Art by Gabriel @gebtoons
My Chemical Romance vocalist Gerard Way once kindly explained before a live performance that “You Know What They Do To Guys Like Us In Prison,” off of the band’s 2004 record Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, is “about getting sodomized in jail, if you’re into that.” This is a point that Way would hammer home again and again, providing another helpful explanation before a 2005 Los Angeles performance of “Prison” that “This song got us arrested in France because it’s about getting fucked in the ass,” before beginning the signature moans that typically precede live performances of “Prison.” (There is no evidence American rock band My Chemical Romance were ever arrested in France.) Before another live performance of “Prison” in Mexico City, Way would command “just the boys” in the audience to “take your shirts off” and “swing it over your fucking heads” before breaking into the usual moans. Way reportedly originally recorded the song while “running pornography in the room” and missing several articles of clothing.
Despite Way’s theatrics, the lyrics of the track are far from crude. On its most basic, literal level, this song tells the tale of two criminals—“two men as God had made us”— and what follows after a shootout with police in a restaurant ends with the narrator in prison and his partner dead. Through this story, the track explores the narrator’s struggle with how this moment of profound loss changed everything for the narrator—his identity, his circumstances, his fate, and what he thought he and his partner shared. This track also features a guest appearance from Bert McCracken of The Used; at times, the storyline in the song would come to mirror aspects of McCracken and Way’s own lives, as well as the tumultuous and intense relationship the pair had. In this essay, we will break down and analyze the meaning of each line in “You Know What They Do To Guys Like Us In Prison,” their context, and broader themes regarding the relationships that men develop while out “on the road,” away from societal norms.
So, let’s begin.
“In the middle of a gun fight / in the center of a restaurant / they say, ‘Come with your arms raised high.’ / Well, they’re never going to get me / Like a bullet through a flock of doves.”
The song’s first verse depicts an arrogant criminal protagonist (accompanied by his male partner) narrating what begins as a shootout with police in a restaurant. The police give the pair a chance to surrender, but the narrator refuses, confidently asserting, “They’re never going to get me, like a bullet through a flock of doves.” This represents the narrator’s perception of himself as undefeatable and strong, not afraid of looking death in the face, brave and guns blazing. In other words, he establishes that he thinks of himself as an iteration of the typical masculine hero archetype—or, in this case, a swaggering anti-hero.
But this perception of himself is hollow, and based solely on hubris; rather than fearlessly looking death in the face, he is merely cocky and arrogant, feeling that death will not even have the chance to touch him. However, this is merely a façade of bravery, based solely on the narrator’s overconfidence and recklessness.
“To wage this war / Against your faith in me / Your life will never be the same / On your mother’s eyes / Say a prayer / Say a prayer.”
The song continues with, “To wage this war…”. A first-time listener might first assume this line will go on to refer to the battle between the criminals and police; however, the song takes an unexpected pivot into the song’s true conflict. The line finishes with “against your faith in me,” introducing the track’s exploration of the relationship between the two men. Though the shootout serves as the inciting incident, the actual struggle, or “war” within the song concerns something much deeper and emotionally complex than gunfire.
Specifically, this line introduces how the men have struggled to completely trust and feel safe with one another, a struggle that climaxes in this moment where they face death, side-by-side. The sequence of the lines demonstrates how the narrator feels that this emotional conflict is so monumentous that it overshadows even the threat of death. It is the resolution of this emotional struggle that will result in their lives “never being the same,” not the shootout itself.
The way that “Prison” weaves together the many conflicts in the song leave what these next lines are precisely referring to open for some interpretation: “Your life will never be the same, on your mother’s eyes, say a prayer.”
The odd placement of “on” rather than “in” serves to blend the narratives contained within the track and muddle the waters of the plot. One would normally say “Never be the same in your mother’s eyes,” or they would tell someone to “swear ON your mother.” You wouldn’t normally hear a phrase like, “On your mother’s eyes” combining the two common phrases. The decision, then, is likely deliberate. Songs are poems, and since poems are composed of so few words, each one is chosen carefully. This unique phrasing is likely designed to blend the multiple interpretations of the line together, and demonstrate the multiple layers of conflict occurring within the track.
“On your mother’s eyes” could be interpreted in many ways —on a surface level, it could show the narrator and his partner praying for their lives before the shootout (which will undoubtedly have dire consequences). Or, the narrator could be asking his partner to swear on his mother to protect each other to the end.
