Gay rocker Chuck Panozzo is no longer quiet or 'discreet' about being gay and having HIV

Friday, March 17, 2006

The words "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" have become a modern day mantra. Almost everybody has fantasized about being a rock star. Adolescent boys imagine playing to thousands of screaming fans in packed arenas.

Backstage tales of groupies offering themselves to famous musicians have become the stuff of legend. The jet-set lifestyle, trashing hotel rooms, being able to dress outrageously. Rock stars have exceptional lives as well as creating timeless songs that live forever.

For Wilton Manors, Fla., resident Chuck Panozzo, all of the glamour of rock stardom isn't a fantasy. It's been part of his life for more than 30 years as one of the founders and ongoing band members of the famed music group, Styx.

But what sets him apart from his contemporaries is that in the macho world of rock, Panozzo lives as an out gay man.

Through Styx, Panozzo has reached rock immortality. He plays bass for the group, the first musical act to ever have four consecutive triple platinum albums. They remain one of the most popular musical acts in history. Their hits stretched from the �s to the �s, and include the songs "Lady," "Babe," "Mr. Roboto," "Show Me the Way," and "Come Sail Away."

In mid-March, Panozzo flew to New York to attend this year's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, where he was the guest of A&M Records founders Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, who received a lifetime achievement award.

Styx still plays scores of dates per year, sometimes a hundred or more. The band often plays a double bill with other classic rock acts like Journey, REO Speedwagon or Kansas. The bands attract similar sell-out crowds that have become multi-generational. A Styx audience will range from an original fan now in his or her 50s, to a 15-year-old.

"We have lasting appeal because we play melodies that people can hum, and we have lyrics that are meaningful," Panozzo believes. "Nobody is fabricating our songs through us, nobody is making us through 'American Idol.' We had to make it our way and be true to our craft.

"It doesn't shock me that other acts aren't around after a few years,"he adds. "If you can't really play your instrument, or the only time you can really sing is in the studio, how can you possibly perform live?"

PANOZZO SMILES AT THE MENTION of the film, "Almost Famous," an ode to the free-wheeling rock and roll lifestyle of the �s. At the end of the film, the fictional rock band breaks out into a series of confessions as they experience plane trouble. One of the members tells everyone he is gay, causing the other characters to pause for a moment before going back to their impending doom.

"It made me so winsome about the experience," Panozzo says with a smile. "That is one of the best pseudo-documentaries of what being on the road was like. It was really representative of a whole era of music."

Panozzo says the tales of groupies and backstage debauchery aren抰 just myth. He says there were many times when he wished he were bisexual. Even today, he still gets sexual advances from women. At a recent show in Los Angeles, a pretty girl offered him a massage.

"All I thought is, 'Do you have a brother?'" Panozzo jokes.

In the early years of the band, Panozzo says, the other Styx members knew he was gay and quietly accepted it. Because there was so much sex on the road, and because many of the band members were married, most of the sexual exploits of all the band members was kept quiet.

So on the occasion that Panozzo brought a guy back to his hotel room, that was done discreetly and quietly as well, he says.

"They accepted what I did," Panozzo says of his bandmates. "It was isolating at times. It was lonely at times. But there were occasions when you would get that break and actually make sexual contact with another human being."

Though his bandmates put two and two together and knew of Panozzo's sexuality in the early days, it never came up in conversation, he says-�-not even with his twin brother John, who was the band's drummer until he died in 1996, due to complications from a long battle with alcohol.

Panozzo describes it as being similar to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

"My brother and Dennis [DeYoung, the group's lead vocalist] were close neighbors," Panozzo recounts. "If they couldn't figure it out, I don't know what more I could have done. They didn't see me with girls, and I had better taste than them," he smiles.

IN 1996, THE BAND REUNITED AFTER a nearly seven-year break up.

By then, Panozzo's fellow band members heard he had come out. Worried that he would be "one of those guys who act up," he says, they asked if he would make a fuss about it. Panozzo reassured them he was just there to play his music.

However, a brush with death in 1998 changed his vow of silence.

Panozzo was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. In 1998, he developed full-blown AIDS. He made a commitment to himself that if he pulled through it, he would not go backwards and be quiet from fear of rejection. It was the right time to move beyond that, and become more vocal and politically active, he says.

"It's like being a recovering alcoholic," Panozzo says. "You go through the worst part of your illness and start going on the road again, talking about safe sex. You let people know if they play, they better play safe. HIV may not seem as important to a lot of people now. There are drugs that exist that didn't before. But you are married to those medications until things change. And if that happens in your 20s, you have 50 years of it."

Panozzo moved to Florida from his native Chicago more than five years ago, after losing his mother, brother and best friend within a five-year period. Everywhere he went in Chicago he was reminded of lost loved ones, and he wanted a change of scenery.

His best friend passed away from AIDS, and that loss, coupled with his own bout with the disease, is what motivates him to speak out on the issue, Panozzo says.

These days, Panozzo looks much younger than his 57 years, and wearing his shades in-doors, he looks every bit the rock star. He lives in Wilton Manors with his partner of three years, portrait artist Tim McCarron.

When he first moved to Florida, Panozzo lived on Venetian Isle in South Beach. But he found himself coming up to Fort Lauderdale to hang out, where he feels more comfortable. So he eventually moved.

"This is the first community I have lived in where it is probably more than half gay," Panozzo says. "I find that very relaxing. I like the idea that I can walk outside and be myself with my neighbors. That experience to me is the fulfillment of a longtime dream."

Panozzo is busy with a multitude of projects. In addition to playing with Styx, he is working on his autobiography with writer Michele Skettino. An out gay man in the classic rock scene is a rarity. For that reason alone, the book should garner a lot of interest.

Throw in Panozzo's travels and the famous people he has worked with, and you are bound to have one heck of a read. Panozzo plans on calling the book, "The Grand Illusion," also the name of a best selling 1977 Styx album.

"This may sound preachy and corny, but having gone through HIV and AIDS, I know I am alive because there are other people who didn't make it," Panozzo says. "I owe a certain amount of respect. When I come out on stage, I represent more than Styx and more than myself. I feel I am representing an undervalued community, especially in this musical genre."
Out of the Styx