Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 33 / 17 August 2017
 

Rivers crossed

Books

Chuck Panozzo, out of the rock and roll closet


Bass player Chuck Panozzo (right) performing with Tommy Shaw in the classic rock band Styx.
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The bass player is usually the cool, quiet guy in most rock bands. So when a bass player comes out as gay, then HIV-positive, then writes his tell-all story, it's more than just a sidebar in Creem magazine.

Chuck Panozzo, bass player for the classic rock band Styx, who came out as gay and HIV-positive in 2001, has written his autobiography (with Michelle Skettino) The Grand Illusion: Love, Lies and My Life with Styx (Amacom Books; $24.95). He'll also be making a few appearances at LGBT Pride's main stage and at bookstore signings this week.

When friends asked if his book would be more of a rock and roll tell-all about the entire band, Panozzo, 59, said he told them, "A lot of people assumed I would have written a 'bash book' about Styx. This is going to be the first definitive book about me, not Styx. I have a voice, and a story to tell."

In his book, Panozzo shares the roots of his Chicago working-class Italian-American family, starting a small trio with his brother John, from playing weddings and school dances to eventually becoming one of the world's most popular rock bands.

"As a young kid, I was really shy," said Panozzo from his Florida home. "I felt this extreme pressure, that everything was wrong because I was different. The quieter I became, the easier it was to avoid being called a sissy." Taking up music provided a comfortable role for him, as well as a creative outlet.

The band's years of growth started in Chicago as a suit-and-tie trio called Trade Winds. As their style shifted to rock, the popular house band became TW4 (Then There Were Four), before becoming Styx in 1970. National attention came with hits like "Lady." But despite a gold record, greater success eluded them.

A move from a small Chicago record company to A&M Records in 1975, along with years of touring, led to their phenomenal success in the early 80s with "Come Sail Away," "Fooling Yourself" and other Top 10 hits and gold, double and triple platinum albums like The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight.

Panozzo's early sex life was relegated to the occasional gay bar foray on tour or in Chicago. While fearful of being outed, Panozzo often slept with men who didn't know or like rock music, preferring disco instead.

Despite his private life staying very private as female groupies flocked to the band's other unmarried members, Panozzo recalls the creativity that led to the band's greatest years. "My vision of Styx wasn't that we were just a bunch of boneheads," he said. "It was about creating music and taking risks, playing new instruments."

Kilroy Was Here, an unusual foray into theatre-rock featuring the hit "Mr. Roboto," and the vision of band member Dennis De Young, led to internal strife within the band, and hurt their popularity, despite its gold-record status. The band broke up in 1984, reuniting in 1990 and 1996 with different members.

The life, near-death, and rebirth of Styx parallel that of Panozzo himself. Through these career ups and downs, Panozzo was dealing with his own personal crises. While he eventually came out to his brother and fellow band members, his devotion to Styx left him without ever having a long-term relationship. When a close friend became ill with AIDS-related infections, Panozzo discovered that he, too, had the virus, which explained his fatigue, weight loss and other symptoms.

Panozzo's brother John's alcohol addiction, which led to his death in 1996, also took a toll on Panozzo. With new drummer John Curulewski replacing John, and a lawsuit from former band member De Young, Styx continued changing its personnel, yet retains its fan base on classic rock radio.

Along with success, the band's internal conflicts were the subject of a VH1 Behind the Mu

sic documentary. "We all had done our interviews separately," said Panozzo. As he recounts in his book, "My best friend Richard [a closeted gay man with AIDS] had just died two days before. 'How do I look?' was about all I said beforehand. I was very somber. I was still hurting."

While the VH1 show may have been a missed opportunity to come out, Panozzo was also dealing with his own health issues, and how it would affect later attempts to reunite the band. He tentatively performed a few shows in 1999, much to the pleasure of Styx fans.

Following a years-long health recovery regimen and varied medical treatments, Panozzo's 2001 coming out at a Human Rights Campaign fundraiser in Chicago served as his official announcement. "It was time to say who I am, or the past 30 years will be useless," he said. "The time for me to come out was when I felt I had come through the worst part of my battle. I started to feel strong enough to go out.

"When [Judas Priest lead singer] Rob Halford came out, maybe a month before I did, I thought, wow, if all these head-bangers can appreciate him, my fans should, too."

Recent years have seen a resurgent popularity for the band, including an upcoming 45-city tour of the US. For a man comfortable playing bass in front of 30,000 people, he said that being the Grand Marshal at Chicago's Gay Pride March was "a thrilling experience." He recalled staying with a friend on Halstead Street who'd been equally closeted.

"I said to my friend, 'Do you believe that when we would go to these bars, we wouldn't even say we were queer?' Being the Grand Marshal, I felt so connected to the community. The Halstead people actually talk to each other. It's such a diverse group, with every nationality, plus families with kids. It was amazing."

Another Chicago performance stood out for Panozzo: when he performed at the closing ceremonies of Gay Games VII, this past July at Wrigley Field. Dylan Rice, a young, out gay musician who had interviewed Panozzo, wrote a song that was chosen as a Games anthem, which he sang, accompanied by Panozzo, who said, "We talked about music about as much as gay activism."

Despite missing his partner, who doesn't travel on tour, and his three beloved pug dogs, Panozzo will join Styx on its 45-city US tour through the summer. The band's next Bay Area concert is Sept. 18 at Concord Pavilion.

When asked for advice to offer younger musicians, Panozzo's reply is, "Tour, tour, tour. Get yourself out there. Let people hear you. It's not gonna happen if you just make a CD."

After 30 years, what's it like to once again be on the road with the band? Panozzo focuses on his health, but with few of the stringent "tour riders" common among rock stars. "I cannot survive on pizza late at night," he said. "I need real food, and I'm not ashamed to take my medications in front of people on the tour. People say, 'You look so healthy.' I say, 'No, I look well.' But that's because it doesnÕt just happen. You have to make it happen."

Panozzo will read and sign copies of his book Friday, June 22, 7 p.m. at Booksmith, 1644 Haight St. 863-8688. www.booksmith.com

Panozzo will co-host a portion of main-stage Pride events at Civic Center, June 24. www.sfpride.org






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