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Styx still asks fans to come sail away

In band for 50 years, guitarist JY Young has no plans to quit


by: COURTESY OF ASH NEWELL - The recent incarnation of Styx, which includes longtime guitarist James Young (far left), performs at the Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City, Oct. 25 and 26.Guitarist James “JY” Young has been with Styx since before it became Styx — since 1970, when the Chicago-area rock ‘n’ roll group was known as TW4.

By the late 1970s, Styx was cranking out an array of hit songs, including “Babe,” which reached No. 1 on the charts in 1979. The band had eight top-10 hits in all, the last “Show Me the Way,” which topped out at No. 3 in 1990.

There have been breakups and makeups through the years, with members going off on solo careers. But Styx has survived, and will be at Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City for a pair of shows Oct. 25 and 26 (chinookwindscasino.com).

Young, who turns 64 on Nov. 14, spoke with the Portland Tribune by phone from his home in Chicago, where he lives with wife, Susie:

Tribune: Which members of Styx will be performing at Chinook Winds?

Young: I’ll be there, along with Tommy Shaw, Lawrence Gowan, Todd Sucherman and Ricky Phillips. Dennis DeYoung has not been with us since 1999. I’m not sure about (original member) Chuck Panozzo, who almost died of AIDS in the ‘90s. Chuck has made a pretty strong recovery, but his energy level is not what it used to be. He lives in south Florida. That’s a long plane ride, but he might surprise us and be there.

Tribune: You’re just starting your most recent tour in Ohio. How much touring do you guys do these days?

Young: We do about 110 shows a year. We’ve had a heck of a run, and we’re still loving the heck out of it.

Tribune: How many times have you played in Oregon in the past?

Young: We go way back. I remember playing at The Paramount in Portland in early ‘76. We opened for Rush at a couple of shows in Seattle and Portland that year. We’ve been there numerous times since then. My cousin worked for the city of Portland as a gardener and was the guy who tended to the smallest park in the world (Mill Ends Park, total area 452 square inches).

We actually recorded our version of (Beatles tune) “I Am the Walrus” at Chinook Winds in 2004. Through a wonderful confluence of circumstances, we were invited to be part of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival (in Dallas, Texas) that year. We were far away from Clapton’s blues-based stuff, so we thought we’d try to resonate with his affinity for the Beatles.

It got a huge response. We kept playing it as we went across country that summer. It was fun for us to do. And ultimately a (radio) program director in Chicago said he’d like to put it on the air. We had never intended to record it. The first chance we had was during our show that year at Lincoln City. I recorded it there on my 13-inch Macintosh laptop.

Tribune: What were you doing when you joined TW4?

Young: I was about to graduate from college. I knew I wanted to pursue music full-time. I didn’t think (the TW4 members) were the cutting edge of anything, but they had a following and were getting paid to play. It was a way for me to make a living.

In addition to the maybe $50 a month we were making, I drove cab. It was a way to devote myself to music full-time. I never expected much to come out of it. Those guys had a sense of what your average individual likes. I was snooty, too cool for the room. They were lacking something, and I didn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle, either. Together, we had a complete protein and people started paying attention.

Tribune: You got your degree from Illinois Institute of Technology in mechanical and aerospace engineering. Did you have a plan to do something with it?

Young: My dad was partners with two brothers in a family construction business. That was my fallback position, to step into my father’s shoes, so my education was primarily in the mechanical field. My two aerospace classes were Theory of Jet Propulsion and Celestial Mechanics — the theory of how gravitation affects bodies in outer space. I was a C-plus student. I was interested in playing rock music, but my dad had saved up for all his kids to go to college. Halfway through college, I wanted to quit and pursue music, but he wanted me to get my degree, so I did.

Tribune: Jimi Hendrix was a big influence on your music. You saw him five times in concert?

Young: I did. Growing up on the south side of Chicago, the blues were everywhere. I went to high school with the son of Jimmy Reed. But I learned to play guitar from a Beatles songbook. I didn’t get totally into the blues until college. Jimi was wild and crazy and was really steeped in Buddy Guy, south-side-of-Chicago-style blues, and he looked like he arrived on a spaceship from the second moon of Mars. The dude was the coolest.

Tribune: The band became known as Styx in 1972. Why?

Young: We knew TW4 was not going to fly. It was not anything that wound resonate with the culture of cool. I was into the outer-space vibe and astrological signs. All the constellations are named from Greek mythology. You had to cross the river Styx to get to Hades. It’s the river that separates the living from the dead. Ultimately, Styx emerged as the name no one really hated.

Tribune: You once said about Styx, “We are where rock ‘n’ roll meets mainstream entertainment.” What did you mean by that?

Young: Dennis very much had the same likes and dislikes of Paul McCartney, who could sing Little-Richard-balls-out when he had to, but liked writing silly love songs. To me, that’s mainstream entertainment. I was into the rock ‘n’ roll side of it, but we are viewed by most people as a rock band that had a softer side. We could rock with the best of them, but there was more artistry with our stage performances.

Tribune: What was it like to be in Styx during your heyday? Was it wild and crazy?

Young: Four of the five of us were married. There were crazy moments, certainly. But Dennis’ wife was with us most of the time. It wasn’t too crazy. We were young men and there was lots going on back then. With John (Ponozzo, who died in 1996), it was really alcohol and what it does to the liver. John basically drank himself to death. We tried our best to salvage him and bring him back through rehab a number of times, but his heart wasn’t into it.

Tribune: Styx has played all the big venues, including Super Bowl pregame shows in 2001 and ‘03. Are you playing mostly smaller venues nowadays?

Young: It really depends. During the past few years, we did packaged shows with Foreigner and Kansas and with REO Speedwagon and Ted Nugent. Yeah, it was fun having Ted around during an election year. When we do those things, we do big venues. But we pride ourselves in putting on a great show anywhere.

Thirty years ago, rock bands would have turned their nose up at the casinos. That was adult stuff. Rock ’n’ roll was all about getting high, smoking pot and misbehaving. But over the last 20 years, casinos have become baby-boomer adult playgrounds. For anyone who wants to relive his glorious, misspent youth, go see a Styx show at Lincoln City. Have as little or as much to drink as you choose and stay for the weekend in a safe environment where there are armed guards to protect us from ourselves and others.

Tribune: Do you have a favorite Styx tune?

Young: Probably “Renegade.” Rock ‘n’ roll is about teenage rebellion, and that song captures the essence with both young men and women. Women have a rebellious side that they used to keep in check more than they do now. It’s a great rock song, and there is an exhilaration in playing it. Tommy lets me play (lead guitar), so I get a chance to really shine there.

Tribune: You’re in your fifth decade with the band. Why do you keep on playing music?

Young: The time I spend on stage is an incredibly great joy to me. That’s my favorite part of what we do. We bring out our arsenal and by the end of the night, we’re all surfing this great wave of joy. That’s not having to work. That’s having a good time and being lucky enough to get paid for it.

Retirement from anything is death. I like to stay active. You meet some of the most interesting people on the planet. I meet people I’d never meet staying at home. I want to do this until the day I drop.

kerryeggers@portlandtribune.com

Twitter: @kerryeggers