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Interview: STERLING WHITAKER

Heroes...

STERLING WHITAKER

Sterling is the author of a new book about Styx.

Styx book

How did you get into writing?

I have known from my very earliest memories that I was destined to be a writer. Growing up and becoming a writer was just about all I ever thought about as a child.

One time for a school writing assignment, I wrote an entire Hardy Boys book. I used to pester professional writers whose work I liked by writing them letters with some of my ideas - this was when I was maybe thirteen years old - and a couple of them, Piers Anthony and Stephen R. Donaldson, even wrote back to me and gave me some pointers.

One time I wrote to Ballantine Books to correct a typo I had found in an edition of Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, and the following year I felt really vindicated when the new edition had corrected the error.

In retrospect I'm sure lots of people pointed it out, but at that age I felt absolutely convinced that I bore sole responsibility. I guess that kinda sealed my fate. I felt, clearly the world needs better writers if I - a mere child - caught this when nobody else did!

When I graduated high school, I couldn't even begin to fathom sitting in a classroom for another four to eight years listening to some guy who probably couldn't write as well as I could drone on drearily about the craft of writing and blah, blah, blah . . . all so I could get a degree and wind up as a teacher myself, which was the last thing I wanted.

Not that teachers aren't important; they are, but I felt fundamentally unsuited to that. It's that young ego thing; I thought I was ready to write, now! So I approached the editor of a local music publication and I managed to convince him to let me do some copy editing on a freelance basis.

I was basically looking over other writers' stories and making sure they followed proper guidelines, and getting them ready to go to print. I was also doing some PR work for some local bands, writing bios and press releases, and trying to help them make the contacts they needed with the local media, setting up interviews and so on.

I was actually learning a lot of valuable hands-on lessons about the nature of the inner workings between artists, journalists, and editors, although I might not have realized it.

Finally I asked for a shot at writing a story, and was rebuffed and given some reviews instead. So some short CD reviews were my very first bylines, but I was never happy reviewing, because I never felt comfortable doing it. I always kinda felt, 'Why should anyone care about my opinion, unless they happen to share it?'

It seems so presumptuous to me to try to tell someone I don't even know how they should and should not spend their own money, when they might not share my tastes. You know, I really like Yes' Close To The Edge album, but that doesn't mean everyone would or should.

Conversely, I've never cared for Madonna, but that doesn't mean that the hundred schmillion people who've bought her records are wrong in doing so. It's their money, and if they're happy with that choice, more power to them. Life is hard enough without some guy you don't know trying to talk you out of liking something that gives you enjoyment.

So I kept pushing for doing a story, and finally I started getting some short interviews into print, and then some longer pieces. I was getting away with some people I really liked, too; I got to interview Steve Howe in support of The Symphonic Music of Yes CD, and Kerry Livgren around the time of the Kansas boxed set.

I met Tommy Shaw at one point while doing a story about Damn Yankees, and in the course of talking to him off the record I realized the true story of Styx had never been told. I conceptualized a project then, though it took many years to really come to fruition.

How did you go about researching the unauthorized biography of Styx and were band members, past and present, fairly co-operative?

I began by going to the library and reading as many old interviews with the band members as I could find. I started to get a sense of each member individually, and then I pulled out the old albums and started looking at the credits.

One person whose name jumped out at me was a guy named Jim Vose, who had been the band's road manager. Tommy had mentioned him in a couple of interviews as the man who brought him into Styx.

I took a chance that Vose might still live in Chicago, called information, and within a few minutes I was talking to the man himself on the phone. That proved fortuitous, since Vose not only gave me several long interviews himself, but also made introductions on my behalf to many of the other major players in the Styx universe.

As far as the band members go, some of them were very cooperative, some of them substantially less so. Styx has always had an extremely rocky relationship with the print media - much of it self-inflicted, in my opinion - and the older, "classic" members tend to shy away from real journalism. They usually will only work with a writer on a story that's going to promote their current endeavors. They have a reputation for not wanting to deal with honest-to-goodness in-depth journalism that includes balance, instead of all positive puff promo pieces. They tend to be hypersensitive about what appears in print.

You also have to remember that this is a band that's been through litigation between the present and former members, and in the settlement of that litigation there is a non-disclosure agreement, so that's an issue as well.

In the end I was able to interview Tommy Shaw (back in 1993 when I first proposed the book, and at a time when he was not planning to ever work with Styx again), Glen Burtnik, and Todd Sucherman from Styx. Glen also wrote the Foreword.

James "JY" Young and Dennis DeYoung declined my interview requests, each of them citing the settlement of the litigation, and Chuck Panozzo declined in a polite email by explaining that he was writing his own book, which was actually published last year.

Lawrence Gowan agreed to an interview, but then canceled on the scheduled day by saying that he did not want to jeopardize his position in the band. Tommy also declined my further requests to speak with him to follow up on our original interview from 1993.

What are your own personal favourite Styx albums and why?

