Chemical equation

February 25, 2007


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.


When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Allstate Arena in Rosemont
Tickets: $30
Call: (312) 559-1212