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Chuck Panozzo's Grand Illusion

Chuck Panozzo's Grand Illusion

If you tune into just about any classic rock radio station, chances are you'll eventually hear a song in which bassist Chuck Panozzo performs. The cofounder of the rock group Styx helped create some of the most iconic songs from the 1970s and early 1980s -- 'Lady,' 'Come Sail Away,' 'Babe,' 'Renegade,' 'Mr. Roboto,' and 'Too Much Time on My Hands' among them -- as well as power the band to a place in music industry history: Styx was the first band to have four consecutive multiplatinum albums.

But Panozzo was hiding a secret from his fans and his fellow band members: He was gay, and in 1991 he learned that he, like many other gay men of his generation, had contracted HIV. By 1998, his untreated HIV disease had progressed to AIDS, his health was faltering, and a difficult battle to regain his health and his career lay ahead.

Panozzo recently sat down with HIVPlusmag.com to talk how he eventually overcame those hurdles, the strength he draws from performing his music, and how coming out publicly as gay and HIV-positive in his 2007 book The Grand Illusion: Love, Lies and My Life With Styx has been a key part of his physical and emotional recovery.

HIVPlusmag.com: Chuck, you talk pretty openly in your book about your experiences in fighting HIV. When were you diagnosed?
Chuck Panozzo: I was diagnosed with HIV in 1991 and developed full-blown AIDS in 1998.

Did the diagnosis surprise you?
No, I wasn't all that surprised by it. I was of that generation of gay guys who for a long time didn't realize what was going on. We had a lot of unprotected sex because that's what everyone was doing, and no one knew that there was any downside to it. I'm just part of that generation -- the first generation of guys who were almost wiped out by AIDS. I had always kind of suspected I had it.

You were diagnosed before protease inhibitors were available and there were only two anti-HIV drugs out there [AZT and ddI]. Did that make it particularly scary for you, thinking that there were so few treatment options?
Oh, yeah. But you know, I had heard so much about how toxic AZT was, and I really didn't want to take it. So I made this goofy plan to not take any medication at all until there were better meds. My friend made the same plan -- in fact, he wouldn't even be tested for HIV, although he suspected he had it, because he was wary of the meds. And it was the worst choice of his life -- he died of HIV-related lymphoma. My twin brother had passed away [Editor's note: Panozzo's twin brother John, a Styx co-founder and drummer in the band, died in 1996 of health problems caused by alcohol addiction] and that friend had become like a brother to me in his place.

What was that like to lose someone so close to you who had made the same kind of treatment decisions that you had made?
It was one of the most horrible periods of my life. I had known Richard for 22 years. And the thing that was really painful was that his family never went to see him. There was no memorial service for him. I had to call his job to tell people what had happened to him. I just couldn't believe that you wouldn't come to see your dying son. And it was really scary seeing what was happening to him, how advanced his stage of illness had become. He was almost unrecognizable. His last words were that he had waited too long for treatment. That scared the hell out of me.

Did his death make you reconsider taking meds?
I started to. But really what was the final straw for me was that I was starting to have HIV-related symptoms. I was losing a lot of weight, but I kept telling myself that it was due to the stress from my brother's death. I kept telling myself, I can get through this. It's nothing more than stress. At the same time, I started to get little spots on my body, and I suspected it was HIV-related but kept telling myself that since no one could really see them, it wasn't a big deal. But finally, one of the band members, Tommy Shaw, walked up to me and said, 'I'm afraid that if you don't go to the doctor right now, I will never see you alive again.' That was it. That was the wake-up call for me.

They suspected you had AIDS?
Yeah, I guess so. We never talked about my being gay at all. I had told my brother years ago, but he was very quiet about it. We also just approached it as it being my own personal business. They didn't ask me too many questions. Much later, they told me they never asked about me being gay because they didn't want to insult me. That's very sweet, but how ridiculous! Like it would have offended me! But I really think that when they saw my physical decline -- I was 5 foot 9 and had dropped all the way down to 130 pounds -- that they became seriously frightened for me. I had known some of these guys since we were teenagers, and for them to see another band member die would have been devastating to them.

And so you started treatment then?
I did. And I have a great doctor, an HIV specialist. I had worried that I was going to be the only guy in the doctor's office with AIDS, that I was going to look funny, that the other people there were going to be freaked out by me. But I found myself very comfortable there. And since then, I've been blessed by my recovery, although it was a long recovery. [Editor's note: When Panozzo began antiretroviral therapy, he had a CD4-cell count of 7 which resulted in an AIDS diagnosis. Today, Panozzo has a CD4-cell count in the 500s and an undetectable viral load on a combination of Truvada and Isentress.]

