Styx Cofounder Chuck Panozzo on Alcoholism, AIDS, and the Cult of Celebrity
Panozzo, left, and his "Renegade" buddies.
On a quiet South Florida street stands an unassuming white house — one of many in this upscale neighborhood of winding canals, glitzy nightclubs, and alfresco restaurants. But this house is different; behind the meticulously manicured exterior lies a dreamy garden sanctuary rivaling any five-star hotel's. And relaxing at a massive, ten-foot-long Indonesian wooden table sits Styx cofounder and bassist Chuck Panozzo.
At 67, Panozzo and Styx are out on tour with Def Leppard and Tesla, and after 45 years performing live, he says he wouldn't trade that honor for anything in the world. "I walk out onstage and get introduced and get a standing ovation. I don't know who has a job like that."
An eight-year resident of Wilton Manors, Chicago native Panozzo luxuriates in the peace that his private refuge provides — a tranquil retreat from the pressures of a grueling travel schedule. After being diagnosed 25 years ago with HIV, then conquering prostate cancer twice, Panozzo attributes his improved health to the warm Florida sunshine and laid-back lifestyle.
But living with AIDS has been a more difficult challenge, and Panozzo reveals that his struggle has not been easy. "Research changed the world in 1996," he says. "Basically, I should be dead."
During a particularly rough period in 1998, Panozzo's health began to deteriorate rapidly as his HIV blossomed into full-blown AIDS. He recalls losing 40 pounds, shrinking his stocky five-foot, nine-inch frame to a frail 132 pounds. "I was in such bad shape that [Styx vocalist] Tommy Shaw said, 'I'm afraid I'll never see you alive again.'?"
Yet Panozzo is thriving, and while he acknowledges the duality of his fortune, he prefers to focus on the positive — the grand illusion of his extraordinary story — describing it as "unreal... not like a real life." A series of successes, including a string of multiplatinum albums and number-one hits, resulted in a spectacular rise to fame. Songs like "Lady," "Come Sail Away," "Babe," "Mr. Roboto," "Renegade," and "Grand Illusion" rocketed the band to stardom.
Tragedy lurked around the corner, though, when in 1996, Panozzo's twin brother, John, died of complications related to alcoholism. "Alcoholism is a horrible experience which affects everyone in the household," Panozzo says. "I came to the realization — and this is the first time I would probably admit it in public — that if I was drinking with him, I had to be an alcoholic with him. I was codependent."
John's death, although not unexpected due to his heavy alcohol consumption, devastated Panozzo, who remembers his brother as his protector. "He had my back. Growing up gay in the '50s and '60s was not like growing up gay in 2015. There was a lot of bullying in those days."
Believing that John was the only drummer he could ever play with compounded the emotional difficulties Panozzo faced following John’s death. After suffering what he refers to as a “breakdown,” Panozzo was able to stop his cycle of alcohol abuse and gain strength through his newfound independence. “[John] cast a long shadow, and once I got out of that shadow I felt more comfortable just being myself on stage.”
Panozzo says the band members still talk about John’s immense contribution to the formative years of Styx, but that their present line-up is nothing short of exemplary. Playing to legions of die-hard fans, Styx features Panozzo, the sole original member in the current line-up, on bass guitar and vocals, Tommy Shaw and James Young on lead vocals and guitars, Lawrence Gowan on lead vocals and keyboards, Ricky Phillips on bass, guitar and vocals, and Todd Sucherman on drums and percussion. Panozzo says he's "very happy" with the caliber of the musicianship. "It is probably the best for a classic rock band that I know of. I couldn’t pick any better band members or players to perform with.”
Dennis Pauly, who met Panozzo through John, recollects the early years before Panozzo came out. "It had to have been really difficult on him to hide that, hanging around a bunch of us macho guys and bachelors that were maniacs. It must have been terrifying — just brutal."
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But times were different back then, and when Panozzo eventually came out, Pauly remembers the timing being perfect. "He had the foresight to know when to do it. By the time he did, no one cared. It says a lot about a man's soul, that he could actually do that. He's a great man."
Openly gay since 2001, Panozzo is now free to live life on his own terms. "I have to if I want to live an authentic life," he says. "To hide your life and to lead a secret life is not living. It's torture."
Resilient and enduring, Panozzo has said he would like to write his own obituary while he is still alive. He was angered when, after John's death, a reporter whom he considered a friend phoned him in an attempt to dig up dirt about John's life. Panozzo wants to make sure that doesn't happen when he dies. "I don't want to be exploited. The cult of celebrity is to the point where it's maddening. We see the damage it does to people, so I thought before someone defines me, I get to define myself."
But he won't be writing his obituary anytime soon, and Panozzo has zero intention of quitting the rock 'n' roll lifestyle he loves so dearly. "Every tour is different. Every time I think that I probably have done everything, I realize that I haven't even scratched the surface. There are always more surprises around the corner."
With Def Leppard and Tesla. 7 p.m., Friday, January 29, at BB&T Center, 1 Panther Parkway, Sunrise. Tickets cost $31.70 to $121.70 plus fees. Call 954-835-8000, or visit ticketmaster.com.
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