Arts & Icons - August 25th

Styx co-founder Chuck Panozzo’s Grand Illusion

Richard Burnett
Commentaires
Chuck Panozzo

American musician and Chicago native Chuck Panozzo co-founded the legendary classic rock band Styx with his late fraternal twin brother, drummer John Panozzo, and singer/keyboardist Dennis DeYoung. I first interviewed Panozzo after he publicly came out as an HIV-positive gay man in 2001, before he published his 2007 autobiography The Grand Illusion: Love, Lies, and My Life With Styx. It was great to catch up with Panozzo after all these years, and in our recent Q&A, he was as candid as ever.

Let’s start with the new album, The Mission. Some critics were wary of a Styx concept album about a mission to Mars, but the reviews have been very positive.
 
We had been under pressure – basically our own pressure and fan pressure – to create some new music. What first felt insurmountable turned out to be very simple. Tommy Shaw basically took control and there is that point when you know as a musician whether this is going to be good or it’s going to be a nightmare, and we succeeded in making a good album. When I heard the (finished album) – especially the song Gone Gone Gone which we love playing on our new tour (which brings Styx to Montreal on August 25) – I knew we had a great record. .
 
I can’t believe your landmark album Grand Illusion turns 40 this summer. Do you have a memory about the making of that album that you could share with us?
 
Absolutely. By this time we had really established ourselves as a band. With three distinct singers and songwriters – Tommy, James (Young) and Dennis – what more could a band ask for? We had a diversity that just made everything more interesting. And because of my history as an art teacher, I was instrumental getting our album cover (created by Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse as an homage to the René Magritte painting “Le Blanc Seing”). It’s an incredible album. 
 
 
 
Grand Illusion is also the title of your 2007 autobiography. Why did you decide to write that book?
 
When I survived AIDS, I made a commitment to myself to share my story about being gay and being HIV-positive to help make a difference. It’s about me not dealing with being me when I was in this wonderful band. When I became ill, I came out so I could finally be myself. 
 
 
What was it like to be publicly closeted, in one of the biggest rock bands in the world, in the very macho 1970s? 
 
In the first years when I was in a Styx, it was a great time. There wasn’t a problem with groupies and those kinds of issues. But then I began to think, “Here I am, making all of these people happy night after night, and I am home alone.” It got more and more difficult. But I thought to myself, “This isn’t just my band, there are four other guys in the band, and I don’t want to ruin their careers too.” The music business was pretty homophobic in the 1970s and 1980s, and I asked myself if it was right to ruin their careers by my publicly coming out.. 
 
Did you go out to gay bars when you were on tour?  
 
When I was (home) in Chicago I would. I grew up Italian Catholic, so there was shame and blame, that’s how it works being gay. It was a daunting thing. But I had a good friend and we would meet whenever I would come home (from tour) and we’d go out to some bars. That was when we felt most free to be ourselves. 
 
When guys would ask me what I do, I’d say I’m a musician, and they’d ask something like, “Oh, are you in a church choir?” When you said rock – instead of, say, disco – people would walk away. It was disheartening. People would just walk away. I was doomed if I said something, and doomed if I didn’t. Here I was, I had a lot of money, but no one to share it with.  
 
This was also still a time when police had no problem coming into a bar and shaking you down.
 
 
In 1991 you learned that, like many gay men of your generation, you had contracted HIV. Fortunately getting HIV / AIDS is no longer a death sentence. We are in an era where Undetectable = Untransmissable. But it was different back in the day. How scary was it for you?
 
I remember seeing friends getting sick and passing away back when this disease still didn’t have a name! And if you were part of the scene, you were afraid you were going to get the same thing. It never bothered me to the point of frightening me, but on the other hand, it was always there. Especially when people called it a gay disease. That was very difficult to deal with. 
 
You regained your health and rejoined the band in 1999. What was that like for you?
 
I had a great doctor and a great psychologist, I had good self-esteem. When I told my doctor I was going to rejoin the band, he was unsure. So I made a deal, that if I got sick again, I’d go back home. But that never happened. Now when I go onstage, fans scream my name, “Chuck! Chuck! Chuck!” though after I came out I worried other names might be chanted.
 
Montrealers and Quebecers have a long love affair with progressive rock and with Styx. The addition to Styx in 1999 of Canadian Laurence Gowan – who replaced Dennis DeYoung – made us love you guys more. How did the addition of Gowan affect the band? 
 
I find him to be one of the most talented, creative and incredibly gracious human beings I have ever met, especially in the world of music. He is always funny, never whines or complains about anything. He has brought his genius, his wonderful gift, to this band. We played for 14,000 people last night (at the outdoor Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre outside Chicago), and he hit the stage running. He is such an honest and remarkable performer.
 
Do you still speak with Dennis DeYoung?
 
We don’t really have any contact.
 
Your twin brother John passed away in 1996. Has it gotten easier over the years to deal with his departure? 
 
John was my first soul mate. We did everything together. He had my back when I was bullied in grammar school. He was a great person, a great drummer, and he loved our band more than anything. He was a huge influence on (our) music, he had no problem telling a producer or a member what he really thought. He was also very funny and able to diffuse issues within the group if things got too hot. It may not have resolved the problem, but it would resolve the moment, the situation. We still talk about him every day. I do think of him, and I am happy he remains a part of the music of Styx. It is his legacy. No one knows what happens to us after we die, but John will live eternally in the music of Styx. This new tour has also reenergized Styx and I think we have brought classic rock into the 21st century.
 
Any advice for other rock stars – or young aspiring musicians - out there debating whether or not they should come out?
 
If you’re a kid or teenager and think you will get thrown out of the house by your parents, I would say don’t come out. Because you don’t want to be kicked out on the streets where people will take advantage of you. 
 
But for anyone over 18 or 21 who can live on their own, the most liberating thing you can ever do is to come out. Don’t worry then about who will reject you because those are the people you don’t need in your life.
 
The minute I came out as a gay man, it set my soul free. It was like a burden was lifted off of my shoulders. I wish I had done it earlier. 
 
Styx headline the 13th annual Strangers in the Night gala, benefiting the Miriam Foundation, The West Island Woman’s Shelter, and CureSMA, at Fairview Pointe Claire on August 25. For more information and tickets, visit www.strangersinthenight.ca for tickets.
 
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.
 
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