The Pangs of Regret and Grief that Haunt “Helena” by My Chemical Romance

In their early days, New Jersey rock quintet My Chemical Romance always had a flair for cheeky and dramatic song titles like “It’s Not a Fashion Statement, It’s a F–king Deathwish” and “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us in Prison.” They also made ghoulishly fun promo videos for “Vampires Will Never Hurt You” and “Honey, This Mirror Isn’t Big Enough for the Two of Us.”

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Then along came “Helena.”

A Death Hits Hard

The third single and second video from their sophomore album Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, this emotionally charged track was like a high-energy dirge, a song soaked in grief and regret. It was inspired by the loss of frontman Gerard Way’s grandmother Elena Lee Rush, who was also called Helen. She passed away while the band was in the midst of writing their second album sometime in 2003, and Gerard had not seen her recently. Her death hit him and his brother/bandmate Mikey Way very hard. Elena reportedly taught Gerard how to paint and sing, gave him his first car (a van), and even attended one of their concerts in 2002.

In 2005, Way told Kerrang! that “Helena” was 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. 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.”

Way admitted the loss of his grandmother negatively impacted himself and his brother, and that his subsequent alcohol and drug problems likely were exacerbated by losing her.

Long ago
Just like the Hearse you die to get in again
We are so far from you
Burning on
Just like the match you strike to incinerate
The lives of everyone you know
And what’s the worst you take
From every heart you break?
And like the blade you’ll stain
Well, I’ve been holding on tonight

What’s the worst that I can say?
Things are better if I stay
So long and goodnight
So long and goodnight

Both in the song and video, one can hear and see the pain imprinted on Way’s voice and etched in his face. Directed by Marc Webb (who later made the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies), the video is a visual exercise in gothic elegance in the same way that “The Perfect Drug” by Nine Inch Nails became one of the quintessential mainstream goth videos of the late ‘90s.

Video Was “Almost Torturous to Make”

During the video for “Helena,” My Chemical Romance performs at the wedding of a young lady whose death is being mourned by hundreds of people in a church. Dancers perform in front of the pulpit, and Gerard Way sings behind it as well. Everyone in attendance is garbed in black. My Chem may have been called “the kings of emo” by some, but this clip was really goth. In the quietly tense mid-section of the song, the crowd bows its head in prayer and the deceased woman rises from her coffin, dances down the aisle, then her spirit passes on. It’s both an eerie and poignant scene.

“Helena” truly stood out not only in the My Chemical Romance world, but in the realm of early 2000s rock. The video received generous airplay in the States on channels like MTV2 and Fuse, and the song rose to No. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, their second-highest standing in the U.S. after “Welcome to the Black Parade” (No. 9 in 2006). It was the breakthrough song that helped Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge go Platinum at the time; it would eventually sell 3 million copies.

Making the video for “Helena” proved to be daunting and emotionally draining for the Way brothers. Gerard told My Chem biographer Tom Bryant (author of Not the Life it Seems: The True Lives of My Chemical Romance) that shooting it was very cathartic at first, but it was the hardest clip they ever made because of what it dealt with. He also believed that’s why it is their best video as well.

“It was almost torturous to make,” he admitted to Bryant. “I showed up and the coffin was the same [as his grandmother’s]. I watched Tracey Phillips, who was the dancer, do the dance segment and I had to leave. There were a lot of moments that I had to leave that video. There was a very somber mood. It was very quiet. We all sat in the church very quietly. … Maybe that’s where the magic is in that video—because it came from a completely raw place. My grandmother’s funeral was very hard and that video was like reliving it again. That video was very special, really personal.”

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Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Clear Channel

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