Back in 1980 I was one of the first in Sioux Falls to purchase Paradise Theater by the band Styx. It quickly became one of my all time favorites, as it combines a riveting social commentary with powerful music. As I listened to it again tonight, I realized that the album could have been written for the present. It was, in essence, a call for the road not taken, and a warning against the road that, unfortunately, we were about to travel:
Dont need no fast buck lame duck profits for fun
Quick trick plans, take the money and run
We need long term, slow burn, getting it done
And some straight talking, hard working son of a gun.
Whatcha doin tonight, I got faith in our generation
Lets stick together and futurize our attitudes
I aint lookin to fight, but I know with determination
We can challenge the schemers who cheat all the rules
– From “Rockin’ the Paradise,’ Styx (Lyrics: Dennis DeYoung)
What we would get from 1980 to 2008 is “fast buck lame duck profits for fun, quick trick plans, take the money and run.” We sent jobs producing goods overseas, while increasing consumption. Producing less and consuming more is not a sustainable practice, but we made an art of it. ‘Take the money and run’ does not just describe Bernie Madoff, but the culture of corporate America in recent decades. Make a quick buck, get a bonus, and focus on short term profit at long term costs. We all got in on it, going into debt, and believing that somehow we could just consume and enjoy the fruits of foreign labor.
What we needed was “long term, slow burn, getting it done;” we needed to focus on reinvesting in the US infrastructure, assuring quality jobs; instead, we got unsustainable current accounts deficits and debt. We became addicted to credit card debt and bought into the ‘grand illusion’ of consumerism (that 1977 Styx song – ‘The Grand Illusion,’ also written by DeYoung, really resonates with the themes I’ve developed on this blog about the dangers of hyper-consumerism). We sought meaning by indulging in “someone else’s fantasy,” and as a culture lost a sense of purpose. We didn’t challenge the schemers who cheat all the rules, we let them run the show, and thought we were doing grand.
I admit, I’m a Styx fan, especially a Dennis DeYoung fan — though not the type that joins fan clubs or follows closely the rumors and details of the band (I had to look up their websites for the links, I’d not visited them before). I’m a fan of the music and the message, and clearly bands like Styx had an impact on how I think. The band itself was unappreciated by the critics, who generally dissed Midwest rock bands like Styx, REO, Kansas or their Canadian counterparts Rush and Triumph. But that was my music. Styx itself had only five top selling peak LPs before what made them great broke them apart. They were built around three very different yet creative artists (DeYoung, Tommy Shaw, and James Young), who fused distinct styles together for a unique and compelling sound. Holding them together was the rhythmic core of Chuck and John Panozzo on bass and drums. Ultimately creative and personal differences tore them apart. There have been three later CDs, the most recent being “Cyclorama,” the only one without Dennis DeYoung, but yet an excellent album.
On the LP Equinox in 1975, before they made it big, the band put out its first real social commentary with “Suite Madam Blue,” a song about America in danger of decline, needing a ‘new start’ as we neared the bi-centennial. But in “Grand Illusion” and “Pieces of Eight” the commentary on consumerism, materialism, and a country losing its way really became strong. DeYoung noted how we were grasping for stuff, that we can have everything yet be haunted by an emptiness we can’t explain. I’m not sure how much that was appreciated by other fans, but it is what drew me to their music. The 1979 song “Borrowed Time” (from the “Cornerstone” LP) — “We’re living high, living fine, living high on borrowed time…” would unfortunately became prophetic for the decades to come.
So as I listen to some of these old LPs I can’t help but compare what we’re facing now with when we first confronted the challenges in the late seventies. Haven’t we been here before? Last time we had a popular President inspire the country and seem to lead us to ‘morning in America.’ It was another illusion, factories continued to close, and ultimately a spiral of debt and trade deficits (meaning we were producing less and consuming more), hidden by a bubble economy providing an illusion of wealth, brought us to the abyss. The problems are the same now as they were in 1980, except with tenfold intensity.
Is Barack Obama the “straight talking hard working son of a gun” that will lead us away from here? Or is he another Ronald Reagan, creating the illusion of improvement at long term cost? There is evidence for both interpretations now, but really, it depends more on us than on the leader. We need to look to the future, we need to ‘challenge the schemers,’ we need to put aside that ‘fast buck profits for fun’ mentality that seemed to define the last decades, and instead take responsibility for reshaping this country. Looking at our wars, our oil addiction, our refusal to see the human cost of our actions and consumption, we’ve clearly let ‘our treasures turn our hearts to stone.’
And, for all the pundits and social critics out there who try to figure out the state of the culture, sometimes the most prophetic voices are found in the unlikeliest of places. In both his solo work and Styx reunion albums, DeYoung seems to hit a chord that connects with the times. “Show me the Way” at the time of the Gulf War, or “Hip Hop Hypocrisy” during the Lewinsky scandal, which showed both the President and the rival party to be hypocritical at the core. It’s strange as a social scientist to be reflecting on the music I grew up with in this way, seeing profound insight in what at the time was often ignored or dismissed by the cultural elite. Yet perhaps that was one reason why they were so popular.
I sometimes wonder how much that music affected my views today. Did I connect with DeYoung’s songs because they reflect values I have, or did they help shape the values of an impressionable kid going from high school to college? I just got on amazon.com and found he has a new solo album out “100 Years from Now”, so I ordered it, and look forward to its arrival, as much as I had anticipated Paradise Theater in 1980. That tour was also the one time I saw Styx in concert, in Sioux Falls. Most importantly, though, I wonder if we’ll actually find a way to “lift up our hearts and make a new start?”