Styx and Groans

This is going to be difficult for me -- for all of us, I expect -- because this isn't going to be some misty recollection, but rather the dredging up of a very specific and humiliating sliver of the past. Which means what we're dealing with is, in essence, disclosure. So let's take it moment by moment, okay? Here goes ...

I'm maybe thirteen years old, sitting four inches away from the TV in my parents' house in Palo Alto, California. On-screen there's a guy in a tuxedo botching his cue cards. (I'm remembering him as Soupy Sales, but don't hold me to it.) It's some sort of awards show is what it is, and Soupy -- or whoever -- has finally reached the last category of the night: the most popular rock and roll band in all of America, in the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and seventy nine. Soupy rips into a huge, powder blue envelope. An entire auditorium of celebrities -- a good chunk of them dressed in powder blue -- waits breathlessly. And then he utters the word I have been awaiting hours to hear:

So overcome am I, so goose-pimpled, that I run through the house in search of my older brother yelling, "STYX WON! STYX WON! HEY, DAVE, THEY-JUST-ANNOUNCED-THE-BEST-BAND-AND-IT'S-STYX!"

It is Dave, after all, who has unwittingly introduced me to Styx, his copy of Pieces of Eight I have listened to approximately 273 times in the previous year, banging my head faithfully to the driving beat of the totally awesome anthem "Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)."

Dave, however, is unimpressed. He shoos me from his room with a wave of his hand. Styx is old news to him at this point. He's graduated to the Grateful Dead.

I am undeterred.
Secure in the knowledge that Styx has claimed its rightful place at the summit of rock and roll Everest, I continue to deplete my allowance, gleefully, in exchange for product. The release of Cornerstone a few months later thrusts me deeper still into the band's thrall. As corduroy replaces polyester, so "Renegade" replaces "Blue Collar Man" as my headbanger of choice.

By 1981 I have discovered pot, deep-knead ed an actual knocker, and grown my hair long. (Photos from this era reveal my coif to be alarmingly similar to that of Rachel, from Friends.) Thus refined, I welcome Paradise Theater as the artistic milestone it so obviously is. No longer content simply to release the usual pastiche of pulsating rockers and power ballads, Styx has produced a unified whole. A concept album. A faux Tommy.

All year Tommy Shaw's piercing falsetto and Dennis DeYoung's blaring tenor serenade me. "The Best of Times"? Who could possibly disagree? None of us, certainly, who spent long hours at Camp Tawonga in vigorous debate over the relative merits of "Too Much Time on My Hands" versus "Nothing Ever Goes as Planned." The album just plain refuses to let up.

And then just as suddenly as it began, the love affair is over. Not only is it over, but it ends badly. Embarrassingly. Overnight A or so it seems to me now A the very mention of Styx is enough to trigger the gag reflex. Like photos of an old, homely girlfriend, my copies of Paradise Theater (I owned two) are relegated to a hidden shelf, behind my parent's Harry Belafonte LPs.

The release of 1983's Kilroy Was Here serves as nothing more than a painful reminder. "Domo origoto, Mr. Roboto"? Styx is plainly out of its depth. It all begins to feel tawdry. So forceful is my repudiation of the band that it triggers what psychologists would no doubt call Post-Traumatic Styx Disorder. The group that once goosed huge regions of my pleasure center A such as they were A is deep-sixed. All files destroyed. As if they never existed. (Only later, in group therapy, would I learn how pervasive this syndrome is among people of my generation.)

All of which makes Styx's current Return to the Paradise Theater tour, with fellow has-been supergroup Kansas in tow, a potentially devastating development.

How, then, am I to pick up the pieces of eight?
This much is plain: I can no longer dismiss my Styx jones as mere youthful folly. Instead, I must step away from shame and seek some perspective. So enough with the hand wringing, the throat clearing.

Some facts: Styx formed in 1963 -- the year JFK was assassinated, an event for which they should not be held responsible -- and played the Chicago bar circuit for a decade, shuffling a lineup that finally came to include Dennis DeYoung (vocals, keyboards), Tommy Shaw (lead guitar), James Young (guitar), and twin brothers John and Chuck Panozzo (drums and bass, respectively). The quintet's national break came in 1975 when "Lady" leaped to number six on the charts. There followed five albums, all of which went platinum, one of which -- Paradise Theater -- ascended all the way to number one.

The Styx sound was essentially a watered-down version of what the critics call art rock, a conscious attempt to elevate rock and roll by appropriating flourishes from highbrow genres, primarily classical and jazz. The more successful art rockers, such as Genesis, Roxy Music, and Pink Floyd, were from class-conscious Britain (where the movement was born), but Yanks took a crack as well, including Boston, Foreigner, Kansas, and Journey. For Styx, art rock meant the inclusion of blaring harmonized vocals (courtesy of Shaw and DeYoung, also the band's two principal songwriters); sweeping, orchestral keyboards; guitar solos chock full of gimmickry; arrangements so histrionic as to seem epic; ham-handed lyrics; and, eventually, loopily conceived concept albums. (The Panozzo twins, God love 'em, never had much ken of this sophistry. Their galloping rhythms are about as ornate as Velveeta.)

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