|Growing up I was introduced to Styx from my older sister. She brought home an album with a very interesting cover. It has burning ice on it. As interesting as I found the album art, I found the music even more addictive. Equinox by Styx featured some of their most adventurous songwriting to date. "Suite Madam Blue," "Lorelei" and "Light Up" became classics that are still performed by either Styx or Dennis DeYoung to this date. I was hooked and became a fan for life. Like most Styx fans, however, I had no idea that bass player Chuck Panozzo was leading a double life.
Fast forward to present day and Chuck has released a book titled The Grand Illusion where he discusses in detail growing up a gay man. He also discusses his relationship with his late brother John and how his death affected him. Chuck is open and honest about his HIV illness and how he has overcome life threatening obstacles to remain healthy. In the end, Chuck’s message is one of hope and love. He wants to teach us that it is okay to be different and that we should be more accepting of one and other – even if that other person is gay.
I found my discussion with Chuck to be very interesting. He is open but at the same time battles shyness. He is not as comfortable being interviewed as Tommy Shaw, James Young or Dennis DeYoung. Chuck has been through much drama and emotional trauma in his life and now he is able to share with us the story of who he is.
Despite hard times, hard decisions and the loss of his twin brother, Chuck remains a happy man. Don’t be fooled though. It is not easy for him to be happy. He realizes he could use his being gay, his being sick or the losses he as suffered as an excuse to sit on the pity pot for the rest of his life. Instead of sadness or anger, Chuck wants acceptance and peace and to be an example for others. What follows is an in-depth interview with a brave man. Read on to have your eyes, and hopefully your heart, opened a bit wider than before.
Jeb: Let’s talk about your book. Why did you feel the need to come out and do this at this time?
Chuck: I felt the opportunity was there. A lot of people over the years have told me that I should write a book about Styx but I didn’t want to write a book about JY or Dennis. I wanted to write a book about Chuck. JY came up to me and said, "This is the first book about Styx to be written." I said, "JY, this is a book about Chuck. It is a book about a coming of age boy who realizes that he is very different." The book is about my experience and all the hurdles I had to jump over to become who I am today. The message is for all people who feel different to be strong and not be intimidated by others. Don’t let the government or religion tell you who you are. It is not your problem; it is their problem. I figure that other people can write about the other guys. I don’t want to trash anybody in my band in my book.
Jeb: But people love to choose sides and trash people in Styx.
Chuck: If you read the book it is my story. It is not Dennis’ story or JY’s story or Tommy’s story. These are my words and most people have respected my words and I am very proud of that.
Jeb: Did the timing being right make this easier for you to do?
Chuck: Timing is everything in life. I am going to be 59 years old this year. I was so quiet in the past about my sexuality. I don’t want people to identify me with being gay. I want them to identify me with the things they always new but who happens to be different than the general population. I think it is a challenging book for a lot of our fans but I also think it is a reflective book that will make people think.
Jeb: Your book is not just about your sexuality. It is about your life.
Chuck: I have been doing a lot of interviews and everyone keeps saying I was coming out of the closet. I tell them that I came out of my wardrobe case as that is how I have lived for 37 years. That is actually a good insight into my world. When I outed myself in front of the Human Rights Campaign I made an open statement that it is not my job to out people. My job is to let them know that when their time comes they can make a decision and accept their own reality and become fully human. I think that is an important message whether you are straight or gay. As long as there is a government or a religion telling you can’t do this or that then it is dangerous. If you don’t say it yourself then someone else is going to say it about you. I make a comment in my book that parents need to give their children unconditional love. Look at a puppy and how they give unconditional love. All any of us really need is for our parents to love us that way.
Jeb: What advice would you give a parent who has a child who is gay and is open about it?
Chuck: Love them and tell them it makes no difference to you. If the person is going to be sexually active then you have make sure they are being responsible. Love them for who they are. They are no different than they were two days ago. They are still the same person you knew and loved before they came out of the closet. I see too many young gay people thrown out of the house at a young age because they admit they are gay. Where do they have to go? To the streets? That will only lead to drugs and prostitution. Don’t force them into that.
