|When I was 16 years old (1977), Styx was one of my favorite bands. I listened to The Grand Illusion on the headphones, staring at the artwork and poster for hours. I was a budding musician, and would learn the bass lines and play along, over and over. As I started to realize that I was gay, I wondered if any rock stars were gay, and looked around for any signs. Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, and Lou Reed all certainly toyed with androgyny and teased me. Styx’s Dennis DeYoung wore clothes that his girlfriend might’ve bought him, and Tommy Shaw was so irresistibly cute. Could they be gay?
I was looking at the wrong guy. In the background was Chuck Panozzo, the bassist with the Caesar haircut and chinstrap beard who helped anchor the band without drawing attention to himself—all the while keeping a secret.
Once punk rock entered my world a few years later, I gave up on Styx and most of the other bands on the radio. I kept tabs on what they were doing, but they no longer spoke to my experiences in life the way punk did. In 1991, as the bassist of Pansy Division, I became part of “queercore,” an underground punk-rock movement. Our underlying purpose was to challenge the accepted norms in the music business regarding being out as a gay person.
That same year, Freddie Mercury passed away, shocking everyone with the news of his AIDS-related illness only a few days before; and Chuck Panozzo, cofounder of Styx, announced that he was gay and living with HIV, but received significantly less press for it since his band had been inactive for several years and had lost favor with audiences. Now in an age where fans threaten to sue musicians who misrepresent their sexuality, Styx is reuniting and Panozzo’s openness is breaking conceptions of what gay rock can be.
Earlier this month I went to see Styx at the House of Blues in Anaheim, a completely sold-out show with people hanging around outside asking for tickets. Inside, the anticipation mounted, and when Styx came on the place erupted. They played hit after hit mixed with some new tracks from their latest album, Big Bang Theory. They were flawless. Tommy Shaw remarked, “None of this would be possible if it weren’t for the Panozzo brothers,” and introduced Chuck. The audience roared their approval and the band dived into the classic “Fooling Yourself.” Panozzo came out for two more songs later in the set, losing a piece of clothing every time he appeared. By the last song, he was down to designer blue jeans with a wallet chain and a black wife beater that revealed a well-defined and worked-out chest and arms. He was definitely stylish—and very hot; hard to believe he’s 57 years old.
"After you survive full-blown AIDS, if you’re not changed by the experience, then there’s something wrong with you.”
The week before, I met with Panozzo and asked him to look back on his life in one of the biggest bands on the planet and what it was like being the “boy in the band.”
I was a closeted gay man who only played on the weekends or when he was back from the road, and I wasn’t back from the road that much in the ’70s. My life was dedicated to music and there was no thought about ever venturing out beyond that. I lived a rather lonely life, but the worst part was going out there on tour and watching everybody else having a good time. Towards the end of the ’70s, I remember standing up on stage, and I was really starting to lose my own identity, and I was thinking there was a piece of me missing that I had traded off for my career.
A career that had been built up to epic proportions. Keep in mind, Styx were huge then. That’s a lot of potential risk if the cat were to be let out of the bag.
In the ’70s, it was anathema to say you were gay and still be in a group. I wasn’t prepared to say, “’Bye, guys, I’m outta here ’cause I’m gay.” I didn’t think it was fair to their career. It’s not easy to get a record deal; it’s very hard for someone, even today, starting in the business to get a multimillion-dollar contract if you’re gay, and I’d worked very hard for it. I was not ready to give that up either. Was I a coward for not coming out sooner? Yeah, I wish that I’d done it earlier, but some circumstances were in my control, some weren’t. If you’re miserable because you can’t be who you are, it’s not going to get better until you can. Timing is everything in life. It took a very serious illness for me to realize that there is no guarantee how long you’re gonna live.
Panozzo lost his best friend of 22 years to AIDS, which became his motivation for coming out. He has spent the last few years surviving a two-year bout with full-blown AIDS, a round of prostate cancer, knee surgery, and the deaths of his mother and twin brother John (Styx’s drummer).
After you survive full-blown AIDS, if you’re not changed by the experience, then there’s something wrong with you. I thought, “If you don’t go out there and publicly proclaim who you are and what you have, then someone’s going to write your obituary and completely distort who you were.” I would prefer to have it come from my own voice while I’m alive. This way they’ll be able to quote me personally. It won’t just be some made-up sensationalized story.
Now living north of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., with his partner, he holds a special place in the hearts of his fans. By deciding to be honest about himself, he can now live freely and enjoy his life, building connections to the gay community that he never could before—and his fans admire and respect the courage it took for him to do so. But Panozzo does have words of caution for certain factions of the gay community.
Yeah, we all would love to [bareback], but that’s not the reality today. It’s a total slap in the face to people who have gone before and died of this illness. I’m here because of research. Someone sacrificed more than what I’m sacrificing right now—they might have sacrificed their life—so I can live. Anybody who disregards or disrespects those guys is making a horrible error. To think of giving any illness to each other as a “gift,” it’s hard to even put my feelings into words. Are you that desperate to be part of a group? Spend a week with me, take these 32 pills with me today, and see how healthy you’ll feel tomorrow. I don’t want to say “don’t do this” or “don’t do that,” but I would like people to think about their actions, because the choice you make can determine whether you live or die. It’s important to let people know that there are still people suffering.
And that’s perhaps the biggest reason for Panozzo’s continuing to play live with Styx against all odds. Panozzo’s position has been filled for the most part by Ricky Phillips (formerly with the Babys, a band that used to open for Styx), but Phillips switches to guitar for Panozzo’s spotlight tunes. These are the highlights of a Styx show. But Panozzo has more than prolonged adulation in mind.
I wanted to go out and prove to myself that I could do this again, because I thought I had lost my talent, I thought I had lost everything. And it was just unacceptable for me to think that. I still have the desire to perform, to try to make a statement just by my presence alone. I’m not that guy in the back anymore. I’m the guy who can come out front, be myself, and be more connected to the fans. Hopefully that will inspire people, inspire younger musicians to say, “Hey, this is now a possibility.” And I have told the band that I will never back down again if anyone asks me if I’m gay. Rock and roll is about rebellion, and what could be more rebellious than to say that you’re gay?
Seeing Panozzo on stage brought tears to my eyes. I used to ridicule those who would not risk their careers to come out to us. But after seeing what he’s been through and the sacrifices he’s made to bring music to our lives over the years, I’ve gained a new respect for this elder rocker. His existence is an amazing testament to his courage.
|The Secret Lives of Gay Rockers|
|Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo talks to Pansy Division’s Chris Freeman about what kept him in the closet—and why he finally came out. Are you listening, Clay?|
|Photographed for Frontiers by Don Tinling|
|Article by Chris Freeman|