Hi, I'm Dennis Deyoung, and I was the lead singer and keyboardist for the rock group Styx for many, many years. I'm here today to talk about music. My neighbor, who turned out later to be my godfather for my confirmation, was 14 years old. He lived next door to me when I was seven, and he played accordion. That was in the 50s, so you have to remember that the accordion has another connotation in different decades. In the 50s, it was the most-popular instrument in America. It was a big thing. You opened it up, and the bellows moved and the fingers are going, and it makes this sound. I was captivated by that, plus I knew like most children, when this boy played the accordion, my mother thought it was a greatest thing she'd ever seen. She was Italian. So I played accordion because, as you know, it's the law. If your mother's Italian, you have to do it.
I didn't own an actual piano of my own until I was 27 years old, after I recorded Lady. How about that? Never owned a piano. Really what I did was I went from accordion to farfeesa (electric organ) and then to the Hammond B3. Then I went to piano. So when I went and played Lady in the studio, which is the first hit record I ever wrote— Here's the great part about it. It was the first song I ever wrote entirely by myself and the first song I ever sang on a record by myself as a lead vocal. That's pretty good, isn't it? Yeah. The funny thing was, it was written for the first Styx album, and it was not allowed to get on the first Styx album. They said the producer wanted these other songs that were from outside songwriters. He wanted us to do them. We did those instead. Then Lady was on the second Styx album.
I don't see myself as a great keyboard player and never did, although I'm on the cover of Keyboard Player magazine—no. I never did. I had my limitations as a keyboard player, but what I did have was my own unique style of playing. I've come to realize over the years that so many times, your limitations will be your strengths. Here's what I mean by that.
Because you can't do something the conventional way, for whatever reason it is, as a singer or as an instrumentalist, you devise your own ways of getting by. Therein sometimes comes a unique style, because you are forced, as the mother of invention, to do something. You want to be able to do something but you can't quite do it the standard way of doing it, so you do it differently the way it fits you. That's where uniqueness comes from. I believe this with singers and with songwriters and with musicians, that your weaknesses can be your greatest strengths at times. It will force you to be unique.
I wrote it for my wife. I had a wife and a baby girl before I had a record contract. We got married in 1970, in 1972 was when we got the record deal, so I wrote that song for my wife. I wrote it on a Wurlitzer electric piano in my garage in a little house we had bought. At the time, I was listening to—you’re not going to believe this—Court of the Crimson King for inspiration. You probably don't even know that. It's a band called King Crimson. You may have heard of that. That's what I was listening to.
Now what that has to do with Lady, I have no idea, except I know I always saw my wife as this kind of shy, very dignified, ladylike person. In Court of the Crimson King, kings, ladies, knights, all that kind of stuff I guess, you know— Wacky, isn't it? I knew it was the best thing. Because it was the first thing that I'd actually written and recorded by myself, I didn't know. I thought, That's pretty good. This doesn't suck that much. When you’re a young artist, and you're starting out, you're desperate for validation and approval. I think most artists are equal parts unbridled confidence and ego, and equal parts complete insecurity. That's what most artists are, those two things clashing all the time.
I think I was that. When you're younger, I think you believe you're better than you are out of necessity. Then you work hard, and some of us are lucky and actually get better. I think when you're young, you want approval, you want somebody to reinforce you. When Lady first came out, and it was first released, it was a complete failure. It was a stiff. It was horrifying to me. We recorded two albums subsequent to that. In those next two albums, I tried to be anyone but myself. On Styx two, the Lady album, there were only seven songs. I wrote five of them. Because it was rejected, I thought completely by the American public, that on the next two records, I tried to write like other people. I was sure people didn't like me and like what I did.
What I didn't know was, whatever it is you create to have success, to have a hit record however you want to determine that, has as much to do with the business apparatus of the music business as it has to do with the actual song, record, piece of art that you've created. But I didn't know that then. I just thought that I stunk. I've oftentimes said that I have a piano upstairs that's got three or four really good songs in it, this piano I own. I just have to go out there and hit on the keys long enough until one falls out. I don't know any other way.