But, there’s one more interpretation—given the preceding line “Your life will never be the same,” as well as direction the song takes in later verses, the narrator could be saying that the resolution to this moment will result in his mother never looking at him the same. The narrator is already a wanted criminal, and we’ve established that the “war” in the track concerns what lies between the two men. Thus, we could infer that what will forever change him in the eyes of his mother concerns what he truly shares with his partner.
Overall, vocalist Gerard Way prefers to keep his family and personal life out of the public eye. However, the song “Mama,” off the band’s subsequent record The Black Parade, explores a complex and painful relationship between the narrator and his mother. Specifically, the track “Mama” explores the narrator’s feelings that his mother “should have raised a baby girl, I should have been a better son” through the lens of a soldier suffering in the trenches of a horrific war. This suffering is compounded by his feelings of failure and his mother’s displeasure as he is unable to live up to the gendered expectations of the stoic and tough male ideal as he agonizes over his fear of hell. In “Prison,” the internal turmoil the narrator is experiencing and the implications of a strained relationship with his mother could be written off as due to her disgust at his commission of violent acts. Likewise, in “Mama,” we see a similar surface narrative, concerning the “shit [the narrator has] done with this fuck of a gun.”
However, the rest of the song’s lyrics implicate that his mother resents the narrator for his failure to live up to her expectations of the ideal son. We see the mother harshly rejecting the narrator for expressing anxiety over death and hell, just as in “Prison,” the narrator is degraded and humiliated by his peers for expressing the same fears. In “Mama,” we see the mother’s focus on how “you should have been a better son” and “you ain’t no son of mine for what you’ve done” entwined with the emotion and “weakness” he expresses at sustaining severe injuries and witnessing unspeakable horrors on the battlefield rather than the act of inflicting physical harm on others. Finally, we see elements of religion alluded to in both “Mama” and “Prison,” adding another layer to the narrator’s internal struggle at their perceived failure to “be a man.”
In later verses of “Prison,” we will see the narrator shedding his fears and bravely looking death in the face as he “go[es] down with [his] friends;” likewise, in “Mama,” the narrator ceases his quest for comfort for his mother and marches into hell alongside his ”brothers in arms.” During a 2007 Projekt Revolution performance, Way dedicated “Mama” to his mother. On May 8th, 2016, Way tweeted a Happy Mother’s Day to “those who choose not to celebrate;” he did not extend any specific well-wishes to his own mother.
Like Way, guest vocalist Bert McCracken also had a tumultuous relationship with his family and upbringing. He left home at sixteen due to rebelling against the strict and judgmental Mormon community he was raised in. “There was a long time when I just wasn’t willing to do the whole Mormon thing, and my parents couldn’t deal with that so they kicked me out,” McCracken said. While official Mormon doctrine deems being gay or transgender or otherwise to be sinful, McCracken is passionate about gay rights.
Also like “Prison,” the themes of “Mama” have led the song to become an anthem among LGBT+ fans. The “you should have raised a baby girl, I should have been a better son,” lyric in “Mama” has led the song to a role of importance to the band’s transgender fans. “Mama” is not the only My Chemical Romance track where aspects of femininity and androgyny are explored. “Give ‘Em Hell, Kid” (also off of Three Cheers) and “Make Room!!!” and “Boy Division” off of Conventional Weapons all contain references to androgyny or wearing dresses. “F.T.W.W.W.,” off the Mad Gear and Missile Kid EP, explores a lesbian relationship between two of Way’s comic characters; the demo “Not That Kind of Girl,” also explores the feminine perspective. Finally, the Danger Days track “Destroya” features the line “duct-tape scars on my honey;” this lyric is oft interpreted as a reference to unsafe chest-binding practices, an interpretation reinforced by Way frequently making a motion across his chest during performances of the song. Guitarist Frank Iero, who has become something of an emo transmasc icon in Tumblr circles due to his small stature, has expressed a desire to sell officially licensed chest binders. And, like the rest of the band, guitarist Ray Toro is a strong ally to the trans community. Though these elements and tracks extend beyond the realm of “You Know What They Do To Guys Like Us In Prison,” they provide valuable context for the lyric of “they make me do pushups in drag.”
“Well, I can’t, and I don’t know / How we’re just two men as God had made us / Well, I can’t / Well, I can / Too much, too late, or just not enough of this / Pain in my heart for your dying wish, I kiss your lips again.”
