“The hardest part is letting go of your dreams.”
My Chemical Romance,
Dreaming The Black Parade
“Making a record is a lot like surgery without anesthetic,” wrote singer Gerard Way in the liner notes for The Black Parade. “You first need to cut yourself up the middle. Then you have to rip out every single organ, every single part and lay them on a table. You then need to examine the parts, and the reality of the situation hits you. You find yourself saying things like ‘I didn’t know that part was so ugly.’ Or ‘I better get a professional opinion about that.’
“You go to bed hollow and then hack into the operating room the next day facing every fear, every disgusting thing you hate about yourself. Then you pop it all back in, sew yourself shut and perform…You perform like your life depended on it — and in those perfect moments you find beauty you never knew existed. You find yourself and your friends all over again, you find something to fight for, something to love. Something to show the world.”
When My Chemical Romance sat down to work on their third album, The Black Parade, they found themselves in a turning point which every artist longs for — it’s when you are finally able to dig deep into who you are and what your work is about. It’s when you appreciate your influences, rather than being just like them. It’s when you find your own voice and grow comfortable and confident with it.
For Gerard Way, it was at this turning point that he envisioned his band would end. Way, who is also an Eisner Award-winning comic book writer in his own right, is known for roughly planning his musical pathway, not unlike how some fiction writers lay out their stories.
He never imagined the band existing beyond The Black Parade, as this was the finest note that he had planned to end their saga with. “To go beyond that,” he said, “felt like betraying some sort of artistic command that I had within myself.”
With that in mind, My Chemical Romance gave nothing but the best out of themselves in making this album, as it was to be their last.
“Every record you make brings you closer to the end of your band,” said Gerard. “That’s why it’s so painful — but that’s also why it’s so special. You have your whole life to write the first album, then, when you’ve discovered who you are, you extend and hone those ideas for your second. But to make the third you need to find yourselves all over again. You need to reinvent yourselves. You need to find what you fear the most — then you need to become it. So what are we afraid of?”
The answer, was death.
It is deeply ingrained in our human nature to fear death. We fear what happens after death, and we fear the pangs of regret, as we might be called to leave this world before we have even started truly living. Without the sobering thoughts of death, life would ultimately have no meaning, no purpose, no sense of urgency.
The band stayed at the infamously haunted Paramour Mansion for the duration of their writing and recording process, seeking inspiration in the mansion’s dark and unsettling atmosphere.
During their stay, Gerard would have immense trouble sleeping. He experienced night terrors and waking dreams, in which he saw his loved ones dying, and for some odd reason, Joan of Arc being burned alive. He kept a notebook where he scribbled down the muddled details of his nightmares. And in one of those entries, he wrote, “We are all just a black parade.”
That one line conjured plenty of imagery for Gerard to work with. He imagined that death could come to a person in the form of their strongest memory. He imagined a character, The Patient, who is a young man dying from cancer.
He began asking himself, what if The Patient’s strongest memory is from his childhood? What if, when he was little, his father took him to see a marching band in a parade? What if, that memory is the form in which death would come to him? What exactly is the Black Parade?
“We are all just a Black Parade” — and of course, a parade needs uniforms. So Gerard started sketching how he wanted his characters to look like.
These ideas would eventually culminate into a rock opera, which follows The Patient in his journey through his late-stage cancer treatment, and his flurry of emotions as transitions into the afterlife. Throughout the album, the songs explore his fears of dying, his past mistakes, and his memories of his loved ones.
With a compelling story at its crux, The Black Parade is a masterful display of character-driven narrative in music. The lyrics and the instrumentals lucidly depict the character’s journey, making the album one of the most defining works of the 2000s, and undoubtedly, one to stand the test of time.
For me, the album, as well as the listening experience has been nothing but meaningful and inspiring in my personal life as well as my work.
Let’s talk about the story that the album is trying to tell us.
The Story in the Songs
We first hear the beeping of a hospital heart rate monitor in The End., as we learn that The Patient is dying. “Now come one, come all to this tragic affair,” Gerard invites us to this scene. “Wipe off that makeup, what’s in is despair.”
The Patient is in a state of denial, as he regrets that he is too young to die. He pleads for someone to save him.
The song then transitions into Dead!, in which the doctor informs The Patient that he only has two weeks left to live. Dead! sets us off in understanding who The Patient was prior to his cancer treatment. We learn that he might not have been a well-liked person, as no one seems to care much that he is dying. The Patient feels hopeless, insisting that life has no meaning.
In This is How I Disappear, The Patient thinks back on the mistakes he had done in the past, especially those involving his loved ones. The Patient reaches out to his loved ones, claiming that he would disappear if no one were to remember him after he dies.
(On a side note, it’s interesting that this song is inspired by the séances that Harry Houdini’s wife held after he died, in an attempt to contact him. As Gerard remarked, “He was this amazing escape artist, but he couldn’t escape death.”)
This sentiment is further explored in The Sharpest Lives. At this point, The Patient is already at the very verge of dying. The people who are significant to him aren’t by his bedside. He feels that this is perhaps the consequence of the reckless and self-destructive life that he had led.
The Patient finally dies in Welcome to the Black Parade, as he relives his sweetest memory — seeing a parade with his father when he was little. The song is the centerpiece of the album, as it bears the theme of undying optimism in facing dark times. In the song, The Patient is assured that he would never be forgotten after his death, despite how he has felt about himself.
I Don’t Love You further fleshes out The Patient as a character, as we are taken back to a memory of his with his lover. The Patient wanted his lover to fall out of love with him, so that she wouldn’t be hurt as much when he dies.
