The former Styx frontman claims his latest album is also his last
Dennis DeYoung calls from a dentist’s parking lot just outside of Chicago, doing this interview as he waits for his wife to finish her appointment. “We’ve been married 51 years,” he says, “and I’m only eighteen!”
Though DeYoung is jovial throughout the chat, he also wants to discuss serious matters. The tumultuous state of the world has him pondering the human condition – a topic that he also examines in the lyrics on 26 East, Vol. 2, his latest (and, he says, final) studio album, which was just released in June (via Frontiers Music Srl).
“Hey, if the pandemic hasn’t taught you anything, you can’t learn anything,” DeYoung says, “and then I look around and I see people still acting in ways that defy logic. Don’t tell me you haven’t thought that. Things they believed through this pandemic, you know you were surprised, weren’t you? You went, ‘What, my Uncle Bert thinks that?’ But I’ve come to this to explain it: we all believe the lies that we love. That pretty much explains everything that’s happened.”
Not that this surprises DeYoung. “This is my mantra: ‘Nobody knows nothing.’ They never did,” he says. “And now human beings have got to face the fact, right? We’re hurtling through the universe. We can’t answer the very most basic question: Why are we here? Answer that and everything else will fall into place.”
Even though DeYoung examines this rather bleak vision of humanity on 26 East, Vol. 2, he can’t offer any solutions. “Here’s my favorite line when I read it: ‘Scientists were astounded to discover…’ So if all those people who spend their life trying to be smarter than you don’t know what’s going on, how the hell am I supposed to know something?” he says. “I’m betting on a higher power because I am a dumbass. This is how people put their faith in rock stars and movie stars and politicians – they do that because they desperately want to believe somebody knows something, because they feel, rightly so, unable to answer the important questions.”
While DeYoung had no problem turning these thoughts into songs, he admits that he almost didn’t make 26 East Vol. 2 (or the corresponding 26 East, Vol. 1, which he released last year). This hesitancy was because he believes that “Rock is dead. Not as a musical form, but as a business model. It died at the hands of the Internet. It died when radio died. Go to any album chart or award show, you can see that rock music has been completely overturned by pop music and rap music, and in the United States, country music. So I thought, ‘Is there a need for this?’”
Eventually, the head of Frontiers Music Srl convinced DeYoung to record again. Now that both 26 East volumes are done, DeYoung says he’s glad he relented. “I got to wave goodbye to my fans and really put an exclamation point on all these years I’ve been annoying them,” he says.
Millions of fans would probably dispute that DeYoung has been annoying them, as he has created numerous immensely successful rock songs. As the vocalist/keyboardist for the rock band Styx from the 1970s through the 1990s, he wrote seven songs that hit the Top 10 on the Billboard charts: “Lady,” “Come Sail Away,” “Babe,” “The Best of Times,” “Mr. Roboto,” “Don’t Let It End,” and “Show Me the Way.”
Despite this commercial success, Styx was not as beloved by music critics. “When Styx were selling all those albums and selling all those concerts out, I can’t say I read a great deal written about the band that I would say, ‘I need to print this out and put it on my wall!’” he says. “They were pushing the whole punk and garage band thing. Put ‘punk’ in front of your name and journalists start salivating. I’m still at a loss as to why. As a musical form, it never meant anything, comparatively. So I’m not used to people writing down words of praise for what I’ve done, or what Styx has done.”
VIDEO: Styx “Come Sail Away”
DeYoung says critical acclaim was never his goal, anyway – his songwriting goal has always been about connecting with fans. “Here’s what I tried to do: I found some chords I liked. It’s just that simple. Then I stuck notes on the chords. Then I put lyrics on to the chords. And I gave everyone my point of view on my life and the world around me, hoping that they, and you, would find yourself in my story. That’s all I did.” He laughs and adds, “And guess what? When I was doing it, I was just trying to kick Queen’s ass!”
By 2000, after making thirteen studio albums with Styx, disagreements about musical direction and interpersonal friction caused DeYoung to leave the band. Since then, he has focused on his solo career, which he had actually already begun with his 1984 debut solo album, Desert Moon. Counting both 26 East volumes, he has released eight solo albums.
DeYoung can pinpoint the exact moment when, as he was growing up in Chicago, he realized he wanted to become a musician.
“When I was six years old, I saw my neighbor come over and play the accordion – because it was 1953, and accordions were popular,” he says, “and I saw my Italian mama – her eyes just lit up when this kid played. As a little kid, you have your antenna up, you know what matters. And I thought, ‘If I do that, my mom will be happy.’ And so I became a musician. Was that just to please my mom? No. I love music, like everyone else in the world. That’s why I do what I do.
“Now, all these years later, when I meet my fanbase, they tell me in heartfelt ways that what I created has such meaning to their life,” DeYoung continues. “I think, ‘Am I the luckiest guy?’ I’m ever thankful that that kid came over and played the accordion, because it allowed me to be exactly where I belong. How do I know this? Because that music that was created had meaning to millions of people, and I can be proud of that.”
VIDEO: Dennis DeYoung “Boomchild”
Now, with 26 East, Vol. 2, DeYoung believes he has found a fitting way to bring his studio album career to an end. “I looked at this album and I said, ‘I’ve got a chance to say things musically one last time.’” But he wants his fans to know that he’s not going to completely disappear: “I’ll continue to play concerts. I just don’t want to make any more albums. If the mood suits me, and I write a song I like, I’ll record it. I’ll throw it up onto the internet someplace. But it’s too much work to do an entire album.”
As his wife gets in the car, DeYoung asks how her dentist appointment went. Satisfied she’s OK, he returns to the call to say goodbye. Before he goes, he wants to tell his fans one last thing about his final album: “This is all I got, I hope you enjoy it, and please turn off all the lights as you exit the building.”