Shadows allowed to gather over fate of Preacher James

Ian MacKinnon on the silence that has followed the disappearance of a troubled pop star

Six months ago this morning, Richey James walked calmly out of his west London hotel - and that was the last anyone saw of him.

The disappearance of the troubled guitarist from the cult band, the Manic Street Preachers, cast a pall over the pop world. Young fans who identified with his plight wrote in droves to give vent to their feelings of depression.

Yet almost uniquely, the music press and the record industry has been restrained in its coverage, despite the lurid theories over his fate or whereabouts that constantly swirl around this gossipy world.

"It's incredibly difficult," said Andrew Mueller, a writer with Melody Maker. "There is a major story but no one knows what it is. You can't put in pieces every week saying 'Richey James still missing'."

Prior to his disappearance, James, the 28-year-old lyricist and guitarist with the band, had already fallen victim to alcoholism and depression. It was closely bound up with his tendency towards self-mutilation - he once slashed his chest in front of a photographer. But after a spell in a private clinic last summer, he and the other members of the band, who grew up together in the Gwent village of Blackwood, seemed to be progressing towards a bright future in the United States.

On the night before he walked out of the London Embassy Hotel, Kensingston, the band, which has the Sex Pistols and The Clash among its influences, had been rehearsing for a 30-date American tour.

But after leaving his room at around 7am on 1 February, seen only by a staff member, he stepped into his silver Vauxhall Cavalier and drove down the M4 to his Cardiff Bay flat.

No one has seen him since, though his car turned up a few days later, parked at a service station overlooking the Severn Bridge, spawning speculation that he had committed suicide.

The uncertainty over the fate of James, who was educated at Swansea University, inevitably left music commentators with a dilemma over how best to deal with it.

"We have been restrained about the whole thing in the wake of what happened with Kurt Cobain's death last year," said Stuart Bailie, assistant editor of NME. "The first time he had an overdose in Rome it was almost like a bit of sport. People felt Kurt was messing everybody about.

"But when he died everyone was very upset. Then when Richey disappeared everybody took it very emotionally. It was felt 'let's not make a big thing about it'."

Even their record company had resisted the urge to cash in on the noteriety of his dis- appearance. "When someone dies record companies usually whip out a couple of compilation albums and fill the shops. They love cashing in on corpses. But even though Richey's only missing, they've been very low key," said Mr Bailie.

Likewise, when the music press hacks run into members of the band, talking about Richey is almost taboo. "We see them out quite a bit. But no-one asks about Richey. They have enough horrible problems without us adding to them. This is a rare occasion when we've been gentle."

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