Archive for category Styx

Street Collage

“And if you’ve got enough money where you don’t have to work, let’s face it, who wants to work? There’s no reason why anybody, that five generations of people got to be on welfare…Kids nowadays, that’s the whole thing, too much money, they’ve got too much money. They don’t have to struggle and work for things like when I was growing up had to do. And I was lucky if I got that job delivering hats in a hat store for twenty-five cents per hat. Too much money today is with the young kids, everything was handed to ’em, and that’s why they are the way they are.”

If you read that quote and reflect, you may find yourself agreeing. This generation of kids grew up with DVDs, cell phones, computers, video games and everything they wanted just handed to them. This is why they’re “the way they are” – selfish, lazy, unambitious, entitled, etc. Yup, not like when my generation grew up, we had to work!

Teens often seem entitled, aloof and arrogant to many

However, the quote comes from a street interview (not sure if it’s real or staged) in the middle of the song “Movement for the Common Man” on the album Styx I, which was released in 1972. That means that the ‘young people’ talked about in that quote are probably nearing 60.

In other words, how elders view youth hasn’t changed much in 40 years, even if today’s elders are yesterday’s youth! Why would that be? First, consider another part of that track “Street Collage” from Movement for the Common Man:

Well, you see now, I’m a depression baby and I remember the WPA. If we could just start the same thing again and get people working out there, why not? Is it too menial for somebody to sweep the street?

The elders of 1972 looking at the youth of that time compared them to the depression era. By the early seventies consumerism was beginning, the convenience society was forming (TV dinners were becoming standard fare, the microwave oven was gaining popularity. 40,000 were in use in 1970, by 1975 it was 1,000,000. Fast food was popular, but not yet omnipresent. McDonalds still kept track of how many million had been sold, not just “millions and millions.”

And then there’s this, from the same section of the song:

I had one gentlemen get in — No offense to you gentlemen, he had long hair and a beard — And I told him, he had better go home and take a bath; He had B.O. so bad, it was terrible! I said “You might be educated, but did your parents tell you to go dirty?”

It was the era of the hippies, protesters against the war, for civil rights, and sometimes against the western industrialized society completely. Having survived the depression and used to being thankful for a chance to make money, the counter culture movement of the seventies was a different cultural world. Emblematic of this is a television show that started in January 1971, All in the Family. Just consider the opening tune:

Those were the days! Now many “elders” look at see gays marrying, have the same reaction to Occupy Wall Street that their parents or grandparents had to Vietnam war protesters, and see a youth that has grown up in a time of plenty being used to having material abundance. Beyond that there are cell phones, video games, facebook (and the younger generation seems to disregard the intense concern about privacy that earlier generations cling to), a black President, and a very different world.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose….the more things change, the more they stay the same!

Frankly, I’m impressed with today’s youth. Teaching at a university I see them engaged, concerned about their future, and more knowledgable than ever due to the internet and connections made often across borders. To be sure, these are college kids, but I teach at a rural state university not an elitist private school. If students here are engaged and connected, that’s a good sign.

Today's youth - ready to change the world!

Yes, they are used to technology. I hear students talk about how hard it would be to go without their mobile phone for even part of a day — they are more connected to friends and family than I would have wanted to be when I was their age. Parents are often almost tyrannical in their desire to keep in contact with their kids, even at college (note to self: I will not be that way as my kids grow up!). When we’ve done travel courses to Italy and Germany, parents increasingly try to demand students stay in contact with them every day.

In fact, if anyone deserves criticism its the parents’ generation. There is so much effort done to protect kids or make sure they succeed that kids often get stifled by the attention and control. It’s a well intentioned stifling, and certainly better than ignoring kids or not caring, but it can go too far. If the youth of today seem spoiled it’s often not their fault — it’s being forced on them by their elders.

Being over protective leads to sometimes irrational and harmful efforts at control

That’s probably the biggest difference I notice between my youth and now. There is so much protection now – a kid brings a swiss army knife to school to show his friends and he’s expelled. Who does that protect? An ESPN announcer has “chink in his armour” about a Chinese athlete and the fact “chink” had a double meaning as a pejorative for Chinese folk and he gets fired. Really? Protecting us from double meanings in popular expressions?

Yet with all the protections, the ubiquity of fast food, video games and other temptations overpowers those who would want to protect kids from themselves. It’s a bit surreal. Yet through it all, I think we underestimate the youth — just as my elders were doing back in the 70s. They learn to navigate their reality, they understand dangers and risks, even if their belief in their immortality causes them to sometimes foolishly disregard them. But my generation was the same way. That’s youth.

Today’s youth are being handed a country in debt and decline and asked to fix things. They are pioneers in a world where even the phrase “high tech” sounds old fashioned. They are crafting new realities, throwing off old prejudices (such as the prohibition against gay marriage) and are cynical of the ideology-based politics of the past. Kids these days? Well, count me impressed. The most hope I have for my country and its future comes when I consider today’s youth. They’re no more spoiled than my generation was, and they seem to grasping the information revolution tools that can reshape the world with a gusto.

Anyway, given the mountain of debt and the myriad of ecological, social and political problems my generation is leaving in our wake, I don’t think we elders have any standing to complain!

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A Retrospective of 2011

TIME magazine’s naming of  “the Protester” as person of the year in 2011 captured what clearly is the defining aspect of the year gone by.   Whether it was the Arab Spring, the Russian winter or the Occupy Wall Street movement (which spawned imitations across the globe), 2011 was a year in which people started to more strongly question both authority and conventional wisdom.

