Tommy Shaw of Styx
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In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers (and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two) in the process.
The musician: Tommy Shaw is the affable, energetic guitarist for Styx, the long-running arena-rock band known for hits like “Come Sail Away” and “Renegade.” Shaw joined Styx 36 years ago and helped catapult the group to stardom in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Shaw still records and tours with Styx, but he’s also busied himself as half of the duo Shaw/Blades with former Damn Yankees bandmate Jack Blades, as well as a solo career that he recently revived with a new album, The Great Divide.
“Crystal Ball” (from 1976’s Crystal Ball)
The A.V. Club: You joined Styx in 1975, right before the band became a signature group of the arena-rock era. Your first record with Styx, Crystal Ball, wasn’t an immediate hit, but you made your presence felt by writing the title track. What was it like joining a band that was about to headline stadiums?
Tommy Shaw: Talk about a dream year for me, 1975 into ’76. I had gone around the country with an eight-piece bar band. We had never really gotten past playing bars. And that fell apart when disco music and the oil embargo came along in 1975. So I wound up back in my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, playing in a bowling-alley lounge that didn’t have a dance floor. People came in and listened to the music. We had this great little acoustic band, and we played music by the Eagles; Dan Fogelberg; Crosby, Stills, And Nash, and that kind of thing. “Crystal Ball” was one of the songs that I wrote when I was in that band, but it didn’t have the big chorus. When I joined the band, I played that and they said, “It’s a nice song, but it isn’t really a Styx song.” I had to keep writing until I figured it out. I was really just figuring it out that first year.
“Come Sail Away” (from 1977’s The Grand Illusion)
AVC: You didn’t write “Come Sail Away,” which was Styx’s first Top 10 hit. But you played an important role in making the song a success. In Styx’s Behind The Music episode, you talked about how you personally wined and dined radio staffers all over the country to keep them playing the song.
TS: Oh God, yeah. Thank goodness for cocaine. There was this guy Jim Cahill, who now does international stuff for Fox News. He is a very creative force. He and I were the same age, and we were probably on the leading edge of the bad behavior in the band. So we were fearless. I was in an unhappy situation at home, so I was more than happy to work on my days off and go out of town. Jim and I would just be on these relentless campaigns with the local promo guys, or anyone who would come with us. And we would have a pocket full of, you know, fun-powder and cash, and we just went around and did everything that we could to get this song on the radio. We had big plans for that song, so we just went at it like a kamikaze: “We are going to get this on the radio or we are going to die trying.” We went coast to coast and gave away TV sets and VCRs and promised this and that—plane tickets, anything—and we got the bullet back.
AVC: On Behind The Music, you called the radio staffers “penguins,” because if you gave them “snow” they’d follow you wherever you went.
TS: That is what Cahill said. You know, I don’t remember, but I love it. It was one of those things where we weren’t telling the band what we were doing. They would not have okayed it. There were lots of huge ridiculous hotel room-service bills for parties up in the room. It was just over the top. But it got results.
AVC: “Come Sail Away” was Styx’s breakthrough song, which helped The Grand Illusion go triple platinum. Was it difficult to wrap your head around how quickly your fortunes changed from playing bowling alleys just a few years earlier?
TS: It was. It totally was. And I may not have handled it perfectly, but I had a good time. It was just fantastic, it was exciting, and we were all in such a great creative zone at that point. We were too busy to have been jaded by it all, those first two or three years together. And things just kept getting better and bigger. We could hardly keep up with the way success was coming to us. I mean, I was just so happy to have that bowling-alley lounge gig. I’d spent the last three years making $50 a week, if I was lucky. I would be lucky to pay my bar tab. I was hoping something good would happen, but this really came out of left field.
AVC: How did you stay in control of your life with all of those rock-star temptations coming at you?
TS: Well, I think it depends on who you are to begin with—who your parents raised. I certainly had a good time, and tested my limits with how much I could consume and misbehave with. But at the core, I was always this person that never wanted to have to get into trouble and face my parents. There was always that little switch inside of me where I knew when I was going too far.
“Snowblind” (from 1981’s Paradise Theater)
AVC: Speaking of rock-star temptations, you co-wrote the song “Snowblind,” which is about coke, right?
TS: That’s what they say.
AVC: Did you draw on personal experiences when writing that song?
TS: Yeah, I had done some research into those lyrics. Everybody was doing it back then—it’s not my excuse, but it was just what you did. If you were going to party back in those days, cocaine was just one of the things on the menu. I never did heroin, because I thought that meant I was doing heavy drugs, which shows you the insanity of doing drugs. I probably should have done heroin, because I understand heroin actually makes you feel good. Cocaine just makes you stupid.
