Archive for category Music

The Voice Within

The idea that a new year represents rebirth, renewal and change is on its face silly.  Every day is a new day, the year is just a human construct, making days numbers and delineating them in an arbitrary fashion.  The idea that this is a time for resolutions and transformation is irrational – it’s just a new day, like every day.

Yet perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss that ideal of a new beginning.   Yes, every day is potentially a chance for rebirth and renewal, but usually we squander those opportunities, living hypnotized, following the same routines.  Instead of asking what would make life truly joyful, we check off our “to do” lists and take care of the mundane tasks at hand.

And that’s OK – life is a series of moments and we need to shop, cook, clean, work, and take of things that just need to be done.   Yet we can do those things thinking the mundane is life – that life is about making money, paying bills, achieving success and consuming products.  Or we can work through the mundane with a higher ideal in mind – happiness, love of both nature and others, and a sense of magic.  The world unfolds for us, we just have to trust it.

So my resolution for 2013 is simply to live awake.

To try every day to look out the window and see nature as magical and beautiful.  Not to get used to it or take it for granted. To feel blessed to live in foothills of western Maine, a place of pure beauty.   To be sure, the wide open plains of South Dakota, where I was last month visiting family, has its own magic and beauty as well.   Wherever one is, one key to living awake is not to take nature for granted.

To be true to myself.   We humans are our own worst enemies, we repress who we are, we say what we think others want to hear, we distrust our ability to simultaneously be true and be accepted.   We conform.   We decide that our dreams are silly or unobtainable.   We settle for a life less than we could have.

It’s not that we humans are stupid.   We settle because it’s comfortable.   It’s easy to conform, to go with what others want, to push aside youthful ambitions and dreams of happiness.   We replace those with stuff – or perhaps with societal approval of us as successful.   Prestige replaces joy.   To be normal is safe, to conform is to be comfortable.

And then we slowly stagnate.

Please read this “comic”.   It is a powerful comparison of two good women who choose different paths.    One was true to herself, one conformed.   The price of conformity isn’t always so high – and there is nothing wrong with being like others if one is at the same time true to oneself.

But too often we drown our inner voice and make choices out of fear of not fitting in or somehow missing out.  We fear lacking income, making others mad, or ending up alone.    Fear can’t guide life, to be truly happy one must be true to oneself.    We need to trust our conscience and inner voice, even when it goes against what most people seem to be thinking and doing.    And that is my resolution for 2013.   To live awake, to listen to the voice within, to live true to myself.

 

 

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Joe South, 1940-2012

I was only nine years old when I started collecting 45 RPM singles and listening to the top forty on KISD in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (1230 AM on the dial).

One memory I have is making pop corn and playing records on my old monophonic phonograph with Kathy Keys, our babysitter.  I have no clue where Kathy is now, but I still remember at age ten we wrote down the lyrics of “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” by Joe South, one of my early records.   It remains one of my favorites of all time.   Later, my mom bought a “Best of Joe South” album because she wanted the song “Games People Play.”   However, she preferred the cover version by (I think) Glen Campbell so she gave me the album.  I soon had the lyrics of every song memorized and to this day he remains one of my favorites.

Joe South didn’t have a prolific career.   He wrote a number of songs that others turned into hits, and won a grammy for his still relevant “Games People Play.”   In 1971 the suicide of his brother put him into a state of depression, and though he released some material in the 70s he never got back into the groove.

Almost everyone has heard some of his songs, even if performed by others:  Down in the Boondocks, Games People Play, Hush, Children, I Knew you When, Don’t it Make You Wanna Go Home, Shelter, and the country classic by Lynn Anderson, “Rose Garden.”

His music mixed a kind of down home common sense folk appeal with a deep spirituality.   I honestly have never heard any other singer or song writer capture that mix so perfectly.   Here’s a good quality clip of his Grammy winning hit, “Games People Play” (song of the year in 1969):

And I’ll end this post with the lyrics of my favorite Joe South song, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.”  Do yourself a favor, find a way to get some Joe South music and listen!

Lyrics of “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” by Joe South (1970)

If I could be you
And you could be me
For just one hour
If we could find a way
To get inside
Each other’s mind, mmm
If you could see you
Through your eyes
Instead of your ego
I believe you’d be
Surprised to see
That you’d been blind, mmm

Walk a mile in my shoes
Walk a mile in my shoes
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

Now your whole world
You see around you
Is just a reflection
And the law of karma
Says you’re gonna reap
Just what you sow, yes you will
So unless
You’ve lived a life of
Total perfection
You’d better be careful
Of every stone
That you should throw, yeah

And yet we spend the day
Throwing stones
At one another
‘Cause I don’t think
Or wear my hair
The same way you do, mmm
Well I may be
Common people
But I’m your brother
And when you strike out
And try to hurt me
It’s a-hurtin’ you, lord have mercy

Walk a mile in my shoes
Walk a mile in my shoes
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

There are people
On reservations
And out in the ghettos
And brother there
But for the grace of God
Go you and I, yeah, yeah
If I only
Had the wings
of a little angel
Don’t you know I’d fly
To the top of the mountain
and then I’d cry

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Pussy Riot – Russian Heroes

Their names are Nadezhda “Nadya”Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina “Katya” Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina.   They are on trial for disturbing the peace (or ‘hooliganism’!) in Moscow.   “I am not afraid of your poorly concealed fraud of a verdict in this so-called court because it can deprive me of my freedom,” Maria Alyokhina said. “No one will take my inner freedom away.”

The women symbolize the divisions in Russian culture and politics, and as such their trial has come under intense focus.   They are part of a punk a group called Pussy Riot, which formed in 2011 as a collective of about ten members who perform provocative songs in provocative locals, usually masked with colorful balaclavas, and using pseudonyms when giving interviews.    As they put it:  “What we have in common is impudence, politically loaded lyrics, the importance of feminist discourse and a non-standard female image.”

On February 21, 2012 members of the group went to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow with short dresses, colorful balaclavas and sang a “punk prayer” to the Virgin Mary to make Putin go away.   The Orthodox Russian Patriarch Kirill, who had already urged believers to vote for Putin, called the President when he saw the video to make sure the women be arrested.   They have been held in extended detention since March, and will be sentenced August 17.   Two of the women have small children, and they have gained support from international human rights groups, including Amnesty International.

Pussy Riot’s performances are provocative and they rely on social media and the internet to get the word out

Pussy Riot was formed as part of the anti-Putin protests that emerged last winter, and represent a Russian youth angered by the return to authoritarianism that Putin represents.   They want an open and free Russia, and Pussy Riot reflects an audacious in your face attack on politics as usual.   In a country where traditional taboos are still strong — sexism remains rampant and anti-LBGT feelings are intense, for example — they’re the new generation demanding change.

