Twenty-four is a little old for starting your first real band, especially when you’ve got a gig a lot of people would kill for. By the end of summer 2001, Gerard Way was fresh off a DC Comics internship, interning at an animation studio across the river from New York City and on the verge of pitching his own series to Cartoon Network. On the morning of Sept. 11, Gerard was prepping to introduce The Breakfast Monkey in a meeting later that day, while his little brother Mikey woke up from his 21st birthday. If Gerard’s meeting went well, reps from Cartoon Network were supposed to fly into the city for a bigger meeting the next week. None of that happened.
It’s become part of My Chemical Romance lore that Gerard was inspired to form a band and go fill the world with good after watching the towers fall. That’s completely true. But compelling an origin story as it is, it doesn’t mean much of anyone was paying attention to his band at first. Long before The Black Parade and long before My Chemical Romance reunion shows were freezing fans’ Ticketmaster pages like dial-up internet connections, it was just Gerard Way and a bunch of ideas.
The first hint of things to come was the blood-splattered debut album, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, which turns 20 this Saturday. Its title came from a short story Gerard had written in one of the many notebooks strewn about his bedroom in the pre-MCR days; the eldest song, “Skylines and Turnstiles,” came to life roughly one week after 9/11. By the end of the first verse on the original demo, Gerard works himself to a scream: “If the world needs something better, let’s give them one more reason NOW, NOW, NOOOW!”
It’s a compelling pitch – a bit more urgent than The Breakfast Monkey – but My Chemical Romance were stepping into one of the most competitive scenes in the entire country. By 2001, the Jersey punk and hardcore community (approximately zero bands were self-identifying as emo then) had fostered Saves The Day, Thursday, and Midtown – three of the buzziest quasi-underground bands in the country. Saves The Day’s “At Your Funeral” had been getting solid rock radio and MTV airplay until 9/11 censorship loomed. Thursday’s “Understanding In A Car Crash” slid into its place that fall and introduced MTV kids to a thing people were calling “screamo.” And though Midtown never scored a true breakthrough moment, everyone… everyone around Jersey thought they were the next big thing. These bands weren’t shy about their ambitions; Saves and Midtown in particular were dying to be stars, and hundreds of younger Jersey bands playing the same VFW halls they ruled a few years earlier were eager to be next in line. Bands arrived at venues and sized each other up, determined to be the best on that night’s bill. Message boards and blogs could get you some shows, but MySpace was still a couple years away, so the internet wasn’t making anyone an instant star. Connections you forged in the scene were everything.
My Chemical Romance’s original lineup – Gerard on vocals, Mikey on bass, the not-yet-afro’d metalhead Ray Toro on guitar, and their hurried drummer Matt “Otter” Pelissier – were far from famous figures in the scene. The Ways had played in bands before, but the sort of bands that sputtered out after a few practice sessions. Toro and Otter had played in a local band that recorded a CD in 1997. That was about it. But My Chemical Romance, like so many New Jersey dreamers before them, unlocked magic in their latitude and longitude.
The band called the urban center of Newark its home, though the Ways’ roots were a little more suburban. Gerard and Mikey grew up in a dodgy section of Belleville, New Jersey, a town located just outside the New York City metro area. It’s where Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons formed and was one of the hubs of the Industrial Revolution. The Sopranos sometimes filmed there. Along the area’s many arteries of public transportation, it’s about a 45-minute trip from New York Penn Station. One of the first times the brothers talked seriously about starting a band was watching the Smashing Pumpkins rock Madison Square Garden in 1996; a few years later, Mikey was a regular in NYC’s downtown scene, dancing to Britpop with the Meet Me In The Bathroom crowd and catching some of the first Strokes gigs. An Interpol/My Chemical Romance show could have changed the course of goth history, but alas, that never happened.
In 2001, one mentor My Chemical Romance did have was Alex Saavedra, head of the NJ indie label Eyeball Records, best known for releasing Thursday’s debut LP Waiting two years prior. A gregarious social connector among artsy types in the tri-state area, Saavedra knew Gerard since the mid ’90s, from G’s time at New York’s School Of The Visual Arts, and by association, Mikey. In the legend of early MCR, Mikey is typically cast as the shy younger brother, but the fledgling bassist was also a secret social butterfly. Mikey was a regular at the Eyeball House, a gathering point for the North Jersey scene near Belleville, in a town called Kearny. Saavedra ran his label here, and more importantly, threw colorful, overcrowded parties where one might run into an up-and-coming actor or catch a member of a scene-famous hardcore band about to break edge in line at the keg. Mikey had struck up a friendship with Thursday singer Geoff Rickly in the New Brunswick band’s early days, drinking at Eyeball parties and helping lug gear into Thursday shows. My Chemical Romance had a willing audience, enough to perhaps break through the noise of Jersey. Saavedra was an early supporter, but when Rickly first ventured to their practice space, he wrote them off as just another pop-punk band.
