Guy Mankowski's latest book - How I left the National Grid - explores the enduring love affairs we have with our musical darlings
In an age when social media reigns supreme and our celebrities are subjected to having their nude, private photographs gleefully circulated online without their permission, it is important to be reminded that, once upon a time, some public figures were beyond the public's grasp. This separation allowed space for stories to emerge and idols to be born.
In particular, pop music would be nothing without the legends that have helped to sustain it over the years. Typically, these legends leave much to the imagination, crystallising our interest with their promise of the unknown. Fans don't want to be presented with all the answers: they want to be left to conjure their own conspiracy theories, shrouding their musical heroes in mystery and making them utterly unattainable, except possibly to themselves.
What reality talent shows fail to comprehend nowadays is that, sometimes, we don't necessarily want our heroes to be 'just like us' with their peccadilloes and unattractive personal habits on display for all to see. We want them to represent something wholly spectacular. As Kevin Barnes once crowed on Of Montreal's 'The Past is a Grotesque Animal':
"We want our film to be beautiful, not realistic. Perceive me in the radiance of terror dreams."
It is this desire that explains why, to this day, Richey Edwards continues to be such an enigma. For those unfamiliar with the tragic tale of the late Manic Street Preacher, in February 1995 Richey withdrew £2,800 from his bank account, checked himself out of the Embassy hotel in London and, after series of disputed events that included his abandoned Vauxhall Cavalier at a petrol station in Wales, he disappeared without trace. It was only weeks before the band were scheduled to depart on their American tour, which promised to catapult them even further on their upward trajectory towards super-stardom. Although Richey was officially presumed dead in November 2008, he is still sighted in various far-flung corners of the globe, including Goa, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote.
Perhaps this is the figure that Guy Mankowski had in mind when he began to pen his latest novel 'How I left the National Grid', which charts the journey of would-be biographer, Sam Forbes, as he tries to track-down his musical hero, Robert Wardner. The story oscillates between the months leading up to Wardner's ominous disappearance in 1981 and Forbes' search, decades later, to find out what happened. Wardner is the unhinged, translucent frontman of The National Grid - a post-industrial punk band from Manchester - while Forbes is a former music journalist who, in his forties, has been forced to accept a 'proper' job in a call centre.
What Mankowski captures so brilliantly is the psychology of 'fan obsession'. In essence, this seems to be a person's ability to mythologize, coupled with an almost paradoxical determination to stop at nothing to find out the truth. A true fan will put their icon on a pedestal above all others - so high that they are completely unreachable - and yet, simultaneously, that same fan wants to feel that they are the only mortal who really knows their icon. It is a self-invented intimacy and deification that many of us have been guilty of. Performers throughout history understand this power and Robert Wardner's character is no exception. In the opening chapter, set onstage at Top of Pops, he reflects - as so many other fontmen have done:
"I realized that with one gesture I could cause an explosion."
As the plot evolves, Guy Mankowski transports us back to a world of smouldering band managers, corpulent record executives and, of course, the 'girl next door' who writes a journal, reads Satre and listens to The Cure. It is a world that he clearly relishes - a bygone era in the 70's, 80's and 90's when people ran fanclubs, wrote fanzines and edited fan-forums to honour their stars and forge friendships. Even the now untouchable Morrissey is known to have founded a Cramps fanclub called 'Legion of the Crampled' in his early years. At that time, choosing to follow music was a lifestyle choice, not something that you tuned in to watch every Saturday evening on ITV.
It's fair to say that anyone who remembers Melody Maker Magazine or attended indie nights in basement clubs strewn with snakebite, will fall in love with this book immediately; however, Mankowski's narrative also functions as a stand-alone thriller - evoking a sense of mystery - and therefore, those of us who have ever marvelled at 'The Secret History' or 'A Passage to India', are sure to find it equally enthralling.
'How I left The National Grid' will be published by Roundfire in February 2015'