The response of the Russian Orthodox church has been one of anger, with demands that the women be punished for blasphemy and an assault on the Russian soul.    That sounds silly — and, to be blunt, it is silly — but there is a segment of traditional Russian society appalled by what the women did.   The Orthodox Church is still a powerful institution and Putin needs to make sure it stays on his side.

The defendants have used their case to gain a level of support and attention they’d otherwise not receive

The women have pleaded not guilty, claiming they were not trying to be offensive.   They were responding to Kirill’s instructions to vote for Putin.    The Courtroom prosecutor Nikiforov told the Judge that by swearing in church the girls had “abused God.”   But the girls claim that not only is Russia a secular state, but that they want dialogue.   “I’m Orthodox,” said Maria, “why does that mean I should vote for Putin?”   Kirill who has called Putin’s rule in Russia “a miracle from God,” yearns to rekindle the old Czarist era connection of Church and State.

In the Capital of Moscow there is general support for the group.   The trial has gathered large crowds who often cheer the defendants or laugh at the prosecutor.   At times the Judge had to plead for quiet, telling those gathered that “this is not a threater.”   When they laughed at some of the claims the prosecutor made, courtroom observers were told this was “no laughing matter.”

Nadia Tolokonnikova, 22 years old with a four year child, signals the women’s strength of commitment

Ultimately Putin will decide the fate of these women — it’s his country, and his court.  That’s part of what they are protesting!   In London to watch some of the Olympics he said he thought they should be “treated leniently.”   But no one doubts that the sentence depends on what he wants, not the judge in the case.

The case is important.   Russia stands at a cross roads.   Putin, having weathered the winter protests against his re-election, would like to see Russia return to business as usual:   Power in his hands and a partnership with the Orthodox church to keep the public in line.   Profits from oil and gas going to give the people enough largesse to keep their support, and some market openness to make it worth the while of the middle class to support the regime.

And the youth?   They’ll get older.   They’ll realize that it’s not worth rocking the boat.   But women like Nadia, Katya, and Maria reflect a youth that sees the wider world, and understands what a free Russia could become.   They don’t want post-Soviet Russia to continue the slide into Czarist like leadership and control.    Putin apparently had enough, and decided to use a show trial of the three women to strike terror into would be protesters to force the youth into submission.

Now 54, Madonna demonstrates her support in concert

A successful show trial requires the authorities to control the show – to script it and make certain the public learns about it in a way that achieves the desired result.    That’s not happening.    Public interest in the trial has made it a sensation.   The world watches, while Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and host of musicians and human rights activists world wide speak out.   The Russian youth follow on Facebook and Youtube, and the trial has become a symbol of the stark division between the traditional world of the Orthodox church and the globalized modern ambitions of Russia’s young people .   Quite possibly Putin won’t be able to keep all these things under control.

Maria Alekhina, an Orthodox Christian herself, apologized for offending and in her responses to church witnesses made them look petty and small

The trial originally was video streamed to make sure other would be protesters could see what might happen to them if they anger the authorities.   But that backfired; the women refused to be docile, they and their attorneys asked tough questions and helped make the witnesses for the church look ridiculous.   Video streaming was stopped, but it was too late – the trial had become a farce.   The judge moved to a smaller court room, and to wrap the case up more quickly the proceedings were dragged on for over 12 hours a day with the women getting little water or food while in their glass “cage.”   The result was to amplify the inhumane treatment of three young women.

Katya Samutsevich, a computer programmer very into art and its social role, is 29 – the oldest of the three – and active on LBGT issues

So the world watches, Russia watches and Putin squirms.    This case shows the regime’s vulnerability.   The fact they so misjudged the impact of this show trial makes it clear they don’t understand the forces they’re dealing with.   They have a late Soviet mentality in a world that is much different than that of the 20th Century.

The bizarre almost comical testimony of the church witnesses show a miscalculation of immense proportions.   They were meant to create a sense of anger at the women for defying honored Russian religious traditions; instead they made the church comes off as petty, the state as authoritarian.   The show trial actually demonstrated the bankruptcy of the Putin regime.

No one knows for sure what direction Russia will take moving forward.   Putin controls the media, the courts, the military and the police.    Russian history suggests the state will prevail at the cost of human liberty.  But this is a new era.    Globalization and the social media led information revolution are changing the rules of the game, as long time dictators like Mubarak, Gadaffi and Assad have learned.    Right now three heroic young women refuse to back down and have come to symbolize the desire for an open, tolerant, free Russia.   Perhaps their actions can inspire others to join.

 

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Clockwork Angels: a Rush Classic

Rush – Geddy Lee (Gary Lee Weinrib), Alex Lifeson (Alex Zivojinovich) and Neil Peart have been together as Rush for four decades.   During that time they have released 19 studio albums, the latest being Clockwork Angels.    To be blunt: it is a stunningly poignant, powerful and entrancing album.

For their first album in five years the trio go back to the prog rock standard of having not just a concept album, but an album that tells a story.   Rush did that in the seventies, but after Hemispheres came out in 1978 they rejected long stories and overt concept albums.    Clockwork Angels is a story told by an older man looking back at life in a dystopian steampunk world.

A youthful Geddy, Alex and Neil

For Peart – the lyricist and story teller, the album is personal and reflects a kind of bookend to the 1976 classic 2112.   In that album a young man confronts a world of conformity and control, and finds power in music to rebel and express his individual freedom.   2112 is a young man’s story, inspired by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, brimming with optimism about one’s ability to go out and create one’s life, taking control and expressing the ideal of freedom.

Peart, who calls himself a “bleeding heart libertarian” has backed off from his embrace of Rand, and this album helps explain why.   It is the album of a man nearing sixty who looks back at a life with moments of both glory and tragedy.   Peart himself lost his daughter in a car accident and his wife to breast cancer within a year.    He’s traveled the globe and had success doing what he loves – drumming and creating lyrical magic for a band that has stuck together through thick and thin.   But he’s experienced lows, saw the pain this world can create, and realizes that reality betrays his ideals.   Yet he still is an idealist.

Older but more experienced rockers – they still electrify crowds.

One inspiration for the album was Voltaire’s classic Candide, mentioned overtly in the album notes introducing the last song – The Garden.    Candide was Voltaire’s response to Rousseau’s belief that nature was good and any evil and pain humans experiences is due to our choices in constructing civilization contrary to nature.   Voltaire visited Lisbon after the famous 1755 earthquake and saw the horror there — and was stunned to hear that Rousseau blamed the victims for defying nature and building a massive city vulnerable to such tragedy.   He wrote Candide as a response to Rousseau, having the hero travel the world with his mentor Pangloss, who claimed that all happens because it should.

