David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 213: Styx (Castle Walls)

December 29, 2022

Back in high school English (I am thinking it was Sophomore year), the class had to memorize and deliver a poem to the rest of the class. I am not sure why I chose it, but I recited a soliloquy from William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. To impress the teacher? Doubtful. To impress a girl I liked? Almost certainly.

It was traumatic (I have never been really good at memorizing long passages, which may be why even today as a speaker, I more accurately ad lib through an outline than memorize anything word for word) but I survived. However, I was shocked when one of my classmates recited the song "Castle Walls." You heard that correctly: I chose William Shakespeare; he chose Dennis DeYoung. Yes, I picked the guy who wrote Hamlet; he chose the man who penned "domi arigato/Mr. Roboto."

"Castle Walls" is fancifully poetic so the teacher (I can't remember who it was, I just know it wasn't Ms. Hillary) might have thought it was genuine poetry, or maybe she didn't care that one could choose lyrics (if that is the case, I would have been a lot less stressed with the assignment). After all, medieval time serves as its central conceit, minstrels get referenced, strange dreams drawing the envy of Wordsworth or Coleridge get evoked, and a blind prophet from Greek mythology, Tiresias, is name-checked. Yes, it checked all of the boxes for pretentious high school teachers and students alike. Throw in DeYoung's cheesy keyboards, a long instrumental break, and its penultimate place on Styx's The Grand Illusion, which everybody in the class knew well, given the radio-friendly hits of "Come Sail Away" and "Fooling Yourself," and we have the metaphorical perfect storm.

In retrospect, I wish I could remember how my classmate kept a straight face when he recited "and every dove there lost its will to fly." DeYoung provides first-hand evidence that rock lyrics are generally not poetry, as that line alone gets past no poetry magazine editor. I also wish I could remember if he had any dramatic pause between that line and "far beyond these castle walls where I thought I heard Tiresias say." Is there any way to pay respect to Tommy Shaw's guitar, then Dennis DeYoung's keyboard, and finally James Young's guitar solos that fill those minutes on the recording? If he plowed straight through the lines, that would be the equivalent of not letting Caesar actually die his melodramatic death in Julius Caesar.

The more important question: how does "Castle Walls" get past quality control in the high school curriculum? Memorizing and reciting a speech is a strange requirement for an English class, I will grant you (maybe more for a drama class), but shouldn't the requirement be built around the recognition and choice of some kind of famous literature? Anyone who has been following this song series for 210+ days knows I elevate lyrics, but I am not some secondary education teacher trying to justify how my students spend their time.

I should cut whomever that teacher was some slack; it's not like she had Google Search or an I-Phone to immediately identify "Castle Walls." She probably hesitated calling out the non-poem, knowing, as Morrissey famously sang, "there's always someone, somewhere with a big nose who knows, who'll trip you up and laugh when you fall." As a former teacher, I have my own moments of delayed recognition when the "kids" pull a fast one: as Indiana University graduate teaching assistant, somehow my class got talking about 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey Two. Clever frat boy announces that there was another sequel, 2069. "Haven't seen that one," I reply, only later figuring out the joke (and maybe really, really glad I hadn't said, in an effort to appear cool, "I think I have seen that one").

And in the interest of full disclosure, I tried this once as a student in college, slipping in a line from "Sultans of Swing" into my Creative Writing class at WVU. (Who would have thunk the instructor would recognize "dressed in their best brown baggies and their platform shoes"?) Maybe it's the fact that I failed so miserably that my classmate's success here still rankles.

He had an ace up the sleeve in choosing Styx. For most of us, we were spending our time trying to find meaning in the hologram-ish cover to The Grand Illusion, or trying to ascertain if guitarist Tommy Shaw, with that gorgeous head of hair and delicate face, was male or female, or if JY (James Young) was human or not (that dude was scary looking). For us D&D'ers, the album provided a suitable fantasy backdrop to our gaming adventures, further crystalized by their next album, Pieces of Eight. There was a lot of underworld to Styx, a lot more to ponder during a wasted youth than anything related to boring old Bill Shakespeare.

Styx. "Castle Walls." The Grand Illusion. A&M, 1977. Link here.

Day 212: Nick Garvey "Humming"

Day 214: The Cowboy Junkies "Bread And Wine"

See complete list here.