The disappearance of Richey Edwards - co-lyricist, rhythm guitarist and scar-bearing ideologue of the Manic Street Preachers - has become one of the great modern musical legends of our times.
I wanna sing about a culture that says nothing. I wanna say the fact that basically all your life you're treated like a nobody.Richey Edwards
It's not difficult to see why Richey became such a powerful icon for the Manics' eyeliner-clad devotees: through his very public battles with alcoholism, anorexia, and self-mutilation, Edwards became a spokesman for issues previously considered taboo - a lightning rod for the marginalised, alienated, and dispossessed.
He even spawned a slogan, '4Real' - a grim reference to an incident dating back to a gig at Norwich Arts Centre in the May of 1991 where, challenged by then-NME journalist Steve Lamacq to prove the weight of his conviction, he carved the term into his arm with a razor.
"When I cut myself I feel so much better," said Richey of his habit. "All the little things that might have been annoying me suddenly seem so trivial because I'm concentrating on the pain. I'm not a person who can scream and shout so this is my only outlet. It's all done very logically."
Born in Blackwood to Sheryl and Graham Edwards, a pair of devout Methodists that ran a hairdresser's on Blackwood High Street, Richey was a quiet, acne-ridden kid - the stereotypical teenage misfit.
Turned off by the didactic learning of the classroom, he pursued his own education, the books of George Orwell, Albert Camus, Sylvia Plath, and Brett Easton Ellis forming a self-styled reading list. He adored Echo And The Bunnymen and Public Enemy, but by the time the other Manics were tentatively learning chords, he was ensconced in Swansea University on a political science degree.
The company of a rowdy mass of young humanity was not a pleasant experience for Edwards. "It was full of people who wanted to sit around and do as little as possible, other than have as much fun as they could. But I never equated university with fun. I thought it was about reading and learning."
But Richey soon became invaluable to the Manics. As van driver he ferried the band to and from shows, as the band's 'Minister of Information', he mailed bile-filled press releases to the London music inkies. It was only a matter of time before he picked up a guitar and became the Manics' fourth member.
Sadly, despite some intensive lessons from James, his poses were more practised than the actual music. "Why is everyone hung up on an ugly piece of wood and metal and strings?" he asked. "I can't play guitar very well, but I wanna make the guitar look lethal."
Where Richey did excel, however, was in the field of lyric-writing. Seldom without his notebook, he was a prolific ideas man, penning reams of verbose, ennui-laden tracts on prostitution, capital punishment, and the Holocaust - themes that featured heavily on the Manics' third album, the harrowing The Holy Bible.
Such bleak topics spoke volumes about Richey's fragile state of mind. By the May 1993, his anorexia and alcoholism had reached such an extreme level that he required professional help. The guitarist spent much of the summer institutionalised in an effort to kick his psychoses, bouncing from an NHS ward in Wales to celeb-friendly detox haunt The Priory.
Nevertheless, Edwards was quick to insist that he would never put his life in danger. "In terms of the s-word," he explained, "That does not enter my mind. And it never has done, in terms of an attempt. Because I am stronger than that."
Although the details of Richey's disappearance on the eve of an American tour have been well-documented, there remain few concrete facts and fewer leads. A handful of things are clear. The guitarist left London's Embassy Hotel at 7am on the morning of 1 February 1995. He visited his home in Cardiff, where he left his passport, credit card, and Prozac. He drove his Vauxhall Cavalier to Aust motorway services by the Severn Bridge, where it was discovered with a flat battery on 17 February.
And then, nothing. A number of reported sightings remained unconfirmed. A mountain of macabre newspaper speculation turned up no clues. It was as if Richey had simply disappeared off the face of the earth.
Is Richey dead? It's impossible to say. After seven years the family of a missing person are entitled to have the person declared dead and apply for his estate, but a statement issued by Sony in early 2003 said otherwise. "For the family of Richey Edwards and the members of the Manic Street Preachers nothing has changed," it read. The police file remains open, and the remaining band members continue to pay royalties into a bank account for him.
Photo: David Hardacre