I’ve seen, by my rough estimate, over 1,000 shows in my life. I was a music journalist in a previous life, and would go to a lot of shows each month, some for work, some for pleasure. In that time, I’ve always said that My Chemical Romance was “my favorite band that I had never seen in concert.” For a variety of increasingly dumb reasons, I never caught the band live in my teenage years; my best friend who did not like them in the slightest has seen them more times than I had, and I considered myself a ride-or-die fan of the weirdos from Newark.
That finally, finally, changed on Sunday night. It should have changed two years ago; My Chemical Romance announced a reunion tour in 2019, after almost six years away from being a real band, having called it quits in 2013. There was a show planned in Brooklyn for September of 2020. I didn’t get tickets because ticket-selling websites are a scam and impossible to crack for average fans, but I had put away a good chunk of change to buy resold tickets as the date got closer.
And then the pandemic happened. The show was, understandably, postponed a year to 2021. When that date got closer, the show was postponed again. The new date was September 11, 2022. For hardcore fans of the band, this felt like an omen. It did to me, anyway. My Chemical Romance only exists because of 9/11; lead singer Gerard Way felt the urge to leave his former life and start the band due to the terrorist attacks. To see the band perform, for my first time ever, on 9/11 in New York City … that was a chance I could not miss.
If it feels morbid to harp on this, that’s understandable, and the band didn’t really make a huge deal of the connection. The only real nod to its own history was that it played “Skylines and Turnstiles” second on the set; the song was the first one ever written for the band, penned by Way as a response to 9/11. They also had a set background of two buildings, decaying but still standing. Other than that, though, the nostalgia on display for me and thousands of my temporary best friends was more about the 21 years in between that day and Sunday.
In that time, both My Chemical Romance and its fans have grown up. I was 14 years old the first time I heard My Chemical Romance. To really age myself here, I will say that I was browsing the music section of my local Borders bookstore when I came across a cool-looking album cover by a band with a ridiculous name. That album, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, had an even more ridiculous name, but I used my Visa Buxx card—god, the early 2000s were embarrassing—and my allowance to buy it anyway. At the time, my music taste was essentially whatever my older brother listened to and whatever was on MTV; that meant a lot of DMX and Limp Bizkit from the former, and Linkin Park and Hoobastank from the latter.
Bullets, as My Chemical Romance’s debut album has been called by fans who are either too lazy or too mortified to say the name in full, was completely different to anything I listened to before. It was dark as hell, but not angry. It was cathartic, and it was dorky. There are songs about vampires and a song inspired by the original Dawn of the Dead. There is also a thrashing song about lead singer Gerard Way’s alcoholism (it’s called “Honey, This Mirror Isn’t Big Enough For The Two Of Us,” but don’t hold that against it).
To say Bullets changed my music taste singlehandedly would be a bit of a reach, but it did begin to open me up to music that was previously out of the way. That wouldn’t stay the case for long; most people’s introduction to My Chemical Romance would come the next year, with the release of the catchiest song about being miserable, “I’m Not Okay (I Promise).” Suddenly, the band was everywhere.
With that song, and the album that followed, My Chemical Romance established itself as the dramatic overlords of the burgeoning mainstream era of emo music. You know the one: lots of aggrieved dudes singing extremely spiteful songs about the women who wronged them. Looking back on it, as I often do due to its formative nature for me, there’s a lot to cringe about here.
My Chemical Romance, though, was never one of those bands. The original core members—Way, his brother Mikey, guitarists Ray Toro and Frank Iero, and drummer Bob Bryar—were focused on something different. There were songs about mortality, and immortality, songs about drug abuse, songs about depression on Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge. The band’s biggest hit of that time, “Helena,” was a tribute to the Ways’ grandmother, and its video became a mission statement: a funeral in which the corpse rises from the casket to dance.
The band also had ambition. The follow-up to Three Cheers could have been more of the same, and fans would have gobbled it up, but instead My Chemical Romance threw a massive curveball at everyone, turning into The Black Parade, a marching band of skeleton costumes and Queen-sized anthems. If you know a My Chemical Romance song, and only one, it’s probably “Welcome to the Black Parade,” which is the emo scene’s best attempt at recreating “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
All of these sides of My Chemical Romance were on display on Sunday. The band played more songs off of Bullets than I expected—four, when I was merely expecting “Vampires Will Never Hurt You,” possibly the band’s best song—and they played some of the deeper cuts off of its breakthrough album; “It’s Not A Fashion Statement, It’s A Fucking Deathwish” is the album’s closer, but it fit perfectly slotted into the middle of the set. They played all of the hits, of course, and hearing a room in 2022 blaring out the life-affirming chorus of “Famous Last Words” is an experience I will cherish for a long time: “I am not afraid to keep on living, I am not afraid to walk this world alone.”
Over 20 songs, Way and the rest did something that is increasingly hard to find for me: They gave me an experience that burned brighter as a 33-year-old than it would have as a teenager. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that I never really stopped listening to them, or just simple anticipation, but the show was better than anything I could have expected. In its absence, the band has grown away from its more chaotic origins into a band of dads, professional in their musicianship and charmingly young-at-heart. Though I didn’t get to experience it myself, on this tour, Way has donned a variety of costumes that go up against the theory that My Chemical Romance takes itself too seriously. At one show, he donned cat ears, while at another he came out in what I can only describe as Black Swan-meets-the-goth-club.
Not taking myself too seriously is a lesson I’ve had to learn, slowly, over the years. Sometimes, that manifests in willingly playing into the villain role on Defector Thursday Night Trivia. Other times, it means dancing and sweating and screaming out the lyrics to songs I’ve known for over half my life. My partner thankfully acquiesced to coming with me to the show, and though she was not a huge fan of the band heading into Sunday, there she was with me, screaming the lyrics to “Helena” in my face as I did the same back to her. It was a moment of clarity for me: Yes, we’re older, and yes, it might be a bit embarrassing to still hold a candle for a band that I loved when I was the target age for their songs almost two decades, but that’s OK. I promise!
As we filed out of the Brooklyn Nets’ spaceship arena into a rainy 11:00 hour, following the first performance of deep cut B-side “Desert Song” in 14 years, New York felt perfect to me. There were thousands of people dressed in costumes and face-paint and vibrant energy, singing their favorite songs either at the top of their lungs or under their breath. My Chemical Romance has always functioned at those two ends of the spectrum: Their songs were there in the darkest of times, but they also provide community. The band’s reward for that dichotomy is an army of weirdos and freaks and losers and all of the other names that they have been called, obsessively devoted to their brand of rock-and-roll. After 19 years, I am happy that I was finally able to be among them.