|Styx guitarist James Young in concert at USANA Amphitheatre in 2011. (Doug Fox)|
The first real Styx song I fell in love with was "Miss America," the lead track on Side II of "The Grand Illusion." On first listen in 1977, I was somewhat lulled into complacency by the droning keyboard intro. The stunning payoff, however, came with a punch to the gut of adrenaline as the song's main nasty guitar riff took over.
Yes, Styx had me at "You were the apple of the public's eye."
A few years later when I was at college, some like-minded, rock-loving dorm friends turned me on to the "Equinox" album. Is it any surprise that I was immediately drawn to "Midnight Ride," one of the most rocking Styx tunes ever put to vinyl?
Of course, both "Miss America" and "Midnight Ride" are powered not only by Young's lead guitar playing, but also by his vocals.
Jumping a couple decades into the future, when I was starting to get a bit more involved in music writing, Young became the first member of Styx I did an interview with. I remember mentioning my fascination with "Miss America" and "Midnight Ride" and Young saying, "Well, you must be one rocking dude" -- or something close to that.
With Styx's constant touring schedule, as well as several more in-depth side projects, I have had the opportunity to interview JY so many times that it would take a real mental fact-checking exercise to determine just how many. I've found each time interesting and engaging on its own merits.
With so much experience behind us, JY and I kind of have an unspoken agreement. He knows that I am somehow going to bring up "Midnight Ride" in the course of an interview, and I know that he will laugh but remain mostly non-committal about whether I will ever get the chance to see it played live again. That's how we roll.
A majority of this interview takes a look back at an early period in Styx history -- when "Lady" first became a hit in Utah and Styx played an infamous local show in Provo at a place called the Ice House in 1973. With Styx returning to Provo on Wednesday -- the first time since that 1973 show -- it provided a perfect opportunity to revisit those early days, not only with JY, but also with the local radio program directors who helped make "Lady" a hit more than a year before the song broke nationally. (To read that full story, click HERE.)
Young also talked about the resurrection of the band's well-received "Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" show, which features both those albums being played in sequence and in their entirety. Following the Provo concert, the band will head to Las Vegas for two special performances of that show on Friday and Saturday. Check back for a review of that show next week.
As it turns out, the obligatory "Midnight Ride" reference spontaneously came early in our conversation this time around. JY is usually extremely prompt, so when his call came a bit more than five minutes late, it was a rare occurrence. Turns out a couple digits in my phone number were transposed. The innocent mixup left the door open for a "Midnight Ride" parry.
DOUG FOX: It’s not like you've never called this number before!
JAMES YOUNG: No, but usually I don’t call on cell phones. I may have it in my little Hewlett Packard Palm Top that’s vintage 1991 that I keep most of my most important secret information on because most of today’s geeks don’t know how to work it.
DF: Well, that’s probably where you have the decoded information of when “Midnight Ride” will appear in the setlist again, too.
YOUNG: (laughs heartily)
DF: We couldn’t have a conversation if I didn’t bring that up at least once!
YOUNG: Well, yeah, it’s very reinforcing to me and my voice, which I was struggling with for quite a while. Actually I went back and took some voice lessons and learned about the horrors of acid reflux and what it could do to your throat, so I’m still not ... proper rest is an important thing, shutting your mouth during the rest of the day is an important thing, and I allow Tommy [Shaw] that privilege because we are more dependent on his voice than mine, but unfortunately because I’m on the phone a lot and when it comes to showtime I’m just not the guy who sang “You Need Love” and “Midnight Ride.” I’m about a step, step and a half lower than that.
DF: But it sounds like you said you’re gradually getting back there.
YOUNG: Well, I think over the space of a couple of years I’ve absolutely regained — there’s better living through proper chemistry and then actually even diet has improved. I gave up Coca-Cola about nine months ago today, actually, January 28th, well, late January, roughly nine months ago today.
DF: So, if I’m understanding you correctly, in my eternal optimism, you’re telling me there’s a chance!
YOUNG: (laughs) So you’re saying there’s a chance!
YOUNG: One in a million — so you’re saying there’s a chance! Jim Carrey’s great line. (laughs)
DF: That’s exactly right. As long as there’s that chance, I’ll continue hoping.
YOUNG: Oh, yeah.
DF: Where are you calling from today?
YOUNG: Lovely, we’ll call it Escanaba, Michigan, because you can actually find that on a map, but we’re about 20 miles west of there in a tiny little place called Harris in a Native American casino-type situation.
