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Chuck Panozzo

 

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Chuck Panozzo

 

More than once I have heard that one of the things that people like about Global Bass is its 'down home' feeling. That there are lots of magazines out there for bassists that address the techno end of things very well. But the thing that Global Bass excelled at was the story on the person behind the instrument. That we took the time to present the star as a fallible, funny, kindhearted buffoon just like the rest of us. As prone to feeling as vulnerable as any of us. 

At first, I was miffed at the idea that we were thought of that way, but that was until I realized that it is, in fact, an asset worth developing. Our unique literary fingerprint.

So here we have a story about a man who has lived a life of huge success, but spent most of it completely alone. Great wealth, great financial success, professional acceptance, but alone none the less. Hiding a secret that could have in earlier times, ultimately killed him. This is the story of a man who has found out, almost a little too late, but ultimately just in time, what life is really all about. 

There is something to be said in being given the opportunity to talk to someone who was part of a team of musicians that added tremendously to the musical culture of the `70's and `80's.  There are very few people who haven't heard of the song 'Come Sail Away' and many if not most of us are very aware of other songs from the band STYX. Even that relatively new but now classic advertisement for Volkswagen using STYX's song 'Mister Roboto' caught the attention of a whole new generation of listeners for the band.

Chuck Panozzo was the bass player for all of this music, over all those years. In recent years, due to a period of ill health, he handed the reins over to bassist/guitarist Glen Burtnik, who was originally brought into Styx to cover the guitarist role in the early 90's. 

Occasionally, however, when Styx is performing relatively close to where Chuck lives, he will guest with the band, covering a few of their hits, with Glen shifting back to guitar for the duration. It is an acknowledgement from the band for the immense role that Chuck played over all those years and a gift that Chuck values.

Global Bass: A special thanks to you and your band mates for all that great music Chuck!

Chuck Panozzo:  Well, I appreciate you saying that.

GB:  There are many things we could talk about, we can focus on your years with the band, your recent choice to 'come out' as a gay man and your battle with your illness, AIDs. However, in discussing these issues, it would be only right and proper to cover what you have to say about your illness, but at the same time, we can put a large part of the energy of this conversation where it deserves to be, on your years in Styx. One issue is a private matter, the other is the actual reason for this interview.

I would like to acknowledge that it must have been a special form of torture living for years as a very public person in Styx, yet at the same time, having to hide your lifestyle as if it were some dark secret.

Chuck: (referring to his choice to 'come out')  It was the most liberating feeling I have every experienced in my entire life. I've said this in interviews before, it is something I had never done for myself as a person. I am now the Spokesperson for the National Campaign for Coming Out Day. I did that for myself. But I will never 'out' anybody else, that's part of their own experience to deal with. Only when they are ready to do it themselves. I would like to tell them, 'When you do this you will be so happy, don't fear rejection. It really just melts away.'

GB:  Did you find in earlier years you would run across people in other bands, people you just knew were gay, who would confide  in you. Or was it forbidden?

GB:  You were quoted as saying, "I was afraid that someone would see something inside of me and say, 'Oh, a fruit' and so I became Nobody to myself and to everybody else".  Now that is a key phrase, "I became Nobody to myself".

Chuck:  You know, really, I felt so marginalized. I always used to kid that I look masculine enough but that I could never pass the orals. I was afraid that I was a fairy, like a 'fucking fruit!'  It was a term that was used, a shameful term. So I would never speak that much. (Editor's Note:  Not that it matters at all, but in fact Chuck does not sound effeminate at all. I suspect that this self-effacing was part of his personal battle. The negative opinions he had of himself on this issue were not based in reality).

GB: You actually think you do, that you sound this way?

Chuck:  Back when I was younger, I had people say, 'Oh you talk like a sissy'. I would take it extremely personally. Maybe it was just someone shooting off their mouth, but because I was gay, (and that wasn't even a term, when I was younger), I would think, 'Oh no, don't say that, because if you do, the priest says that I am going to go to hell! Then I will have to go see a psychiatrist and all this shameful stuff, I will even be rejected by my parents'. People still experience that. No matter how old you are, those words hurt. They follow you the rest of your life.

GB:  The sad irony is that no one would consciously choose a life that put them out of the mainstream, that made them the object of ridicule by so many. I was born left-handed. It wasn't a conscious choice, I just simply was born that way. From all I have read and heard, it is the same for someone who is gay. They are born that way, as surely as they might be born white, black, blonde, brunette, male, female, whatever. All in all, this is for the purposes of this interview, an non-issue. How be we move to talking about this band you spent all those years with?

