Jeff Pearlman

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Tommy Shaw

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The legendary Styx guitarist explains his rise from Birmingham, Alabama to one of rock's biggest groups. POSTED April 7, 2011

 


Back in 1995 a cool thing was sweeping the nation—something called the information superhighway. There were, like, websites and chat rooms, and by dialing up on your computer you could access them, and look, and even (gasp!) communicate. You should have been there … it was amazing!

At the time I was a 23-year-old pop/rock/rap music writer for The (Nashville) Tennessean. One day a preview copy of a new CD arrived in the mail. The artist was Shaw/Blades—the newly formed tandem of former Night Ranger singer Jack Blades and former STYX singer/guitarist Tommy Shaw. I got home that night and played the disc. Then I played it again. And again. And again. And again. Absolutely loved it. A few days later, I reviewed the CD, Hallucination, and gave it a big thumbs up.

Shortly thereafter, I somehow managed managed to track down Shaw’s e-mail address. I fired off a random message, wondering if he’d consider doing an online Q&A. A day later, he responded with, “After your great review—of course!”

In the ensuing years, Tommy and I have stayed in loose contact. I’ve quoted him a couple of times; he once left me tickets to a show at Radio City during STYX’s reunion tour. As soon as I thought of The Quaz, I thought of Tommy—a great guy, an insanely talented and accomplished musician and the owner of a wonderful new (and adventurous) bluegrass album, The Great Divide (which debuts at No. 2 on the Billboard bluegrass chart—Mazel tov). Tommy Tweets here, and continues to tour regularly with STYX—one of my all-time favorite groups.

It’s an absolute honor to welcome Tommy Shaw to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So I’m gonna start with a curveball, because there’s a question that, for years, I’ve been wanting to ask someone in your position. Here’s my chance. You wrote the song Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man) more than 30 years ago. That means—taking into account your time with STYX, your time with Damn Yankees, your time with Shaw/Blades and your solo work—you’ve probably performed it live, oh, 5,000 times. At least. I’ve heard the clichéd answer from other artists that “Every time you sing a song you reinvent it and blah, blah, blah”,” but I know you’re not a cliché guy. I want to know, seriously, how do you get up for playing Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man) for, oh, version No. 4,654 at, say, the Tennessee State Fair on a 100-degree day? Is it often just going through the motions, or faking a certain feeling that can’t possibly still exist? Are there still times when playing Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man) kicks ass, or is it now mere rote? For the record, I love the song. Love it. But were I forced to sing it every day for 30 years, it might get a bit tiresome …

TOMMY SHAW: These days I get to introduce Chuck Panozzo, bass player emeritus, who comes out and plays a couple of songs with us. Chuck is a thriving HIV and cancer survivor. We watched him step back from the brink in 1999 and saw the power of music that lifted his spirits and made him want to fight his way back to health. He’s been my friend and bandmate for 36 years, and to see him on our stage, the joyful world explorer, author and humanitarian he’s become, gives that song a new meaning. It’s also a challenging song to perform and cannot just be turned in. You either play it with all you’ve got or it just won’t float. That’s the thing with STYX—we have such a varied range of songs in our song list, we can pick and choose a set of the ones we love and leave out the ones we’re not so excited about and still have a musically fulfilling and exciting show. It’s life affirming and that song rings true for us every time.

J.P: You just released a bluegrass CD, The Great Divide. Back when I was a young writer in Nashville in the mid-1990s, everyone loved bluegrass. Bluegrass! Bluegrass! Bluegrass! You need to listen to Bill Monroe! Bluegrass! Bluegrass! So I listened to Bill Monroe—and I just didn’t like him. Very twangy, very banjo-centered. That said, I’m a huge Rage Against the Machine fan—so who am I to judge?

I ask two things: What the $%^& is Tommy Shaw doing with a bluegrass album? And what am I missing about the genre? Being serious—because I’ll listen with an open mind.