DF: That’s where you’re playing tonight?
YOUNG: Tonight and tomorrow, yeah.
DF: It’s funny, I checked out on the Internet some of your recent setlists, and it had one for a show, it said it was in the last couple days, but it had all these songs that I know there’s no way you could have possibly been playing. Well, like it had Babe in there, and an entire setlist of songs that I know somebody was just messing around.
YOUNG: Well, we have lately done “Castle Walls,” “Pieces of Eight” — but those aren’t the two you’re talking about.
DF: No, I mean, it had “She Cares,” “Half-Penny Two-Penny,” just a bunch of really obscure songs ... “Shooz” ...
YOUNG: Yeah, someone is dreaming there.
DF: Yeah. I figured that with the shows coming up in Las Vegas ...
YOUNG: We’re rehearsing the deep tracks there, yeah. We rehearsed “Lords of the Ring,” which is the toughest one.
DF: Yeah, I’ll ask you more about that later.
DF: But I also know you’re the band historian.
YOUNG: Well, that’s a fun joke to get out of answering these questions, but I do save — they will have a “Hoarders” TV show about me at some point. But I can still sort of walk through all of the rooms in my house, but not quite.
DF: That would be some treasure trove, I imagine.
YOUNG: Well, who knows what kind of value some of that stuff’s going to have and there’s a memory attached to each one. I ran across something just yesterday, it was a photo from before Tommy was in the band. It was some sort of Styx ID and I looked like Lawrence’s son. Kind of sour-pussed and dark and long straggly hair and a beard. It’s fun to have that stuff to touch base with and what have you — but I know we’re going to talk about the past today and I’m ready!
DF: All right, excellent — because that’s especially why I wanted to talk to you, because I wanted to delve into what you remember about that first show in Provo. Even dating back to that first time we talked, I think it was in 1996, you brought up the history about how Provo was one of the original three cities where “Lady” first became a hit and how you’d driven out here in a rented motor home to play the Ice House. So with obviously the Provo show coming up again — and correct me if I’m wrong, as near as I can figure out this is the first show actually back in Provo since the Ice House show in ’73 — I know you played nearby Orem a few times.
YOUNG: OK, Orem we definitely played, starting in ’96, we were there two or three times.
DF: See that’s what I mean, you’ve got a good memory because I think it’s three times.
YOUNG: But going back to the heyday, I mean this is the thing I think that stands out, and we’ll get to Provo in a second, very few places were we able to sell out three arenas. Mostly in top 10 cities, I’m talking about Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, where you have that sort of population. Detroit was a place where we did three Cobo Halls at one point in time. St. Louis we probably did two arenas, Kansas City, places like that, and Dallas and Houston. But Salt Lake City on the “Paradise Theatre” tour, we did three shows at the Salt Palace. And I know in recent times, you know, actually I think it was when we released “Big Bang Theory” and they were tracking sales around the country and Los Angeles and Chicago were neck and neck — of course Los Angeles is bigger, so per capita, Chicago has always been our biggest, but the second-biggest per capita place for the sale of Styx music is Salt Lake City. It’s, basically, ‘Wow, all this is coming from that much less population base.’ So something about our music caught on in 1973. And we were managed by a guy in ’73 named Vince DePaul, who was married to one of Dennis DeYoung’s female cousins. And he understood the business on a local level and how to get work for a band and how to keep (them) performing, playing, whatever. But once we got a recording contract and stuff, he was kind of ill-equipped to cope with it. And when “Lady” out of the clear blue, with the release of our second LP, you know, all of a sudden we hear we’re getting airplay in Rapid City, South Dakota, Little Rock, Arkansas, and a place called Provo, Utah, which I’d never heard of before then, and KEYY radio, we didn’t have a proper national booking agent, and we didn’t have a lot of things organized about our career that major acts that were better represented had. Ultimately we parted company with him because his skill set, we all sort of felt, we thanked him for his service getting us where we got, but felt that he was an impediment to us going any further at all — but he took it upon himself to somehow find a way to get us booked in Utah, and that was the Ice House. I don’t know if we were the opening act there, but I know we played there early in the life of that club.
DF: So, when you first heard this, you didn’t have any idea where Provo was?