My book has opened doors for a lot of people. I have people telling me that they read the book and they cried. I have people telling me their favorite nephew is gay. The reach has been far beyond what I could have imagined. I even got an email from a young man who is autistic and how he got made fun of in school. In this day and age this is unacceptable. I used to teach school and educators must let these young people know that they are worthy. If they don’t then they are not doing their job.
I don’t want to get on a soap box because my life has a lot of laughter in it as well but I have to tell you that once I decided to live my life as an openly gay man that a huge burden was lifted off of me. Living a double lifestyle is draining and impossible to keep up with.
Jeb: Styx had Tommy Shaw in the band. There had to be girls everywhere. You are a rock star and you were supposed to live that kind of life. How did that effect you?
Chuck: I lucked out because we had three guys who were married and not one of those wives was going to allow a groupie to walk across that white line. If they would have tried then they would have had their legs chopped off below the knees. Basically, the more dominant of the two were the wives so there was none of that. We had the traditional stuff like women wanting me to sign their breasts or their butt. I would sign whatever they wanted but I wished they would have taken a shower first.
Growing up I was very shy. I was also very sensitive. I know what it is like to be a young kid and know you are different. I know that if you say anything then you might get kicked out of the house or they might beat you and say that they don’t love you because you brought shame to the family. It is a lot of pressure for a young person to be under. I think if parents look at it that way – if they put themselves in their child’s shoes then they might behave in a more mature manner. They need to realize that their son or daughter is just as worthy today as they were yesterday. I think they need to continue to be a part of their life.
Jeb: You grew up Italian Catholic and I grew up German Catholic.
Chuck: I was in a German Seminary so I know what that is like. We had a priest who would come in every day and beat us with a leather belt. He actually introduced me to S&M. The joke goes that he would come in every day and beat us and he is dressed in black and there is a cross on the wall. Something weird was going on [laughter]. I developed that kind of sense of humor to put my own spin on things to make things more bearable.
Jeb: You had a twin brother. You were not identical twins but you were very close.
Chuck: We shared an incredible bond. We shared our personal as well as our professional lives together. We were so close that sometimes he would accidently call his wife Chuck. I told him that was alright but that I didn’t want him to call me Debbie [laughter]. John was very different than I was but he was very accepting of me. At the end of his life he was very sick with his illness of alcoholism. It was very sad. If I could have wrote the script then I would have had a very different ending. I really don’t want his legacy to be of John the Boozer. I want it to be a musical legacy for his drumming.
Jeb: At what age did John know that you were gay?
Chuck: I told him when I was 21. He told me, "Now I know why you were different." He didn’t quite know how to put his finger on it. We grew up in the south side of Chicago. We woke up to the sound of steel mills and to the Sherman Williams factory. It was very blue collar and if you were a little odd then it showed. John always had my back. I was in grade school one day and this kid stole my hat off my head. I said, "John, that kid stole the hat off my head" and he walked up to the kid and said, "If you knock my brother’s hat off his head one more time then I am going to punch you in the mouth." I knew I had my champion right then.
Jeb: Instead of your twin he sounds like your older brother.
Chuck: He was in many ways. One day he pronounced himself as the dominate twin. I told him that he had been watching too many animal stories. We used to really tease each other. We were so very different. John had no body hair and I matured very young and still have more body hair than I know what to do with. He used to tell me that if I took my shirt off it looked like I had a mohair sweater on. I would tell him that sounded funny coming from someone who couldn’t even grow a mustache. We were brothers. I honestly think that if you could have put us both together then you would have made the perfect person. We really shared everything together.
Jeb: John had the disease of alcoholism. You were keeping a lot of emotions inside and you were insecure and sensitive. I would have thought that you would have developed that kind of problem. How did you avoid it? You mentioned the seminary. Were you religious?
Chuck: I think insanity was a better choice for me. I really looked inside of myself and I knew that I was not wrong about what I was feeling. I went to the seminary and I quickly discovered that this was a corporation. The church is a 2000 year old business. Organized religion has very little to do with spirituality. The church didn’t give me spirituality in the way that I know it today. I have calmed down on the church a bit because there are a lot of gay priests. This is an institution that has made men wear dresses for over 2000 years – what do they expect? I know that is a smart-ass remark but there is a lot of truth to that. I find the fact that the church covering up priests who molest children to be more scandalous than anything a gay man could ever do.
Jeb: The Styx community has been very supportive of you. Did you worry about that?
