Archive for category Styx

Haven’t We Been Here Before?

Back in 1980 I was one of the first in Sioux Falls to purchase Paradise Theater by the band Styx.  It quickly became one of my all time favorites, as it combines a riveting social commentary with powerful music.   As I listened to it again tonight, I realized that the album could have been written for the present.  It was, in essence, a call for the road not taken, and a warning against the road that, unfortunately, we were about to travel:

Dont need no fast buck lame duck profits for fun
Quick trick plans, take the money and run
We need long term, slow burn, getting it done
And some straight talking, hard working son of a gun.
Whatcha doin tonight, I got faith in our generation
Lets stick together and futurize our attitudes
I aint lookin to fight, but I know with determination
We can challenge the schemers who cheat all the rules
From “Rockin’ the Paradise,’ Styx (Lyrics: Dennis DeYoung)

What we would get from 1980 to 2008 is “fast buck lame duck profits for fun, quick trick plans, take the money and run.”  We sent jobs producing goods overseas, while increasing consumption.    Producing less and consuming more is not a sustainable practice, but we made an art of it.   ‘Take the money and run’ does not just describe Bernie Madoff, but the culture of corporate America in recent decades.  Make a quick buck, get a bonus, and focus on short term profit at long term costs.  We all got in on it, going into debt, and believing that somehow we could just consume and enjoy the fruits of foreign labor.

What we needed was “long term, slow burn, getting it done;” we needed to focus on reinvesting in the US infrastructure, assuring quality jobs; instead, we got unsustainable current accounts deficits and debt.   We became addicted to credit card debt and bought into the ‘grand illusion’ of consumerism (that 1977 Styx song – ‘The Grand Illusion,’ also written by DeYoung,  really resonates with the themes I’ve developed on this blog about the dangers of hyper-consumerism).   We sought meaning by indulging in “someone else’s fantasy,” and as a culture lost a sense of purpose.  We didn’t challenge the schemers who cheat all the rules, we let them run the show, and thought we were doing grand.

I admit, I’m a Styx fan, especially a Dennis DeYoung fan — though not the type that joins fan clubs or follows closely the rumors and details of the band (I had to look up their websites for the links, I’d not visited them before).  I’m a fan of the music and the message, and clearly bands like Styx had an impact on how I think.  The band itself was unappreciated by the critics, who generally dissed Midwest rock bands like Styx, REO, Kansas or their Canadian counterparts Rush and Triumph.   But that was my music.  Styx itself had only five top selling peak LPs before what made them great broke them apart.   They were built around three very different yet creative artists (DeYoung, Tommy Shaw, and James Young),  who fused distinct styles together for a unique and compelling sound.  Holding them together was the rhythmic core of Chuck and John Panozzo on bass and drums.   Ultimately creative and personal differences tore them apart.  There have been three later CDs, the most recent being “Cyclorama,” the only one without Dennis DeYoung, but yet an excellent album.

On the LP Equinox in 1975, before they made it big, the band put out its first real social commentary with “Suite Madam Blue,” a song about America in danger of decline, needing a ‘new start’ as we neared the bi-centennial.   But in “Grand Illusion” and “Pieces of Eight” the commentary on consumerism, materialism, and a country losing its way really became strong.  DeYoung noted how we were grasping for stuff, that we can have everything yet be haunted by an emptiness we can’t explain.   I’m not sure how much that was appreciated by other fans, but it is what drew me to their music.   The 1979 song “Borrowed Time” (from the “Cornerstone” LP) — “We’re living high, living fine, living high on borrowed time…” would unfortunately became prophetic for the decades to come.

So as I listen to some of these old LPs I can’t help but compare what we’re facing now with when we first confronted the challenges in the late seventies.   Haven’t we been here before?   Last time we had a popular President inspire the country and seem to lead us to ‘morning in America.’  It was another illusion, factories continued to close, and ultimately a spiral of debt and trade deficits (meaning we were producing less and consuming more), hidden by a bubble economy providing an illusion of wealth, brought us to the abyss.   The problems are the same now as they were in 1980, except with tenfold intensity.

Is Barack Obama the “straight talking hard working son of a gun” that will lead us away from here?  Or is he another Ronald Reagan, creating the illusion of improvement at long term cost?    There is evidence for both interpretations now, but really, it depends more on us than on the leader.   We need to look to the future, we need to ‘challenge the schemers,’ we need to put aside that ‘fast buck profits for fun’ mentality that seemed to define the last decades, and instead take responsibility for reshaping this country.   Looking at our wars, our oil addiction, our refusal to see the human cost of our actions and consumption, we’ve clearly let ‘our treasures turn our hearts to stone.’

And, for all the pundits and social critics out there who try to figure out the state of the culture, sometimes the most prophetic voices are found in the unlikeliest of places.   In both his solo work and Styx reunion albums, DeYoung seems to hit a chord that connects with the times.  “Show me the Way” at the time of the Gulf War, or “Hip Hop Hypocrisy” during the Lewinsky scandal, which showed both the President and the rival party to be hypocritical at the core.   It’s strange as a social scientist to be reflecting on the music I grew up with in this way, seeing profound  insight in what at the time was often ignored or dismissed by the cultural elite.    Yet perhaps that was one reason why they were so popular.