Like a lot of fans, The Grand Illusion is my favorite Styx album of them all. It's the first record I ever bought with my own money.

It is the one Styx album that I think holds up to the best of any other Seventies rock act. I would say that my next favorite is Paradise Theatre. Really, it's hard to go wrong with any of the A&M albums from 1975's Equinox through 1983's Kilroy Was Here, even though the latter gets mixed reviews from Styx fans.

That eight-year period created almost the entire body of work that sustains Styx to this day. The albums on Wooden Nickel prior to that were a mixed bag, the early works of a band still trying to find its way, and the various reunion albums and live albums and such since the Nineties have mostly just been product, with a few really great bright spots mixed in.

Do you think Dennis De Young and the rest of Styx will ever tour/record together again?

I don't know about Dennis and the entire rest of Styx. That's impossible to say. But I will make the same prediction that I have made time and time again: before it's over, Dennis and Tommy will work together again in some permutation. Whether they will be able to call it Styx or not, I can't say, because it would have to involve consensus where it may be impossible to reach a consensus now. But I suspect that the band's end game for retirement could very well involve one final tour with Dennis and Tommy back together for one final victory lap. I guess we'll see.

Nothing surprises me, and the truth is, they don't know what they're going to do any more than anyone else does.

Which of the various solo albums and offshoot bands of Styx do you like and why?


I find the solo output of the Styx members hit and miss. Tommy's first solo album was okay, reasonably strong in spots, though a lot of it sounded an awful lot like a pale version of Styx. "Kiss Me Hello" was a standout from that.

His second solo album, What If, is arguably one of the worst, most embarrassing solo efforts ever recorded by a major name performer on a major label. With a couple of exceptions it's just confounding how truly bad it is. Tommy himself recognizes its weakness in retrospect, but at the time he was involved in the tail end of a serious drug and alcohol problem, and it impacted his work.

His third solo album Ambition was actually very good for the most part, and he did a couple of records with a supergroup called Damn Yankees that were good. He did a side project from that with Jack Blades, a mostly acoustic kinda record called Hallucination that I absolutely love; I think it's perhaps the strongest work of his recorded professional life.

His solo album from the late Nineties, 7 Deadly Zens, has some stuff I like and some stuff I don't, and then there's a second Shaw Blades record called Influence that's a bunch of covers, which I don't care about much one way or the other, although the live show was really amazing.

Dennis DeYoung's solo career is about what you'd expect, good and bad. I love the best of his stuff like "Desert Moon", "Suspicious", "Black Wall", and "Southbound Ryan" from his first two solo records, and I liked most of his third album Boomchild, especially a song entitled "Outside Looking In Again".

There are also some kinda filler ballads and tongue-in-cheek songs that I don't think work too well on some of those records. He had an album of Broadway standards in the early Nineties that, while not particularly my cup of tea, was spectacularly good in terms of quality, and then his solo album from last year, 100 Years From Now, I thought was very good, albeit with a couple of weak tracks.

JY's solo career is ironically, from a production standpoint at least, the most Styx-sounding, and yet I like it the least. He had some good songs and performances, but over the course of three albums he had way too many similar songs for my tastes. He is the Styx writer least capable of surprising me, but there are enough good songs on his three albums to make one pretty good record.

I didn't care too much for Glen Burtnik's first two solo albums on A&M in the Eighties; they were too slickly produced, and that tended to de-emphasize Glen's unique talents. They were kinda homogenized. But I really liked an album of his called Palookaville, and I also liked his last album entitled Welcome To Hollywood. Those two are much more reflective of Glen's true abilities, rather than some producer's vision of Glen.

I honestly don't know much about Gowan's solo career.

What is your take on the current state of the rock music scene ... are downloads killing off the CD?

Absolutely, no doubt about it. For me that's kind of a drag, because I grew up on album rock, and I've always been the kind of guy who, if I heard a song that I really liked, I wanted to get the album and discover for myself the obscure album tracks that complete the picture of the artist.

I tend to get sick of radio hits, so most of my favorite songs by my favorite artists are album tracks. My favorite Zeppelin album is the third one, which most people tend to overlook for the most part, and I just gravitate toward lesser-known songs.

So to have everything go back to an almost complete focus on singles would not be my choice, but you know what? Deal with it, because the days of packaging and continuity through an entire collection of songs are gone, at least for now. CDs are basically dead and gone.

You can barely give the things away. In a few more years they will be just as much a curiosity as old LPs are now.

Do all these reunion tours stifle new bands breaking through especially at the more melodic rock/hard rock end of the market?

Not in my opinion. There are always going to be older bands reuniting for one last stab at pre-retirement glory, and there are always going to be new bands breaking through in every genre, and I don't really see one as affecting the other.

If new bands are having trouble breaking through in melodic and hard rock, it's probably because those genres are simply out of fashion right now, though I point to Songs About Jane as a brilliant exception.

Any good rock 'n' roll tales to tell?

