The Band that Styx It To 'Em
By Rick Kogan
(First of a four-part article)
Long Beach, a fast growing city of nearly 400,000 people, nestles easily against the Pacific Ocean. a 45-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles. It is slightly farther from Beverly Hills.
It is a city of clean streets, well- scrubbed houses and brilliantly green lawns, and in the wake of an evening rain It glistens. But there Us little else that sparkles here.
No one sells maps of movie stars' homes In Long Beach, as people do In Beverly Hills. There are no stars In Long Beach and the city takes no small amount of pride in the fact that its most famous citizen is a ship: The Queen Mary, that great ocean liner, now lies permanently moored In the harbor and serves as a maritime museum, convention center and hotel.
It is a city of big Industry and hard working people and were It not for such California embellishments as palm trees, taco stands, surf boards dotting front lawns and the Queen Mary, it might be any fair-sized blue collar town in America. It might, given the industriousness of Its citizens and the nature of its business, be the South Side of Chicago, hard by Lake Michigan.
I left Chicago early this morning, coming Into Los Angeles bringing In a couple of pens, a leather flight bag, two pairs of jeans, four shirts, three pairs of socks, five notebooks, a tape recorder, newspapers, magazines, razor, shaving cream, toothbrush, one red sweater and a belt.
Let me not forget to mention my in credible electric-green rock and roll jacket. It is the most important thing I have. I am going on the road with Styx, the hottest rock and roll band in America. Image is of great Importance.
Nevertheless: "Who is Styx?" they asked me in Chicago when I first showed of f my electric green rock and roll jacket with the black airplane on the back and announced that I was going on the road for three days.
Of course, they were surprised to learn that earlier this year, Styx's latest album, "Cornerstone," stood in the No. 3 position on the Billboard charts for an astonishing nine weeks, proving more durable than albums by such heavyweight cover-groups as Fleetwood Mac, Led Zepplin and the Eagles, while three of the group's previous albums placed among the top 100—and were climbing!
They were surprised by many of the things they learned.
They were surprised, for instance, to learn that Chuck and John Panozzo, James Young and Dennis DeYoung, who all grew up and began to play music together in the Roseland section of Chicago's South Side, still live in the Chicago area. (Guitarist and vocalist Tommy Shaw, who replaced original band member John Curulewski in 1975, lives across the lake in Niles, Mich., the same town that in another era spawned Ring Lardner.)
They were surprised to learn that Styx's success has nothing to do with favorable articles in the press, was accomplished without the hype and hoopla that usually attends superstar groups. On the contrary, Styx has had a very rough go of it with critics, dating back to the time the group was playing high school dances and weddings under the name TW4.
As a result, they are suspicious of the press and routinely refuse the pleas of national magazines for interviews. "People magazine? F--- 'em," says the band's personal manager, a bear of a man named Derrick Sutton. "Rolling Stone? F--- 'em. The Los Angeles Times? F--- 'em. F-— 'em all."
They were surprised and delighted, therefore, that I could get this story. The reason was so simple: "I want a story in the paper that's delivered to my door," DeYoung said, one sunny summer afternoon. "And you don't seem like a creep."
And when they had heard all of these things, when they had reeled with, all of these surprises, they looked at my electric-green jacket with pride and said "This is the ultimate local-boys-make-good story. Styx, that's great. Go get on an airplane. Hit the road."
None of the other 246 passengers on American Airlines flight 181 knew who I was, of course, or had any idea what I was doing: In just a few hours I would become part of the most extravagant traveling entertainment show in the world.
Is there anything to compare with a rock and roll band on the road?
You've heard the stories, I'm sure Smash up the hotel room! Bring us two cases of Perrier, two bottles of Courvoisier, a dozen lemons, a dozen nines, Cokes, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper, some apples, oranges and a watermelon, two turkeys and one ham, some bread and real butter, a pizza or two, some Daniels, Beam and Stolichnaya, plenty of grapes and some Gatorade! Throw the TV out the window! Get the drugs! Get the blow!
So, with my incredible green jacket over my shoulder I took a cab from Los Angeles into Beverly Hills, where I was to connect with the five members of Styx and their raucous 40-person entourage.
I knew that they will be in fine form: They had been on the road for six days already, doing two shows in San Francisco, two in Oakland and two at the Forum in Los Angeles, on the western leg of their current American tour.
