On My Chemical Romance and I
When I first gleaned over the flurry of headlines announcing the reunion of seminal five-piece emo band My Chemical Romance, I was immediately reminded of how it felt to be a fourteen-year-old again. At the time, I’d sported a questionable asymmetrical mop of a fringe that concealed a quadrant of my face like an self-induced eye patch. It accompanied a generous hand of smudged kohl eyeliner and a pair of scuffed Converses: a uniform of sorts, a proud display of my affiliation with the emo subculture of my generation. And now, when I think about my curated sartorial choices (that included a checkered studded belt, Vans slip-ons, skinny jeans and band merch tees from Camden Market), I can’t suppress a slight cringe as I mentally bridge the gap of the last decade to confront the displaced years of my youth. The relatively late breakup of MCR arrived after the end of an era for many; a time when proto-social media ‘Internet famous’ individuals ruled domains like MySpace, donning razored layers or neon-dyed backcombed hair, floppy fringes, and snakebite piercings. As the simplified sounds of radio-friendly, percussion-tight Indie pop began to permeate the rock scene once more, the popularity of lyrically-driven heartfelt tunes by Kerrang!-style post-punk and alternative-rock bands began to wane. The emo musical genre as it was known and cherished in the aughts had well and truly died a sonic death. Which was why — figuratively speaking — My Chemical Romance’s surprise reunion six years later felt like a jagged bolt of lightning delivered straight to the heart of their global fanbase.
Personally, I processed the news in the sense of a vase falling and breaking into several fragments, only in reverse-order. As the individual pieces found each other and reconnected, like MCR’s members and community of fans, so it would gather dusty remnants along the way: of snatched moments of belting along to MCR songs in friend’s living rooms, scribbling cryptic lyrics and doodles in the corners of school notes; fixing freshly backcombed hair with a cloud of hairspray in front of the mirror; nights of insomnia listening to their comforting, familiar noise through my headphones; of ghost memories of long-forgotten friendships with fans forged both online and in real life. All of these instances were lovingly collected along the way, and as this vase reassembled and became whole again, so I was left with the final image of myself as a smiling teenager from London, elated with how this death-obsessed New Jersey band of five (ironically) made me feel intensely alive. I felt seen, I felt heard, and more significantly as a fan, I felt loved.
Recalling your adolescence can often feel like watching a montage of blissful giddying highs and horrifically cringeworthy lows, cut and pasted together like a hefty scrapbook of memories. I’ve always held the notion that my own teenage years could be best compartmentalised into phases of musical obsessions, demarcated into periods of fandoms taking me through a wealth of bands and artists spanning several genres. After a childhood spent listening to the 70s and 80s-heavy Magic radio station that my mum would leave on every day, I started to venture into my own journey of discovery and used my pocket money to start a CD collection of my own. It started off innocuously, with sparkly tween pop. Fresh off the success of High School Musical, a Disney sleeper hit released when I was eleven, I was at an impressionable age where my musical taste was highly malleable and particularly receptive to Vanessa Hudgens’ debut album, V. I spent months listening to the likes of Britney, Avril Lavigne, Gwen Stefani, or any catchy bubblegum-pop artist that was generally marketed towards teenage girls and young women. It wasn’t until a friend showed me several songs by My Chemical Romance during a school trip that I first heard music that spoke to me directly, reverberating with the bones in my body. Even though I would eventually move on to more critically acclaimed bands such as The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine, Radiohead, Slowdive, Sigur Rós, and The Strokes during the latter part of my adolescence, there was something so earnest and unshakeable about my first discovery of MCR that I can still recall the burning questions left behind after that listening session. Who were they? How were their songs so playfully camp, yet carried with them the perfect balance of teen angst and broodiness? Why was I enjoying this style of music so much, considering how much of a departure it was from my regular pop, with its dark and macabre lyrics? I listened to ‘I’m Not Okay’, ‘Give ‘Em Hell Kid’, ‘Helena’, ‘The Ghost of You’, ‘Teenagers’, ‘Famous Last Words’, and ‘The Black Parade’ during that epiphanous coach ride, and later begged my friend to send me those .mp3 tracks over Bluetooth. I spent the remainder of that school trip finding out what I could about these five (at the time) band members — brothers Gerard and Mikey Way, Frank Iero, Ray Toro and Bob Bryar — spurred on by an intense curiosity to listen to more.
Gerard Way had grown up as a keen fan of graphic novels in suburban New Jersey, often turning to comic art and illustration in his basement bedroom. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 occurred while Way was in his early twenties, profoundly affecting his worldview as it did for so many around the world. He started My Chemical Romance shortly after with founding member and drummer Matt Pelissier, penning ‘Skylines and Turnstiles’ as a reaction to witnessing the collapse of the towers. Enlisting younger brother Mikey on bass, with Ray Toro on lead guitar —who had only started learning the instrument at eighteen — their final addition was Frank Iero as rhythm guitarist days before recording debut album, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love. It spawned tracks such as ‘Early Sunsets Over Monroeville’ (a wistful, lo-fi song detailing an armed couple evading a vampire attack); a racing, punk-inspired, and personal favourite, ‘Drowning Lessons’; ‘Honey, This Mirror Isn’t Big Enough for the Two of Us’ (whose music video was heavily inspired by Takashi Miike’s 1999 body-horror flick Audition); and a scratchy cover of anonymous acoustic piece, ‘Romance’, recorded with the quality of a popping vintage record player. Their debut album laid the groundwork for the emotive, raw, and grizzly signature sound of their early work — thanks in part to Way’s agonising dental abscess during recording — which evolved to a studio finish by the time they released their more polished second album, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, in 2004.