Fairly early on in my writing career, I got to meet one of my rock idols from my teenage years. I was supposed to interview him for a new album project, and it was arranged that I would talk to him at a backstage meet and greet. I had always wanted to ask him about the inspiration for a certain song, and here was my chance.

His answer began with, "I was in Los Angeles when I was approached backstage by emissaries from an alien culture . . ." I can't imagine what the look on my face must have been, but for the next couple of minutes I had to stand there and try to keep a straight face while he proceeded to explain his apparently genuine belief that one day all of the planets would line up and the mother ship would come and take the faithful away.

I also worked PR on an independent film project that never ended up getting made. The projected star of this film was a guy who had been very successful in music, but his wife had given him an ultimatum; she wanted him to tour a lot less and be available at home a lot more, so he was looking at a movie career as a way to keep performing, but be more in control of his schedule.

We were in pre-production in Atlanta, and as an added benefit to him, he was cheating on his wife with a stripper who lived there, and being involved with the production gave him an excuse to legitimately come to Atlanta to see her without his wife being suspicious.

One day, after his having allowed the producers to secure funding and spend a lot of money by using his name attached to the project, we all came into the office to find a fax that he'd had his assistant send in the middle of the night, explaining that he had accepted another role and the movie was off.

He didn't call, he didn't apologize, he didn't even bother to send the fax himself. So that's how everyone found out they were losing their jobs, and the producer wound up living in his car for a while after that. Nice. Wanna know the kicker?

This colossal jerk went on to a fairly big acting career, and is still every bit as successful now as he has always been. Still married to that same clueless, long-suffering wife, too.

Who are your own musical heroes, and why?

I grew up on a lot of British progressive rock like Yes, ELP, Jethro Tull, Genesis and so on, as well as their American counterparts like Styx and Kansas. I also really like Zeppelin, the Who, and a lot of acoustic singer/songwriter stuff like Simon and Garfunkel, America, CSNY, the Eagles and such. So I love all of that music, but I don't hold any of those people up as heroes, per se.

I have met many of my childhood heroes in the course of my writing career. Some have been really great, most fairly normal, and a few have been disappointing, but not a single one has been heroic, ever. After all, what's heroic about playing in some band? It is, by its very nature, kind of a self-serving and egocentric career choice, and most performers are actually kinda damaged personalities who are searching for some sort of self-aggrandizement as a way to justify their damaged personalities. Not exactly the kind of people we all ought to look up to, in my opinion.

Frankly, a lot of them are kind of spoiled idiots, like big kids who have never been forced to grow up.

You have been a member of bands ... could you take us through your own musical background?

It's actually kinda funny, I learned to play guitar as a teenager from the Metal Method cassette course that was advertised in all the metal mags and guitar mags.

Doug Marks was the guy's name, and I later interviewed him for a book I wrote called Unsung Heroes of Rock Guitar. Even though I'm scarcely what you'd call a metalhead, that course was really great and allowed me to learn at my own pace.

I sometimes still fall back on licks I learned from it to this day if I'm improvising, but since I play mostly acoustically now, you'd never recognize them as old Tony Iommi or Randy Rhoads licks!

I was a member of a progressive rock band called Roots of Consciousness in Atlanta in the early Nineties, which was kind of like Jethro Tull meets King Crimson, but faster and heavier.

Then when I moved to Nashville about twelve years ago, I spent several years playing as half of an acoustic harmony duo called Beggarz Opera. That was influenced by acts like Simon and Garfunkel, America, and the Eagles, and it was a lot of fun.

I am currently not playing in a group, but I still write songs. I would like to record a solo album at some point in the future. But how do you make a thing like that financially viable? That's the question that gives me pause.

Which have been the best bands you have seen play live, and why?

I have seen an awful lot of concerts. Simon and Garfunkel at the Phillips Arena in Atlanta on their reunion tour a few years ago was the best of them all.

The set list was just one incredible classic after another, the sound was crystal clear, and the singing was just about as good as it gets.

Styx in Nashville on the Return To Paradise tour in 1996 was also a standout. It was just an extremely well -produced concert, with a set list packed with hits, and those guys could pull off every vocal and instrumental part live.

Trisha Yearwood at the Ryman was also great; she is perhaps the best female voice of her generation, and she just has such amazing power, tone and control. There's a songwriter here in Nashville named Jeffrey Steele that I saw at the Bluebird Cafe a few years ago that absolutely killed me; it was just him and his guitar, sitting on a stool, and that's all he needed. He's a big-time writer of a lot of other people's hits, and he delivered them one after another in that simple setting and just destroyed the place. In most cases his versions were superior to the famous recordings by better-known artists.

Anything else to add?

Please visit my website at www.thegranddelusion.com to read reviews, excerpts, and other news about The Grand Delusion.

Thanks for this interview opportunity. I appreciate it very much! 


Interview 2008 Jason Ritchie. All rights reserved.

 


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