Eight or nine years ago, mild-mannered comic-shop clerk Gerard Way couldn’t tell you much about rock’n’roll. Deathly pale, introverted, and adrift in the working-class suburb of Belleville, New Jersey (about ten miles west of Manhattan), he could, however, speak at length about role-playing games, horror flicks, and numbing monotony. Oh, and superheroes, of course. You see, Way has always known that the most essential element of any good superhero is a killer origin story.
Though not quite as cinematic as getting bitten by a radioactive spider, the transformation of Gerard Way, 28, into a snarling, self-proclaimed rock’n’roll savior is still remarkable. Like many life changing stories of the 21st century, it all began on September 11, 2001. On that clear-blue-sky day, Way—who had graduated from New York’s School of Visual Arts to a sunlight-free existence drawing in his mom’s basement—was coming into Manhattan, unaware of the tragedy. “Something just clicked in my head that morning,” he says. “I literally said to myself, ‘Fuck art. I’ve gotta get out of the basement. I’ve gotta see the world. I’ve gotta make a difference!’”
Inspired by the uplifting screamo anthems of fellow Garden Staters Thursday, Way had been playing guitar and trying to write songs in his room; he had dreams of starting a band named My Chemical Romance (after Irvine Welsh’s book Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance). But unlike Thursday’s Geoff Rickly—who would help sign My Chem to indie label Eyeball Records—Way had no desire to sing about his mundane circumstances or surroundings. He wanted to inspire a movement and recast his fortress of solitude as a teeming, limitless Metropolis. His songs wrapped the anthemic community spirit of emo in the personal mythology of ’70s art rock and ’90s Britpop. The world may have seen Way as a shy, failed comic artist, but in his head and in his songs, he was a vampire, a death-dealing badass, a lover, a fighter. He was a superhero. All he needed was a superteam.
He recruited guitarist Ray Toro, 27, a film student from the neighborhood who grew up perfecting Joe Satriani and Led Zeppelin riffs on nights when his mother wouldn’t let him out of the house. Then came Way’s younger brother, Mikey, 24, a waifish Anglophile rock scenester and part-time college student who worked in a bookstore and could barely play his bass. Guitarist Frank Iero, 23, a tattooed punk who had suffered through a sickly childhood, was adopted by My Chem after his own group, Pencey Prep, dissolved. And last year, drummer Bob Bryar, a former soundman for the Used, joined after the band parted ways with original member Matt Pelissier.
On paper no one would mistake these motley Jersey kids with thick accents and scattered interests for rock stars—and no one would ever confuse them with sexy X-Men-like world conquerors, either. They flailed at the beginning. For their very first show, Gerard lathered his face with greasepaint and screamed curses at the crowd, Mikey drank heavily to mask his stage fright, and Toro soloed like he was in a Metallica tribute act. But Gerard saw potential—after all, his favorite comic-book team had always been the Doom Patrol, those bickering, suicidal misfits who succeeded despite being shunned by the outside world.
“We always had a vision, but we weren’t sure if it would translate or just come off as pretentious,” says Mikey. “We were playing basements, and Gerard would be like straight-up Ziggy Stardust. Kids would be horrified.”
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