A Conversation With Dennis DeYoung (Styx)

Inside most indie rockers of a certain age there’s a closet Styx lover. The group may never have been a critical darling, but the hooky and instantly identifiable melodies, crunching guitars and soaring vocals made for a hard-to-resist package. Dennis DeYoung, former singer and keyboard player for the band and author of most of Styx’s biggest hits, has released 26 East: Volume 1 (Frontiers), a 10-song album that DeYoung has indicated is the first part of the last recorded work he will do. The LP is a contemplative and rewarding look backward on a life spent making music, featuring a nostalgic duet with Julian Lennon (“To The Good Old Days”) as well as harder-edged tunes with a topical bent (“With All Due Respect”). There’s even a nod to Styx classic Paradise Theater in the form of closer “A.D. 2020.”

MAGNET spoke with DeYoung about 26 East: Volume 1, Styx’s connection with fans and how he’s been coping with the pandemic. [Ed note: This interview was conducted before George Floyd was killed.]

I wanted to start off by asking how you and your family have been holding up under the current situation with COVID-19? 
Well, my wife—we’ve been married 50 years, and she’s 71 years old, and she’s been so serious about this thing. Even in the house—and we’ve been here for like 10 weeks—she insists I stay six feet away from her. Even during sex, and she said it’s never been better.

That’s pretty funny, but it’s obviously a tough time for everybody, and it’s probably a strange time for you to be releasing new music.
Well, obviously, everybody’s in that particular boat. So you know, first of all, my first single was released on a Monday in March, and then on Wednesday the W.H.O.—and I don’t mean Daltrey and Townshend—declared a pandemic, and I said, “Well, after two-and-half years of work, this seems like pretty auspicious timing.” Nonetheless, in the big picture, my little album is meaningless compared to what billions of people are going to suffer through because of this. I’m not one of those celebrities who say we’re all in this together. We are to a point, but really those of us who have been fortunate enough to be successful in our lives are not in that category with everybody else. We’re doing a little bit better. I look at this and I think, well, you know, I entertain people. That’s what I’ve done my whole life. About a month ago, people asked me to do one of these celebrity things from home and sing a song, because they thought my music would lift their spirits. Really, I’ll take a take a vaccine over any song I’ve written.

But I did it, and then over a million people watched me sing “The Best Of Times” into an iPad on my out-of-tune piano. I was overwhelmed in every possible manner. I don’t get a million people to come and see anything I do in three or four weeks. That’s just unheard of; I’m not Lady Gaga, for goodness sake. So I was surprised by it, but what I discovered, there are so many of what I like to call “silent majority Styx fans” out there who, for whatever reason, don’t have time to pay attention to every little thing one of their favorite bands from when they were in high school are doing. But they came out in force and said the nicest things about me and my voice and my songwriting. 

I don’t come in contact all the time with these million people. But, when I read the comments, they are ridiculously nice on so many levels. These fans, what I think they were saying is, “We love Styx. It was one of the most important times in our lives. And we loved that moment, and we loved that music.” So, this is what’s been happening with me during the pandemic, and because of it, I’ve never stopped doing Zooms. I was just on Rachel Ray. What am I doing at 73 years old on Extra, Access. All these people that are coming to me. There was a piece in Rolling Stone saying that Styx should reunite. It’s surprising to me. But I think, “Wow, OK then, I like it—and I’m in my house!”

So the cancellation of the tour was monumental in a way, because I have people who are in my employ. I think they’re the very best band in the world to duplicate Styx’s music live. That’s why I put this band together. And, they’re affected by this. So, it hurts me as it hurts me to see the countless people in this country and around the globe whose lives are being crushed by COVID-19.

Styx

I’ve been listening to the new album, and it sounds fantastic. You mentioned your band; did you use your touring band on the album? Not only does your voice sound amazing, but the players are all great, too.
My band is on there, but I have outside players, too. Jim Peterik (Survivor, Ides Of March), my coconspirator, played guitar, and he played bass on couple of tracks. My son played drums on the Julian Lennon duet. Other than that I think my drummer, Mike Morales, plays on every track. Another fantastic guitar player, Mike Aquino, who’s a local guy who plays with Jim Peterik, helped. And Jimmy Leahey, who I’ve used, is on the record. I’m glad you liked it. I picked terrific musicians. And, I have to tell you, it’s number five on Amazon. Yeah, and I think that’s a total of six-and-a-half sales. Nonetheless, I think someone’s considering buying it somewhere in Nebraska right now! But, I’m thrilled by the response, and the reviews have been pretty darn terrific. And I was scared to death to make this record. Didn’t want to do it and resisted it for almost three-and-half years. But Peterik nagged me. And so, we did it, and I have been surprised by the reaction to it. That’s not false modesty.

