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Weekly Chat: Former Styx Lead, Dennis DeYoung, Discusses “The Best of Times”

Lee Herald Favicon 16While the rift between Lead Singer and Keyboardist, Dennis DeYoung, and the remnants of the band, Styx, remains deep and seemingly irreparable, neither party has shown any signs of slowing down.

Dennis DeYoung, the voice and songwriter that delivered “Babe,” “Come Sail Away,” “The Best of Times,” “Lady” and so many more will be rocking Hayes Hall at Artis-Naples on October 15.

In addition to DeYoung, his band consisting of August Zadra (lead guitar and vocals), Craig Carter (bass and vocals), Jimmy Leahey (lead guitar and vocals), John Blasucci (keyboards), Michael Morales (drums) and his lovely and talented wife, Suzanne (vocals) will accompany him as he presents the music of Styx.

Additionally, DeYoung will be accompanied by the Naples Philharmonic.  DeYoung has been producing significant amounts of recorded material using symphony accompaniment.

For many of us, the voice of Dennis DeYoung has time-stamped memorable and meaningful times in our lives.  This trip to the cozy confines of Hayes Hall provides fans an opportunity to see and hear DeYoung in a charming and cordial setting.

Dennis was kind enough to spend a lengthy amount of time speaking with the Lee Herald.  The Chicago native had much to say about music, baseball, life, politics and the wonders of the universe.

Gary Levine:  Dennis, you were born and raised in Northeastern Illinois.  You began teaching elementary school.  Would you please take us back to the Roseland days…going back to the “Tradewinds” and “TW4”…to Chuck and John Panozzo…what were Dennis DeYoung’s visions and hopes for the future back then?

Dennis DeYoung:  “I wanted to play center field for the Chicago White Sox…take Jim Landis’ place.  That was really my number one dream.  Like I said, I started accordion lessons at seven years old.  I had given it up…and broke my mother’s heart…and said ‘You know, I’m not playing anymore…people are making fun of me.’  No, I didn’t say that.  I quit to play football.  I played football for a year and, after that year was up, it was summer in Chicago.  Roseland, back in 1962, where I grew up in a two-flat, which is essentially an apartment building where the people on the second floor own that part and the people on the first floor own that part.”

The famous Chicago two-flats were fixtures in and around the city.  Also referred to as a “German Duplex” or “Polish flat,” these structures were two stories that were stacked upon one another but shared a common entrance.  While Dennis describes a two-ownership situation, most two-flats were owned by a single person/family and the second unit was either rented or occupied by other family members.

“I was walking down the street…nobody had air conditioning…so all the windows are open.  I hear this music coming from the Panozzo brothers’ house.  Now, I knew the Panozzo brothers, but they were 12.  So, you know, when you’re 14, and they’re 12, they might as well be ten years younger than you.”

The Panozzo brothers, Chuck and John, were twins who, along with DeYoung, co-founded Styx.  John played drums and Chuck played the bass guitar.

“I walked up on the porch, and there was John playing drums and Chuck playing the guitar and they had this kid playing the accordion.  And I listened and I thought ‘jeez.’  It was apparent to me that John could play.  And Chuck…he was playing for six or seven months…and the kid on the accordion, about the same.  So, I listened.  And when they were all done, I told John and Chuck…I said ‘look, you know, I play accordion.’  I hadn’t touched it in over a year.  I said ‘bring your equipment over to my basement tomorrow afternoon and let’s just play.’  They did and, after that one afternoon, the band was formed.  That was 1962.  That was really pre-Beatles…pre-everything.  We weren’t playing rock and roll.  We were playing out of the black books….we were like a wedding band…where you play all of the standards.  The band began to play.  We tried to get little gigs, here and there, playing block parties and stuff.  But, it wasn’t a rock and roll band.  Then, I saw the Beatles in ’64 and that changed everything.  In my opinion, the destiny was set.  I saw them play and I thought, to myself, ‘gee…that looks like a good job!'”

Both Dennis and I chuckled at the sentiment.

“We started playing rock and roll music from that point.  Then we just simply, over the years, replaced guitar players until 1970…we landed on James Young (JY) and John Curulewski.  They are the original guitar players that performed on the first five Styx albums. So, that’s essentially what happened.  The Panozzo brothers, after some winding roads, actually ended up at the same college (as Dennis) at the same time, which is Chicago State University…which was a teacher’s college.  I got my teaching degree and so did Chuck. Chuck became an art teacher and I became a music teacher.  That’s how it all got started and, the funny thing about it is that the Vietnam War was raging at the very same time. None of the three of us were drafted…though I was 1-A in ’67.”