T.S.: When I grew up [in Montgomery, Alabama] my family liked music. All music that we considered good and performed well. It wasn’t until I became a recording artist that I saw how fragmented audiences can be. I hate this, I hate that, I only listen to this. I can understand preferring one style at certain times, but there is so much good music, why discriminate and miss out on something magical? If you like country, you need to listen to Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams to hear where it began. Rock and blues—Robert Johnson, Muddy and the originators. Bluegrass, you should definitely listen to Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and so many other founders for reference but then move forward to Blue Highway, Alison Krauss and Union Station, The Infamous Stringdusters. Expand your horizons, listen to jazz men Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, to Buddy Rich’s Big Swing Face. These are the sources of modern American music. Keep going! Have you ever heard Luciano Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma before? If this doesn’t move you, it’s time to see a doctor.

You can always go back to your touchstone favorites, but there is such a journey in time and space you can enjoy if you take the time to let these other sources into your life. So, that said, I really only wanted to try my hand at writing a bluegrass song with my friend Brad Davis. We wrote I’ll Be Coming Home. It poured out, fully formed and I didn’t even understand exactly what we’d just said in the lyrics until later. It was this sweet song that flowed from us. One after another these songs and stories came, and the only challenge was to be respectful to the form as I became more educated. The more I learned the more I loved and respected it. It reminds me of a flying dream I had once, the best one I’ve ever had. Not only was I flying, but as far as I chose to look, that was how far I could clearly see.

J.P.: In the mid-1970s, immediately pre-STYX, you were a member of “Harvest,” the house band at Kegler’s Kove at Bama Bowl in your hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. Playing nightly in a bowling alley strikes me as a scene out of a movie—lots of cigarette smoke, fat guys named Earl Bob Joe, greasy slabs of pizza and Harvest unleashing their cover of Light My Fire. What was it really like? Because, the truth is, the most joyful parts of life often come during the build-up to something big, not the bigness itself.

T.S.: Kinda, yeah, like what you said. Were you there? It was the most fun gig I’d had up to that point and still in my top 5.

Disco music and the oil embargo ended MS Funk (the eight-piece horn band I was in before Harvest) and thousands of other bar bands and that’s how I ended up returning to the sanctuary of my hometown friends in a lounge in the local bowling alley.

There wasn’t much of a dance floor but nobody wanted to dance there. Uber-Sanctuary for that moment in time. People came to hear us play our covers and our original songs.  We had been singing and playing together since we were teenagers, just never in the same band. These were my friends Jimbo Jones and Eddie Wohlford who were, in my opinion, the best singers around for the type of music we were playing. They innately understood it and we sang like one person with three voices. We had a great drummer, Tommy Beavers, who was able to play with the kind of dynamics we needed in that small space. I still get messages from people who were there. It was pure magic and we all knew that it was a bright burning flame that might not last long so we all cherished it. I wrote Crystal Ball there. We did a demo of it on a weekday afternoon and were shooshed by management because bowling league was in session. Even then we laughed at the irony. You said it right—one of my most joyful life experiences.

J.P.: You spent six years in Damn Yankees, performing alongside Ted Nugent. As an ultra-liberal, pro-gun control New Yorker, I consider this—from afar—to be right there with water torture and the Gitmo vacation package. I don’t know your political leanings, Tommy, but I’m wondering if there’s something about the Motor City Madman I’m missing; if you just agree with his stances or if the professional relationship of being in a band with someone renders political positions irrelevant.

T.S.: I like to keep my political beliefs and other personal beliefs to myself. There’s enough of that being shouted about out there. I like to avoid getting into debates regarding such things. Your parents taught you to never discuss politics and religion in places where alcohol is being served, right? These days I think it’s safe to avoid it in any public situation unless you’re looking for a spot on a cable news channel.

I’m a musician, recording artist and performer, so I like to be all-inclusive.  All are welcome. Turn off the TV and enjoy something that brings us together instead of dividing us!