Once again, it gets back to hard work. You have to sit there and put in the time. Songwriting to me—I'm a music guy first. Once in awhile, I'll have a phrase that pops into my head that I try to put to music, but essentially I write music ahead of lyric. When I'm doing it, I think, because after all these years of doing it, I'm pretty good at it. I can do it. The secret to it is, is to know when you've done something special. You want a song tomorrow? You need a song from me? I'll write you a song. It'll sound like a song, and it will be a song, and you'll go, “Hey, that's not so bad.” But you have to be able to sit there and know when you're doing something special and be able to get your arms around it. Grab onto it. Hold onto it and realize it.
More importantly, you have to know when you're doing mediocrity, because you're going to do a lot of it. You can't fool yourself that you're mediocrities are brilliant, because they're not. I oftentimes say, at least for me, “If I have to worry about somebody else's opinion about what I've done, I haven't done very much.” That doesn't mean that we're not still desperate for validation of what we've done and approval of it. We are. We want that. But—you must be honest with yourself. If you're not, you're headed for disappointment. You have to be able to say, “That's not really that good. It's OK.” Suddenly, there it is, and you don't know why.
That's why I said before, you have to sit in front of the damn piano and wait for it to pop out of there. I've heard some people say, “I woke up, and I had this song, and I wrote it in 10 minutes.” I went, “Lucky bastard.” I've written small, really good parts of songs quickly, which I have elaborated on, but never have I woke up and fully visualized a thing. These people are apparently smarter than me. For me, it's sitting there and going through the process, writing and rewriting. I never had a singing lesson in my life, and I worked really, really hard to be a singer. I don't think I came into my own as a singer until the middle 80s. Really, most recently, when I went on the road, I was in Jesus Christ Superstar, where I was in the Broadway musical for six months. That's really where I learned discipline. I come from rock 'n roll. It's loose. It's what it is. You do it, and it's in the moment. That experience on the Broadway stage, you can't fool around, because you can't go, “Hey, Cleveland, it's good to see you. I’m Pontius Pilate. A funny thing happened to me on the way to Judea.” It's not going to wash. You're in character. You have to do a thing. So it's discipline.
I think that made me a better singer by far. When I started making solo albums in the middle 80s, that's what I had to be more of a— In Styx, I sang four songs a record, maybe three, four. It was a group. We shared responsibilities. But when you're carrying the whole load, you've got to do more. So I worked really hard at being a singer. I never liked the sound of my voice when I was starting out. Still to this day, I would prefer to sound like somebody else.
The thing I never liked about my voice was it didn't sound like anybody I knew. You know what I'm saying? I'm back to that old thing. Our weaknesses are our strengths. I didn't sound like anybody else, and I didn't like that. I said, “Why is that guy holding his nose when he’s singing?” I thought, I want to sound like— I can remember the early guys I liked—Johnny Mathis, because we'd put on his records, and I'd make out. But seriously, Folks—but it's true. I liked Roy Orbison when I was a kid. I liked Gene Pitney, Paul McCartney, Elvis. I liked real singers.
I didn't sound like those people. As it turns out, because I don't sound like anybody else— I went and I sang Lady. I didn't have a style. I had this thing, the way I sounded, and I went and I sang Lady. Then like I said, the next two albums, I went, “I didn't care. You tell me who I have to sing like.” Then right after Lady was a hit, I said, “OK. I get it. They like me. They like that.” Then I knew that I could just be me.
But if you told me that I had to spin plates and stand on one foot and recite Shakespeare, I would've done that, because I was young. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be successful. You start out imitating other people. Most of us do, don't we? We start out by imitating those people we like. That's what I did. But on Lady, it was me. Then people liked it a lot. So I knew who I was, and from that point on, I said, “OK. I have to be me.”
We're talking essentially about music, but the lyrics—if you figure out a way to tap into something in yourself that's real, really tap into it—you'd be surprised how many people will relate, even though you think it's unique to yourself. The greatest fear you have as a writer in the beginning is that you'll write something that you think is wholly your own, unique to yourself. You're the only one who thinks and feels that way. Who else would feel like I do? But if you get it right, you get the feeling right, you'll be surprised how many millions of people relate and feel like you do.
