Supergroups of the 1970s and '80s always looked "gay," with their tight Spandex pants and super-size hair. But aside from Boy George and George Michael, it was impossible to guess who was actually playing for our team in those days.
Now, the news is out: Styx -- one of the most popular stadium bands ever -- was founded by a queer hottie named Chuck Panozzo!
You may not have noticed the muscled, mustached bass player from your seat in Row ZZ at the Big Concert in 1979, but he might have been dreaming about a date with you. At the very least, Panozzo told us, he would have appreciated your throwing him a pair of white jockey shorts -- rather than getting one more satin bra.
In founding Styx, Chuck Panozzo and his straight twin brother, John, helped invent the fantasy-album genre that millions of us slow-danced to at our high school proms or got high to in our parents' garages. Styx concept albums like "The Grand Illusion" and "Paradise Theater" also helped inspire the hilarious movie spoof, "This is Spinal Tap."
Styx was the first rock band to hit the charts with four platinum albums (more than a million sold) in a row. Along with supergroups Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, Journey and Foreigner, Styx dominated the FM airwaves with such megahits as "Babe," "Show Me the Way," "Too Much Time on My Hands" and "Mr. Roboto."
Green Day, the Black Eyed Peas or Coldplay might come closest to matching Styx's peak popularity today. And still no one in those stadium bands is openly gay.
Chuck Panozzo came out in 2001, as a gay man and as HIV-positive. Styx had by then regrouped after breaking up for seven years in the late 1980s. Newly committed to his music and to living his life out and proud, Panozzo spoke to Gay.com from the home he shares with his lover near Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Styx was the first band to have four triple-platinum albums in a row, in the late '70s-early '80s. I think I bought all of them -- on vinyl! What's going on with Styx these days?
Chuck: Well, we're doing 100 shows this year in the U.S. and Canada. Plus, at the end of May, we're going to do a recording of one of our concerts, for cable television.
Wow, a televised concert!
We don't know all the details of it yet. You know, the talent is the last to know everything. But it sounds pretty exciting.
Some highlights from the tour so far?
Every time I get on stage is a highlight for me. It sounds kind of corny, but now that I've outed myself, the whole experience is just so much more rewarding and enriching to me. I get to be me out on that stage, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow band members.
Did you know any closeted gay rockers in the '70s or '80s?
No, unfortunately I didn't. During the '70s, when disco came in, I was totally convinced there were no gay men that liked rock and roll to begin with. I'm goin', "I should be in the Village People."
There were a few times when I was able to break out of the mold, throw a few hints. When we did one album photo shoot, I came in with "San Francisco" cropped hair and a clipped beard and moustache, and the guys all looked at me and went, "What the hell happened to you?"
I'd guess you adopted that look, in part, to impress the boys you wanted to go out with, right?
Well, I wasn't really dating at the time, but when I would go out -- rather discreetly -- I definitely wanted to fit in.
Have you had male groupies?
I've had a few. I've had more recently than I've ever had.
I have a Web site, and one man in Alabama wrote in, and he offered to marry me . . . It's kind of fun when people just acknowledge the fact that they've admired you from afar.
Have male groupies ever thrown up their clothes to you onstage?
Well, one time this doctor from Chicago I knew, he had brought over all these frat boys from British Columbia, and I showed them the bus, and introduced them to the other musicians. Later I'm on stage, and I have a little break between the tunes, and this guy runs up to me and says, "Chuck, I have something for you from the boys." And it's this pair of boxer shorts with Omega letters on them. And I'm looking at these things thinking, "Holey moley! I want to meet the guy who'll fit into these right now!"
So I turned to the guitar tech, and I said, "Slap these on the neck of my guitar with some rock-and-roll tape." Dennis starts playing the beginning of "Come Sail Away," which is so recognizable, and as I'm walking out on stage, there flapping in the wind is this pair of boxer briefs.
Let's play a game: We've gone back in time to 1979. Now I'm gonna give you some pairs of names, and you choose one person from each pair you'd like to give a "backstage pass" to a Styx concert. Remember, everyone is as they were in 1979: Ace Frehley, the cat from Kiss, or Cat Stevens?
I've seen Ace Frehley without his makeup on.
Andy Gibb or Freddie Mercury from Queen?
Freddie Mercury. I thought he was a genius.
Olivia Newton-John or Donna Summer?
