Life & Death: My Chemical Romance And 10 Years Of The Black Parade

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on shared grief, heroism, and survival

So fake your death

Or it’s your blame

And leave the lights on

When you stay

— My Chemical Romance, “Fake Your Death”

ACT I

In the fall of 2006, I was in the midst of typical early-20s purgatory. Having struck out during my initial pass at adulthood, and cloaked in a sadness that felt directionless, I moved back in with my father — back into my childhood bedroom. This is one of the more romantic failures, the one that takes you back to the place where you started and allows you to stare directly into the memories of a time when you were younger, with endless potential. Above my bed still hung my soccer jersey from my senior year of high school. In one of the nightstand drawers, there were still letters from high school friends, papers I’d written, pictures from the summer before college — the last summer of complete freedom that I would ever know. In this way, I was given a type of distance from the life I felt I couldn’t succeed in. I wasn’t a child again, but I was, certainly, re-living another life through new eyes.

A total stereotype of early-20s apathy, I spent my time working a shit job at a dollar store in the neighborhood where I grew up, mostly because I could walk there and walk home with something in my headphones. When I got to the store, I would slump over the cash register, playing a CD of often inappropriate shopping music over the store’s speakers.

In the middle of this, My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade arrived. A dark, deliciously overblown, theatrical concept album about that which carries us into an imaginary afterlife. It was a massive album, in both sound and scope. I first loved it because of how the actual sounds of it filled headphones or a room. On a day off from the dollar store, with my father away at work, I would throw the album on and turn up the surround-sound stereo, letting the chunky guitars chew at the framed and rattling photos on the wall. I insisted on falling for the music first, having never had an immense interest in concept albums, particularly ones that came out of the emo/punk scenes, so many of which were filled with sprawl for the sake of sprawl, sacrificing narrative for hard-to-track, excessively emotional lyrics. I thought even My Chemical Romance’s previous album, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, failed in its pursuit of concept while succeeding in the pursuit of music. Still, I believed in The Black Parade more than any other My Chemical Romance project before it because I believed in their willingness to be entirely certain of their mission at a time when I was without a mission, and also without certainty. They were, always, a bit outside of the scene. They played at the typical emo festivals and were covered by all the typical alternative music magazines, but they were a little surer of the emotional dark spaces they were navigating than their peers. Even at their most performative — which The Black Parade definitely is — there was something about My Chemical Romance’s vision that felt comfortable, touchable, genuine. It was easy to be confident on The Black Parade, an album that unpacks a complete certainty: that we are all going to die, and none of us know what comes next.

ACT II

I am not afraid to keep on living

I am not afraid to walk this world alone

Today, in 2016, death is a low-hovering cloud that is always present. We know the dead and how they have died. We can sometimes watch the dead be killed. We can sometimes watch the best moments of their lives be replayed after they are gone — a reminder that they were once something other than buried. In this way, we can come to know the dead more efficiently than we know some of the living who occupy the same spaces we do. Yet even with all of this, exploring the interior of death’s endless rooms is a far less virtuous endeavor than continually and somberly reacting to the endless river of graves.

The Black Parade, in concept, is about a single character, “The Patient,” who is suffering from cancer and facing down an inevitable death. More than simply honing in on the patient’s decay, My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way presents an operatic theme that revolves around the patient’s slow passing into a life after death, carried by a parade. The idea is death coming to you in the form of your first and most fond memory: a flower opening slow in your front yard, a bright and colorful sunrise, or a slow-marching parade of musicians and merry-makers walking with you to the gates in their darkest regalia.

In retrospect, The Black Parade isn’t as large of a leap for My Chemical Romance as it was billed as in 2006. It feels instead like a natural progression, the album where the band finally figured out their formula and how to cash in on it. It still has all of the musical, lyrical, and visual dramatic and aesthetic of a My Chemical Romance album; it’s just turned up to a higher level. Where the sharpest growth exists is in their idea of “concept.” They are a band of storytellers who simply needed to dial in on a single small story and pull the narrative along, instead of falling into the trap of trying to connect too many threads at once. The Black Parade doesn’t insist on resolution because it doesn’t deal in the resolute. Death, yes, is inevitable. But that which we see before it arrives, the things that happen after the lights go out, is pure imagination. The work of The Black Parade was simply to bring it to life.