A very difficult thing to do in the music business is to have your first hit record and define yourself. Then the really hard part begins, which is, “How do I stay true to the audience that I've created and move forward without being a repetition and a parody of myself?” That is always the challenge. The thing that I'm most proud of with Styx and the things that I've done over my career is I figured out a way to not repeat myself. Remember, I'm the guy who wrote Come Sail Away, Mr. Roboto, and Babe. I don't know what those three have in common. Not a lot.
People say to me sometimes, “You know what you need to do? I know what you need to do. You need to write a song like Come Sail Away.” And I go, “No kidding? I already did.” You can't rewrite it. You can't do it, because I wasn't trying to write Come Sail Away. I didn't try to write that song. I just wrote it. If you try to write a song like a song you've written, it will sound just like a song you've written.
What makes those songs valuable is that they were unique the first time someone heard them. You can’t go back there. This is the difficulty for all of us—the reinvention of ourselves. When I did Mr. Roboto, for instance, I wasn't trying to do anything other than write that song to fit. It's a great story about Mr. Roboto. I bought a synthesizer that had the first built-in arpeggiator on it. Arpeggiator means if you hold one note, it can rhythmically play that note. Instead of going, “Bom,” it'll go “Bom, bom, bom,” or “Bombombombombom” by holding one note. I'd never seen anything like that before. It was the early sequencers called an arpeggiator.
I held this note. “Dumdumdumdumdumdum. Bom, bombom.” That's how I wrote it, because this new synthesizer can do that thing. That's where it came from. I wasn't trying to do that. I was fascinated by this gimmick on this synthesizer. That's where it sprang from musically.
But you can't go back and be surprised by it again, can you? It happened once. That's why it happened. My point is simply, as a songwriter, you always have to push yourself to not be mediocre, to not just do what you can do. Try to always find the lost chord. Look for the new chord. Look for the new twist on the old, because there's only so many chords. We played them a lot. All you're trying to do is put your point of view on something. “How do I take those chords and make them my own?”
I don't know where that comes from. I think it probably has to do with a real need to please someone who cannot be pleased. I've said this before. Maybe it's not as true as I think it is, but I certainly know it's true for me and a lot of successful people. People who are very successful or who have been successful are desperately trying to please someone who cannot be pleased. It's usually your mother or father.
I look back at my life, and I think it was my mother in my case. I'll be happy to say. She's been dead four or five years. I wanted to please my mother. That's why the accordion, and— I think that's where that comes from. I wanted to entertain my mother and see her smile, to make her happy. I think that's where that comes from for a lot of people. I think all children want the approval of their parents. You're thinking about yourself right now, Danny. You're thinking about yourself. And you're thinking about yourself— who it is in your life.
I think that we all want to have the approval, feel the specialness from our parents. Some of us are just good at certain things to get that approval. I was good at playing the accordion. I was good at being funny when I was a kid. I think that just translated to when I finally got on stage that I had experience at trying to please people. Good entertainers, that's what they have. They have that ability.
Is that too Freudian for you? But it's true, isn't it? Now you're both thinking of the people in your life after I've said that. Some people are fortunate enough not to have— I've often said if you've got two parents who are completely and totally supportive of you in every possible way and think your farts don't stink, you may not have much of a chance in life. (Laughter)
You may not, because great expectations must be met. I think, by and large, I don't get nervous in the traditional way that people who don't perform would consider nerves. “Oh, my God. I'm freaking out. I have butterflies in my stomach. Oh, my God. I'm going to throw up.” I know there are some performers who do that. That's not me. What I'll do, because I'm a singer, if there's something really big coming up, I'll start manifesting in my mind that I'm getting sick. That I'm getting a cold.
Singers have to be neurotic by nature, Danny, because the least little thing can upset those two little pieces of meat that bang together in the throat that allow them to make a living. You see what I'm saying? Get a cold, a sneeze. That's why they are the way they are, because they're always afraid of that happening.
I will manifest. I'll go, “Oh, my God, Honey. I think I'm coming down with—” That's how I’ll manifest my own way of dealing with the stress of an individual situation. If I did 100 shows a year, I can't say that I'd be nervous in any real way for any of them. I know what I have to do out there. People who say, “What's it like when 15,000 people stand up and cheer?” I think, Well, they're supposed to. I don't mean that arrogantly. I mean if I've done my job— The only time you notice the audience is when they don't respond the way you expect them to.