Ted Nugent is one of the brightest, most talented and enthusiastic people I know. He doesn’t just go off half-cocked. He walks the talk. And believe me, there’s more walk than talk. He’s passionate in his beliefs and he has a sense of humor and a laugh that is so infectious you cannot help but feel good in his presence. He is sentimental, a tremendous parent, incredibly charitable and creative in more ways than you could imagine. I love the man. If I had to choose one man to stand beside in mortal combat, it would be my friend Ted Nugent.

J.P.: In his song, Not Afraid, Eminem recently dismissed his last album as semi-mediocre. I remember hearing that and thinking, “Man, there are a lot of people who loved those songs. How do they feel now?” Mandy Moore has done the same thing with some of her earlier work. In the STYX Behind the Music from eight or nine years back, you came across as pretty critical of some of STYX’s music—particularly Babe and much of the album, Kilroy Was Here. It’s not that I disagree with you—I don’t. But I’m guessing Babe and Mr. Roboto are loved by many folks out there. Did you ever think back and say, “Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t have given that take?” Or does honesty—especially in music—trump all.

T.S.: It was a difficult time in STYX history. We worked things out and have had a peaceful coexistence for years now. It was good television though, wasn’t it? Love what you love. Love STYX any way you choose.

J.P.: I’m not just saying this—the two albums you’ve done with Jack Blades are two of my all-time favorite pieces of work. I remember being a writer at The Tennessean in 1995 when I received a copy of Hallucination. I gave it a great review, and really thought it would blow up commercially. It sort of didn’t. You came out with your second CD, Influence, in 2007, and it was equally wonderful—but didn’t sell wildly. Your solo album, 7 Deadly Zens, from 1998, included a tune, Inspiration, that I’ve probably played 500 times. Also, not an enormous seller. My question is this—does that matter? As in, after you’ve sold millions of records with STYX, do you particularly care about total units moved? Or, at this point in your life/career, is it solely about the music?

T.S.: I realized a while back that I don’t live for money. I’m fortunate to be comfortable financially and am still gainfully employed doing what I have always loved to do. But when it comes to music it’s about what’s in you, about what you can express. STYX is successful enough that I can afford to be completely unbound in my solo endeavors. It’s been a wonderful life so far. I survived my own youthful escapades long enough to be enjoying it now more than ever. To read what you just said is very nice for me. Each solo project has been a learning, growing experience and made me a better man and bandmate when I returned to STYX.

But this bluegrass project snuck up on me. I didn’t mean it to happen. It began with one song and I felt this awakening, and every time Brad Davis and I got together we wrote another one that we loved. In 2009 everyone in each of our camps and homes agreed we should set the time aside and complete the album. When all was said and done it was in my blood and once it was finished I found myself woodshedding Sam Bush’s mandolin parts night and day so I could go out there and promote it. Two days ago in Nashville someone said “You’re a great mandolin player.” I almost fell over. If I seem over the moon with love and enthusiasm for this experience, please know that it is the tip of that iceberg. I’m doing my best to try and be cool. My only wish is that I could go back in time and get 35 more years of practice in. And here’s what’s making that harder—since it came out a week ago, I have played the Grand Ole Opry and been invited back, it’s aired on WSM in morning drive time, Steve and Johnnie had me on their show a couple of nights ago on WGN and they were extremely complimentary. It is being judged on its merit and getting really nice reviews. This morning I got the news that we entered at No. 2 on the Bluegrass chart.

I’m fulfilled already but if it becomes a huge success, I won’t fight it.  ;-)

J.P.: Can you explain to me how Kiss is not in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame? And do you believe a case can be made for STYX? If so, please feel free to make it here …

T.S.: The Hall of Fame starts by requiring an act to have been around for 25 years. It is a slow and thoughtful process. Kiss will be there, I’d put money on it. Bad Company too. I’d be willing to bet Journey is close. How about YES? They are just getting around to our era. Alice Cooper was just inducted. This is a good sign. These are music fanatics, not just of what was ever popular, but what moved and influenced Rock ’n’ Roll. It’s complex and I appreciate their rigid and unflappable pursuit of getting it right. Patience, my friend.

