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Preacher's prophesies become all too real

Ian MacKinnon explores a rock star's controversial career in search of a reason for his mystery disappearance
The mysterious disappearance of a tortured pop star, an icon for a section of Britain's disaffected youth, almost seems too much of a rock `n' roll cliche to be true. Just a sad figure who could no longer take the pace, or merely another lame publicity stunt?

It would not be the first time the Manic Street Preachers, and their lyricist and guitarist, 28-year-old Richey James, had been accused of such cynical manipulation of their image. The right kind glamourous aura, such as that which enveloped Nirvana after Kurt Cobain's early demise, can have albums walking out of the shops.

But James's fellow band members and the management of the Manics - as they are known - held off going public with the news that he was missing until two weeks after he walked out of a hotel in west London, leaving behind all his belongings.

True, with a 30-concert tour of the US just a week away, there was the imperative that a reason for postponement had to be given.

However, there is genuine concern for James among members of the band, who met at primary school at Blackwood, Gwent, and are said to still be exceptionally close. And then there was James's troubled past.

The most recent escapade of the musician, who favours heavy make-up, was to chop all his hair. So badly, indeed, that he had little option but to go to the barber's to have the rest shaved off.

Friends who saw him at a gig by a local band in Newport on 12 January were told that he had been bored.

His general malaise was not helped by a necessity to sip Cokes all evening after giving up booze and joining Alcoholics Anonymous last summer. As he tried to crack his alcoholism, he spent two months undergoing treatment for depression, nervous exhaustion and anorexia, firstly at the Whitchurch Hospital in Cardiff (later described as a dismal One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-institution) and latterly at the private Priory Clinic in Roehampton.

Explaining somewhat enigmatically what had happened, James - full name Richard James Edwards - told how he thought he had pushed himself too far. "I wasn't coping very well, and I thought my body was probably stronger than it was. My mind was quite strong. I pushed my body further than it was meant to go."

A more sinister, and not necessarily competing, explanation also emerged. Persistent rumours that he tried to kill himself during a two-day mutilation spree at his Cardiff Bay flat appeared to have some basis, despite denials by the management of the band whose influences are groups like the Sex Pistols and The Clash.

Since the group emerged from the Welsh valleys in 1990, controversially rubbishing the "Madchester" scene of the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses and proclaiming their own greatness, self-mutilation had become James's trademark and fuelled iconic status.

Famously, during an interview with a New Musical Express journalist now turned Radio 1 DJ, Steve Lamacq, he carved "4 Real" on his forearm with a razor blade after being asked if the band was not merely a Welsh rehash of The Clash. His forearms are now a patchwork of scars and cigarette burns.

But the band, initially dismissed by some as "loud-mouthed Welsh tossers" for their attention-grabbing antics, won increasing respect with each successive album release - first Generation Terrorists (1991), then Gold Against The Soul (1993), and last year's The Holy Bible.

In particular, the lyrics by Swansea University-educated James were widely acknowledged as increasingly accomplished, attracting a young, cultish following apparently at odds with their harsh, almost heavy-metal sound. It is a following that has spread beyond Britain to the US and, to a greater extent, South-east Asia.

The willingness of the left-wingers to attack racism and Fascism (unusual among rockers), and apparently make a case for subjects such as anorexia, is part of their attraction. One outrageous pronouncement as they were breaking through to head the punk revival - now taking on an ominous significance - was a promise to "die young and leave good-looking corpses".

Fans hope statements like that were just hype and that James will soon reappear unscathed rather than enter the annals of rock legends who die before their allotted time.