I think it’s one of your strongest works; the whole thing just flows nicely together. As I’ve read, the title refers to your childhood home, and I did a little Google cyber-stalking on Street View, and I see the house is still there where you formed Styx with the Panozzo twins in the basement. I think it was Roger McGuinn who said he wished the Byrds had the kind of friendship as a band that the Beatles had. Did you find it was helpful that you guys started out as friends so early on in your career?
Invaluable! John and Chuck and I started that band, and every guitar player who joined, joined a successful band. We had gigs. We were a wedding band in the beginning with me on accordion, Chuck on guitar and John on drums. And, yeah, we were across the street from each other. But with the three of us being that close, and JY (James Young) and JC (John Curulewski)—the original five—we all lived within three or four miles of each other. But, Chuck and I have begun talking again recently when I asked him permission to use his images in the video (“To The Good Old Days”). It only ended up that way because Jules (Lennon) ended up in Europe, and I ended up here in my aunt’s attic. We had a guy ready to do the video with the two of us in it, but it ended up being that video by necessity. But now when I look at it, I think I couldn’t be happier that I did that because I’ve been telling our audience since the Grand Illusion album that deep inside we’re all the same. Don’t look up at us here on the stage and believe what we’re doing; we are an illusion, we are a grand illusion, and we do that to sell you tickets and albums and records. That’s who we are. That’s what we do. I mean you can like us, but please stop the hero worshipping, and understand that deep inside we’re all the same. So when I got to show this video, it shows me, my life outside the spotlight and who I really am. Kind of a goofball who cherishes his family and his friends.

When I was watching the video, obviously you wrote it with your friends and family in mind, but I was listening to the lyrics, and I couldn’t help but think about the young people who are graduating right now in strange circumstances. And I find that young people can still look backward during important moments in their lives. How would you feel if students are using that song as part of their virtual graduation ceremonies?
Yes, somebody posted a video with all the graduates doing just what you said. And they played the music, and then they had all the graduates talking about what they’ve been going through. How do I feel about it? I tell you, I love young people to like my music. When I first started doing this, I said there will be no IQ tests or urine samples necessary to like my music. Enjoy it! I don’t care how old or young you are. My whole objective was to communicate with others with my music—that’s it. So, yeah, great!

“East Of Midnight” seems like it’s about how listening to music at certain points in your life can really change the outcome of things, because it’s such a powerful medium. Is that a fair assessment? And, also, I’ve got to tell you that I love that you added that classic Oberheim-sounding synth solo in the middle of that song.
Yeah, thanks. That’s the one I used back in the day. I still have them. I would say a full 80 percent of the music any of us like is the music from our youth. That’s it. Particularly when I was making the music, music was the focal point of every young person’s life, because there were no distractions like there are today. And when I meet these people now that are in their 40s, 50s and 60s, they have countless stories about what the music meant to them. And I think, “How lucky did I get?” Because when I was creating this stuff, hell, I’ve said this before, I was just trying to kick Queen and Aerosmith and Foreigner’s ass. We were in the ring, baby, with competition, to get people to listen to us. But now I look back, and I think, “Yeah, we made a difference.” And I know we made a difference because people tell me that I and my bandmates made a difference in their lives. 

And what was so overlooked with Styx music, which angers me to no end, was that when we were making this music, some of the people who wrote about music dismissed our lyrics because we didn’t make the kind of music journalists liked. And I’m not talking lyrically; I’m talking the way it sounds and what we did. And they were wrong, because our lyrics were meaningful and important to millions of people. I know this because they tell me still to this day. And the critics missed the point. 

With Julian Lennon

Of all the bands that were like us—I’m gonna brag because I don’t care, I’m 73—of all the bands of our era, we said something in our lyrics. As much as I like Queen and Foreigner or any of those bands that we would be compared to, we took stands about what we thought was important to teenagers. And telling them what we were thinking about regarding The Grand Illusion or Pieces Of Eight and the pursuit of money for its own sake. Even Kilroy Was Here with censorship and the coming technology that we all had to be fearful of. You know “Mr. Roboto” was dismissed by so many people because it was so doggone catchy and clever, but really the issue is, “The problem’s plain to see, too much technology/Machines to save our lives, machines dehumanize.” So I’m clearly saying what has occurred. Did I know that AI and the internet were coming? No, it was just a response to what I saw happening in this country to the people I loved and grew up with. We lived in a working-class neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. And I saw in 1983 the coming robotics revolution that was replacing workers. I felt this was absolutely going to destroy the lives of the people that I love.

