Mythologically, there is no life after Styx. You get to that legendary river and it’s just a quick boat ride from the land of the living to the home of the dead ... oblivion, in other words. But for Dennis DeYoung, who started the band Styx with a couple of pals in a basement in the Roseland neighborhood nearly a half-century ago, life after Styx has been creatively rewarding - paradise, of a sort.
It has been a decade since DeYoung - for reasons having to do with his then shaky health and increasing artistic tensions among the band members - split with Styx and its legacy of some 35 million albums sold. James Young and Tommy Shaw put together a new Styx and hit the tour road on which they continue to successfully travel. DeYoung went off on his own, successfully performing around the world, often with symphony orchestras.
Last week he rereleased in the U.S. a new version of “One Hundred Years From Now,” his first solo album in five years and his first solo “rock” album in more than 20. Still actively performing concerts across the globe (nearly 80 dates last year), he is also finishing the music and lyrics for the dozen or so songs of a theatrical production of “101 Dalmatians: The Musical” that will begin a nationwide tour in the fall.
“To say that I have been surprised by the last 10 years would be wild understatement,” says DeYoung, who lives with his wife of nearly four decades, Suzanne, in Chicago’s western suburbs. “I never imagined that I would have a successful solo career, let alone one in musical theater.
“When you are part of a band it’s like being on a baseball team, you write with a heavy awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of the other members, and I was writing with the responsibility to provide songs that would make it into the top 40,” he says.
“With my previous solo albums I was trying to get away from what I had been doing, to create a new persona. With this one I finally felt free enough, secure enough to return to the style of music I wrote for Styx in the late ‘70s. It was liberating.”
The album was released in Canada in 2007, its title track hitting No. 1 on the pop/rock charts in Quebec and the album going platinum.
DeYoung has long enjoyed what even he deems mysterious popularity in Canada.
“A poll three years ago was taken to name the top rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time,” he says. “Number one was ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Number two, ‘Hey Jude’ and number three ...” He pauses before saying, “Number three, ‘Suite Madam Blue.’ Go figure.”
“Sweet Madam Blue” is nice but a relatively minor tune from Styx’s 1975 release “Equinox.”
“Now, maybe ‘Come Sail Away,’ that might make some sense,” he says, mentioning a very popular Styx song. “I don’t know, but we (Styx) were always successful in Canada. I took French in college and would always speak French to the audience.” He pauses to laugh.
“Think that could be the reason?”
The new album showcases DeYoung’s clever hooks, distinctive voice and keyboard artistry. The songs, rock to ballad and a lot in between, are typically introspective; topical (“Turn Off CNN”) and offer yet another in the long and ongoing series of musical love letters (“Babe,” “Lady,” etc.) to his wife, this one called “Breathe Again.”
Listen closely and you’ll hear a bit of musical theater influence. DeYoung spent much of the last decade and more working on his musical version of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Last year it was given a fine local production by Bailiwick Repertory Theatre. It won a Joseph Jefferson Award as best musical, and he gained praise from Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones: “Very few composers can write such seductive hooks. And the theater needs ‘em all ... (DeYoung) could help put Broadway back in touch with some of its hardest-working customers.”
When approached by the producers of “101 Dalmatians” to join the creative team, he eagerly accepted.
He says this show has nothing to do with the famous Walt Disney movie version of the story but is based on the 1956 novel by British author Dodie Smith. It is to be directed by multiple Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks.
“It’s quite different and it’s a great adventure story,” says DeYoung, who is 62.
“God, I feel lucky. At this stage, I have completed so many of my artistic goals. Still, I write songs and people want me to write songs and people want to listen to them. A lot of guys my age are wandering around Boca Raton wearing a straw hat and sipping from a drink with a little umbrella in it.”