Getting on the Styx
This band is the tortoise that wins the race
In early January, Sun-Times reporter Rick Kogan spent three days on the road with the rock group Styx as they traveled through the Southwest. Sunday, Kogan wrote about the group's concert in Long Beach, Calif., and the groupies who follow the band from town to town. In the second of four articles, he writes about accompanying Styx to San Diego and spending most of the night in a topless bar.
SAN DIEGO—A cold rain was falling, and Styx, the hottest rock 'n' roll band in America, was driving the 125 miles from Los Angeles to San Diego, through San Clemente and a dozen less notable coastal towns.
Surrounded by imposing mountains, San Diego's Lindbergh Field is a pilot's nightmare, and the band wasn't eager to buck the mountains, especially in light of the windy, rainy storm. Their airplane, piloted by a young man named Buzz, had arrived early in the morning. It carried no passengers.
Their airplane: It is something to consider. Having your own airplane is not a common aspiration of people in Roseland, the working-class neighborhood on Chicago's Far South Side where the band that would be Styx first took shape.
IT BEGAN IN the early 1960s when Dennis DeYoung (Harlan High School) joined with Chuck and John Panozzo (still in grade school and later at Mendel High School) to form a band called the Trade Winds. Soon they were joined by guitarist John Curulewski and the band became known as TW4.
The four continued to play in college—Dennis, John Panozzo and Chuck went to Chicago State University—and were joined in 1970 by another Roseland cohort, James Young (Calumet High School and Illinois Institute of Technology.) Since TW4 no longer applied, they changed the name of their band to Styx, "...because it was the only name we came up with that none of us hated," and became a staple on the high school sock hop circuit. (In 1975, guitarist and vocalist Tommy Shaw replaced Curulewski.)
Now they were cruising leisurely in limousines down Route 5 on the way to the Little America Westgate, a sumptuous downtown San Diego hotel with Louis XVI furniture in the lobby and telephones in the bathrooms.
As they filed through the lobby, a few heads turned, but no one showed much concern except the officious man behind the desk who asked, "What kind of music do these guys play? I'm always afraid of having bands stay here. You know the stories: the broken furniture, the wild parties, the TV sets thrown out the window. It always makes me edgy."
THIS IS A FEAR that afflicts most hotel clerks as they greet a rock 'n' roll band, and in many cases it is not an unwarranted fear; bands have been known to break furniture and throw wild parties and TV sets. But while the hotel clerk spent his afternoon and early evening in fearful anticipation, upstairs the five members of Styx took naps.
Later in the night, as he was riding to the 12,000-seat San Diego Sports Arena, Young (who likes to be called J. Y.), the group's tall, blond guitarist, who bears a slight resemblance to tennis star Bjorn Borg, says, "We don't have to nuke hotel rooms or eat babies to make it. It's the music that makes it."
The limousine pulls up to the arena and— all this is getting monotonous—the groupies rush toward the car. "Listen, we've been around the block a few times," says Chuck, who with his neatly trimmed beard and short hair looks less like a rock 'n' roll star than an art gallery owner. "We've learned some lessons about the value of the long, slow road. Styx is the tortoise who's ahead at the end of the race."
The group's first album, "Styx," was re corded on a cold winter night in 1972 for the Wooden Nickel label. So elated were they to finally have a record contract that they made a "pact" to devote all their time to Styx. At that point all were involved with other careers: Dennis taught music appreciation; John Panozzo was a seminary student; Chuck was an art teacher; John Curulewskl was a carpenter, and J. Y. drove a cab.
FOR TWO YEARS they continued to play "beer parties and 'Animal House' type affairs," recorded three more albums for Wooden Nickel and became increasingly frustrated and mystified by their lack of success.
"Those were hard times," DeYoung recalls, shortly before taking the stage in San Diego. "We were playing Chicago because we couldn't get hired anywhere else but we knew we were good enough to have all of this." He points around the stylish lobby. "But we started to have serious doubts about our music and about our futures."
"Sure it was rough," says John, a wild ring of curls surrounding his face, after the show.
"I knew I should have joined the Army. Instead what do I get? Fifteen thousand people screaming for me? The love of millions?"
The concert over, the band members leave for their hotel. Soon only J. Y. remains in the dressing room, drinking his fifth beer. He is not in the mood to go back to the hotel. He couldn't sleep anyway: His wife, Susie, was hospitalized four days ago in San Francisco for treatment of a blood disorder.
"Booze is my bag," says J. Y. "I feel terrible. Let's get loaded."
THE DRIVER OF J. Y.'s limousine is named Dan, and he is instructed to take us to a top-less bar where we can drink inconspicuously. "I don't want any place where we are going to get hassled, you understand, Dan?" J. Y. snaps. He is sometimes worried that his shoulder-length blond hair attracts undesired commentary, especially in strange bars.
The streets are deserted, and we quickly arrive at an X-rated theater. "What's the matter with you?" J. Y. snaps, irritably. "I said a bar and you bring us to some porno theater. I said a bar."
"It's midnight, and I have to return the car," says Dan.
"What? What?" screams J. Y. "How much time does this buy, Dan?" He peels two $100 bills from a substantial wad. Dan smiles. "Now, just take us to a place and don't talk."
That place, finally, is called Pacer's, "Home of the Centerfolds." It costs $2 to enter the dimly lit though pleasant and crowded bar, and for that money we are able to watch women dancing topless on two separate stages, and be served by
scantily clad waitresses. There is so much distraction here that it is unlikely that the customers would notice if King Kong walked
in. James Young, a 30-year-old guitar player from Chicago, doesn't cause a ripple.
"I HARDLY EVER get noticed," J. Y. says, knocking back another beer and paying only cursory attention tothe action on the stages. "People don't know the members of the band by their faces. They know us by our music."
But later: "Aren't you someone famous?" one of the waitresses asks, and rather reluctantly J. Y. answers. "Have you ever heard of Styx?"
Soon there are many waitresses hovering around, giggling, cooing and asking for autographs. "I'd do anything to take a ride in that limousine out front," says one of the "centerfolds" in a voice so full of promises that most men would find it impossible to refuse her plea. But J. Y. declines.
Later that night, sitting in an otherwise empty Sambo's restaurant, J. Y. says, "Sure I've gotten spoiled by the road. Hey, I was driving a Yellow Cab in 1972. How can't I be spoiled by all of this? Everything is taken care of. There aren't any hassles. There are nice hotels and limousines. You tell me, how can I keep from getting spoiled?"
The waitress comes with the check. "Hey, let me get that," says J. Y. "What'd you have? French toast and a couple of milks? Big deal. Listen, my accountant says I'll be a millionaire by April."
Last edited by Kristi Wachter, Racer Records, December 11, 1999.