When I was thirteen, MCR’s ‘Helena’ was the inspiration behind my first Halloween costume. I had grown up in a very sheltered household, where Trick-or-Treating had been completely off-limits; my only method of transportation was via my parent’s car, shuttering me to and fro friends’ houses. However, once I entered high school and gained somewhat of a smidge of independence, I could finally plan my first spooky outfit at a friend’s party — one so spectacular, it would make up for a complete lack of childhood Halloweens. After sourcing my black corseted sweetheart dress from a retailer, embellishing it with a red satin sash and adding black tulle to its underskirting, I found inexpensive black ballet slippers and black ribbons that wove around my calves. I had breathed my own iteration of Helena into life, the beloved character at the epicentre of MCR’s Three Cheers. To my regret, no photographs of my attire exist from that special evening; this was a time when my peers and I had grown up without the excessive pressures of social media and the compulsion to document everything digitally, our mobile phones merely an afterthought in the presence of great company. However, I still have the dress and ballet slippers stashed somewhere in a dusty box; a wonderfully preserved artefact from the days of my MCR fandom. And now, if I happen to stumble upon ‘Helena’ again, I am awash with nostalgia and the fondest of memories.
The melodic track is one of My Chemical Romance’s best known anthems — written in memory of the Ways’ grandmother — and its accompanying music video depicts a gothic funeral ceremony, where the band members double in their roles as attendees, pallbearers, clerics, and musical performers. The video is set in a gloomy Roman Catholic church decorated with black candelabras and red awnings, while veiled attendees are given ribboned Order of Service pamphlets by Frank Iero and Bob Bryar, before being led inside by Ray Toro. Mikey Way sombrely traverses the aisle, swinging a Catholic thurible (an incense chamber suspended by chains), while guests pay their respects at Helena’s open casket. Gerard Way alternates between his position and duties, from a eulogising minister behind the lectern, to himself, performing with the rest of his band at the front of the altar. A vigorous flash mob of funeral attendees dance expressively alongside MCR’s impassioned playing style; all the while Helena, a beautiful, young maiden lies in her coffin in her deathly pallor. My favourite segment of the music video has always been the bridge: the music dials all the way down and Gerard Way’s voice drifts into a prayer, “Can you hear me? Are you near me? Can we pretend to leave and then / We'll meet again / When both our cars collide”. At this pause, when the congregation bow their heads in silent prayer, Helena arises with the poise and grace of a ballerina, her feet lowering to the floor in third position. For a song that doesn’t include the name of its original addressee at all, the music video is completely imbued with her essence. Helena is everywhere; at its core and in its peripheries. While the living mourn her, she lies just out of frame. But once the congregation close their eyes to mirror the dead, she is centered, becoming alive once more, pirouetting down the aisle with a yearning to reach across the spiritual realm.
I have often wondered if the souls of the deceased are indeed with us at these funeral ceremonies, somehow able to hear or even communicate with us. The music video for ‘Helena’ sparked my morbid preoccupation with death, at a time when I had just experienced the first major loss in my life the year before — that of my maternal grandfather (whom I affectionately called ‘Gung Gung’ in Hakka). Since ‘Helena’ was dedicated to a grandparent, I naturally thought about my own grandfather who had lived and died in Malaysia, and the final lingering image I had left of him; looking so frail in his glass-topped coffin. Chinese traditions call for the coffin of the deceased to be kept at home surrounded by family during the mourning period, before burial or cremation. I remembered staring down at the worn face of a well-loved, yet stoic former tin-miner — who had once cut up fresh fruit, serving them in bowls alongside hot mugs of Milo for my brother and I; who would slowly drag on his cigarettes as he gazed over the driveway gate that overlooked a sunny field; who had helped us put on Disney VCR tapes on his outdated TV console; who would trim A4-sized segments from a huge parchment roll with cast-iron scissors whenever I wanted to draw and asked for paper — then I caught my own reflection in the glass of his coffin and felt overwhelmed by sadness. All of these memories appear in my mind’s eye in a flash, flooding past as if held behind a heavy door that springs open with the smallest trigger of a song. It made me think about Gerard Way and his brother, and their way of channeling grief and pain through music. The sentiments expressed in ‘Helena’ were the same that would haunt me for years after listening; as a young teen, I felt acutely anxious over death, and struggled to accept that everyone I knew and loved would eventually pass on. However, listening to MCR pen songs about death, leaning into a subject so ordinarily avoided and stigmatized in our daily culture, gave me an invaluable source of solace and comfort.
The afterlife was a large element of My Chemical Romance’s thematic projects; their concept album The Black Parade was a pertinent example, following the reflective experience of a dying cancer patient and his subsequent journey beyond. The album felt like a force of nature: wildly flamboyant, operatic in nature, and heavily inspired by the likes of Queen and glam rock, but it also reached a new legion of ordinary listeners and fans, despite its extravagance. Through their songs addressing social alienation, I bonded further with friends at highschool, where we’d sing along theatrically to ‘I’m Not Okay’ and ‘Teenagers’ blasting from someone’s phone, as we’d take turns drawing clumsy eyeliner on each other in the bathrooms. Whenever I felt especially pensive or melancholic, I would find ‘Desert Song’ on my iPod to help drown out my thoughts — and I did this often, usually sat on the grassy slopes of my school’s picturesque grounds. I turned to My Chemical Romance for their music at all points in my life, whatever elevation of mood I was in, and each time felt like being greeted by good friends. As I came to grips with the concept of mortality — to truly comprehend the brief, transient nature of life — I continued to listen to My Chemical Romance, feeling less alone and scared each time.