1-A status indicated ready for any and all military service.

“I passed my physical…and I just didn’t get called.  It was just that kind of serendipitous thing that happened…we stayed together and were able to go through college together and then, eventually, ended up getting a record contract. So, that’s the story of the Panozzo brothers and me and Roseland.  I’d say that had there been air conditioning back then, I probably would never have been in a band.”

Gary Levine:  While we’re on the subject of Chicago White Sox…and you being a Chicago boy…your White Sox are 7 games below .500, but the Cubbies are roughly 40 games over .500 and have the best record in baseball.  Hypothetically speaking, what happens to the city of Chicago if the Cubs win the Series?

Dennis DeYoung:  “Well, I can’t imagine.  I was a kid on the south side of Chicago…which, of course, is the inferior part…and I was an accordion player.  Can you imagine?  And a Sox fan!  You talk about being in a hole.  I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Many Cubs fans are convinced that their home team is battling a 71 year-old curse.  The legend reads as follows:  Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, was asked to leave the fourth game of the 1945 World Series, at Wrigley Field, between the Chicago Cubs and the Detroit Tigers.  His departure was requested as he was accompanied by his pet goat, Murphy, whose smell was deemed to be offensive by nearby fans.  Upon his exit, Sianis is believed to have cursed the home team and, as we know, the Cubs have not won another World Series.  In fact, the last Series title, won by the Cubs, was in 1908.

“I’m happy for the Cub fans, because they have really suffered long enough.  If they don’t win it, this year, then there is a curse.  And we have to go around the city and kill all of the goats.”

Dennis, I’m not a Cubs fan.  I was born and raised in Brooklyn and have been a Yankees fan since birth, but I cannot imagine the suffering experienced by Cubs nation.

“I like you, Gary, but as a Yankees fan, I have to tell you, you’re clueless!  By virtue of birth, you’ve lived a charmed life!  You think of the Cubs and the White Sox…boy, this is the desert.”

Gary Levine:  One last Chicago-based question:  The Paradise Theater in West Garfield Park…magnificent venue…opened in 1928.  I believe that it was demolished in the late 50’s…long before the 1981 release of the Paradise Theater album.  What was the significance of that theater and what prompted you to use it as the theme for an album?

Dennis DeYoung:  “Well, I was just walking through an art gallery…you know, stuff for sale.  There was a painting there…no, it was a serigraph.  It was Robert Addison’s take on the Paradise Theater.”

Robert Addison was born in Boise, Idaho, but spent 40 years creating unparalleled art with a singular focus on lighting and a preeminent attention to detail in Chicago.  Working primarily in oil, egg tempera and acrylic, Addison would take an endless number of photographs, over time, to fully understand and appreciate the changes in lighting and shadows.

“I looked at it and, if you look at the ‘Paradise Theater’ album cover, the flip side is 1958 and you can see it’s a rundown theater…it has been totally neglected.  It’s of Paradise (theater) and the sign said ‘Temporarily Closed.’  I looked at that, and it was 1980, and the country was going through an incredible timeframe, from 1972 to ’80.  The United States, in my opinion, living through that time period, had completely lost its way when you think of Nixon and Watergate, the tragic ending of the Vietnam War.  Then you had, of course, all of the assassinations and the oil embargo…then the hostage taking in Iran in ’79.  So it was 1980 and it just struck a chord with me that paradise…as people have always looked at America as the land of milk and honey, the streets paved with gold, in my opinion (the disintegration of the Paradise Theater) signified my feelings about this country at that moment in time.  I felt, in my heart, that that decaying, once-beautiful structure was a metaphor…or symbolic…of the state of the union at that time.”

album

DeYoung paused.

“So, I bought it (Addison’s serigraph).  I brought it home and I brought it to the guys and I asked them ‘What do you think about this?’  Because that was a purpose that I served, in the band.  For example, “The Grand Illusion” album or “Pieces of Eight”…I’d have an idea to try to focus the songwriting in some way.  Not literally, where every song is literally about the title of the album, but as a subject matter by which the students in the class could choose to write and essay about that or something else.  So, they jumped on board and the “Paradise Theater” was born.  I wrote the lyrics to “Rockin’ the Paradise” which, in my opinion, was a representation of what was wrong in the country.  So, that’s where “Paradise Theater” came from…from Robert Addison’s painting.  It’s funny how these things happen.”

