Domo arigato, Mr. Panozzo

Styx’s bassist finds coming out to be a liberating experience

by Harriet Schwartz

Chuck Panozzo is tired.

The rigor of a 40-city tour is enough to leave anyone exhausted and yearning for home. But Panozzo, bassist and co-founder of the band Styx, has faced even tougher odds. The summer 2001 tour marks Panozzo’s return to performing after he nearly died from full-blown AIDS in the late 1990s. So Panozzo’s body lacks the strength it once had and he has just spent months traveling by bus, and managing a long list of medications.

But July 15, 2001 belongs to Panozzo. The show marks the closing night of the tour and is taking place in Chicago, where Panozzo, his brother John, and Dennis DeYoung, all Windy City natives, formed the band that would become Styx, first playing in the Panozzos’ basement in 1969.

The Chicago crowd is pumped by the Styx homecoming and Panozzo takes the stage late in the set. He’s been on this tour as a special guest, joining the band for the last three songs each evening. The band gets ready to launch into "Foolin’ Yourself" and front man Tommy Shaw introduces Panozzo. The crowd couldn’t be more excited to see one of their favorite rock ’n’ roll sons.

"All of the sudden, I get this huge round of applause, a major, major standing ovation," Panozzo says, speaking from his home in Chicago. "Of course it’s my hometown and I think a lot of people there knew what I had overcome to get there, physically because of my medical condition. I was just blown away. It was such a great feeling, and everyone on the stage was aware of what had just happened. We went off the stage and then came back on for the encore and at the end of ‘Renegade,’ I was wearing this cowboy hat, a duster, and I took the duster off and I threw the hat out into the audience. It was like a farewell to 30 years of being on the road. And it was a liberation. It’s still indelible in my mind."

Successfully completing one more Styx tour, Panozzo, 53, had met one of the promises he made himself just a few years ago, when he lay in bed, ravaged with HIV-related illness.

The second promise, which he re-committed to after the glorious tour-ending show, was that he would come out to the rock world as a gay man with AIDS. Panozzo signed up as a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign National Coming Out Day and then did multiple interviews with members of the press about his sexuality and HIV status.

Word spread, though without much fanfare. The reaction seemed to be entirely positive--hardly a response that Panozzo could have ever imagined as a young gay man growing up in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood.

Growing up gay

Panozzo says he first had a sense of being different at age five. But it wasn’t until a fire drill in seventh grade that he understood those feelings.

"When I was in seventh grade, I had a severely bad broken leg," he says. "And when the nun announced that there was going to be a fire drill, she said an eighth grade boy was going to pick me up and take me down the stairs. All of the sudden I go, ‘Eighth grader!’ You know when you are in seventh grade and there’s an eighth grader, it’s like he’s Tom Selleck or something. She said, ‘Grab him around the neck so he doesn’t drop you.’ We got back to the seats after the fire drill and I asked ‘Are we going to do this again tomorrow?’ I was sure that what I saw was what I liked."

From there, Panozzo says his story is the classic story of a shy gay kid in the 1950s. Though he didn’t consider himself flamboyant, he often worried that other kids would pick up on something in his manner and harass him. Further, growing up in a Catholic family, he carried vivid memories of priests making it clear that homosexuals "would go to hell."

So, Panozzo threw all of his energy into music. He began his music career at age seven when he and his twin brother John took drum lessons from their uncle. John Panozzo proved to be the better drummer, so Chuck switched to guitar. Over the next few years, the Panozzos’ learned to read music, developed increasingly good chops on their instruments and by age 12 were confident young musicians.

The boys in the band

"That summer, our neighbor Dennis DeYoung from across the street, a kind of a hot shot, says that he plays an instrument and can he come tomorrow," Panozzo remembers. "I didn’t like him, he was older and went to public school. But he came down and he could play--the keyboard, or accordion, like nobody’s business. So I said to my brother, ‘This is the guy.’ All summer we played in this little band. Played weddings, anniversaries, bowling banquets around Chicago.

"By the time we hit high school, we said, ‘Enough of this stuff.’ It’s our bread and butter, but now we’re teenagers and the world is changing, it’s the Beatles. We became a copy band. We listened to all the popular songs on the radio and we played those. We played all the high school gigs in the city. We never did clubs because we were too young. By the time we were old enough to play clubs, we had gotten a record deal."

In 1972, Styx released its first album with Wooden Nickel Records. Panozzo was teaching high school during the day and recording at night. The following summer, he decided to quit teaching to pursue his rock ’n’ roll dreams, promising his skeptical father that he would return to teaching if his music career failed.