I would've said Donna Summer until she went off on her Bible-thumping thing, but now that she's redeemed herself, I must say that I remember being in a club one night and listening to one of her songs and getting off on it, so I would say Donna Summer.
Joe Namath or Sylvester?
Joe Namath! I hate to say it, but football players are hot.
I know it's hard to believe, because I don't have the greatest athletic prowess, but I've been on more football fields and more basketball courts and more baseball diamonds to sing the national anthem. And I always say, "You know, I have a backstage pass. Will someone please give me a locker pass, now?"
Ted Nugent or Bruce Jenner?
Well, I've met Ted, and I do like it when he wears his loincloth, but I would say Bruce -- he is the greatest triathlete in the world.
The guys from Foreigner or the guys from Journey?
Well, I've played with both of them. Now, let me see who's got the better bodies . . . I think when I was younger, I would've gone with Foreigner. Plus we're doin' some shows with them this year, so I have to be [diplomatic].
Now it's totally up to you: What '70s-'80s rock stars would you have wanted to sleep with?
Steven Tyler was very cool. And who did that song, "Simply Irresistible"?
Robert Palmer! We did a gig with him, and I thought the way he dressed was pretty hot. And I also liked Huey Lewis, too, because from what I understand, he was quite a dog.
"Quite a dog"?
He was pretty hung. That's the rumor. Sometimes when you see that onstage, it adds to the enjoyment of a performance.
Some people call groups like Styx "big hair bands." Would you call Styx a "big hair band?"
Yeah, my bandmates worked their hair pretty good. If I had that hair, I'd work it, too.
Well, a lot of people saw Styx and other big hair bands of the '70s and '80s and assumed, because of their flamboyant ways onstage, that the guys were gay. What did that mean for you?
I used to notice, when I was in the dressing room with the guys, they put on more hairspray than I do, they check out their clothes like a hundred times in the mirror more than I do, they have about 20 costume changes, they're putting on makeup and they're passing Aqua Net back to each other . . . I'm like, "Gee, I wonder who the gay guy is?"
How would you describe your current onstage look?
Well, I've just had another pair of leather pants made . . . One night on tour I said to myself, "This is my time for freedom." So I had a leather vest with me; I had a pair of blue jeans on and leather boots. Well, I took my shirt off for "Renegade." I go out there with the cowboy hat on, I had shaved my body hair off my chest, I go up onstage, and a bandmate turns to me and says, "Charles, where's your clothes?" I said, "Back in the dressing room, George. This is rock & roll!" I would never have done that before.
So it's been a good experience, living out of the closet.
No doubt about it. I outed myself at a Human Rights Campaign event [in 2001]. I was national spokesperson for Coming Out Day. Of course I was speaking to the chorus, but I always tell people: 'It's one thing to out yourself in front of your mom and dad. Now try outing yourself in front of 54 million fans!"
What made you decide to come out at that particular time?
In 1991 I was diagnosed with HIV. At that time, the guys in the band pretty much knew I was gay, because we'd had that seven-year hiatus. But I was working under the pressure of, "He's not gonna be one of those guys in ACT-UP, is he?" [To] which I cowardly said, "Of course not!" because I wanted to work after all that time apart.
So in late '98, I had developed full-blown AIDS during one of our rehearsals for "Brave New World" [a tour]. And in one of my dark moments one night, I'm sitting in my apartment, I'm looking at all these gold and platinum records, and I say, "You know, you have all this success, but you have nothing! You're gonna die, and someone's gonna write your obituary, and you're not even gonna have lived the life of a gay man to say what it was."
So at that point I made the decision that if I beat this thing, the first thing I wanted to do was make a statement about opening my life as a gay man, and do whatever I can with my celebrity status to promote gay rights and equal rights for all people. And to educate younger gay men and women, and people in general, about safe sex. It's pretty much that simple.
Were you nervous, going back on the road after getting sick?
The first time I performed was in Las Vegas. The fans saw me onstage, even before I was introduced, and I hear, "Chuck! Chuck! Chuck! Chuck! Chuck!" So by the time I hit the stage, the entire place is standing on their feet chanting my name. It was the most incredible experience ever. I don't think all the fans quite knew what was happening, but the joy of every band member after that song was just . . . That's when I said, "It's back again."
Any major health challenges now, on the road?
The hardest part is when we go through different time zones, my sleeping habits change, my protocol, and I'm always juggling that. So that's why I take a break occasionally, to make sure that my viral load is nondetectable and my T-cells are in the right space.