“Prison” then moves into the chorus. In this section of the song, the narrator grapples with the fact that he and his partner are “two men as God had made us,” going back and forth between saying he can’t, he doesn’t know, he can’t, before finally settling on “I can.” The chorus moves to “Too much, too late, or just not enough of this”—revealing the narrator’s final “I can” understanding being either too much for himself or his partner to handle, came too late, or possibly wasn’t enough. Finally, the narrator expresses, “Pain in my heart for your dying wish, I kiss your lips again.”
Further blurring the dual narratives of the song is that the explicit details of the gunfight presented in the first verse are unknown. This is compounded by the fact that the events in the track are presented in a way that is not entirely linear, and is also missing pieces. One can infer the gist, however: The narrator and his partner, who have obviously committed crimes together, get into a shootout at a restaurant with police. They do not surrender, with the narrator asserting the pair will not be apprehended, and the narrator and his partner pray for their lives—and each other—before accepting that nothing will be the same after this moment.
The narrator’s partner is then shot, and gives some kind of deathbed confession—ostensibly a love confession— to the narrator. The narrator finds this confession painful and difficult to come to terms with, and two then share a kiss—which is not their first.
It’s worth noting that “Two men as God had made us” alludes to Genesis 2:22, depicting the creation of Eve: “And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.” Genesis 2:7 and 2:8, which describe the creation of Adam, exclusively use the word “formed” rather than “made.” Obviously, this creation of Adam and Eve, of woman for man, is frequently invoked during discussions involving homosexuality to be “unnatural” or sinful. Way was raised Catholic, though he no longer identifies as so; as we have established, McCracken left the Mormon faith as a teenager.
Finally, the chorus is the first time that we hear McCracken’s feature on the track. We first hear him join Way on the line “I can,” and then he only joins Way a second time with the word, “Again.” This first demonstrates McCracken’s feature on the song as possibly serving to represent the narrator’s partner. Here, his vocal part demonstrates the partner urging the narrator to accept their shared love (“I can”), and reinforcing the image of their shared kiss with the addition of “Again.”
Ladies and Gentlemen… We Digress
The relationship presented between the two men “Prison” is far from the only nod to same-gender relationships within My Chemical Romance’s discography and Way’s creative works as a whole. Three Cheers’ third track, “To The End,” adapts William Faulkner’s short story A Rose For Emily, which is about a disturbed woman poisoning her presumed homosexual fiancée and shutting herself up in her home with his corpse.
The video for “I’m Not Okay,” the leading single off the record, which served to introduce My Chemical Romance to the world via MTV, contains a nod to anyone who has ever questioned their sexuality. “Bury Me In Black” was released as the B-side to “I’m Not Okay;” the track is built around a quote from Scream (1996), which, like the song, contains the line “I want to see what your insides look like.” “Bury Me In Black” also says “Pick up the phone, fucker!” and in Scream, the “insides” line is spat to a character by a demented and sardonic voice over the phone. The song deals with themes of the narrator desiring to inject lipgloss directly into his veins; Scream’s writer, Kevin Williamson, is openly gay; speaking with Independent, he said the franchise is “coded in gay survival.”
These themes extend beyond Three Cheers and into the band’s next record, The Black Parade. “Cancer” could be interpreted as a metaphor for AIDS (as outlined in this excellent analysis by Tumblr user mychemicalraymance), and the original lyrics to “The End” were initially “You’ve made your conclusion / Just call me a fag!” instead of “Another contusion, my funeral jag / it’s my resignation, I’ll serve it in drag.” Finally, the track “This Is How I Disappear” references a character bringing both men and women into bed.
Finally, the Conventional Weapons track “Burn Bright” can be interpreted as depicting the pain that can come with a love between two men. To go beyond the music and into Way’s comics, Korse, an antagonist of Way’s comic series Danger Days (which the album is also based off), is canonically gay. In the comics, Korse’s lover is murdered by the director of the evil corporation after she discovers their relationship, an event that triggers Korse undergoing a fundamental change and joining the side of the protagonists. Similarly, Red and Blue, two other characters in the comics, are two sex worker androids in a lesbian relationship; Blue loses Red to an illness after the two attempt to escape the corrupt city they live in to seek medical treatment. Klaus Hargreeves, a main character of Way’s comic series and Netflix show The Umbrella Academy, is also gay; one of the most emotional plotlines of the series involves Klaus time-traveling back to become a soldier in the Vietnam war and falling in love with a man there, who is then tragically killed in combat.
