Pickin' Up STYX

Seventeen Magazine - by Edwin Miller, September 1981
as Typed by Janet Rekesius

"You are the magic!" Dennis DeYoung, lead singer of Styx, tells eighteen thousand teen-agers in a Long Island, New York amphitheater. His listeners are beside themselves with excitement at seeing the five-man band in the flesh. "Without you," he avows, waving a hand at a stage dominated by a flashing sign that spells the title of the group's current hit album, Paradise Theater, "it would be nothing!"

Wearing red trousers and a yellow and white striped shirt, complete with red carnation and sleeve garters, Dennis reminds you of a riverboat gambler in an old Hollywood movie. Behind him are the Panozzo twins: John, at the drums, is a teddy bear in a white naval jacket, white Bermuda shorts, and knee socks, an outfit inspired by Captain Stubing on TV's Love Boat; bearded bass player Chuck is clad, Woody Allen style, in tuxedo and sneakers. These three have been playing together twenty years now, since they were twelve.

Fellow rocker Tommy Shaw, dressed in black pants and a red and black shirt and looking like a Tom Sawyer with battle fatigue, takes the microphone. "We've been to Europe and the far corners," the slender guitarist declares, "but there ain't no place like the good ole U.S.A." The audience erupts with shouts of approval.

The fifth member of the group, James Young (J.Y. to those who know him), a tall, dramatic figure with yellow hair and a white jumpsuit, waves his guitar at the crowd. "I swore," he says, "When and if I'd ever make it to the big stage, I'd play my guitar real loud. When I lived at home, my folks wouldn't let me play as loud as I pleased, and it ticked me off - you know what I mean?" Everyone does; there's a deafening roar of assent.

Although the audience may not realize it, they've been given the basic Styx message, which will be repeated again and again, straight-out or subliminally, during the next couple of hours. Through its music, Styx tells you that you have the potential to make whatever you want out of life; that you are in the best place to accomplish that, the United States; and that you don't need any higher authority to tell you what to do. Styx expresses a deep-rooted part of the American tradition, which most yearn to believe is still true. And if it isn't, Dennis reassures the crowd, "Go for the dream. But if you're at school or at work and a little voice says, 'I can't take it anymore,' it's okay. Everybody feels that way."

Styx's rock is loud but not hard. There's nothing threatening or aggressive about it: Themes are melodious, couched in waves of grandiose sound that form a kind of security blanket - all of which has made it one of the top half-dozen rock groups in the United States. Their latest A&M album, Paradise Theater, is owned by more than three million fans, and three of their earlier sets were cited as "triple platinum" - selling more than a million and a half copies each. When they played two nights in Los Angeles during their current tour, thirty thousand tickets were sold out in sixty-eight minutes.

You don't read very much about Styx. They believe that in part, this is because they don't possess enough off-stage color. Chuck says, "Our lives don't make for funny little anecdotes. We are fun-loving, but we don't choose to express ourselves in an immature way, like destroying hotel rooms. And we draw a really good crowd that comes to hear music. We don't have to worry about someone being drunk out there and throwing a bottle at us because we have excited them to utter pandemonium."

Last year, SEVENTEEN readers voted Styx their favorite band. During a recent stopover in New York, James Young - J.Y. - said that the news didn't come as a total surprise. "The songs we write make teens feel good," he explains. "They're songs of commitment they can relate to."

Fellow bandsman Dennis agrees. "Our music exudes hope," he says. "A lot of everyday things can go wrong. Life is boring and mundane, but characters in our songs always seem to have hope for the future - and hope for themselves."

Whenever he or J.Y. turns serious, the other one pokes a hole into any possibility of pretension. "Sincerity is everything," J.Y. counters, "and once you learn how to fake it, you've got it made!"

But Dennis isn't to be deflected. "We're trying to tell the kids, 'You see us onstage smiling and having a good time. We love what we do, but don't be confused. Regardless of how much success you achieve, you can feel joy, or you can get depressed. Your mother can get cancer and die; your son can be in an automobile accident.' Through the media, people get false images about well-to-do or successful people. There's a sneaking suspicion that somebody else's life is somehow better. That the whole issue for me," Dennis declares. "Regardless of where you work or who you are, everyone shares the same kinds of life problems. That's what we say in our music."

Four of the five members of Styx hail from Chicago and have working-class roots. Dennis' father was a printer; J.Y.'s a carpenter; and the Panozzo's dad worked in the steel mills. They all began high school during the Kennedy administration. "There was a belief that we could do no wrong as a country, that we were the greatest nation on earth," Dennis recalls. "It was a wonderful time to be alive. We thought we could do whatever we wanted to do if we applied ourselves. Kids don't feel that today. I've seen that whole attitude change over the past ten years. It makes me sad for young people."

