“The band is getting better and better. The lyrics are, too. I’ve found better ways to express myself. Though I don’t need to know if my words have become more acceptable than before, I hope they have. Some songs on The Holy Bible are pretty clear. I don’t think I’ve changed what I say, but maybe I’m saying it in a different way.” – Richey Edwards
‘The mysteriousness of a miscellany… draws the observer in, stimulating her to look at individual things with new interest as well as to look, if she will, at the “unintentional portrait” of a mind – a mind hidden to the casual observer by the protective shield of things.’ – Linda Leavell
Photographs of Richey Edwards from 1994 record a dramatic change in physical appearance – increasingly drawn, revealing new scars and with a sense of detachment from the promotional matters in hand. The lyricist didn’t hide the facts of his illness. He discussed where things had gone wrong when asked by journalists after leaving The Priory, and the ways in which simple everyday tasks had become difficult. But one thing remained constant: even as Edwards underwent hospital treatment in the summer, as a three-piece Manic Street Preachers continued to promote The Holy Bible (finally released in August 1994) without him, and as he struggled to reintegrate into touring life for the autumn dates leading to his final shows in December, the writing continued.
Two images from that year stand out tellingly, overlooked among the more familiar shots of the band – in the searing heat of Bangkok, among the catacombs and gravestones of Paris, huddled on a windy beach in Wales, or laying ruin to thousands of pounds’ worth of equipment on the last night at the Astoria. They illustrate Edwards’s commitment to his work. One of these, taken by Pennie Smith, finds him somewhere on the road, on the band’s tour bus, pen in hand, diligently transcribing from a book – continuing to find new inspiration in the thoughts of other writers. In the second, the band’s long-time photographer Mitch Ikeda captures Edwards seated at his writing table in his new flat in Cardiff, sunlight flooding in through the window as he taps away at the typewriter keys, eyes focused on the page.
Far from being the final word, the lyrics that Edwards contributed to The Holy Bible were only a dozen among the many that he worked on in the year prior to his disappearance. Some of those other lyrics were already in the process of being put to music at the time of Edwards’s last rehearsal with Manic Street Preachers, at the House in the Woods studio in January 1995. Some would not appear until more than a decade later, with the release of Journal For Plague Lovers.1
Before 2009, the band had spoken memorably about the musical direction not taken, that Edwards suggested for the follow-up to The Holy Bible: ‘Pantera meets Nine Inch Nails meets Screamadelica’. Where Edwards was heading lyrically could be gleaned in part from the handful of his songs used on Everything Must Go (some co-written by Wire), as well as a few passing remarks by his bandmates. But there was much more. According to Nicky Wire, Edwards’s creative output was unceasing throughout 1994, his mind unable to switch off and constantly fed on a wide array of media. Edwards’s writing process was entirely analogue, though the stream of images, expressions and fragments he left are equally reflective of an accelerated digital culture of hyperlinking and newsfeeds. Describing the last binder full of songs that was presented to the band, Wire told the NME’s Emily Mackay: “Richey wrote it on a typewriter, he never had a computer. An Olivetti portable typewriter, which wasn’t portable at all, it was fucking huge, he carried it away with him everywhere.” Wire added: “[H]e loved writing as well, physically, with pen and paper. Me and him always used to say as a running joke, when people asked ‘what instrument do you play’ […] he’d play the pen and I’d play the paper.”2
Even while he was undergoing treatment at The Priory, Edwards would keep handwritten notes, copying down lines and quotes, documenting his emotions and aspects of his recovery, all the while co-ordinating the final stages of the art design of The Holy Bible. At the same time as he was trying to recover mentally and physically from alcoholism, anorexia and depression, he was determined to improve as a lyricist, always researching, always looking ahead to the next song. Much as he intended The Holy Bible to be a meaningful statement in rock music, Edwards went on seeking what he saw as the perfect lyric and this took his writing in new directions, which became more clear to see when the remaining band decided to put a selection of his last words to music.
As always, the writing that followed The Holy Bible was shaped in large part by the dizzying rate of Edwards’s reading and viewing, and shows the influence of diverse forms of media. The many words and images that he took from elsewhere are charged with new effects and possible meanings in the context of Manic Street Preachers’ music. Edwards nods to favourite writers, cites historical figures and events in unique ways, and the ephemeral is given a degree of artistic permanence through his writing. The interest in modernist and other subversive art, that the band had immersed themselves in since their teenage years, persisted. Edwards favoured the use of collage, miscellaneous fragments, multiple voices, images of extremity and absurdity, and formal inventiveness, to create impressions of an interconnected, conflicted Western society dealing with the aftermath of Christianity, capitalism, consumerism, scientific advancement, fascism and war – and the individual’s place in a world with seemingly little left to place faith in.