YOUNG: Well, my family, my dad was very much into taking long automobile trips with his wife and five children. In 1955, we drove all the way to California to see one of my uncles, and we got there, I think, just before Disneyland opened. We drove past it, but “It’s not open yet, we can’t get in there!” Then we drove up to San Francisco to see some relative on my mother’s side, and drove back home. This was with five kids in the car, in a ’55 Buick ... so I’m not geographically challenged, I know where things are, but the lesser cities of the great state of Utah were unbeknownst to me at that point in my life even though I was a college graduate and had traveled quite a bit. But, no, it was exciting to go far away and then see that sort of a response to our music when we’d been banging our heads against the wall in front of, maybe sold-out clubs, but we were still doing a lot of cover songs there and had a reputation in Chicago, and was sort of spread around the Midwest from our performances — but, you know, to go that far away, 1,500 miles ... it was a very exciting time for us in our development as a major league recording act.
DF: Right, and that’s what I was going to ask you about. At the time you traveled all the way out here, what was your road experience at the time? It sounds like you’d been doing shows around the Midwest, if I understood you correctly, but you had not been on a trip this far away?
YOUNG: No, we’d go places like Peoria, Illinois, and up to Milwaukee, over to Indiana, maybe over to Michigan, but at that point in time, I’m not sure. Because I was out of college and driving a cab part-time to make ends meet with the money we were making from performing, and I think Dennis and Chuck (Panozzo) still were teachers. Dennis was a music teacher and Chuck was an art teacher, so they still had full-time jobs up until, I think, the release of “Styx II.” And they may have kept them beyond that even. Some of that kind of limited what we did because reason and financial necessity sort of dictated, (laughs) “Don’t give up something you’ve worked your whole life for, that is a teaching degree and the way to work on something that may never come to fruition, financially for yourself.” And Dennis’s wife, who I know was interested in the future well-being of herself and her daughter, was very outspoken about it all. But I’m a little bit vague, I should have gone back because I know there’s this website, Styxtoury, which is not perfect, but it’s pretty close on a lot of things that went on way back when in terms of the shows we played. Have you ever seen that website?
DF: I might have in the past, but I’ll have to go back and look at it again.
YOUNG: But I think we did not stray far outside of a 200-mile radius of Chicago.
DF: OK. Can you elaborate a bit more on the actual road trip? I remember you telling me once it was during the oil embargo.
YOUNG: Well there was a couple of different trips that happened. The first one might have been during the oil embargo and I think Dennis was not feeling well, so he got on an airplane and John Panozzo and I decided we were just going to drive it back and drive it straight through. But that was clearly during the Arab oil embargo. We had an extra can of gas with us, which I think may not have been legal, but nonetheless we felt going through the mountains ... I think we got to Evanston, Wyoming, and realized we were going to run out, so we sort of fashioned a road map into a funnel and poured whatever we had left into the tank and managed to make it to a gas station somewhere. But that’s a slice of American history as experienced by two members of Styx in the middle of the mountains, going, “Are we out of our minds here, why are we doing this kind of a thing?” But being young enough and bull-headed enough to say, “We can do this!” So we just traded off, and had a wonderful steak in Kearney, Nebraska, and I’d driven much of the way, and then John Panozzo took it much of the way home ... 27 hours, with one steak dinner in the middle of that, and get back to Chicago.
DF: Those are the types of experiences that generally turn into good songs!
YOUNG: Uh, yeah!
DF: Do you have any memories of the actual show itself? I know that may be kind of difficult.
YOUNG: Well, I have a picture in my mind of the club — but it is vague — and what the audience looked like. But it’s very vague. I wish I could, but I can’t give you very much on that.
DF: That’s understandable — who knows how many thousands of shows later. What type of a setlist might you have been playing in those days? Not the order, but the typical songs.
|The building that used to contain the Ice House, on 100 West in Provo. (Jim Mcauley/Daily Herald)|
YOUNG: Well, my guess is we probably still would have been playing some covers at that point in time. We probably played a number of originals, but probably would have worked in something like “Whole Lotta Love” and some of the covers that really got a big reaction at that point in time, where people were amazed that those guys could sing as high as Robert Plant on that song, or what have you. “Aimless Lady” was one song that I sang, that we did from time to time, by Grand Funk. We were known for early on, Dennis, we would do the Sly and the Family Stone thing, and Dennis would go off into this feel-good rap and get the audience in a call-and-response kind of thing where he got the audience wound up and spoke to them — which seems to be somewhat at every stage of our career, he’s taken it upon himself to do that. Tommy even tells a story about how, because he was not in the band at that point in time, that they heard that Styx had this feel-good thing that really got the crowd going crazy, and he said all the club bands hated us because we weren’t stuck playing, you know, five sets a night, six nights a week in some bar until five in the morning or whatever it was. But when Tommy auditioned, “Midnight Ride” was actually the first song — I don’t know if you’ve heard that part of the story?
