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Dennis DeYoung interview: 'no band has worked harder than Styx at diminishing its own reputation'

Dennis DeYoung
(Image credit: Phil Penman/Contour by Getty Images)

He has made many great albums, and now he has made his last. Dennis DeYoung is bowing out gracefully at the age of 74 with a solo record, 26 East Vol 2, that recalls his finest work from the 70s and 80s as singer, pianist and primary songwriter for Styx

Speaking to Classic Rock from his home in Chicago, the city where he was born on February 18, 1947, DeYoung talks like a wiseguy from a mob movie, a stark contrast to the high, pure singing voice heard on those classic songs – Lady, Come Sail Away, Babe, The Best Of Times – that made Styx a multimillion-selling phenomenon in the golden age of melodic rock. He also has plenty to say for himself. 

“I have a lot of great stories,” he says. “I tell myself that so I can just keep talking.” 

There is much joking and laughter as he tells these stories, and twice he breaks into song. His mood changes only when he discusses his departure from Styx in 1999, and the band’s refusal to reunite with him for one last tour. But “I’ve had a great career”, he says proudly. And with 26 East Vol 2, it’s ending on a high note

Alt

So this is it, Dennis – your final album.

Unless I turn into Kiss! But yeah, this is it. I gave it my best shot, and I always did. I’ve always been so neurotic and consumed with being the best I can, and it’s made me successful and miserable at the same time. 

Why end your career now? 

I grew up in the greatest time in the history of mankind to be a musician. But now, the music business is shite. Do I have to explain this to you? I don’t think so. The change is not in me. The change is in the culture. The deck is heavily stacked against people in rock music, and particularly old farts like myself. 

But you’re still making great music, with last year’s 26 East Vol 1, and now Vol 2. And on both albums you worked with former Survivor legend Jim Peterik – another old fart! 

When I first got the offer from Frontiers Records to do Vol 1 I didn’t want to do it. Why should somebody in his seventies still be annoying the public? That’s what I thought. But Jim Peterik talked me into it, the sonofabitch! And I’m glad he did. He and I have known each other a long time, and we really connected on these records. It was all good – except for that time he kicked my dog.

Are you retiring from music, period, or will you still go out and perform live?

I’m not retiring. And if the spirit moves me I might write a song from time to time and put it out through Apple or whoever the local robber baron is. But I’m not going to go through the tortuous effort of making a complete album again, because my audience will go: “Hey, that’s nice, Dennis,” pat me on the head and then say: “Please play Come Sail Away.” 

This is a fact for all classic rockers. The people who still support us are emotionally bound to the music of their youth, which is true of all generations. So if people want more music they should go ask the Talking Heads.

You made so many great albums with Styx. Which is the best? 

Top three: Equinox, The Grand Illusion and Paradise Theatre. But of course The Grand Illusion is our best album. Anyone who wants to argue about it, don’t come to my door. I’ll make them look silly. 

And the worst? 

Our third record, The Serpent Is Rising. It had this song Jonas Psalter, which I wrote about a pirate for God’s sake! Listen, I love Long John Silver, but Jesus Christ, I don’t have an eye patch! I was trying to fit in with the prog-rock thing. But it felt disingenuous, inauthentic. 

Why do such a thing? 

Our second album [Styx II] was a huge failure, and I was crushed. I thought: “Oh my God, I suck! People hate what I do.” So with the next two albums I tried to be anybody but Dennis DeYoung. 

So what changed? 

Everything changed when Lady was a hit. [Sings] ‘Lady, when you’re with me I’m smiling!’ It was the first song I ever wrote, and when we put it on the second album nobody at radio played it. But three years later it became a hit, and then it was: “They like me!” 

So I took the reins in Styx, and we came up with Equinox, which was a breakthrough. I did not do that by myself, I did it with the help and the talents of the other people in the band. But I was the guy who said: “This is the way to go, follow me, and if I screw up just hit me over the head with a shovel and bury me.” 

You didn’t screw up

I did not. Styx had a wonderful run. We made some records people liked, but my dream was always to just please my mom. My mother was Italian, and I was the firstborn, so all the hopes and dreams of mom were on me. That’s the truth. People who are very ambitious are trying to please somebody who can’t be pleased. 

You married you wife Suzanne in 1970. Was she the inspiration for all those classic Styx ballads? 