On The Holy Bible the band addressed specific atrocities from the twentieth century (largely influenced by visits to Dachau, Belsen and Hiroshima in 1993) and Edwards spoke of the value he found in continuing to study history, which had been the focus of his degree studies at Swansea University. In his last television interview, for ZTV in Sweden, he explained:
“Every day of my life I feel I’m… not as good a writer as I could be, I’m not as intelligent as I could be. I try and constantly read and improve my mind, and get a better perspective on, you know, world history. And nobody’s ever gonna get good enough to know everything, but you know, I think I try, which is more than a lot of people do.”3
When in London, journalist Keith Cameron reported, ‘Edwards would frequent the hallowed Reading Room of the British Museum, following in the footsteps of Karl Marx, George Orwell and Virginia Woolf.’ The independent bookshop Compendium was also a favourite haunt, as Bradfield explained: “Richey must have bought well over 150 books from there… They also sold academic research papers. He’d have a suitcase on the road, just filled with books. I don’t mean this in a flippant way, but when Compendium went under [in 2000] I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s probably because Richey’s not around!’ He absolutely loved that bookshop.”4
Even more so than books – when it came to lyric writing – magazine articles, newspaper reports, comics, television programmes and videos were constant sources of material for imaginative repurposing. Some of the images, phrases and ideas that would emerge in Edwards’s last lyrics would first surface in interviews given following his hospitalisation, as if using the opportunity to try and articulate their relevance to the thoughts that preoccupied him. A Latin quote, ‘Virescit vulnere virtus’ (strength is restored through wounding), that Edwards found in Tim Willocks’s prison novel Green River Rising and which he shared with Peter Paphides in a Time Out interview in December 1994, would be used in the original lyric for ‘Peeled Apples’, the opening track of Journal For Plague Lovers. In the same interview, Edwards elaborated on the subject of self-discipline and punishment of the body as a coping mechanism, saying:
“It’s really quite traditional in terms of flagellance [sic], and, like, just go back through history. Caged zoo animals do it quite well. Baboons chew their own tails, but then that’s an artificial environment. They also fix an imaginary point on the wall and constantly walk up to it, stop and then wander back. But they never cross that line. I do see an enormous amount of dignity in self-determination and self-discipline.”
The song that would become ‘Small Black Flowers that Grown in the Sky’ was emerging. Work, it seemed, was always in progress.5
While there may be prominent recurring themes in Edwards’s lyrics, they are nothing but wide-ranging in their scope and subject matter. This only continues beyond The Holy Bible, Edwards’s words containing references to contentious scientific developments, Hollywood melodrama, punk memorabilia, art history and British wrestling. The original lyric sheet for ‘Peeled Apples’ alone compresses a bewildering array of images and largely impenetrable allusions, encompassing Noam Chomsky, the Birdman of Alcatraz, Heinrich Himmler, the Sistine Chapel, the films The Deer Hunter and Tetsuo: The Iron Man amongst flashes of violence, animality and physical and psychological responses to an aggressive world. Various contemporary source materials helped Edwards depict the modern age with a sharpness of detail and he was unhesitant in expressing his own misgivings and painful experiences through this visceral imagery. It was the typically trite subject matter of the majority of pop songs that, as Edwards saw it, reflected the kind of aberration of mind so readily ascribed to his own words:
“Whatever kind of writer you are, it obviously expresses something about how you feel. I mean, if you spend your whole life writing, you know, love songs, you probably are psychologically damaged. If you’re that obsessed, that everything you put down on paper is always about relationships, then you must have some kind of deep-rooted flaw.
“I mean, I think somebody like Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston now are more ruined in the mind than I could ever possibly be, you know, because that’s all they seem to sing about. You know, I think they’ve got bigger problems than they could ever dream about. I think it’s perfectly natural to have an interest in the things that actually go along around you. You know, if I wrote lyrics constantly about relationships, I would think I was walking around with like a plastic bag over my head, like ignoring everything that goes on, you know, pretending things don’t exist.”6
The things that attracted Edwards typically reflected his own critical, bleak outlook on humanity, yet he showed a continual fascination with thinkers, artists and individuals, both fictional and real, living at the edges of experience; anti-heroes; those attempting to achieve new forms of expression themselves, or else trapped in circumstances in which they struggle to assert control.
On one occasion, Edwards called Nicky Wire to discuss a television documentary about zoo animals they had both seen. His enthusiasm soon manifested itself in a new lyric called ‘Stalemates’. Wire told Vox: “Richey phoned me up one night, around Christmas ’94. We’d been watching the same TV programme. It was like a QED show. He said, I’ve just seen this brilliant programme. It was about animals going mad in their cages.”7
It was not just the startling imagery and provocative subject matter that developed in new ways in Edwards’s writing after The Holy Bible. He was as mindful of its rhetorical aspects, seeking an improved sense of form. Although by all accounts he lacked any musical skill, he spoke about the rhythmic quality he was searching for. ‘Facing Page: Top Left’ well illustrates Edwards’s attention to repetition, variation and contrast to create poetic impact. Its two verses show first the surface appearance and then the depressing reality of a life in treatment, using contrasting lines of almost identical construction and rhythm.
Edwards knew that he was often placing great demands on James Dean Bradfield, but trusted that the singer and guitarist would push the band’s music further. He told ZTV:
“I’ve always had an idea in my mind about how I want to express myself. And I think the first album was slightly too naïve… I’ve got a rhythm and a melody in my mind that I know James has also got and he’s trying to get them to match perfectly. And I think early on we were so inexperienced, it was hard to get them working properly, and now when I write, I can almost hear James’s music and I know what works and what doesn’t work.”