However, Styx moved to A&M Records and put together a string of hit singles--"Lady" in 1975, "Come Sail Away" in 1978 and "Babe" in 1979--to establish themselves as a successful recording and touring rock band.

The critics often disparaged the band and its music, perhaps turned off by lyrics that ventured away from typical rock fare, and instrumental arrangements that owed as much to Europe’s progressive and glam bands as the average American guitar-driven rock band.

Nonetheless, fans loved Styx and the Chicago rockers landed seven albums in the Billboard Top 40 between 1975 and 1984, including Paradise Theater which reached number one in January of 1981.

Perfect cover

The rock star life was a perfect place to hide for a closeted gay man in the ’70s, according to Panozzo. However that cover came at a huge personal cost.

"I would go out, but never said what I did and never brought it to the band," he says. "It was a perfect cover-up because we were adored by all these fans, many female fans, and everyone thinks ‘girls, girls, girls’ and I could have cared less.

"So that was a cover-up but personally, it left me like an adolescent. I wasn’t able to make the transition that I saw a lot of gay guys go through, in terms of relationships. Also, all the traveling we did. I was alone a lot of the time. We’d play in front of 14 or 15 thousand people sometimes, and at the end of the show, I went home alone, I sat in the hotel room alone."

Throughout much of his career, Panozzo feared that if the public learned that he was gay, the band’s success would be jeopardized. In fact, he assumed he’d be forced to leave the band. However the increasing pressure of being closeted began to take its toll, and Panozzo finally began to assert his identity.

"I appeared in a San Francisco-style hair cut for the Equinox [promotional] picture," Panozzo says. "At that point I started to establish my identity as a style that was contrary to what rock and roll was all about. I never had the hair. I’d say ‘How can I compete with you blondies, I’m the bass player.’ That was my statement and they knew ‘Chuck was different’ but I never brought anyone around."

Deathbed promises

Although he had tested positive years before, Panozzo’s health didn’t decline until 1999. Initially he hung onto his music career. Then he and the band did a show at Chicago’s Fairmont Hotel for PBS. Panozzo’s illness was undeniable.

"Tommy in particular thought he was never going to see me again," Panozzo says. "I got a call from him and he said, ‘Chuck, we’re really concerned about you. What can we do?’ I told him I had already started going to the doctor, but hadn’t started my medicine yet."

A physician who he says lacked even basic knowledge about AIDS first diagnosed Panozzo. Soon after, he began treatment at a Chicago clinic known for its aggressive and experimental approach to combating the disease. But things got worse before they got better.

"I started thinking to myself: You waited too long, you’re probably going to die," he remembers. "So this realization came to me, that if I got through being sick, the commitment was there to come out. I was sitting in my room in really bad shape and I’m looking at my gold records and everything and they meant nothing to me. I said to myself, ‘You’ve led a wasted life, you haven’t been yourself.’ So I made two promises to myself. One was that if and when I got better, that I would out myself. And that I would do one more tour with the group. I got to realize both dreams."

Panozzo says he is now in good health. He continues taking experimental drugs, both because he believes the medications have kept him alive, and also because he thinks he owes it to the next generation of PWAs, to be a "test case" for aggressive treatments.

Rocking ‘out’

Panozzo’s public coming out last summer garnered a moderate amount of media attention, but it wasn’t treated as groundbreaking news. Perhaps the reaction, and in some cases, lack of reaction to it reflects shifting attitudes in the rock world.

The mild reaction may be due in part to the fact that while Styx continues to tour successfully and record new music, the band has settled in as a solid force born of ’70s classic rock, and is no longer a rising, chart-climbing act. Also, Panozzo was preceded by Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Rob Halford, and more recently Michael Stipe. Nonetheless, the macho world of man-made rock music isn’t yet totally gay-friendly.

"[Male rock artists] have to prove that they are balls-out and show no signs of being effeminate, and they have to knock up as many chicks as they can find," Panozzo says of the rock culture. "As someone who supports the Equal Rights Amendment for women, I’m pretty liberal and I have nothing to talk about with these guys. But that’s the fabric of rock, they want that raw energy."

Nonetheless, Panozzo finds an interesting twist that also emerges. "It’s so sexual, it’s based on these young girls who aren’t sure what’s going on with themselves and they see these rock stars and there’s this emergence of their own sexuality," he says. "I think that the less intimidating you are to young females, the more they like that. If you are pretty and young and have no hair and are blond, they relate to that, because it looks like them. Metal bands always have a lot of male fans because they are more intimidating. Then I see these guys in long hair and tight pants and I’m thinking: Who’s gay here?"

Source: Gay People's Chronicle