Chuck: I knew that I either could do this or I could just live the life I had before. There was no middle ground. After going through a profound illness and coming out alive it changes you. Tommy Shaw once told me, "I am afraid I will never see you alive again." Those are pretty powerful words. My recovery took over two years and was not all that easy. I knew that if I made it through this then I deserved to give myself a life. I also owed it to a community that is larger than myself. I knew that because I was a celebrity that I could make a difference and that if I didn’t do that then it would be criminal. I could not just go, "I am better now. Who gives a crap about anybody else?" I think that anyone who goes through a profound illness and then walks away and does nothing has just wasted his second chance at life.
Jeb: How did you get better? I didn’t know anyone could recover from HIV to the point you have.
Chuck: I told a buddy of mine in 1991 that I had tested positive for HIV and that he should be tested. He told me that he could not be tested because he would lose his job. I said, "You are going to die because you are going to lose a job?" When the doctor told me I was positive I asked what I should do and she said, "Go home." I was rather depressed about that. I told my friend that we would make a pact. We both said if either of us saw the other one getting sick then we would both go up and take the next step. We saw a lot of our friends dying from taking AZT. The week before I had been diagnosed with HIV a friend of mine who was taking AZT jumped out of a high rise window and killed himself. They were keeping people alive in the most miserable conditions. Thank God we don’t see that sort of thing in the treatment today.
Jeb: Are you saying the treatment was making people go crazy?
Chuck: It made them nuts and it made them sicker than they could have ever imagined. They were the first round of guinea pigs. My doctor told me during the first year of my treatment that they did a lot of experiments on me. I was not a fool. I had a lot of HIV related illnesses. I knew that I was not going to die at the time from HIV but I was afraid that I might die from an HIV related illness. I had skin cancer and I luckily beat that. My friend eventually got sick and I visited him in 2000 but he got to the point that I wasn’t allowed to see him anymore because they were blasting him with huge doses of chemotherapy. The doctor told me that he was not taking what they were telling him very seriously. The reason was that his family never came to see him once. I spoke with his mother after he passed away at his service. She asked me how long I had known him. I told her I knew him for 22 years. She said, "Oh that is good. Goodbye." I had to call his job to tell them that he passed away. People would run into me and ask how he was and I would have to tell them that he passed away. It was terrible. You should never have to live by the shame/blame routine. A disease is a disease. If someone gets cancer because they smoked to much you don’t tell them they deserved it. If you eat too much and have a heart attack no one says, "We are not going to help you recover from your heart attack because you ate too much." I am very lucky that there were doctors out there that were willing to take a risk and I owe them my life.
Jeb: You were diagnosed in 1991?
Chuck: I was diagnosed with HIV in ‘91. I have to tell you about my mother. I told her and she didn’t want to hear about it. She just couldn’t accept my reality. When she left then my circle was not complete. That leaves a fractured psyche. You know you are worthy but that you are not worthy of their unconditional love. You know they love you but you know they are in fear of what people will say. I have forgiven her. She was born at the turn of the century and she lived in a different time.
Jeb: Could you have talked this way ten years ago?
Chuck: In the 70's I knew that if I came out then I would have to leave the band. If someone had come out and said, "There is a fag in Styx so I am not going to buy that record." I had four other careers to think of. What was I going to do? Go back to teaching? It is a nice occupation but it was not equal to what I was doing. I knew that I was going to be silent for a long time. I didn’t want the guys to blame me for the failure of a record.
In the 80's HIV and AIDS came along. We had a President that could not even say the word let alone deal with it. It became a religious and political issue instead of a medical issue. I think history will prove that to be a very shameful time in our country. The first people to suffer from this illness were eradicated instead of dealt with. Now the disease has spiraled out of control. We have to move on and educate people. I am sure parents struggle with accepting if their son or daughter is gay. They need to ask themselves if they brought that child into the world to please them or are they more concerned with their child being happy.
Jeb: You are not introverted anymore. I would have to guess that your experience and coming out has given you strength and changed you.
Chuck: I remember reading my brother’s obituary and I thought, "This is not my brother. This is a stranger." They didn’t even know him. When I first got sick it took me a while to buy into taking the medication. I decided that while I was going through it I would write my own obituary so some jerk doesn’t write about who I was and what I was about. That motivated me. You can only live with secrets for so long before you become insane. It is not necessary to live that lie in this day an age. It is shameful if someone feels that way.
