A Conversation With Dennis DeYoung, Former STYX Vocalist
I had the pleasure of interviewing one of my favorite singers and one of the greatest voices in the history of music: Dennis DeYoung, lead vocalist of STYX hits “Come Sail Away,” “Babe,” “Mr. Roboto,” “The Best of Times,” “Don’t Let It End,” “Show Me The Way,” and “Lady.”
Our discussion lasted for more than an hour and we covered a myriad of topics, including Barry Manilow, Journey, what DeYoung misses most about being in STYX, the state of the music industry, politicians using music without the permission of the artists, and much more. DeYoung was funny, charming, smart, and easily one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever conducted.
Make sure to visit DeYoung’s website for the latest tour dates. He has two performances in the Philadelphia/New Jersey/New York area coming up in October. I’m attending his show on October 8 at The Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pa. For those of you closer to New York, DeYoung has an October 21 performance scheduled at the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, with special guest Steve Augeri, former lead vocalist of Journey.
Your solo album 10 on Broadway is phenomenal. I especially love your rendition of “Someone Else’s Story.” Your love of musicals also resulted in you having a role in a revival of Jesus Christ Superstar in the early 1990s and writing a musical adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Have you considered further exploring this passion and taking part in another musical?
I can’t do this interview. You know too much.
Now what am I going to do? I thought I was going to bullshit ya.
I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. I was never into Broadway musicals. All I ever wanted to do was steal illusions from theater and incorporate them into a rock show. It wasn’t until the Kilroy album in ’83, at the end of our run, that I ever got serious with trying to do something that would meld an actual story with theater on a rock stage. Before that, I was just a guy that wanted to be in The Beatles. I didn’t have any great love for the musical theater.
So, here’s how the story goes, Michael. After we did Kilroy, Tommy quit the band and the band kind of went into limbo. The four of us just went into limbo. The other three guys, JY, John and Chuck, they all wanted to replace Tommy and move forward. I just didn’t think it was the right thing to do. So, jump ahead, I didn’t do anything in the theater.
My sister-in-law Dawn gets married in 1993 and her husband is the executive producer of this revival of Jesus Christ Superstar and I met him at the wedding. He was a huge STYX fan; a big rock and roll guy. And he said, “Dennis, I think you’d be great as Pontius Pilate in this production.” His name is Forbes and I said, “Forbes, you know, every six months or so you’ve got to empty that bong water.”
But that’s how I got into it. People who are trying to break into Broadway always ask me, “How do I do it? What’s the path?” I tell them, “Get a brother-in-law that’s a producer. That’s a good start.” That’s how I got into it, really, other than trying to steal elements from theater and incorporate them into a rock show.
Then, when I played Pontius Pilate for about six months, crucifying all across North America for 260 performances and ended up doing it in New York, I figured I’d try to write a musical, as a songwriter. That’s where the Hunchback came from.
Now, you ready for this? I was performing in LA as Pontius Pilate and we were there for two or three weeks. The president of Atlantic Records, at the time, Danny Goldberg, who is a friend of mine and managed my solo career for a while, he saw me and said: “Hey, you want money to make a Broadway album?” (laughs) I said, “Seriously?” He said, “Yeah!” That’s how I made that album. It all just fell into my lap.
I would like to get my Hunchback of Notre Dame musical up and running again. I really think it might be the best collective set of music that I’ve ever written in my life. Still, to this day, when I listen to it, it sounds like someone else wrote it, not me. When I listen to “Come Sail Away” or “Lady,” I know who wrote that. I wrote that! But when I listen to the Hunchback stuff, I think, “Who snuck into my room and wrote that?” Yes, I’d like to pursue it, but first and foremost I wanted to be in a rock band, which is why I was in a rock band. We sold a lot of records and a lot of tickets. And that’s not to denigrate Broadway. That don’t suck.
You and Barry Manilow both have a love for theatricality and you’re both known for writing and singing emotionally powerful love songs. I’m curious, what are your thoughts on Barry Manilow and his music?
“Mandy” and “Lady” were duking it out as they were going up the charts at the same time. Of course, “Mandy” beat out “Lady” for the #1 spot. As far as Barry, I went and saw him live once. A friend of mine was running a theater in Chicago and he invited me to the grand opening where Barry Manilow was performing. So, I understand his appeal, even if it doesn’t necessarily appeal to me.
