Aug 22, 2013

Elvis is Alive 5K

Apologies for the shitty picture quality, all I have to work with is my very old cell phone... but trust me, this is an image of an Elvis impersonator (between the starting line and the hanging American flag) counting off the start of a 5K race along Diversey Harbor with: "A one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and GO CAT GO!" He also sang the national anthem from that perch next to the starting line, prompted by one of the announcers saying how we should take a moment to reflect on how lucky we are to live in the greatest country in the world and be free to congregate and do this without fear (? no comment.) Those who came dressed as Elvis were relegated to run at the front of the pack, with bedazzled white jumpsuits, capes, and wigs flapping in the breeze. As the runners passed by the costumes steadily declined in sparkle and production level... jumpsuits turned into spandex, into masks, into Elvis shirts, into inflatable guitars bouncing in-hand.

So many of the runners did not come dressed as Elvis but as runners that I was dismayed at first when I arrived on the scene. The 20 minutes before the race were spent waiting around sheepishly on the fringes drinking free promotional coffee, thinking that they were going to sniff me out as an out-of-shape media addict rather than a sports lover. Thank God for the brave, freely-perspiring few who wore the jumpsuit (no one came as slim and devastating '50s-era Elvis, employing instead the look of corny casino-performing, huffing-and-puffing comeback Elvis.) I even saw someone I knew, surprisingly, not recognizing her at first because of the stick-on sideburns. After the race, the celebratory atmosphere was wonderful to bask in -- with peanut butter and banana sandwiches (not fried,though) and lots of beer.

The leader of the Elvii was Joe "Elvis" Tirrito and his backing band, The Mimix. He was tanned and chiseled, a teetering blend of suave and smarmy, and stayed in character even while holding one end of the finish line tape. A nice authenticity touch was having a woman onstage just to hand him water bottles, towels, scarves, and to drape his guitar over his shoulders. I kept waiting for them to play "Heartbreak Hotel" and they never did... but I stayed and danced anyway. It was interesting to see everyone feeling so nostalgic and warm about Elvis, the idea of him. Maybe it's a kind of brand recognition. I watched women young and old go up to the stage to touch the King's rings, get scarves put around their necks, or just smile and sway at him. I'm sure that they weren't just irresistibly drawn to this Tirrito guy sexually -- there's a cultural convention that women are supposed to act this way around an Elvis figure.

Here is Joe "Elvis" Tirrito's website: Looks like he's going to be in Illinois for a while, he's opening a Bank of America event here in mid-October.

Aug 12, 2013

My Chemical Romance: A Personal History

“This band will save your life.” – Gerard Way

From the beginning, they invited all the freaks in. Give us your hungry, your weak, your lonely, your goth-draped dweebs, your loners and misfits, your marginalized, your depressed, your suicidal, your Dungeons and Dragons dorks, your obnoxious theatre kids, your school shooters, your P.E. non-participants, your ugly, your obese, your neurotic and fucked-up… we will take them in. We will dry their tears, clothe them in black, and arm them with words.

“If you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see
You can find out firsthand what it’s like to be me
So gather ‘round, piggies, and kiss this goodbye
I’ll encourage your smiles, I’ll expect you won’t cry!"
   – “The End.”, The Black Parade, 2006

I loved My Chemical Romance (in descending order: My Chem, MCR) when they were dorks. I loved Gerard Way when he was pudgy, pale, and smeared with makeup. I was precisely their target audience: a female teenage emotional wreck who grew up inundated with musical theatre and wrote dark poetry. Although conceived in grayest New Jersey from the bedroom-stewed minds of comic book addicts, the music of My Chemical Romance galvanized me into the wild and made me feel feral. Their words hit me as I was sheltered in another reclusive bedroom worlds away, down the backroads of rural Vermont. Sitting in the corner of my room on a gritty carpet, pouring my gaze into my laptop screen, for two years of my teenage life I completely surrendered to my idolization of these kindred spirits whom I understood very little about.

The most extreme themes possible are intensely exciting to a teenager – things like death, love, longing, revenge, evil, suicide. These represent a foray into the unknown, the romantic, the occult, the fear-wracked moment you first get up the courage to swear in front of your friends. My Chemical Romance’s lyrics are composed almost solely of these motifs just as their fanbase is composed almost solely of teenagers. The world they create for their fans is full of imagery culled from horror movies, comic books, and other fantasy-loving artists such as Iron Maiden and The Misfits. I firmly believe that fantasy is essential to surviving your teenage years – especially if you’re depressed or sensitive or creative or restless or ugly or ungainly or shy. Throughout 7th and 8th grade I created my own one-woman cult around this band, purposely defining everything about myself through them and evangelizing to my classmates on their behalf. I really did adhere to my fandom with the solemnity of a religious order, even doing daily rites (usually involving writing on myself with Sharpie markers and other poor makeup choices.) I spent nearly all my free time immersed in their online videos, photos, interviews, forums and fan sites. It was either that or making photo collages, elaborate drawings, and writing poetry in their honor. In my school notebook I created an illuminated manuscript for the lyrics of all of their songs, written out from memory and in chronological order (I think that one was prompted by a challenge from a friend.) Occasionally I would just listen to the music.

