Dennis DeYoung didn’t really feel the need to make any more records. With a successful touring career intact and an impressive list of Styx hits behind him, he couldn’t see the point in working so hard on something that might have fallen on deaf ears: “My blood, sweat and tears goes into the creative process, because I not only write all the stuff, I perform it, produce it, mix it, I do it all. it’s too much work for little reward, and by reward, I mean people actually listening. My audience, God bless ‘em, they’ve given me a great life, but for the most part, the two most dreaded words in the English language for them are ‘new music.’ They want to hear the old stuff. I understand it completely. But that is no recipe for making new music.”
Yet here DeYoung is with 26 East, Vol. 1 (buy it), a ten-song collection of soulful ballads (no surprise there) and fierce rockers (maybe a surprise, at least if you haven’t paid close enough attention to the Styx catalog.) And, based on strong reaction to the first few releases from the album, people are indeed listening. It’s an album he claims, when you factor in the Volume 2 still to come, that will round out his recording career. But as the evidence from both the album and from DeYoung’s funny, feisty recent interview with American Songwriter, he sure sounds like a man who still has a lot to say.
It took the urging of his record company and a little push from fellow 70s/80s hitmaker Jim Peterik to get him motivated. “Peterik sent me the sketch of a song called ‘Run For The Roses,’ but a pretty damn good sketch,” DeYoung remembers. “I said, ‘OK, let’s get together and see what we come up with.’ He showed me a lot of his stuff that he hadn’t finished. I showed him stuff that I hadn’t finished. We wrote way too many. So that’s why theoretically, this is Volume One and we’ve got a Volume Two coming, some of which is already recorded. We worked hard. I wrote half of them by myself and Jim and I and wrote half of them together.”
DeYoung doesn’t consider himself a songwriting shark, who writes because he has to. He only committed to the new album once he felt the songs rose to a certain level. “I’m a goalpost guy. Show me the goalpost and tell me I gotta run across there and I can do it. If there’s no goalpost, I’m not interested, because it’s an awful long way to run. I wasn’t going to do it until it had songs I could be proud of and it was a concept album.”
“The concept was ‘don’t suck,’ he laughs. In actuality, the loose concept behind 26 East, Vol 1 emanates from DeYoung’s profound perspective, as he both looks back on the rock and roll life that’s he lived to this point and looks out at the somewhat bleak state of the world. It all comes laced with his singular sense of humor and willingness to go for grand musical gestures, a welcome respite from the age of musical irony.
In terms of his modern complaints, he scores a searing direct hit on the polarizing nature of television news on “With All Due Respect.” “The news media in this country for the last 25 or 30 years have figured out, by turning news into entertainment, putting the WWF ring in the middle of the studio and getting the polar opposites politically, sticking them in the ring, and starting them yelling at each other, they could create theater,” DeYoung explains. “The more stupid and imbecilic you sound from one point of view or the opposite, the more people tune in. As if it’s bloodsport. Because of that, we are harming democracy. What we do, when we do that, is we falsely exacerbate the differences between us. And the reason these people do it is to sell beer and popcorn and automobiles. To them, it’s a financial transaction. To us, it is the decency of our country and society that they are absolutely ruining.”
DeYoung also shows off his proven ability with the slow stuff on the record as well, such as on the nostalgic duet with Julian Lennon “To The Good Old Days” and the towering “You My Love.” The latter song is somewhat rare in that it’s a downbeat look at romance from DeYoung, who’s been happily married for 50 years to wife Suzanne. Watching his daughter go through a divorce, however, gave him the impetus for the track.
“I was trying to do Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney, two of my heroes,” DeYoung says of “You My Love.” “That 60s, ‘love doesn’t work out for me’ thing. And it’s not me, is it? That’s not me as a songwriter. I write the other kind, because I’ve had love in my life. But I observed this. And it’s awful. It’s heartbreak, because the person who has been betrayed and left is lost and filled with guilt because they wonder if they were complicit.”
As for looking back at his own successful climb (“When you’re 73, looking forward is no fucking treat,” he jokes), DeYoung finds both the bitter and the better in the hard-charging “Damn That Dream.” “God forbid you fulfill your dream,” he explains. “We’re all chasing that dream because we think it will fill a hole inside us, whatever it is. We think it will make us be more loved, more approved of. We think it will change us. It won’t. That’s something people who have never had the good fortune to fulfill a dream will never know. They’ll go around their life feeling a longing that they just didn’t get it. Well, take if from somebody who got it. By fulfilling your dream, you have to find another dream. For people who have to fulfill dreams, one won’t be enough.”
“And that’s the vicious cycle of the human existence. I spent a lifetime talking about fulfilling your dreams. I said all that. Was I being disingenuous? I don’t think I was. Cause I can’t complain about what I do. I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth. But what I would tell is you that there are prices to pay. And they will be paid.”
26 East Vol. 1 closes out with “A.D. 2020,” where DeYoung repurposes the melody of the Styx classic “The Best Of Times” for a touching send-off. Even casual Styx fans probably know that DeYoung’s relationship with his former band has seen both the best and worst of times. But he has been outspoken recently about his desire to get back together with his old bandmates for one more Styx tour, and he explained his reasoning.
“You want to do a victory lap and wave to everybody who gave us the incredible lives we were given” DeYoung says. “Those people out there in the shadow of the 14th row. They made my life better. And they’ve told me in countless ways how I’ve done the same for them. It was a pretty good deal for both of us. And then that’s it.”
“If you were a true Styx fan, that’s what you want. If you just love (Styx guitarist) Tommy (Shaw), and you didn’t care if Tommy was in Damn Yankees or Shaw Blades, you love him and you don’t care who’s standing next to him, I get it. But I’m talking about Styx fans. They love the whole. They love the variety, the personalities, the parts that together, dare I say, make something special.
When summing up his ultimate hope for such a reunion, DeYoung can’t help one more self-deprecating wink: “It’s to stand on those stages with Larry and Curly and maybe Shemp, and I’ll be Moe, I don’t care which one. And to say, ‘Once in a galaxy long ago, that’s what happened.’”