It took one very earnest song about vampires to change his mind. “Vampires Will Never Hurt You,” a noir ranger with Gerard’s ferocity on full display, convinced Rickly to take time from Thursday’s quickly-filling schedule and produce a proper My Chemical Romance album, which Eyeball would release. Gerard and the boys arrived at the studio ready to hunt the undead and rescue loved ones from various apocalypses. Out poured a record that sounds like it’s about to go off the rails at any moment, obsessed with weapons and revenge and macabre Catholic imagery. “Our Lady Of Sorrows” (original title: “Bring More Knives”) evolved from a rickety demo into an absolute force: pre-stardom MCR at their catchiest, but also their most unhinged and metallic. In the vocal booth, Rickly encouraged Gerard to make the music follow him; on “Sorrows,” he segues from singing to screaming with enough swagger to scare the music away.
That’s really saying something, since Toro spent the Bullets sessions living out his guitar hero fantasies. Shredders like “Sorrows” and “Honey, This Mirror Isn’t Big Enough For The Two Of Us” are certifiably filthy, but Toro’s range is often overlooked. “Early Sunsets Over Monroeville,” Bullets’ Dawn Of The Dead-inspired ballad, shows off some jangly, ’90s Midwestern emo licks. And to open Bullets, Toro digs back about a hundred years with a simple, yet brilliant callback: a minute-long run-through of “Romanza,” a Spanish guitar standard My Chemical Romance’s new fans got to know on the back of the CD as “Romance.”
One of the earliest interviews with the band (which now included rhythm guitarist Frank Iero) was a July 2002 chat at Seton Hall’s college radio station, 89.5 WSOU. They talk about how they got their band name and why they’re excited to go on tour. Standard questions from an excited host with a Bullets advance copy in hand. After a half hour of casual banter, a song called “Headfirst For Halos” comes up. “Halos” is just another jaunty MCR track if you’re half-listening, but it also contains graphic depiction of suicide. It’s unclear if the host knows what he’s wading into, but Gerard doesn’t miss a beat.
“It’s a song about being really depressed, on a lot of anti-depressants, and wanting to kill yourself,” he explains. “But instead of doing that, I just wrote a song. So that’s what you should do if you ever want to kill yourself… Counseling works, and so do anti-depressants; it’s proven that they work for some people. Just don’t hurt yourself. There’s all kinds of hotlines to call. Write a song.”
It’s now known Gerard struggled with these things since those pre-MCR days in his notebook-filled bedroom, but talking about them so early, and with such self-assuredness, feels like a revelation in the present day. This was at least a decade before mental health was spoken about with any casual regularity, especially amongst young men. Before My Chemical Romance was saving lives around the world, it had helped save Gerard’s.
About two years later, as My Chemical Romance’s major label debut Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge swelled to an MTV behemoth, Gerard was on the brink again. Unable to separate his devilish onstage persona from the rest of his life, the newly famous singer was drinking all day and tumbling into oblivion. His performances went from sloppy to disturbing. In old interviews, he describes moments like packing almost no belongings before a flight to play in Japan; he was not quite confirming a desire to end things, but not affirming an urge to live on, either. Finally, thanks to support from people like his bandmates (which now included new drummer Bob Bryar) and his own self-determination, Gerard kicked substance abuse in time to see the apex of the Three Cheers cycle. Sobriety left him a lot of new time in his daily schedule. He got to work on a concept-driven third album and a new comic he was then calling The Umbrella Brigade.
I’m not here to argue that Bullets is the best My Chemical Romance album. There’s a small segment of the fanbase that would make that claim, which to me, is kind of like calling Bleach the best Nirvana record: a totally valid take, but one that probably says more about your personal aesthetic taste than the band’s discography. I do think MCR’s debut is way more than the scrappy footnote it’s often reduced to. The Jersey scene was filled with kids who loved the Misfits and Morrissey and ironic Maiden tees; Bullets combined the best parts of all three in a way that was campy and dramatic, but also dead fucking serious. It’s how you start one of the greatest three-album runs in rock history. By having the guts to have more ambition than everyone around you.
Bullets came out the summer before my freshman year of high school. Growing up amongst the many malls and chain restaurants of New Jersey, I always thought that pop songs and rock stars came from unreachable, faraway places. Newark was the city my dad took the train to work to every morning; New Brunswick was just some city that had a hospital I was born in. My Chemical Romance taught kids to attach mythology to the everyday places they passed over like cracks in the sidewalk. To go out and create. I hear the TV thing worked out for Gerard, too.