And musically, visually, the life is a glorious one: the tinkling piano on “Welcome to the Black Parade” giving way to a shower of guitars ripped straight from late-’70s arena rock, Gerard Way half-growling, half-singing the same tense lyrics that dance along the lines of loneliness and desire. The video for the album’s proper final song, “Famous Last Words,” is perhaps the album’s finest moment, where the band, so committed to putting a bow on the album’s immense mission, thrash and wail in front of a wall of fire. The parade float is burning at their backs, their marching outfits are worn out and covered in dirt, and the parade itself is gone. It is only them, alone, fighting to survive. They have, on their journey, become The Patient and his fight. It is a dark video, one that speaks to sacrifice, both metaphorically and very literally: Drummer Bob Bryar sustained third-degree burns on the back of his legs while filming, Gerard Way tore muscles in his foot and leg, and lead guitarist Ray Toro fractured his fingers, which were already blistered from the heat. Watching the video is as fascinating as it is agonizing. Toward the end there’s a shot of rhythm guitarist Frank Iero on his knees. He lets his guitar slip out of his hands and breathes heavily while the fire rages at his back. His exhaustion, in that moment, feels real. It is brief, but it pushes through the screen and sinks into you. Even in the face of a spectacular album, this single video served as proof of a single band’s commitment to something daring, as well as the cost of that commitment. To push so deep into the imagination of death that it becomes you.

ACT III

Well, I think I'm gonna burn in Hell,

Everybody burn the house right down.

What I don’t know, friends, is whether or not I believe in a life after this one that I’ve rattled around in for this brief and sometimes beautiful bunch of years. I know that I have thought about dying, like many of you likely have. When I have buried people I love and wondered if we would ever again sit across from each other at a table and laugh at an old joke. The uncertainty of an afterlife has also kept some of us here: At my youngest, most reckless and uncertain, I had moments where I thought life was done with me and I thought myself done with it. And, perhaps like some of you, I have remained here because of my comfort with the darkness I know and my fear of the darkness I do not.

The afterlife is, most times, talked about as an achievement as opposed to a full-bodied existence. A place some of us “get” to enjoy, while the rest of us languish in a more terrifying place. I imagine the afterlife, and what carries you there, like Gerard Way does. I imagine my fondest memories gathering me in their palms and taking me to a place where I can join a discussion already in progress with all my pals in a room with an endless jukebox.

And this is not groundbreaking. The great thing about an afterlife is that we’ve always been able to imagine it as the best possible place for us and our needs. The Black Parade is brilliant, though, because it complicates that. It finds small slivers of hope in the darkness of death and afterlife, yes, but the darkness is still darkness. It still sits, firmly, in the center of the experience of a slow and tedious demise. It does the work that all of our terrific afterlife fantasies don’t: It reckons with the idea that a departure is most difficult because of who we leave behind. The song “Cancer” is stark, frank, and heartbreaking. The Patient is in a hospital bed, cycling through his fading appearance, wishing to have his family close so that he can bid them goodbye. This is the part of death as art that isn’t always noble: The idea that the death, before it is art, is still death. There is still a person leaving, leaving us behind. The Black Parade works because it doesn’t imagine death as romantic. The Patient goes, fighting, to the gates of whatever is on the other side. The album, for all of its wild and operatic fantasies, stays honest. When faced with all that is being left behind, even when death is inevitable, there are so many who will still fight against it.

ACT IV

To un-explain the unforgivable,

Drain all the blood and give the kids a show

Around my kitchen table this past Sunday night, in the company of some of my poet friends, we were having a stereotypical conversation, the type that people most likely imagine poets having, about what people are “owed” from our work. Who is owed our grief, and discussions of our grief, or how to carry everyone’s grief within our own. If I tell a sad story, and then you, reader, tell me a sad story, and then your friend tells me a sad story, how do I take that with me and try to make something better out of it?

