by Jane Klementti
photo by Sheri Hastings
I didn’t know how I was going to start my conversation with Chuck Panozzo. He’s a rock star – full on rock icon. Chuck is one of the founding members of legendary rock band Styx. The band formed in 1972 and achieved massive success with consecutive multi-platinum albums, including triple-platinum break-out album Grand Illusion released in 1977. The band is known for their guitar driven rock and power ballads have been touring to sold-out shows for over four decades, and they continue today.
In addition to his rock super stardom, Chuck has been an inspiration and leader in preserving quality of life and equal rights in the LGTB community. He is a long-time survivor of both HIV and cancer and through his own courage he has been able to educate, help and support a vast amount of people. Later this month, between two Styx concerts at Casino Rama, he will be honoured with a Humanitarian Award from the Orillia Youth Centre and the Georgian College Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.
Turns out, it was really easy to talk with him. Chuck is a kind person and was quite open to tell his story, sharing a glimpse into both his struggles and his successes. One of the best things about what we do is our opportunity to meet super inspiring people and share them with you.
Thank you so much for speaking with me today, I grew up with your music, you’ve had a tremendous career.
CP: As an entertainer, when you lose touch with your fans you lose touch with the people who come to see you and who are the reason you are performing. I think it’s important to make yourself as available as you can and say thank you for choosing my music. Unlike music from say, my parents’ generation, I think it’s really unique that the rock music from my generation has gone on from generation to generation.
That is so true, let’s discuss how you’ve been a survivor through all aspects of your life. Your rock’n’roll history is massive, you’ve survived the ups and downs of being in that industry. You’ve survived difficult personal losses and you’ve survived so much with your health.
CP: Let’s talk on the HIV first. Let me just dispel the rumour. No one makes you gay, you are born gay. That’s how it works. When I realized I was different, well I come from a Roman Catholic family and of course you don’t dare say anything about that. I grew up in the blue collar part of Chicago, the south side and it was about sustaining yourself from pay cheque to pay cheque. No one talked about being gay, that’s just how things were. My father died at a young age and I never had that opportunity to talk to him. When I finally was able to tell my Mother, I was her caregiver at the time, for her it was that someone had to have done this to me. My other dilemma was being in the band. My concern was that if I were to say too much it would affect no only my career but the other band members. That was a heavy dilemma.
I keep thinking how difficult it must have been to have such a huge public life and to live such a dual life. It must have been so hard for you.
CP: It’s the worst. It drives you to the point of insanity.
It was a long time before you came out, years after you had been diagnosed with HIV.
CP: I was diagnosed before medications; I’m termed a long-time survivor. One of my most memorable moments is from years ago back in Chicago. I had met this young man who was living with his disease. We didn’t know it was HIV, all we knew was that our friends were dying like crazy. This one man in particular, I could not comprehend that he could die so quickly, and so young. So I went to a health clinic and gave them a cheque for $5000 and said ‘this is for that disease that is happening now.’ They asked me to put my name on the donation and I said no, this is anonymous. I walked away from it thinking, ‘you don’t do it for notoriety but who knows, someday you may benefit from this research.’ Which to me is everything. I had kind of resigned myself to the fact that eventually I would get HIV. We all knew each other, we were all kind of in the same pool.
So, in 1991 when I was diagnosed with HIV I didn’t go jump off a bridge, it was way to soon for that, although my brain kind of did. I thought, I can’t wait for the bell curve. I knew some drug would be developed that will give us hope. AZT was doing nothing – it was a harsh drug. It gave some people time and it gave people no time. At the time (of being diagnosed) I was feeling healthy enough, and I was also dealing with a lot of personal issues. I thought, I have a tour to do so I’ll just go do it.
I’ve also had cancer twice, I’m in remission now. The first round of AIDS drugs made me sick for about two years. At that point in my head, I said ‘you can either go in a corner and feel sorry for yourself or your can stay strong’. Around my kitchen I put drawings and names of people who had beaten the disease and told myself, ‘if they could do it, you can do it too’.
Once I started to feel better I outed myself in front of a thousand people for a human rights campaign. To be honest with you, I didn’t even know what I was getting myself into. To be in front of a thousand people, with my family and friends there, and say that I had lived my life as a gay man.
CP: It’s amazing. I often think, what have I done to deserve this type of treatment? I just do what I think is right. For the first 10 years in Styx I was pretty happy. As we started to become very successful I became very unhappy because I could not be myself. When I came to that realization, or actually after getting HIV, I knew I couldn’t live like that anymore. I thought ‘if you survive this and you do not change there is something wrong with you.’ That was the deal breaker for me. Its funny that you have to experience a serious illness to appreciate the fact that you are getting in your own way.
The awards and honours that I get are overwhelming, but there is a sense of great gratitude. I look around and see those kids and adults at the Orillia Youth Centre; they are heroes too. I stand shoulder to shoulder with them; I don’t stand above them.