J.P.: As I type these questions, I’m sitting in a Cosi coffee shop, sipping away, elevator jazz filling my ears. That’s how I write. How do you write? Like, when you write a song, what are you generally doing? Where do the thoughts come from? I once read that Gene Simmons would jot down 100 songs for a Kiss album, then narrow them down to 10 or 11. That seemed odd, because one would think a lot of sweat and pain goes into every song. So, for you, what’s the process like? And do you immediately know when you’ve got a winner?

Also, you’ve written songs for Alice Cooper, Vince Neil, Cher, Aerosmith—among others. Does the same satisfaction exist in writing for another artist as it does writing for yourself?

T.S.: I need to get away from the process of touring and gigging because that takes up so much time and energy it’s hard to stay focused on anything else. My favorite thing to do is get a batch of songs started and then let them tell me what to do next. One will speak up and that one will get attention and so on …  I get totally immersed in the creative process. It’s very fulfilling and satisfying to produce something that didn’t exist before.

It’s also an honor to be asked to write songs for and with other artists. You’re invited into their heads and you create something outside of yourself that becomes all about them. Kinda trippy, huh?

Songs are entries in your life’s diary. The one with STYX started for me in 1975 and continues today. I grew up in those pages.

J.P.: STYX still tours regularly, though you and James Young are the last remaining regulars from the band’s commercial heyday. I think from afar people see bands from the ’70s and ’80s touring/playing state fairs and casinos and such and sometimes think, “Why don’t they just give it up?” I assume the answer is “Because I love the music,” which is fair. But are you ever playing, say, the Belterra Resort and Casino in Florence, Indiana thinking, “Crap, this used to be Madison Square Garden?”

T.S.: We still play arenas, festivals, amphitheaters, but I would warn folks not to ever disparage the places where their fans go to hear them play. The reality is rosters from state fairs and casinos includes almost every touring artist new and old because so many of those casinos have state-of-the-art venues separate from the gambling. This is where many people go to hear live music now. They are the new Forums and Madison Square Gardens of our age, built with the money you lost at the tables! Schedules there include the top country, pop, rock and even metal bands.

This is not your father’s state fair or casino.

But remember, Sinatra played those other joints. He loved to perform, so he went to where the people were.

Audiences rule. Everywhere.

J.P.: What was the absolute lowest moment of your musical career? And what was the absolute highest moment?

T.S.: It was in Sheboygan, Wisconsin in 1974. We (MS FUNK) were playing a bar. There was a sign at the entry, one of those ones where they fit these black letters into the upper and lower slots, like a small version of the old Holiday Inn signs. This had menu items on it but at the top it said:

MS FUNK 50¢ and right below it read COKE 75¢

The best was when I stood at Ground Zero in 2002 and handed George Lorens of the Port Authority Police Department a check for a half a million dollars that we, along with other classic rock artists, raised to benefit the family members who lost wives and husbands in the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH TOMMY SHAW:

Celine Dion or Snoop Dogg?: Snoop

• I just went to the STYX website, and was greeted with this message—“STYX’s Very Own Coffee Blend! Exclusively from Coffee Fool And Available Here!” Uh … what?: Have you ever tried it? It’s spectacular. Just had some as a matter of fact! You’d be impressed with the list of folks who are Coffee Fool fans. Believe me, it’s aptly named. Our camp has been fueled by it since the first cup. Some folks sell booze, we go for a different kind of buzz. You can drive on ours!

• Would you rather have $10 million or the super power of your choice? And what power would that be?: I’d like the power to go back in time so on September 11, 1963. Instead of asking for just a guitar for my birthday, I would have also asked for a mandolin, a banjo and a dobro.

