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December 03, 2008

Theodore Dalrymple contemplates Richey Edwards and the Punk Ethic - and decides that on balance he does not approve

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple reads the obituary of former Manic Street Preacher Richey Edwards and decides to find out more about the Punk Ethic.

Although I never listen to pop music - indeed, I have always avoided it, which, because of its ubiquity, is by no means an easy thing to do - I always read obituaries of pop stars in the newspaper. They are one of my windows on the squalor and degradation that is popular culture: the other being a walk in the street.

As they grow older, pop stars seem to fall naturally into two groups: those who retire into the life of the squirearchy, the pleasures of whose kind of life they have done so much to destroy for others, and those who die young. Their deaths tell us a lot.

The latest pop star obituary I read was of Richey Edwards, in The Guardian of 26th November. He disappeared in February, 1995, at the age of 27, and was never heard of again. His parents had gone to court to have him legally pronounced dead.

I had never heard of him before, though apparently he was very famous. I discovered that he was a handsome man, and an intelligent one too, with a good degree in history. He was a member of a group called the Manic Street Preachers, though - here I am not setting out to denigrate him, but quoting the information contained in the obituary and elsewhere - he had no musical ability whatsoever, and indeed was so lacking in it that he mimed playing the electric bass guitar, or, if he played it at all, at such a low volume that his contribution to the total output of sound of the group was inaudible.

He did, however, become a kind of living wreck, a walking compendium of the kind of self-destructive behaviour that romantics are inclined to see as the sign of a great soul. As Thomas De Quincey put it,

Pain driven to agony, or grief driven to frenzy, is essential to the ventilation of profound natures.
Of course, it is an elementary error of logic to suppose that, because profound natures ventilate agonised frenzy, those who ventilate agonised frenzy have profound natures - but, elementary as the error might be, it is so frequently made as to be almost ineradicable from the minds of many.

Richey Edwards cut himself (the photo in The Guardian obituary clearly shows the scars on his left wrist); he drank to great excess and took drugs; he had anorexia and half-starved himself. On one occasion, a journalist from the New Musical Express called Steve Lamacq "questioned the band's commitment," or, as Wikipedia puts it, questioned

the band's authenticity and values, keen to ensure the punk ethic was not abused.
In response, Edwards carved the words "4 Real" on to his forearm with a razor blade he was carrying, wounds that required seventeen stitches to repair.

The punk ethic, as far as I can tell from my brief researches, consists of the following: an utterly conformist non-conformity and an insensate individualism without individuality, allied to brutal and deliberate bad taste - ugliness, be thou my beauty. Commitment to non-conformity is, of course, a conformity of its own; and bad taste requires no discipline, or hardly any, to achieve. To be accused of lack of commitment to these "values" therefore seems to me to be a compliment rather than the reverse, and not something to feel insulted by.

To inflict a serious injury on yourself (which you then require others to repair for you, at their expense) in order to prove that you are genuinely committed to bad taste, ugliness, a rejection of everything that could possibly make life worth living, and to a celebration of "alienation, boredom and despair" - to quote a phrase I found in connection with the Manic Street Preachers – does not seem to me to be meritorious in any way. The alienation, boredom and despair here mentioned are the consequence of a combination of laziness and impatient ambition, rather than the consequence of an "objective" situation, and represent an impossible demand for achievement without concomitant effort.

The episode, however, was the making of the band, generating as it did a great deal of publicity. There is nothing like the sordid for getting ahead.

Deeply unattractive, indeed repugnant, as I find all this, the story of Richey Edwards is deeply tragic. I quote from the obituary in The Guardian:

Edwards was booked to travel to the US on February 1 1995 with the band’s singer… for promotional duties, but never took the flight. Little is known about his movements in the following days, although it appears he left London for Wales [he was Welsh]. On February 14 that year his abandoned Vauxhall Cavalier received a parking ticket at the Severn service station, and it is widely believed that he jumped to his death from the Severn Bridge.
Apparently, his car, when it was found to have been abandoned, showed signs of having been lived in before abandonment.