While not mirroring in structure or content Voltaire’s work, the hero in Clockwork Angels  is on a similar journey.   In BU2B he writes:

‘I was brought up to believe the universe has a plan
We are only human, it’s not ours to understand
The universe has a plan, all is for the best
Some will be rewarded and the devil will take the rest

All is for the best, believe in what we’re told
Blind men in the market buying what we’re sold
Believe in what we’re told until our final breath
While our loving Watchmaker loves us all to death”

The capital of this steampunk world is Crown City, where the angels of Chronos Square help the Watchmaker keep order.   Life is secure, but boring.   As a young man our hero yearns for something more: “I can’t stop thinking big!”   He escapes a life of order and obedience, working at first for a carnival.    The songs take us through some of the hero’s journey such as The Wreckers where he emerges from a shipwreck as the sole survivor and Halo Effect reflecting on how easy it is in love to fall for illusions:

“What did I see?
Fool that I was
A goddess, with wings on her heels
All my illusions
Projected on her
The Ideal that I wanted to see”

As the album nears an end the hero comes to conclusions similar to those of Voltaire’s Candide.   In Headlong Flight (a song with vintage Rush stylings) he reflects on “all the journeys of this great adventure.”   His “headlong flight” is life, with high peaks and dark valleys, a journey different than expected but with no regrets: “I wish that I could live it all again.”

That is followed by BU2B2:

“Belief has failed me now, life goes from bad to worse
No philosophy consoles me in a clockwork universe
Life goes from bad to worse, I still choose to live
Find a measure of love and laughter and another measure to give”

He reaches a profound conclusion in that passage – in a clockwork universe there can be no satisfying philosophical answer to life’s mysteries.   You can have faith in the Watchmaker (e.g., God), but reality makes such faith hard if not impossible to hold.    So he turns to choosing life – a measure of love and laughter.

The penultimate song, Wish them Well adds:

“All you can do is wish them well
Spirits turned bitter by the poison of envy
Always angry and dissatisfied
Even the lost ones, the frightened and mean ones
Even the ones with a devil inside
Thank your stars you’re not that way, turn your back and walk away…”

He’s also found there is no point in dwelling on the weaknesses of others, even those who’ve cheated him or caused pain.   They are the ones with the sickness in their souls, all you can do is “wish them well.”   The hero realizes that dwelling on the misdeeds and betrayals of others only gives them power over his own thoughts and mood.    He will not be diminished by the smallness of others.   Rather than seeking revenge, wish them well.

Candide is often seen as the first modern philosophical expression of humanism

The album notes for the last song, The Garden, cites Candide, a story from “another timeline.”   Candide experienced adventure and tragedy while being constantly told by his teacher Pangloss that all that happens is the will of God.   At the end Candide concludes that “now it is time to cultivate our own garden,” choosing a simple life in the countryside.   Peart’s conclusion is similar:

“The treasure of a life is a measure of the love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give in the fullness of time
it’s the only return that you expect

The future disappears into memory
with only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen.”

Candide is often considered the first full modern expression of humanism.  God may exist, but he doesn’t need our love and efforts – we humans need them.    We need to love ourselves and each other.   The humanist ethic emerges when idealism battles cynicism.   Idealism wins, but at a price.   Instead of faith in an omnipotent loving God and a future of paradise, one only has life and the moments as they arise.   Living each moment well has/is its own reward.

“The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn, so easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect.”

A few things stand out about the album.   First, these guys are no slouches.   The album took work, they explored new musical territory while not letting go of their signature sound.   I’m not qualified to write a musical review, but most music critics are amazed that these musicians are not only still producing quality work, but taking great pride in trying to always produce their best album ever.   That work ethic is why they can still produce a masterpiece when others from their era are either retired or rehashing old music in arenas, often two or three of the old superstar bands teamed together.

Beyond that, a look at Rush through time shows a band that constantly grows and evolves, both musically and lyrically.   They never try to be commercial (only Tom Sawyer was a real hit), and until their last two albums have tended to be dismissed by music critics who took a snobbish view on the entire prog rock movement — the two coasts sneering at the Midwest and Canadian hard rock sound.    Now, though, even the critics have come around.    Perhaps Rush will finally get a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This is not an album they could have made back in the 70s.   It reflects the wisdom of thoughtful years through Peart’s lyrics, the meshing and development of a variety of sounds through Lee and Lifeson’s compositions, a seriously evolving style of drumming from Peart, and a commitment by the band to excellence and to each other.  Their success now is a vindication of the band and people like me — fans who have always seen something special in their words and music.    Just as the youthful rebellious individualism and hard rock power in 2112 inspired me at age 16, the reflective wisdom and tight musical complexity of Clockwork Angels moves me at age 52.

Here’s a drum solo from Peart from a 2011 appearance on Letterman:

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Nothing Matters and What if it Did?

Only once have I bought a record album or CD solely on the basis of the title: John Cougar’s Nothing Matters and What if it Did?  It is a great album.    Ain’t Even Done with the Night is a classic, and To M.G.  and This Time are also excellent — a spur of the moment purchase that I never regretted.

But why would that album title cause me at age 20 to pick the album off the rack and buy it?   John Cougar was not that well known yet (though this album helped push him to the next level), I just liked the title.

One question I think about when I want to tie my mind up a bit is “why is there something and not nothing?”   The idea that a universe exists is far more outrageous than the notion of complete nothingness.    Something can’t come from nothing, at least according to the laws of physics (well, particles can zip in and out of existence borrowing energy from the universe, but quantum physics covers that).  Positing a God is a logical but incomplete conclusion.   Why is there a God and not no God is just as puzzling a question!

Speculation about that question leads me to believe that material reality as we experience it must be a secondary form of experience.   While my description and reflections on reality now are much more sophisticated than they were when I was twenty, I think my gut intuition remains the same – this world is not the true world.

Hence the appeal of the question: Nothing matters, and what if it did?  The 20 year old Scott liked the rebelliousness of that question.   How dare someone say that poverty, war, child abuse, rape, genocide and murder don’t matter!   The suggestion seems disrespectful of the experience of millions of humans.   The 20 year old Scott rather liked creating discomfort in that sort of way; thirty years later, though, I still find the question appealing.

…and what if it did?   What if it did matter, what happens?   Would that make reality any different?

Even at 20 I saw the impossibility of truly embracing the idea that ‘nothing matters.’    Of course things matter to me, and to everyone else.   My children matter to me, my students matter to me, even my blog matters to me – it’s a recording of my ideas as they develop over time.

But let’s be honest.   Nothing we do here will be remembered or make a difference far into the future, except as a minuscule part of creating the world that will be — any of us might never have been born and the world would have gone on just fine.   Others would have filled our life roles, be it as a hero, a parent, or worker.    In a “real” materialist sense, our lives are meaningless.   Nothing material matters.   The sun will eventually go nova, humanity will die out, the vanity and arrogance of our brief dance on this planet represent nothing but impotent egos trying to assert that they have value.    The value is subjective and transient.

