Styx co-founder Chuck Panozzo talks music, life with AIDS

Posted on November 14, 2013


Styx co-founder Chuck Panozzo talks music, life with AIDS

Chuck Panozzo to perform with Styx at Honeywell Center

By: Rachael Mattice

Styx, Photo Provided

Styx, Photo Provided

The Honeywell Center in Wabash has slowly been building a reputation for drawing big-name acts. Rising to fame in the late ’70s, prog rock connoisseurs Styx will be the ringleaders of dominating acts at Honeywell.

Styx’s Oct. 12 concert will not be just another Midwest stop or renegade recap of the band’s trademark “The Grand Illusion” and “Pieces of Eight” albums, but a rare appearance for founding member and bassist Chuck Panozzo.

“I like to start the tour and end the tour,” Panozzo said about the upcoming fall tour. “Usually it’s when there is a 900-mile drive when I have to pass because of my health.”

Panozzo discovered he was HIV positive in 1991 and is surviving with AIDS. He said his location choices are not necessarily discriminatory, but to make sure he ends the “tour in one piece.”

After 40 successful years, Panozzo shared memories from the beginning, the tour, how AIDS has changed his life, coming out to 50 million fans and how prodigiously Styx gives back.

Question: What can be expected for this upcoming tour?

Answer: We play hits; we have had a generational career for any rock n’ roll band. We are true professionals out there and we energize the crowds. That is one of the reasons why we are a great live band.

Q: You were playing parties and at local bars in college to get your music around. What would you advise other young college musicians to do if they wanted to expand their band in the same direction as Styx did?

A: Play and play and play. Get some jobs and start to work. You will start to have a fan base and you will be recognize. out there and we energize the crowds. That is one of the reasons why we are a great live band. No one cannot recognize you if you are making their money. Even when we were a young band with a lot of competition in high school, we got all the jobs. Some peopld could never figure out why. Is it because we were more focused? I’m not quite sure.

A lot of early bands get discouraged. After a few years they get disenchanted or they have a girlfriend or a wife that changes everything. You have to be focused, you have to make sure that this will be your career.

Q: As a rock band, it is a little odd and not very common that all or most of you went to college. How has this proved beneficial to all of you in the band?

A: We have backgrounds in education: J.Y. has a degree in electrical engineering, Tom went to a drama school in Boston. Everybody has something going on beyond music, but we had to be smart about it.

Tommy wrote a song called “Dear John,” and it just shows great musicianship, he was as good as any new musician at the time.

In the older days if you were dumb, it was fun, but if you’re old and dumb then you just look like the cranky old neighbor down the street.

Q: Since you have a degree in art education, can you tell me about the role you played in designing or discussing Styx’s album art?

A: I would give my input, but I was open to what other people had to say. When you’re younger, you know everything and have opinions about everything. When you’re older, you listen to people more and nothing is set in stone.

Q: What kind of stereotypes or hurdles did Styx have to overcome being from the Midwest? Ever hear the good attributes, i.e. work hard, loyal?

A: Those are wonderful attributes I try to live up to. Trying to get one person to work hard is tough, now try to get 4 or 5 people together to work every day. You’re not getting paid a lot of money and you’re doing it for the sure joy of being there. You try not to get distracted by outside influences. You’re young and you definitely want to do this.

We started playing early, did a lot of mixers and parties. We were kind of in a counterculture during the early ’70s. The hippies would look at us and say, “Where is your long hair and why aren’t you doing drugs?”, but we were young and it was a time of rebellion.

When we got our record deal it was five years of torture. We would knock on DJs’ doors and ask them to play our music when we went to every city. We took a very proactive role in our career. We had families that supported us.

Q: Which direction did you want to go in the band – hard rock ‘n’roll the way J.Y. wanted it, or did you like the rock opera direction Dennis was leading?

A: It’s just counterproductive when one band member has an image that is different than two other band members.

For John and I, we wanted to make sure that everyone got what they wanted. We had to play hard rock for J.Y., slow songs for Dennis, and Tommy was somewhere in the middle. Our job held a little more authority.

When it came to hard work, you can’t tell a songwriter you can only write about a certain subject. The brilliance about our music is called the “Best of Styx.” When you start to be conclusive you’re great, but when you begin to start a theme it gets boring; it’s boring to the players.

Q: What is the key to Styx’s success, after 40 years, when you are still making money and playing shows?