Live Styx. (from left to right, opposite page) lead singer Dennis DeYoung exhorts the crowd; Tommy Shaw and James Young engage in a guitar due1. This page: J.Y. on his own; joined in the dressing room by drummer John Ponazzo (top right) and his brother Chuck (bottom right) Insets, in concert. (Sun-Times photos by Kevin Horan.)
This tour is called the Grand Decathlon and had already taken them to 30 cities. (When the five-month tour ended Feb. 8, Styx had visited 62 American cities and played before more than 1,200,000 people in 71 concerts. They did not play to one empty seat.)
But Styx was gone by the time I arrived at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and so I have driven here to the Long Beach Civic Center and its 12,000-seat Sports Arena with Sun-Times photographer Kevin Horan and Los Angeles rock-and- roller Cob. Haskeil.
It is raining heavily—the next day's papers will report that nearly 2.5 inches of rain fell in Long Beach today. Small packs of young people scurry from their cars and make their way toward the arena where a rain-soaked mob mills about the entrance, pleading for tickets.
"I'll give you $20 - $25," one young man pleads for tickets that cost $9.50. "C'mon, man. Twenty dollars!"
The three of us don't have any tickets. We don't need any tickets. On the road tickets are unnecessary.
We make our way through the wet crowd to the backstage entrance where we are greeted by a burly man, unsmiling and guarding the door. We tell him our names. "You're one of the few to make it," he says, handing us each adhesive patches that we slap on our legs. "Everybody's trying to sneak in."
Inside, the opening act, the Babys, is already midway through their set. The members of Styx's road crew, a rag-tag bunch in T-shirts and jeans, are hanging out. They have been at the arena for hours, unloading the three Ryder trucks that carried Styx's equipment down from L.A.
There is little for them do to until the Babys finish their set—at which time they will become a finely tuned unit which will set up the stage, the instruments, lighting and special effects. So, they are spending this interlude taking care of other, more personal business.
Many of these roadies, as they are commonly known, are engaged in conversation with young women. For reasons unsuitable for print in a daily newspaper, they refer to these young women as piccolo players. To the rest of us they are know as groupies and they are all over the place.
They gathered earlier in the night, some as early as mid-afternoon, and they waited. They dressed in their best clothes, rock and roll finery that highlights their bodies in a strikingly aggressive manner, and when the roadies began to appear, the girls flashed their prettiest California smiles.
Mostly they came for passes, the most common form of exchange on the road. These things—the same adhesive patches we are wearing on our legs—give them the opportunity to hang out backstage while Styx plays.
As always, they foster the hope that they will party with the roadies after the show (and after the stage has been dismantled and packed away.) Some may even fantasize about being asked to travel on... to San Diego or Tucson ... to become, ah, part of the road. Neither possibility seems likely tonight. The roadies have already started receiving payment for the backstage passes they have distributed. Arm in arm with a young girl, they periodically make their way into one of the buses, on which they usually sleep as they travel from town to town, parked outside.
No one seems to mind this endless flow of 10-minute lovers; not the man who guards the door, not the security people who are standing around, assuredly not the roadies.
Not even the girls seem to mind. There is no coercion, there are no tears. There aren't even any hey-wait-a-minute-I-didn't-know-this-was-going-to-be-part-of-the-deal pleas. This is merely rock and roll commerce, conducted in a manner as routinely civilized as buying a package of gum.
Unlike the groupies that congregate in the hard, sunless cities of the north, virtually all of the groupies here in Long Beach are pretty. But it is a strange look, a prettiness that makes it impossible to tell if they are young girls who look old or older girls who look young.
The fortunate ones, those with passes, are parading proudly around the back stage area or lounging sensually on the wooden crates that contain the band's equipment. They all smoke cigarettes.
The less fortunate ones are smoking too. But they remain outside, huddled in small groups trying to escape the downpour.
At once, a sleek, gray Cadillac limosine glides toward the backstage Small groups of girls rush from under trees and other hiding places like a pack of lions attacking an antelope.
They bang on the car windows try to halt the driver's progress by standing in front of the car. They are a frantic, desperate bunch. Rain soaks their makeup and clothes in ruins, some are crying.
"Tommy, Tommmmmmmmmy! I love you Tommy! I love you!," one girl yells as she bangs against the limousine's window.
Inside the gray limousine, James Young, the tall, blond guitarist for Styx who likes to be called J.Y., looks out the window.
"It sure is raining," he says. Next to him, bass player Chuck Ponazzo, finishing the last
part of a cover story on Styx in a recent Issue of Record World magazine, nods his head
in agreement. Then he chuckles and say "They think you're Tommy."
