GERARD WAY trained all his life to be a rock star. Like Iggy Pop, the 29-year-old New Jersey native grew up weird in working-class America, a bundle of energy, stigmatized by the bullies in his neighborhood. Like Jim Morrison, he found death fascinating, and he cultivated his morbid streak in the manner of metal gods from Ozzy to Danzig, gobbling up graphic novels and horror flicks. Like John Lennon, he liked to draw and went to art school. He also explored acting, developing a style both chameleon and camp -- David Bowie, check.
After all this prep work, Way finally formed a band. He followed Ray Davies’ lead and signed up his little brother first. Mikey Way was a bass player, though, and Gerard needed a lead guitarist. He found one whose belief in rock’s emotional punch tempered his own calculation: frizzy-haired metal-head Ray Toro. That was his Mick Jagger move. As a final touch, Way recruited punk kid Frank Iero as rhythm guitarist, because as W. Axl Rose will tell you, rock after 1977 has to be a little hard-core.
And so My Chemical Romance became the most perfectly self-conceptualized band of a highly self-conscious generation. Two albums of screamy pop-punk made them stars of the amorphous “emo” scene, but with “The Black Parade,” Way and his mates render such labels pointless. This song cycle about dreaming of death, based around the story of one young cancer patient’s demise, creates a new role for rock in the age of virtual reality.
“The Black Parade” blends heavy, raw metal-punk with highly theatrical pop, a move that in itself isn’t that fresh. Forget Queen and Bowie, the inevitable reference points, or even rock-opera masters Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, who got pretty intense on “Jesus Christ Superstar”; the Kinks and the Who were doing this stuff back in 1966.
As for more recent touch points, Green Day is the obvious one; that band’s longtime producer, Rob Cavallo, helmed “The Black Parade,” and he leads My Chemical Romance into the quick stylistic turns that won the Bay Area band a Grammy for “American Idiot.” Way can also do a dead-on vocal imitation of Billie Joe Armstrong -- his accuracy almost disarms the album’s title track, lifting the listener out of the hallucinatory narrative to wonder how this upstart had the guts to copy the pop-punk master.
Way’s lyrics aren’t wildly original, either. His metaphors, like his brassy vocals, are always inked in bold colors; he hasn’t yet found the inner tenderness to counter his fury. For all his screaming, self-control matters a lot to Way; he’s a former nerd, remember, and guys like that fear self-exposure. He hasn’t yet come up with anything as memorable as Axl Rose’s stumbling love song “Sweet Child O’ Mine” or Kurt Cobain’s mumbly anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” generational touch points that gained depth because they courted inarticulateness. The most disturbing words on “The Black Parade” come in the echoing “Sleep,” when a partially buried, tape-recorded voice (it’s unclear if it’s Way’s) haltingly describes the physical feeling of death; the simple cry, “I can’t wake up!” bears more weight than all of Way’s images of vampires and runny blood.
These problems would undermine a more conventional album. But what makes “The Black Parade” so exciting isn’t anything rock is quite used to. Each previous generation used music to search for some kind of truth: The 1960s counterculture exploded with sensual liberation and hippie jams; 1970s punk bristled with disgust at capitalism’s excesses; 1990s grunge remade classic rock in a rebellion against conventional masculinity. My Chemical Romance expresses the next generation’s quest by redrawing the boundaries of reality itself.
Like Way training to be a rock star, the audience that’s embraced My Chemical Romance lives in roles as much as in “real” life: playing video games for hours on end; building online relationships, homes and cities; creating powerful identities that have little to do with the physical limits of their daily lives. The advent of this virtual world is changing the psyches of the young. Way is of that world. Steeped in the mythologies of comic books, B movies, and heavy metal, yet attuned to punk’s immediacy, he’s become adept at writing songs that unite the concrete and the chimerical, and he’s built a band that can evoke this strange new space.
This is different from what rock usually does. The most theatrical of traditional rockers still sought to uncover what Richard Hell once called, in a song, “really really real”: the pulse of sexuality, the rage for liberation, the lure of death. But in Way’s songs, the authentic and the imagined are inseparable; they create each other, even in death.
This insistence that what’s imagined is also profoundly real plays out musically in the band’s fusion of the theatrical and the raw. Even David Bowie wasn’t so convinced that the pompous and the primal should never be separated. To ears trained on classic rock, this mishmash can be alienating. Something seems to be missing: that moment when performers’ humanity breaks through. There’s little sex or unbridled joy in songs such as “Disenchanted” or “How I Disappear”; Way sometimes seems to think his body is his enemy. “A drink for the horror that I’m in,” sings this recovered alcoholic. “There is no way that I’m coming back again.”
By the end of that song, “Famous Last Words,” Way has declared his commitment to life but isn’t sure if the lover who lies next to him is “awake and unafraid, alive or dead”; he’s entered a netherworld in which imagination is the only reality.
This is horror movie stuff, but it’s also something the young fans of My Chemical Romance can relate to. Some might say it’s even a vision of the future. It’s definitely part of the future of rock.
My Chemical Romance
The Black Parade
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