We briefly chatted about the album’s artwork and the album’s triple-platinum success.

“The lyrics to ‘Rockin’ the Paradise’ were read into the Congressional Record by Dan Lipinski,” boasted DeYoung.

Lipinski is a member of United States House of Representatives from Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District.

“He sent me the book where he read the lyrics because he liked them so much.  He’s a Democrat from Chicago.  It’s funny because I wrote ‘Whatcha doin’ tonight?  Have you heard the world’s gone crazy?  Young Americans, listen when I say there’s people puttin’ us down.  I know you’re thinkin’ that we’ve gone lazy.  To tell you the truth, we’ve all seen better days.  Don’t need no fast buck, lame duck, profits for fun.  No quick trick plans, take the money and run.  We need long-term, slow-burn, getting it done.  And some straight talkin’ hard workin’ son-of-a-guns.’  So, that was my kind of working class take on what was wrong with America.”

DeYoung indicated that he continues to believe that the nation remains fixed on short-term approaches to business and life.  “Those were my feelings in 1980.  I’m sticking by them.  I still feel that way.”

Gary Levine:  I believe that you wrote “Babe” as a birthday gift for your wife, Suzanne.

Dennis DeYoung:  “I did!  It was a birthday present…never supposed to be a Styx song…ever.  I didn’t write it with that in mind.  I wrote it just as a little private thing for her. The record company heard it and thought it should be on the record.”

Gary Levine:  At the time, could you have imagined that song taking “Cornerstone” to triple-platinum status?

Dennis DeYoung:  “No, because I didn’t think it was going to be on that album.  But, like I said, I wrote it really quick, demoed it with the Panazzos.  Just the three of us went into the studio and presented her with the record.  No guitar player…they were on vacation, so there were no guitars.  People fell in love with the demo…so much, it paralyzed me and the band.  They liked the demo so much, that the demo is the record, Gary.  The one we just went in and fired up.  We put a guitar solo on it and that’s it!  All the background harmonies…that’s just me singing with myself…because nobody was there.  So, it was just…you can’t plan that.  I didn’t plan it.  There you go.”

I suppose Dennis sensed my astonishment.  The band’s only number one recording on the United States “Billboard Hot 100” was a birthday gift…unimaginable.

“I’m a firm believer in two things: first of all, when’s dinner?  Second of all, I don’t know how the universe works,” DeYoung quipped.

“If you’re primary concern is where’s dinner,” I inquired, “how come you’re so skinny?”

“You have to blame my parents.  They were both thin!  I take my clothes off to go into the shower and I go ‘When did my dad come in here?’  I look exactly like he did when he was this age.  Identical!  I got those skinny, white legs…with no hair on them now!  I don’t know where the hair on my legs went…there one minute, then gone!

We laughed for quite a few minutes as I desperately attempted to remove that shower scene from my thoughts.

Gary Levine:  While on the subject of Suzanne, you two are married for 46 years now, yes?  With all of the stressors associated with your industry…the travel…time away from one another…lengthy marriages are the exception rather than the rule.  What’s the secret?

Dennis DeYoung:  “She was 15.  I was 17.  I don’t know why she stayed with me and put up with all the nonsense.  She did.  You know, the deal is that recently, she’s got a guy with a crossbow trained on me at all times which, you know, gets in the way sometimes.”

DeYoung’s deadpan style of humor reminds me of that of Bob Newhart.  Both from Chicago, I’m assuming that the water from Lake Michigan’s water-intake crib must have something to do with it.

“Seriously, we met in high school and we just stayed together…which is a miracle.  I saw the Beatles in ’64…on a Sunday night.  Ready for this?  Two weeks later, I met her at the dance…the Sunday night dance.  I wasn’t playing, I was just going.  So…listen to this: Within two weeks time, my life was set.  And, I didn’t know it.  Imagine.  February and March in 1964, within a two-week span, my life was changed.”

Gary Levine:  Let’s talk about your current projects.  Right now, you are touring at an incredible pace…several shows each week…traveling around the entire country.  Years back, you struggled with fatigue issues.  Yet, you have participated in so many projects…”The Perfect Man” film, Canadian Idol, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and a batch of solo albums…”Dennis DeYoung and the Music of Styx: Live in Los Angeles.” Between rehearsals, travel and actual performances, how do you maintain this frenzied pace?  And why do you do it?