I understand why he’s successful and popular. It’s not a mystery to me. There are certain things in popular music where you go, “Who would like this? I don’t understand it.” With Barry, I clearly understand why people find him appealing. His audience is what I’d call the silent majority of music. These are folks who aren’t necessarily into rock music, but they like popular music. And they came along at a time when they were little being served by the radio, so acts like Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond appealed to them. They captured that audience because no one served them. I think that’s where Barry and Neil fit in. It’s a very broad-based audience that’s not necessarily enamored with rock music. And from where I come from, there’s always a loud Marshall amplifier lurking someplace.
At 69-years-old, you still have one of the most beautiful and powerful voices in music. Your vibrato, in particular, is the best I’ve ever heard in popular music. How do you maintain your voice after all these years?
Well, I never did drugs. No cocaine went up my nose and down the back of my throat. I didn’t drink. I never smoked cigarettes and when my children were naughty I hired a very large Ukrainian woman to yell at them to save my voice. (laughs) Look, the vocal chords are very delicate little instruments. They must be respected. They must be maintained. If you’re serious about being a singer then you must realize that being a singer is having a life without. You have to be disciplined if you want it to last. Other than that, I wear thong underwear three sizes too small.
(Laughs) That’s how you hit those high notes.
Yes it is! (in a really high voice)
Speaking of singing, if I recall correctly, your wife sings back-up vocals in your band. What’s it like working with her?
It’s great. She’s traveled with me since 1976. We raised our children on the road. We kept our family together by being together, by staying together. It’s great having her back there. She’s having the time of her life.
I don’t know if anyone ever pointed this out, but there are parallels between you and Steve Perry. For example, both Journey and STYX were massively successful in the 1980s, both you and Steve released your first solo albums in 1984 and both Journey and STYX reunited in the mid-1990s. Also, both you and Steve Perry were replaced in your respective bands because of an illness. Steve had an issue with his hip and you had a viral illness that caused light sensitivity. Have you and Steve Perry ever discussed this?
No, Steve and I never discussed this but I did take note of it. Here are the differences between Steve and I. Back in the day, STYX was more successful than Journey and those guys watched us carefully. They watched our success, including their very astute manager at the time, Herbie Herbert, and Steve and all the guys.
Over the years they’ve surpassed us in popularity and it has a lot to do with a couple things. One is, as a band, the subject matter of their songs, in my opinion, was less socially conscious. It was more insular than ours. We fancied ourselves as smart asses and we delved into all sorts of musical styles, where Journey was more homogeneous in what they did. It’s paid off for them.
Two of the very best STYX songs, “Suite Madame Blue” and “Crystal Ball,” nobody plays those kinds of songs on the radio. Anything that smacks of progressive rock has died the death of a ragdoll, for the most part. You barely hear any Emerson, Lake and Palmer, all that kind of music we were involved in, that just dried up and blew away.
What Journey did was a very accessible, smart, excellent, mainstream rock. And they had Steve Perry’s voice. That’s a pretty awesome combination. So, over the years, Journey has surpassed STYX. And what they did after Steve Perry, in my opinion, was the only way to go. They always knew they had to try and get a new lead singer that sounded as much like Steve Perry as possible. This is something that I don’t think STYX has done. But Journey did that. After 30 or 40 years, a lot of the fans never even got a chance to see the real guys. They don’t even know who the real guys are! So, it’s the songs baby. It’s the songs always and forever that matter. They matter more than you or me, the singer – they matter. Other people can come along and play those songs and people are still happy. And that’s what Journey has done.
In terms of the parallels of our career, there are. Steve’s first solo album outsold Desert Moon by a lot. He has that voice. That’s a pretty cool thing to have. He doesn’t sing anymore. The differences I think between me and Steve are, from what I understand, he did take control of the band in ways that I’ve been somewhat accused of in my own band. Steve went in and replaced bass players and drummers and stuff like that. (laughs) I never did anything like that.
I think, look, Journey is a great band. STYX was a great band. But we’re very different. If you look at all of Journey’s music, there is an extremely identifiable quality about it. It is a lot more homogeneous than ours. If you brought somebody down from another country and played them “Renegade,” “Babe” and “Mr. Roboto,” they would think they were three different bands. That’s what we did. We did all kinds of music, all styles of music. In our lyrics, we touched on social issues. That’s all well and good, but a straight-ahead rock and roll or love song, people always love those forever because they’re always in vogue.
Journey is a great band, and Jonathan Cain is a great songwriter.
