How Dennis DeYoung Helped Me Face the Life Ahead of Me

The Styx front man shares how he "sailed away" to the life of his dreams.

Posted Jan 19, 2021

“We live happily forever 
So the story goes
But somehow we missed out 
On that pot of gold
But we'll try best that we can 
To carry on”

From “Come Sail Away” by Styx

Sometimes we can take away the wrong message from a song.

The song “Come Sail Away” by progressive rock band Styx is one of my favorite songs of all time. I’ve typically turned to it for a very specific reason — escape. “Come Sail Away” was my invitation to transport out of whatever reality I was in. I basically assumed that the writer of the song — former Styx frontman Dennis DeYoung — was calling on me to climb aboard that starship with him and take a break from it all. So whatever was going on at the time — boredom, emptiness, disappointment, shame — the song had the narcotic effect of numbing me out and helping me forget my life. The problem was that eventually, I’d have to come back to Earth, and things hadn’t changed much for me. But it was fun to have that moment of escape. After all, isn’t that what progressive rock music is all about?

Rebecca Wolf Photography, used with permission
Source: Rebecca Wolf Photography, used with permission

Maybe not so much as it turns out. Because when I spoke with DeYoung for The Hardcore Humanism Podcast, I began to consider a new perspective on the song. During our conversation, I came to understand that DeYoung did not achieve superstardom by escaping into a dreamy and surreal world, but rather through a hard-nosed, practical, no-nonsense approach to his career. And it became clear to me that “Come Sail Away” could be understood not necessarily as an invitation to escape my reality, but as an exhortation to emulate DeYoung’s example, embrace my goals and ultimately change the reality of my life.

To understand DeYoung’s approach to his music and career, we must start with his rather straightforward process of writing songs. He has kept it simple and written about what he knew and felt, and hoped people would like it. “All I tried to do is find some chords I liked and then stick some notes on those chords. And then think of some lyrics to put on those notes. Give my point of view about my own personal life and the world I saw around me in the hopes that you would find yourself in my song,” DeYoung explained. “And so, when I did it right, people flocked to my door. And when I didn't do it right, they didn't.”

Some of the classic Styx songs that DeYoung wrote, love songs such as “Babe” and “Lady,” while having a distinctly romantic and dreamlike vibe were grounded in the reality of his 50-year marriage. “And so, any songs that are about love … is completely dependent on the fact that I've known love in my life,” he explained. “I've experienced it. And I've just tried to express it the best that I could.”

There were brief moments where DeYoung second-guessed his method and doubted himself as a musician. During our discussion, he described how the hit songs that can still be heard on the radio today did not take off immediately. In fact, “Lady,” one of their most enduring anthems, was not well-received initially. “It didn't sell. And so, as a young man, I thought, well, they hate me. I'm the opposite, I'm the opposite of Sally Field: They hate me, they really hate me. I thought what I did naturally was not acceptable,” DeYoung recalled. “So, it was a very difficult time for me. The next two albums — as the writer and a musician — I tried to be anyone else but myself. And I had no success at that. And then accidentally 'Lady' is picked up on the most powerful radio station in Chicago ... this program director, Jim Smith, goes into the past and picks 'Lady' out of thin air. So, for me, I always knew how close we were to complete failure. It made a big impression on me.”  

That experience grounded DeYoung in a more generalized fear that drove his career. He knew that it was possible that his rock and roll dream simply might not work for him and was determined to make sure he achieved his dreams. And thus, just as his songwriting method was simple and straightforward, so was DeYoung’s motivation to achieve in his career. “Fear of failure. That's what drives us all. That's it,” DeYoung described. “... My philosophy has always been that what drives us, fear as much as anything else is a great motivator,” he said. “I think the idea of fear of failure is wrapped up with a quest for perfection. So, my whole life, I've been on that quest.”

DeYoung links his own fear of failure to his relationship with his mother. “My theory is if your parents are the most supportive, sweet, kind, loving people in the world, you'll be a failure. That's it,” he explained. “As my aunt once told me, you know, your mother was a hard taskmaster, blah, blah, blah, she loved you to death. And I said, ‘Yeah, I know Aunt Irene, I understand all that. But I mean, it wasn't easy trying to live up to those expectations.’ And she said, ‘Well, you know, everything you have right now is probably because of that fact.’ And there is no doubt about that.”

In light of this fear of failure, “Come Sail Away” became a defining anthem to push himself to greater heights than he ever imagined. DeYoung explained how he wrote the song after traveling to Hawaii to play at a festival. “So, we came back and in Chicago that year was the worst winter that Chicago had witnessed in 30 years,” he said. “And I had this incredible yearning to finally get to the top of my profession. And so, I took those two ideas of Hawaii and the sailing and the yearning that I had to be in a better place, put them together into that song.”

The success speaks for itself. In addition to his undeniable success with Styx, DeYoung has continued to have a successful solo career. DeYoung recently completed his solo album 26 East, Vol. 1 (2020). And depending on the management of the pandemic, DeYoung is hoping to embark on a North American tour this spring celebrating over 40 years since The Grand Illusion was made. And yet, of all the hard-nosed realities he’s faced professionally, one that he perhaps didn’t expect was that achieving success doesn’t extinguish those fears and the need for approval. “The best part about what happened to me in the final analysis is, perhaps, I left some small mark on the world — small. And I was able to provide very nicely for my family, which is never to be discounted. Never. When your dream comes true, then what? ... We finally hit it with The Grand Illusion and sold 4 million albums. No. I thought I'd feel better. I felt the same. Talk to any real successful person. And if they're honest, they'll tell you that you were trying to fill up a hole, a void, a need for approval,” DeYoung described. “And then when you got there, despite the fact that you got the approval, it didn't feel like it was enough.”

But DeYoung would not have it any other way. He has found his place in the world and will keep moving forward as long as there’s opportunity. “I think mankind has moved forward because there are crazy people like us. We go and do things. And in a quest to do one thing, other good things are accomplished. That's it,” DeYoung explained. “We need those people who will, at all costs try to move the ball forward. Even if it was for personal reasons, others benefited ... Until I am done, I'll give you the best I got.”

So now, when I listen to “Come Sail Away,” I no longer hear it as a cue to numb out and escape my current reality but as motivation to actively build the reality of my dreams.

References

You can hear Dr. Mike's conversation with Dennis DeYoung on The Hardcore Humanism Podcast at HardcoreHumanism.com, Apple Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app.