This is made all the more poignant by how unexpected it was.   I challenge you to find me any pundit or psychic who predicted the events in Egypt (which began in January 2011) or the force of Occupy Wall Street.    Much like how no one saw the fall of the Berlin Wall coming when we went into 1989, experts and pundits are again shown to be narrow minded fools by the people on the street.   The Tunisian protests were growing when 2010 ended, but the idea that this would start a process ending with the overthrow of multi-decade stalwarts like Mubarak and Gaddafi?  Pshaw!

Moreover, in the US the talk still was of the “tea party” and the surge of the GOP.   The idea that the left would strike back with its own grass roots movement that would rise as suddenly and with force didn’t seem possible.   Not only didn’t the left have FOX News and especially Glenn Beck, primary proponents and builders of the Tea Party, but they were a spent force after 2010 — dissatisfied with Obama but nowhere else to turn.

No one knows where all this will go.   The Arab Spring is a good thing, the dictators had to go.   As bad as things may get, postponing change would have been worse.   The only alternative would have been to defend dictators doomed to fall in any event.    The path towards a better future will be rocky and often violent.   Such is how history unfolds.

New protests against Putin in Russia show promise; will the Russian state assert dominance as it always has, or do the protesters have a chance?   OWS is certain to gain strength again when the weather is warm.  Will they focus their protests on making a political difference in an election year, or will they be angry and aggressive against the status quo?   The right wing predicts the latter, inside the movement they’re confident of the former.   We’ll see.

All of this reflects a fact I’ve blogged about many times: the information and technology revolution is changing politics in a fundamental way.   By fundamental I don’t just mean that now candidates solicit via e-mail or tweet their responses to world events.   I mean the nature of sovereignty, power, economic relations and world order are being altered.   The process is only beginning, but the result will be a world very different than the one we’re used to at the start of the 21st Century.

2011 gave us a taste of what this may entail.   No matter how powerful, brutal or apparently invulnerable the leader, politics in the new era make it harder to hang on to power when the people rise up.    It’s a good thing as it is a start of a shift of power away from elites towards the people.   But it was a good thing when the reformation challenged Church dominance in 1517.   After that Europe was at war until 1648.   Change may be necessary, but it can be violent and difficult.

It’s hard to find other ways 2011 stood out.   The world and especially Japan suffered an immense tragedy in March with an earthquake and tsunami that brought home the possible dangers of nuclear power, limits of human engineering and resilience of human heroes, as many in Japan gave their lives fighting to prevent absolute catastrophe.   I don’t think this means nuclear power should be taken off the table; rather, as with anything, we can’t say there is zero risk of disaster.

President Obama had a good foreign policy year, with the killing of Osama Bin Laden and an end to the Iraq war.  Obama’s diplomacy abroad has been effective, though a continually lagging economy at home makes him still vulnerable to defeat in his re-election bid.   That said, he leads any Republican challenger in head to head p0lls, though is pretty even against Mitt Romney, the strongest and most likely GOP candidate.

2011 has seen a late year bit of economic hope, but  the economy slogged through year four of a crisis that started with the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 and then went into near melt down with the financial blow out in the fall of 2008.   The global economy is still resettling, deleveraging, and working out the structural imbalances the grew from 1981 to 2007.

For me personally it’s been a very good year.   I again participated as one of four faculty for a travel course to Italy in May with 42 students.   The weather was great and the students superb!   We installed our geothermal heating system, the boys excelled with skiing early in the year, Dana at age 5 skied from the top of Saddleback in April (he turned 6 this week).    The new Mallett School opened, a wonderful building with great teachers and staff.   I’ve been involved in the PTA and that’s been rewarding.   Work has been excellent, I’m even doing an online winter term course right now that is off to a good start.

The new Mallett school, built in 2011

My intuition says that 2011 has set us up for major events in 2012 (and no, I don’t mean the Mayan end of the world!)   In the US it will be an election year, and the world economy will come into clearer focus.   Right now there is optimism that the US economy is finally starting to improve, that the EU is on a path to overcome its crisis, and that we’re past the worst.  Yet debt remains a huge issue, and China is facing internal and external economic challenges that could be the first real threat to thirty years of constant 10% a year growth.  Events in Syria, Iran, Russia and elsewhere could all create real upheavals.

These changes aren’t new to 2011.   I think this has been building since the mid-eighties when the personal computer took off, globalization shifted the meaning of international relations, and the Cold War drew to a close.   So maybe it’s appropriate that a song written in 1990 captures my mood.   Glen Burtnik’s title song (co-written with Bob Burger) of the Styx album Edge of the Century reflects what I feel heading out of a very interesting 2011 and into what might be a consequential 2012:

See the world in revolution
Spinning faster all the time
We’re heading for the end of something
Just about to step across that line
Oh, can’t you see?
We’re staring in the face of reality

Can’t turn off the information
Can’t sit back in your easy chair
Can’t ignore a generation
Better get ready cause we’re almost there

We’re moving at the speed of life
Into a brave new world where the strong will survive
The dawn’s gonna break and I’ll meet you
On the other side

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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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Rain!

Here is a great tune for our East coast weather, written and performed by Dennis DeYoung (inspired in part by Katrina), this video matches the song Rain with images from those past hurricanes, as well as other disasters, which I found on Youtube.  It looks like it was made by someone named “scarlet envelope” a couple weeks after Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008:

It’s from the album One Hundred Years from Now which you can find at dennisdeyoung.com.   It is a superb album from one of rock’s all time greats.  The song’s been running through my head all day as I’ve watched coverage of Irene.   (By the way, my first ever post on this blog was about hurricanes – Katrina vs. Nargis).

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