Thursday, July 9, 2009

Domo Arigato Mr. Dennis-O

If there is any consensus to this blogathon thus far, from reading all the posts submitted, it is that Ed Wood was not the worst director of all time. No one who made films as entertaining and quickly paced could be completely awful. His films are filled with errors, mistakes and accidents. But the movies themselves are simply low-budget sci-fi/horror no better or worse than most else offered up in the fifties. The main thing is that Ed didn't do retakes to correct errors. If someone walked into a wall or the shadow of the microphone was seen or someone clearly forgot their line, Ed didn't reshoot it. This resulted in the effect that his movies are like watching feature length blooper reels. And that makes them very entertaining. So the consensus seems to be that the spirit of Ed Wood is one where the artist is sincerely making the effort to construct a worthwhile piece of entertainment but because of a lack of self-awareness to his own shortcomings the finished piece is entertaining but for all the wrong reasons.

If we trace the spirit of Ed Wood to other mediums where will it lead us? Who is the Ed Wood of other artistic expressions? Weepingsam at The Listening Ear has nominated Dr. John Button in the literature department. I would like to nominate Dennis DeYoung in the music department. Dennis DeYoung for the uninitiated is the founder and former lead songwriter singer/keyboardist for the rock group Styx.

In the seventies I had a fondness for the brazenly bombastic pyrotechnics of Styx. This was a band that knew not the meaning of subtlety. A refrain did not exist that could not be screeched. Witness their first hit, penned by DeYoung of course, Lady. It starts with a lone piano, some soft fanning on the drums, a line or two on a quiet guitar, all perfectly suitable to a ballad of love. And then comes the refrain - LaaaaaaaadEEEEE!!!! Let the screeching begin! It never mattered where a song started, by the time it got to the refrain caterwauling was the order of the day. Babe, The Best of Times, Come Sail Away, Show Me the Way, Don't Let it End - They all start out quiet and finish up shrill. The Rock and Roll Record Guide, a compilation of reviews from rock critics that has seen four editions since the late seventies, once famously said of Styx, referring to DeYoung's songwriting and Tommy Shaw's falsetto singing, that they could take any song, any melody, and "render it virtually unlistenable."

But none of this would put DeYoung on top as the Ed Wood of Rock with so many other contenders out there. No, no. It takes something really special to do that and I think we all know what I'm talking about. I'm talking about Mr. Roboto.

Mr. Roboto is a song on the Styx album Kilroy was Here in which DeYoung envisioned a rock opera where the future sees a police state of moralists who have outlawed rock and roll. One rocker, Kilroy, disguises himself as a robot and brings rock and roll back. Uh huh. So, this idea seemed perfectly reasonable to Dennis and not cheesy at all. And then Dennis wrote a song specifically about Kilroy's plot and Mr. Roboto was born.

Now if you have ever had the pleasure of watching VH1's Behind the Music episode on Styx you will immediately recognize from their interviews that co-leader Tommy Shaw and guitarist James "JY" Young were as confused by this concept as anyone. Tommy and JY immediately smelled the overpowering scent of Limburger but could not convince Dennis otherwise. At a benefit concert in Texas featuring hard rock bands Dennis decided to have Styx perform Mr. Roboto complete with the five minute dramatic stage reading that he had written for he and Tommy to perform. Tommy and JY pleaded with him. "Just let us play Renegade and be done with it." Dennis wouldn't budge. They did the piece, were roundly booed and the seeds of dissent that would eventually lead to Tommy and JY kicking Dennis out of the group he had founded were planted.

And Dennis never saw it coming. He was too damn sincere. And likable in his sincerity. I like Dennis DeYoung and I'm not afraid to say it. In fact, if there is anyone in that VH1 special you come away with sympathy for it's him. Sincerity is quickly becoming a lost art form and Dennis DeYoung is one of the last folks in rock to possess it.

Watch that VH1 show if you have the time. DeYoung is Ed Wood through and through. And that's why his songs will always have entertainment value because he wasn't going for camp with Babe or Mr. Roboto. He was going for gold and even if he didn't achieve it he didn't know he didn't achieve it. And that's got Wood written all over it. All Hail Dennis DeYoung! May the Spirit of Ed Wood live in him forever.