EVERY TIME I GET INTO THE CAR AND TURN the radio on, my ears are met with a musical assault of astronomical proportions. Why is it that I can’t stand most of the rubbish on the airwaves today, but the music from my childhood regardless of genre or critical reception makes me feel all warm and fuzzy? The simple answer is that musical nostalgia is a powerful neurological drug. Multiple brain imaging studies have shown that the songs we love send our brain’s pleasure circuit into overdrive, releasing feel-good chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin that render us euphoric. Translation: every time we listen to our favorite songs, we’re transported back to the time when our brains first experienced that musical high. And since most of the substances that cause that chemical rush aren’t legal yet in the great state of Florida, allow us to suggest an alternative: Thursday’s concert at the Truman Waterfront Park Amphitheater featuring Styx and Blue Oyster Cult, two icons of rock and roll whose hits might as well be aural cocaine for music lovers across generations.
Both Styx and Blue Öyster Cult have been putting out new music for a mind-boggling 46 years, a fact rendered even more impressive if you consider that the average 20- or 30-something knows every word to megahits like “Come Sail Away,” “Renegade” and “Lady.” And all references to cowbells and Christopher Walken aside, who doesn’t start to at least tap a toe when “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” starts streaming over the speakers? As a testament to their longevity, just last year Styx released “The Mission,” a new concept album that chronicles the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the first manned mission to Mars in the year 2033.
On the eve of their legendary performance, this lucky reporter got to have a long chat with personal idol, Styx founding member and lead vocalist James “JY” Young (insert high-pitched squeal here):
Laura Richardson: Let’s start with the easy stuff. Have you ever been to Key West?
James “JY” Young: I have never been to Key West. My parents honeymooned there in 1938, but Styx has never found its way there. A few years ago, we were playing in Miami and drove down U.S. 1 partway to the Keys and decided that halfway was enough. We’re constantly on the move. There’s no moss growing on this band.
LR: Where do you get the energy to stage such high-octane rock shows?
JY: Primarily from a desperate need for attention. All kidding aside, it’s like drinking from the fountain of youth to be on stage with this band. With our current lineup, we have some replacement parts that are younger and more energetic. I feed off their energy and
there’s an incredible dynamic between the band, which includes original bassist Chuck Panozzo. Tommy Shaw was a high energy guy from the moment I met him and keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, who replaced Dennis DeYoung, and drummer Todd Sucherman are astoundingly high energy as well. Rounding us out is Ricky Phillips, who Tommy calls the “Mayor of Rock ‘n Roll” he knows everyone in the business and has seen every incarnation of every band. He’s been exposed to both the film and music sides of things, so we have a delightful cast.
LR: What are the biggest challenges of touring?
JY: Our time onstage is truly the fountain of youth. Every concert is 90 minutes to two hours of unadulterated joy for me personally. However, the glamour of travel has long ago worn off. As they try to fit more people into the same space on planes, it’s become less and less comfortable to physically get to gigs. Alas, it’s the evil that I must survive to get to where I’m going. But touring allows us to save for those rainy days we know are not that far away from us. As with anything that requires effort, it has to be worth doing and touring is
worth it for me because the way I feel when I take the stage and get off stage pushes the reset button for me. At least for a minute, I feel like I’m 27 again. I’m a young person mentally and, to some degree, a little more physically when I get off the stage.
LR: You’ve had so many hits across the decades and your music is ageless. I’m 30 and I’m as excited for this show as my 65-year-old dad. What are your typical audiences like?
JY: This is a question that we’ve actually all been pondering lately. Every time we’re on stage, Tommy usually asks the audience who’s seeing Styx for first time and half the audience typically raises their hands. Recently, a good friend of mine who works at a bar that caters to 20-somethings told me that young people are always playing Styx on the jukebox. We’re counter to what’s going on out there in the music world today, but in my opinion there’s a whole lot more musicality to what we’ve done than what’s happening now. God bless these new artists appealing to a younger generation, but our stuff was a little more focused on melody and form. Our records embrace everything from classicism to Afro-American Blues and R&B.
I’m just delighted because 10 years ago I would have thought it was impossible to be where we are today between touring and recording new albums. Ten years ago, we took new stuff to radio stations and they were like, “Styx?!?!” But bands like the Rolling Stones are timeless to me if they can keep putting out records and Keith Richards can keep playing shows, why can’t I?
LR: What’s it like touring with other respected artists like Blue Öyster Cult and Joan Jett? Do you guys ever just sit around and look at each other and say, “Holy shit — we’re pioneers”?