And to end all of this, on their most recent tour, My Chemical Romance sold a shirt featuring an artistic rendition of gay porn star with a My Chemical Romance tramp stamp; according to gay porn star Mickey Taylor, a band member reached out to him after watching one of his “movies.”
But this is an analysis of “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us In Prison,” and we’re getting a little—well, a lot—off topic here.
“They all cheat at cards and the checkers are lost / My cellmate’s a killer / They make me do pushups in drag.”
The song then jumps to the narrator in prison. Thus, one can infer that following the death of his partner and their kiss, the narrator is apprehended by police and taken to jail. The narrator faces a difficult time there, as his murderous cellmate and the other inmates force him to do pushups—a “masculine” exercise—in women’s clothing. This is, presumably, to mock him for being weak and effeminate.
The narrator we see in this verse is very different from the arrogant way he introduces himself in the first verse. He characterizes his cellmate as “a killer,” implying he himself is not. It’s never revealed what, exactly, the narrator’s crimes are. However, as the narrator is later revealed to be facing the death penalty, it is implied that he too has killed. He is no longer a cocky anti-hero, ready to go against the police with guns blazing. Now, he’s the weakest inmate in prison, degraded and humiliated by his cellmates because he’s not the same as the others there. His life is fundamentally altered, no longer the same, and he realizes he’s not a hardened killer at his core like he thought he was.
Throughout this verse, we also hear McCracken in the background moaning and giggling; he provides backing vocals on the line “They make me do pushups in drag.” Like the previous verse, McCracken’s role in the song is to further strengthen the queerest parts of the story presented in the song, highlighting the narrator being humiliated for his femininity and perceived weakness by being forced to do difficult exercises in women’s clothing for their entertainment.
It’s also important to note within the context of this line that Way has expressed his own personal feelings and experiences regarding androgyny and gender nonconformity on many occasions. We’ve already touched on the themes of gender roles explored within “Mama,” but to name an example, In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Way said, “I have always been extremely sensitive to those that have gender identity issues as I feel like I have gone through it as well, if even on a smaller scale. I have always identified a fair amount with the female gender, and began at a certain point in MCR to express this through my look and performance style. So it’s no surprise that all of my inspirations and style influences were pushing gender boundaries. Freddy [sic] Mercury, Bowie, Iggy, early glam, T-Rex. Masculinity to me has always made me feel like it wasn’t right for me.
In 2015, Gerard Way was interviewed by the frontman of now-disgraced nepotism-punk band SWMRS. In this interview, he stated, “There was a time where I was called a girl so often that when I discovered the idea of transgenderism I considered myself to be more of a girl. So I identify with trans people and women a lot because I was a girl to a lot of people growing up. When I was doing MCR I think I finally got to display my femininity through the glam theatrical aspects of the band. It made me feel more hopeful, that I was allowed to be flamboyant. I want to make sure women and men and everyone in between feel safe and empowered.”
Finally, when Way attended art school prior to the conception of My Chemical Romance, he once dressed as a woman. He explained to Troubled Bunch Music, “I went to school in drag, in art school and my day was completely different because everybody thought I was a chick… You should see me as a chick. So I went as a girl, as like an experiment and it worked really well and everyone was really nice to me but I couldn’t talk obviously… You know train conductors were really cool to me on my commute… HA! I looked hot as a chick.” (My Chem Guitarist Frank Iero jokingly interjected that Way resembled Christina Ricci and was dateable.)
Most currently, on My Chemical Romance’s 2022 tour, Way frequently wore skirts or dresses, dressing as the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Princess Diana, a teacher, a Manson girl, a cheerleader, and Nurse Ratched, to name a few costumes.
“Well, nobody cares if you’re losing yourself / Am I losing myself?”
These next lines are another example of the track weaving together multiple themes, introducing the concept of the narrator losing his identity alongside the other stories presented in the song.
First, as a man, (especially in a prison), men must be unemotional, reject connection with one another, and not let on to internal struggles they might be experiencing out of fear of being perceived as weak and emotional; those who fail to do so are subjugated and degraded. One can presume based off the previous verse that the narrator has failed to maintain his tough guy persona. The emotions he experiences places himself as lowest on the totem pole, forced to do pushups by his cellmate and the other inmates. While doing so, he is forced to dress in women’s clothing, stripping him of his previous identity as a “man as God has made him,” and his perception of himself as a cunning, untouchable criminal has shattered.