Yet what if it did matter?   Consider: all we experience is sensation.   That is a product of our brain.   It interprets the world and that interpretation is what we experience as reality.   It’s based on a small bit of reality that our senses can perceive.   Even though most “solid material” is made up of empty space — atoms are almost all empty space, the nucleus 1/100,000 of the atom’s size, yet containing all its mass — we experience solids as, well, SOLID!  It’s what our brain creates for our experience.

And while we might be real bodies walking and moving around through a universe that has three dimensions, we could also be receptors, taking in data and turning it into experience that simply seems like it takes up space and time.    That’s an old meditation, be it from Plato’s cave or more recently The Matrix, but there is nothing about human experience that gives cause to believe that reality is as we experience it.   We only know experience.

If that were the case, what matters would not be the physical world we believe exists.   What matters might be the emotions, connections, and what we learn in our hearts through living.    A person who struggles through difficulties to develop true happiness and a capacity to link meaningfully with others may be far more successful discovering useful knowledge than the most brilliant scientist or inventor.   One who lives in a state of engagement with the world of emotion, intuition and social connection may be far more better at life’s challenge than one who amasses a material fortune.   We know the material stuff perishes and may not even exist as we experience it.   But that spark of consciousness and life, that sense of spirit — that seems real, and it seems untethered to matter.

But why — what would the point of such an existence be.    Why is there something and not nothing?

“Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone” – John Cougar Mellencamp, from Jack and Diane.

John Cougar Mellencamp’s next album, American Fool, put his career into the stratosphere with songs like Jack and Diane and Hurts so Good.    He also reclaimed the last name his record company thought too boring for a rock star.

But think about – life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.   To me, that’s a key idea.   At some point living is a thrill, a joy, there  is excitement, anticipation, plans and goals.   One dreams, explores ideas, and the horizons seem limitless.   Then the routine kicks in, and at some point the future seems short with limited possibilities — one might be stuck in a job, stuck in a marriage, dealing with commitments, and unable to achieve earlier dreams.

But that’s true only if life is about the material.   Life becomes limited and the future more narrow if one looks only at material ideals — those do get limited over time as one lives and makes choices.  But if the spiritual and emotional matter; if connections with others are more important than individual material achievement, then life can be thrilling up until the last moment; the thrill of living need never fade.

The more I reflect on it the more real those ephemeral aspects of life and my existence become, and the more illusory the material world I experience seems to be.   I find that thrilling!

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Oh Life, There Must Be More!

Listening to Alan Parsons Project during my morning workout, I contemplated the song “Oh Life (There Must be More),” about a woman who has lost hope, whose life is empty and meaningless.   I tell students that we live in a psychologically difficult era in history.  In the past people didn’t doubt the meaning of life or feel the need to prove their self worth.  These things were defined communally and peoples’ identities, values and sense of purpose were part of something greater than themselves.

I wouldn’t want to go back to that more “natural” state — I’m too much a product of the modern world, prizing my individuality and freedom, concepts that emerged as dominant during the enlightenment.   Having tasted that fruit, I can’t go back to paradise.   The knowledge of the possibilities freedom entails makes it impossible to return to life tied to tradition, custom and community.   Pandora’s box has been opened.

Yet this new freedom also creates a sense of despair and uncertainty.  What is the meaning of life?  Is there a meaning?   How do I fit in?  Am I lost in the middle of a hopeless world (another APP lyric)?  Look at the stress, anxiety and depression rampant in a society with material prosperity beyond what anyone could have imagined just a few generations ago.  With no clear answers and with the responsibility to define ones’ own life, people lack the bonds and traditions that gave life clear purpose and meaning.   Lacking the deep community and extended family bonds that were a psychological and social support system, it’s easy for people to feel untethered, adrift and without purpose.  How do people handle this?

Ideology.  One solution is to throw oneself into an ideology, to find a belief about how the world should be and dedicate oneself to living that life and promoting their cause.   It could be socialism, anarcho-capitalism, or religious extremism (though religion itself is a separate category).   This is an especially appealing solution for those who hate uncertainty and want a clear answer to a question of what life is all about.  It gives one a sense of self-esteem (“I have figured out the right way, yet I am surrounded by people either too ignorant or unprincipled to understand or accept the truth) and purpose.

Ideology as a purpose tends to appeal to intelligent folk; they are the true believers.  Those who follow along often don’t care so much about the ideology, they’re attracted to the sense of belonging with like minded folk.   Ideology creates false certainty, a false sense of superiority, a belief one is more moral and principled than others, and allows one to push uncomfortable questions and dilemmas under the carpet.  It’s an illusion (or delusion), but it can be effective.

Religion.  Religious extremists tend to be ideological, but most religious folk are not.  Rather, they look to their faith for the answer of what life means and how they should live.   Yes, they understand that the enlightenment and modern science casts doubt on their beliefs, but they’ve chosen faith.   It seems right to them in their heart, it is reinforced by community (people in their church, other believers) and they are able to shut off that part of their brain that might doubt and question their beliefs.   This harkens back to pre-enlightenment thought and can give people a profound sense of purpose and meaning.   Some who have had a crisis and then “convert” to a religion are so relieved by its capacity to banish doubt about self-worth and personal crises that they are convinced they have found truth.

Throw Oneself Into the World.  Some people respond to uncertainty by dashing headlong into life, throwing themselves into the world to experience all they can.  Their response to doubts about meaning or self worth is to enhance experience.   It might be adventures, traveling, competition in ones’ career, or hedonism.    This category includes such diverse folk as those in the business world who compete on Wall Street to try to earn as much money as they can and those social activists to do all they can to help the disadvantaged and alleviate suffering.   Whether it’s competition for status or constant efforts to help others, experience in the world defines life for these folk.   It can be successful, but also can lead to a kind of hyperactivity syndrome if more experience is constantly needed to quell uncertainty and doubt.

This solution also creates the possibility of crisis.  If one defines life by career competition then a career setback or disaster can create personal crisis.   Attractive people might define their self-worth by beauty and how others treat them, meaning that as they age they might find themselves unprepared to deal with lifes’ dilemmas.   Social activists might end up overwhelmed by the slow pace at which the world changes.    People in this category are the movers and shakers, those who change the world.   They are not always the most satisfied and content, however.

Friends and family (Community).  Other people focus on the more immediate world around them, their circle of friends and family.  This is not a mutually exclusive set of “strategies” to deal with modern life.   A religious person who also has strong connections with their community can be very resilient against modern psychological ills.   Someone who throws himself into the world will be less prone to crisis if that is complemented by a strong sense of community.   Like religion this harkens back to the pre-modern support systems that people naturally had; to the extent one can identify with a group greater than oneself, one avoids loneliness and has reassurance of ones’ self-worth and meaning.

Cynical Self-reliance.   Many people recognize the inability of the world to provide meaning, reject religion as mythology, and face reality with a kind of cynical “this world sucks, but it’s the only one I have” approach.   Such people are honest and critical thinking, meaning they can’t shut down the questioning part of the brain that religious folk silence, aren’t susceptible to ideological dogma, have been disappointed by the world and are too individualistic to lose themselves in community or family/friends.   The world has suffering, pain, and despair, yet with a wry sense of humor and resignation to reality — the world won’t change any time soon — they make it through life with their self honesty protecting them from psychological despair.