“When I see a lot of bands’ lyric sheets, before I hear the record, I know what they’re gonna sound like, because the metre and the text is like, da da da / da da da / da da da, and I think when I see my lyrics written down, even though I know what the song’s gonna be like, I can’t really imagine how James can possibly sing the words. But I think that’s the best thing about us. I think that’s the one thing we do that’s quite different from most bands…”
Bradfield too began to notice changes in the pair’s compatibility as songwriters following the extreme challenges in composing The Holy Bible:
“I’m not being rude to Richey, I’m really not, but his lyrics would often be off-kilter and wouldn’t scan, and I’d have to make it fit. And that was fine, because something good would come from that. I’d have to stretch, and it would lead to a different time signature or something. And the words were always just brilliant, but sometimes he was a bit more freeform. But I remember when he gave me ‘Small Black Flowers’, which was originally called ‘Stalemates’, I think. And it scanned! Boof, boof, boof.”8
The combination of Edwards’s often esoteric, subversive cultural references, his brutal emotional insight and Bradfield’s musical adeptness always pointed to new possibilities, reaching beyond barriers. The ‘Opulence’ material would direct Bradfield and Sean Moore in musical directions that differed from The Holy Bible, too. The singer told Kerrang: “There’s less rage and hatred, more philosophy and doubt; there’s a sense of humour and surrealism to the lyrics. This dictated that the music palette would be broader. It was the logical progression of The Holy Bible; there’s still elements of it but it’s more of a rock record. It’s less new wave, or post-punk.”9
Beyond Wire’s recollection of the documentary that spurred the writing of ‘Small Black Flowers that Grow in the Sky’, the evidence of Edwards’s continual immersion in a broad range of media until the time of his disappearance is substantial, even from the limited material that has been made publicly available. And the uses to which this material was put for lyrics was manifold. From the scribbled notes and unedited typewritten drafts published in the special edition of Journal For Plague Lovers, it is possible to trace a considerable amount of references – many of these firmly locate Edwards’s lyrics in the culture and events of 1994. And Edwards’s attention was focused at all levels – from headlines to sidebars, from epigraphs to endnotes.
From one page of the reproduced ‘Opulence’ binder, stuck to the back cover, we can see some of the results of Edwards’s note-taking. The references would seem to date back as far as January 1994 and include an issue of Vanity Fair in which the popular children’s author Roald Dahl and the bestselling novelist and filmmaker Michael Crichton were both featured. Many of the words and references that fans might assume are examples of Edwards’s own poetic invention, or else the impenetrable, telegraphed thoughts of a troubled mind, are in fact paraphrases and transcriptions from these magazine features, with some miscellaneous interpolations:
Richey Edwards’s notes
- ‘SRENDNI VASHTAR (a polecat kept by an affection starved boy) but he is eaten when in ‘SAKI’ by HH MUNRO polecat escapes’
- ‘Going to bed at 2, waking up at 2.30. He lives the life of an eremite.’
- ‘PHYSICS. DRUGS. KEYS. EPIPHANY. CACTI. AS FRIEND. WONT HURT YOU. SEE INTO MAN. BECOME MAN. DIMINISH MAN. EXPECTATIONS INCREASE. EAT BIRTHDAY CAKE EVERYDAY. LEARN THAT REWARDS ARE BULLSHIT. DISCIPLINE IS JUSTIFIED AS LONG AS IT’S YR DISCIPLINE, and all around agree your discipline.’
Original article sections
- From ‘The Grimmest Tales’ by Christopher Hitchens, a feature on the author Roald Dahl: ‘Sredni Vashtar, is still read with shudders by parents and guardians with bad consciences. It concerns a beautiful and vicious polecat of that name, kept as a pet by an affection-starved boy named Conradin.’
- From ‘The Admirable Crichton’ by Zoë Heller, a feature on the author Michael Crichton: ‘As the book proceeds, he will get up earlier and earlier. “It’s five, then it’s four, then it’s three,” he says. “Eventually, I’m going to bed at 10 and getting up at 2…For the duration of that draft, he lives the life of an eremite.’
- Also from ‘The Admirable Crichton’: ‘In search of answers, Crichton spent several years in the 80s traveling in remote areas of the world and trying out some of the more unconventional routes to enlightenment. He visited psychics…he went to the desert and enjoyed very moving conversations with a cactus… What was the epiphany? “Everything was helpful,” he says. “It’s paradoxical, but diminished expectations seem to make for more happiness,” he says. “You don’t expect to eat birthday cake every night…. Sean [Connery] once said something to me that I’ve never forgotten. He said, ‘Discipline is always worthwhile.’ That’s absolutely right. But this is a society that thinks discipline is for drones or for people who don’t know any better.”’
None of these lines appear in any of the finished songs on Journal For Plague Lovers, but suggest that Edwards was ever in the midst of collecting and shaping images for possible future lyrics, drawn to profile pieces, and the insights of other writers. On another page, reprinted opposite the words to ‘All is Vanity’ there are a series of notes that make mention of Shakespeare’s King Lear, 12-step psychology, biology, art history, feminism and philosophy. More artists and intellectuals are named: Robert Rauschenberg, Camille Paglia and Kate Figes, along with Baruch Spinoza. Again, the notes are likely taken from newspaper stories, documentaries and reviews from the time. The material on Spinoza was almost certainly jotted down while watching Spinoza: Apostle of Reason, a documentary broadcast on Channel 4 on 13 July – as some of the dialogue is transcribed verbatim. Maybe it was simply a matter of Edwards’s academic curiosity. Maybe it was intended as the basis of a lyric along the lines of ‘Marlon JD’.
