“See this watch she gave me, it still ticks away, the days I’m claiming back for me.”
Eels, The Medication is Wearing Off
Into the Royal Albert Hall on a sticky Tuesday evening, to watch the Manic Street Preachers play Everything Must Go, 20 years after it was first released. This was their second anniversary tour in as many years. Last time out they reprised The Holy Bible, to commemorate the two decades that had passed since Richey James Edwards had disappeared, his car abandoned near the Severn Bridge.
I’m suspicious about bands playing albums live – usually it’s a money-spinning, pusheaded indulgence into their past – but the Manics, as I wrote of the Holy Bible tour, are not the sort of band to partake in such hollow reprisals of now-irrelevant back catalogues. Instead, The Holy Bible’s resurrection was a scathing reminder of how Richey’s rebuke of End of History triumphalism remains dishearteningly pertinent.
My first reaction to hearing about the EMG tour was excitement – it’s one of my favourite albums, and I have often turned to it in moments of grief. I gave my ticket in knowing I was in for a great show, but I wasn’t quite sure why the Manics were dragging their 1996 kicking and screaming back into the present. It made sense, somehow, that if you bring back the Holy Bible you have to follow it up with Everything Must Go. But whereas the Holy Bible externalises anger to rip down the hypocrisy of those who benefit from a violent society, Everything Must Go is an internal struggle that finds the band wrestling with the pain of Richey’s decline and disappearance. After a twenty-year journey in which the bereft Manics have marked a new path as a trio, why had Nicky, James and Sean decided to revisit the raw emotion of this schism? Surely, it wasn’t just to go through the motions, in a pale sequel to last years’ tour?
Far from it.
There was a (very) small part of me afraid that without the enduring pertinence of the Holy Bible Tour, and the album’s association with mid-90s Britpop nostalgia, the EMG reprisal could fall short and end up an overweight, out-of-date impersonation of a moment that was no longer there. At the NEC in Birmingham (yes, I was there too – long story), there was a sense that the band themselves were concerned that it would be read this way, and on more than one occasion James thanked the crowd for coming to listen to them, and hoped that “this hasn’t ruined the memory of the album for them.” This uneasiness was itself an echo of last year, where the Manics were hedging themselves, eager to explain that to play the Holy Bible was a personal (and difficult) necessity, but still far removed from self-indulgence.
However, in the Royal Albert Hall, I found this fear to be grossly misplaced. Everything Must Go was, in 1996, a journey taken by the trio downwards toward the darkness that had enveloped their friend, alongside the upward steps toward the sun within which is held the strength to live in grief. In this way, it is the thematic as well as the chronological successor to the Holy Bible.
Richey posthumously provides five lyrics to Everything Must Go. His words in the Holy Bible were fuelled by anger – railing against the violence of humanity, the music and the lyrics jettisoned his anguish. But there were warnings, noticeably in Die in the Summertime (“scratch myself with a rusty nail, sadly it heals”), that this was only a temporary solution, the last flares of a dying star before it collapses in upon itself. The EMG songs that come from Richey’s pen find the lyricist in a concerning empathy with the victims of the societal cruelty he documented in the previous album. What unites his characters on EMG is their fate – they are trapped, consumed by their own hand or by that of others. If “man kills everything,” these are its victims, the Removables, or those who are caved in by the reality that surrounds them. The Elvis Impersonator who opens the album with limited face paint can rise no further from his life as a Blackpool sideshow, existing only in the drunken eyes of Lancashire nightlife.
“It’s so fucking funny, it’s absurd.”
Small Black Flowers that Grow in the Sky, seeing through the bars of the decrepit, caged zoo, sympathises with the captive chimpanzee, who has nothing but a tyre swing to entertain the masses that rattle her cage, the Simian cousin of the Blackpool impersonator. The Girl Who Wanted to be God nods to Sylvia Plath, “spat out” by Faster’s protagonist, but now a touchstone for our tortured lyricist in his final moments. Track 3 talks of the life of photographer Kevin Carter – a true story of the man who won a Pulitzer Prize for his voyeuristic photograph of a malnourished black child being stalked by a vulture, who took his own life – unable to live with the terrible things he had sat and watched, like an ecologist, waiting for the right moment to capture for his fortune. Richey’s characters are trapped in a cycle of pain, and death forms the only escape.