Uncertain Spirituality.   Others believe that there is “something more” to life, and put their faith in a vague undefined spirituality.   They are too critical to accept religious dogma or ideology, have decided that the world is transient and offers no deep sense of meaning, tend not to be as connected with community, and yet see the world as beautiful and meaningful.   Such people accept uncertainty easily; they may seek an ‘answer key,’ but recognize that it’s OK if they never find it.   They are individually resilient, relying on their spiritual faith for their sense of purpose and meaning.   Unlike religious folk they don’t claim to have the right belief — if it works for them, that’s all that matters.   This includes a lot of so called “new age” thinking.   These people tend to be introspective and see life as a way to work on their own emotional (or spiritual) development more than fixing problems in the world.

So my question to my readers:  Does this list make sense?   Do you fit into any of these categories?   What other categories might be added to the list?  (I can think of a few, but when a post hits 1200 I try to wrap it up).

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“One Hundred Years From Now” and “Cyclorama”

    

I thought it would be fun to compare the most recent solo album by Dennis DeYoung: One Hundred Years from Now with the most recent studio album of new songs from the band Styx, Cyclorama.   DeYoung’s album came out in 2007 in Canada, and then was released with some changes to the US in 2009.   Cyclorama was released in 2003 and is the only Styx studio album without DeYoung’s presence.   DeYoung’s album apparently did not chart in the US (though it hit number 1 in Canada), while Cyclorama reached 127 on the Billboard chart, selling about 50,000 copies.   I’ll start with the older album.

I believe Cyclorama is an excellent album and I enjoy it more as I listen to it more.   It’s just not really a Styx album for me.  Without DeYoung it seems like a very different band.   Not a bad band, but a different band.   The album has a number of highlights.   James Young shines with These are the Times, his best song since Miss America.   It is a powerful hard rock song that probably could not be written by a young man.  It reflects the wisdom of experience along with the recognition that choices matter.   One with Everything by Tommy Shaw is another of my favorites — on so many levels the song moves and amazes me, the music is one with the lyrics, it is on my list of all time favorite songs.  Lawrence Gowon, who replaced DeYoung, also contributes solidly to the album, especially with the socially and psychologically relevant More Love for the Money.

The album has no clunkers.   Killing the Thing that you Love drags a bit for me, and is the song I most often click past. James Young’s Captain America is OK; the idea is good and the music rocks, but the song itself seems to be missing something.   Otherwise, every song is enjoyable, well produced and well written.    Tommy Shaw’s contributions reflect some of the best song writing of his career, showing that he has grown as an artist.  Rather than following old formulas, he explores new ground and each song is interesting and compelling.

One of my favorites is Kiss Your Ass Goodbye by Glen Burtnik, a song which combined with the Bourgeois Pig bit by Billy Bob Thornton at the start is the kind of break from the norm that compares to Mr. Roboto and Plexiglass Toilet.   It’s a novelty song, but fun.    It also adds to the complex variety the album offers while still seeming coherent and connected.  In that Shaw’s One With Everything captures the spirit of the ablum — diverse, yet a true unified effort.

One Hundred Years from Now by Dennis DeYoung sounds more like a Styx album than does Cyclorama.   In fact, it’s got a collection of songs that rival anything DeYoung wrote either solo or as a member of Styx.   Given that on any given Styx album his contributions represented three or four songs, his ability to put together 12 tunes this good is amazing.  I have since ordered his Hunchback of Notre Dame musical and will listen to that as well!

The title track, done on the Canadian version partly in French in a duet with Eric Lapointe, is done in English by DeYoung alone on the US release.   To me it is up there with Suite Madame Blue, Unfinished Song, Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight among DeYoung’s best efforts.  It combines a pleasant, catching and powerful melody with lyrics conveying a profound message.

Another song that I find riveting is Rain.   It has DeYoung’s hallmark talent of writing a melody that is intensely powerful yet accessible, evoking images of real devastation (apparently Katrina was an inspiration) as well as being a metaphor for one overwhelmed by life.    Crossing the Rubicon is a deep and almost mystical song that reflects wisdom and experience.  As one ages one has to recognize the need to move on and make changes; instead of ‘waiting for a better day,’ you have to take risks and move onto new ground.   If you’re like Estragon (the character from “Waiting for Godot” to whom DeYoung alludes) you’ll simply be waiting for death.  Each time I listen, the more meaningful the song is for me.

There was a Time is a reflective look back, reminding me a bit of his earlier Goodbye to Roseland, but better.   Private Jones is a hard rock tribute to those who fought in the post 9-11 wars, reflecting the uncertainties and disappointment of those whose patriotism seemed confronted with an ambiguous reality.

There’s also a group of songs that has a spiritual sense of human faith in relationships: Save Me, I Believe in You, and Forgiveness.   Breathe Again rounds off that list, being a very personal song from DeYoung to his wife Suzanne, yet a powerful statement in its own right.  Two of my favorites are social commentaries on the information revolution: I Don’t Believe in Anything and Turn Off CNN.

Any fan of Styx in its heyday will appreciate DeYoung’s solo effort.   He’s allowed himself to create an album with the elements that made Styx one of the most successful bands of its era, but doesn’t do so in a formulaic manner.  The songs show his versatility both as a singer and song writer.    His voice sounds very much like it did in Styx’ heyday; to me the album stands alongside Grand Illusion and Paradise Theater in quality.

The good news, then, is that both Styx related acts have quality.    Like the original band in the early days, both refuse to take short cuts or coast.   Cyclorama‘s songs are fresh, exciting and coalesce a diverse set of elements into a superb album.   Dennis DeYoung captures the spirit and sound of classic Styx in a dynamic, fresh collection of songs.   The bad news is that neither CD sold enough to create anticipation of new material any time soon.   It’s unclear if the current Styx lineup will ever release another set of new songs (songwriter Glen Burtnik has left the band since Cyclorama) and DeYoung has a variety of projects.

The quality of these two CDs hint that a studio album reuniting Styx and DeYoung could be big.  Shaw and DeYoung showed in these albums that they are if anything better song writers than they were in the past, and James Young’s These Are the Times hints at his capacity to contribute a gem.   If they came back together and pooled their creative juices, having the maturity and perspective to realize that product they create is worth not delving into past disagreements and fights, they could not only have a better album than either of these two, but one that might actually sell — Gold, perhaps even platinum.   What a coup that would be for a band that’s been around in some form for almost fifty years!