How long?
I pretty much spent all of the next two years fighting to get healthy again.

Wow, that is a long time. Did that give you any regrets over having waited that long to start treatment?
Definitely! I look back at that ridiculous part of what I was going through and, like I say in my book, I tell people, 'Don't do what I did, there's a better way to do it.' Really, I should have taken action right away, and for other HIV-positive people today there's no reason not to. Sure, there's still stigma out there, but it's not as bad as it was when I was dealing with everything.

How did the other band members react to your diagnosis and your decision to start treatment?
They totally rallied around me. They knew that part of my recovery would be based on how they were going to react. And they knew if they hadn't reacted properly, someone would be sorry! [Laughs] Seriously, right from the beginning they embraced me, even though at the time they weren't quite sure about a lot of it. But they've become educated along the way, just as I have. They're still really great supporters of me. They'll call and ask, 'Did you take your meds today?' [Laughs]

That's great that they're such a strong support system for you. I'm sure there were times during those next two years that you really needed them.
Oh, my God, that was a hard time! I remember sitting in my condo on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, all our gold records around me, my partner with me, and all I could think about was how sick I felt. I knew then that I had to change my life. I put the names of people I knew -- friends who died of AIDS -- on my refrigerator, and I focused on them. I told myself, These people didn't have the same chances to live, to have the same drugs they have now. And I wouldn't take them. How pissed would they be if I died and never took the drugs they would have given anything to take? It felt almost like I was spiting them. So I decided that I would live for them and that no matter how hard it would be -- and it was hard -- that I was going to get better.

You also write in your book that regaining your health made you want to be more outspoken and candid about being gay and being HIV-positive. Why the change of heart?
The reason is that it's important to continue to destigmatize AIDS. And being in the position that I am, I have an opportunity to help do it. A lot of guys don't, or they don't have to the courage to. So I do it for them. And there are a lot of people in the same shoes I was in when I found out I'm positive. Turning my back and not letting them know that it's possible to get through this would be missing the whole point of recovery. Why recover if you're going to go back to the same life?

But you did want to go back to one part of your life -- the band -- right?
[Laughs] That voyeurism and exhibitionism in every entertainer never goes away. I felt that I needed to set a goal for a 'comeback.' If it didn't work out, then I'd have to accept that reality. But I believe it was literally hurting my health not to be up onstage performing. So I set a goal to come back, to be back onstage and be a viable, contributing member of the band. I had to.

When did make it back onstage with the rest of the band?
It was September 1999, in Las Vegas. Hey, if Vegas is good enough for Elvis's comeback, it's good enough for mine! [Laughs]

Physically, after having been ill for so long, what was it like performing again?
It was pretty tough, and my doctor was concerned when I told him I was going back on the road. But I promised him that if I didn't feel good and I was only halfway there physically, that I'd go back home. I ended up doing only one song in rehearsals and one song in two nights of shows, but I was there!

On an emotional level, how did it feel not only to be back to work but up there in public before your fans?
When Tommy Shaw introduced me, I got a standing ovation. People were literally screaming, 'Chuck! Chuck! Chuck!' before I even hit my first note. That just filled me up, you know? It was such a charge to get all that love from everyone. So, I thought, I guess I'm back! The fact that I was able to go back to my job was a vital part of me getting healthy again. And that ovation I got was as powerful as any of the meds I was taking.

I hear from a lot of people who write or perform music about how music heals them, that there's a healing power to it. Did you experience that in being able to perform again?
Music absolutely heals. Absolutely. But for me, part of what's healing is the response I get from the audience when I'm onstage. The feedback I get --pretty much unconditional love -- makes up for all the bad things I have to deal with. And it's not just the feedback from when I perform. I get e-mails and letters from people saying that my music is important to them or that it's helped them get through a difficult time. That's powerful. That's healing.

Have you always gotten that kind of boost from your music?
You know, I've been a musician since I was 7. It's just part of me. My brother and I started with this little band in our basement. We were playing weddings and banquets and proms and high school dances in the '60s and '70s. There even came a point in 1972 when I had to decide between being a teacher and taking a shot at being a professional musician. At the time, it was a really tough call. We had no idea what was going to happen and never even thought we'd reach such great heights.

You did reach some pretty impressive heights. I read that Styx was the first band to have four consecutive multiplatinum albums.
[Laughs] Yeah.

And I still hear some of your biggest hits, like 'Come Sail Away,' 'Babe,' 'Mr. Roboto,' and 'Too Much Time on My Hands,' on the radio all the time. But I have to say one of my favorite albums growing up -- OK, I'm totally giving away my age here -- was Equinox [released in 1975].
That's one of my favorites too.