For Nicky Wire, staring at a blank piece of paper in 1995, his friend vanished, he had to attempt to grasp the darkness that had taken Richey, and from there forge a path for himself and his band out of their grief. How do you comprehend a suicide? To attempt to empathise with this agony is to plot a journey toward the pain that overwhelmed a loved one. In his songs Nicky is often his own protagonist. In Australia, Nicky finds himself subsumed by a rising tide of depression as he tries to make sense of the past few months – “I don’t know if I’m tired, I don’t know if I’m ill” – and he responds by fleeing, as far away from everything as he can possibly get, to recover. Live in Birmingham, he confessed that while he was writing this lyric, he only made it as far as Torquay.
Nicky’s songs are filled with determination in the face of this pain – there is a growing understanding that he cannot run forever, and an acceptance that if he is to be alive, he must live with the chronic pain of losing his friend to suicide. In Enola/Alone, he concentrates on the comfort provided by the simplest of actions, walking on the grass, and taking in every moment of being alive, finding the strength to look at an image of his lost friend and hold on to a better memory. The title track has James screaming the line – “Just need to be happy” – like a tortured mantra, if he sings it with enough feeling, it *might* just come true.
Interiors gives us the story of the artist Willem de Koonig, who continued to paint as Alzheimer’s overtook him. It is the keystone of the album, of a man who, through all his suffering, held on to the very fabric of being alive for as long as he possibly could. As the final solo of the album rang out through the hall, a ticker tape explosion fell upon us. Red, white and green. On the screen appeared the Stanley Kubrick quote “however vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” James later appeared with his acoustic guitar, and played his cover of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, the first thing he recorded after Richey vanished, in a final act of defiant existence. The crowd all knew what this meant.
“What’s the point of always looking back?”
In some ways, the Manics were, this night, once again replenishing an old album from the past into the present. “We’ve brought it back from the brink,” James explained, by which he meant from the brink of falling into the dustbin of Britpop history. Nicky recalled in the Guardian that Richey used to love the confusion of it all. And he of all people would have appreciated the contradiction of the Manics finding mainstream success with this record. It wasn’t the intention to sound like Britpop’s cousin – A Design for Life was in fact a response to songs like Parklife that hollowed out and vulgarised British working class life. Yet for a band attempting to confront a friend’s suicide head on, to be “co-opted into Britpop,” placed into the same bracket as nonsensical Noel Gallagher lyrics must have smarted. Bringing EMG “back from the brink” is a personal necessity for the Manics, so that the grief they express in this record is not diluted or whitewashed.
Everything Must Go did not need salvage in the same way the Holy Bible did – there is no social criticism it provides more scathing than was given in 1996. But it needed to be played this night, and played in full, all the same. In many respects this is the true anniversary of Richey’s passing, the moment when the band accepted his disappearance, and to wrench open the scars left by the nihilism of the Holy Bible requires Everything Must Go to restart the process of patching up old wounds.
Everything Must Go is a triumph – for Nicky, James and Sean – and for all of us who have been wrought by bereavement and ploughed on nonetheless. But this album is not a moment of happiness, and it is not only Britpop association that threatens its meaning. To scream that “everything must go” is not to heal yourself of grief, rather it is to accept that time cannot heal old wounds, it only numbs. Further Away – “feel it fade into your childhood,” was this night adorned with images of Big Pit, eroded Welsh beaches, and eroding colliery towns. “The further away I get from you…the harder it gets.”
This acceptance that grief never disappears, but only fades, adds to the tragedy of the record with each passing anniversary. This is why they bring Everything Must Go into the 21st Century. To reprise the immediacy of bereavement is to defy the numbing of time, and to recall the pain they felt in losing a friend is to recall why they loved him in the first place.
“I’ve been here for much too long. This is the past that’s mine.”
Strangely, there was comfort in this message. This was not misery tourism, but healing. Many in the audience empathised with this pain – I don’t mean those old enough to miss Richey too – but those who knew you carry grief with you, wherever you go, and in some form this is a way you can keep the love you had for that person alive. There is comfort in sound, as another Welsh band – Feeder – proclaimed when they lost a band member to suicide. That night, there were lighter moments too – in the joy of Show Me the Wonder, and Nicky’s eccentric liner notes between songs. “This is not the only anniversary we are celebrating. Ten years ago, I Killed the Zeitgeist.”
In the Albert Hall, the music rolled through the floor, bounced off the roof of the auditorium, as, after the album was played and passed, we all belted out Roses in the Hospital, in tribute to Richey and to David Bowie, in a punk rock Last Night of the Proms, where the Welsh dragon was draped over the balcony in lieu of the Union flag.
That night, the chords were loud and simple, the melodies catchy yet plain, not in mimicry of Britpop, but in contrast to the nuance of the Holy Bible – it is raw, emotive music, contradictory yet plain – no surface and all feeling. Catharsis needs simplicity.