On the trail of Manic Street Preacher Richey Edwards, seven years missing.

The leader of a rock band has disappeared. Suicide is suspected — his abandoned car eventually turns up near a bridge popular with hopeless jumpers — but a body is never found. His family and fans refuse to accept that he’s dead. A legend builds.

It may sound like Eddie and the Cruisers, but it’s the real saga of Manic Street Preachers guitarist Richey Edwards — a story that entered a new chapter last month in Britain. Missing for seven years as of Feb. 1, Edwards can now be declared legally dead under British law — should his family opt to do so. And the legal benchmark has deepened the Manic mystery.

A politically outspoken glam-punk, Edwards, then age 27, was last seen at his London hotel on the eve of an American promo tour. Two weeks later, his silver Vauxhall Cavalier was found at a service station near the Severn Bridge outside Bristol. In his hotel room, authorities found neat bundles of books, photos, and videos — and a note that read simply, ”I love you.” It was also discovered that, in the weeks before he disappeared, he’d withdrawn a total of about $3,000 from the bank. His sister has said that Edwards had been ”obsessed with the perfect disappearance.”

”I reckon he’s alive,” says John Taylor, who has run a Manics website for three years. ”There’s no actual evidence of him killing himself, and the fact that he took [out the cash] could easily help him leave the country and start a new life.” Edwards was also purportedly a fan of J.D. Salinger, the notoriously reclusive writer.

Over the years, the Edwards faithful have been buoyed by rumored Richey sightings — there have been enough to make Elvis jealous. Fans claim they’ve spotted him in India, Mexico, Iceland, and the Canary Islands.

Sadly, there’s also ample grist for those who believe Edwards killed himself. He had a history of anorexia and alcohol abuse, plus a tendency toward self-mutilation. During an interview in 1991, he took a knife and carved the phrase ”4 Real” into his arm — to dispel the notion that the Manics were a Clash knockoff. A few months before he went missing, he slashed himself in the stomach, requiring 36 stitches.

But those closest to the rocker refuse to consider the worst. ”We will never declare him dead,” Edwards’ father, Graham, told a U.K. paper recently. ”As far as we are concerned he is still alive and we have always felt the same.” (British police say the case is still open.)

Meanwhile, the mystery grows, as does the Manics’ profile. With Edwards, the group was a critically lauded cult band struggling to make the charts. But without him, they’ve blossomed. Their first post-Edwards album, Everything Must Go, won them two 1997 BRIT awards (the U.K.’s answer to the Grammy), a feat they repeated in 1999 with This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours.

For his part, Edwards hasn’t been cut out of the profits. Bandmates James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire, and Sean Moore reportedly have set aside more than $2 million for him. And, who knows, he may yet appear to collect. Simon Price, author of Everything (A Book About Manic Street Preachers), certainly thinks so. ”He was a very intelligent guy,” says Price. ”If he wanted to disappear, he could have done it.”