AVC: Coke makes you feel good for a little while at least, though, doesn’t it?
TS: Well, it kind of gives you a little hyper buzz, but it just made me drink more. Then it would make me want to do more blow. It was just not a good thing.
AVC: “Snowblind” wasn’t a hit, but it became famous after the PMRC accused Styx of “backward masking” Satanic messages on the track.
TS: I know. We loved that.
AVC: Why would you lead young people to Satan in such a backhanded way?
TS: There was a backward thing on there, but it was “If you don’t like this, you can kiss my ass,” or something like that. From what I understand, the kids that were in church groups were flocking to the stores to buy that. So I think it backfired. Who was that, Al Gore’s wife?
AVC: Yeah, Tipper Gore.
TS: What happens a lot of times, you’ll have the opposite effect when you get real high and mighty.
AVC: It must be difficult to sneak pro-devil messages into your music in the age of CDs and mp3s.
TS: Yeah, that’s true. You would have to put it into ProTools and flip it over. Another missed opportunity.
“Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” (from 1978’s Pieces Of Eight)
AVC: It says on Wikipedia that you came up with the opening riff to “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” after hearing a fishing-boat engine stall. That can’t be right, can it?
TS: It was. I was on a deep-sea fishing trip. It must have been at the end of Crystal Ball, or after the Grand Illusion tour. We were out all day, and I must have smoked a lot of pot that day—I haven’t done any of that in 21 years—but you know, we were on this boat, and on the way up there, a girl asked us, “You guys want some kona buds?” “Kona buds?” It was this lady taxi driver taking us out there. And we were like, “Sure!” So, she passed this joint around, and it was the strongest pot I’ve ever smoked in my life. When we booked this fishing boat, we said, “We are going to be partying. Because we just finished this tour, and we have a cooler and drinks, and I hope you don’t mind if we party.” Well, we smoked this pot, and by the time we got on the boat, we were paralyzed. We were, like, stone quiet for the first hour and a half. We finally started coming around a little bit and told [the boat owner] what happened. He’s like, “I wondered what happened to you guys, because you said there was going to be this big party, and you guys haven’t said a word.” We’re all sitting there in this daze from this pot, and the boat was making this sound: “mmm mmm mmm.” You are moving slowly when you are trolling through the water. The engines are at really low RPMs. The sound just sort of tattooed itself onto my psyche. And when I got back to the room, I got the acoustic guitar and wrote the music to “Blue Collar Man.”
AVC: I’m impressed that you remember it.
TS: Well, you know, there was four or five hours of it. It was pretty hammered in there.
“Too Much Time On My Hands” (from Paradise Theater)
AVC: “Too Much Time On My Hands” was included on the concept album Paradise Theater, but it doesn’t seem to fit with the concept of the record, which is about the rise and fall of a Chicago music venue. Or am I missing something?
TS: I would say it was shoehorned in at the last minute. Paradise Theater was probably more of a concept than any of the other ones, because I think it set out to be a concept album. Grand Illusion and Pieces Of Eight, they didn’t really set out to be concept albums. But they seemed to be. It was just a matter of consciousness. We were all so on the same page on Grand Illusion and Pieces Of Eight that we kind of agreed on everything—we had similar outlooks on life, we were all going through the same thing, and we were a team. By the time we got to Paradise Theater, we had learned a lot and been through a lot, and we were starting to go our separate ways.
I liked the idea of the Paradise Theater concept, but just wasn’t coming up with any songs. Suddenly I felt like I had an assignment to write a song. I never have been that good at that. So I was a song short. It was the last day of song rehearsals for the record, and we were scheduled to go into the studio the next week. I lived in Michigan, so I would drive over every day. I got about five miles from the rehearsal hall in Indiana, and all of the sudden, it came on in my head like a song on the radio. And I said, “Okay, all right, all right, all right. I got to get there. I got to get there before I forget it.” I parked the car and I ran in and I said, “Chuck, play this—duh, duh, duh, da, duh, duh. And now J.Y., play A. Okay, when I say, everybody go to D, and I’m going to sing this part: ‘duh-dah-duh-duh-dah-duh-duh.’” I was calling out chords, and it was sort of an audible. I yelled out the changes as we were going along, and we played it and that was pretty much it.
“Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” (from The Grand Illusion)
AVC: Didn’t you write “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man)” about former Styx singer Dennis DeYoung?
