We all had our 9/11 moments. As the second plane sharked low over the Manhattan skyline, carrying its human cargo to the next life via the fiery portal of WTC1, we all caught a glimpse of what it meant to be here and now. How fragile. How beautiful life was. We scraped our eyes away from the banks of screens in the electrical goods stores. We turned to each other. And we pledged to live more fully. To wake the goddamned hell up and see what was right there in front of us.
All over the world, the same conversation iterated itself in every tongue. “God, you know Sharon. Three thousand people evaporated into dust in front of our eyes. It’s made me think. About who I am. And why. What's my life for? To grind on through this shit-pit commute for another fifty years? Just human cholesterol in the arteries of capitalism? To sleep, eat, log on, punch out, drink, shag and then repeat? Or is there something higher?”. The world paused and dropped its eyes before continuing. “What I’m trying to say is 9/11's made me realise: I've really got to get my taxes done. No more procrastinating. Go into the study. Get the big box of receipts from under the bed. Make. It. Happen.” Whatever level of engagement you found as you adjusted to the queasy new global equilibrium, one thing was for sure: when you wanted to listen to emo music on the afternoon of September 11th, emo was still emo. It was Jimmy Eat World thrashing through some sharply-cut pop songs above a lawnmower-engine guitar. It was Dashboard Confessional offering hardcore levels of pain with more suburban levels of emotional resonance. All over, it was still just doe-eyed earnest blokes peering into their souls and questioning whether they liked what they saw (they didn't, but they liked not liking it).
Yet even that day, the wheels of musical change had already been set in motion. That day, as the waiters polished fish knives and set them down in the fish knives drawer at the Windows On The World restaurant atop the North Tower, they probably had no idea that their impending deaths would cause a youth trend to drop an age bracket. That 9/11 would be remembered forevermore as the day that emo's commercial viability changed permanently. Jonathan Briley – widely reputed to be 'the falling man' – had been in a jazz band. He was a sound engineer. His brother was one of the original Village People. He knew music, for sure, yet even he couldn't have suspected the chain of events that would begin to tear up the very foundations of emo within the next few minutes.
At the same time as Briley was reporting for work a few miles away, on the 8:30AM ferry into Manhattan, even protagonist Gerard Way himself had only the merest inkling. He liked music. Sure. Iron Maiden. Misfits. Queen. The Smiths. The big stuff. But he wasn’t in a band. In fact he'd never been in a proper band. A couple of high school outfits, yeah. Guys jamming. Nothing serious. In fact one of them kicked him out because he wasn't any good with the guitar. Nope, drawing was and would be the thing. And, at 24, frankly he was pushing-on a bit to a) find a band, b) write some songs, c) get signed, d) yadda yadda.
Besides, he'd already found an internship at Cartoon Network. And this was pre-2007. Back when 'an internship' was a structured thing that potentially lead to a job, rather than a rotisserie of souls via which large corporations took advantage of the naïve dreams of the rich-parented and overeducated to boost their bottom line by dangling the never-never in front of them for months at a time. And anyway, Cartoon Network was pretty much where you wanted to be. Especially back then – Dexter's Laboratory, Cow & Chicken, I Am Weasel. Nine days before the Towers fell, Adult Swim debuted. For aspiring animators, it was the centre of the known universe. He'd just pitched the Network something called The Breakfast Monkey. It was about ‘a superhero cartoon Scandinavian monkey who wants to spread the goodness of breakfast to the world!'. Despite the crossover marketing potential with sugary cereal manufacturers, Cartoon Network thanked him for his time and said they'd pass.
Yet as the ferry chugged on, destiny's timeline was snapping sharply into focus.
08:40AM. Emo is still emo. Way is on the ferry. He is finishing some sketches. His head is down, engrossed.
08:45AM: Demon-eyed symbol of intolerance Mohammed Atta pushes the stick down on American Airlines Flight 11 and drives it full-bore towards the North Tower.
08:46AM. JESUS SHITTING CHRIST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
08:47AM. HOLY FUCKING CUNTSVILLE!!!!!!!!