DF: Yeah, you’d told me that.
YOUNG: His band was broke up at that point in time and he was back playing a bowling alley in Montgomery, Alabama, kind of a thing just to make ends meet, whatever. And in his own mind, as he would tell it, “I’ve got to be part of this band. I’ve got to do this.” So, that feel-good thing was a big thing. “Whole Lotta Love” was one that comes to my mind.
(Telephone rings on his end) ...
YOUNG: Now I have another interview I’m supposed to do in like five minutes. Can I call you back after that?
YOUNG: Actually, I’m just calling The Arrow in Salt Lake City.
DF: Oh, OK.
YOUNG: And then I’ll get right back to you.
DF: Fine, sounds great.
YOUNG: Hold on a second, we’ve got another couple minutes.
DF: I’ll keep my eye on the clock, but let me know for sure. ... As part of the story, I’m trying to track some people down who were actually at the show and get their reactions. I’ve talked to one person so far and he mentioned that one memory he has, of course, he’s familiar with the song “Lady” and that was the only thing he was familiar with going in, so that was kind of what he was expecting, but then he got to the show and he said it was a lot more rocking than he expected going in. That’s probably a lot of the material you were playing then.
YOUNG: Yeah, I’m having a hard time remembering what the actual setlist might have been, but I know when we were a club band we’d do a couple of sets so there had to be cover stuff in there. There may not have been that much covers, but if they had us play two sets, that’s something I couldn’t tell you. But we had two albums of material to draw from at that point in time, obviously because we’d recorded “Styx II.” But I’m sure there would have been some notable covers in there, like I said “Whole Lotta Love.” John Curulewski was there, he wrote “22 Years,” which is quite a rocking song. Our best thing, obviously, from “Styx I,” that we would have done, “Mother Nature’s Matinee,” we always did that one. I’m not sure if we did “Children of the Land” — those were the three originals off the first one. We may have done some of the covers that they made us do on that first record. We had material from the second record, “Father, Oh I Say” would have been a strong one I think we always played. “You Need Love” we would have played. We had two albums of originals to work from at that point, but I’ll bet there were certainly some covers in the set.
DF: OK. Was there a feeling after that that this might be a stepping stone to something bigger — not that the show was in Provo, but just that there was starting to be a demand in previously unenvisioned locales?
YOUNG: (laughs) Well there was great optimism, which lasted for a brief period of time until we put out “Serpent is Rising” and then, really, nothing happened at all. I remember Dennis saying to me at one point, “Well, J.Y., we’ve seen our heyday.” (laughs) And even for his sometimes pessimistic attitude, (I thought) “I think it’s a little early for that.” (laughs)
YOUNG: Let me call these other guys.
DF: OK, I’ll catch you after.
(Interview continues after Young calls back.)
DF: I guess it’s no stretch to say that Provo still holds a soft spot in Styx history?
YOUNG: Oh, tremendously. I mean, the first time, I can even remember back in my teenage years when myself as a musician got recognized in any way shape or form, those things sort of stay with you. The band that I had with my brother that was sort of a precursor to Styx, all those things, every little milestone that we had are kind of things that you’ll never forget. And particularly, Utah, which just is a unique place unto itself for a variety of reasons, yeah, and the trips back and forth that were filled with drama, all those things just kind of will always be with me.
DF: Just one final question on that because you had mentioned it — there have been rumors, some people have thought there was a second show, but I’ve been able to find no documentation on it.
YOUNG: Well, now that you’re saying that, it’s quite possible that there was not. I do remember there was another time where we were out in the — I swore that we drove back twice from Salt Lake City, but maybe I’m wrong about that. We’ve done some long drives along I-80, and in fact had an accident, it wasn’t a rented motor home actually, we had purchased, we actually owned one, but it should have had four tires on the back axle instead of two like a passenger van, because we overloaded that thing. (laughs) We brought back all kinds of Coors beer from Colorado, so we were at least as far as Colorado, but maybe we didn’t get ... and there was a famous story where Dennis was driving and we were supposed to be going north from Wyoming into the Dakotas — and so the fact that we were so far west, I thought we came back and played again, but perhaps we did not.
