To fully appreciate glam/goth pop-punk chart-toppers My Chemical Romance, it
helps to understand where the band's leader grew up. Belleville, N.J., is a
run-down blue-collar suburb sandwiched between Newark, which still hasn't
recovered from the riots of 1968, and Jersey City, one of the ugliest and
most corrupt burgs in America.
I know: I grew up there, too, not far from the Pulaski Skyway, which
connects Jersey City and Newark. Tony Soprano drives over this elevated
highway during the opening of every episode of HBO's mob series; it runs
past tank farms and chemical factories and spans the PJP Landfill, which for
decades had the distinction of being the only toxic site on the federal
Superfund cleanup list that was actually on fire.
When you'd drive over the Pulaski Skyway at night -- as Gerard Way and
his brother Mikey did when they were old enough to go to rock shows in
Manhattan, a mere 10 miles but an entire universe away -- you could see the
conflagrations smoldering underground. It looked like Dante's "Inferno" --
or a visual evocation of the music of My Chemical Romance. The quintet's
29-year-old vocalist wholeheartedly agrees.
"You know what's funny?" Gerard Way says, laughing. "Somebody that's from
there will have a certain understanding of the band -- a very specific
understanding that other people just won't have."
Taking a name from Irvine Welsh's Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical
Romance and drawing as much inspiration from horror-punks the Misfits
and sensitive souls the Smiths as Green Day, Way formed his band a week
after 9/11, recruiting guitarists Ray Toro and Frank Iero, drummer Matt
Pelissier -- who was replaced by Chicagoan Bob Bryar in 2004 -- and his
younger brother, who dropped out of college to play bass.
Gerard was living at home and commuting to New York to attend the School
of Visual Arts in 2001, and he saw the planes crash into the World Trade
Center. He wrote "Skylines and Turnstiles" to express his feelings, and the
song appeared on the group's first indie album, "I Brought You My Bullets,
You Brought Me Your Love" (2002).
Early on, there wasn't much to distinguish MCR from the legions of overly
sensitive emo whiners and amphetamized pop-punk wannabes. Then the musicians
began to go goth, sporting pale makeup and dark eyeliner with pseudo-fascist
red and black uniforms. Their second album, "Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge"
(2004), was slicker, more melodic and more original with its science-fiction
and horror-movie imagery, though there still wasn't enough to answer
skeptics who wondered why it sold 2 million copies.
But the group's third effort is a different story.
Released late last year, "The Black Parade" debuted at No. 2 on the
Billboard albums chart and sold more than 240,000 copies in the first week.
Complete with strings, horns, a marching band, a booming cannon and a vocal
cameo by Liza Minnelli -- "I love those guys," she told the New York Times,
"and Gerard's musical knowledge knocked my socks off!" -- the disc was
produced by Rob Cavallo, who brought a similarly sophisticated bombast to
Green Day's 2004 concept album, "American Idiot."
Musically and lyrically ambitious, "The Black Parade" is a bona fide rock
opera focusing on a protagonist named the Patient, whose life was turned
upside-down by 9/11 and who's now looking back on his fears and regrets as
he's dying of cancer in his early 30s. It works as great example of
something increasingly rare in the age of the iPod: a beginning-to-end album
that tells a story and takes the listener on a journey.
"One of the more immediate goals that we discussed with Rob Cavallo was
to create this world in your head," Way says. "There is an entire world
there, and when you are listening to the band, you are thinking about that
world and all the fictitious stuff that is happening. We have the benefit of
being in a band that is much more than a band for that reason. But we had a
lot of other goals for this album, too.
"The biggest goal was to not make a record that was self-absorbed, but to
make a record that was self-aware -- a record that knew it was a record. I'm
involved in all sorts of different things besides music -- I write comics,
too -- and one of the worst things you can do is take a medium you are
working in and try to pretend it is something that it's not. If you're doing
a comic, it's not a movie, so don't pretend it's a movie. Sure, this record
tells a story, but it doesn't try to not be a record, and that is why it
works so well.