Edwards and Wire had previously used characters from literature and film as their lyrical subjects – as on the B-sides ‘RP McMurphy’ and ‘Patrick Bateman’, highlighting the behaviours and motivations of disruptive, even morally repugnant characters as a way of underlining the flaws and hypocrisies of the culture in which they act. ‘Marlon JD’ is somewhat more curious. The lyrics comprise descriptions of scenes that appear in John Huston’s film Reflections in a Golden Eye, with some of the character dialogue included. The title refers us not to the character focused upon, Major Penderton, but rather to the actor who portrays him. Bradfield has commented: “He loved him because he was the idealisation in his mind of what the ideal man could be, but also because he turned to shit as well.”10
‘Marlon JD’ is strikingly succinct as compared with many of the lyrics Edwards had written for The Holy Bible. In one sense, it is as if in keeping with the aspirations of Brando’s character in the film – a method writing of a kind: ‘no luxury, no ornamentation, utter simplicity, and it’s also clean, clean as a rifle’. Edwards described what he imagined as the perfect song: 15-20 lines, summing up a lifetime of feelings and observations. He spoke of his desire to condense his ideas, and to write free of all external distractions:
“The reason I’m doing this is for the two months we get off, when I can just be alone in my flat and write. That’s what I do, I do nine months of touring so I can get time to write words, that’s what I care about. This is very nice, travelling, it’s nice staying in hotels, it’s nice doing concerts but it’s not as satisfying as maybe getting two or three lines in a lyric that you really think encapsulates how you feel, you know? That’s what’s really important to me.
“If I can look back on a lyric and think, you know, I’ve done it, that’s a good song, I think that’s as good as maybe other works that I really respect. That’s what I’m in a band for.”11
‘Kevin Carter’ was one of the first leftover lyrics used by the band for Everything Must Go, producing a top 10 single in 1996. Here (as with the Spinoza song that could have been), the focus of the entire lyric is on a real-life figure – Edwards providing a template that Nicky Wire would use both soon after (with the companion song ‘Interiors (Song for Willem De Kooning)’ on the same album) and across the band’s catalogue (as on ‘Tsunami’, ‘Let Robeson Sing’, ‘International Blue, ‘Vivian’, ‘Dylan and Caitlin’ and more recently ‘The Secret He Had Missed’). Drawing on magazine articles about Carter, the song refers not only to the photographer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The vulture and the little girl, but also the circumstances of his troubled life and suicide. As with ‘Marlon JD’, the listener will decide to what extent Edwards is comparing his own psychology with that of his subject. When asked about this aspect of his lyric writing process, he told Simon Price simply: “If I use ‘we’ or ‘you’ or ‘they’, it doesn’t necessarily mean what it says. But I think most lyric writers would say that.”12
While shining the spotlight on a particular real-life figure for the length of a lyric was new, there have always been namechecks by the band from the start. But in Edwards’s late lyrics public figures also begin to appear as characters, as if in absurdist or satirical moral plays of his own invention. This had already begun on the Holy Bible B-side ‘Sculpture of Man’ with a description of the young princes William and Harry, ‘dressed in drag standing over the sodomised body of their mother’, Lady Diana the Princess of Wales – the scene imagined as a poster sold in the then well-known British retailer, Athena. It continued on ‘Revol’, juxtaposing political figures from Lenin to Napoleon with imagery of sex and romantic disillusionment, and is a prominent stylistic element of Journal For Plague Lovers.
On one track, another famous sibling pair, Jackie and Joan Collins, are placed on the panel of the popular BBC current affairs programme Question Time, in a discussion about Catholicism and marital issues; juxtaposing ethical provocation and the everyday insecurities found in an Agony Aunt column. It is one among many of Edwards’s withering judgements about love, sex and relationships in these late lyrics. In another song, Stephen Hawking is brought into a riff about the possible limits of human scientific experimentation, health and prowess – with another sardonic reference to lack of sexual prowess.
In several cases, Edwards’s bandmates have been as daunted, puzzled and inspired by the words and references as any of the band’s fans. ‘Pretension/Repulsion’ is a particularly cryptic example, especially in the verses – a series of past participles, with no apparent semantic connection; only sharing a visual pattern of elided letters, word endings and with some sense of opposition – between words like ‘spurn’d’/’call’d’, ‘perturb’d/’unhinder’d, or ‘lock’d/unclasp’d – that create a sense of confusion, vaguely evoking ideas of suffering, self-fulfilment, allure and manipulation. At the chorus, Edwards breaks the title words into their syllabic constituents on the page and makes a point of widening the spaces between them. Pulling language apart to see where it might take him and the band.
Against Edwards’s precise, underlined separation of song parts on the page – verse, bridge, chorus – reminding us that these were always intended as lyrics, not poems, there is a larger degree of ambiguity and inscrutability to the writing. The full lyrics to ‘Pretension/Repulsion’ appear to deal with the theme of artistic controversy as a way of examining exploitation, taking in Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Grande Odalisque, the heavily criticised Benetton adverts of the 1990s, and pornography. Describing his initial thoughts on seeing the lyric, Bradfield said: “Just rising to the bloody-minded challenge of looking at some of the lyrics… the words in ‘Pretension/Repulsion’, in the verse… it is just a list of words! Purposefully after each word there is a full stop though. ‘Explored’ – full stop. ‘Enclosed’ – full stop. And just seeing somebody laying down the gauntlet, the challenge. It did remind me of some of my experiences on The Holy Bible. ‘Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart’ – it was nice to revisit that kind of challenge.”13
But there were limit points, as he told NME: “[I]n a song like ‘Me and Stephen Hawking’, or what’s another one, perhaps ‘Peeled Apples’, there are some verses where the intent or meaning behind the words were actually… I couldn’t unlock it. I couldn’t understand it at all. And that might be a bit shocking, because there might appear to be some lyrics on the record already which are quite hard to understand. But there were some stuff which actually seemed like the key had just been chucked away to the meaning of them.”14
Anatomy of a lyric
Speaking of ‘Me and Stephen Hawking’ in particular, Wire has said: “I’d love to know if Giant Haystacks fought in a Bombay fight and was watched by 100,000 people. Because if that’s true… no, I don’t know what the fuck it’s about. Cos then, like you said the genetic stuff, the scientific angle, seems to… I don’t know, it’s just that amazing mixture, Richey was never afraid of really low art and really high art. And that’s why it’s never elitist really, it’s just knowledge, it’s just taking something from everything.”15
Particular sources of inspiration do turn up again and again, however. Sources that themselves already carried within them a breadth of images, voices and facts. Many of the disparate, surreal lines that appear in the original lyric sheet for ‘Me and Stephen Hawking’ can be traced back to British newspaper articles from a narrow time period, July and August 1994 – and often from the same publication.
