Pickup Styx

by Jim DeRogatis, pop music critic

Suddenly, Styx is everywhere: in a Volkswagen commercial that playfully pokes fun at a guy singing "Mr. Roboto" in his car, on the soundtrack of an Adam Sandler movie and in a cover by Isaac Hayes as Chef on "South Park."

Though my rock 'n' roll aesthetic was equally informed by mid-'70s progressive rock and late '70s punk, I never connected with Styx's operatic and bombastic brand of arena rock. I wrote the group off circa "The Grand Illusion" in 1977 and didn't think about it again until my wife came home a few weeks ago with a digitally remastered version of "Styx Greatest Hits."

Prompted by the Volkswagen commercial and the nostalgic recollection that "Come Sail Away" had been her prom theme song, she rushed out and paid cash money for the disc, and it has been on heavy rotation on the car stereo whenever she's been at the wheel ever since.

As an open-minded critic, I welcomed this as an opportunity to reassess the musical legacy of the group, which, after all, is one of the most successful to ever call Chicago home. After languishing in the glistening sounds of "Lady," "Babe," "Renegade" and the rest, and talking to guitarist James "JY" Young on the occasion of a tour by the current lineup that finds him and Tommy Shaw as the only remaining veterans, I can now report two findings:

1. Young is a funny and insightful interview subject who seems to have a healthy grip on Styx's place in the pop-music universe, both in its heyday and now.

2. I still don't like Styx's operatic and bombastic brand of arena rock.

Q. Is this a particularly exciting gig for you Saturday, playing at the New World Music Theatre?
A. It will be the most people that Styx has ever played in front of in the Chicago area, at least in one sitting. In '81 we did three shows at the Rosemont Horizon that will probably come out to more people total.

Q. Are you surprised by the depth of feeling for the band that remains in this city?
A. Really, all across the country, there's an incredible depth of feeling for the work that we've done. When we finally got back together with the "glory lineup" in 1996 - minus John Panozzo at that time - the incredible reaffirmation of our work... a song like "Lady" having been released in 1975 and still being a huge thing in 1996 and a huge thing in the year 2000... at this point there's a whole new generation of fans that are suddenly embracing this kind of music.

Q. When you started out in the early '70s in a South Side basement, did you ever envision a life devoted to this?
A. I think it was more the avoidance of work in the beginning. [Laughs.] I thought we could be successful, but to succeed to the degree that we have and to have had the impact in such an incredible way on people's lives is something that I personally could have never envisioned. Pop culture, that's what we're part of here - this is not rocket science, even though I do have a degree from [Illinois Institute of Technology] in aerospace engineering [laughs] - but for someone to look me dead in the eyes and say, "I was suicidal five years ago and it was your music that got me through it," to go from something that's just the avoidance of work and a way for a young person to fulfill a desperate need for attention to someone saying something that profound to you, the burden that success has placed on you all comes into focus.

Q. This is the same question that's asked of the Rolling Stones on every new tour: Can you now envision yourself doing this at age 65 or 70?
A. Frank Sinatra started out as a pop star and became an icon for the ages, and his audience followed him to his and probably their respective graves. There's a period of time in people's lives when music plays a pivotal role in forming the things they do, like the relationship with the person they're going to marry. The music that is sort of the background as adolescents find their way out into the world, that music seems to stay with them. I believe that our audience will follow us in the same way that Sinatra's followed him, in whatever incarnation or permutation we choose to adopt, within reason.

Q. There is a lot of debate in the music community about selling songs to TV commercials. What are your thoughts in light of the Volkswagen spot?
A. I guess I can see it in two different ways. If art has to remain pure in order to be appreciated on the proper level, it just can't be done. "Mr. Roboto" in the Volkswagen commercial, that was [songwriter and vocalist] Dennis [DeYoung's] decision. It's a song that he wrote, but I personally don't see any problem with it. The song itself is a wacky, fun song that was a No. 1 single back in 1983 when there were only two other gold singles on the charts at the time, "Billy Jean" and "Beat It," both by Michael Jackson. It's amazing that that song alienated a whole slew of core Styx listeners at that time. In fact, I ran into Dan Hampton of the Bears right around that time and he said, "I liked you guys until 'Mr. Roboto.' " He's 6-foot-5 and 270, so I didn't really get in his face about it.

>Q. Styx straddled the progressive-rock and the heartland arena-rock movements of the mid-'70s. Punk - and later grunge and alternative rock - was seen as a refutation of those sounds and their rock star trappings. But still the band endures.
A. We lived through it when we went to England when "The Grand Illusion" was climbing through double- and triple-platinum, and all they could ask us was, "Do you play any new wave?" I think that rock at its core is about teenage rebellion. It's a whole lot more than that, and it continues to sort of redefine itself with each year and each generation that embraces it as an art form. What happened in the early '90s in this country with grunge was a necessary purging of Milli Vanilli. The unplugged movement that happened at that time was another way of purging Milli Vanilli. Every now and then rock music has to get back to its roots, just like everybody has to get back to their roots, to touch the stone that got you started. Reflecting on more than a quarter of a century in the recording business, there's going to be ebbs and flows. I've learned to sort of take a punch and move forward. Ultimately the fans are there for this kind of music.

Q. Speaking of the fans, the Web sites are buzzing about the split with DeYoung, who is now performing Styx material on his own as well as doing musical theater pieces like "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." What happened after the last reunion?
A. Ultimately this is really about majority rules. The majority made a decision in 1999 to go on without Dennis - Tommy Shaw and myself and Chuck Panozzo, even though Chuck is on a leave of absence. Dennis' priorities have been not directed toward the band. The theater thing - he's just going off creatively in a dramatically different direction than what the band is about in my judgment, and he's going off in a very unilateral sort of way, where it's his way or the highway. We chose the highway. In my judgment, musical theater does not communicate to my personal needs and does not communicate to rock music fans' personal needs generally. For Dennis to have gone and done a record like "Ten on Broadway," that's a signal to everybody that he's headed off in some other direction.


Pop music critic Jim DeRogatis co-hosts "Sound Opinions," the world's only rock 'n' roll talk show, from 10 p.m. to midnight Tuesday on WXRT-FM (93.1).

Chicago Sun-Times Entertainment special section, June 2, 2000

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