08:48AM. As the first plane hits, Way looks up from his sketches. Immediately, the ferry deck is thronged with passengers. It still moves remorselessly onwards to its destination. Through the smoke, he makes out a few desperate flecks of human above the level of the plane-shaped incision between the 93rd and 99th floors.
9:03AM. The second plane hits. Gerard Way decides that this is just really fucked up now. Though his thoughts deliver no particular fresh insights. Obscure the name, and his recall of events could've been from any of three million Manhattanites:
“I didn’t see the planes hit. I did see the buildings go down, from I’d say fairly close. It was like being in a science fiction film or some kind of disaster film—it was exactly that kind of feeling. You didn’t believe it. You felt like you were in Independence Day. It made no sense. Your brain couldn’t process it. And for me it was a little different. I’m very empathetic and I’m kind of a conduit emotionally, so I pick up a lot of stuff in that way. There was about three- or four-hundred people around me—and I was right at the edge. All these people behind me, they all had friends and family in those buildings. I didn’t. So when that first building went, it was like an A-bomb went off. It was like just this emotion and it made you nauseous.”
What he did next, however, was less conventional. Having spent the day in a daze tramping the soot-blizzarded streets of Manhattan, Way arrived home seized with a curious mix of messiah complex and crisp rationality, utterly determined to smash up his workaday life and go as full-throttle towards his passions as Atta had towards WTC1. He started calling old friends. Matt Pleisner was first, a drummer. Within the week, Way had written 'Skylines And Turnstiles' about what he'd seen. “Steel corpses stretch out towards an ending sun, scorched and black. It reaches in and tears your flesh apart. As ice cold hands rip into your heart”. Christ. It was a very emotional time for everyone, wasn't it? It's easy to forget that now.
A couple of weeks later, Ray Toro signed up. He could play guitar pretty good (Way couldn’t sing and play at the same time, and this was becoming an issue). After a few weeks, he added his younger brother Mikey, who could just about fill in plunking through the basslines. Then Frank Iero – an actual musician from proper bands. Three months after they first started, they'd recorded their debut album. Eighteen months after that, they were on a major label. By the time they released breakthrough hit 'Helena', the geopolitics had accelerated far onwards. By 2005, the western response to 9/11 had catalysed a whole generation of radicals throwing themselves on the growing pile of senseless death. Tube trains exploded. Buses went bang. Airports' snaking queues became the phoney war frontier. At the same time, thanks to the imaginative world MCR threw up, kiddie emo had officially arrived. From now on, emo was branching out of its natural constituency of pained young men who felt that the world offered them poor refuge. It was entering a new world of pained young girls who felt that Gerard was incredibly hot and 'so would' even though they were only 13. It was no longer an isolationist movement of the people in your town who rejected musical belonging. It was a club you could join. It was a range of accessories on a Camden market stall, a copy of The Black Parade on your Zune, and an artfully-tweaked MySpace profile. It enabled you to stand outside the Daily Mail offices in Kensington and proclaim that, yes, now: now was our time to be hated. MCR punched the hole through which Fall Out Boy could crawl. Through which Panic! At The Disco could run. The boom was short and sharp, but by 2006, emo's new kiddie wave had made it the go-to sound for radio programmers looking to fulfil their rock quota.
Of course, for all the drama of the day, historians like us must entertain alternative hypotheses too. There is always a chance that Way might have found another, more personal trigger for unlocking his suppressed passions. But if he hadn't, would a world without both 9/11 and MCR be better or worse than a world with both? Philosophically, is the pain of outrageous fortune worth it if it inspires great art? Is a 'Guernica' worth a Guernica? An '1812 Overture' worth a Russian Campaign? The question is a common one, yet only a compassionate humanism at the expense of creativity can answer it. Indeed, beneath an interview in which Way talks about the galvanising influence of the Al Qaeda attacks on his band, YouTube commenter UnitedStateOfMonkey expresses this very paradox in a single couplet.
The answer she arrives at shall be our final word:
“Even if it sacrifices MCR, I'd rather 9/11 never happened. Hopefully, MCR would still get together in some other way.” - UnitedStateOfMonkey
Follow Gavin on Twitter @hurtgavinhaynes