Secondly, the narrator just faced an experience that rocked his personal identity; the narrator was forced to abruptly confront the nature of the relationship between him and his partner as his partner lay dying. As displayed in the chorus, this was something he did not feel ready for (“I can’t”), but ultimately embraced (“Well, I can”)—though it was “too much, too late, and just not enough of this.” The dire suddenness of his partner’s death and confession led to the narrator confronting this truth without having time to process it or understand how it fits in with his identity—he feels that everything he thought he knew about himself is slipping away.
Finally, McCracken also highlights the lines “Losing yourself,” combined with his demented laughs and giggles. It is almost as if this second voice is taking pleasure in the fact that the narrator’s identity as a “man as God has made him” is being forced to change, despite the pain involved in the process.
“Well, I miss my mom, will they give me the chair? / Or lethal injection, or swing from a rope if you dare / Nobody knows all the trouble I’ve seen.”
“Prison” continues with the narrator worrying about his fate in prison, such as death by hanging or electric chair, implying that whatever he was wanted by police for was likely murder. This compounds on something we’ve already established. The narrator has distinguished himself from his “killer” cellmate and seems victimized by other inmates for his weakness and fear of death. This is in stark contrast to the first verse, which depicts the narrator as cocky and arrogant, fearless in the face of the law and death. Additionally, he feels he is the only one who knows what it’s like to be in his position, demonstrating how he’s different from the others in jail. Everything the narrator knows about himself has changed. He’s no longer the traditionally masculine ideal he thought he was, connecting back to the line “Am I losing myself?”.
The next line is “Well, I miss my mom.” It goes without saying that the narrator cannot see his mother because he is in prison; however, the concept of the result of the gunfight changing the way his mother looks at him forever was introduced in an earlier verse. Additionally, this verse and later verses imply the narrator is already a hardened criminal. Thus, rather than the mother turning his back on the narrator due to his violent lifestyle, this could refer to his mother refusing to see him due to the kiss he shared with his partner.
This connection may seem tenuous; however, it comes with the added context of the narrator being feminized, degraded, and humiliated in prison. The narrator’s final moment with his partner happened in front of police and the public—the shootout was “in the center of a restaurant,” meaning there were many witnesses to the love confession and their kiss. This public display could be the result of the narrator’s strained relationship with his mother as well as the reason for the way the other inmates in prison treat him. Finally, the song is “Guys Like Us In Prison,” meaning whatever aspect of the narrator has made him a target in jail is something he shares with his deceased partner. This, of course, is their kiss. Of course, all of this about the mother is speculative subtext, and hidden beneath the story of the narrator’s struggle to survive in prison.
Finally, McCracken offers backing vocals on this entire verse; this when we see the narrator at his weakest and most emotional, the most different from the hardened criminal he thought he was in the first verse. Again, McCracken offers a second voice to the track—a voice that serves to highlight his character’s role in the song as the catalyst that ultimately subverted everything the narrator believed he knew about himself.
The song returns to the chorus once more, before the next lines, which bring us back to the narrator in prison.
“To your room, what they ask of you, will make you want to say… So long.”
These lines follow the narrator outlining his fear of facing the death penalty outlined in an earlier verse. This implies that what awaits the narrator in his cell is a fate worse than death. This is in combination with the song’s title, “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us In Prison,” the line about “they make me do pushups in drag” and vocalist Gerard Way’s numerous comments about the song depicting sodomy. To state the obvious, the narrator is being raped by his cellmates, who degrade him for his femininity, his relationship with his former partner in crime, and the fear, perceived emotional weakness, and despair he expresses in prison. McCracken provides no backing vocals on this line, leaving the narrator alone in his suffering and despair; this is not a feeling his partner shares.
“Well, I don’t remember / Why remember you?”
The immediately following lines are “Well, I don’t remember, why remember you?”. These lines, while indirect, imply a great deal about what is going on in the narrator’s mind. The narrator’s implied sexuality and the deep connection he shared with his partner has been weaponized against him, as he forced to dress as a woman and raped. As the narrator is being forcibly sodomized by his cellmates, he is denying the significance of the relationship between himself and his partner. He dismisses it as nothing, and something he barely remembers, insisting to himself that his partner meant nothing to him, and he has no reason to remember him. In these lines, we see the narrator putting all the blame on his partner, minimizing their relationship, and clinging to his old identity, the one he held before his life was fundamentally altered and he began to lose the sense of who he thought he was.
McCracken’s part, however, jumps in solely on the second “Remember,” as if he is urging the narrator to remember him and what they shared. Way’s vocals, in turn, take a sudden twist from high harmonies alongside McCracken to spit-screaming, “You!” in an indignant rage as the memory of his partner returns to him.