We can compare Edwards’s technique here to that of ‘Yes’, ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ and ‘PCP’, for which he took selected phrases from a Mail on Sunday article and Living Marxism editorials from around the time of writing. As baffling as ‘Me and Stephen Hawking’ first appears, it is possible to reconstruct much of the lyric writing process with the help of newspaper archives. While this does not finally ‘explain’ the song, pin down any meaning, or diminish its lyrical and musical idiosyncrasy, the added context does allow us to gain a clearer sense of the sorts of themes Edwards was drawn to, and helps us appreciate more aspects of his creative approach. It also suggests that Edwards expected his listeners to be as engaged with the week’s news as he was.
The memorable reference to Giant Haystacks was inspired by Jessamy Calkin’s feature on the wrestler, ‘Lores of the Ring’, which appeared in The Independent Magazine on Saturday 30 July 1994 – the same newspaper in which, at the start of that year, Wire and Edwards had first seen the art of Jenny Saville that would be central in shaping the design of both The Holy Bible and Journal For Plague Lovers. Edwards does not turn Calkin’s piece into the basis of a rock song, as he did with the zoo documentary that became ‘Stalemates’, or Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye. The following day, the Independent on Sunday ran a report by West Europe Editor, Leonard Doyle, with the headline ‘Guard on bull with human genes’, describing a trial in the Netherlands for a new type of baby formula, and the protests that this had aroused. Almost all of the first verse lines of the recorded version of ‘Me and Stephen Hawking’ were lifted or adapted from Doyle’s dispatch. Many of the other lines from Edwards’s unedited lyrics also appear to have been sourced from contemporaneous reports, a few more even lifted from the same 31 July edition of the Independent on Sunday.
If much of Edwards’s inspiration came from national newspapers, television documentaries, magazines and comics, the uses to which he put his chosen fragments is more varied on the songs on Everything Must Go and Journal For Plague Lovers; ranging from a concentrated distillation born out of one source – a television documentary, a little-known film – to fragments from a number of news stories, or books compressed into a nightmarish lyrical collage, blending journalistic observation and Edwards’s singular form of depressive introspection. In the case of the unedited ‘Me and Stephen Hawking’ we get the closest thing to a modern-day newsfeed. While Nicky Wire has stressed the analogue nature of Edwards’s research and writing process, it certainly still resonates in the fractured, confounding contemporary media and social landscape.
The imaginative introduction of Stephen Hawking, as with the Collins sisters, makes ‘Me and Stephen Hawking’ more than a simple cut-up piece. Not only does it imbue Edwards’s lyrics with a wonderful, and too seldom seen, black humour that is striking after the moral fury of The Holy Bible, but it achieves something of a concise commentary on an entire culture in thrall to perfection – athletic, scientific and economic – that cannot but render the individual worthless, left with only an unsettling spectacle to witness. The ways in which source materials are used here almost reflects the lyrical associations with gene splicing and colliding bodies too. The text, as body, is a result of a process of literary tearing, stitching, scarring and healing.
For Edwards, the body was always a focus of writing, coping, and responding to the world. All three combined in one unforgettable incident, when he was interviewed by Steve Lamacq after a gig in Norwich in May 1991 and was frustrated by the journalist’s scepticism about the group’s seriousness and intent, leading Edwards to cut the words ‘4 Real’ deeply into his arm with a razor. Physical exploitation and attempts at self-control through bodily autonomy are the subject of two remarkable first-person songs on The Holy Bible, dealing with prostitution and anorexia. They are among Edwards’s most accomplished lyrics, on an album where extreme politics and psychology are mirrored in extreme bodily proportions and conditions. The struggle to assert mental and physical vitality in a culture intent on power, judgment and obliteration is at the heart of that album’s signature song, ‘Faster’. His later lyrics similarly depict a world dominated by suffering and doubt, in which pain is registered vividly, and hopelessly covered over with consumer cosmetics, hollow philosophy and ineffective therapies and drugs – a world more closely informed by Edwards’s experiences in the summer of 1994.
The epigraph by Hawking that Edwards uses at the head of the ‘Me and Stephen Hawking’ page remarks upon the destructiveness of humankind, the same kind of sentiment that shaped The Holy Bible. The song’s reference to the eminent physicist and the pair’s shared perspective is a comedown of sorts from ‘Faster’, a revision of Edwards’s claimed superiority on the earlier song. There is something of Philip Larkin’s morbid, self-lacerating wit running through Edwards’s words here too, as if he is updating the older poet’s ‘Annus Mirabilis’ in which he explained: ‘Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (which was rather late for me)’.
