He thought he was done making new music. Finito. End of the Road. When Dennis DeYoung released what he was calling 26 East last year, he fully expected it to be his final studio album in a long and storied career that stretched back to 1972 with the first Styx record and through his solo career.
After all, the songs were drenched in nostalgia. And the closing track, “A.D. 2020,” not only quoted from his former band’s hit “The Best of Times,” but ended with these words: “And so my friends/I’ll say goodbye/For time has claimed its prize/But the music never dies/Just listen and close your eyes/And welcome to paradise.”
Well, DeYoung’s label, Frontiers Music, had other ideas. There were plenty of other tunes leftover from the sessions and, well, DeYoung might want to write a few more during quarantine. So that title became an optimistic 26 East Vol. 1. Now, the company—and DeYoung’s fans—get their wish for a little extra something something with last year’s 26 East Vol. 2.
The cover of 26 East Vol. 2 is a visual nod to the American release of Meet the Beatles and opening track “Hello Goodbye” a gushing love letter to the Fabs which features plenty of Easter Egg lyrical and musical quotes from the catalog.
DeYoung is one of hundreds of musicians who had their “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” moment in February 1964 that set them on a career path to rock and roll. But how would the 74-year-old DeYoung tell a 17-year-old teen today how a band simply playing a few songs on TV was such a big deal and seismic shift in the culture?
“Well, it’s not a teen’s fault at all. They can’t understand. They live in the culture of ubiquity where everything is available all the time. Imagine what’s in that kid’s hand with [a phone]. It’s the power of kings,” DeYoung says, pushing his palm into the Zoom camera for emphasis.
“And I say, that dooms mankind. There is no [singular] culture anymore. There were three channels to watch on TV back then. Top 40 radio played all kinds of music, but you had to wait for it. Now, you can listen to music from an Albanian, one-legged, heavy metal poetry reading. There was a oneness to humanity which is being disintegrated by subcultures. So a teenage boy couldn’t understand that any more than what it would be like to be a father.”
The instant ability to absorb and delete or create music, or how technology can replace what someone had to learn to do before, is also a point made in “The Last Guitar Hero.” He got Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave) to provide a searing solo and outro. And it oddly ties in Adam Sandler.
DeYoung says that Sandler, a noted Styx fan, was hosting his annual Hannukah/Christmas party at which he played. The two talked and Morello explained that while his early interests were KISS and heavy metal, he also got heavily into Styx and saw several concerts back in the day. That inspired DeYoung to write the song with Morello in mind as both the subject and a contributor.
“I listen to what they claim to be [mainstream] rock today, but the guitar player is a lost item. It’s all synthesizers and producers. I just saw a video of a 4-year-old Japanese kid playing Eddie Van Halen. How does that happen? It’s because you can watch a video tutorial and learn how to do anything.” DeYoung says. “Except plumbing. I still don’t understand that.”
Of course, a theme of the Styx’s 1983 album Kilroy Was Here and the song “Mr. Roboto” was indeed how “too much technology” can dehumanize people. Or provide too many options to where it becomes overwhelming. DeYoung says it’s all coming true.
“Look at Marky Mark Zuckerberg. He decides that his mission is to connect everyone. I thought ‘Have you MET everyone? It’s a revolution and we’re living through it,” he says. “And it’s exposing the bad angels in mankind because it gives them free reign to say and do anything, cloaked in anonymity. There’s no consequence, and that’s dangerous. I say bring back the fistfight. You walk into somewhere and you start shooting your mouth off, you might get your nose punched.”
Finally, there’s a trio of songs that the listener can’t help but connect to commentary on a number of political and social issues of the past few years: “Little Did We Know” (about missing sign that point to destruction), “Isle of Misanthrope” (an allegorical tale about ruined civilizations), and “St. Quarantine.” In the last of those, DeYoung has two characters seemingly on opposite sides of the quarantine/vaxxing/mask debate state their cases.
DeYoung is more obtuse in his lyrics, often hinting rather than stating. That’s because he wants listeners to shape their own views of the songs. “All I’ve done with songwriting, after I understood how to do it, was find chords I like, put notes on them that I like, and then put words on the notes. And then I give you my point of view hoping that you the listener find yourself in my story,” DeYoung offers.
“After I make them and send them out into the great ether, they belong to the listener. And it’s what they make of those songs that matters. My lyric combination has always been a combination of the literal with imagination. I like to leave some room for the fans to decide what I’m saying.”
Many commentors on DeYoung social media have noted that leadoff single “Isle of Misanthrope” harkens back to the very early Styx albums that had a more Prog Rock bent. DeYoung says it’s that genre’s “mysticism” in lyrics that sometimes left him cold. “I never knew what the [Prog bands] were talking about most of the time, it was all mood. But in ‘Isle,’ I’m trying to spark an interpretation that could be completely different from what I intended.” He also gives credit to Jim Peterik (Survivor) who co-wrote some of the tracks on both volumes.
DeYoung says “God willing and the creek don’t leak,” he plans on hitting the road, but not until possibly 2022. “I’m gonna sit back and wait. I’m gonna watch. The first bands going out on the road now? They all have big alimony payments, that’s my theory,” DeYoung – who has been married to his wife Suzanne for 51 years, says.
In fact, given the amount of hit songs that DeYoung wrote about his wife (which include “Lady,” “Babe,” and “The Best of Times,”) she could give Patti Harrison/Clapton a run for Rock’s Greatest Muse. DeYoung notes that “Lady” was originally not even a hit for the band, but it’s ballad was a departure sound for the group, and he knew it was meant for something bigge when concert audiences responded extremely well to it.
“Nobody wants to be chained down to this thing, but it’s not over. We just need some humility. We don’t know everything, and Scientific American doesn’t either. I’m not putting myself or my fans in jeopardy. I’ve had a family though all this, and I’ve found during this thing that I value things other than what I do professionally.”
The album’s closer, “Grand Finale,” brings DeYoung’s recording career and personal life somewhat full circle. It features the drumming of his son, Matthew, who uses a cymbal given to him by John Panozzo, the late drummer and co-founder of Styx. DeYoung had to supervise recording remotely via camera.
“Matt and John were really close when John was alive, and that’s why he plays drums. I had to watch the recording on an iPad through Facetime or Zoom, which isn’t ideal,” DeYoung says. “But it was great having him do that. And I didn’t know he was going to use John’s cymbal.”
The track also has a lyrical nod to Styx’s “Come Sail Away,” with its very last words a quote from “The Grand Illusion”: “And deep inside we’re all the same/All the same.”
“The last words I sing are the words that meant so much to me in 1977. You may aspire to great success or be a big shot or be an intellectual giant or just a mook trying to get through life. But we’re all the same,” he says. “And the pandemic has shown us that. And when you go out for the last time, it’s good to have someone next to you that loved you and cared about you and gave meaning to your life. And I write about that.”
This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com
For more on Dennis DeYoung, visit DennisDeYoung.com