I won't sacrifice my health for my band again, ever. I feel I have an obligation to all those men and women who went before me who haven't made it, and because of them I'm alive today.
And the band is cool now with your being openly gay?
They've embraced the situation, because they know I'm happy. And the fact that I'm so much more present when I'm on stage, and the fan reaction is so intimate now, that it's just a joyous experience for all of us. They've embraced me as a brother -- a gay brother, in fact.
Now I'm educating them a little. We did a performance in this theater in Boystown in Chicago, and I tried to tell the band, "This is the heart of the gay community. Why don't we put an advertisement in one of the local papers that we're gonna be there?" Well, they had this very lackadaisical attitude about it, but when we got onstage I said, "It's a pleasure and an honor to perform in this theater tonight. Because this is a cornerstone in the heart of the gay community. And I want to thank all my gay sisters and brothers for being here this evening."
That was completely spontaneous, and every chance I get to do that I will do that. I think that if I let that go, I'm closeting myself and my own band again; I can't do that.
What prevented you from coming out earlier, say, in 1981?
It would have been a horrible error. Even in the '70s. The '70s were an extremely difficult time. And in '81, with the AIDS thing happening, that would've been, "Oh, my God!" You're always afraid of rejection, and for my generation, it was like, if you weren't careful, and your parents had enough money, they would send you away to a psychiatric hospital, or they'd kick you out of the house.
And the other part was, I always thought that it was [the band's] career, too, and if we sold one less album, someone might come to me and say, "It's your fault. Because you said you were gay."
At what point do stars stop worrying about how coming out is going to affect sales? After four platinum records, you guys couldn't have been worried about being able to eat.
I think you're always afraid that if your record sales drop, your record company will drop you. And you really do have to be careful. They didn't sign us because we're nice guys; they signed us because they knew we were running hits, and we're a cohesive band. It's called the record business, and I think a lot of entertainers forget that.
Do you think Styx might be coming up with a song about HIV?
I think if I were to ask them to do a collaboration on a song about my experience with having HIV, they would.
I think the closest I came was when Dennis had written a song which was originally titled "Roll Me Away." My brother was in rehab [for alcoholism, which contributed to his early death] at the time, and I had gone out to see him and I'd spent a week with him, and I came back and I said to Dennis, "That title means nothing, Dennis. Try, 'Show Me the Way.' " Because sometimes people have to take us by the hand when we go down our path in life, to make sure that we don't make that left-hand turn and fall off the cliff. So when "Show Me the Way" comes out, it becomes this big religious experience for everybody.
Have fans opened up to you about their own experiences since you came out?
Oh, yeah. We did a show on an Indian reservation and this one guy in his early 40s lent me a sweatshirt. Then later, I'm back on the tour bus, and I get a knock on the door and I'm thinking cynically, "Oh, here comes another [woman's] body part to sign -- if they have a boyfriend, I'll be glad to sign anything." But I go outside and here's the young guy who gave me the sweatshirt. And he says, "I really understand what your health condition is. I want to thank you for coming. And I have something else I want to share with you: I was just diagnosed a month ago with HIV."
And he was freaked. So I said, "The first thing I want to do is give you a big hug." And I hugged him, and I asked him how he felt, and he told me he was depressed, and guilty and having all those feelings that we get, feeling worthless. I said, "You know what? Don't feel any of that. You didn't go out there to get HIV. This disease, just because it's been politicized and religious-ized and just brought down to the most base level, doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with you. It's the people's perception of what HIV is about." That was just such a compelling moment for me.
I understand you're writing a book about your life?
Yeah, I just got my manuscript in. It's tentatively titled "The Grand Illusion."
And what else is coming up for you?
We're trying to figure out a way to go to Gay Pride in New York, because Tim [McCarron, Panozzo's lover] is from New York. I've done Gay Pride before, but we never did it collectively, as Styx. What I'm trying to do is set up a concert for AIDS.
I like being living proof, onstage, for people to see one human being that they can relate to who has HIV, has come out with full-blown AIDS, can function, can perform, and isn't up there hiding in the corner like he used to when I didn't have AIDS and when I was closeted.
The difference between that Chuck and the Chuck who came through this experience is a totally different human being. I want to represent all those individuals who feel disenfranchised, and let them know that if you're different it really doesn't matter; you can make a change, and don't let anybody get in your way. Don't let anybody tell you that you're less than what you are.
Chuck Panozzo's Place Home
|Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo speaks|
|By Marc Breindel|