Dennis DeYoung:  “I got the worst Influenza…I don’t know if it was ‘A’ or ‘B,’ in January of 1998…after working myself to death in ’97.  Suzanne and I got it at the same time.  We got it at her sister’s funeral in San Diego.  Came back…sick as a dog.  I couldn’t get better.  I could not get better.  That’s not me.  I’m a hundred miles an hour all the time.  I went to doctor after doctor and said ‘I’m so fatigued.  I feel this and I got that.’  They did every test…tube up my nose…down my frandom (while surely spelled incorrectly, Dennis believes this to be an Italian anatomical part of his body)…up my frailingling  (again, one of DeYoung’s biological features).  Nothing.  Don’t know what it is.  There was light-sensitivity.  I had a really bad fever.  My eyes were infected with a post-phorial symptom…which means…you gotta wear shades, baby!  You can’t be in the bright lights.  You keep your eyes protected and the fatigue goes away.  But it took me a year and a half to figure it out.  And, I figured it out by myself…by realizing that I felt better both in the dark and when it was very cloudy.  So, I wear sunglasses.  I have like 9,000 pairs for every occasion…and I’m okay.”

Gary Levine:  You have mentioned, in the past, that the Beatles approach to songwriting had a profound effect on your songwriting methodology and mentality.  I suppose that this is a two-part question: What was it, specifically, about their wide spectrum of music that inspired you?  Also, what other pre-Styx influences contributed to the pieces that you have written?

Dennis DeYoung:  “I sum the Beatles up in my theory of everything.  It’s the song.  It’s always the song.  The song is king.  What I took away from the Beatles was there were no boundaries.  They did what they wanted to do.  After they got started…after they gained complete control…it became about the songwriting.  The greatest songwriting team…in my opinion…in history.  I always tell people…if you took “Babe,” “Renegade” and “Mr. Roboto” and played them for a stranger, they would think those are three different groups.  You got a great song?  We’ll bring it in here…we’ll arrange it and play it and make it our own.  Songs are more important than the length of your hair, the cut of your clothes, whether you have a tattoo or bone in your nose.  People will forget all that…but the song remains.”

Gary Levine:  Dennis, despite enormous fan approval for the numerous ballads produced by Styx, there seems to be a recurring theme regarding acceptance as a legitimate and bona fide rock band.  Would you say that this accurately represents a portion of the struggles experienced, by members of the band, over the years?

Dennis DeYoung:  “Yes, of course.  People talk about creative differences.  Put two people in a room…you got ’em (creative differences).  Am I right?  You put five people in a room, you’ve got ’em.  When bands are successful…they start out with creative differences and they figure out a way to come together, collectively, and make a sound.  This is the definition of a successful group.  It’s just that simple.  Creative differences, when you hear the excuse that that’s the reason that the band broke up, I say two things:  it’s not creative differences, it’s drugs and alcohol.”

Whoa.

“Write it down in the book…Dennis says so…I know so.  There are always creative differences.  But, what drugs and alcohol always do is impair judgment.”

Gary Levine:  Dennis, you’re coming down here to Southwest Florida…to Artis-Naples…on October 15th.  Tell us what we can expect to see and hear.

Dennis DeYoung:  “There’s going to be an orchestra you know.”

“Yes,” I responded, “the Naples Philharmonic.”

“And my band will be there and we will be playing all the Styx hits.  You name ’em…you’re going to hear ’em.  And you’re going to hear a little Ravel…a little Mozart.  You’re going to hear a little Debussy.  And I’m not paying any royalties because they’re all dead too long…thank God!

We laughed at Dennis’ dry humor.

“And, if you hear a thumping sound while were playing, that will be Mozart rolling over in his grave.”

To purchase tickets for Dennis DeYoung’s October 15, 2016 performance at Artis-Naples, please click here.

Dennis personally asked that fans visit his website and his Facebook page.  He actively and personally updates Facebook with the latest news, quips and information.

 

Special and sincere thanks to Jon Foerster, Communications Director at Artis-Naples, for his assistance and, of course, to Dennis for his friendly and candid conversation.


© 2016 Lee Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


 

Feature image: Dennis DeYoung.com

Inset image: provided

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