So from what I understand, you still do occasional gigs with the guys when time and schedule allow?

Chuck: I did the 40-city summer tour with Styx and Bad Company and Billy Squier and basically I go by how I feel. I'm HIV Positive, so I have to really watch my medical care closely. I take that seriously because I was really sick for 2 years. I value that above everything else so I know how important it is. So that comes first now. 

You know, the guys were very kind to me, they allowed me to pick and choose what cities I wanted to go to. I only have to play 3 songs. Glen Burtnik, who originally worked with us in 1991, as our guitarist, was the perfect fit. I know he is a great musician, a great player, high energy, so when the name came up for who was going to take Chuck's place for the tour, when I told them I wasn't originally going to be able to go out at all, it was Glen that filled the bill.

GB: It's good that he can bump on over the guitar, because it might feel a bit odd if he had to leave the stage when you came on to do the 3 songs. It might give the public the notion that there might be some competition or an adversarial situation between the two of you.

Chuck:  I have heard people at the end of the concert when we do the 'meet and greet' turn to Glen and say "Oh, you're a great player". Glen will turn to them and say, "I'm only playing Chuck's parts".

GB:  That's quite unselfish.

Chuck:  That's very unselfish! He is a great player and he is playing 'my parts' just great. That's very important to me. But I thought that was so cool because the person didn't quite 'get it'.

GB:  He diffused it very nicely. I've been reading recently in the news that there is a series of new medications that can almost stop HIV right in its tracks and in time, greatly lengthen the life and the quality of life of the patient.

Chuck:  The quality of life is very important. It doesn't make sense to take medication that makes you sick all the time. It can take away your life, so that all you do is exist. There are great new medications coming out, I'm on a trial study now, and it's actually working out very well for me. The 'cocktail' works and I always tell everybody who is sexually active, 'get tested'. Get it done before you get too sick! Because when you get sick you can develop a lot of complications and it's harder to get better.

GB: Because the body is having to fight on multiple fronts?

Chuck:  Exactly.

GB: Let's turn our focus to the music for a while now. How did you get into bass in the first place, was it a 'hey, he's the guitarist, so I'll be the bassplayer' kind of thing?

Chuck: Basically, my brother (John) and I started as drummers. Of course John was a great drummer and I was a horrible drummer! So we needed that bassplayer, so I started to play the bass.  I am pretty much self taught, something I think shows sometimes. But I think I played more melodically, that fit the kind of music we would play.

GB:  Did you have input into the songs, creating the bass lines that fit?

GB:  Does that leave you with rights to royalties?

GB:  Were you ever much of an equipment collector?

Chuck:  Not really, I really wasn't. Right now, I just go out of the main system and an ear monitor. I kinda fell out of all that stuff. It was too difficult for me to keep up with! (laughs). I do have a number of Alembic basses. I think I deforested a whole tropical forest by myself back then, saying 'Oh, use this wood, use that wood!'. Then I realized, 'Oh, what did I do?".  But they are beautiful basses, I love the way they look.

At that point Chuck takes a moment away to answer an incessant phone...it's a renovations workman...

Chuck:  This has only taken 5 years! Never remodel anything. MOVE!   You can quote me on that! Chuck Panozzo says 'never renovate, must move out'. There's enough sawdust around here, I am tempted to throw peanuts on the floor! Actually this guy has been pretty good. He recently asked me how long he has been working on this project. I said  "Five years, Gerry!".

Then the phone rings again, but this time it's a fan that somehow has found Chuck's number...he is polite but clearly makes it known this is a private number.

Chuck: You know, I don't even know who that was!

GB:  So you went with the band on the 40 city tour, which is a lot of work! If they (STYX) do the Tour 2002, which apparently they are talking about doing, if you are up to it, would you consider doing part of that tour as well?

Chuck: I might do part of it, the real trouble was the the transportation was very difficult for me. The bus ride was really too hard, I just wasn't getting enough rest. I also couldn't meet my dietary needs on the bus. I didn't really sleep well for the whole 9 weeks. It was tough. So now, I would just fly in and fly out to shows now. I tried it, I made it my personal best, but by the end of it I was just wiped.

GB:  Well, the band wouldn't want you to do anything to yourself that would do any serious harm or that would cause you pain. That's not what friends do.

Chuck: No, they were really generous.

