He thought he was done making new music. Finito. End of the Road. When Dennis DeYoung released what he was calling 26 East last year, he fully expected it to be his final studio album in a long and storied career that stretched back to 1972 with the first Styx record and through many solo projects.
After all, the songs were drenched in nostalgia. And the closing track, “A.D. 2020,” not only quoted from his former band’s hit “The Best of Times,” but ended with these words: “And so my friends/I’ll say goodbye/For time has claimed its prize/But the music never dies/Just listen and close your eyes/And welcome to paradise.”
Well, DeYoung’s label, Frontiers Music, had other ideas. There were plenty of other tunes left over from the sessions and DeYoung just might want to write a few more during quarantine. So that title became an optimistic 26 East Vol. 1. Now, the company—and DeYoung’s fans—get their wish for a little extra something something with 26 East Vol. 2, out on June 11.
The cover of 26 East Vol. 2 is a visual nod to the American release of Meet the Beatles and the opening track “Hello Goodbye” a gushing love letter to the Fabs which features plenty of Easter Egg lyrical and musical quotes from their catalog.
DeYoung is one of thousands of professional musicians who had their “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” moment in February 1964 that set them on a career path to rock and roll. But how would the 74-year-old DeYoung tell a 17-year-old teen today how a rock band simply playing a few songs on TV was such a big deal and seismic shift in the culture?
“Well, it’s not a teen’s fault at all. They can’t understand. They live in the culture of ubiquity where everything is available all the time. Imagine what’s in that kid’s hand with [a phone]. It’s the power of kings,” DeYoung says over a Zoom interview, pushing his palm into the camera for emphasis.
“There is no [singular] culture anymore. There were only three channels to watch on TV back then. Top 40 radio played all kinds of music, but you had to wait for it. Now, you can listen to music from an Albanian, one-legged, heavy metal poet immediately. There was a oneness to humanity which is being disintegrated by subcultures. So a teenage boy couldn’t understand what the Beatles on Ed Sullivan meant any more than what it would be like to be a father.”
The instant ability to absorb and delete or create music, or how technology can replace what someone had to learn the hard way to do before, is also a point made in “The Last Guitar Hero.” DeYoung got Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave) to provide a searing solo and outro. And it oddly ties into Adam Sandler.
DeYoung says that Sandler, a noted Styx fan, was hosting his annual Hanukkah/Christmas party at which DeYoung played. Morello was in attendance and as the two talked, Morello explained that while his early interests were KISS and heavy metal, he also got heavily into Styx and saw several concerts back in the day. That inspired DeYoung to write the song with Morello in mind as both the subject and a contributor.
“I listen to what they claim to be [mainstream] rock today, but the guitar player is a lost item. It’s all synthesizers and producers. I just saw a video of a 4-year-old Japanese kid playing Eddie Van Halen. How does that happen? It’s because you can watch a video tutorial and learn how to do anything.” DeYoung says. “Except plumbing. I still don't understand that.”
Of course, the big theme of the Styx’s 1983 album Kilroy Was Here and the song “Mr. Roboto” was indeed how “too much technology” can dehumanize people and society. Or provide too many options for everything to where it becomes overwhelming. DeYoung says it’s all coming true.
“Look at Marky Mark Zuckerberg. He decides that his mission is to connect everyone. I thought ‘Have you met everyone? Why would you want to do that?’ It’s a revolution and we’re living through it,” he says. “And it’s exposing the bad angels in mankind because it gives them free reign to say and do anything, cloaked in anonymity. There’s no consequence, and that’s dangerous. I say bring back the fistfight. You walk into somewhere and you start shooting your mouth off, you might get your nose punched.”
Finally, there’s a trio of songs that the listener can’t help but connect to a number of political and social issues of the past few years: “Little Did We Know” (about missing signs that point to destruction), “Isle of Misanthrope” (an allegorical tale about ruined civilizations), and “St. Quarantine.” In the last of those, DeYoung has two characters seemingly on opposite sides of the quarantine/vaxxing/mask debate state their cases. There's also references to "Q."
But DeYoung is more obtuse in his lyrics, often hinting rather than stating. That’s because he wants listeners to shape their own views of the songs. “All I’ve done with songwriting, after I understood how to do it, was find chords I like, put notes on them that I like, and then put words on the notes. And then I give you my point of view hoping that you the listener find yourself in my story,” DeYoung offers.
“After I make them and send them out into the great ether, they belong to the listener. And it’s what they make of those songs that matters. My lyric combination has always been a combination of the literal with imagination. I like to leave some room for the fans to decide what I’m saying.”
Many commentators on DeYoung social media have noted that leadoff single “Isle of Misanthrope” harkens back to the very early Styx albums that had a more Prog Rock bent. DeYoung says it’s that genre’s “mysticism” in lyrics that sometimes left him cold.
“I never knew what the [Prog bands] were talking about most of the time, it was all mood. But in ‘Isle,’ I’m trying to spark an interpretation that could be completely different from what I intended.” He also gives credit to Jim Peterik (Survivor) who co-wrote some of the tracks on both volumes.
Styx fans, of course, have long clamored for DeYoung to rejoin the band after his 1999 firing. And he himself still hopes they can do one final reunion tour for those fans. But Styx leaders Tommy Shaw and James “JY” Young have consistently taken a hard pass.
DeYoung says “God willing and the creek don’t leak,” he plans on hitting the road with his solo band, but not until 2022 when any uncertainty about the pandemic should be in the rear view. “I’m gonna sit back and wait. I’m gonna watch. The first bands going out on the road now? They all have big alimony payments, that’s my theory,” DeYoung – who has been married to his wife Suzanne for 51 years, says. Suzanne, the subject of many of DeYoung’s hit ballads like “Lady” and “Babe,” also inspired the album’s more romantic tracks like “Your Saving Grace” and “Made for Each Other.”
“Nobody wants to be chained down to this thing, but it’s not over. We just need some humility. We don’t know everything, and Scientific American doesn’t either,” DeYoung says. “I’m not putting myself or my fans in jeopardy. I’ve had a family though all this, and I’ve found during this thing that I value things other than what I do professionally.”
The album’s closer, “Grand Finale,” brings DeYoung’s recording career and personal life somewhat full circle. It features the drumming of his son, Matthew, who uses a cymbal given to him by John Panozzo, the late drummer and co-founder of Styx. DeYoung had to supervise recording remotely via camera.
“Matt and John were really close when John was alive, and that’s why he plays drums. I had to watch the recording on an iPad through Facetime or Zoom, which isn’t ideal,” DeYoung says. “But it was great having him do that. And I didn’t know he was going to use John’s cymbal.”
The track also has a lyrical nod to Styx’s “Come Sail Away,” with its very last words a quote from “The Grand Illusion”: “And deep inside we’re all the same/All the same.”
“The last words I sing are the words that meant so much to me in 1977. You may aspire to great success or be a big shot or be an intellectual giant or just a mook trying to get through life. But we’re all the same,” he says, getting a bit choked up.
“And the pandemic has shown us that. The richest people have [died] and the poorest have too. And when you go out for the last time, it’s good to have someone next to you that loved you and cared about you and gave meaning to your life. That’s what I write about.”
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