JY: We’ve played with Blue Öyster Cult off and on going back to ’75 or ’76. We’re very well familiar with Donald Roeser and Eric Bloom, so touring with them is always relaxed. We have a lot of fun hanging with those guys, seeing where they’re at and what they’re doing these days. At least once a year there’s a holy crap moment when I start counting the years since we started doing this. We signed our first recording contract on 2/22/72, so if we make it to 2/22/22, that’ll be 50 years of making music. So maybe that’s when we’ll call it quits, but who knows?
LR: It would be so easy for you guys to rest on the laurels of your past successes and just play the old stuff like “Renegade” and “Lady” ad nauseum. Why keep creating?
JY: There’s a creative spark in all of us more in Tommy than in myself, but Lawrence was also a prolific solo artist. He had a No. 1 album in Canada in ’84, he was in Bo Diddley’s band and has played with a number of other rock icons. Todd has played with great people; Ricky was in the Babies and Bad English and played with both Journey and Ozzy Osbourne’s band. We have an amazing array of different people from all over the world it’s an amazing collaboration that works in a big way, so we can’t help but keep creating and making new music.
LR: Who handles most of the writing for Styx’s newer albums?
JY: Lawrence writes a bunch on his own and Tommy collaborates with a lot of different people on a lot of different things. For example, Tommy did
a bluegrass album with Alison Krauss a few years back. Will Evankovich is a skilled guitar player and singer/songwriter and he and Tommy collaborated on the new record. Will is credited with co-writing a number of our songs, so that’s Tommy’s main collaborator at this point. Even though we just released The Mission, Tommy is already writing with Will again, so we have no idea where that’s going. I’m good at coming up with musical ideas and riffs and funky bluesy things that may work in different songs.
So, everybody in the band likes to comingle their creative influences to create new music.
LR: “The Mission” is so much more conceptual and story driven than anything Styx has ever done. Where did the idea for this album come from?
JY: It’s been so difficult for bands from our era to get any traction with new material. We made a new record back in 2003 that went nowhere. Lately our biggest airplay is our cover of The Beatles’ “I am the Walrus,” which came out of playing with Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival, and that only came about because I had heard Lawrence noodling around on the song he can do a great Lennon impression. People were so blown away when we played it live so we recorded it and it’s been an unexpected hit. But I have a degree in mechanical aerospace engineering and I wrote a few songs that were space themed and Greek and Roman mythology based. In addition, we’ve got a lot of friends and fans at NASA and have been invited to various events the New Horizons team actually named Pluto’s smallest moon after Styx in 2015. So, we have me, who’s very interested in astronomy and inner space and medical science and how we can we prolong the life of
this band and the life of this person so that I can do this for as long as I want to, and then Tommy, who is much more able to connect to the emotional side of a storyline and write lyrics and melodies that capture that emotion. Overall each song tells its own little story and when some human beings are crazy enough to go to Mars, hopefully The Mission will be their soundtrack. Personally, I’d like to go to the moon. On the other hand, Mars is fascinating to me. Maybe 20 years from now I’ll say “what the hell?” and hop a shuttle to Mars. But I think “The Mission” captures the humanity of space travel and what a human being is going to experience on that incredible journey.
LR: Do you still feel the same pressure to record hit albums or do you feel like you can be more experimental these days?
JY: I think there’s a need for us to do everything we can to propel our career
down the highway of life, especially after the utter failure of our 2003 album “Rockers.” We all thought it was a great record with great music, but there was just no radio outlet for it. The internet has evolved to the point where, in a way, we’re exposed in a very different light than we used to be. Concentrated radio airplay is impossible for us at this point, so there’s less incentive for us to specifically aim for hit songs. Our career at this point is really about live performance and we pride ourselves as being the best in the game out there. And it doesn’t hurt that Todd was recently voted the No. 1 progressive rock drummer on the planet.
LR: Do you think you’ll ever stop touring? Or stop wanting to?
JY: We’ll go for as long as we’re physically capable of doing this. It helps to have younger replacement parts. At the beginning, it was either myself or John Curulewski that were the youngest. I’m the oldest now and Todd is 20 years my junior. As long as you have a young drummer, you can get away with doing this for as long as you want. Hell, B.B. King did it until his 80s! I’m big into longevity science and extending the quality of life and a disbeliever in big pharma and modern medicine on a lot of levels. With all the knowledge I have, I plan on doing this well into my 70s. So why not my 80s?
You can get tickets to drink from JY’s fountain of youth at www.thekeywesttheater.com. Light it up. Let’s get this show on the road. ¦