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.)

The sheer bombast of the approach -- often dismissed as pomp rock -- was what lent Styx its great resonance with young listeners (read: me). To a fourteen-year-old, all of this pretense seemed heavy. The allegorical lyrics and convoluted arrangements -- which shifted moods with jolting regularity -- offered the desired patina of sophistication, as did the band's name, cribbed from mythology.

Yet the music itself was eminently accessible. Seething with hormones and nascent misanthropy, I regarded the rollicking rebellion of "Renegade" as mythopoeic, the escapist smarm of "Come Sail Away" as epiphanic. Paradise Theater was, in actuality, a kind of working-class lament. But to me and my peach-fuzzed buds at Camp Tawonga, the treacly melodies and bubblegum beats spoke directly to us. "Too Much Time on My Hands"? "Nothing Ever Goes as Planned"? "Fooling Yourself (the Angry Young Man)"? Shit, how much more succinctly can one sum up adolescence. Of course beneath all the tough-guy angst we were still simpering suckers for the naked yearning of "The Best of Times" and the slow-dance sway of "Babe."

In the final analysis, Styx mapped, with touching devotion, that terrain where inner child meets inner schlock. It is for this reason, finally, that I had to make such a violent break from the band. My devotion was too bound up in my identity as a miserable teen. Simply put, Styx hit too close to home.

I think it only fair to note, though, that just as I have grown up (sort of), Styx has grown up too (sort of). The band that scored its last major hit in 1983 with "Don't Let It End" seems to have taken the song to heart. A precipitous plunge in popularity led to temporary dissolution of the band in 1984. Both DeYoung and Shaw pursued solo careers. DeYoung's Desert Moon scored a minor hit with its title track, as did Shaw's Girls With Guns. But these solo ventures quickly fizzled. In 1990 the band reunited, with drummer Glen Burtnick replacing John Panozzo, and released the comeback disc Edge of the Century, which yielded two hits, "Show Me the Way" and "Love at First Sight."

Thanks to the classic rock format, much of the Styx oeuvre remains alive and well. In fact, the group's decision to launch a tour with Kansas this summer precedes the upcoming release of Greatest Hits Volume II, which will include two new songs, "Little Suzie" and "Takes Love to Make Love."

Prior to the regrouping, Shaw hooked up a few years back with meat-eating, guitar-slinging, right-winger Ted Nugent, ex-Night Ranger bassist/vocalist Jack Blades, and a no-name drummer to form Damn Yankees. Whether you heard it as the nadir of corporate rock or its quintessence (is there a difference?), one thing's certain: The band cranked out a pair of hit albums in the pre-grunge era of the early Nineties before Kurt Cobain closed the door on their brand of glossy pop claptrap.

As for DeYoung, aside from his duties in Styx, he has pursued an interest in theater. Last year he played Pilate in the Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, and his latest project is a musical theater production based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The piece, titled Q-Modo, will combine the traditional sounds of Broadway show tunes with hard rock, and is slated to open this fall. An absurd career move, perhaps, but DeYoung's Broadway pretensions are not surprising, for Q-Modo promises to incorporate all the elements that have made Styx such an embarrassing touchstone: a half-baked concept, what will most likely be cheesy music, and an overweening sense of mission. I, of course, wish DeYoung and his mates all the luck in the world, and I'm sure they'll enjoy all the success they deserve. I'd even consider attending the opening of his Q-Modo, provided, of course, I could bring along my therapist.

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