J.Y. reflects, "We grew up in a time of prosperity and low inflation. People felt so secure in terms of basic survival that the country turned to deep-rooted social problems like the race issue and integration. Then came Vietnam," he continues, "and we found out you couldn't police the world." As a teen-ager, J.Y., a member of a strict Protestant family in an Irish Catholic neighborhood, felt isolated. To add to his troubles, he had been skipped a couple of times, so he was younger than others in his class, and his parents wouldn't let him do things his peers did. "Part of the animal in me onstage is due to all that repression," he remarks. "Friday nights all the kids would go to a dance, but I would have to go to church." During his rebellious period, he smoked marijuana and experimented with acid. "I'll never do that again," he says. "I don't like drugs. I like to be in control of my existence."

Fraternal twins, John and Chuck Panozzo stopped letting their mother dress them alike when they were eight years old. John is brawny; Chuck, slim and soft-spoken. Styx manager Derek Sutton remarks that Chuck, who once taught art appreciation to high school seniors in Chicago, gives direction to Styx album covers and costumes. "Whenever he disappears in a town," he adds, "you'll always find him in the local art gallery. He's very quiet, very shy."

Both the Panozzos-family man John and bachelor Chuck-still live in Chicago, in a middle-class neighborhood. "We used to play hide and go seek and kick the can on the streets," John says. "That's where my roots are, and that's where I will remain."

"Staying in Chicago gives us a much better perspective," J.Y. chimes in, "than buying a two-million-dollar house in Malibu." (A still photographer who spent two weeks traveling with Styx observes, "I've shot everyone from low-life New Wavers to Kiss to the Bee Gees, and generally, everybody treats you like a sort of servant. You come in through the back door, and after a while, if you're good, you get to be inconspicuous, like a water cooler. If you're lucky, they pretend you're not there. But these guys are different. They remember your name, which is very unusual. And they offer you something to eat, which is unusual, too. They treat you like a real live flesh-and-blood person, and they care about what you're doing.")

The Panozzo boys began studying music when they were seven, with the encouragement of an uncle who was a professional drummer. They met Dennis when they were high school freshmen. It was a hot summer day, John recalls, and the windows were open. "We were playing in the living room, and Dennis knocked on the door and asked, 'Hey, can I come in?' The next day he came back with his keyboards."

They called themselves Trade Winds. They weren't to name themselves Styx until 1968, when they were in college, assigned to read Dante's Inferno. The ancient Greeks believed the legendary river Styx carried all men to their final resting place in purgatory or in Hades. "It seemed symbolic," Chuck says. "It had a different twist."

When they met J.Y., he was a college freshman at the Illinois Institute of Technology, playing in a rival band. To him, the importance of music lies in its emotional impact, its raw energy. In those days, Dennis and the Panozzos were in the musical mainstream, duplicating pop-song hits of the day for audiences, while J.Y. was playing what he calls, "obscure, heavy-metal stuff nobody knew." He joined Styx in 1970. The last man to join Styx in its present lineup was Tommy Shaw, six years ago.

Tommy is reluctant to be interviewed except by disc jockeys on the radio, where he feels a connection with his unseen audience. Recently divorced, his whole life is music. "He's the most promotion-oriented member of the band," manager Derek Sutton says. "He's the one who needs the personal feedback from fans the most. He signs more autographs than anyone else." Raised in Alabama, Tommy took up the guitar at nine. By the age of fourteen, he was hanging out with older musicians, and at sixteen, he was playing in a bar band in Montgomery. Following high school, he went to Nashville, Tennessee, then spent three years on the road with a group called M.S. Funk before joining Styx. When not on tour, he lives on a thirty-acre farm, stocked with horses and cattle, near Lake Michigan.

The big breakthrough for Styx came in 1976, after eight years of slogging, during a concert in Montreal. "We happened to play a song called Suite Madame Blue," Dennis recalls, "which told the country to shape up because it was starting to all apart." The country referred to was the United States, but the crowd cheered. "They just went wild," Dennis continues. "I was paralyzed. That was the first moment in our career that we knew we had something. It was one of those times when the audience was better than the band."

When Styx finishes performing, the familiar chant "We want Styx! We want Styx!" brings the band back for an encore, and Dennis tells the throng, "If the Paradise Theater"-referring to his nostalgic symbol for the old American dream-"could have one night like this in New York, maybe it could live forever!"

Afterward, backstage, greeting several dozen fans whose parents are connected with the music business, Tommy Shaw reports to a couple of thirteen-year-old girls, "I've been with Styx since no one knew who Styx was, and I'm real proud of the show tonight!"

So close to one of their idols, the girls are dumbstruck. They say nothing, only stare. As they file happily out into the night, one teen tells another, "It's today's music, man! The songs really mean something."

Chuck Panozzo figures Styx is popular because members of the band look ordinary: "No one would walk by any one of us and say, 'Well, he must be a rock star.' When we see our audience, we see people that look like us. We're not expressing a philosophy so deep that anyone can't understand it. We give them love songs and social comment-and yet, when you boil it down, it's still rock and roll."

My Styx Page