DF: Like I said, that rumor’s been out there ...
YOUNG: Well, I’m probably the one that started it! But I remember two long trips in that motor home and both coming east along I-80. Because there was one with John Panozzo and there was just two of us and the next one was when we had the accident, I think actually John Panozzo was ill. He couldn’t make the trip, so actually the guy that was our drum tech at that point in time sat in on the drums and he was in this vehicle when we had this accident. Mike Phillips — so Ricky Phillips wasn’t actually the first Phillips to be on stage as a member of Styx.
DF: But they’re not related?
YOUNG: No. At least not to my knowledge. You never know. Probably eight steps removed, maybe, who knows?
DF: Yeah, and I was surprised to find out that Ricky had lived in Salt Lake.
YOUNG: Ricky spent quite a long time in a band that was based in Salt Lake. He said they were incredibly talented guys but just kind of very much socially dysfunctional. One of them got arrested for some prank in a city in Nebraska or something, I don’t know. Spent a week in jail or something like that. (laughs) It’s kind of hard to schedule your life when guys don’t have enough sense to not get themselves tossed in jail for some stupid prank — an M-80, I think, in a bathroom in a restaurant that blew it up and caused all sorts of commotion.
DF: Yeah, you’ve got to at least be throwing TVs out of high rises ... you’ve got to get some mileage out of your bad pranks. (laughs) OK, moving back to the present — you’ll be immediately following up the Provo concert with the resurrection of “The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight” shows in Las Vegas, how do you feel about revisiting that?
YOUNG: It was the hardest I think the band worked at rehearsing certainly since Ricky Phillips has been in the band. I mean, because Tommy and I had to go back and relearn things, and there’s things that we had never performed live so we had to figure out how to make them actually stand up on stage. “Superstars” was something we were always afraid of, but having four guys that can sing when you’ve got those long-block harmonies that kind of extend forever, that kind of fries my voice to do anything after that, and then I’m doing the rant that Dennis did on the original record, which completely fries my voice, so it’s kind of (in high voice) coming back and trying to sing the harmonies (in regular voice) was not really coming out too well. But we found a way to, with modern technology, to sort of have a keyboard on a certain vocal sounding pad to help reinforce that. There’s nothing on tape it’s technology as our friend here as well as having four singers instead of just three. But I love that show and it’s songs that I never thought we’d play live, we’re playing live. And the visuals behind it, my dear friend Steve Jones, who is a feature film producer and was an animation director before that, and he’s still an aspiring director, he teaches a class in film production actually at DePaul University now at a graduate level, but Steve’s always wanted to be a director and never quite gotten there, but he is the director of the visuals that are on the screen behind us that are part of that whole show. I like it because it’s kind of a junior Floydian presentation, it’s not simply a rock band and a sound system and moving lights, but there’s a whole additional production element there that I think is magical that goes along with the songs. I think it really takes the Styx live performance to another level and a lot of the tours we’ve done, the package tours where we can afford to bring that with us — because it’s expensive to have that video wall behind us and run it and another truck to drag it around and what have you, so whenever we get a chance to use it, particularly in this way, which I think we’ve done a marvelous job with this. I’m very proud of it and I encourage people to check it out. And if they can’t get down there, the DVD, particularly the 5.1 is amazing.
DF: I was going to say, speaking for myself from the perspective of someone who hasn’t seen that live show in person, I thought the DVD captured things extremely well.
YOUNG: (laughs) I’ve spent too much time post-producing it, I can’t bring myself to sit down and look at it. (laughs) Because I still see the flaws that we could have — “If we’d only had that camera shot from that angle this would be better!” But you’re always going to do that and that’s why people a lot of times they work as hard as they possibly can to make something as great as they can, and it’s impossible to ever completely step back from it. Maybe 10 years from now I’ll be able to do it. I’m still not ready for that.
DF: Well, the good thing is you get to break it out live every so often.
YOUNG: And that’s what we’re doing.
DF: And you did mention the visuals, and I think my favorite part is the guy sifting through the albums and pulling one out and putting it down on the turntable.
YOUNG: Well, that was Tommy’s idea, that my friend Steve did make that come to life.
DF: That really resonated with me because that’s how I kind of experienced my watershed Styx moment — when a friend pulled out “Grand Illusion” for the first time, dropped the needle on “Miss America” and said, “Check this out!”
DF: And I’ve been checking it out for 35 years now.
YOUNG: (laughs) How ’bout that!
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