“Do you have the keys to the hotel? Because I’m gonna string this motherfucker on fire! FIRE!”
This denial is then abruptly cut short by a brief flash of a memory that the narrator shares with his partner. These lines are sung solely by guest vocalist Bert McCracken rather than Way, cementing the fact that this piece of the song takes place somewhere different than the lines preceding it, and is merely a memory. This is the only part that McCracken sings alone, save for his demented screams and moans.
Though “string” and “motherfucker” are vague terminology, it’s possible the narrator and his partner set someone on fire as a form of murder, an exceptionally brutal and sadistic killing, which would explain the police pursuing them with guns blazing and the narrator facing the death penalty. This line provides crucial backstory for the lines about the narrator’s abruptly strained relationship with his mother being triggered by something beyond his crimes, but instead crystallized by the event between him and his partner in the restaurant, as depicted in the chorus.
The line “Do you have the keys to the hotel?” is also especially telling; this brief flash of memory cuts into the narrator’s denial of the significance between what he and his partner shared. Presumably, that night together, in a hotel, was especially critical to the nature of their relationship and the thing the narrator is attempting to forget as he is assaulted. It’s also worth mentioning once more that in the chorus, the narrator kisses his partner “again,” implying it is not the first time they have kissed. Perhaps the implication is that this night, alone together at the hotel, was the first time they shared something romantic or sexual. Again, McCracken being the one singing the lines demonstrates how his role in the song serves to reinforce the queer narrative presented.
The song’s lyrics are then broken by a guitar solo, giving the narrator time to himself following the memory of the night he and his partner shared in that hotel.
“Life is but a dream / For the dead / And I won’t go down by myself, but I’ll go down with my friends / Now, Now, Now / I can’t explain / Now, Now, Now / I won’t complain.”
The very end of the song is compromised of Way singing, “Now, now, now” alongside Way’s backing vocals of, “I can’t explain / I won’t complain.” The song ends with what can only be described as demented, pained, and yet sexually charged moans, followed by a giggle. It kind of sounds like someone getting fucked in the ass. McCracken sings this part. This, in conjunction with “I can’t explain” and “I won’t complain,” suggests the narrator has finally reached a sense of peace regarding his identity and where he’s ended up, despite his miserable circumstances. He doesn’t necessarily understand why he feels this way, but it’s something he has made peace with in the present moment; this is something that brings his partner a sick sort of joy, as signified by the laughter.
However, the final lines of the song contain one more lyric we need to discuss, which will move us into the conclusion of this essay. These lines are,“I won’t go down by myself, but I’ll go down with my friends.” These lines are sung triumphantly, with a sense of finality. This lyric implies that the narrator is now more at peace. He has resolved the internal resentment he held towards his deceased partner, and knows now that they will be reunited in death.
These lyrics also demonstrate how the narrator has changed throughout the course of the song; the first verses showed him insistent that “they’re never gonna get me,” and showed him “waging a war” over whether or not his partner had faith in him. Additionally, the middle verses of the song showcase the narrator as whining about everything from facing the electric chair to grievances as small as lost checkers. Following the anti-hero’s journey, however, we see him stating “I won’t complain,” further representing how much he has changed from pretending to be brave with swaggering machismo, to a sniveling coward, to finally facing the truth about himself and his impending death because it means he will be reunited with the man who he realizes meant the most to him.
These final lines of the song also show the narrator with humility instead of hubris, accepting that he has gone down despite his previous arrogance that the police would never catch him. Even so, the narrator is now content— he is no longer waging a war over trusting his partner, but is confident in the unbreakable bond they share, and that they will no longer be separated by the veil of death—friends go down together.
“I can’t explain” possibly refers to the narrator’s constant internal struggle to understand the relationship that he and his partner shared. However, though the narrator has seemingly reached a sense of tranquility regarding his identity despite his lack of understanding, he still only refers to his partner as his “friend,” drawing a distinction between what they shared and a romantic or sexual relationship.