You play the beginning of Lady, everyone cheers. If I play the beginning of Lady, and it's dead silent, you look up and say, “What happened?” A really good performance is not about the audience. It's just about you. By that I mean you've got to deliver it. If you deliver it, they're coming with you. That's it. If you do your job, they're coming with you. If you don't, they're not.
Sting was a schoolteacher. I was. There are three or four of us who were schoolteachers. Like I said, I was married and had a kid before I had a record deal. I came out of college with a degree in education, and I was a music teacher. I would go into my 40 minutes in front of a class, then the next audience would come in. I saw teaching as one of the noblest professions, and it's really undervalued. I don't know about other cultures, but certainly in our culture.
There's nothing more important than education. It's so vital. Knowledge is power. It's a cliché, but it's true. For me, I quit teaching when we got a record deal. We recorded our first album while I taught in the daytime. We recorded at night. Then I quit and went full-time as a musician. In retrospect, my wife went along with it. Some women wouldn't have done that, because we had a kid. It's a road that you cannot see where it's going to go. It's all in fog that road. When you jump on that train and say, “I'm going to be a rock star. I'm going to be a musician,” you don't know where that's going to lead you, because so much of what you do is out of your control.
For instance Lady. I wrote that song, and look at how long it's lasted. It's a pretty important song over the last 30 years, but it could have been just one of those songs that evaporated into thin air. So you don't know what you're going to get, but anything that's worthwhile in life is fraught with risk. That's just it. If it wasn't, everybody would have everything, wouldn't they? If everything of value and importance was easy to get, everybody would have everything. The stuff that's really valuable and important in life to get takes a lot of hard work.
The question is, “Do I know when I've written a hit song?” I should quantify that by saying I know when I've written what I consider a great song for me. I'm not saying a great song in the pantheon of great songs, but a great song for me. I used to say, “That's a hit record.” I've never been wrong one time in my life about anything I've ever done. Never. Because I always knew when I wrote the mediocre ones. I would never tell somebody, “That's a hit song.” I never would do that to myself, but I knew when they were hit records.
Lady I screamed for 2 1/2 years at everyone around me. You know why? We played it live, and people would go nuts. What am I, an idiot? We play 15 songs, and we'd play Lady, and people would go crazy. I thought that you'd have to be stupid not to know that one's different from the other 14 songs.
But when I wrote Lady, I didn't know, because I'd never done it. You know what I'm saying? After that, I always knew. I never forget the first time we listened to Come Sail Away in the studio at the listening party. We’d had some success. We had a big success in Canada. Lady was a hit record. We had two gold albums, and we had a bunch of platinum albums in the can, but we had still not broken the US scene in a big way. We were still playing behind Kiss and Aerosmith and Bob Seeger, you name it. We were the world's biggest support act.
We made this album called The Grand Illusion, and I wrote this song called Come Sail Away. We're listening to Come Sail Away, and it played over the speakers, and I turned to my best friend at the time, Tom Short, may he lay in peace, and I said, “If that doesn't do it, I'm going back to teaching. I don't think I can do any better than that.” That's what I said.
But I knew it when I wrote it. I was sitting at a piano, and there was snow. It was the worst winter in 50 years in Chicago. I wrote this song about sailing. I remember sitting at the piano, and I got it. I got the verse to the chorus, right? I got it. “Come sail away...” Tears rolling down my face. Something about what I had said in that song, I’d gotten it right within myself. The lyric and the music, it all came together in a way that I knew that's it. That is what I should be doing, and there it is.
It's like an actor sometimes. They think the last role they get will be their last role. I’ll never get another one. Same thing with writing songs. You think, “That's the last good one I'm ever going to write.” The more good songs you pile up on yourself, boy, the worse it gets, because you go, “Oh, my God.” You're shooting here today. You see behind me? This is what I call the Hall of Ghosts. (Laughter) I come down here and look at it and go, “Oh, my God. That's a lot to live up to.”