Every single one is about our relationship. When we met, she was fifteen and I was seventeen. It’s the only love we’ve ever known. What I didn’t understand when I was writing those songs is that there are a number of people in the world who absolutely hate romantic ballads and slam what they call the mushiness, the cheesiness, the treacle. And you know what I say to those people? “Fuck off!”

Steady on, Dennis!

Well, maybe I shouldn’t say fuck off to these people, it’s just their personal taste. But, ah, what the hell. And here’s the thing about Styx – we weren’t pussies. We rocked! You want the rough stuff? [Sings the AC/DC song] ‘Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap!’ Not bad, huh?

But here’s my definition of songwriting. I started out as a kid with an accordion, dreaming. I’m a melody man in a rhythm age. All I ever wanted to do was find some chords and attach lyrics to them and then give you my point of view, hoping that you find yourself in my story. That’s what songwriting is. And inclusive in that is my relationship with the love of my life. So I don’t want to feel like I have to apologise for that, because when you’re lying on your deathbed, love is the only thing that matters.

Last year, during lockdown, you performed one of those love songs, The Best Of Times, in a video that racked up more than a million views on YouTube. And the words in that song took on a deeper resonance in that period of isolation: ‘I know you feel these are the worst of times, I do believe it’s true/When people lock their doors and hide inside, rumour has it it’s the end of Paradise.’ 

Well, I guess you may now refer to me as ‘Nostradamus DeYoung’, if you don’t mind. But at first, when I saw all these other needy performers doing videos during the pandemic because they couldn’t stand the fact that people weren’t looking at them, I thought: “Do I need to pull my pants down here? I don’t want to.” 

But a friend talked to me about the lyrics of The Best Of Times, and I said: “Well there’s some dumb stupid luck!” So I did the video, and it got 1.2 million views! And the comments had me in tears. I couldn’t believe the wonderful things people were saying about me, and what that song means to them. 

A boost for your ego? 

Listen, my ego’s big enough. Ask anybody. I know I have talent. 

So you don’t need anyone blowing smoke up your ass? 

Oh no, I love it! Who doesn’t want smoke blown up their ass? I’m just saying I didn’t know that people felt that way about me. 

Well now you know. And you must also know that the majority of Styx fans would love to see you rejoin the band. So what is the real story there? 

I’ve tried, in vain, to be in that band from the moment they replaced me. In the beginning it was my band, my idea, but now it’s really Tommy Shaw’s band. I’ve said that we should do one last tour together, for those people who made us rich men. They know I’m ready to do it. And recently it was floated as a possibility. But Tommy Shaw was the only one who spoke, and he said no. 

Tommy has also said: “In retrospect, we weren’t even happy working with each other in our heyday.” What are your thoughts on that? 

Let me tell you, all this stuff they said about me was the biggest exaggerated bunch of lies I’ve ever seen in my life. We liked each other. We never had a punch-up. We never screamed at each other. We weren’t those guys. We made music together. So when you cast aspersions – not only on my musical contributions, but also on my character – it’s been the greatest heartbreak in my career.

Do you also feel that Styx’s legacy has been tainted by all this? 

I can’t think of a band that’s worked harder than Styx at diminishing its own reputation, and to denigrate the music that we created together. And it serves no purpose. Our fans loved us because what we did musically was very uplifting and positive. That’s what we stood for. And to harm that in any way is insane. Not to give the fans one last glimpse of us together on stage, it makes no sense to me. And I know that all Styx fans would want to see that one more time. 

It’s very simple: Styx isn’t Styx without Dennis DeYoung

You know, it’s lucky that there’s a pandemic, because I would have to fly to England and kiss you on the lips for saying that! But look, this is not about me, it’s not about money, it’s to relive, and reinforce, what lucky sonofabitches we were to find each other. And show the people that we appreciate what you’ve done for us. I’m sick over the fact that we can’t do it one more time, but what am I going to do? I just can’t for the life of me understand it. 

At least you now understand what your music means to people

You don’t know how much. And I have to thank Jim Peterik for forcing me to make these records, because I would have never heard what you just said to me, or known what I know now from Styx fans. When people open up their hearts and tell me: “This is what you mean to me,” I just think: “Man, am I glad my mom gave me accordion lessons.”

26 East Vol 2 is out now via Frontiers Records.