Assuming that the theory of his suicide is true - though, as is commonly the case with prominent people who have disappeared, there have been alleged sightings of him around the world, especially in such places as Goa and the Canary Islands, where vanished celebrities are often glanced by the no doubt intoxicated - one cannot but imagine the walk from the car to the bridge, and the state of mind of the despairing young man who took it. It is unbearable to think about.

And then there are his poor parents, living thirteen years of agonised ignorance, seeking eventually the pseudo-certainty of a court pronouncement. I do not know them, or anything about them, but I think I can imagine the depths of their misery, and in so far as it is possible to commiserate with complete strangers I do so.

But I also feel a certain rage at the culture that we have created, and a certain guilt that I have not fought against it with all my heart and soul, to the best of my ability. It is a culture that can produce lines - and mean them, that is what is terrible - such as the following from one of Richey Edwards songs (as Mozart took dictation from God, so he took dictation from the Zeitgeist):

I hate purity. Hate goodness. I don't want virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone corrupt.
Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of the author of Junk Medicine: Doctors, Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy.

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Dalrymple always strikes me as a bit of a prude when he talks sweepingly about aspects of contemporary pop culture. And I'm a Dalrympian acolyte who agrees with almost everything else he says! Yes, there is a lot of bad and stupidity in what passes for popular 'culture' these days, but not all of it is without aesthetic merit. One gets the sense that Dalrymple is shocked that wanton nihilism once thought extreme and unhinged is now mainstream, and therefore a blight on genteel society. But I disagree. I submit that it is the unthinking, faddish -- and therefore deleterious -- adoption of extreme attitudes that is offensive -- not the extremism in itself. Put differently, Manic Street Preachers are not an abjuration because they are somehow "extreme" and "terrible" -- but because they are unthinkingly and inauthentically so.

There are far more "extreme" (and from Dalrymple's perspective no doubt vile) acts out there who in fact do have musical and lyrical merit, "extreme" though they may be. It's a function of Dalrymple's age more than anything else that he sees nothing in contemporary musical culture worthy of salvage, only of wholesale rejection.

Posted by: Sima Qian at December 4, 2008 07:18 PM

The lines quoted at the end of this piece ("I hate goodness" etc) are not lyrics but a sample of the words of Winston Smith as played by John Hurt in a film version of 1984

Posted by: random punter at December 4, 2008 11:01 PM

Except that that line is a straight quote from George Orwell "1984".
Winston Smith railing against the Party line re. sexual purity.
So, rage against Orwell?
Orwell as the victim of a corrupt modern culture?

Or perhaps just a sign that you might be better off not trying to pound everything into a pre-formed mould of distaste for modernity.

Posted by: J. Farren at December 5, 2008 10:26 AM

"I hate purity. Hate goodness. I don't want virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone corrupt."

These are not Richey Edward's words. They are those of Winston Smith, the well-known punk masochist, in George Orwell's 1984. Sampled at the start of 'Faster', possibly the gretest song on the Manics 1994 album 'The Holy Bible'.

So you find him unpalatable. I'm sure you'll make a fine writer for the Daily Mail or tabloid press. If you looked further into the history of the Manics you'd discover that they have been far from conformists to the 'punk ethic'. They're clearly way too intelligent and complex for the likes of you.

Posted by: Igor Belanov at December 5, 2008 02:42 PM

Typically brilliant essay from TD. As for the obituary, I don't know what's more disturbing: it or the comments about it. Have a look. There's enough social pathology there for volumes.

Posted by: Augustine at December 5, 2008 05:23 PM

I very much hope Mozart did not get his dictation from G-d. When composing Mozart would sing to himself in German "lick me in the arse". It sounds even worse in German. You will find the original quote in Alan Dundes book ( Princeton UP ) Life is like a Chicken Coop Ladder .
That is why Kingsley Amis has Lucky Jim say " Filthy Mozart". Because of Yin and Yang all music must have a sordid counterpart in the composer's own world.