We grew up on the same street. We brought a guitar player, James Young, in 1970. John Terleski was first in 1968, then James Young in ‘70. That was the original five guys. We made five albums that way, Lady and Equinox, which were really very successful albums. Then our guitar player, JC, John Cerlseki, quit, and Tommy Shaw came in, in 1976. That was the band that most people know as Styx.
Being in a band is like being in a kitchen with your mother, your aunt, and your mother-in-law, and they're all going to try to make Thanksgiving dinner. Need I say more? That's what it's like. Or it's like being in your father's workshop, and your uncle and his two best friends are going to come over and build a birdhouse. And they have to agree how big the whole is where the bird goes in. This is what a rock band is. It's just that simple.
Or it's you, and how many brothers did you have? You and your three brothers are going to sit down and try to figure out anything and agree on it. Can you do it? You would agree on one thing— we want more money from our parents— but other than that— See what I'm saying? That's what a rock band is like. Generally speaking, you've got a couple guys who are more responsible for the success than others. Maybe it's one, maybe it's two. You have to figure out how to keep those balls in the air. That's why bands break up. Don't they all? All of them break up. Some of them get back together again. How many bands have there been that haven't broken up? I don't know. I started to think who are they that haven't broken up? I don't even know. Is there any? That's just it.
And the more success you have, the harder, because everybody wants to feel—it's human nature to feel—that they're responsible in a major way for the success of the band. What's lost in the whole thing is all boats rise with the tide. If you could just keep that in mind, you'd be better off, but sometimes, people can't keep that in mind. Everyone wants to feel that they're the most special and the most important member, even if they know they're not. It becomes a balancing act. It just does.
But really great bands, of which I think Styx qualifies as one of the really better bands, were dependent on those guys together. Those records were not made by me or any other individual. They were made by all of us. Everybody contributed to those records in a major way. That's what makes bands good. They are able to come together at some point creatively and make something happen.
The first one was The Grand Illusion, which I've already quoted to you as about my idea of as having an album based on the thought process that— Telling the audience that there are a lot of things in life that seem to be one way, and they're something else, and the illusion of entertainment and what we do. That was a huge record. That was the first really concept album, thematic. Dark Side of the Moon is thematic, isn't it? But I listen to those songs and wonder what the heck are they talking about. But there is a continuity. It's not like Tommy, where there's a through story. We got to that later, something I kind of forced on the band.
Then we did Pieces of Eight, which was another song I'd written, which was about right after The Grand Illusion, we had this huge success. Made a lot of money, my friend, in a very short period of time. Pieces of Eight was representative of what is money to us? In The Blue-Collar Man there's a guy in the unemployment line. In The Great White Hope there's a guy who wants to be a champion boxer. In the song, Pieces of Eight, the main character has essentially become financially successful, and he's trying to figure out what that means to him now.
It happened to us. When you become very successful, all your friends and your family can be threatened by your success, by your wealth, by your notoriety. As Joe Walsh said, “My friends are all different. I'm still the same.” That does happen to you, where they feel they may be left behind. You're not the same person to them that you were, that you've known. You'll find out who your true friends are if you ever get real successful, because they'll treat you differently in ways that you wouldn't expect. Pieces of Eight was an album about that, about how money changes things.
Next concept album was actually Paradise Theater. I walked through an art gallery, and there was a painting by a Chicago painter named Addison. It was called The Paradise Theater. I looked at it, and I went, “Wow.” There was a theater, and it said Paradise Temporarily Closed. It was in an urban setting. Looked like a once-great movie palace that had fallen into decay. I said, “That's America. 1980.” Between 1972 and 1980 there was eight years, and we'd seen the prestige of America completely decline between Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, the oil embargo, the Iranian hostage crisis. When we were putting this album together, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were running for president.
Ronald Reagan started talking about Morning in America. “We are the greatest nation. We are the beacon.” Whatever it was. “We are still the greatest nation in this world. We've lost our way—” so on and so forth. Whether you want to buy into Ronald Reagan, or whatever your political—I bought into the idea. I'd traveled around the world at that point. “Yeah, we are. With all our flaws, we're special. The people in this country, immigrants, we're special. We are not the dregs of this world.”