"I'm not Tommy Shaw," J.Y. screams. "I'm Rod Stewart."
"Tommy, Tommmmmmmmmy! I love you Tommy! I love you!," the girl persists, now trying desperately to jump on the hood of the slippery auto.
"Oh, brother," sighs J.Y. And the limousine rolls through the now fully raised backstage door and he and Chuck get out and head for the dressing room.
This scene is repeated twice, as two more limousines make their way into the stadium, five and ten minutes later.
The second car carries young guitarist Tommy Shaw, drummer John Ponazzo and his wife Debbie. The groupies muster their greatest energy for this car. As the youngest member of Styx and because of his boyish good looks and flowing blond hair, Tommy Shaw is extremely popular with young girls. Some of his fans are now demonstrating their affection by covering his car with their bodies.
Chuck and Debbie Ponazzo pay no attention to the frenzy. Tommy Shaw merely smiles and shortly all three of them are inside the Sports Arena dressing room. By the time the last and final car appears, spectacularly shiny black in the California rain, the groupies' enthusiasm has waned. Most of them have started tiptoeing through the puddles, back to their hiding places to regroup for the band's departure in a couple of hours. They are wet beyond repair and pay little attention to the car in which sit three women, a little girl with a beach ball in her hands and Dennis DeYoung, the keyboard player, songwriter, principal singer and acknowledged leader of Styx.
"What do you want me to do, man?" says one of the groupies, after all the cars have disappeared into the building. "I been here for six hours, man. This guy said he was gonna get me in but he never came back. And that big f-- at the door, he don't believe I know the guy. See if you can get Bill to come out here. I think he said it was Bill. See if you can get him, huh."
She says her name is Donna and that she came here without tickets from Santa Monica with two girlfriends. She doesn't know where they are or how she will get back home but she doesn't care. Her blue and white outfit is soaking wet, her hair is a mad tangle of yellow curls and her lipstick is smeared sadly across the left side of her face. She says that she is 14 and a freshman in high school.
Inside the dressing room it is warm and dry. The five members of Styx are getting into their stage costumes while Debbie Ponazzo, who was once a Chicago public school teacher, is setting up a Scrabble board.
The dressing room is well-organized, brightly lit and clean. It is not lavish. It is a place that usually functions as a locker room and last night was used by the Chicago Hustle, our women's basketball team, before and after a 89-84 loss to the California Dreams.
There is not much talking among the band members and, though DeYoung takes some time to play catch with his daughter, not much activity that doesn't directly relate to the matter at hand.
THAT MATTER—pleasing the 12,000 people who have crammed into this modern hall—is intensely apparent. It begins ever so faintly, for we are buried in the bowels of this building, but the sound of the crowd filters through—Styx! Styx!
Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! —and after a while it is impossible not to hear it. But none of the band members make mention of it. Perhaps, like limousines and groupies, first class hotels, fine meals and big paychecks, it has become another faceless facet of life here on the road. Perhaps they can't hear it.
Believe me, it is there, leather-lunged and unmistakable: The sound of success. If only they could see the crowd that has jammed into the Sports Arena and is now not only yelling—Styx! Styx! Styx!— but pounding their chairs; see the sad little girls waiting in the rain, now satisfied merely with getting one more glimpse of their heroes through a limousine window. If they could see all this they might realize that success is better measured by what is happening here on the road than by the cover of People magazine.
But that's a lot to ask. The rock and roll road is not something we can merely hop on like the Eisenhower Expressway, even though in this case it began in Chicago and is now spinning these five men down a treacherous and invigorating stretch called superstardom. Styx is the hottest band in the country, the ultimate local-boys make good story. But who knows at? They know it on the road and standing here in a locker room in Long Beach, shortly after the band's performance, the sound from the arena is deafening—Styx! Styx! Styx! Styx! But it begins to fade with the band's exuberant chatter and the sound of caps flipping off beer bottles—whooosh, whooosh, whooosh.
Styx won't play anymore tonight. Instead, they will drink beer and eat chicken. They will greet friends, relatives, some disc jockeys from a local radio station and two record company minions. They will slip into their limousines. They will ignore the lingering groupies. They will cruise into Beverly Hills, go up to their $100 hotel rooms and order room service. They will lie down in bed and eventually they will fall sleep, just like you and me.
Rick Kogan is a Sun-Times feature writer.
Last edited by Kristi Wachter, Racer Records, December 11, 1999.