You know, I was going to ask you about Pieces Of Eight and that success may not be what people think. And then it seems to me that “Run For The Roses” on the new album continues that theme—that what’s important may not be the stereotypical definition of success and all the trappings that go with it.
It’s very observant. I would think “Damn That Dream” and “Run For The Roses” are the same song lyrically. You know, what makes people successful is a desperate need to please someone in their life who cannot be pleased. A very hard task master … it’s one of our parents. With me, it was my mother. I played the accordion, because my neighbor played the accordion. He was older than me, and I saw how she smiled, and we want to please our parents. We’re little kids running around looking for approval and love. That’s all human beings are doing. I did it through music. 

So, when I look back, I was so ambitious and so determined to make Styx a success. The most ambitious one in the band by far. So, when I finally got success, you know, we live under the illusion that it will fill a hole, a need in us, and then when we achieve it we realize we’re still the same person. So, that’s what happened to me. And Pieces Of Eight, in one year, we went from zero to a hundred miles an hour. Financially, all of us did. And what I made in one year after The Grand Illusion led me to examine the value of money and success and ambition in the song “Pieces Of Eight.” I brought it to the band, and I asked them, “What have you been going through?” JY writes “The Great White Hope,” Tommy Shaw writes “Blue Collar Man.” My belief is if you reach your dreams, you just might be screwed, because your belief system will need to be reexamined. What you thought you were going to get out of it, you will not get. And the minute you make all this money and have all this notoriety, all your friends and your family will treat you differently out of fear that somehow something has happened to you that will change your relationship with them. That’s an awful thing to go through, because you still feel like the same mook. We were trying to think the “big think.” Well, maybe some people who look at this say, “You failed; we still think you’re a poo-poo face when it comes to lyrics.” Fine. You’re wrong.

I know the band took a lot of critical hits back in the day, but reading some of the more recent press about the group, it seems like there’s been a critical reassessment, and I think people do recognize that there was value in the music and, as you said, in the lyrics. And the fans knew it, obviously, because they stuck with you over the years. They were just ahead of the critical press at the time.
Well, the critical press, you know, they listened with different ears. You know, Styx began in ’72, one year before Queen. I’d never heard Queen records until ’75. And because we were on a local record company, and “Lady” took forever to break—two and half years—when we finally got successful, worldwide in ’77, to many people we just sounded like music that had been made for the last six, seven years at the time, right? Well, yeah, and we were making it, but nobody was aware of it. And it was just laziness on their parts to not realize that sound we had, the high, whiny vocals, white guys playing loud and singing high, with prog stuff and all that. We weren’t copying Queen or anybody else—we’d already done that. But, just bad luck for us in terms of timing. I hope I don’t sound angry, but there’s a certain amount of frustration. 

You know what the rock press was doing in ’75, ’76, ’78 when we were having our big success? They were busy trying to promote Bruce Springsteen. Every time we’d play a sold-out arena, we’d see this review in the paper over and over again: “How can a band like Styx sell out these arenas when Bruce Springsteen is relegated to play the small, performing-arts center in town?” What do those two things have to do with each other? They had a quest, and it was Bruce! I get it, but there’s absolute frustration on my part. Do you think there was no crossover between Bruce Springsteen’s fans and Styx fans? I’m here to tell you there was. The frustration comes from this.

It’s ironic that the band was tagged as a sort of corporate-rock band when you were working-class guys from the south side of Chicago. 
That was horseshit. We never took a dime from corporate sponsors. We funded all of our tours taking loans from banks. But that’s just lazy journalism. “Arena rock,” whatever they called it. You’ve got a crap job, describing music with words. Well, my friend, you can’t. Without similes, you’ve got nothing. Unlike lyrics, music is a physical response. Rock critics place more importance on lyrics than the music because words are their baby. Too much emphasis on two things: lyrics and rebellion. The people who invented rock ‘n’ roll were not interested in anarchy or rebellion; they wanted to get their mother a Cadillac. They wanted to make some money. They were in show business. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, Jerry Lee … go right on down the line. Elvis wanted to be Dean Martin, for goodness sakes. Rock ‘n’ roll started out with young people making music their own way so they could buy a Cadillac. And then, in the late ‘60s, because people started writing about it, it had to be about being anti-establishment. Well, guess, what: Rock musicians are The Man. They have deals with multi-national corporations. I’ll get off this soap-box now. 

