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