A: I have a passion for this; the band is very democratic. We’re an American rock band, the end. We tour around the world.

It’s kind of overwhelming sometimes. I walk on that stage with a sense of pride knowing I was part of the counterculture when we started and the audience will remember this show for a long time. Why would I retire or turn my back on that? Once the fans stop showing up, we won’t be there but we are still playing at wonderful places. It’s a dream job.

Q: Out of all the TV shows and movies ( “Big Daddy,” “South Park,” “The Simpsons,” “Freaks and Geeks,” “That 70’s Show”) what was your favorite appearance of a Styx song?

A: I was in a local grocery store, and all of a sudden one of our songs came on and I had a big smile on my face. If I wanted to, I could’ve jumped around and said “it’s my song, it’s my song” and I got a sense of pride.

How do you explain that feeling? When I saw “Big Daddy” and “Family Guy” I just thought it was wonderful, especially when you don’t expect it.

A couple of the guys from (“Freak & Geeks”) came out to see us and when you hear them work your song into their script, it’s so funny. You got to have a laugh and embrace these things.

I truly believe that music is a time machine, it brings back a wonderful time in your life. Whether it was a certain age, a girlfriend or boyfriend, we were there.

Q: In your story, it said you didn’t want to risk the career of your band mates by announcing you were gay. Why did you decide to do this?

A: It’s all perspective; the ’70s were more liberating, but not for gay people. From your family to churches, from when you turn around, you wonder, “Will I survive?”

As I got into my 20s and 30s I got more frustrated and if I were to say “I’m gay” I would not only risk my career, but the career of four other guys, which would not be fair to them.

One day, it was National Coming Out day in the ’90s and it wasn’t like telling my family, it was telling 50 million fans from around the world, but I wanted to say it. I couldn’t live with that thing behind me. A lot of athletes now are more open about it, in ten years it will be nothing.

People are willing to express their hate and anxiety toward gay people, but gay kids are being born every day.

It’s a generational thing and it will change over time.

Q: How does AIDS affect your day-to-day life?

A: I had full on AIDS about 10 years ago, I took off work and Tommy said “I’m afraid I will never see you alive again.” It was that serious. It was horrible drugs, but you take them because otherwise you will die, you have no choice.

In my situation, I take a lot of medication every day, so it’s hard to tell if I’m going to have a bad day because but there is always something.

I’m a lot better now though. My T-cells are up and I keep up with my prescription. I can’t complain. I had prostate cancer after that and I’m sure one day I’ll have hip replacement. You have to have goals and faith in yourself. Whatever you have you have to deal with it, to the end, the best you can.

It’s part of what I have to do, but I still don’t want it to interfere. There may be days when I don’t feel 100 percent or am tired, but who isn’t tired that day?

What the band has taught me psychologically is that I need to go out and be with my band as they continue their legacy in the rock n’ roll world forever. How could that not help me in my recovery process? I have a band that is willing to make sure that I stay healthy.

Q: Rock to the Rescue directed by Tommy’s daughter, Hannah, is a nonprofit organization founded by the band, whose mission is to build strong, healthy communities through the support of grassroots organizations across the country. Can you tell me a little more about it and why Styx wanted to get involved?

A: I’m actually not real educated on this. However, I think it is important for communities to be empowered and when you have something tangible to offer back as artists or musicians, you can give back to the country.

It’s changes your perspective on what’s really important. For Hannah as a young woman to be involved with this takes time and energy and she’s doing very well with it.

Q: With Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider openly stating they are against the Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan using their songs, how do you think Styx would react, or how would you react if they used one of your songs? Would your response be different if it were a Democrat? Do you think that musicians should get upset about who their fans are, even if they are politicians?

A: I think you should be asked if they have the right to use your music because it is ours and not theirs, it’s not part of public domain to take. I think it has to be a group decision. If they don’t represent your group or you as a person, then obviously no but it is a free country. I think they did the right thing.

We play for all people – we play for Republicans, Democrats. If they play your music, you have a right to say “I’m not comfortable with this, stop.” I would go to my manager; I wouldn’t be out in the open though.

For tickets to the show in Wabash on Oct. 12, visit online at Honeywell Center. To get the latest albums “Regeneration Volume I and II” from Styx, visit their website.

Mattice is a producer and music journalist for the Journal & Courier. She can be reached on Twitter @RachaelM_JC.

Posted in: "Rock It" Column