• Afterlife—exists or not?: I’ll try my best to let you know at a later date.

• Animals you shot alongside Ted Nugent on the Damn Yankees bonding-together meat-a-thon: Zero.

• Hit Song That You Were Shocked Became a Hit: The Macarena (now it’s in your head isn’t it?)

• Ever Think You were About to Die in a Plane Crash? If yes, what do you recall: We were on a plane with the Atlanta Rhythm Section way back when.  We hit the worst turbulence I have ever experienced, kind of like the scene in Almost Famous where the drummer spilled the beans a little too much.  I looked behind me and a couple of the ARS guys had bottles of Crown Royal turned up. The flight attendant spilled an entire tray of Cokes on ice on Chuck Panozzo. I’m actually on a plane right now as I write this answer and I’m laughing my ass off recalling that image. Ha!

• Five biggest musical influences: The Beatles, Hank Williams, The Rolling Stones, CSNY, Wes Montgomery.

• Was Nirvana good or bad for music?: It needed a reset. Nirvana provided it.

This is my all-time favorite song. I’m genuinely curious if you like it: That was pretty spectacular, albeit sad to see. We met Shannon Hoon just a few weeks before he died. Such a talented young artist.

• Will you pass my demo on to your manager? I’m sort of Tupac meets Anne Murray: What, no bluegrass?

  • blmeanie

    keep them coming, thanks.

  • BrianS

    Yeah, I really enjoy these.

    Not that I expected any of the people you quazed so far to be a huge douchey asshole, but it’s very refreshing how the “regular person-ness” comes through in their answers.

    Tommy seems likes a good guy, and it’s nice to have the reminder (re: Ted Nugent) that people’s political views aren’t the sum total of them. Don’t mean to single you out at all, Jeff, but I think we need that sometimes in this politically-charged landscape.

    • Jeff Pearlman

      i agree 100%, Brian. It’s a reminder I certainly need.

  • George

    Great stuff on Tommy, a truly wonderful guy. I had a momemt with Tommy Shaw a few years back at the Hard Rock Cafe in NY when it was still on 57th Street. I was about to go up the stairs and didn’t see him coming towards me. He is a tiny guy and I nearly knocked him over with my 6’3 frame. I caught him in my arms and we both couldn’t stop laughing hysterically. We started to talk all things music before a Frampton performance. Good times.

  • George K. Marz

    Been a fan of Tommy’s since 1977 when my older bro bought “STYX-The Grand Illusion” & when I heard the guitar work in “Man in the Wilderness” I was hooked & been that way for the last 34 years…same brother is in hysterics that I’m now listening to Bluegrass music but I just smile & tell him “Hey…its Tommy Shaw!” Nuff said ;)

  • Kelly

    I’ve been a fan of Tommy my whole life so you can imagine I have a better than average familiarity with him. You still managed to bring out information I wasn’t aware of. Great job, I’ll make it a point to follow you in the future.
    Being such a big fan and even though I have a history of liking country music I was still a little worried I wouldn’t like TGD, but holy cow! It’s so awesome, the story telling, amazing vocals and great picking all make it a hit. Just a happy bunch of music. Thanks for the interview!

  • Kelly

    And, I just realized who you are. Loved Boys will be Boys! And again, I know some of those boys personally. You provided an entertaining & very interesting read. Thx!

  • Jim K.

    Fun stuff. I always thought “Too Much Time On My Hands” was a great one.

  • Jennifer

    Domo … Domo.

    I love STYX. Such fun. Thank you!

  • http://www.insideedgepr.com Matt Baron

    First, thanks for the math quiz to verify I’m not a spambot. I bet some folks have to pull out a calculator. Second, I nearly spat out the carbonated drink I was sipping when I came upon this line:

    “Animals you shot alongside Ted Nugent on the Damn Yankees bonding-together meat-a-thon: Zero.”

    Great interview, such a broad span covered here!

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

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