For the Manic Street Preachers, America has always been a sort of last frontier. It’s strange. Never mind that 1994’s The Holy Bible is a towering achievement in nihilistic despair, that its follow-up — Everything Must Go — is a shimmering Britpop record that’s as glorious anything with Oasis’s name on it, or that guitarist/lyricist Richey Edwards’ disappearance is one of the great tragedies of the alt-rock era. The Welsh group’s success never translated. A Yankee myself, I only discovered The Holy Bible by chance, thumbing through British magazines like Q (which heralded the Manics album among the best of all time) as a teenager and ordering an import copy online.
So I wondered who’d be at the U.S. stretch of the band’s tour playing the now 20-year-old album in its entirety. The event attracted huge demand across the pond. And rightly so — the Manics never played the full thing prior to 2014. (The original Holy Bible tour was cut short by Edwards’ vanishing; there was no reason to think the remaining three members would want to revisit that painful era.) But the New York show didn’t even sell out, leaving me unable to unload an extra ticket. And this was Webster Hall (capacity: well under 2,000). Week-of-show boasting brought me blank stares. Would anyone even show up?
Short answer: Yes — and many of whom seemed to have traveled far for the opportunity. Aging goths, younger punks, expats, junkies, winos, whores… If it wasn’t sold out, it looked pretty close, and by the end of Jennie Vee’s sweetly energized opening set, ticket figures didn’t matter. Flanked by bandmates and fog, frontman James Dean Bradfield took the stage with a terse, to-the-point “New York… This is The Holy Bible!” Anticipatory exhilaration bubbled over. All were gathered in eager appreciation of one particularly frightful expression of art/music/sociopolitical despair.
And that’s what was delivered, from its first spoken sample (A pimp: “You can buy her. This one’s here, and this one’s here, and this one’s here”). The Holy Bible is not an especially breezy sequence of songs to approximate, shrieking riffs and weirdly rendered time signatures and all. But the band managed with both true-to-LP faithfulness and caustic abandon. Rarely were there any noticeable discrepancies with what was recorded in ’94. (Can I single out a single guitar wail on “4st 7 lbs.” that took longer to kick in?) Prerecorded tracks provided the spoken-word snippets. Bassist/lyricist Nicky Wire, clad in dark sunglasses and decorative regalia, stomped and jumped about the stage, channeling bits of Richey Edwards’ glam-inspired stage presence. And Bradfield, an under-sung guitarist, handled both rhythm and lead parts, nailing every menacing riff. (I’d never noticed just how metallic and riff-heavy The Holy Bible is — “Archives of Pain”, with its searing military march of a bass line, in particular — nor how full of guitar solos.)
There is something gleefully strange about hearing a crowd sing aloud en masse with songs you never imagined hearing a crowd sing aloud. Holy Bible falls squarely into that category, for reasons both thematic (these are chilling odes to anorexia, prostitution, the Holocaust, and other dark corners of Richey Edwards’ mind) and musical (wordy and overstuffed, it’s clear the lyrics were written before the tunes). It’s an album mostly listened to alone, in quiet desperation. But there we were, hundreds of us, yelling along with the Reagan-bashing “Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart” and the pummeling “Faster.” The latter track’s concluding yelp translated into a cathartic crowd refrain (“So damn easy to cave in! / Man kills everything!”), as did “Of Walking Abortion’s” accusatory sneer of a send-off (“Who’s responsible / You fucking are / Who’s responsible”). It was the aural manifestation of what was until then only an abstract awareness: Other people know these songs by heart. It’s not pop — Bible’s M.O. is to “rub the human face in its own vomit” — but let nobody tell you that record’s not anthemic as hell.
The Holy Bible alone is mighty enough to justify ticket prices, but maybe not lengthy enough. So the encore (really a second set) was a generous one. It mixed old with new but mostly old, and its tone was like daylight seeping in after “PCP” closed out the dark night of the soul. Of particular note: a shimmering solo performance of “Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky” from Bradfield, a triumphant rendering of early anthem “Motorcycle Emptiness”, and a nod to 1998’s This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours on the majestic “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” (if the track title looks to be lifted from The Holy Bible, the music is miles removed). That the only indication of post-2000 Manics was 2014 single “Walk Me To the Bridge” added to the nostalgia factor; the band exited for good after closing with the 1996 classic “A Design for Life”.
My lingering frustration from the show isn’t even music-related. It’s the merch table. On sale were plenty of sleek-looking souvenirs transferring full bragging rights to the buyer. But no records or CDs — not even The Holy Bible itself. It’s not easy to find Manics albums at stateside record stores (last year’s Futurology wasn’t even physically released in this country at all), and I’d hoped to remedy the holes in my collection while supporting an entity other than Amazon. No luck. Try the used bins.
The night ended early; we were kicked out to make room for a late-night EDM party. Janitors mopped up the sweat, blood, and near-palpable catharsis; cobbled together a DJ table. But Richey Edwards’ ghost haunted the evening until its end. “We know Richey is here ,” Nicky Wire remarked. His bandmate Bradfield spoke several times of the guitarist’s poetic genius, inciting the crowd to cheers. And he reminded us, while introducing “Small Black Flowers”, that Edwards co-wrote several of the songs on Everything Must Go, too, before he left. I half-expected the erstwhile performer to materialize right there, eyeliner aglow, and claim his rightful place.
But he didn’t. The show ended without incident or séance. Edwards has drawn retrospective comparison with another tormented genius who never made it out of the mid-nineties, and just 48 hours after The Holy Bible I wound up at a screening of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. So it’s official — icons of 1994 draw crowds in the Manhattan of 2015.
At both events there lingered a similar sort of sadness. Loss is personal, for those who knew Edwards or Cobain. But it’s also creative. And at the Manics show and the Nirvana film, it registered as a big, gaping absence: What have we missed out on? And what should have been?
Of Walking Abortion
She Is Suffering
Archives of Pain
This Is Yesterday
Die in the Summertime
The Intense Humming of Evil
Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky
You Stole the Sun From My Heart
Walk Me to the Bridge
If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next
You Love Us
A Design for Life
Photos by Sachyn Mital