"What were some of the other goals?" Way continues, virtually
interviewing himself. "To really create the loudest, ultimate form of
self-expression that hasn't been heard in a long time. And to resign in a
big way from modern music."
Here I manage to jump in: What the heck does that mean?
"Resigned in the sense that we have realized that there are some
categories placed on us that we were not only never a part of, but which we
never really paid attention to -- like the whole emo thing. It's funny and
ironic, because when we were coming up and first touring, we didn't have the
benefit of being booked on shows because we weren't emo enough!"
I haven't talked to a musician this self-confident, loquacious about his
grand visions and, yes, slightly full of it since the auteur of the Smashing
Pumpkins circa "Siamese Dream." Way has a lot in common with Billy Corgan in
those days: Both set out to become stars of a decidedly non-superior nature,
aspiring to rock the biggest sports arenas as well as the misbegotten
misfits listening on headphones alone in their bedrooms. And both won as
many superfans as detractors: The members of MCR have inspired reams of fan
fiction on the Net and legions of look-alike devotees, but they've also been
pelted with garbage by punks who've accused them of being pompous posers.
"You know, I read an interview years ago with Billy Corgan about when he
met Eddie Van Halen, and one of the first things he said to Eddie was, 'Do
you know how awesome it is that your band is non-elitist? You didn't have to
be cool and have the right clothes, yet thousands of different people are
listening to you,' " Way recalls. "There is something very special about
that, and I think Bruce Springsteen got that, too."
Growing up in Jersey, Way says that he "had to like Bruce, because he was
my mom's favorite," and Springsteen was the first concert he saw at age 8,
"at the height of Bruce-mania," circa "Born in the U.S.A." He aspired to
bring a touch of that disc to "The Black Parade," as well as famous rock
concept albums such as David Bowie's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust
and the Spiders from Mars," Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and Queen's "A Night at
the Opera." But one of Way's charms is that he doesn't take himself nearly
as seriously as some critics and haters think, and there is plenty of
self-deprecating laughter amid all of the pretension.
Witness the song "Teenagers," which features the indelible chorus, "They
said all teenagers scare / The living s--- out of me / They could care less
/ As long as someone'll bleed / So darken your clothes / Or strike a violent
pose / Maybe they'll leave you alone / But not me." In fact, Way isn't
even offended when I say that the rock classic he ultimately came closest to
emulating was the self-parodying "Bat Out of Hell."
"I think that's a totally OK thing to say! When I sing 'Teenagers,' I'm
doing it with a high amount of me looking at them and going, 'I was you, and
you're scary! I was scary when I was you, too!' I'm not trying to alienate
them, but it's just funny! Also, there are a lot of times where I'll be
onstage and comment on how many black T-shirts I see, making a joke. We
don't take ourselves that seriously. I think a lot of people these days
have been picking that up more, and that's been awesome."
The only problem with an album as audacious as "The Black Parade" is that
it doesn't seem to leave anywhere for the band to go next: How do you top
recording Liza and a cannon shot on the same disc?
As with everything, Way has a plan.
"Three-quarters of the way through making this record, we were sitting
there asking, 'How the f--- are we going to top this?' I think that's how we
knew it was a great record, so we just have to get to that point again. I
think of 'The Black Parade' as putting yourself in a straightjacket and
jumping into a river, and I like that.
"You know, I'm always influenced by cinema, and there are definitely
certain directors' vibes that I try to capture with the records. For 'Three
Cheers for Sweet Revenge,' I went with the John Woo or Quentin Tarantino
vibe; for 'The Black Parade,' I watched a lot of Ingmar Bergman and
'Cabaret' and Terry Gilliam. Next time, I think I'm going to look at a guy
like Gus Van Sant. That vibe says more about people -- it's surreal realism.
I don't know where we go with that, but the benefit is that we can go
wherever we want, and that's cool.
Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman couldn't have said it better.
MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE WITH RISE AGAINST
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Allstate Arena in Rosemont
Call: (312) 559-1212