(Taking advantage of the summer to do summery things. Re-posting a slightly edited piece from the archives)
Remember when parents used tell their kids to turn off the rock and roll music?
Back in the day when I attended Baptist Youth Camp, one of the speakers called on the young people from my church to reject rock and roll as the devil’s music. We were told to gather our collections of records, bring them to church, and throw them into a bonfire. Begrudgingly, I sacrificed my copy of The Partridge Family album, thus protecting my soul from being led down the road to perdition by Keith Partridge. Eventually I backslid, and the music of The Eagles, Steely Dan, REO Speedwagon, Boston, The Cars, and Styx formed the soundtrack to my youth.
Last fall when I saw that Dennis DeYoung, former member of Styx, was playing at a local harvest fair my first thought was, “Oh, how the mighty have fallen!” Then I thought, “I wonder if teenage son would be interested in driving to the fair, eating some unhealthy but oh-so-delicious fair food for dinner, and then going to the concert?”
Instead of telling my son to turn off the music, I decided to drag him along with me for an evening of classic rock. I had seen a PBS special featuring Dennis DeYoung and knew that, in addition to having written many hit songs for Styx, the guy had some mad keyboard skills. Because music is one of teenage son’s love languages and the keyboard is his instrument, I thought he might be willing risk the embarrassment of being seen in public with his gray-haired mother in order to see an aging rock star perform live.
After filling up on sausage and peppers, corn dogs, and soft-serve ice cream, son and I settled onto the fairground’s bleachers and watched as roadies set up equipment and performed sound checks. Son was intrigued, fascinated by watching people who obviously knew what they were doing and who were very good at performing their craft.
The stage lights dimmed and out walked Dennis DeYoung, sporting the standard-issue white sneakers worn by AARP members on bus tours throughout national parks. I admit, I was more than a little afraid to hear him sing. The long-haired rock star I remembered from my youth is now a sixty-three year old, white-haired man.
Once he launched into The Grand Illusion, however, I realized my fear was unfounded. At age sixty-three, Dennis DeYoung has a voice that is strong and clear and more in tune than most American Idol finalists or Taylor Swift, even on a good day. Man, can he sing.
And his keyboard skills? His fingers moved in directions and at speeds which hardly seemed human. I glanced over at teenage son and saw that he was smiling big. He didn’t even seem to mind that I was singing along to the music. All the words. Out loud. In public.
When introducing Babe, the most popular song Styx recorded, Mr. DeYoung introduced his back-up singer who also just so happens to be his wife of forty years. The two had been high school sweethearts who married, traveled together on the road, and stayed married despite a career within the rock music world. DeYoung told the crowd he had written the song as a personal gift for his wife, that is, until his record company heard it and told him it had to go on the record. It turns out that demand was a good call by the record label. Every girl on the hall in my freshman dorm used to go weak in the knees whenever it played.
I have no idea about Dennis DeYoung’s worldview; nor about what motivates him to remain married to his childhood sweetheart over the long haul. I do know I was privileged to witness a man doing what he was put on this earth to do—write and sing and play music–while honoring his marriage vows.
And on a perfect autumn-like evening, the scent of fried foods hanging heavy in the air, I received the gift of connecting with my son while listening to the devil’s music.