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Meet Goth-Punk Superheroes My Chemical Romance

This story was originally published in the July 28, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.

More than ten years of tradition dictates that every night of the summer-long Warped Tour end the same way: In a parking lot crammed full of tour buses, dozens of tattooed and mohawked punk bands gather to eat barbecue, swill beer and chat up the barely legal alterna-chicks who’ve somehow managed
to slip past security.

It’s Day One of Warped 2005, in Columbus, Ohio, and the party is well under way when the five members of the New Jersey Goth-punk quintet My Chemical Romance hop in a white minivan headed on a much more important mission: a trip to Wal-Mart to stock up on diet soda, cereal, horror movies and, God willing, Spider-Man pajama bottoms. As they enter the store, each guy grabs a cart and begins exploring.

“There have been tours where we hit a different Wal-Mart almost every night,” says singer Gerard Way, 28, who immediately cuts to the left with his little brother, bassist Mikey, 24, to the toy department. Both dressed all in black, the Way brothers prowl up and down the aisles, carefully scrutinizing an assortment of Star Wars action figures. Unmoved by the selection, Gerard steers his cart toward office supplies. “I need one of those plastic magazine racks,” he says, “so I can organize my Dungeons and Dragons books.”

So it goes with My Chemical Romance: Five teenage comic-book geeks trapped in the bodies of full-grown men who thrash around onstage in matching bondage jack­ets and ghoulish makeup — “singing songs that make you slit your wrists,” as one lyric goes — but go to sleep at night on tour-bus bunks made up with Teen Titans bedsheets. They prefer to think of themselves as super heroes rather than rock stars. And, like any respectable superheroes, the members of My Chemical Romance get their own action figures later this year. “I don’t think that having a My Chemical Romance action figure will make a kid start his own band,” Gerard says. “I like to think it will make him save children from a burning building.”

Released last year, My Chem’s major-label debut, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, has sold close to 800,000 copies, thanks to two hit singles, “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” and “Helena.” The cinematic videos for both songs have made the band unlikely regulars on MTV’s Total Request Live and its members — the Ways, guitarists Frank lero, 23, and Ray Toro, 28, and drummer Bob Bryar, 24 — Tiger Beat-style pinups for the Hot Topic generation. And beyond: Green Day, one of My Chem’s own idols, brought the group on tour this spring; Pink and John Mayer are fans; and Courtney Love has said that My Chem is twelve-year-old Frances Bean’s favorite band.

Their music is a cross between Queen and the Misfits, combining the four-on-­the-floor drive of old-school punk with the camp and theatricality of glam. But, ulti­mately, what has helped My Chem con­nect isn’t just the sound or the look — though plenty of their fans have taken to wearing heavy red eye shadow in emu­lation of Gerard. It’s the light behind the darkness of their songs that communicates Three Cheers’ dual messages: Sometimes the good guys wear black, and sometimes, if all the freaks and geeks rally together, they can change the world. As a result, the most common thing My Chem hears from their fans is “Your music saved my life.”

“You see us playing these songs about fic­titious gunfights, cowboys, electric chairs, about getting fucked in jail,” Gerard says, re­ferring to the jaunty punk cabaret tune “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us in Prison.” “The abstraction is there for a rea­son. It’s for people to get what they want out of it. This band is therapy for us. What we’re saying through the performance is ‘This can or cannot be therapy for you, too. Either way, we’ll still do it.’”

A couple of days before the Warped show in Columbus, Gerard shuf­fles along Third Avenue in Manhattan, sipping a vanilla soy latte. He’s re­cently chopped his chin-length jet-black hair into a short shag for My Chem’s up­coming “Ghost of You” video and has slimmed down significantly since he quit drinking and popping Xanax last year (at his heaviest, he carried nearly 200 pounds on his five-foot-eight-inch frame). Still, when he walks, he hunches his shoulders as if he’d prefer to be invisible.