This brings us to further explore the guest appearance on the track. As we have referenced throughout our analysis, Bert McCracken of The Used features on “Prison” alongside Way. Way and McCracken were originally introduced by longtime My Chemical Romance manager Brian Schechter, and quickly became close friends, frequently engaging in animated and charismatic shared performances and photographed kissing in public. The two vocalists shared what was, suffice to say, a dynamic that many found magnetic. Grantland reporter Andy Greenwald once wrote of the pair, “One night the two kept me in the room with them until dawn as they drained the minibar, sent the concierge out for smokes, and made increasingly frequent trips to the bathroom” and that while McCracken “wore fame like a leather jacket… Flashed and strutted… Flicking boogers and cackling like a banshee… assuming the role of a dangerous frontman…”, Way was a “scared and sensitive wannabe comic-book artist who formed a band out of either depression or desperation… [and]… wore a leather jacket like a suit of armor.”
In an interview conducted for Steven’s Untitled Rock Show, Way and McCracken were asked if they were dating; to this, McCracken kissed Way on the cheek and Way replied, “Me and Bert don’t date. We go out. In a musical sense. On the road.” Way then said, “But we’re not the dating kind, so how could the two of us ever date?”. Way then showed a framed photo of him and McCracken that was taken on “almost their first date” to which McCracken replied, “I believe the first time we made out was in Chicago.” Way and McCracken are currently happily married to women; However, at this point in band history, the two were known to kiss each other and/or other men in public, perhaps solely to be provocative or make a statement about gay rights.
You may recall we mentioned in the first paragraph that Way frequently introduced “Prison” to audiences with blunt comments about the song’s themes, describing it as “about getting sodomized in jail, if you’re into that” and “about getting fucked in the ass.” McCracken, known for his sexed-up, drug-fueled, and satanic persona, made similarly shocking remarks onstage regarding the inspiration behind certain tracks of his own. Before a performance of what was reputedly “Sound Effects and Overdramatics,” McCracken dedicated the song to “How sweet and tasty Gerard’s as***le is.” “Sound Effects and Overdramatics,” off the The Used’s 2004 record In Love and Death, concerns a sexual encounter between two people wherein the giver “turns over” the receiver and discusses being “all turned on by the taste of your sin.” The narrator explicitly refers to the subject as another male.
Way explained his relationship with McCracken as, “”Sometimes it feels like jail when you’ve got eight or nine guys in a van. It smells like jail, that’s for sure…Sometimes it feels like prison, but sometimes even the guys in prison, as fucked up and rough as it is, they buddy up and stick through it together. I think that’s definitely one of the reasons I wanted Bert to sing on it, because he’s one of the few people that I’ve met on the road and really connected with. He was like a cellmate in a way. He’s already been through the crazy rock star shit and I’m just new to this. The song is definitely about that camaraderie and obviously touches on lost masculinity. I think that comes from being around dudes so much and you actually start to lose your masculinity. Especially because we’re not the kind of band like Mötley Crüe where we fuck around with groupies or anything.”
(McCracken, on the other hand, revealed in a 2003 interview with Playboy that his bandmates called him “cauliflower dick” due to the amount of sexual relations he had on tour.)
However, despite their close friendship, the pair would ultimately fall out before the end of Warped 2005, alleged and speculated in part due to the explosive success of My Chemical Romance leaving The Used in the dust, and alleged and speculated in part due to Way’s abrupt decision to go sober. Reportedly, McCracken began showing up at My Chemical Romance sets to boo and jeer at Way through a megaphone. McCracken also supposedly penned the song “Pretty Handsome Awkward,” off The Used’s 2007 record Lies for the Liars, about Way. In present day, however, the pair have seemingly reconciled.
As stated previously, Way and McCracken are both married to women; Way married Lyn-Z, bassist of Mindless Self Indulgence, in 2007; the couple have a daughter together. McCracken married his wife, Alison, in 2008; the couple share two children. Beyond their comments regarding “going out, in a musical sense, on the road,” McCracken said in a 2003 interview with Playboy that “My obsession with kissing boys is purely for fun. You know, like worshipping Satan is fun…It’s funny and it’s fun to kiss boys.” Meanwhile, Way tweeted in May of 2016 that “I don’t use labels for anything. Using labels only gives others the leverage needed to categorize you or use you as a political tool.” In April of 2015, he tweeted a meme expressing disapproval towards those who attempt to define his sexuality.
