Since my last musical post was about Rush, by venturing onto Styx you can guess that I was a head-banger in my youth – still am. Yet, with earlier musical posts on Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Chapin and Bob Seger, with a little Springsteen, Dylan, and Elvis Costello thrown in, I must have interesting lyrics for the song to resonate with me. With Styx, the lyrics can be haunting and mystical as well as more concrete and still be meaningful. They had both. Unfortunately, when I say Styx, many people remember the more pop oriented songs in the 1980s, which actually led to significant creative differences and the band’s demise. When I think of Styx, I think more of the rock and roll version that filled the late 1970’s. This music is what the revived band is playing more of on tour these days.
The title of this post includes my favorite Styx song and you won’t find it on many Top 10 lists. Penned and sung by their lead guitarist, Tommy Shaw, “Man in the Wilderness” is very reflective and asks what am I all about? Here are some sample lyrics:
Another year has passed me by, still I look at myself and cry. What kind of man have I become?
All of the years I’ve spent in search of myself. And I’m still in the dark. ‘Cause I can’t seem to find the light alone.
Sometimes I feel like a man in the wilderness. I’m a lonely soldier off to war. Sent away to die, never quite knowing why. Sometimes it makes no sense at all. Makes no sense at all
The original band that hit it big in 1975 after Shaw joined them included Dennis DeYoung, the primary lead singer and key songwriter, James Young and the Panozzo brothers, Chuck and John. DeYoung penned many of the more mystical songs and his voice is as good as they come. My personal favorite of DeYoung’s is “Suite Madame Blue” which was written for the bi-centennial, but whose lyrics would be meaningful today as he speaks of America needing to reinvent itself, while remaining optimistic that it still can:
Red white, and blue gaze in your looking glass. You’re not a child anymore.
Red, white, and blue the future is all but past. So lift up your heart, and make a new start. And lead us away from here
DeYoung wrote and sang the lead on such tremendous hits as “Come Sail Away,” “Lorelei,” “Lady,” “Grand Illusion,” and “Light-up.” He also wrote some of the more pop songs in the 1980’s such as “Mr. Roboto” and “Babe” which were good, but caused the friction the band could never resolve. In fact, DeYoung does not tour with the band anymore and only Shaw and Young remain. One of the Panozzo’s (John) has passed away and Chuck only joins the band on occasion such as at a recent taped concert session which highlighted two of their albums – Pieces of Eight and Grand Illusion. The current band is excellent and the cast is very talented and strong. I caught them in Milwaukee at the SummerFest in 2011 and they put on a great show.
The songs written by DeYoung above are all worth listening too, but they tend to show up on everyone’s Top Ten list. Another favorite of his that does not get as much airplay now is “Castle Walls.” It is vintage DeYoung and here is why:
Once in a dream, far beyond these castle walls. Down by the bay where the moonlit water falls.
I stood alone while the minstrel sang his song. So afraid I’d lost my soul.
There in the fog his song kept calling me. Leading me on with its haunting melody.
Deep in my heart a voice kept echoing. I knew I’d soon be wandering. Far beyond these castle walls.
With DeYoung’s voice and organ playing, John’s drumming and Shaw, Young and Chuck’s rhythmic guitars and bass, DeYoung would turn these words into magic. Yet, let me highlight a few other songs, as the group was not all about mystical lyrics. My third favorite Styx song was written by Shaw before he joined the band and he brought it with him – “Crystal Ball.” While the title is the ethereal, it also is a reflection of what am I going to do next in my life?
I used to like to walk the straight and narrow line. I used to think everything was fine.
Sometimes I’d sit and gaze for days through sleepless dreams. All alone and trapped in time. All alone and trapped in time.
I wonder what tomorrow has in mind for me? Or am I even in its mind at all?
Perhaps I’ll get a chance to look ahead and see. Soon as I find myself a crystal ball.
Shaw also penned and sang about some of the more concrete trials and tribulations in “Blue Collar Man” and “Renegade,” but any inventory of great Styx songs must also include the contributions of James Young. “Miss America” is one of their better songs and is emblematic of the rougher edge of the band, while still telling a good story:
Are you really who we think you are? Or does your smile seem to wear your down.
Is the girl who you once were. Screaming to jump out?
Is the dream that you must live. A disease for which there is no cure.
This song speaks to the act that young women play to become Miss America. They cannot afford to be themselves. He asks is the real you screaming to jump out, which is a very insightful query.
For Styx fans, I am sure I have left off several of your favorite songs. They have a huge body of work. And, please do not construe this as a slight on the later songs, some of which I noted above. They are very good, but different from the earlier work and caused the band to break up over differences in direction.That is unfortunate, but not unusual for bands. Most bands do not make it as long as they did. To their credit, Styx’s body of work can stand up to many and if you catch the current tour, you will be greatly entertained. Listen out for “Man in the Wilderness.” It is very powerful when heard live, as are most of their songs.