They need not lose Gowon either.   With CDs running 65 or 70 minutes, he could contribute some songs and an expanded Styx could satisfy and unite a fan base that’s often been split between DeYoung fans on the one hand and Shaw-Young fans on the other.   DeYoung and Chuck Panozzo are the only true original members of the band remaining, it would be a fitting cap to the band’s career to heal the rift.   If DeYoung’s other projects and dislike of heavy touring continues, that would no longer be a problem.  He could perform some big concerts, and Gowon could handle the longer tours.   The band could be reinvigorated and fans would be delighted.

A pipe dream?   Are the egos really too big and the feelings too sensitive?  I hope not.  DeYoung has claimed he’s willing to try it again.   The others might decide its worth a chance for another best seller and spike in their career.   They may feel that it would be a gift their fans deserve.   And maybe, as they shot past age 60 and start to look mortality in the face, they may realize that the collective magic that gave them five straight multi-platinum albums deserves another run.

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1977: Illusions and Star Wars

1977 may not be remembered as an especially important year, even though it started with Commodore demonstrating the first personal computer – the Commodore PET – in early January.   Gerald Ford was finishing out his short term as President, while Jimmy Carter was getting ready to move into the White House.   But in 1977 three pieces of popular culture were released which represent major reflections of and influences on my world view.

On May 25, 1977, 20th Century Fox released a film many in the company thought would not be worth the $12 million they spent producing it: Star Wars.    It was the creation of George Lucas whose surprise hit American Graffiti  had given him the credibility to pitch this sometimes silly sounding story of good vs. evil in a galaxy far, far away to the movie execs.   Sci-fi films rarely made much money, though.   Moreover it opened at only about 40 theaters because of lack of interest.

Yet from that first day it was an instant hit, with lines in every city where it was shown.    Most people think that a smart strategy of hitting sci-fi conventions and releasing a comic strip before the movie’s release generated enough beneath the radar buzz to turn what some expected to be a flop into a major success.  In any event, overnight it changed the film industry and unleashed a phenomenon that spread across the country.   Now almost 35 years later my 8 and 5 year old sons know every character, have toy light sabres, Star Wars Lego sets and video games.    3D versions of the films will start being released to theaters next year — the force is still with us.

On July 7, 1977 (7/7/77) the struggling band Styx released The Grand Illusion.   Styx had hit the big time with the single Lady, but its two recent LPs Equinox and Crystal Ball failed to push them to the next level; Crystal Ball  actually undersold Equinox.    The release was met with a yawn.   The first single from the album, Come Sail Away, moved slowly up the charts and seemed to stall.    Then suddenly it took off to the top ten.   The album quickly went platinum and Styx became a certified big time act.   They would dominate the concert circuit and LP sales for the next five years, the largest and most successful act of the late seventies/early eighties.

Also in 1977 author Richard Bach published Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, a follow up to his unexpected best seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which had been published in 1970.   Illusions would not sell nearly as well as Seagull had, but when I read it I was amazed.  It not only reflected thoughts I had inside about the nature of reality, it also helped shape how I look at the world.    The book exemplifies a kind of new age spiritual philosophy, a bit neo-Platonist, and one which if embraced requires one to take full responsibility for every aspect of ones’ own life.

What sets Illusions apart from other spiritual descriptions of life, or ideological attempts to define what life means and how one should live is the books final thought:  Everything in this book may be wrong.   Bach did not provide dogma around which cultists would gather, he presented his personal philosophy in story form, allowing readers to find it as persuasive as they wished, reminding them that it’s just his interpretation of experience.   Unlike religious leaders he did not claim divine authority; unlike some philosophers, he did not claim to have discovered truth.

Styx album The Grand Illusion has a similar theme — ‘if you think your life is complete confusion because your neighbor’s got it made, just remember it’s a grand illusion, and deep inside we’re all the same.’   Yet the album focused less on giving a world view than reflecting the way in which America’s cultural embrace of materialism and consumerism lead to a dead end.   We can fall under the spell of believing we need wealth, beauty and fame, but in the end those things aren’t real — they are illusions.   From the biting cynicism of Miss America, the hopeful escapism of Come Sail Away to the introspective Man in the Wilderness, the album explores the human quest to find meaning in modern America from a number of perspectives.    Whatever the external trappings or competitions won and lost, we still ask “who the hell we are.”   The Grand Illusion remains my favorite album of all time.

Star Wars, of course, contained similar allusions.   We are surrounded by an invisible force that permeates and unites all that is; reality is much deeper than its material appearance. George Lucas studied mythology as he designed the story, casting it as good vs. evil, and ultimately a story of the redemption of what might be one of the heinous criminals one can imagine.   On the surface it was a throw back to the old Flash Gordon type serials of the fifties, when the good guys were very good and the bad folk were pure evil.

It was fun, the mysticism didn’t overwhelm the action, and though the characters were not well developed, the plot moved quickly and audiences connected.    It also had another connection to the other two cultural products – it dealt with reality beneath appearances.    That’s why people connected – it wasn’t a complex cynical analysis of the human condition, it was a straightforward appeal to our basic ideals of freedom and values.

Taken together, what influence did these 1977 works have on my world view?  I guess they reinforce my view that we each have to take responsibility for our lives, recognizing that much of what we strive for and take seriously is temporal and unimportant.   Beauty fades, wealth does not satisfy ones’ spirit, and battles and competitions are quickly forgotten (this obviously connects with my last post on Augustine and Petrarch).   More importantly, there is a purpose.   Life isn’t meaningless.    Just as it was Luke’s fate to confront Darth Vader, I trust that life leads us to where we are meant to be; each of us is actually the captain of our life voyage.  Blaming others only pushes us deeper into delusion.

The final song (save the album coda) on Grand Illusion is Castle Walls by Dennis DeYoung.   I’ve often thought about the Star Wars saga as I listened to these lyrics.    I also suspect the last two lines reflect true wisdom.

Far beyond these castle walls
Where I thought I heard Tiresias say
Life is never what it seems
And every man must meet his destiny

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“The Problem’s Plain to see…

…too much technology
machines to save our lives, machines dehumanize”
— Styx, “Mr. Roboto” (1982)

In the nearly thirty years since Dennis DeYoung of Styx penned those lines, the growth of technology has multiplied.   In 1982 the internet was an unknown form of communication between science departments of a few large research centers.   The personal computer was on the market, but still rare and without operating systems that made use easy.   Satellite phones were rare, expensive, large and clunky.   Most people had never seen one, let alone used one.

On television cable programming was just beginning to expand.  MTV had already debuted, as had CNN.   At this point they were still experiments, no one knew if they would succeed.    There were news reports that the Japanese were developing the capacity to put music on discs that could be laser read, but if you wanted music you either had to put on a record album or cassette tape.    VCRs were the new high tech toy.   Not only could you tape your favorite shows and watch them again later, but places renting movies in VCR form were popping up, meaning you could watch an old film without commercials at your leisure.   People no longer were limited to watching what happened to be on television at the time they wanted to watch.    When you photographed people or places you took care to try to get a good shot.  Developing film was expensive, and you wouldn’t know how it turned out until you got the prints back from the camera shop.

