In 1998, Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo was rather sick with HIV, and struggling as a closeted gay man—while performing in one of the world’s most successful rock bands.
He decided he needed to focus on his health for several years. He toured with Styx only part-time, and in 2001, he came out as gay and announced he was living with HIV.
Fortunately, his health has improved, and he eventually returned to touring full-time. Styx will be performing at Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa this Friday, Sept. 28.
During a recent phone interview, Panozzo discussed the struggle he faced while deciding whether or not to come out.
“My biggest problem was the lives of five other people,” Panozzo said. “We lose one album sale or see some backlash, and it’s my fault. It’s not just you anymore. … A couple of the guys had families with children, and I thought, ‘Not until I’m ready to give up everything.’ So I didn’t come out for a very long time. After being sick and never really experiencing the fun of what it’s really like to be a rock star, because you can’t be yourself, I (decided I was) ready to sacrifice it all, and I’d walk away from my job if it makes me happy.”
Thankfully, he didn’t have to walk away from his job, and the rest of the band was supportive.
“I think everyone was afraid to bring up the subject, because they were afraid to hurt my feelings, which is really funny, because they have been extremely supportive,” Panozzo said. “They were supportive when I was sick with AIDS; they were supportive when I had to have cancer surgery a couple of times. Every time I’ve gone through a health situation, it becomes a non-issue. After we lost my brother (drummer John Panozzo, who died in 1996), it (would have been) like losing another part of this family, so their attitude is just so much better, and they support me on a grand level.
“Having helped to start this band … how do you kick out one of the co-founders because he’s gay? That wouldn’t work very well, (even though) in the industry at the time, there were some people who weren’t saying some very cool things about being gay. After a while, you realize you can’t live by what they say, but what you want to do.”
Styx has regularly toured with Ted Nugent since Panozzo came out, so it’s obvious Panozzo has tough skin.
“Tommy (Shaw, Styx’s guitarist/vocalist) has worked with Ted. I’ve worked with Ted since 1972 on multiple occasions,” Panozzo said. “I don’t pick who I get to perform with. I’m going to put this as nice as I can: We do have some shows with him, and the whole thing is if I didn’t work with the people I didn’t like, I’d probably never work. He’s Ted Nugent, and he is who he is. We go out there and do what we do.
“I’m more concerned if there’s a problem with both groups and the crowds. His crowd usually leaves, and ours usually stays. Half of the bands we work with, we hardly see anyway. People always ask me, ‘What’s so and so like?’ and I just say, ‘I don’t know; I just walk by them and say hi.’ But when you play in a city like Chicago, where we’re from, and he gets up there and makes derogatory remarks about our mayor and the town we live in, you really just have to consider the source. It can be pretty ignorant.”
Panozzo wrote a book detailing his experiences as a gay man in rock ’n’ roll, which came out in 2007.
“I have never gotten any negative backlash from anyone, and no one has ever pulled an attitude with me. When I put my book out, it was called The Grand Illusion: Love, Lies, and My Life With Styx,” he said. “… We all have a book in us, but once you write it down, it becomes real to you. If you want to read about how many people I have sex with, good luck, because you won’t find that book. It’s a general rock ’n’ roll book, but when you come to my situation, it was an awakening for me. It was more of taking my journey to finding out that it was OK to be who I am. When you were born in 1948, you know it wasn’t the enlightenment period.”
Panozzo said he’s surprised how far he and others living with HIV have been able to progress over the last several decades.
“I think when you go through an experience like that, and you come out whole—I look at my friends who pass away, and it makes me infuriated to think that they were intimidated by their government, their families, or religion,” Panozzo said. “Here I am now, 30 years after being diagnosed, being able to tour—that really shocks me at times. I’ve been really blessed to have this ongoing career and to fulfill two goals: Make a statement in music, and make a statement in the HIV community.”
As for that music statement: Styx has continued to leave its mark on rock ’n’ roll and is still one of the most successful bands of the genre.
“About a year ago, we put out our new album that Tommy Shaw wrote for us called The Mission. It’s charted, and we probably got some of the best reviews of our entire career,” Panozzo said. “Being in a band that had its glory days in the ’70s and is still having a resurgence in 2018, with dates booked into 2019, it’s a wonderful experience. People ask me what it’s like to be in a band for 46 years, and I say, ‘Like being married to six guys at once, but I don’t get a present for it.’ But it’s really an experience, and I never conceived it.
“I’m sitting here right now looking at a photo from 1962 that says Chuck and the Tradewinds. I have the original guitar two feet away from me. I lived the American dream. For a gay boy to think he could do that—I’m not the first one to do it, but it’s a blessing, and how could I have ever perceived that? You just keep going, and you never surrender.”
Styx will perform at 8 p.m., Friday, Sept. 28, at The Show at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, 32250 Bob Hope Drive, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $55 to $85. For tickets or more information, call 888-999-1995, or visit www.hotwatercasino.com.