I sometimes wonder how much that music affected my views today.  Did I connect with DeYoung’s songs because they reflect values I have, or did they help shape the values of an impressionable kid going from high school to college?   I just got on amazon.com and found he has a new solo album out “100 Years from Now”, so I ordered it, and look forward to its arrival, as much as I had anticipated Paradise Theater in 1980.   That tour was also the one time I saw Styx in concert, in Sioux Falls.   Most importantly, though, I wonder if we’ll actually find a way to “lift up our hearts and make a new start?”

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Borrowed Time

The local Irvings (the top gas outlet in Maine) is selling regular unleaded at $4.039 a gallon. Filling an 18 gallon tank thus costs over $70. To lock in heating oil for the winter right now is $4.89 (so I’m not locking in yet). While we can afford it by cutting back other unnecessary expenses, there are people now who are facing major life decisions because they have a long commute, they can’t afford to heat their house, or their jobs are in danger. Even options such as geothermal energy, usually seen as unviable in Maine because of cool ground temperatures, are getting renewed interest thanks to new technologies.

But what about the car? I feel lucky to have lived my life in the age of the automobile. Yes, it has polluted the planet, led to countless traffic deaths and created numerous problems we’re dealing with now, but the lifestyle it provided was fun. My first car was a 1963 Chevy Bel Aire I got when I was 16 years old from my Grandma for $100. My friend Dan and I used to drive our cars (his was a 1966 Nova) at high speeds over a raised railroad section on a gravel road outside of town. We’d get airborn and the key was to land and keep going straight. I got up to 60 MPH. He had his car taken away before he could beat that record. The next year, at age 17, we both realized how crazy we’d been the year before. But it was fun. Now that part of Sioux Falls is all built up, instead of fields and a gravel road it has schools and stores.

As children we didn’t have any car seats. The point of a station wagen was to have kids play in the back, and I recall (despite my mom’s yelling at us to sit down) standing in the back of the convertible as we headed out to the lake when I was 5 or 6. What a life! I feel a twinge of guilt when I buckle my kids into car seats. Yeah, it’s safe, but somehow they’re missing out on something.

After my transmission and engine failed on my Bel Aire (I’d love to have another light green 1963 Bel Aire!) for reasons that were pretty obvious (but which I never shared with my parents) I got to drive around with my mom’s 1973 Bonneville convertible. 455 8 cylinder engine, we’d cruise town and taunt cars full of bigger meaner kids to chase us, and we’d always lose them. We knew where the tricky curves were and I was usually the driver, adept at weaving in and out of traffic. Unbelievably, we never got pulled over. Alas, I would joke that the car’s mileage wasn’t measured in miles per gallons but gallons per mile. It was the last of the pre-oil crisis cars, and at best got 4 or 5 MPG. My mom sold it long ago, but she says it’s still around, used now for parades back in South Dakota.

Perhaps my favorite was a 1970 Olds Tornado, again an 8 cylinder 455 engine, front wheel drive, and FUN. I was 18 by that time and a bit more reserved in my driving, but heading out to Rapid City to watch the state basketball tournament, armed with a fuzz buster and CB radio, we averaged about 120 – 130 MPH on I-90 (a very straight and sparsely traveled interstate). Made record time Sioux Falls to Rapid, but my car broke down once we got there. It got fixed, but later a lady came out of the driveway and smashed into it, totaling the car. I got a check for its value ($900), but never again would have such a fun car. My next one was a Dodge from the early 60s with push button transmission and a weak engine.

I’ve also been at the other extreme. From 1990 to 1994 I was getting around 50 MPG on the highway, driving not a hybrid but a little red Geo Metro. In 1990 I purchased a brand new Geo Metro after getting a job teaching a course at St. Olaf College for a professor who was on global semester. I had been going by foot, bike and bus in Minneapolis where I was a graduate student, but to get to Northfield I needed a car. I sold that first Metro in the fall of 1991 before heading to Germany for a year, but bought a used version of the same car — red again — when I returned. From experience I know it’s possible for car makers to provide very fuel efficient cars! I wonder if GM wishes they were still churning those things out!

Are we at the end of the automobile age? On the one had, there is no alternative, so cars will be around for awhile. My son’s favorite movie is Cars and both boys have more matchbox and hot wheels cars than they know what to do with (but still each want the exact same one at the same time). I still go car by car through Consumer Reports every year when they have their ratings, looking at what is new, redesigned or dumped. The rise of hybrids and electric cars, as well as the inevitable shift in emphasis to gas mileage means that for some time the automobile industry will adapt.

Still, the automobile age seems to be slipping away. There was a kind of innocence that’s been lost. No worries about pollution or wasting gas when you went outside of town to watch a street race, or go cruising the loop downtown for hours. In those days drinking a beer while driving was common, and when pulled over often the police would simply tell you to pour it out rather than charge a serious offense like today.

To be sure, I didn’t drive until after the first energy crisis, and already things were changing. We had the 55 MPH speed limit for a while, a friends parents’ bought this interesting little car called the Honda Civic (I had thought Honda only made motorcycles). But in a world with no internet, it was still the age of the Automobile.

Back in 1980 a Styx song had the lyric “we were so cool back in ’65, we had it made because we understood what to do to survive, I had my car and I made the scene, didn’t give a damn about no gasoline oh no, they can go to hell.” The song’s refrain “living high, living fine on borrowed time” aptly describes that age — the wild, fun, wasteful and polluting 20th century age of the automobile. It was an illusion, borrowed time until we would have to face the facts of global warming and diminishing oil supplies. But damn, it sure was fun.

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