Regardless of the nature of the actual relationship between Way and McCracken, the idea explored within the characters presented in “Prison”—that of a close and romantic and/or sexual relationship between two men remaining distinct from the concept of “being gay” or “dating” – is one that echoes beyond the Way, McCracken, and “You Know What They Do To Guys Like Us In Prison,” and weaves throughout the history of rock music and counterculture in general. In Please Kill Me: An Oral History of Punk, Elektra Records’ former “company freak” Danny Fields spoke of fucking busboys in a favorite restaurant he frequented with his music scene friends, saying, “It was wide open, but it wasn’t gay, thank God.” Photographer Billy Name spoke of excursions with Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground in a similar manner, saying “Lou and I… we weren’t having an affair or anything, we were just pals hanging around. Lou would sit on my face while I jerked off. It was like smoking corn silk behind the barn, it was just kid stuff. There was no rapture or romance involved. It was about getting your rocks off at that moment, because going out with girls was still about getting involved and all that shit. With guys it was just easier.”
This same concept—of distinguishing sexual activity between male friends from “being gay”—was also outlined in “On The Road’s Graphic Gay Sex Isn’t A Gay Experience,” by LGBT-interest publication The Advocate. This article explained that the gay sex depicted in the film (based off the famous book by Jack Kerouac) was not the same as actually depicting gay people. The article explained that “Kerouac’s novel is not really a queer work, just a work with queers” and while other writers penned stories of “men loving other men, On the Road has male characters simply jumping into bed with each other.” It continues by describing the novel as “way too stocked with misogyny and homophobia to be a testament to the LGBT experience” and that the novel doesn’t “affirm homosexuality or bisexuality as much as it shores up the narrator’s and main character’s prerogatives, as Beat but ultimately straight white males, to go where they want and fuck who they want.”
Way’s explanation of the relationship between himself and McCracken, as “Me and Bert don’t date. We go out, in a musical sense. On the road” curiously also happens to contain the phrase “on the road.” American rock band Fall Out Boy also went on the road on Warped Tour 2005 alongside The Used and My Chemical Romance; frontman Pete Wentz also served as an ambiguous symbol of maybe-gay, maybe-bi, maybe-straight, developing similarly infamously homoerotic and melodramatic friendships and triangles and quadrangles involving figures like Mikey Way (curiously, also of My Chemical Romance), Cobra Starship frontman Gabe Saporta, Panic! at the Disco lyricist Ryan Ross, and roadie Chris “Hey Chris” Gutierrez (See: “Stay Gold, Dude, Stay Gold,” “The True* Origins of…” and “Pretty Girls Make Graves…”).
In Wentz’s ostensibly fictional novel Gray, cowritten with former MTV writer James Montgomery, he invokes similar concepts of about being “on the road.”
The unnamed narrator of his novel says, “I don’t tell [my girlfriend] about feeling alive on the road…that’s all life, the bad, dirty, savage kind. The kind I don’t want spoiling this, the kind I have to keep separate from love. It’s apples and oranges. Zoloft and Ativan. Church and State.” The book primarily centers around a toxic and volatile heterosexual romance between the unstable narrator and his younger girlfriend, who the narrator elevates to a God-like, angelic figure he is perpetually enraptured with despite his cruel mistreatment of her. The primary conflict in the novel arises from the narrator’s struggle to come to terms with how he can never have the two greatest loves of his life, the picket-fence traditional romance he desires with the girl—likened to Jacob’s ladder into heaven—and the savage life he leads “on the road” with his male bandmates—likened to the Pied Piper leading everyone “down a vermin hole.”
Despite the novel’s aggressively toxic heterosexual relationship, it heavily features a close friendship between the narrator and another man as they sleep side by side, beat off side by side, and raise hell side by side, out on the road. On one occasion, Wentz said he once inserted the genitalia of the real-life roadie that inspired this character in his mouth for a DVD the band put out in 2005; Wentz said this experience was “not sensual at all.” However, he also branded this roadie’s buttocks with his initials that same year.
The quotation, (and the theme it is describing), invoke similar concepts like Billy Name’s explanation of the sexual relationship between himself and Lou Reed lacking “romance and rapture,” as well as The Advocate’s assertions that the sexual activities between male Beat poets were separate from actual queer love, and McCracken’s comment about kissing boys being “purely for fun.” Likewise, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, the My Chem record that features “You Know What They Do To Guys Like Us in Prison,” is a “pseudo-conceptual” album that concerns the tale of a great doomed romance between a man and a woman; the story depicted in “Prison” is merely a brief departure from the broader narrative.
In short, they aren’t gay—they don’t date each other, they just go out. On the road. In an artistic sense. All in all, the idea of parsing out who, or what, is and is not gay, and what gay even means, is largely pointless—however, the themes presented in “Prison,” and how they echo the relationship between McCracken and Way, as well as that of other men who rejected social conformity and found comfort in each other’s arms out “on the road,” is curious nonetheless.