Domo Arigato, Motherfuckers!
How Styx Made a Rock Geek out of Me
Although I’m flushing away the last fading remnants of my punk credibility (okay, the very thought that they might exist is laughable), this issue is about first loves, and my first love was Styx. Their magnum opus (if you can call something this profoundly silly by such an austere name) Kilroy Was Here came out the year I was in 6th grade, and I loved it like nothing before.
I starting loving music when I was little, and sought out records as disparate as The 1812 Overture and Kiss’ Dynasty as far back as 3rd or 4th grade. But Styx had a hold on me. I listened over and over again to Kilroy Was Here, a messy rock opera about a rock & roll savior smashing the moral majority in a dystopian future (or some such 2112-style bullshit). In retrospect, I’m sure my parents just loved hearing that particular slice of synth-dominated arena rock every single day. I taped the Kilroy Was Here concert off of MTV, and whenever I had a chance, I watched that concert, an incomprehensible blend of muddled storytelling, video, robot costumes, and arena rock. Willingly.
What’s more, and this is where we broach the shape of things to come, I tried to collect every Styx album I could. I joined the Columbia Music Club for the first time and bought (on vinyl, natch) Paradise Theater, their previous release, notable for the rockin’ “Too Much Time On My Hands,” and Cornerstone, notable the ultra-mackin’ “Babe.” I saved money from mowing my neighbors’ lawns to buy The Grand Illusion, because it had “Come Sail Away” on it, which was obviously money well spent. (The moment in the Freaks and Geeks pilot where our young protagonist finally gets to slow-dance with his crush to this song only to have it shift from piano ballad to power ballad just slays me every time.) From my older cousins, I taped Styx II (“Lady,” another special moment for Freaks and Geeks fans), Equinox (“Suite Madame Blue”), and Pieces of Eight (“Renegade”).
From these I formed a theory of low expectations about albums. I remember explaining to a friend that if half the songs on an album were good, the album was automatically a great one. That’s right! 50% = Genius! Fortunately, within another couple of years I was exposed to bands that could (no kidding!) produce albums that were good from start to finish.
But make no mistake: shit is good fertilizer. I was fascinated by the concept that rock could also be art, which some may claim has left me the gift of tolerating enormously self-indulgent artists. The more I knew of their band, the more I could hear in their music, and I loved knowing the sounds of Styx so well that I could tell Tommy Shaw’s guitarwork from that of their previous guitarist John Curulewski. I loved that I could hear the difference in their work from the mid-70s to the early 80s. The clouds inside my head had shifted, and at last, I was geek.
This same obsessive fanhood has stuck with me with many other loves through the years: hair metal, the Velvet Underground (my first mature relationship, I guess), and SST, for instance, have all held me in their thrall at some point. I’ve been unwilling to admit this for years (for the obvious reason), but my love of Styx set the template.
Being in love sometimes leads to ridicule from others, especially when you’re young. I can recall a study period towards the end of the school year, where we were invited to bring boomboxes and music from home. The fratty popular kids took up residence on one side of the room and played the music of their caste: Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles. You know, awesome music like that. I was, of course, on the nerd side of the room, and I had brought my first mix tape: a sweet new best-of Styx I’d made the night before on my parents’ stereo. It opened with “Come Sail Away,” to my 6th-grade mind a killer track simply because it was about aliens. As those opening piano strains played, I can remember the fratty jock guys laughing and laughing at me while Dennis DeYoung prissed his way through the opening lines.
For once in my 6th grade life, I didn’t care, couldn’t possibly care, and nothing could touch me. I was a true believer, not a loser.
Well, that’s not quite right. I was a different kind of loser, the kind writing this essay today, twenty-something years later. Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto.