On the second Friday of October 1979, my high school cross country team ran in the opening round, called the Sectional, of the Indiana state tournament. Back in those days, the high school was only ten years old, and our cross country program had earlier won a Sectional championship, as well as qualifying for the second round, or the Regional, a couple of more times by finishing in the Top Five teams according to points. In cross country, a runner earns points for his team by the place in which he finishes. Then, you add up your top five runners’ places, and the team with the lowest score wins. A team can slam teams, though its rare in such a big meet like the Sectional, since there will be 10 to 15 teams at the meet, by its top five runners finishing in the Top 5 for the meet. A team earns a “perfect” score when all seven of their runners take the Top 7 places at the meet.
I was fortunate, in that my class had always had a very strong group of runners. So, the Class of 1981 made up the core of the team, with a smattering of runners from the other classes. That year, my class had four of the top five runners, with one being a senior and the other two from the sophomore class. As a group, we were very fast, ultra-competitive, extremely athletic (six of the top seven were three-sport athletes). The strength of our team was the fact that our number one runner was only 20 seconds faster than our number seven runner. And, we were so equally strong runners that it was often impossible to predict how each of us would place.
We were truly brothers, as we got along like brothers and fought like brothers. Yet, we loved each other like brothers and have a deep connection with each other to this very day. The one thing that we shared was a love of the band Styx, would had recently released a studio album called Cornerstone that contained the mega-slowing/make-out hit song “Babe”. When decided a month in advance that we would caravan down to the Styx concert after we qualified for the Regional. We KNEW we would qualify, as we were ranked in the Top 20 in the State at the time. But, there were five more teams in our Sectional who were also ranked in the Top 20 (go figure there! In Indiana, we don’t rank the teams, we group them according to graphic location. Well, long story short, “The Pack”, as we named ourselves finished within ten seconds of each other to finish fourth as a team, which meant our school was sending a times from our school to the Regional for the first time in five years. So, we had little time to get ready for the show, and hope some of our buddies who were not on the team could save us some seats close to the stage since we were still two months away from The Who concert tragedy in Cincinnati, where several concert goers were trampled to death.
I got to drive my mom’s old 1972 Buick Skylark that was green in color, that my friends and I christened as the “Green Ghost”. So, five of us hopped in the Green Ghost and another five hopped in my twin buddies’ Chevy Nova the two of them owned to make the caravan trip to this concert. In the cars we had seven cross country runners, two female volleyball players and a hurdler from the girls team. Needless to say we celebrated all the way to Market Square Arena in Indy for the concert, while jamming to 8-tapes of Styx’ music, such as The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight and Cornerstone, of course. We were primed for the concert.
Now, Styx was coming off two of their finest albums in their career, the aforementioned The Grand Illusion in 1977 and Pieces of Eight in 1978. Although I gave it a grand review in the school newspaper, Cornerstone, which happened to be the band’s first number one album, was not the tour-de-forces that the previous two were. Plus, it had the whimpy ballad, “Babe”. Still, the band was at the top of their live game and gave us a great reason to celebrate our third place finish in the Sectional, although our seedings by time had us finishing in fifth place. The moral is that you should NEVER underestimate the hearts of competitors, so much so that we would always defend one of the others in times of trouble.
After seeing Styx live that Fall, as is often my want, Styx became my favorite band. Cornerstone is a fine album, but I got the feeling that Dennis DeYoung was attempting to make the band into something of a Broadway band with all of these stretched concepts running through his songwriting, was the songs of Tommy Shaw and James “JY” Young were sticking with meat-and-potatoes” rocker anthems that did not fit seamlessly into DeYoung’s narrative. You could actually feel the tension throughout the album. One minute you were totally rocking out, and the next you were moping around the room to some sappy ballad. You could hear the cracks within the ranks of the band. They still performed a kick-ass live show, but in the 1970s, you made cash through record sales. Sure, the little girls will pick up tons of “Babe” 45s, but fewer and fewer rocker guys were going to buy their albums if they kept this up.
Tommy Shaw’s tunes were still maintaining their rocker status, like the first song on Side 2, “Borrowed Time”. It is a collaboration between Shaw and DeYoung. The song rocks, but you can tell the verse that DeYoung wrote since he sang it as well. The biggest thing that was missing were songs by guitarist James “JY” Young. He is the other rocker in the band, but only contributed one song, which allowed me space for DeYoung’s ballads. Styx was NEVER a Yacht Rock band, though their occasional ballads can often be found on those types of compilations. Unfortunately, DeYoung had forgotten that he had written songs like “Light Up” and “Loreili”, while turning into a neo-Barry Manilow.
Needless to say, Cornerstone was a transition album. On the next two albums, Paradise Theater and Kilroy Was Here, DeYoung will hijack the musical vision of Styx, turning them into a pop-rock and ballad-producing band and totally neglecting their rocker roots. As a result, the band’s popularity will shrink, Tommy Shaw will quit and the band will implode. In the Nineties, Styx will get back together without DeYoung, constantly touring and never playing “Babe”, a love song to DeYoung’s wife.
Although Styx is rocking while touring, the days of huge record sales are long gone. I will go back on occasion to listen to Cornerstone in order to relive my competitive running days. But, the album is ultimately sad to me since Styx is beginning to leave the rock world behind and are beginning to become some sort of Broadway show. Maybe, in light of Green Day’s run on Broadway with American Idiot, DeYoung was ahead of his time. Unfortunately, his decision split the band, which slowly ended a great band’s unbelievable run of true rock classic, starting with 1976’s Crystal Ball and running through the two aforementioned classics.
Now, after seeing KISS, Rush, Cheap Trick, Chicago, Steve Miller and Journey get inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, one has to wonder how far behind Styx would be? That would be appropriate now, wouldn’t it? After The Cars, The Smiths and The Jam, of course.