At the time, of course, we thought we were living in a world filled with technological wonder.   The VCR is hyper-cool if you don’t know about DVDs, streaming video, or DVRs.    The Minolta SLR camera with different lenses and filters made it easier than ever to take high quality photos.   Color TVs were increasingly affordable as the old black and white sets disappeared and Sony’s new expensive “walk man” allowed you to play cassette tapes in a small portable device with headphones.   One could conceivably jog and listen to music at the same time.  How cool is that!   So much for transistor radios!   Home movies were really are (and the equipment expensive and bulky), but a few people had a screen and projector to look at slides.

Some cars even buttons to roll down windows or even lock the car.   That seemed a bit excessive — one can easily roll a window up and down (and the car didn’t have to be on) and why have a labor saving device for something as simple as pushing down a car lock!?   Pinball machines were still king, but Pac Man, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Donkey Kong and other “video games” were becoming popular.   The Atari company even put out a machine you could hook to your TV to play such favorites as “missile command.”   Video games on your television?   Wow!

One good thing about being 50 is that I got to experience first hand this remarkable era of technological advancement.  The last thirty years have seen life become fundamentally altered.    As a student in high school and college I’d go use the IBM selectric typewriter my dad’s secretary had whenever I could.  That had a button that would erase a mistake (white out the error) and it was easy to type on.    Alas, I often had to re-type whole pages thanks to a typo or margin error, and if anything was revised it would often mean retyping the whole paper.

In college researching a paper required a trip to the library.   One became adept at using card catelogs, knowing the library of congress scheme of arranging subjects, and plugging dimes into the photo copy machine to copy magazine or journal articles.    I was lucky to be a fast typist — most boys hadn’t learned to type.  I was one of only a few in my typing class back in 8th grade, wanting to someday become a sports writer.  Girls learned to type to become secretaries.   Boys, of course, would be the bosses using Dictaphones (which were already making short hand obsolete).

So while my friends tried to cajole their girl friends to type up their papers, I could just sit at my type writer and work.   Yet we were the pinnacle of technology, a TV and small refrigerator in every dorm room, and nice stereo systems – the best had components, a tuner, amp, a couple large speakers, a nice turntable and a tape deck.

My girlfriend at the time was studying computer science — learning languages like Basic, Pascal, and Cobol.   I’d go into the computer lab sometimes and try to create programs — one where the computer asked questions and then came up with a personality profile was my best.   Of course then Bill Gates would come and create an operating system that took away the need to program your computer (remember when one had to know html to write a web page in the early nineties?)

Now my kids can’t comprehend why the TV at a hotel can’t be paused or set to record shows.   They have told me we should be able to watch on demand any show on the program guide.  “In a few years,” I replied, realizing that may indeed be the case.   Students can revise papers constantly without even printing them out.   Almost any question can be answered via google, while youtube provides videos of just about anything you might want to watch.   You can do better research from a poor rural university than you used to be able to do at all but the best schools.

Music is now portable, you can have a vast array of music on demand on gadgets as small the adapters one used to have to use to play 45 RPM records on a turntable.   Everything can be downloaded, traded, and even movies and TV shows can be watched on devices one carries in ones’ pocket.    Where once we had to call each other, meet at the mall or library to hang out, or as teens cruise downtown to run into friends, now there’s facebook and texting.     We used to be able to escape our parents easily — once we were out the door, we were out of touch (and out of reach).   Now there are cell phones, tracking software, and constant contact.    The internet allows communication across cultures and contexts.

Is there too much technology?  Does all of this dehumanize us?   At one level yes.  All technology even going back thousands of years removes us a bit from the state of nature.  Yet with all due respect to Rousseau, this only means that we are able to alter what is human, perhaps even changing human nature.    It may be de-humanization compared to what we were before, but since we humans are constructing our new selves, it’s still human.    And while the computer, texting and social media are altering who and what we are, the book, telegraph and postal service did that to earlier humans.   So, though Dennis DeYoung’s lyrics are often prophetic, I don’t think there is too much technology — now or in 1982.

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Styx: The Wooden Nickel Era

Between 1972 and 1974 a struggling Chicago rock band named Styx released four albums on an RCA subsidiary named Wooden Nickel Records.   Wooden Nickel was a creation of Bill Traut and the now famous Jerry Weintraub, focusing on Chicago area bands.   Even before Styx was a hit, it was their biggest act, a popular Chicago band that they hoped could break through to the big time.  After Styx went to A&M records in 1975 Wooden Nickel disbanded in 1977.   The only other “names” they had were Exile (before it became a country band) and Jaggerz (after its one hit “The Rapper.”)

None of these four albums was a success upon release; only Styx II went Gold, and that was after a late break of the hit Lady, which reached number 6 on the charts after Styx had already released two other albums.  That Dennis De Young standard launched their career and after a line up change and two moderately successful albums with minor hits the band broke big with their seventh album, The Grand Illusion.

I am not a music critic, but for much of the summer I’ve been listening to the first four albums over and over, recorded to CD from my album collection.   I’ve come to really enjoy them, and realize that even before the classic Styx era, the band had real talent and enjoyable music.   So as a change of pace, I’ll critique/review these four albums.

The lineup:   Styx at that time included the original three that went way back to a band called Tradewinds:  Chuck Panozzo on bass, his fraternal brother John Panozzo on drums, and Dennis De Young on keyboards.  After changing their name to TW4 (since another group named Tradewinds had a hit) they added John Curulewski on guitar and finally guitarist James Young, who came to the band via a hard rock act named Monterey Hand.   Young added a hard rock edge to what had been a popular cover band focusing on pop (the Beatles, etc.), and soon it was one of the most popular bands in the Chicago area.   Wooden Nickel’s President Bill Traut signed the band, impressed by the three part harmonies of DeYoung, Young and Curulewski.

The Wooden Nickel albums represent a fusion of those three styles.  De Young was pop oriented, focusing on melodies and showing off his distinctive powerful tenor.  Young was a fabulous guitarist who preferred harder rock, while Curulewski hoped the band would take a progressive ‘art rock’ direction.   At its peak (after Curulewski left) the tension between different styles (Tommy Shaw would bring a blue grass/acoustic style) lead to awesome music; during the Wooden Nickel days it led to some fantastic music, but a confused identity.

Styx (1972) Debut album.

The debut albums includes cool cover art, quotes on the back from Dante’s Inferno (about the river Styx) and from Mayor Richard Daley, and is a decent first effort.    Styx opened with a 13 minute “Movement for the Comman Man,” including Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.”   The first song, “Children of the Land” was penned by James Young, and demonstrates the kind of straight forward rock n’ roll that had given the band its reputation.  Young and De Young would also team up to write “Best Thing,” which peaked at number 82 on the Billboard charts, a song that fuses Young and DeYoung’s influneces in a manner that holds its own to this day.   The two also wrote “Mother Nature’s Matinee,” the close of the four part ‘Movement.’  It introduced listeners to DeYoung’s famous voice, with hints of what was to come.   The other very strong song is “What Has Come Between Us” by Mark Gaddis.   It has the quintessential Styx sound to it, with DeYoung’s melodic vocals making it one of my favorites on the album — even thought it was not written by DeYoung.

