Chuck Panozzo recalls the moment when he couldn't live the lie anymore.

The Styx bassist was sitting in his high-rise Chicago condominium in 1999, gazing down at Lake Michigan, a few days before New Year's Eve. There were gold and platinum records on the wall, but his health was at an all-time low, and AIDS-related sickness had ravaged his once-stocky frame, which had dropped to 130 pounds.

"I'm sitting there going, 'What a wonderful career, but your personal life sucks,' " Panozzo remembers, sipping some tea on a patio near Yerba Buena Gardens during a recent San Francisco visit. " 'These albums are not going to come off the wall and hug you. They're not going to comfort you and caress you.' I told myself that if I made it through this illness, I would dedicate myself to living an authentic life. I wasted the first 50. I'm not going to waste whatever I had left."

The decision to come out was the hard part for Panozzo, who publicly announced that he was gay in 2001, and has resumed touring with Styx part time - with plans to attend this Saturday's Konocti Harbor show and Tuesday's show at the Sleep Train Pavilion in Concord. Since his health rebounded enough so that he can play in front of crowds again, Panozzo says, fans have been overwhelmingly supportive. The Styx co-founder recently wrote a book about his experiences, "The Grand Illusion," and set up his Web site,, which focuses on his AIDS activism.

Pundits have been speculating for years what will happen when the first gay professional athlete still participating in a male-dominated sport comes out. But in the almost equally testosterone-charged world of hard rock, punk and heavy metal, several artists have come out in the past decade - with strong support from their fans.

Judas Priest singer Rob Halford resumed touring with the heavy metal band two years ago, after coming out on MTV in 1998. Two-thirds of the groundbreaking punk band Husker Du - Bob Mould and Grant Hart - are gay, and have maintained successful solo careers.

Halford spoke about coming out in an interview with NPR host Terry Gross two years ago (worth listening to just to hear the reserved Gross enunciate the song title "Ram It Down"). Halford said the Judas Priest followers treated him well, and a new 2005 album was acclaimed by critics and fans.

"I think it destroys the myth of the so-called intolerance and homophobia that was supposedly existing in heavy metal," Halford said on NPR. "Having said that, if I had done this in the 1970s or '80s, things might have been a bit more difficult. But that's kind of a debatable question because we never really confronted the issue at that time."

Unlike Halford, who dresses in leather and arrives onstage on a motorcycle, Panozzo is low key in person - and doesn't talk like the typical activist. He dresses more like a real estate agent, and speaks quickly but softly as he communicates his heartfelt message.

Despite co-founding the group with his brother John and Dennis DeYoung, Panozzo spent most of his 30 years with the band almost hiding in the background. The bassist says his music career actually helped him with the awkwardness of knowing he was gay but not being able to come out to his family and friends in his working-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. He says he was teased for being different when he was younger, but few questioned his coolness when his band became a local success.

"Those early childhood days were a struggle, but when I could become someone else through my music, it allowed me to feel accepted," Panozzo says. "I earned my stripes through the band."

Panozzo came out to his brother, the original Styx drummer, when they were younger. But his sexual orientation mostly went unspoken until his illness become impossible to hide. At one point in the late 1990s, the band got back together for a rehearsal, and Panozzo barely had the strength to pluck the strings of his bass guitar.

He also viewed the lives of closeted celebrities such as Liberace, Rock Hudson and Freddie Mercury as important lessons. Queen front man Mercury famously guarded his sexual orientation and didn't publicly acknowledge his HIV infection until shortly before he died in 1991.

"I found that tragic," Panozzo says. "Here was this brilliant man, and it now it's too late. It's over. How glorious it would have been for him to say who he was (when he was recording and touring)."

Panozzo's health wasn't his only wake-up call. His brother John died from alcohol abuse in 1996. And when Panozzo started to bounce back from his own health scare, a longtime friend died of an AIDS-related illness in 2000.

After his friend's death, "I knew I wanted to live my life as an openly gay man and that I wanted to help others struggling with this issue," Panozzo wrote in "The Grand Illusion."

In July 2001, he publicly came out in front of 1,000 people at a Human Rights Campaign dinner.

Panozzo says his bandmates have been supportive, and coming out has in many ways strengthened his relationship with Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw, who endorsed the book with a heartfelt note for the inside cover.

"Tommy, because he went through so many struggles in his life, understands hard work," Panozzo says, mentioning Shaw's issues with drugs earlier in his career. "He knows how healthy it is to be yourself."

When the group was at its peak in the late 1970s and 1980s, it was difficult to be a gay man in a rock outfit - even a somewhat cerebral band such as Styx. The low point arguably came in the late 1980s, when Axl Rose made national news with an anti-gay slur in the song "One in a Million" - and then refused to apologize. A year later, Skid Row lead singer Sebastian Bach wore a T-shirt onstage with the slogan "AIDS kills fags dead."

But by the time Panozzo came out, times had changed considerably. Faith No More keyboardist and Imperial Teen front man Roddy Bottum came out in the mid-1990s. After their breakout success with the "Dookie" album, Green Day in 1994 invited the San Francisco queercore punk band Pansy Division on tour for a few months in 1994. San Francisco's NOFX has included pro-tolerance messages in several recent songs.

Panozzo says he's never regretted his decision to come out, and touring has gone even better than expected. Panozzo, 59, is in good enough shape now to wear a muscle shirt onstage. And while he still monitors his health, this summer he embarked on a 43-city tour opening for Def Leppard. (Styx had an acrimonious split with Dennis DeYoung several years ago, but core members Shaw and James "JY" Young are still with the band.)

Panozzo, who lives in Florida now with his partner, Tim, says the crowds are supportive when he performs onstage. But more important are the smaller interactions behind the scenes, whether he's talking with people through his work on the Human Rights Campaign or meeting gay fans on the road. Panozzo talks about a vendor he met on tour a few years ago, who let the band member take a sweatshirt when it was cold, and later waited for him outside the tour bus.

"Our tour manager comes in and said someone would like to speak with you," Panozzo recalls. "I said, 'Not another body part to sign.' I pulled an attitude. I didn't want to move."

Panozzo reluctantly dragged himself outside.

"I walked out of the bus, and there's this guy who gave me the sweatshirt. He said, 'I want to thank you for being who you are. I also want you to know that I've been recently diagnosed with AIDS,' " Panozzo remembers. "I said, 'The first thing I want you to do is give me a hug.' With that embrace, I wanted him to know there was nothing wrong with him. That I understood because I was there.

"I said, 'You don't have to suffer in silence. There are people out there who will hold your hand, and make sure you don't fall through the cracks.' "
Peter Hartlaub/Pop Culture:
Styx bassist happily out of underworld
Wednesday, September 12, 2007