House of Wolves depicts The Patient’s realization that he might be in Hell. He comes to terms with the mistakes he made in his life, and the company of “wolves”, or the people who wasted their lives in sin, that he now has to keep.
In Cancer, The Patient continues to look back on how his illness affected his life and death. He dreaded the slow, agonizing passing that he had to endure, and having to say goodbye to everyone he cared about.
Mama introduces a character named Mother War, who is possibly The Patient’s mother, or a symbolic representation of humankind’s capacity for war and evil. It is likely though, that Mama explores The Patient’s traumas of fighting in a war, and how joining the army strained his relationship with his mother.
Sleep, which is inspired by Gerard’s night terrors, brings in the twin characters, Fear and Regret. The twins pressure The Patient into owning up to how badly he mistreated the people in his life, to “the monsters that (he’s) been”. He does his utmost to ignore these regrets, but they only keep burgeoning in him.
In Teenagers, The Patient looks back at his adolescence, and thinks about the prejudice that adults often have against teenagers, in that they are aggressive and violent.
The Patient ruminates on the ups and downs of life in Disenchanted. He acknowledges that while life is difficult and fraught with pain, it can also be beautiful and worth living. While death is the ultimate destination, one couldn’t be too fixated on it either, or they would miss out on the great things that life has to offer.
The album ends with Famous Last Words (if we exclude the hidden track Blood), in which The Patient perseveres to keep on living. He fights for a second chance at life — he has people to love, and dreams to live. But ultimately, the song leaves to us to decide whether he does get that second chance and that his journey through the afterlife was merely a visit — or that he does actually die, and that this scene takes place just prior to his reliving of his childhood memory.
The Creative Process Behind The Black Parade
I’ve gone through periods where I would listen to nearly nothing but The Black Parade. With every listen, I would appreciate not only how good all of the songs are, individually and collectively — but also the moments of realization of how the songs were made and where they came from.
The more I listened to The End., I gradually realized that it bore striking resemblance to Pink Floyd’s The Thin Ice and In The Flesh, as well as David Bowie’s Five Years — all of which were also album openers.
After doing some research, Gerard Way actually confirmed these realizations I had. As he said about The Thin Ice and In The Flesh, “We wanted it to feel very much like that kind of beginning, like that you were about to get taken on a journey. And it tells a story right away.” In the same interview, he made a similar remark about Five Years, which is his favorite David Bowie song.
And of course, the influence of Queen’s A Night at the Opera album is undeniable on The Black Parade, especially in Welcome to the Black Parade — from the guitar work, to the structure of the song itself.
Other than that, you can trace the band’s influences from a visual standpoint. You would likely notice that the designs for The Black Parade are quite similar to those in the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album by The Beatles.
For one thing, the military jackets worn by My Chemical Romance are jet-black versions of those worn by The Beatles. And just as the Sgt. Pepper’s Band is an alter-ego of The Beatles, so is The Black Parade for My Chemical Romance — during their tour, the latter would perform the entire album as The Black Parade, before moving on to the second half of their set as My Chemical Romance.
I also find it inspiring that Welcome to the Black Parade is actually a reworked version of a punk-rock song they had written even before their first album was released, titled The Five of Us Are Dying (you can stream the demo for this song on Spotify).
For a long time, the band was reluctant to use the song on their albums, as they felt that it wasn’t good enough yet.
As Gerard said, “I had felt that we needed that one song on the record, that touchstone that kind of introduces your concept, and then the lyrics and the themes of that song kind of embody the themes of the whole record. We just kind of had this punk song that was really cool and we liked it, but nothing about the song was speaking to me.
“It didn’t feel like it was going to be on the album because all the other songs had really strong themes and titles and things like that. But we didn’t want to just give up on the song. Then I started to bring the concept into the musical side of things where I was like, ‘I want to call this Black Parade. I want there to be a parade on the record.’ Then we started to kind of breaking the song and then reconstructing it.”
This made me realize that it’s alright to be slowly working on something. Just because you have an idea now, it doesn’t mean that you have to put it out right away. If it isn’t ready, you can always shelf it for a later time, when you might be better able to work on it again.
The Legacy of The Black Parade
The band’s bassist, who is also Gerard’s brother, Mikey, once told an interviewer about the influence that one of their favorite bands The Smashing Pumpkins had on them as high-schoolers. After seeing The Smashing Pumpkins in concert, the brothers thought, “This is the band we want to be. We want to save people’s lives.”
Especially since the release of The Black Parade, MCR has been doing just that.
The Black Parade has made its listeners feel less alone in braving through life’s hardships, in carrying on in spite of how bleak things may seem, in making the most out of their time while they are still alive.
Gerard has said that “the triumph of the human spirit over darkness was something that was kind of built into the DNA of the band from the beginning.”
“There’s darkness in the world,” as he further said. “And I think overcoming that darkness, externally and internally, is a beautiful thing. It’s a challenging thing, but it is beautiful if you can do that, if you can kind of triumph over that. So that’s a theme that’s definitely in ‘Black Parade’, the song, and it’s in my work.”
Sadly though — and as much as we dread it — The Black Parade had to die.
Because that’s just part of being an artist. No matter how good your work has been, you can never rest on your laurels. As Bob Dylan advised in the No Direction Home documentary, you must “constantly be in the state of becoming.” You must never stop reinventing yourself, or you’d die creatively.
“I think at first we were a little scared of being the Black Parade,” said Gerard. “It was one of those things where we had this really great idea we were really trying to implement, but we weren’t ready, I guess, and we were afraid to dive into being the Black Parade all the time.”
My Chemical Romance gave their final performance as The Black Parade in Mexico City on 7th October 2007, before they officially hung their jackets.
The Black Parade may be dead, but the songs are still being played. And we will always carry them on.