Posted by: seamus at December 5, 2008 08:05 PM

I very much hope Mozart did not receive dictation from G-d. As Alan Dundes shows in his book Life is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder, Princeton UP, when composing Mozart would sing to himself in German "Lick me in the arse". It sounds even worse in German. A feeble remnant of this remains in the film Amadeus . Kingsley Amis knew this which is why he has Lucky Jim exclaim "Filthy Mozart"

All sublime music must have a sordid counterpart in the composer's real life because of the principle of Yin and Yang. As a medical man Dr Dalrymple should have known this.

Posted by: seamus at December 5, 2008 08:13 PM

Orwell huh. Dalrymple really dropped the ball on this one.

Posted by: Sima Qian at December 6, 2008 05:59 AM

"Of course, it is an elementary error of logic to suppose that, because profound natures ventilate agonised frenzy, those who ventilate agonised frenzy have profound natures - but, elementary as the error might be, it is so frequently made as to be almost ineradicable from the minds of many. " You put it just exactly the way I would. Stop it.

Posted by: Neil Ferguson at December 8, 2008 01:20 AM

Not really sure why one should take this essay remotely seriously, if the author can't be arsed to actually investigate the art of Richey than why should his conclusions be of any interest? Yes Richey's life was tragic and even ridiculous, he also created some powerful art. Possibly the most challenging transgressive lyrics in popular music (and the fact that he was able to place his heresies into Top of the Pops still boggles the mind) though obviously one can debate whether or not that is a trivial achievement...but to merely quote a quote from Orwell and ignore his lyrics altogether is just a travesty, sir.

Posted by: Cioran Sellars at December 9, 2008 03:20 AM

Why should anyone care anyway? He was just a punk. He belongs in a condemned category so it does not matter what his qualities as an individual were or what kind of lyrics he wrote.Who cares about his lyrics ?.
The whole point about Winston Smith is that he was a loser. Big Brother won. Ho Ho....and so does Teddy D.

Posted by: John at December 9, 2008 08:20 PM
"Or perhaps just a sign that you might be better off not trying to pound everything into a pre-formed mould of distaste for modernity."

Leaving aside the tautology (is not a mould by definition pre-formed?), this dull world would be much the duller were Dr. Daniels to cease expressing his distaste for modernity. It'll be a black day when he sings the praises of postmodern irony and packaged rebellion.

"I'm sure you'll make a fine writer for the Daily Mail or tabloid press."
And I'm sure that The Mail would appreciate your compliment. Moreover, I'm sure Dr. Daniels would happily endorse your view that Faster is
"possibly the gretest song on the Manics 1994 album 'The Holy Bible'."
...but is that not damning with faint praise?

...And how come this place is suddenly crawling with wannabe music journos and teenagers? Can't we fogeys have any peace? Go on, clear off back where you belong.

Posted by: P. Hayman at December 10, 2008 06:17 PM

Ah, the wounded pride of the pompous "music" fan. The Manic are, apparently, "challenging", "complex", "powerful", "transgressive", "intelligent" etc. Goes to show what name-dropping a few writers can do for you. Note that none of the outraged contributors can be bothered illustrating why the Manic Street Preachers were so allegedly profound, but simply hurl abuse at Dr D.

When I was 15 I thought "The Holy Bible" was profound, chilling, disturbing, intelligent, challenging etc. Now however it is quite hilarious. Take "Revol" - list the 20th Century leaders of Russia and tie each name to some cod profound concept! "Archives of Pain" - list various serial killers and fascists and daringly call for their execution! And so on...

Posted by: random punter at December 10, 2008 11:11 PM

Ah indeed, "Faster." It mentions Miller, Mailer, Plath and Pinter. So QED the Manics were profound prophets of the modern age.

Posted by: random punter at December 11, 2008 05:11 PM

"They're clearly way too intelligent and complex for the likes of you."