Any awareness of the genesis of these lyrics can hardly subtract from any of the interest in how a limited, unusual choice of elements have been placed side by side with no immediate sense of what Edwards is getting at. Not taking a dogmatic stance on a guiding ethical question, as in ‘Archives of Pain’ or ‘PCP’, but instead wryly observing the ways in which political, scientific and public interests clash in endlessly mutating ways.
‘But I tried, didn’t I? Goddamnit, at least I did that’
As much as he kept his eyes on world events and a rapidly changing culture, and even as he described other people (real and fictional) in his last lyrics, Edwards began to explore his own recent experiences in various ways as well. It is hard to avoid the internal questions that were clearly preoccupying him as he compiled the material for the ‘Opulence’ binder.
The lyrics to The Holy Bible were not initially interpreted by the other band members as being expressive of an unfolding personal crisis for Edwards, with Wire having described a “self-fulfilling prophecy” only from the time of the Thailand shows in April 1994, after most of the album was written. Looking back nowadays, they more readily acknowledge the “gathering storm” amid the generally productive and positive experiences of recording their third album.16 In the lyrics left behind, by contrast, the bandmates saw Edwards’s hospital experiences and bleak conclusions about personal relationships articulated in an unavoidably personal way. On songs such as ‘This Joke Sport, Severed’, ‘Facing Page: Top Left’ and ‘Doors Closing, Slowly’, the common thread seems to be that of trying to find strength, purpose and resolution in the face of unhelpful treatment, romantic disillusionment and belief systems that cannot ultimately console.
A series of quotes from The Promise of a New Day, a book of daily meditations for those undergoing the Twelve-step programme, featured on Edwards’s setlists towards the end of 1994. Excerpts from Hephzibah Menuhin, Andrea Dworkin, Ecclesiastes, Mao Tse-Tung, Henry Fielding, Epictetus and Simone Beauvoir were all lifted by Edwards from the book. But what in the original context are intended as prompts to reflection, hope and making positive changes, are isolated and left couched in a tone of negativity; focusing on nightmares, failings, disease, burdens and the inability to conceive infinity. They were interspersed with other setlist reminders of the prevailing destructiveness and absurdity of humankind, as expressed in the writing of RD Laing, Peter Milligan, JG Ballard and Eugène Ionesco.
The emphasis on a Higher Power that came with the Twelve-step recovery programme Edwards underwent at The Priory means that the religious evocations of The Holy Bible are developed further in his writing. Having taken the Christian holy book as a conceptual basis on which to present the band’s commandments for a fallen world, Edwards was now writing alone, reading biblical texts, reflecting on his own doubts and considering the suffering and sacrifices that he feared, or accepted, as a way of continuing to live. In doing so he makes numerous references to the Old and New Testaments. But Edwards’s engagement with these ideas and images was never anything less than critical. His philosophical interest in Nietzsche, author of The Anti-Christ, in particular shows through in the lyric ‘Judge Yr’self’, which was written by the four-piece Manic Street Preachers for the soundtrack of Judge Dredd. On ‘Doors Closing, Slowly’ there is an abundance of biblical allusions that twist the redemptive and consolatory intent of the original verses. ‘Remove the lamb from your thoughts’, writes Edwards; and subverting the moral imperative ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’, he says ‘Who threw the first stone/If the stone is you’. Crucifixion imagery emerges in stunning ways: from the ‘bruises on my hands from digging my nails out’ on ‘Peeled Apples’ – suggesting that there is no final redemption to be had in the act – to announcing on ‘Doors Closing, Slowly’ that ‘crucifixion is the easy life’ – as if the death of Christ was a cop-out.
‘All is Vanity’ takes its title from Ecclesiastes, and adapts that book’s encouragement to take pleasure in simple things in a way that further reflects Edwards’s forthright views on capitalism, body image and relationships. It cleverly transforms the book’s reference to ‘nothing new under the sun’, into a blunt English colloquialism: ‘It’s the facts o’ life sunshine’. Most strikingly, in trying to reach the truth about the world – the guiding principle for Edwards of writing The Holy Bible – the lyricist finally admits, ‘I really don’t mind being lied to’ and that all his attempts to convey his experiences through speaking and writing have made him ’feel like I’m talking a foreign language sometimes’.
The band have been cautious in speculating about the subject of ‘She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach’, another unflinching comment on the damage people risk doing to themselves through pursuing romantic relationships, possibly referring to one of Edwards’s own hospital encounters; while in the case of ‘Virginia State Epileptic Colony’ it is uncertain whether Edwards is describing things learned from obscure academic research, or that he experienced first-hand.17 Edwards may have become aware of the facility referred to in the song title through the documentary The Lynchburg Story, but unlike other songs based upon films and television broadcasts, this one does not describe any specific scenes shown. Edwards seems to use the reference instead as a warning that what he had gone through was as sinister as that despicable intervention in the lives of the ‘feeble-minded’ in the United States had been. There is a satirical play here on the idea of ‘seeing the light’, replacing divine revelation with ‘strobes and half-circled light’. The scene he sets is again one of scepticism towards clinical treatment; with personal responsibility, health and a sense of meaning giving way to simple dayroom activities, the gaze of doctors, and drugs.