I saw Paradise Theater as a metaphor for a declining America, so we made a concept album based on that. We had such great success with Paradise Theater. The show was theatrical. I brought theatrical elements in—the backdrops, the way it started, the movies, it was just a wonderful, wonderful show. It was our biggest tour. It was just wildly successful. It was—to that date—the biggest attendance for an indoor arena tour. Of course, the next year, somebody broke it, but to that point—
So I thought, OK, themes. Let's take it one step further. How do we get longevity? How do we make ourselves bigger than this? It's to be on film. You have to be on film. Hard Day’s Night. Help. Rolling Stones. The Almond concerts. Pink Floyd the Wall. You've got to be on film. There was no MTV yet. It was 1981 when I'm thinking this up on the Paradise Theater tour. No. MTV is ’82. I didn't know there was going to be music videos. Music videos played in Europe, not in the US. No such thing. It's got to be on film.
I came up with his rock opera called Kilroy Was Here. I thought we'd make our own film. The story was set in the future. America falls into a great depression, a worldwide depression financially. There is a man named Dr. Everett Righteous who owns the largest cable network in the United States. He's very powerful and influential. Originally, I'd written him like Johnny Carson, with that charm but evangelical. His name was Dr. Everett Righteous. He convinced, through the power of his TV show and his influence in Congress, not unlike what actually did happen a few years later, with people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. This is before that—1981-82. He convinces Congress to pass legislation that bans rock 'n roll, because he has convinced everyone that the decline in America was because of rock 'n roll music.
People are always looking for easy scapegoats, right? World War II, who did Hitler have? You know who. You've got to blame somebody. You've got to blame something. He blamed rock 'n roll. So they pass legislation that says rock 'n roll is banned. The night that they pass this legislation, the first guy to play a concert is this guy named Kilroy. Huge demonstrations. Everett Righteous’ group is called the MMM, The Majority for Musical Morality. This is before the PMRC and the stickering of albums. This came four or five years later.
We stickered our own album. It said, The Majority for Musical Morality says you shouldn't listen to this. We did that. It was a joke to us, to me. What happens the night of this concert, there's a huge riot, and a kid is killed. Kilroy, the rock star, is framed for the murder, so he goes to prison. They're putting rock stars in prison now, and the prisons are guarded by Japanese robots called Robotos. That's where the song comes from.
Mr. Roboto, if you hear it, when you listen to the record, at the end the guy yells, “I’m Kilroy.” What the hell does all this mean to anybody? It was written exclusively as a song of exposition. It was going to take the film, the back-story of a concert to the first song onstage, and that song told the transition. That's all it meant to me.
So I wrote this song, and it was really catchy. People said, “That's a single.” I never heard it as a single. I thought it was this big piece of art that was going to— No, it turned out be, “Domo origato.” It was just that to people. They didn't even know what that meant. It became a big hit record.
Without being flippant and silly about this, I would just tell people that if you have a dream, it doesn't really matter how the playing field is changed. It doesn't. If you want to be a baseball player— We all know the distance from home plate to first base is 90 feet. If you want to complain about that, you shouldn't play baseball, because they're not going to change it. That's how far you’ve got to run to first base.
That's how I feel about the music business today. It is what it is. People will still have success. It may be harder in some cases, it may be easier in some cases, because the Internet does offer people the ability to get exposed. When I was coming up, you had to pass muster of a small group of people who controlled record companies. There was no alternative to it. At least with communication being the way it is, there are other opportunities.
But if you’ve got a dream, and you want to do it, nobody's going to stop you. The only one that will stop you will be you. I say to you, “Be ready and prepared for a lot of disappointment, but if you love it, then you should do it.” The only secret I know is hard work. That's it. People who are successful are people who don't give up. People who are successful are not people who can just throw punches, Danny my boy, they're people who can take punches. You have to take a lot of punches to be successful in any venture in life.
In the music business, you've really got to be able to get up off the canvas. You're going to get knocked down a whole lot. I think you have to be desperate. (Laughter) I think you have to be neurotic and goofy. Really. I think so many people who are successful are just a little bit off, because they're able to withstand the blows to the ego that are going to come. That gets back to my theory of equal parts ego and insecurity.
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