Jeb: You got sick. John died. You mother died. You went through a lot of bullshit. Are you angry at all?
Chuck: What is my choice? I could be bitter and angry but what will that gain me? Do I like every aspect of how it played out? Of course I don’t. Would I have liked to have had my parents say that they accept me for who I am? Of course I would have but that was not going to happen. I have to accept it and move on and share what I went through with others. I know that in every place all over the world there are others going through it. If there is any saving grace for what I went through it is for me to be a better person.
Jeb: Do you accept others who don’t want to do what you have done?
Chuck: I think it is their choice. Younger people have it tough. I think they should think it over. Younger people are having sex earlier and earlier in their life. They don’t want to get booted out of school or out of their house. The consequence of that can change your entire life. Men who are older who refuse to speak out – I will give them a pass. If they are not willing to speak out for themselves then I can’t make them. If I don’t make a statement about who and what I am then I lack courage as a human being and I choose to let someone else fight my battle. I don’t want to be that kind of person.
Jeb: On a musical level – getting away from the gay thing – what was it like having the rhythm section of Styx be two brothers?
Chuck: When we were younger we used to have brotherly fights and really go at it. As we got older we played it out and got close. We were very close musically and we would not even have to think what the other was doing.
Jeb: You actually founded Styx with Dennis DeYoung.
Chuck: John and I had a little band and Dennis came down with a Bobby Rydel hairdo and an accordion and asked if he could join our band. We told him we would forgive him for having an accordion but he could join. He could play like an adult even then. He was a great showman. You could tell that Dennis knew what he was doing from day one. I played rhythm guitar at the time. We understood our role at a young age and we knew what had to offer. Our first New Years Gig was in 1962 and I was thirteen years old. Our first record deal was 37 years ago. I was teaching school and recording the album at night. I remember telling my dad that I wasn’t going back to my teaching position – I was 22. He said, "You are going to be a bum." I told him that I was a lot of other things but I was not a bum. I told him that it was his fault for making me take all those music lessons. I said, "This is an opportunity at age 22. If I walk away from it then it is not going to come back later. It will be gone." I didn’t want to live my life wondering ‘what if?’ I have heard a lot of people say, "If only my parents had let me be me then things would be different." Don’t blame them. Go through it and realize that there are other ways for you to gain your goal.
Jeb: Had you ever played with a different drummer?
Chuck: It was always Johnny and I. When he passed away I had to play with Todd. I had to realize that I was either a professional or that the only reason I could play bass was because I played with my brother. I played a song with Todd and he is an incredible drummer. I told him that the only conversation we ever had to have was if I rushed him or if he rushed me. We have never had to have that conversation. He is a great guy. It was a great experience. Now I feel like I am standing shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best musicians on the road today.
Jeb: Styx has always been a great live band.
Chuck: Our goal has always been to never give a bad show. We don’t care if there is one person or a million people we have to give a good show. We have an obligation to do that. We are exhibitionists. If you are not that and you are in a band then you need to get off the stage. If you don’t care what you are doing then why would should anyone else care. We always had great showmen and we still do. I am more laid back but I still feel like I am there too.
Jeb: Where is being a musician on your priority list?
Chuck: I just came back from a two week tour of the UK which I enjoyed very much. I am more fulfilled as a musician than I was in the earlier years. I found that touring as young men was a great way to become a great band – both recording and performing. What I enjoy about it now is the fact that it came around again. A lot of bands from our era are not around anymore. We are still doing it. We are doing a forty city tour this year with Def Leppard. I cannot be in a better place. I have committed to the entire tour.
Jeb: This is the most you have played with the band in years.
Chuck: I was very ill and it took me a very long time to recover. The skin cancer I had was terrible. They froze them off every chance they would get but I would have what they call streamers. They would break and blood would come flowing down my back. Where are you going to go then – to the bathroom to patch yourself up. Until they got that under control there was no going anywhere. It took me a long time to get adjusted to my medication. I had to think of my health first. I cannot survive on pizza and take twelve types of medication. I have to make the tour manager very aware that I need more than pizza. He likes pizza – I can tell because he keeps getting fatter and fatter. But Chuck can’t live on pizza or he is going to get sick again. I give him a guilt trip about that. They understand that it is challenging what I am going through. I don’t want to be the guy in the corner feeling sorry for himself. Anyone can give up. There are those who are so sick that they can’t help it. But as long as I have a certain amount of health then I have to be the way I am. I don’t want to come off too philosophical. I am a regular person but I have a lot of time to think of these things. My book is from my heart. They are my words and they about issues that I really care about.
