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From Castro to Kylie

Manic Street Preachers carry on as one of rock's most brilliantly subversive success stories

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Manic Street Preachers remain a study in contradictions: The Welsh hitmakers have collaborated with Kylie Minogue and been visited backstage by Fidel Castro. They've infiltrated the U.K. pop charts with No. 1 singles called "The Masses Against the Classes" and "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next." And they've just released a new album featuring lyrics from a bandmate who went missing almost 15 years ago.

We'll get to that album soon enough, but first the burning question: Who was more personable, Kylie or Fidel?

"Well, er, Kylie, to be perfectly honest with you," says Manics co-founder Sean Moore. "But, you know, Fidel was fine. We were completely shocked when he showed up."

Cuba's since-retired prime minister requested an audience with the band backstage at Havana's Karl Marx Theater, moments before the group was set to go onstage and premiere songs from its 2001 album, Know Your Enemy. According to a Guardian reporter who was present at the gig, the song "Baby Elián" — about the 6-year-old refugee who was seized at gunpoint by federal authorities in Miami and deported back to Cuba — inspired Castro to stand and applaud.

"It's not like you can refuse Fidel Castro from turning up backstage at your gig," reasons Moore. "You know, there's no security there saying, 'Sir, you've got the wrong pass.' And he did invite us to dinner. But I think Nick [Wire] and James [Dean Bradfield] got a little bit scared, so they left for home on the next plane."

Mummy, what's a Sex Pistol?

After more than a decade of crafting rock anthems as political as they are poetic, Manic Street Preachers have taken something of a U-turn on their newest album, Journal for Plague Lovers. For the first time since 1996's Everything Must Go, the lyrics are from Richey Edwards, the former rhythm guitarist who was finally pronounced dead late last year.

In a pop culture with an insatiable appetite for self-destructive celebrities, Edwards was a ready-made cult hero: He once carved a bloody "4 Real" into his arm after a journalist questioned the authenticity of his public image. And as the band's primary lyricist, his writing was often painfully confessional.

Edwards' outward-looking songs also could be pretty haunting. Everything Must Go's "Kevin Carter," for instance, is an extraordinary ode to the South African photojournalist who stirred controversy with his harrowing image of a starving child being watched over by a vulture in the Sudanese desert. The photo won Carter a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Three months later, Carter drove to the river where he'd played as a child and committed suicide. (After Edwards went missing, his car was also found by a river.)

Yet as somber as his subject matter tended to be, Edwards could also convey a punkish irreverence. The new album's "Jackie Collins Existential Question Time," for instance, weaves verses about Catholics and Situationists with a chorus that repeatedly asks, "Oh mummy, what's a Sex Pistol?" The lyrics on the new album are all culled from notebooks Edwards gave to his bandmates just before his departure.

So after all this time, has the album given the band some sense of closure?

"Completely," says Moore. "I mean, there was a lot of speculation back in the U.K. about the forgotten or lost lyrics of Richey. And, to us, it's sort of all done now — it's there in plain sight for everyone to see — and we can move on and look forward."

Although perhaps not entirely. Asked how long it took him to come to terms with the fact that his friend and bandmate wasn't coming back, Moore says he still hasn't.

"There's still always that nagging doubt in the back of your head," he explains. "I mean, even now to this day, there's nothing really to stop him returning — if he is here. That's the problem, there is actually no evidence to suggest that he committed suicide or whatever. It was a complete disappearance. Technically or legally, he's been declared dead, but still there's always that tiny little bit of hope — which will probably stay with me for the rest of my life — that one day he might turn up."

Hotheads and drama queens

Meanwhile, Richie's bandmates forge on, and not without their own eccentricities.

Moore, who serves as the Manics' drummer, trumpeter and songwriter (he and singer/guitarist Bradfield handle the music while bassist Wire is the primary lyricist), has been variously described through the years as the band's (a) "resident miseryguts," (b) "obsessive compulsive loner" and (c) "voice of sanity and reason in a band of hotheads and drama queens."

After having the list read to him, Moore pauses to consider their truthfulness.

"Well, it's pretty much exactly that," he says with a laugh. "I mean, there's only one drama queen, and that's Nick on bass. But the only drama that really happens is onstage; it's never offstage."

The Manics have certainly had enough time to work out their differences. Moore and Bradfield are cousins who grew up in a small South Wales town called Blackwood, which is still the band's home base. When Moore was 10, his mother divorced, and he was sent to live with his cousin down the road.

"We had bunk beds and basically lived in a small room no bigger than a prison cell," says Moore, whose hometown wasn't much larger. At the age of 12, Moore played trumpet during union marches protesting the Thatcher era's imminent mine closures. "It was very insular, you know, and the mines were such a big thing back then that it just felt like the whole community was being ripped apart, for the sake of politics, basically."

Moore says he and Bradfield were about 15 when they wrote their first song, "Go Buzz Baby Go." As the title suggests, it was mostly pretty silly, except for one incongruously dramatic part that ended up being repurposed for "Motorcycle Emptiness," one of the band's earliest hits.

Journal for Plague Lovers' stripped-down sound, courtesy of former Nirvana producer Steve Albini, comes across as something of a throwback to those early Manics albums,

"Richey's always loved Nirvana," says Moore of the decision to hook up with Albini. "It took us a long time to pluck up enough courage to ask him, and then we found out that he's just a normal human who's probably just as cantankerous and crotchety as we are."

Although conceived as a kind of stopgap between more polished albums, Journal for Plague Lovers quickly rose to No. 3 on the U.K. album charts. Moore attributes the group's continued relevance to the fact that he and his bandmates are "always looking for the next discovery, whether it's films or theater or poetry or literature or music itself. Whatever human expression is out there, we're always searching for something to assimilate."

"That's what keeps pushing us forward," he adds, "until the day that there's nothing left and we're all in tatters and the world is crumbling around us. And even then, that'll be something to write about."

bill@csindy.com

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