As the conversation wore on, my friend Nora turned to the table and said, “Why do we think of grief as a collection of individual experiences anyway? Why don’t we just instead talk about grief as a thing that we’re all carrying and all trying to come to terms with?”

And I know, I know that may seem like what all of our missions may be, but I tell stories of the sadness of an individual death first and the complete sadness of loss second. I have, in a lot of ways, convinced myself that more people will feel whatever I am asking them to feel if there is a name or a history to go with the body. If I can unfold a row of photos and stories and name a life worthwhile to a stranger, they might connect better with what I’m saying. And that might be true in some cases, but what I’m learning more and more as I go on is that my grief isn’t special beyond the fact that it’s mine, that I know the inner workings of it more than I know yours. I imagine The Black Parade as a conversation about grief ahead of its time, dealing in the same tensions that I find myself wrestling with at a table with poets 10 years after its release. The Patient is only The Patient. We arrive at his story as it ends and get only the details we need. He is forever nameless, without major signifiers. It is telling that by the end, by the visuals for “Famous Last Words,” The Patient is projected onto the band themselves. The message of a universal grief, yours and mine, that we can acknowledge together and briefly make lighter for each other, is in that moment. That which does not kill you may certainly kill someone else. That which does not kill you may form a fresh layer of sadness on the shoulders of someone you do not know, but who still may need to press their ear to the same thing that told you everything was going to be all right when you didn’t feel like everything was going to be all right. The Black Parade doesn’t treat the recesses of grief as a members-only party, where we show up to the door with pictures of all our dead friends and watch the gates open. It assumes, instead, that we’ve all seen the interior, and offers a small fantasy where the other side is promising.

ACT V

Mama, we’re all gonna die.

Mama, we’re all gonna die.

The My Chemical Romance song that I return to the most is “Fake Your Death.” It’s not on The Black Parade; it’s a random track that showed up as the opener on their 2014 greatest hits album May Death Never Stop You. It’s a good song, sitting firmly in the Danger Days canon of My Chemical Romance history. Gone are the echoing and heavy guitars and the stadium howl of Gerard Way — it’s a simple tune, only piano and percussion, taking on a bit of a pep-rally feel. I not only like it as a song but as a companion piece to The Black Parade. It’s a good signifier of the band’s end, equal parts heroic and reflective. On it, they sound both proud and defeated. I think, often, about what that album must’ve taken out of them. Gerard Way, in recent years, has said that he imagined the band being done after they finished The Black Parade tour. In between The Black Parade and the aforementioned Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, released in 2010, an entire album was recorded and scrapped. Danger Days is a fine album — it’s a bit scattered thematically, not as focused or inspired, but it’s a good collection of songs that I have grown to enjoy as much as any other My Chemical Romance album.

The Black Parade celebrates its 10th anniversary with a boxset in two weeks. Demos, remastered songs, the works. The album still lives, but the conclusion of it remains: The Patient is gone by the end of The Black Parade. We know this, and still, I think of The Patient as I would a full, breathing character in a film. He drives the way I think about the band that was My Chemical Romance, even before they inserted him into their music. I wonder how long he was living in Gerard Way’s head before he lived through the brief and glorious burst of an album that was The Black Parade. And I wonder, always, how art can immortalize even the imaginary lives.

Even though “Fake Your Death” signaled the end of the band, I think its message for an audience is one about what you can come back from. This, relying on the other definition of death, the one that does not take you from here but makes you feel like there is something weighing on you that you can’t lift off. The song is, through that lens, about shedding old skin and stepping into a newer, lighter version of oneself. I listen to it now, on repeat, and I think of myself at 22, saddled with doubt in a room filled with my childhood memories, not knowing what to make of a life that hadn’t gone as I’d planned. And I get it. Even if Gerard and the boys don’t ever come back again, I get it all. I’m better for it. And I’m still here.