While you’ve always been a master at creating songs that resonate with the mass public and are commercially successful, you haven’t been afraid of pushing the envelope and trying new things. When it comes to creating new music, how do you balance experimentation with sticking with what’s worked in the past?
You’re asking the guy that created Kilroy. (laughs) Here’s what I would say to you. The dilemma of all people who are successful in music or literature or motion pictures or anything that relies on the public’s taste – the first thing you have to do is establish an identity and develop an audience. If you’re lucky enough to do that and have success, the next step is more difficult. You must somehow reach your audience and take them in new directions that won’t scare the pants off them. This is the dilemma all creative people face.
I believe this. I told you it was the songs. I based everything I did on The Beatles and in this way: They knew no boundaries, did they?
No. The scope of their songwriting is incomparable. I believe half the people forget whether you have bellbottoms, shoulder-length hair and a mustache or you have cutoffs, a shaved head and a bone in your nose. When all of that fades, cause it will – you’re 31, just look back at what you dressed like when you were 16. You’re a joke, because that’s what fashion does to you. But if you get the songwriting, it will transcend fashion.
So, I believed that I pushed STYX, the guys in the band, to think about things like the concept of The Grand Illusion album, the concept of the Pieces of Eight album, the concept of Paradise Theater, which were all mine. I pushed them to think about things other than straight-ahead rock songs: Who are we meeting in the hotel tonight? Let’s party all night. And baby I love you. Was that right or wrong? I don’t know. It’s what I did.
For instance, there was a song Tommy had called “Boat on the River.” He had it on a cassette tape with a bunch of songs. He said, “This is not for STYX. This is just me fooling around.” I said, “Why not? This sounds like a great song to me.” Over the objection of one of the band members and our manager at the time, I said, “We’re recording that song.” Right now, other than “Babe,” there is no song we recorded that is more successful and popular internationally than “Boat on the River.” Did I know that was going to happen? No. I was responding, Michael, to the song. I wasn’t trying to pigeonhole anyone or anything into any small category, niche, genre, whatever you think it is to fulfill some, what I would call, some magical place where we should fit in.
With rock journalism, you’re either in the club or you’re not in the club. That’s it. And the club is what a small number of people in New York and LA decided what the club was. This goes way back, as far as we can remember. A lot of it had to do with what came from the east, which was England. Bands like STYX, Foreigner and Journey, we’re not in the club. We’ve never been in the club. I don’t know that we’re ever going to be in the club. But whose music is still on the radio? You may like Iggy Pop. I don’t care. Go ahead and like him. But his music’s not being played anywhere. You can go right down the list of people who are elevated to the stature of icons in the rock press’ mind, and it’s in direct opposition with what’s been the public’s taste for 40 years. Now, don’t get me wrong, popular taste can be silly and stupid in a microcosm. But when it’s a macrocosm, I think a trend is developing.
At the risk of sounding like someone who has sour grapes or being a grumpy old guy, let’s say Springsteen decided to do Kilroy Was Here and pushed the boundaries to talk about technology and how it rules our lives and censorship. Let’s say it was an album that wasn’t typical Bruce Springsteen – there would be credit given for trying to do something different; there’d be credit given to those sorts of ideas. But that is not afforded to bands like us. And, to be honest, Kilroy Was Here was short, maybe, one or two really good songs. I can look back on that album now and say, “Hey, we were short a couple songs to make that album better.” Has there ever been a band that played characters in a musical? Has there, other than us?
Not that I’m aware of.
We spoke dialogue. That was pretty brave, despite the fact that it sucked. (laughs) Stay with me here. We tried. I mean, it didn’t suck. But we weren’t actors and I understood there was trepidation from band members. I saw Pink Floyd do The Wall and I said, “OK. Can we do something even more challenging?” Well, we did.
Paul Stanley has said it and so has Steve Miller, that the elite rock critics have kept popular bands out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for years. Whether it’s KISS, Journey, STYX, whoever, these bands have traditionally been kept out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame because they’re not viewed by the people in power as being credible rock and roll bands, despite the public’s unwavering love for their music. However, now those people are either dying off or being replaced by younger generations that do appreciate this music and these bands are finally getting recognized for their incredible accomplishments.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is Jann Wenner’s baby. That’s it. It’s his thing, and the people that were popular in Rolling Stone had the best chance of getting in. If you weren’t one of the bands that the rock press embraced, your chances of getting in were almost nonexistent until the last three or four years. Now we’ve seen Heart get in and Steve Miller get in. You know why? I always ask the question: How long are you allowed to be wrong about something? If something is the flavor of the month, OK. But after 40 years, you’ve gotta recognize that a lot of people like this music for a reason.
