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Book Review: The Grand Delusion: The Unauthorized True Story of Styx by Sterling Whitaker

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Where do we get our fascination with seeing the mighty fall? Why do we love to trace on a map the collapse of an empire and to read every painful detail of a hero's downfall (not to mention a villain's comeuppance)? It's not simply schadenfreude. There's also identification.

People, relationships, and institutions are all subject to the corrosive effects of internal conflict, and internal conflict is interesting. For one thing, it reflects our personal interior fractioning back in our faces. It's no accident that we turn our bodily ills into societal metaphors and advertising slogans: a company is "hemorrhaging money," violent crime is "a cancer on society," a car company wants to be "the heartbeat of America."

So, while jealousy may explain some of the pleasure we take in others' failure and misfortune, when we observe the forces that drive organized entities towards chaos, entropy and oblivion we nod in recognition because we ourselves contain – and can just barely contain – those same forces. Even religious people who think there is a supernatural purpose to their existence have an expression for it: "There but for the grace of God…"

Not only do we know in the back of our minds that poverty, paralysis or death could be lurking around any corner, we also seem to need constant reminding that we are not alone in this perilous boat. And it can be especially comforting to see that our heroes, as well as our peers, live on the edge of disaster. That goes some way towards explaining Americans' obsession with celebrities: "The bigger they are, the harder they fall." (Lindsey Lohan, anyone?)

Individual celebrities can be fascinating enough, but bands go them one better, boasting family dysfunction along with human foibles. Watching a band twist and spasm through failure, success, and post-success implosions and hangovers can be like watching a sprawling soap opera. Sterling Whitaker knows this, and in his new book he does a nice job of fitting together his own interviews and previously published sources to tell the story of a complicated band that got precious little respect but enjoyed enormous popularity.

Whitaker's engrossing, occasionally repetitive book is quite different from Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo's memoir, which I reviewed recently. The latter provided a personal, subjective, inside look at how two teenage brothers and an ambitious young accordion player started a group that soared from playing high school dances in Chicago to becoming one of the most popular bands in North America, with four triple-platinum albums in a row during its peak years. The new book, by contrast, takes a broad view of the band's history.

Whitaker presents in their own words the recollections of Styx's managers, label reps, crew, publicist, super-fans, and even a few members, tying the lengthy quotes together with a relatively small amount of narrative text. The format gives the book a raw, unfinished feel, but it's an effective way of telling the story. Considering that the author had direct access to only one member (Tommy Shaw) of the band's classic lineup, he does an admirable job presenting the overall picture and the feuding principals' differing points of view.

Where he is weak is on the very early years of the band. For that, you'll do better with Panozzo's book. In fact, Whitaker has almost nothing to say about the Panozzo brothers, though they, together with Dennis DeYoung, started the whole thing. To be sure, John Panozzo, the troubled, volatile drummer, is no longer with us, and Chuck Panozzo, who detailed his years as a closeted homosexual and his battle with AIDS in his own book, hasn't been the band's regular bass player in some time. Still, some more background on the early days, and maybe a little less on the late, uncelebrated period, would have given the book more balance.

Styx fans, both hardcore and casual, will surely find the book fascinating, as will students of the music business. Whether it will be of interest to others is less certain. You wouldn't mistake it for a novel, and it's rather dense for a soap opera. But Styx's career and music were always extremely personality-driven, which makes the band's story unusually interesting. There is much drama in the way the extremely different musical sensibilities of the songwriters DeYoung, Shaw, and James "JY" Young collided and merged in an almost magical way to create a body of work that was so vastly appealing.

In fact, it's almost startling, given today's fractured pop music climate, to trace how progressive-rock bombast, syrupy piano ballads, and working-class heartland rock fused into such a popular sound. And I don't think audiences have really changed that much since Styx's heyday in the late 1970s – they still, fundamentally, like the same things in their music. But Styx's roller coaster ride spun the band through a music business that has changed so drastically that today's aspiring musicians would hardly recognize it. So there's historical value in the book as well.

The Styx episode of VH1's Behind the Music a few years ago was so popular that it gave a career boost to the latest incarnation of the band. That version, which continues to work, includes two members who were there for the huge successes – Shaw and Young – along with Lawrence Gowan, Todd Sucherman, and Ricky Phillips. If you go to a Styx show today you will not see a Panozzo brother or a Dennis DeYoung. But that's the thing about bands – they acquire a life of their own. And concerning the life, the music (good and bad) and the stormy career of the band called Styx – once one of pop music's biggest acts, and certainly one of its most interesting stories – Whitaker's detailed and deeply researched book delivers the goods.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I don’t believe I’ve ever read such a bizarrely literate review of such an abysmal band.

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    Thank you Rodney. Although I do not agree about the “abysmal band” part, it was weird to be writing this relatively deep stuff about a band that was, in the final analysis, pretty fluffy. But you never know when something on the lighter side is going to suggest some complex thoughts…