Do you tour with Styx now?
I do, but not for every show. Sometimes that can be too grueling, and despite what people think, living on a tour bus is not glamorous. [Laughs] But I am doing a lot of the tour this year. We've done Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland. There was a stretch where we did three days in Niagara Falls, had just one day off, then flew to Hawaii for four nights of shows. I was like, Hey, guys, can I get an extra day off just to recover? [Laughs] I don't like to be away from home for too long, though. I don't want my partner, Tim, who also is HIV-positive, to think I've abandoned him.

You could always bring him along.
That would be hard for him to adjust to -- being here, being there. Food can be an issue, too, because you've got to watch what you're eating and when you're eating, and that can go out the window when you're on the tour bus. Things here at home are much more regimented. So I always tell him, 'Tim, you're just not road-ready.' [Laughs] Work is work; this is definitely not a vacation.

What is home life like for you guys?
We have a little house here in Wilton Manors [Fla.], not far from Fort Lauderdale. I'm originally from Chicago, and I had moved to the Miami area for three years, and I met Tim there. We really love it here. But sometimes all the rain gets to me!

I'm guessing you perform in a lot of places that aren't as gay-friendly as Wilton Manors. What's that like, now that you're very candid about being gay and being HIV-positive?
I never get any backlash about it at all, and sometimes it makes me wonder why I didn't come out a long time ago. But, really, the music industry was pretty homophobic back in the '70s and '80s. At that point, I was just grateful to be able to play with the big boys on stage. Basically, I felt like my only options were to quit or to be quiet, and I wasn't going to quit. I had worked my ass off for this, so I just let it ride until the time was right.

When was the time right?
I came out to a lot of people when I was fighting HIV and getting healthy again, but I guess officially it would be 2001. I had been asked by the Human Rights Campaign [a gay rights nonprofit organization] to be a spokesman for National Coming Out Day, and I was so grateful to do that. It's really a relief to be out. It takes so much energy hiding who you really are. One of the things I stress about coming out, though, is that it doesn't have to change you. If you're a blue-collar guy, you'll still be a blue-collar guy. You don't have to wear sequins or turn into a disco boy. [Laughs] If you're a musician who plays classic rock, like me, you'll still be a musician who plays classic rock.

What's the music industry like today in terms of homophobia?
For me, it's a lot better. I really do feel like as a gay man I've been able to break through a glass ceiling in this industry. It's a great sense of accomplishment. But there are still people who struggle with whether they should come out. I know this 28-year-old guy in the business -- he owns his own company and did a song for one of our DVDs -- and he's going through exactly what I went through and wanted to talk with me about it. So there's still some homophobia there, unfortunately. After all I went through, though, it was unacceptable for me to go back to work and pretend to not be gay. There are still sometimes when it can be a little uncomfortable, like when I hear the crew tell a 'queer joke' and I have to tell them not to do that in front of me -- you know, crew guys are crude guys! [Laughs] Really, though, everyone is generally very respectful and supportive. I'm really blessed.

Do you ever get the feeling that the fans are looking at you differently, knowing that you're gay?
It wasn't being gay, it was more having HIV. What I've noticed is that the fans -- the really die-hard fans -- want to know everything about you, and they have a tendency to really scrutinize you and watch everything you do. That wasn't easy in the beginning being HIV-positive, especially when I was still gaining the weight back that I had lost through [HIV-related] wasting. I knew I looked OK, but I kept thinking to myself that they thought I looked like I was half-dead playing up there. I didn't want people to be focusing on whether I looked like I was sick instead of the music.

Were they?
Not really. I've been able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the band without any problem, and we're a very vivacious band!

Speaking of being vivacious, how's your health today?
Great! Right now, I'm undetectable and my T cells are very good.

That's terrific!
Yeah. You know, I turned 60 on September 20. And 60 is not the new 50! [Laughs] At least I can console myself with the fact that I've got flat abs and a little round ass! [Laughs.] Seriously, I work out and make sure my body's in decent shape. But as you get older, things change. I actually had a long talk with my doctor about lipodystrophy and facial wasting, about the meds that can cause it and what I could do about it. It was something I guess I didn't realize was going to happen. I've investigated fillers, and that might be something I'll do in the future. God, how does that sound? [Laughs] It sounds like I'm one of those guys who is ashamed of the fact that he has HIV!

Well, considering you wrote a book where you pretty much open up to the world about your experiences with HIV, I don't think anyone would accuse you of trying to hide anything at this point.
[Laughs] Yeah, it's kind of hard to go back in the closet after that, huh?

For more information about Panozzo and Styx, including upcoming performances, visit the websites listed at the top of this page under Related Links.

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