And don’t tell me it has anything to do with art, because art is whatever you say it is, Michael. The moment Duchamp mounted a toilet on a pedestal and called it art, I said fine, then my balls are Picasso! (laughs)
You understand what I’m saying? Everybody, you, me, your sister, the guy who poops in the middle of the street can hide behind the word art because you declared it so. That’s just bullshit. Isn’t it?
Absolutely, it’s bullshit. So, don’t hide behind that word.
Many artists nowadays, from Stevie Wonder to Bruce Springsteen, have built tours around playing a complete album or two from front to back. Have you ever considered doing this? If so, which album STYX albums would you pick?
Well, here’s the problem. On most albums, with rare exception, there’s a couple clinkers. (laughs) They don’t have to be complete clinkers, they just have to have a little bit of a clink. You’re forced to drag them out and play them. So, here’s what I’d say. Springsteen can do whatever he wants to do. If he wants to go on the road and play The Grand Illusion album, people will still come. For the rest of us, like me – I’m not even in the band I founded. I’m singing for my supper, so I’m singing all the hits, baby.
Tommy and JY, with the latest incarnation of STYX, they don’t play “Babe.” They don’t play “Best of Times.” They don’t play “Show Me The Way,” “Don’t Let It End” or “Mr. Roboto.” Five hit records. They don’t play them. But when I go out, I play “Renegade,” “Blue Collar Man” and “Too Much Time On My Hands.” Why? Because we worked really hard to make people like those songs, and those songs are good – and people love them. Every night when I play Mr. Roboto, I don’t care where it is, people go mental. That’s the point. From the beginning it was all about, how can I write a song that will make the kids scream like I did when I saw The Beatles? Should there be an apology for that? I don’t think so.
And you have these artists that say, “I’m so tired of playing my big hits over and over again.” You hear that right?
They’re saying that for your benefit, Michael, to be cool. But nobody would give a shit about them if they didn’t have those hit songs. It’s true. So, for me, am I supposed to be ashamed of what I set out to do? No, I’m supposed to revel in it and be joyous with the fact that when I play the first few notes of a song people scream. If you don’t like that, then you probably made a poor career choice.
Remember what I told people with The Grand Illusion album in 1977. I said: Welcome to The Grand Illusion. Come on in. See what’s happening. Pay the price. Get the tickets for the show. The stage is set and the band starts playing. Suddenly your heart is pounding, wishing secretly that you were a star. Then I said: But don’t be fooled by the radio. Don’t be fooled by us, the TV or the magazines. They’ll show you photographs of how your life should be but they’re just someone else’s fantasies. So, if you think your life is complete confusion because you never win the game, remember, that’s a grand illusion because deep inside we’re all the same.
I told them. You can look at us and enjoy this for what it is. You and I, we’re the same person. I’m just up here in the good light.
What do you miss most about being in STYX?
Being in STYX. I gave my life to it and formed it in 1972 in my basement with the Panozzo brothers. I was the principal songwriter. I was the keyboardist, and lead singer on seven out of the eight Top 10 singles. I was the only one in the band to be credited as a producer. It seems like a lot to me. So, I always say this to people: If you hated STYX, blame me. It was my fault. I think the majority of the blame, it really belongs on my shoulders. If you liked them, you’ve gotta’ give me some credit. It’s just that simple. It’s fine if you hated them. Good for you. If you hated “Come Sail Away,” “Renegade” and “Mr. Roboto,” OK. But they’re all so fucking different, so I’d say you just hated the idea of STYX. (laughs) You know what I mean?
You clearly overcame the illness that caused your former bandmates to drive you out of STYX in the late 1990s, so what’s keeping you and the guys apart now? Why aren’t you back in STYX?
Well, the same thing that allowed JY and Tommy to replace me. Remember, it was two guys and me. When you say STYX, it sounds like a group. It’s two people: JY and Tommy, and then me. We were the three guys really left. I really believe those guys didn’t think I was ever going to tour again because I was pretty damn ill. And when you’ve been together with people that long, there’s a litany of other things. They thought I was more interested in my Hunchback musical, and they believed that I wasn’t going to go back out on the road and that I was stalling them – but I wasn’t.