Naturally, it scared my parents. My dad came into my room one day and told me that I was “better than this” – which of course only led me to adhere more closely to my fandom. Like any religious zealot, I couldn’t be swayed by an outsider’s opinion. I can remember my mother reading the lyric booklet to I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love (2002) while sitting next to me on the bed with an undisguised expression of horror on her face. Once when my brother found blood on the toilet seat from my period, he worriedly asked my mom if she knew that I was cutting myself. I’d say that the question I was asked the most in middle school was whether I was emo or goth. I always said no, and that I didn’t cut my wrists either – an obnoxious stereotype about the sensitive, miserable types who listen to My Chemical Romance.

But I found a group of friends who didn’t think I was intolerably weird and even shared my obsession to some extent. One of the biggest highlights of my teenage obsession was when I went to the first concert of their Black Parade tour in Manchester, New Hampshire in 8th grade with my two friends Allison and Kitty. Allison laughed at me afterwards for the eye-popping epileptic fit I had at the beginning of the concert, when I saw Gerard wheeled onstage on a gurney. When he sang, when I thought he looked at me (!!!), my heart literally exploded. I must’ve looked hilarious, holding my arms out towards the stage, jumping up and down and screaming for two straight hours. That night I hit the hotel bed and fell asleep in my Converse sneakers feeling totally alive. Feeling part of something – part of the MCRmy (their word, not mine.)

When the band decided to ditch the dark poetry and go in a more frenetic pop/glam direction with Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys (2010), I felt so betrayed. I was in college at that point, but it was still horrifying. I saw videos of Gerard Way thin, clean and sober, sitting on a stool trying to riff like a lounge singer to their old song “Helena.” It hurt for a while, but I eventually realized that Gerard himself didn’t deserve my fangirlish fury. It was the same way I’d felt betrayed when he got married. It hurt that he was happy and I was not – he had left me behind. But he was never real to me. I didn’t know him, even though I felt like I did. Instead, I was in love with his artistic persona – the fantasy-self that he had created for public consumption. I mean, emoting is sexy! How could any of the pimply pre-pubescent boys around me have compared to a man who radiated dangerous and darkly romantic ideas, looked like my idea of a vampire, screamed and sobbed and sang his heart out without shame or restraint right into my crackling earbud headphones? I could summon him up with the click of a button on my iPod and get an immediate emotional release. Discovering that he and the rest of the members of the band are real people has been a bit of a process and a shock.

I had always known that they were intensely imperfect. Gerard Way’s voice is high, careening, desperate-sounding, and very unusual. His lyrics are more nuanced than those of the average alternative/pop-punk/emo/screamo rock band, leading to Gerard’s being known among English fans as “The Extremo Morrissey”. And one of the most emblematic quotes from Gerard to his fans is, “It’s okay to be fucked up, because there are five dudes who are just as fucked up as you.” As I’ve said, they welcomed the freaks in – I think that My Chemical Romance were conscious that they could easily be used as a coping mechanism for misery and thought that was a great purpose to have as a band. The first line to the first song that the band ever wrote is, “You’re not in this alone” (“Skylines and Turnstiles”, Bullets…, 2002). In addition, Gerard openly talked about how he started the band as therapy for himself. In his early twenties he realized that he was unhappy with his life, still depressed and suicidal, and needed a release. The band name came from his bouts with antidepressant medication, drugs and alcohol – so the name My Chemical Romance is really about being fucked-up. This never hit me while I was a teenage fan, largely because I knew almost nothing about drugs. What I did realize was that they touted the symbols of depression, despair, anger, and alienation; and that all the screaming and chainsaw guitars had a cathartic effect. Listening to their music supplemented therapy for me as well, at least for a while.

The unfortunate side to fantasy is that it allows you to not deal with your daily reality and ignore festering problems in your life. For me it was being overweight, emotionally unstable and just extremely unhappy all around. I didn’t deal with it for so long that I had a breakdown at 19 and ended up sobbing in the New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Psychiatric E.R., waiting for my parents to come and take me back to Vermont. Escape into fantasy had turned into a physical escape from college, into New York City and a bad relationship with a 26-year-old, making my life cataclysmically out of control. I returned home defeated, suicidal, and medicated with Prozac. The first thing I did was order a copy of Life on the Murder Scene online; the CD/DVD package from MCR’s most gothic heyday that I had never had the money to buy when I was younger. I tried to dive back into their world and realized that I couldn’t do it. The illusion had been shattered. In the process of my real therapy that began soon after, I realized why this was a step in the right direction and began churning over the ideas that ultimately led to my writing this. 

My Chemical Romance is dead. I have known it since the travesty of Danger Days, but now I am 20 years old and they have officially disbanded. Conventional Weapons (2013), a series of EPs recorded between The Black Parade and Danger Days and released postmortem, has been a wonderful salve to my grief. I love to see the examples of Gerard’s new self-awareness: “I’m not dead/I only dress that way” (“Boy Division”, Number One, 2012). But I will miss his scream. As much as we both need to be stable and face reality at last, there is a part of me that wants to live out my own fantasy-life, play out my self-destruction the way that Gerard Way did in My Chemical Romance. Get in a van and go. Rant and rave and sleep in my own filth. Become feral. Reject responsibility, adulthood, the world at large. Live for emotional release, pitch and moment, a high, a whiff of fire in the air. To run myself ragged and out to the edge of collapse in a whirlwind chemical romance with drugs, booze, and rock ‘n’ roll only to regain consciousness and realize that I want to die. When I trace the scenario out to its logical, fatal conclusion I know that I will never do it – but that doesn’t stop it from being enticing, thrilling, and beautiful.