TS: Some people have different ways of motivating themselves. I was just happy to be onstage, and so many times I would look over at him and he would get really cross onstage. I think he got homesick a lot. He didn’t like to be on the road. I just didn’t understand it when I first joined the band. Because this was early on, and things were going so well for us; I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t happier. But then time would go by, and I would realize I could use those same words on myself. You know, when I would get moments of weakness and look at life and be so cynical about things. It would surprise me. It’s like your dreams—you are every character in your dreams. I was the one who wrote those words, so I can’t really put them on anyone else other than myself.
“Renegade” (from The Grand Illusion)
TS: At the time, I was really into the Alan Parsons Project. There was just a lot of really great music production going on. If you lived during that time, you would put your headphones on, get those Koss headphones, and listen to Pink Floyd—things that are panning around left and right—and if you would just smoke a joint, and you were really in tune with that, there was this trip you could go on. I loved the way those songs were engineered. They were great songs, and they were beautifully recorded. So when I started “Renegade,” it was kind of like an Alan Parsons song, this slow dirge. You know how the beginning is, with those three-part harmonies? It was like that all through the verses, but it was slow. It was a real dirge-y kind of thing. And I was real proud of it. I took it to the guys in the band and they liked it, too, but they said, “Let’s bring up the energy.” So as soon as we did that, we felt like we were onto something.
AVC: “Renegade” has since been adopted by the Pittsburgh Steelers as a rally song.
TS: They started that years ago. They put it on and they scored as soon as the song was over. And, you know, people get superstitious about anything that’s associated with scoring. Coach Tomlin started calling it from the bench, and that’s what happens now. He’ll call it either in the third or fourth quarter, and it psyches the other team out. I heard that the Jets—and this was told to me by a credible source—trained for their game in the playoffs and had “Renegade” playing in the background so it wouldn’t psych them out. And it still psyched them out!
AVC: Styx songs routinely get played at sports events. It must be nice to hear that music still rocking stadiums.
TS: Well, yeah, because songwriting is a real lonely thing. That one was just me and my reel-to-reel tape recorder. It goes from that to a couple years ago, I was there standing in one of the boxes for a playoff game and looking out as 80,000 people were singing that song. You can’t imagine that. A lot of those people probably don’t know who I am or who Styx is, because the song has become bigger than that. It’s more than a Styx song, it’s their rally song.
“The Great Divide” (from 2011’s The Great Divide)
AVC: The Great Divide is a bluegrass record, which makes it a much different album from what you’re known for with Styx. Is it hard to get fans to accept a record like this when you’ve been doing this other successful thing for so long?
TS: I think for people who just sort of take a glimpse at Styx and aren’t really the hardcore fans, it is. I mean, I wrote a song on the mandolin in 1979 that became the biggest song that we have ever had outside the U.S. And it gets mistaken as a folk song. It’s called “Boat On The River.” I have been asking myself these questions too: This bluegrass music was in me the whole time, but where did it ever show itself? In the late ’70s, when we were on tour, I came up with this little thing where I would go out by myself, and it was a hoedown where I played on the acoustic guitar at a Styx concert.
AVC: Growing up in Alabama, was this the first music you were exposed to?
TS: Well, it was just part of the music that was around when you live two and a half blocks from where Hank Williams is buried. My father used to go to one of the honky-tonks where Hank Williams used to play, and bust his balls. He would go and put quarters in the jukebox and play everything except for a Hank Williams song. But it was just part of the music that was around—it was a mixture of country, bluegrass, and gospel. I didn’t really know what all the difference in it was. When I was a kid, it was just this music that was on, and I liked it. I also liked the newer music that was coming out, too. I have never really felt confined by any style of music. I would play in bands that were soul bands or that played standards—any kind of music that I enjoyed playing.
AVC: Alison Krauss sings on the title track. Was there any concern on your part that you’d be perceived as jumping on the “classic rocker dueting with Alison Krauss” bandwagon in light of her success with Robert Plant?
TS: Yeah, but the thing was, she sang on my last solo record in 1998. But people’s first impressions are what they are. So we didn’t do it as a duet. She was just singing background. And that made it so it was cool with both of us.
AVC: This is your first solo record in 13 years. Why did it take so long to make another Tommy Shaw album?
TS: Well, I’ve been busy. You know, between Styx and Shaw/Blades, there was just never time. This record, I started in 2003, just doing one song at a time. It has been a long process making this record, just because I have a job in Styx. We do 110 shows a year, which means about 200-some days on the road, with traveling. Sometimes you want to just not be in the studio, but you wouldn’t know it by the way I’ve been behaving the last few years. Working with Styx, we have started doing these new recordings of our old masters with the guys that have been in the band for the last 12 years. We’re the busiest we’ve ever been.