The two of them made that decision, and if you look at the things they’ve said over the years and you look at what I’ve said, my story has never changed. I had no reason not to tell the truth about what happened. But the two other guys, I think they had a different vision. I’m not talking creatively, that’s bologna. All bands members have different creative visions. Two guys get into a room and they’ve got a different opinion, don’t they? That’s always there.
The way they’ve toured over the last 15 or 16 years, that’s not a choice I would have made – to tour in that manner. So, I can honestly see now that there is a difference in philosophy about the amount of time you should make yourself available to the public. They have one clear vision and I can see that we differ on it. But those are honest differences. I really believe they didn’t think I was ever going to tour again. However, five months later I was back playing.
Once they realized you were ready and able again to perform, did Tommy or JY reach out to you about rejoining STYX and moving forward with the band?
Quite the opposite. They had been vocal, publicly and privately, that they have no desire for that ever to happen.
What’s the harm, in their opinion? What are they scared of?
I don’t think I can answer that. But I do know that it’s the number one thing STYX fans want. It’s clear. That’s not a mystery. It’s their decision. I respect the fact that they’re not saying one thing and doing another. They’re out there on the road all the time. It’s just what they believe is the correct path for them. I have to respect that.
I am of the belief that the three of us up on that stage make magic. You know what you can’t do? You can’t assemble it. It either happens or it doesn’t.
You once said that the first line in your autobiography would be, “I’m a melody man in a rhythm age.” Are you currently working on an autobiography? If so, when do you expect to release it?
I’m always working on it, but, ya know, I’m working on it. I sometimes think I should do an autobiography because no one is going to write a biography about me. I don’t know if I have the ego to do it, and I’ve got an ego, baby. I just don’t know if I have that one. But I’m writing. I’m assembling.
In your opinion, what control should artists have over the use of their music in political campaigns?
I pretty sure there are rules and laws stating that you can’t take the music and put video to it. That requires approval. But if they want to play it at a rally, we don’t have the right to stop it. This is how law is written. I can understand people’s frustration. What are you gonna’ do? I’d rather find a cure for cancer.
Should music artists use their celebrity to influence the public’s political attitudes?
It’s the quickest way to make sure half of your audience deserts you. That’s it. I try to write about common sense, not politics. If you’re a human being who can’t see that the Republicans have had some good ideas and so have the Democrats, historically, then you’re ignoring 250 years of history. So, if it’s going to be I’m either on this team or that team, then I think we’re all in trouble.
Here’s what I’d say to the national media: “Guys, you’ve gotta be honest with us. You can’t pretend, from either side, to be nonpartisan and present yourself that way. What we need is an honest and unbiased appraisal of these mooks.” And I think politicians are mooks. I didn’t think so at first, but now I realize that they want one thing: self-aggrandizement. If Bill Clinton could have played the saxophone better, he would have been in Fleetwood Mac. This is their way to please Mommy or Daddy. And these guys who say they’re interested in the people, they are not. They’re interested in themselves, because you’re denying human nature to say otherwise. And to be surprised when a politician uses his resources or friends to get what he wants, is to deny human nature. These people aspire to do this. You have to keep your eyes open.
Rumors indicate that Apple plans to eliminate digital downloads from iTunes in two or three years in favor of streaming media. If that happens, how will it affect how musicians package, market and release their music?
Technology has taken a rod and shoved it up the asses of musicians, as far as they can go with it. They have told the American public, simply to line their own pockets – it is the biggest train robbery, the biggest shifting of economic power, from the people who invested in and created it to the people who had nothing to do with it, I have ever seen in my life. And everyone stood around and watched it happen because they wanted free stuff. That’s it. They’ve ruined the ability for musicians to make money. If Beyonce is moaning about it, what am I gonna’ do?
You show me an act that coming along on the new business model that’s going to have success and a long-term career. They don’t exist. I’m sorry. It’s highway robbery. Listen, you can’t stop people from wanting shit for free. They’re lining up, baby.
Is there anything else, in your career or life, that you’ve yet to accomplish that you’d like to?
I’d like to be a center fielder for the White Sox, but I think that train has boarded and left. I’ve had a good run. And I’m just happy to keep doing what I’m doing. We’ve got great shows coming up, including one in Staten Island, where I’ve never played before. We’re also playing at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pa. Everyone should come and see the show because it’s gonna’ knock your socks off.