I have a recurring dream, some would call it a nightmare. It goes something like this: the head of Rhino Records calls me in the middle of the night. They have access to newly unearthed Styx demos, outtakes, and obscure b-sides and they need me to collate and select tracks for the ultimate box set. I say, No way — I’m out of the business, and hang up the phone. Secretly, my mind starts to reel. Could it be they have access to some original unreleased band recordings from their Wooden Nickel label days? Maybe it’s some pre-Styx incarnation with live recordings featuring the almost telepathic playing of the fraternal rhythm section of John (now deceased) and Chuck Panozzo? I bet it’s Tommy Shaw’s solo-acoustic demo that led to his being asked to join the band.
Sensing vulnerability on my part, Rhino Records keep calling me back: “Only you can do this. You understand Dennis, J.Y. and Tommy. You are the One who gets their lyrical pomposity, their muscular yet sensitive arrangements, Dennis DeYoung’s falsetto. You have to put them into a critical perspective and, most importantly, dignify their achievements with your liner notes. You’ve actually listened to ‘Man of Miracles‘ and ‘The Serpent is Rising‘! Remember, you actually saw them live at the peak of their powers in the late 70s. And with The Cars opening for God’s sake! You have the skill sets. You must take this assignment!”
“I’ll think about it.” Click.
My wife stirs and asks me what the problem is. “Nothing dear. Go back to sleep.” In my head, a disembodied Tommy Shaw sings to me: “Another year has passed me by, still I look at myself and cry. What kind of man have I become?”
I am that man that he sings so nobly about; a man in the wilderness. The metaphor is perfect and I accept the unacceptable: I have to take this job.
Still dreaming, I lie awake till dawn wondering how I can achieve the impossible: make Styx a real, hip rock band once again. I have to restore the luster and frame their achievements in a time-relevant perspective, one that music fans the world over can stop, step back and say, “Damn, I used to love those guys!” Even if their inner voice screams “Wait, they were corny, overblown and pretentious and really, really lost it with the whole Mr. Roboto thing,” many would still come out and buy the box set. They would put on that brand new record album … “Side one, cut one listen to the songs/Play me loud don’t you worry ’bout your nieghbors/Hope I make you feel good all day long/All day loooooong.” [Note to audiophiles: As the verse ends on the first “long” the word phases between speakers. Then J.Y. comes in to repeat the line, in true blues fashion. It’s stunning what Styx could do in a recording studio.]
I make a mental note to dig out my original program from the Styx show. I’ll get my team to scan some of those images for the booklet. It’s a start. But what a start. I am about to resurrect the dead. And if I do it — successfully — I would not only accomplish something that had never been done before, I would redeem my very musical soul.
Of course, I wake up in a cold sweat and realize that the band Styx is a metaphor only. The river Styx surrounded the Greek underworld, and my work on this project would be like fording this impassable river. Impossible? Maybe, but when you work for Rhino you have to take on any assignment, no matter how terrifying.
The real dream, of course, would be to work for Rhino Records and be assigned to a group like Styx. (The metaphor becoming even clearer when I realize that a Rhino box set for Styx may be impossible as they were on A & M Records during their, uh, prime.) The reluctant-self hero of my dreams remains an ironic fantasy.
In this ever increasing digital downloadable age, just about the only CDs I get these days are reissues of some sort, and most often come from the hallowed offices of Rhino. Their catalogue of forgotten artists covers soul, metal, folk, folk rock, country, country rock, punk, cow-punk, you name it. For me, they are like the Apple of record labels (not to be confused with Apple Records). If they put it out, I want it. Part of it is the packaging (Like “One Kiss Can Lead to Another – Girl Group Sounds” — It’s hat box!) but a lot of it is the little history lessons you get with the liner notes, usually written by someone of note and certainly not me. One day, maybe. In my dreams.
Most importantly it’s about the music. One example that exemplifies Rhino is the “Have a Nice Decade: The ’70s Pop Culture Box.” Nearly perfect in every way, from design, to music selection, to even historic sound bites like Richard Nixon resigning, this 7-disc set (clever, no?) encapsulates memories most blissful. Any set that has both Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” and “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band cannot be bad.
One recent selection, Black Sabbath’s “The Dio Years,” made me revisit a place I never spent much time to begin with. And it’s not bad! I already had the complete Black Sabbath — the Ozzy years — and this was a nice finishing touch to that canon known as Sabbath, Black.
The Doors, Gram Parsons, Willie Nelson, Warren Zevon, Elvis Costello, John Coltrane, Talking Heads, Ramones, Yes, Aretha Franklin, Robert Plant, The Grateful Dead, The Faces, Chicago (early stuff, jeez!), Buck Owens etc…
With Rhino Records, the history lesson begins here. As do musical dreams.