The images of 70s and 80s rock bands are stereotypically ones of a decadent life: sold out areas, all night parties, loads of cash and lots of women. But things were different for Styx, the rock band that reached the height of its success in the 80s and spawned the hits “Lady,” “Come Sail Away” and “Too Much Time on My Hands.” For co-founder Chuck Panozzo, a different woman at each tour stop wasn’t the norm because he knew he was gay. And he was in the closet. His twin brother, John, was the other founding member of the group and played guitar. He died in July of 1996. He was closeted.

“In the early 70s, one of the guys [from the band] was asking me if I was gay, and I turned to my brother and I said, ‘He lacks the intellectual and emotional capability of understanding what gay is,’” Panozzo jokes over a phone conversation the week before his latest appearance with Styx in Cohasset last month. Not your typical answer, but then again, Panozzo isn’t your typical rock star. “I would say, ‘He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get the depth of what I’m going through,’” Panozzo laughs.
Not many people would “get it” in the 60s when, in Chicago, the brothers formed The Tradewinds, the band that would eventually evolve into Styx. Over the years, the band has gone through many changes: in their sound, their look, and, most importantly, in the faces on stage. Of the original Styx members — including James Young, Dennis De Young and John Curulewski, as well as the two founders — Panozzo is the only member still touring.

For Panozzo, the band’s history is his history. Diagnosed with HIV in 1991, he continued recording and touring until 1998 when he was forced out due to health issues. He hadn’t been taking care of himself, and told the other members of Styx that he needed to leave the band because he had full blown AIDS. He also told them about his sexuality. “There was a deep concern about my health,” Panozzo says of their reaction. “At one point we had done a PBS fundraiser in Chicago and Tommy Shaw had walked up to me and said, ‘Chuck, I’m afraid I’m never going to see you alive again.’ At that point I started to go to the doctor.”

Not that leaving was an easy decision for Panozzo. “We were recording an album [at the time] and in my mind, all I wanted was to get one more album credit, not knowing that album credit might have been my epitaph,” he says. “It was smart of [Shaw] to finally figure out, you know, Chuck’s in trouble here, and when the guys really realized what was going on with me, I got their full support to get help and get well. That was very reassuring and … made a huge difference for me.”

Coming out happened in stages for Panozzo, first to himself, then to his brother and sister in the late 60s. After telling the band in 1998, Panozzo waited another three years before coming out publicly, at a Human Rights Campaign dinner in 2001. “My biggest fear, like all gay individuals who come out, [was] rejection,” Panozzo says. “I’m not only out to my mom and dad, I’m out to the world. I’m out to 54 million fans now who either say it’s cool or it’s not cool.” Being diagnosed with HIV was one of the reasons Panozzo decided to come out, saying, “it finally got to a point when I … started to get really, really angry with myself.

“Unfortunately for me, my dad had passed away before I had the opportunity to even breach the subject with him,” Panozzo recalls. Coming from a tight Italian family, he says his mother always knew, but would never live to accept it. “She blamed the priest for it [from] when I was in the seminary,” he laughs, “I always kind of chuckled over that one. Yeah, she’s embarrassed; too bad. She’s ashamed; too bad. The fact is there was no shame, there was no blame, and at the end of her life we were never quite able to resolve that.”

Panozzo admits his reservations about telling his band mates came from fear of rejection, as well. “At that point, [staying in the closet was] just to protect myself and to protect my position within Styx,” Chuck says, adding, “It was just not talked about. I was the original inventor of the industry’s ‘don’t ask don’t tell mantra,’ which still haunts me to this day,” he says, laughing.

“You’ve had a choice now to live a life of secrecy and solitude,” he says, reflecting on his time in the closet, “or you can say who you are and have a real life. And it’s up to you.” The fans’ reaction, while never predictable, was yet another thing for Panozzo to worry about, although ultimately it came down to him wanting that real life. “Whoever decides they can handle it, God bless them,” he says, “and those who can’t handle it, sorry. It’s my life now.”

As for the band, Panozzo returned to his original position in September of 1999 after stabilizing his health, a decision that caused him some reservations. “When I started to come back to the group after I had … completely recovered from my bout of full blown AIDS,” Panozzo says, “it was kind of strange to see how they would react to me and to see how I would react to what I would consider a new band. In general, I would say the guys were very happy to see me back on stage. The fan base was certainly thrilled to see me back performing again, so in general it was an extremely uplifting experience.”

After 2001 and the overwhelmingly positive response to his coming out from fans both gay and straight, Panozzo says his life went in yet another new direction. “For me, in particular, it just opened up my world on a professional level [and] on a personal level to an extent that I could never have imagined,” he says. “It really has been an incredible journey. I’m having a very good time in terms of being totally out on stage.”

Panozzo doesn’t feel the need to hide his HIV status any more than he feels he needs to hide his sexuality. “I don’t shrink from saying that,” he says. “I think it’s really important that other gay men or women, or anybody who has a chronic illness or is different, see somebody up there as a role model. The point of my doing this is to make an awareness for other people.” Admitting the music isn’t quite the main focus for him like it was before, Panozzo is active in the fight for equal rights for everyone and has found a new role as spokesperson for HIV and AIDS awareness, as well as cancer survivors. His prostrate cancer has been in remission since 2004. He says it’s common for him to be approached by both men and women who are suffering from a chronic illness, especially HIV and AIDS.

“This is where celebrity, to me, is a force,” he says. “It’s not important to say, ‘Oh a helicopter came and picked me up and took me 15 feet to my next gig.’ That’s stupid. What’s important is what you give back, [and] that’s how I would like to use whatever years I have left. I would like that to be a large part of my legacy, besides the music. I love now being out about who I am.”
Bay Windows
New England's Largest LGBT Newspaper
Rock Star
Written by Anthony King