Edwards had emphasised this personal dimension to his writing, and even the likelihood of its obliqueness, when describing what the perfect lyric meant for him:
“I have a dream of writing a lyric which I think is, um, flawless really. That I think has got no, um, broken edges. That makes sense, to me, not anybody else but just makes sense to me, that I think in 15-20 lines I’ve written a lyric that sums up exactly how I feel about everything. Not just how I feel today – how I’ve felt all my life. Everything I’ve read, everything I’ve seen, everything I believe – that in those 15 lines you can just say it all, you know?”18
Despite his unceasing attention to the unfolding news, the flawed icons and outsider figures of popular culture that intrigued him, and the academic history that he had studied since his student days, there is a sense also of Edwards increasingly trying to break free of the world of culture, of politics, of religion, of relationships – and of all impossible ideals. ‘I endeavoured to find a place where I became untethered’ he writes on ‘This Joke Sport, Severed’, as if continuing on the movement towards a ‘higher plateau’ described in ‘4st 7lb’. This seems to go hand in hand with the break from traditional language structures – of semantics and syntax – in Edwards’s final lyrics. In ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ there was already a recognition that words cannot always match experience: compared to the physical and mental ravages of the Holocaust, ‘hunger’s a word’. In ‘4st 7lb’, Edwards writes, ‘the problem is diet’s not a big enough word’. The body of course remains central to these attempts to act so as to radically transform one’s relation to the world. But even after Edwards’s apparent physical recovery, after he stopped drinking and took up weights and other fitness exercises, his images are devoid of healthy bodies. As with The Holy Bible, his descriptions on Everything Must Go and Journal for Plague Lovers encompass only suffering and violence – wounded, whipped, bruised, nailed and burned bodies. The writing is steeped in the language of flagellation, sacrifice, branding. There is, then, a sense of ultimate futility, of weight, of guilt, of oppression, that underscores such energetic artistic creation.
Once he’d articulated the “truth… about the way the world is” on The Holy Bible, it seems Edwards struggled to see a place for himself in it. As he admitted in interviews, he felt unable to commit himself to a long-term relationship, to cope without alcohol and sleep following his treatment at The Priory, and according to Wire found it difficult to digest its “pseudo-God and religious bollocks”. The bassist and lyricist explained: “You can’t expect someone to come around to something like that. Sometimes, I think that one of the positive things he’s done is that wherever he is, he knew he’d never become the person the Priory wanted him to be. Deep down, he knew it was just crap.”19 What’s more, as Edwards will have known from the writings of the anti-psychiatry movement, and appeared to find himself through his own hospital stays, there is always the danger that a new kind of language will only be perceived as so many signs of more psychological instability. For all the brilliance of Edwards’s words, he leaves listeners with one unforgettable image above all others, of an action that finally says more than words ever could, an expression of ultimate detachment and haunting purity: ‘I wanna walk in the snow and not leave a footprint’.
There are still lyrics from this period just after The Holy Bible written by Richey Edwards that fans are unlikely ever to read or hear. In 1996 Nicky Wire was already describing some of the leftover material, offering a glimpse into an agitated mind. He told Select magazine: “I know you can’t get much bleaker than The Holy Bible… but after that we didn’t think people were ready for songs about cutting the feet off ballerinas,” Wire here referring to a lyric that does not appear on Journal For Plague Lovers.20
With the band still processing the recent loss of their bandmate, there is no sense of the humour or the calm resignation to be found at times in Edwards’s writing, and that would only emerge once the band shared more of his words years later. With ‘William’s Last Words’ we find something altogether new for Edwards: an extended farewell in prose that evokes the heyday of the music hall, and wartime, with references to songs from the period, all weaved together with an inebriate’s warmth and sense of nostalgia. Some of the unused lines underscore the doubts and the sense of failure that run through many of these late lyrics but here they are expressed in a touching, poignant way: ‘I’m not a clever chap, I made a balls up again’, the character of William admits as he longs for sleep and starts to forget the words he is meant to sing.
Nicky Wire has said of the remainders: “Some of them are little haikus, four lines. ‘Dolphin-Friendly Tuna Wars’, that’s one, ‘Alien Orders/Invisible Armies’, that’s one. ‘Young Men’, which is quite Joy Division-y.”21 Although Wire and Bradfield are agreed that the best lyrics were used for Journal For Plague Lovers, one that Edwards himself thought was standout is absent. In an author’s note included at the front of the ‘Opulence’ folder, Edwards explains that the lyrics are ‘in no particular order of preference, although some lyrics are obviously better than others’. The first he gives as an example is ‘Infancy Speech’. One song did not go unreleased but it is otherwise hidden. ‘Bag Lady’ has been described by the band as too close in style to The Holy Bible to suit Journal For Plague Lovers. Even though they aimed for a certain kind of symmetry with their third album, in terms of track number and art design, they immediately recognised the different moods suggested by the words. As such ‘Bag Lady’ ended up as a secret track on the standard UK edition of Journal For Plague Lovers.
