeared online before my publisher even had the finished version. Closure? I couldn’t say. I suspect not. I’m not sure it’s that simple.
Do you think fans ignored your clear labelling of Richard “a novel”? Is Richard pure fiction, fictionalized biography, or – as you once put it – an interpretation: “a version of the truth”?
I see it, quite simply, as a novel based upon a real person.
Is Richard fanfic? Can fanfic exist in a commercial context?
No, it’s not fan-fiction though I’ll be honest: I didn’t really know what fan fiction was until this book was well under way. Is it internet based? I’m still not entirely sure what the definition of it is: is it the strange sexual fantasies concerning members of One Direction? Richardis definitely not that.
One commentator said that the only people likely to buy your book (dedicated Manics fans) were the ones who were sure to hate it, making it a strange choice for a “cash-in.” Is that comment accurate or fair?
It is indeed a strange choice for a “cash in”….so strange that I never considered it as a cash-in at all. My ambition was to get it published, and fortunately that ambition was realised. I’m just not that contrived and calculating. I feel like I should clear this up: I know dozens of journalists and authors and they’re all broke. One doesn’t get into publishing books to make money. I earned more money as the lowest-paid labourer on a building site as a student than I do from writing.
With the book advance that I received I literally went out and bought some new socks. Three or four years on and the book has sold a reasonable amount but I’ve never had a penny in royalties from it. But, as I said, financial gain was never a consideration. The satisfaction comes in the writing, the creative process, the freedom of expression. Just simply setting out to do something and achieving it. Money should never be huge consideration in creating something. I’ve never had money anyway so why worry about it now.
How would you see the differences and similarities between what you did as a writer and what a music tribute artist does?
I didn’t try and be Richey Edwards. Instead I attempted to paint a portrait of him. A slightly blurred one. An out-of-focus rendering.
What makes Richard different from David Peace’s work?
What I have read of David Peace’s work is vast and varied and rhythmic and hypnotic and brilliant. It would be easier to list the few similarities though: we are both interested in the occult – as in, the secret histories of people and places – and we are both interested in depictions of the North of England, though that applies more to my other novels. The tone and structure of The Damned United gave me confidence to attempt a novelization of someone’s life but that’s about it. I was more inspired by the work of the late, great Gordon Burn, who covered crime, sport and celebrity while consistently crossing the boundaries between fact and fiction, reality and unreality, life and death. His novel Alma Cogan was a key inspiration.
Some fans demanded that you consult with the Edwards family or send the book’s profits to missing persons charities. The odd thing is that this would never have been asked of a biographer. What did you make of such requests?
Well people can demand what they want – that’s their business – but fact-based drama and narrative has existed for centuries: so many of Shakespeare’s plays are imagined dramatisations of the lives of real people and they revered the world over. I doubt Shakespeare gave his profits to Cleopatra’s family after she was poisoned by the asp. Hollywood is driven by ‘biopics’ too. Richey has been on the cover of NME numerous times since his disappearance (as have Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis and John Lennon and….) but I suspect they are not being encouraged to make donations. I don’t mean to sound uncharitable – I’m really not – but that way lies the death of clear, critical thinking.
People generally seem quick to react negatively to art in general these days don’t they? I’m increasingly aware that we are living in very Conservative and reactionary times. Self-righteous indignation seems like the default setting of so many, the internet the conduit. The Information Age has given way to the Kneejerk Age. Some young people are worryingly reactionary. Every day I get told to look at something online: ‘Look at this, isn’t this shocking and offensive?’ Invariably my response is invariably: no, not really. This is how democracy works. We are allowed to offer various opinions, especially through art.
The disappearance of Richey’s body highlighted something about all celebrities. To most of us, they are always at a distance, there and not quite there. What were fans’ responses to your intimation that Richey might have been aware – perhaps even intentionally aware – that his suicide would have fed into his myth?
It’s interesting that you say “the disappearance of Richey’s body” as it reminds us that the idea of him is somehow kept alive through his fans and his legacy. He has, in essence, taken on a new life, post-disappearance: that of untouchable, mythical rock star – “living”, as you say, at a distance. Forever young, always handsome. And eloquent. It’s not a thought that sits easy with me – wouldn’t we all prefer another living, happy, well adjusted person in the world over a dead rock star? – but that is how it seems to have developed.
I think Richey was extremely aware of the myth-making process that is involved in the ascension to pop immortality, certainly in the earlier days of the band. Of course he was. He and Nicky especially. Richey’s entire contribution to the Manics was to make them look and sound fantastic and create an impact. I suspect some small part of him must have been aware of the impact that his disappearance would have. But then again to be in that position he must have been in a tragically dire mental state – one which over-rode any contrived thoughts about becoming a legend – a state that you wouldn’t want to wish on anyone. Ultimately I have nothing but sympathy for Richey and his family. Depression is horrendous. It is an illness that warrants ever-greater sympathy and understanding and treatment.
What were your main concerns when writing Richey’s inner voice?
That I could never truly capture it – and I didn’t.
When you wrote as Richey did you feel that you had voluntarily contradicted or abdicated your role as a fan?
Yes, I think put fandom aside and in those sections I just wrote as myself – as someone who is prone to self-doubt, exhaustion, hyper-sensitivity. I’ve toured with bands around the world, stayed in cruddy hotels, drunk too much, woken up in pieces…I’m familiar with the state of mind that a combination of exhaustion and depression can put you in. I wrote Richey not as a celebrity but as someone whose speaks to his parents on the phone, loves his family, has a wide circle of friends, has good intentions, yet is afflicted. In other words: I wrote Richey as a young man living in 80s and 90s Britain. I think fan worship often overlooks the mundane reality of stardom, when in fact I wanted to highlight it through the drab details of service stations, hotel rooms, mediocre food. Life is a series of banal practical details and actions punctuated by spurts of exciting experience or memorable moments. That is what I aimed for – and that is perhaps what separates Richardfrom fan fiction. Fan fiction would probably not describe a fried breakfast in drab detail….
One of the theories in the book was that famous people can, as it were, hide in the light of fame. Can writers do the same? Does the alienated life of a writer count against them compared to that of a rock star in perceptions of what they do?
Writers can hide, definitely. I know that’s why I write: to be heard, but unseen. To feel less alienated yet still in control of my immediate environment.
Was your aim to rescue Richey from myth or to add to it? Could Richard be seen as a continuation of Richey’s own project of self-mythologization?
This is something I have wrestled with all along. I set out to debunk myths but actually, yes, I have probably contributed to the rock mythology. I’m as guilty as all hell.
You have said that you would feel uncomfortable as a writer doing a public reading of Richard. Why?
I just feel uncomfortable doing any readings really. I just don’t like them much full stop; mine or anyone else’s. There’s an expectation that people want to be entertained in some way – they don’t want to leave feeling depressed and miserable. To get up onstage and ‘channel’ Richey’s narrative voice would be absurd and painful and a step too far.