What an infantile, asinine statement. Dalrymple was conversant with the entire history of Western philosophy by age 14. He's a doctor, a psychiatrist, a philosopher, and an anthropologist who has traveled extensively throughout every continent but Antarctica, becoming intimately familiar with the culture, history and art of the nations he has visited. (Read this: Many have called him the greatest English-language essayist since Orwell. You have to be extremely obtuse to think that some uneducated punk musician stuck in permanent adolesence is more intelligent than him.

Posted by: CT at February 12, 2009 06:47 PM

The author has clearly done very little research into the life and work of Richey. Gleaning his information almost entirely from two rushed and, in my opinion, badly formed obituaries. He accuses Richey of demanding achievement without 'concomitant effort.' How can someone with a high honours degree in Political History (a subject that requires a mountainous depth of research and detail) be accused of that? Furthermore, Richey did not take drugs, indeed it was part of the Manics' early 'manifesto' that drugs were a 'no no'.
The author's research into 'punk ethic' is also risible, failing to grasp the point or purpose of music as a form of protest against what is a contradictory, hypocritical and bland status quo that he appears to laud. He also takes the '4 Real' incident in isolation, when in truth it must be viewed against a wider backdrop of self-harm. Self-harm will always be a taboo subject but the author fails to even consider the logic behind it as a potential form of anger management.
He is right in one thing, Richey's musical talent was not of any real significance, his value and ability was with words. As a lyricist he touched thousands of young people (including myself) and his words have helped me through some of the most difficult periods in my life, allowing me cope with the realisation that the world, as a corrupt and mediocre entitiy, will never change.
The author readily admitted his ignorance of what he terms 'pop' culture. Abhoring mainstream culture myself I can empathise there but I would reject grouping Edwards in that particularly banal bracket. From these admissions I draw the conclusion that the author is somewhat inherently polarised against those involved in youth culture, rock music etc and the article is tainted througout by his pre-conceived (and erroneous) notions of Richey as little more than a talentless waster. Had he bothered to read any of his lyrics or listen to any of his interviews it's possible that he may have revised his opinion, however, unlikely. In the words of Richey himself "prejudice burns brighter when it's all we have to burn."
In entirety, a poorly researched, biased and essentially worthless attempt at a critique.

P.S Richey played rythmn guitar, not 'electric bass'!

Posted by: James at April 10, 2009 08:58 PM

Oh and I've just noticed another thing, the line "I hate purity, hate goodness, I don't want virtue to exist anywhere, I want everyone corrupt" is from Orwell's 1984... Again highlighting poor research (and even poorer literary knowledge!

Posted by: James at April 10, 2009 09:00 PM

I've just come across this article, and have only one thing to say - Richie Edwards, like the similar Kurt Cobain, had absolutely nothing to do with punk. The Punk ethic, which this article's author has clearly done next to no research about, was involved with the individual using whatever creative means that are at his or her disposal to in order to make a creative contribution to society. Instead of grubbing around in obituaries of Edwards, Dalrymple might better read those of Joe Strummer, the inspirational lead singer of The Clash.

I am sure that Dalrymple knows a lot about what he knows about, but the Punk ethic is something which he knows very little about at all.

Posted by: James Martin Charlton at September 20, 2009 10:48 AM

I can only repeat that on this subject the author did very poor research. Moreover it exposes, at least in writing this article, a severe intellectual laziness. If this is exemplary of the way he handles any subject in contemporary culture, he does not deserve the credibility he gets.

Posted by: Dries Van Cann at September 24, 2009 09:28 AM

Richey was an anti-punk. He was anti everything. He was all about uncertainty and was more in with the likes of Schopenhauer and Leo Tolstoy ( 'A Confession' period) and did NOT buy into the punk game at all. The 4 REAL thing was done if anything to highlight this and play the media for the easy minded folk they are. You fell for it. A pity.

Posted by: SJ at March 22, 2012 10:21 PM
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