Jeb: You really do care.
Chuck: Let me tell you about an interview I did with a young gay musician for a magazine. It was longest interview I have ever given. I told him once the interview was over we should start talking about music. Sure enough I did some benefits for him. We played the Gay Games in Wrigley Field in Chicago. He wrote a song that I produced and it became a # 1 hit on the Gay Charts. I told the guys in Styx that I had a # 1 on the Gay Charts. They said, "What is that?" I said, "Do you remember the hits we used to have ten years ago? This is a gay one." They finally understood that Chuck was cooking again. This inspires me to continue.
When I grew up there were no role models. There was no one that I could to and say, "They are just like me." What you heard was, "There goes a florist." They were so clueless. They were just thinking what they knew.
Jeb: The title for the book is so fitting.
Chuck: I told JY the name – I love him but not in the biblical sense. I had to tell him that the book was about lies but not the lies in the band but the lies I told myself about how sick I was becoming. How could I not use Styx as part of the subplot? I think people see the book for what it is.
Jeb: Were Tommy and JY afraid of this due to all the Styx bashing that goes on?
Chuck: I don’t think Tommy was afraid of it. JY asked me to turn the book over to our attorneys. I told him, "Absolutely not. When you write your book you can have as many attorneys as you want read it." I think there was a contractual agreement with Dennis that there were certain things I could not mention. I didn’t say anything about Dennis that didn’t come from a newspaper. If I made up stories I would deserve to be in court but if it is public record then it is just me being honest. It is counterproductive for me to say I hate so and so and I think they are a jerk.
Jeb: You seem to not be worried about political correctness and you seem to be a straight shooter so I am going to ask a hard question. Does Dennis get a bad deal from the breakup of the band?
Chuck: I think Dennis got the deal he wanted. I think Dennis wanted something different than what the band wanted. Dennis is doing what he wants and we are doing what we want. The crime is that we could have been doing it together nine years ago. If Dennis and his manager came to me and said they wanted to have a meeting and that even though everyone harbors ill feelings we should get together and talk I would say no way. Why would I want to go through that kind of a set up? I was too sick to be that involved back when it went down. But when it came time to vote I was the one whose vote would make the difference. Suddenly I was the most popular guy. They were all kissing my ass but before they were going, "Who cares about him? He’s just the bass player." It is a shame how it turned out.
Jeb: Do you have the ill will to Dennis that the fans think is there?
Chuck: I think the fans can be absurd. I have been on the blogs and I just shudder. It was nine years ago. My life goes on.
Jeb: Have your read the other Styx book that is out written by Sterling Whitaker titled The Grand Delusion?
Chuck: I read a few excerpts of it. I read Sterling’s biography. He is a journalist and he found a niche because no one has written a book about Styx. My book is not about Styx; it is about my life. I am sure his book is informative. But my book is very different. My book comes from a band member and not from a bunch of interviews that are twenty or thirty years old. I think mine is a little bit more in the now. My book is in book stores. I did an audio interview in New Orleans and the interviewer told me that he was impressed that I was not trying to sell him my book. I told him that it was a story, a coming of age story that we all play out. I will say it again: We need to be accepting of our children and love them for who they are and if they are different that does not mean they are defective. To get that message across is my goal.
Jeb: You might say that my last question makes me a bit of a wise ass...
Chuck: Oh, I never would have guessed that, Jeb [laughter]. I can take it.
Jeb: Who had a harder time coming out – you or Rob Halford of Judas Priest?
Chuck: I love the fact that Rob came out before me. I love the fact that he talked about challenging your fans. I was just in Styx; he was in a heavy metal band.
|Welcome to the Grand Illusion|
|An Interview with Styx Bass Player Chuck Panozzo|
|by Jeb Wright|
|This article was written for CLASSIC ROCK REVISTED.|