“Death is something that we’ll always write about because it’s tragic, negative and beautiful at the same time." The story of Helena: the song about Gerard Way's grandmother that confirmed My Chemical Romance as emo's first superstars

My Chemical Romance 's video for Helena
(Image credit: Youtube (My Chemical Romance))

My Chemical Romance’s second album, 2004’s Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, charts the mythology of the Demolition Lovers, a Bonnie and Clyde-esque man and woman who are separated by death. The man, keen to emerge from hell and be with her again, agrees to bring the devil the souls of a thousand evil men.

However, there are some tracks that don’t quite fit into the overarching story, lead single I’m Not Okay (I Promise) being one of them. “The record ended up being much more about loss and real life than anything,” said singer Gerard Way in 2004, adding, “In the end, listening to the record, I was like, ‘Wow this record is really about loss’. It took me a couple of listens to really get the scope of the record and realise that it was really that blatantly about loss and death throughout almost every song.”

Another deviation from the mythology is the record’s second single and standout track Helena, a meditation on grief that’s distinctly personal. Discussing the influence of loss and death through the record, Way said: “Death is something that we’ll always write about because it’s tragic, negative and beautiful at the same time. It’s very beautiful and it can be a very positive thing.”

Nowhere is that marriage of beauty and decay more prominent than on Helena, a thoughtful tribute to Gerard and his bassist brother Mikey Way’s late grandmother, who was called Helen and nicknamed Elena by friends. Opening with mournful, eerie, almost whispered vocals (“we are so far from you”), Helena sees Way at his most raw: belting out his regrets. Way called Helena not just a tribute to his beloved grandmother but a “really angry open letter” to himself in the wake of her death.

“It’s about why I wasn’t around for this woman who was so special to me, why I wasn’t there for the last year of her life,” he told Kerrang! magazine. “Self-hate is always a big part of the lyrics. I’ve felt like that all my life. I don’t know why but I’ve always hated myself. Hopefully that self hate is growing into something else now, hopefully it’s grown into caring about myself and wanting to stay alive.”

Her death had a grave impact on the brothers, and in the same interview Gerard connected his later serious issues with alcohol to her death. “I also think losing my grandmother and the drinking were probably connected. When I quit I could see myself clearly and I wasn’t sure how much I liked it. I wasn’t confident about anything, I was just depressed.”

While some of that self-flagellation is woven through Helena and felt reverberating through the lyrics, it’s buried under the very real sorrow and grief. A refrain of “so long and goodnight” sees Way attempting to lay his grandmother and his pain and regrets to rest.

The frontman’s vocal strengths have always been in his ability to manipulate his voice, to make it as weird or as heavy with feeling as the song requires. On Helena, he runs the range from spooky low vocals to screamed agony, and it only makes it that much stronger.

While Helena stands the test of time as a standalone track, its video for many will immediately come to mind. Directed by Marc Webb (also responsible for war epic The Ghost Of You) and shot at a church in Los Angeles, the story moves away from the real-life tragedy to tell the story of a young girl who died suddenly. Opening with Gerard, gloriously smoky-eyed and dressed fit for a goth funeral in a black shirt and red tie against a backdrop of candles, the video follows the goodbyes to the woman, played by dancer Tracy Phillips.

As band members pay their respects, Gerard stands at the pulpit to lead mourners into a full death-inspired dance number choreographed by Michael Rooney. Interspersed with shots of the band playing, here My Chemical Romance toy with goth influences, showing that as always everything is theirs to play with.

In the most memorable moment of the video, one that helped to canonise My Chemical Romance as the kings of emo, Phillips springs back to life. Her red and black-rimmed eyes snap open, her pale face comes to life and she slips her black ballet flat-clad feet out of the coffin to dance jerkily through the pews, gently touching mourners and grabbing the camera to join her. She spins before falling back into her coffin, finally ready to enter the afterlife.

With Helena finally, actually dead, mourners and the band (joined by some lucky fans) carry Helena’s coffin out of the church into the rain for possibly the most iconic rain-soaked church scene since Guns N’ Roses November Rain. Small bit of trivia: Frank Iero once revealed that the coffin isn’t actually resting on his shoulders as they leave the church - he’s 5’4” and came up a little short. Instead, the bulk of the lifting fell to his bandmates and a random fan. Mourners dance around the pallbearers with red and black umbrellas, the church steps slick with a rainstorm neither the director nor band were apparently anticipating.

While I’m Not Okay (I Promise) is often remembered as the defining track of Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, Helena and its accompanying video are inextricable from the My Chemical Romance canon. They represent a standout moment in the band’s discography and story, winning the band well-deserved awards and their first mainstream crossover moment when the song entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Today, the song represents not only a turning point for My Chemical Romance and emo on a commercial level, but it’s emblematic of the band, imbued with the drama, grief and energy that make them so enduring.

Read the story of My Chemical Romance in Metal Hammer's special edition issue, available to order here.