Buried away as it is after the close of ‘William’s Last Words’, it is somehow appropriate that the song should take as its chorus an endnote, sourced by Edwards from a collection of William Blake’s poetry – the note itself referring to an unfinished poem found in fragments. The way that Bradfield sings the line almost obscures the clarity of the sentiment:
Original endnote to the William Blake poem ‘The Everlasting Gospel’ by editor Peter Butter which refers to the line ‘To be Good only is to be / A Devil, or else a Pharisee’ : ‘To be morally good only rather than to love is to be a devil pretending to be a god.’22
‘Bag Lady’: ‘To be morally good, only rather to love / a devil pretending to be a god’
Blake’s visionary force seems to have been illuminating for Edwards. He adapted a line from Blake’s proverbs of Hell, ‘The cut worm dies in peace’ in one of his final conversations with the British press, and one can well imagine the lyricist of The Holy Bible and Journal For Plague Lovers responding to lines like ‘For Adam, a mouldering skeleton, / Lay bleach’d on the garden of Eden’. For Bradfield, however, the draft that Edwards left to the band suggested too painful an emotion: “This is the only lyric that really weighed me down, I wouldn’t wanna inhabit that lyric too much… the push and pull between pretension and repulsion, between being vain and rejecting any notion of what is ugly or beauty, must have been exhausting at this point…”23
It seems that Edwards was striving constantly to overcome his own vanity, to rationalise his feelings and views, to understand his illness, in a culture that would replace honest reflection with spurious philosophies and diagnoses, power plays, and laws with no permanence. There is ever a tension in Richey Edwards’s late lyrics between being compelled by the world – its figures, its history, its contemporary culture and politics – and rejecting it, striking out alone, undaunted, aiming to overcome all its illusions and its traps. Nicky Wire told NME: “I think that line from ‘4st 7lbs’ really counts on here. On this album he really does reach that plateau of… the disgust has perhaps turned to ultimate realisation. Kind of got over the disgust and [quietly] just reached a new level.”
(Without whom: LC)
 In 2005, the band gave away an EP, God Save the Manics, containing the song ‘Picturesque’, which uses portions of ‘All is Vanity’ and ‘Doors Closing Slowly’. They did not announce at the time that these lyrics were written by Richey Edwards.
 Mackay, Emily ‘In A Movie About Us, Christian Bale Would Play Richey’, NME, 13 May 2009. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=%27In_A_Movie_About_Us,_Christian_Bale_Would_Play_Richey%27_-_NME_Blog,_13th_May_2009 (7 August 2022). See also Mackay ‘Religion, Richey’s Fitness Regime, and Why Typewriters Are ‘Erotic’’, NME, 15 May 2009. Accessed at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Religion,_Richey%27s_Fitness_Regime,_and_Why_Typewriters_Are_%27Erotic%27_-_NME_Blog,_15th_May_2009 (7 August 2022)
 Manic Street Preachers – ZTV – Artistspecial – 06/02/1995. Accessed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYkJQ6hQ7g8 (8 August 2022)
 Cameron, Keith ‘Classic Album: The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers’, Q, 404 (November 2019)
 See full transcript of the Peter Paphides interview published in Price, Simon Everything (Virgin Books, 1999)
 Manic Street Preachers – ZTV – Artistspecial – 06/02/1995
 Bailie, Stuart ‘Courage Against the Machine’, Vox, July 1996. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Courage_Against_The_Machine_-_Vox,_July_1996 (8 August 2022)
 Price, Simon ‘And If You Need An Explanation’, The Quietus, 2 June 2016. Accessed online at https://thequietus.com/articles/20332-manic-street-preachers-everything-must-go-interview-simon-price (8 August 2022)
 Guest, Loz ‘I Am… Manic Street Preachers’, Kerrang, 2009. Accessed online at https://www.repeatfanzine.co.uk/interviews/msp%20kerrang.htm (29 August 2022)
 Mackay, ‘Religion, Richey’s Fitness Regime, and Why Typewriters Are ‘Erotic’’
 Manic Street Preachers – ZTV – Artistspecial – 06/02/1995
 Price, Everything
 Doran, John ‘New Testament: Manic Street Preachers On Journal For Plague Lovers’, The Quietus, 30 April 2009. Accessed online at https://thequietus.com/articles/01583-new-testament-manic-street-preachers-interviewed-about-journal-for-plague-lovers-richey-edwards-and-the-holy-bible (30 August 2022)
 Mackay, Emily ‘In A Movie About Us, Christian Bale Would Play Richey’
 Mackay, Emily ‘Therapy Is Bullshit, Talking Never Makes You Feel Good’, NME, 14 May 2009. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=%27Therapy_Is_Bullshit,_Talking_Never_Makes_You_Feel_Good%27_-_NME_Blog,_14th_May_2009 (8 August 2022)
 See Shadows and Words (dir. Douglas Hart, Channel 4, 17 May 2009) and Cummins, Kevin Assassinated Beauty (Faber & Faber, 2014)
 See Mackay ‘Therapy Is Bullshit, Talking Never Makes You Feel Good’ and ‘Manic Street Preachers – Track by Track’, NME, 26 May 2009. Accessed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seL8m84KyNw (11 September 2009)
 Manic Street Preachers – ZTV – Artistspecial – 06/02/1995
 See Mackay, Emily ‘Therapy Is Bullshit, Talking Never Makes You Feel Good’ and Bailie, Stuart ‘Everything Must Go…On’, NME, 11 May 1996. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Everything_Must_Go…On_-_NME,_11th_May_1996 (11 September 2022)
 Maconie, Stuart ‘We Shall Overcome’, Select, July 1996. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=We_Shall_Overcome_-_Select,_July_1996 (8 August 2022)
 Mackay, ‘In A Movie About Us, Christian Bale Would Play Richey’
 Butter, Peter (ed) William Blake: Selected Poems (Everyman, 1993)
 Mackay, Emily ‘This Record Is More Personal Than ‘The Holy Bible’’, NME, 18 May 2009. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=%22This_Record_Is_More_Personal_Than_%27The_Holy_Bible%27%22_-_NME_Blog,_18th_May_2009 (8 August 2022)