To many classic rock fans, it would seem a bit of unnecessary clarification to bill a Dennis DeYoung show as “Dennis DeYoung and the Music of Styx.”
After all, as the band’s main vocalist, chief songwriter, and keyboardist, anyone with a ticket to the show surely knows they will hear the headliner belt out classics like “Lady,” “The Grand Illusion,” “Babe,” “The Best of Times,” “Come Sail Away” and – yes – “Mr. Roboto” in that utterly distinctive voice.
Yet, despite all that success, DeYoung himself felt that his name alone doesn’t have enough familiarity, and thus the extra wording. Which he is allowed to use after some messy legal wrangling following his unceremonious 1999 ouster from the band. After all, it’s his legacy too.
“When I was replaced, I had to find a way to work it out. I worked really hard at promoting a certain four letter word my whole life,” DeYoung says today. “And there is a genuine honesty to Styx music. It was heartfelt. We weren’t trying to be ironic or smarter than anybody. And I’m proud of that.”
From the time in 1975 when he joined the already-existing Styx, DeYoung was the group’s strongest creative force in a lineup that also included vocalist/guitarist Tommy Shaw, guitarist James “JY” Young, and a rhythm section of brothers Chuck and John Panozzo on bass and drums. And he was happy with that.
“I loved being in a band. I wanted to be in the Beatles, but those son of a bitches never called me!” DeYoung laughs. “But a band is the sum of its parts. The Beatles were all great individually, but put together…that was something else. And that’s how I felt about Styx.”
Dipping their musical toes in pools of straight ahead rock, ballads, and prog during their ‘70s and ‘80s heyday, there seemed to be a Styx song to fit any mood. And it’s that versatility that DeYoung feels boosted the band’s career.
Along the way, many of their more popular tunes became cornerstones in the soundtrack-of-your-lives way. This writer recalls that during the late ‘70s/early ‘80s at Magic Skate in Humble, the opening electric piano notes of “Babe” instantly signaled it was time for a Couples Skate. Kind of ironic, given the song’s actual lyrics about leaving.
DeYoung notes that hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t hear a similar story about how the music of Styx is in the fabric of someone’s life, often during what he says are “high voltage emotional events.”
“And I find that is true of a lot of bands from that era, because the music during that time was so essential to young people’s lives. There were not as many other distractions as there are today,” he offers.
“Look, I lived in the greatest time in history to be a musician, something that never happened before and will never happen again. I hit the sweet spot by matter of birth. And I feel a warmth from the audience when they talk to be about this music. It goes beyond anything I thought I would ever achieve.”
It’s a feeling that has run off into his earlier parallel solo career and then post-Styx endeavors.
“The vast majority of people on this planet never have the opportunity to be appreciated as I have because of the music,” he says. “I’ll go someplace, people will pay me to go there, and then afterward thank me for coming to their town and performing. It’s a miracle.”
But things aren’t always so heavy and misty-eyed in the world of Dennis DeYoung. In fact – as he demonstrates during the interview – he possesses a quick and self-deprecating sense of humor (even if some of his jokes are a bit practiced – “I’m half Italian…from the waist down!”).
It’s a humor that wasn’t always on display during his time with the Styx.
“Writers always characterized us in ways we weren’t based on our music. You couldn’t be funny if you were in Styx,” he says. “And all the photos of bands from that time, everyone is so dead serious trying to be cool. But we were misunderstood. If there was ever a Clown Alley, it was the guys in our band. And John Panozzo – may he rest in peace – was the funniest guy I’ve ever known.”
Still, despite their huge commercial popularity and sold out shows, Styx – both then and now – were never critic’s darlings. Which DeYoung feels is a big reason that the band is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though at least they are in some good company.
“I don’t want to sound like the guy with sour grapes and who is not in the club, but this is the truth,” he says.
“Styx, Journey, Foreigner, Boston, Kansas, REO Speedwagon, Chicago, and the Doobie Brothers. The people who never liked them are the same people who decides who gets in. I have been saying that there’s no room for Deep Purple, because Leonard Cohen is in!” [Note: since this interview was conducted, it was announced that both Deep Purple and Chicago would be inducted in 2016].
DeYoung also feels that rock critics and writers who make up a chunk of the voting bloc favor lyrics over music. And while he’s tried a “half a dozen times” with his best shot to get through the music of the Velvet Underground, he still can’t see what the critical fuss is all about on any level.
“Night after night, I see people locking arms and singing my songs. And after the first 12 words, they may not know the rest, but they know the melody,” he says. “And that’s why the music is more important that the words.”
If Styx ever does make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, fans may not want to hold their breath for an on-stage performance reunion of the four surviving classic lineup members.
“I have no personal communication with them, and it’s a shame,” DeYoung says. Young and Shaw lead the current lineup, with the health wise fragile Chuck Panozzo making an occasional appearance. Any viewing of their episode of “Behind the Music” will fill in some of the story.
But for Dennis DeYoung, he’s content to look both backwards at the music he made with Styx, and forward to performing it with his current band of five years standing (“They work for cheap!”) for fans that now span nearly three generations. And he knows what he would tell them today.
“Rejoice in the music that has given you pleasure. And remember that it was created by five guys. And if you change one of those parts, you change the music,” he says, before urging this writer to watch a video on his website of Styx miming to their song “Rockin’ the Paradise.”
“That, my friend, is who the band was. Just watch it.”
For more on Dennis DeYoung, visit www.dennisdeyoung.com
A version of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.