Well, I would say you’re passionate about it. And to tie it back to your current album and a song like “With All Due Respect,” the lyrics are angry but the music kicks ass.
I don’t know. I have no faith in human beings at the moment. Although I watch the people who run in those hospitals, and I think, “Who are those people?” God bless them. But now you tell me, “With All Due Respect,” what am I talking about there? I’m just curious to hear what some people think. I’ve read that some people think it has to do with Tommy and JY.

I don’t know if I’ve got it right, but I think what you’re saying is that often what we’re seeing or hearing on the news is so polarizing that it makes it harder for people to keep an open mind and make informed decisions.
That’s it. The news media has sold out to the entertainment media simply to polarize us. They are destroying our democracy. They’re destroying our community fiber and society by trying to make us feel we’re at war with each other. There are always going to be fanatics on both sides, but what they’re doing, they’re exacerbating this by constantly sticking these polar opposites in wrestling rings, and it’s to our detriment. How many times have you looked at the TV and said, “You are an asshole”? Human beings are always going to shade things a little bit, but remember MacNeil/Lehrer on PBS? I used to think to myself, “It doesn’t get much fairer than these guys.” And you can go back and you can listen to a lot of people like Bob Schieffer. People are always going to have a little shading in their minds because they’re human. And you know I’ve written a lot of things that are cryptic and metaphorical, blah, blah, blah. This is no time for that. I’m calling them out.

I think you were getting at that in a song even back in the early ’80s, like “Borrowed Time.” 
Oh, God bless you. I said that 1979. “The left says yes, the right says no/I’m in between, and the more I learn, the less that I know/We’re living on borrowed time.” I was saying that back then. “Yes! No!” It started then. 

I’m pretty sure that was the song you opened the tours with that year.
I was up on top, we had that beautiful “proggy” beginning, and then suddenly the American rock band started bombing the auditorium with those big guitars. 

We didn’t talk about it, but “You My Love” on the new album is a beautiful song even though it’s a sad one. I was going to ask you about the story behind it. The melody is gorgeous.
My daughter’s divorce. I watched it. And anybody who has been divorced can understand it. Just listen to that song through the eyes and ears of divorce. I’d written it seven years ago and put it away. It made my daughter cry, so I just buried it. I was going through all my songs and my wife said, “What about that song? It’s just a gorgeous song and so spot on.” I pulled it out and listened and said, “Yeah, that’s pretty good.” And that’s how it got on the album. So many people hear that song and think it has to be about my wife, because they’re so used to me singing love songs about my relationship. I’m extremely suspicious of people who are afraid of sentimentality and any song that deals with romantic love. But it’s not about me. That’s about the breakup of a relationship and the pain that was endured by the person who’s singing. I was trying to do my heroes. Gene Pitney and Roy Orbison for the most part.

It’s not the same thing but for some reason the music of that song reminded me of “Unfinished Song,” which I think was going to be on Styx II but didn’t make it for whatever reason. I was going to ask you why it didn’t. It’s another beautiful song. 
It was for Man Of Miracles. Remember, we were out of albums for our record deal. And “Lady” was a stiff when it was released. We were so desperate to have a hit, we did a cover version of (the Knickerbockers’) “Lies,” which the record company wanted more than “Unfinished Song.” I don’t think there’s ever been a band that’s had more missteps and bad management in their career than we had. And “Unfinished Song” I wrote with my brother-in-law, Chuck. He was a disabled Vietnam veteran, and those are his words. My music. Usually on Styx songs, those are my lyrics, but that’s Chuck. It’s a good one. Styx fans are in love with it because it’s like a lost treasure to them. In the end, I’m an accordion player who looked for some chords that he liked. Then, he found some good notes to go with the chords, and finally he stuck some words on those notes … I told my point of view concerning my personal life and the world I see around me, hoping that you would find yourself in my songs. That’s all I do. And I’ve been rewarded incredibly, and I’m a very lucky guy.

—Bruce Fagerstrom