In all the album sounds good — one can imagine rocking to it in Chicago in 1972.   Although Bill Traut picked songs he thought fit the band — they show off James Young’s guitar work, the harmonies, and rocking style — the band sounds like its covering songs written by others.     Still it was a solid debut and gained them recognition outside the Chicago scene.

Styx II (1973)

The cover art was less impressive (though the back side depicts the river Styx), but this album that broke late and ultimately went gold is the best of the Wooden Nickel era.   Dennis DeYoung wrote five of the seven songs, the other two came from John Curulewski.   Side one is near perfection.  It opens with James Young singing the DeYoung penned “All You Really Need is Love,” a catchy early seventies nod to the vibe of the Beatles with a rock edge.   That gives way to “Lady,” the standard that launched Styx’ big time career.   From there it shifts to “A Day,” a beautiful, progressive sometimes haunting eight minute song by John Curulewski.   It’s Curulewski at his best, shifting styles and adding something that Styx lost when he left.   He followed that with a humorous tune “You Better Ask.”

Side two starts with a classic moment – DeYoung performing Bach’s “Little Fugue in C,” on the Cathedral at St. James Pipe Organ, morphing into a powerful progressive rock tune “Father O.S.A.”   This hinted at DeYoung’s later work as well.   “Earl of Roseland” is a solid tune about the band’s Chicago roots — DeYoung looking back at their earlier days even before they hit the big time.  The concluding song, DeYoung’s “I’m Gonna Make you Feel it” (sung by James Young) is perhaps the weakest song, but still catchy and has the sound of what could be a good live tune.   The band also worked in virtuoso individual bits of musicianship creating an album I think stands alongside even their multi-platinum work for worthwhile listening.

The Serpent is Rising (1973)

When Lady originally failed to chart and Styx II appeared a failure, the band decided to shift gears, with John Curulewski taking a creative lead.   This album — a concept album about sex (the serpent is rising means what you might imagine it to mean) is more progressive, stranger and less accessible than the other three.   It begins with “Witch Wolf,” a James Young song that sounds more like his later Styx work.   Dennis DeYoung’s solos are missing, save the solid “The Grove of Eglantine,” supposedly about a woman’s vagina.  It’s a decent song, though DeYoung later said he was pushing himself to write in styles that didn’t feel natural, thinking that the failure of Styx II was a rejection of his song writing.   DeYoung also wrote “Jonas Psalter” and “Winner Take All,” though James Young sang them.  About a pirate, Jonas hints at DeYoung’s later theme of success not bringing satisfaction.

The album really showcased Curulewski’s avante garde sensibilities.  My kids love the “coda” to “As Bad as This” (the weakest song on the album), which is a delightful tune called “Plexiglass toilet.”   With lines like “mama says don’t belch and fart” and “wipe the butt clean with the paper, make it nice for everyone,” it was a hit with my eight and five year old sons.  It’s got a fun and humorous edge, a bit Zappa like, and apparently was often requested on Dr. Dimento.   Strange, but Curulewski’s humor added something the band needed at the time.   Curulewski’s “22 Years” is a solid rocker, and the sound effects on the spoken “Krakatoa” are interesting if not exactly commercial.  The album ends with Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” symbolizing a sexual climax and interestingly being the second album in a row with a nod to classical music.

My take is that while interesting, humorous at times, and experimental, Curulewski’s vision didn’t fit the strengths of the other band members.   They needed commercial success and this flopped.  They weren’t good enough as a progressive band to live off experimental work — only Curulewski had his soul in that, it seemed.    The cover art was cool though!  The quickly put out another album.

Man of Miracles (1974)

Man of Miracles marked a significant improvement over The Serpent is Rising, and the band clearly started to mature as song writers and studio artists.   I enjoy this album almost as much as Styx II, and in terms of style and performance I think it actually is their best Wooden Nickel album.   Dennis DeYoung is back, though the original album rejected one of his best tunes, “Unfinished Song” in favor of “Lies,” a cover.  “Lies” flopped and “Best Thing” (from Styx I) later replaced it.  In a 1980 re-release “Unfinished Song” finally made it — it might have been a hit if put on the album!  DeYoung’s “Song for Suzanne” is haunting and shows stylistic growth, while “Golden Lark” really shows off what would become ‘the voice of Styx.’   He also added “Evil Eyes,” a strong, haunting rock ballad, and “Christopher, Mr. Christopher,” one of my favorites.  It’s lyrically compelling, based on the story of St. Christopher, his apparent lowered status in the 60s, and a look at the role of faith in the life of an average woman.  Curulewski and Young teamed up on some good rockers, “Rock & Roll Feeling,” and “Havin’ a Ball.”  Curulewski’s humor and progressive influences waned, and Young and DeYoung’s title song showed the kind of dramatic edge that would give the band later success.

The album flopped, despite some strong moments, and it appeared Styx was going to be another one of those bands that “got close,” but couldn’t quite find the right song or chemistry to break through.   They had made quality albums, but hadn’t found their identity.   Or so they thought.

When Lady broke after the release of “Man of Miracles,” the album Styx II suddenly went gold and hit # 20 on the billboard album chart.   DeYoung and the band had thought that his style of song writing had been rejected, but in reality it hadn’t really been noticed.   “Lady” was a number one hit, though it’s late break out meant it peaked in different markets at different times, topping out at # 6 on the charts nationally.   Styx left Wooden Nickel (causing a law suit) and signed up with A&M.   Although there would be two other albums before they broke out big time, Equinox and Crystal Ball would show a more polished and focused Styx, a band that knew who it was.

Curulewski would leave after Equinox, the band was drifting away from his vision and his substance abuse was a problem.  Tommy Shaw would replace Curulewski’s humor and avant garde with ‘good ol’ boy’ blue grass and acoustic influences.  He also was attractive and charming, a missing element from the original lineup.

Still, as I listen to the Wooden Nickel recordings over and over, enjoy the cover art, and appreciate what that struggling band created, I find I enjoy their blockbusters that much more.  The band worked hard, paid its dues, struggled to find its identity.   It also reinforces the fact that Dennis DeYoung is the soul of Styx, while James Young is the body.  Young’s guitar and drive, DeYoung’s voice and lyrics were a dominant force from the start.   More than anything else, Styx was a marriage of James Young and Dennis DeYoung’s styles and attitudes.   Two Chicago rockers creating a legend.

It’s too bad that marriage ended in divorce.   I still hope for reconciliation.

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