He makes it unnoticed past a dozen or so teen girls in pink and blue T-shirts waiting in line for a Tyler Hilton show at a down­town club, but a few blocks later we hear some college-age dudes coming up behind us, and Gerard tenses up in anticipation. “You suck!” hollers one, followed by “Emo sucks!” and then one last “You suck!” for good measure. Way shrugs and says, “I was once that exact kid, the one who came into the city from Jersey to hang out on St. Marks Place and act like a punk.”

Except for Bryar, who hails from Chicago (and joined the band last year), the guys in My Chem grew up in the working-class New Jersey suburb of Belleville. “It’s hard to break out of routines there,” says Mikey. “If I wasn’t in this band, I’d probably be stuck doing some retail job. We lived near malls, and that’s just what you would do. A lot of people I know ended up as, like, a manager at the Gap.” Mikey and Gerard — whose parents, Donna and Donald, are a former hairdresser and an auto-dealer service manager, respectively — worked an assortment of low-wage jobs together, doing everything from shelving peas in the frozen-foods section at a local supermarket to shelving books at a Barnes & Noble. (It was while racking Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance that Mikey came up with the name for the band.)

Gerard had given up on playing music at around fifteen, after his band booted him because he either could not, or would not, learn to play “Sweet Home Alabama.” He turned to his other major passion, drawing superheroes, and ended up studying at the School of Visual Arts in New York. After he graduated in ’99, he hit the pavement with his sketches and nearly struck gold while interning at the Cartoon Network, where an exec loved his idea for a show called The Breakfast Monkey, about a flying simian with an accent like Björk’s who was blessed with the ability to make waffles, French toast or any breakfast food appear out of thin air. Way took meetings with production companies and was talking licensing deals. But that was all before September 11th, 2001, which had as profound an effect on Way as it did on anyone who was living or working in New York at the time.

“Something just clicked in my head, and that was when I said, ‘Fuck art’ for the first time,” he says. “I thought, ‘Art’s not doing anything for you. It’s just something on a wall, it’s completely disposable, and it’s not helping anyone.’ And I was like, ‘Fuck Break­fast Monkey, because all it’s gonna do is line somebody else’s pockets.’ I felt like I had given my life to art and that it had betrayed me. And then I saw Thursday perform at this club for fifty people, and it changed me.”

Gerard reconnected with his old neigh­borhood buddy Toro after they attended an Iron Maiden show together. They recorded a three-song demo with original drummer Matt Pelissier and then recruited Iero and persuaded Mikey to join their new band. They built a fan base through hyper-charged live shows where they would spit in one another’s faces or trash their instru­ments, “We just went out there and tried to destroy things,” says Gerard. “I didn’t want people to stand there and look at it like it was art. We wanted it to be explo­sive and cathartic.”

Though the band was initially the staging ground for Gerard to “deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder of 9/11, my own shortcomings, being depressed and being suicidal,” the inspiration for much of Three Cheers came from the death of his maternal grandmother, Elena Lee Rush, in 2003. “Helena,” he says, “is an angry open letter to myself for being on the road so long and missing the last year of her life.” Elena and her husband, Arthur (who passed away this spring), lived with the Ways; she taught Gerard how to sing and how to draw, and she even bought My Chem their first van.

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Last year, Gerard was convinced that Three Cheers was a concept album about “two lovers who die in the desert in a gun­fight. The guy goes to hell and meets the devil, who tells the guy he can only be reunited with his lover if he brings the devil the souls of 1,000 evil men.” A year later, Gerard is sober and has a different vision of the album. “There is a pseudo-concept,” he now says. “But really it’s about two boys living in New Jersey who lost their grandma, and how their brothers in the band helped them get through it.”

My Chem have some European dates and their first headlining tour ahead of them this fall, but they have already started writing songs for a new record that Gerard antici­pates will still be clever and dark but likely more direct. “There’s just so much I want to say about real life now,” he says. “We’re starting to see the beauty of the world and to truly understand our relationships with other human beings like our loved ones. What’s wrong with writing a song about missing somebody instead of vampire as­sassins? There’s a common saying in My Chemical Romance that ‘This is bigger than us,’ but what I’ve come to realize is that, at the same time, there’s nothing bigger than the lives of the five guys in this band.”

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