GB: I was reading somewhere that some management guy or some financial advisor was commenting on Styx, saying it was McDonald's marketing hamburgers. That you guys are natural business people. That you would even plan your own tours, right down to the smallest detail.

Chuck:  Well, I kinda respect that, but I hated when people would say we were Corporate Rock. That's not true at all. We started the band in our basement when we were just young boys. So we really just barreled our way through this. You know we were pretty intelligent, we all graduated college, so we did look at it as a business. To survive you need to make money. It's kinda fun because some people say you don't have to make money. Isn't that sweet, but that's not reality.

GB:  So things were good for a long long time, you guys were great friends. But all things do change and I am talking about Dennis at this point. He wanted to move into more theatrical stuff and you guys were literally heading in different directions. These were growing pains. (The band and Dennis DeYoung are in litigation over the use of the band name. When their previous album was released Dennis was not available to tour. He wanted to hold off for a while but the band wanted to go. They insisted however, upon using the name Styx. Now Dennis is suing the band over the use of the groups name. Presently Lawrence (of Strange Animals, A Criminal Mind fame) Gowan is doing the vocal chores for the band, a role previously covered by Dennis) In February of 2002 there is a court appearance covering the case.

Chuck:  I am not exactly sure when the date is, I know I have a deposition to be done in September. I am not particularly looking forward to it. But it's an unfortunate situation. I have known Dennis for 40 years and I only wish him the best. I am sorry he is so hurt, that's the truth. He has to do what is right for him and I have to do what is right for me.

GB:  A band is like part of your extended family. It's you and the rest of the band members fighting the odds. If you're lucky it goes on for decades and decades. You end up knowing everything about the other people, often more than you really wanted to know, just by spending so much time together...and when it's over, you have a lot of ammunition. Because you know a LOT of stuff about each other. It can be the measure of maturity to not use that ammo. To recognize all things end, to just let go.

Chuck:  Absolutely. I totally agree with that. You see these couples that get this high-profile divorces. I find that really repugnant. I try not to comment on it too much for that very reason. It's not necessary for the fans to have to deal with this. What is going on is not for the court of public opinion. It's not for Judge Judy!

GB:  I've read that the critics were not too nuts about the band.

Chuck: In the beginning, I don't think they understood what we were about. We were an ArtRock band and I don't think they understood that. I think sometimes critics like to find a band, rally behind them, as if it were they that discovered the group. But we were already around, from out of the MidWest. They weren't able to 'discover' us. For them, you had to be from the East or the West coast.

GB:  Are you finding that you have the time and the desire to do any writing yourself these days?

GB:  Did you find as you approached 50 that you felt you might be being screwed up a bit by what is classically known as Mid-Life Crisis. More than a few of my associates have been affected in many ways, some in more unusual ways than others.

Chuck: Well, my mother was dying, my brother (John) had died a couple of years earlier. I had gotten very sick, my best friend of 22 years had died. So Mid-Life Crisis, yeah!!!  You couldn't get much more than that when it came to crisis!

Chuck:  These were real situations. I had to really evaluate my life and where I wanted to take it. I had to concentrate more on my personal life in the right now. Someone asked me what I had given up for my career. I told them, "Everything!".

GB: So maybe it's now time for you. You spent all these years, decades really, working on music. There sometimes comes a point in one's life where maybe it might be time for something new. Do you feel perhaps that the idea of the book or memoirs would allow you to be creative in different ways that reflect where you are now in your life.

Chuck: I have a degree in Art Education, I was an Art teacher. So I want to do a little more drawing and painting. I took Jazz bass, I took Classical stand-up bass, I've taken courses that involve art, I just want to do stuff like that that makes me happy. It's stuff that 'geezers' get to do when they are like 65 or 75 years old. I can pick and chose those things now. I really enjoy that a lot.

GB:  Lawrence 'Larry' Gowan, the present vocalist for Styx, originated in Canada with a series of very successful songs like "Strange Animal" and "A Criminal Mind". He parlayed that success into a smart business and creative choice by joining Styx. A good move on his part.

Chuck: I like Larry so much. He's a great musical talent,  he's a great human being and he always makes me laugh! Whenever I talk to him I just laugh my head off!

The phone rings again so Chuck is gone for a moment. This is one popular guy!

Chuck: Sorry about that! Next Thursday the medical center I go to is sponsoring this dance for HIV Positive guys. I am part of the entertainment committee. I am getting a signed guitar for a silent auction and a little band together for the event.  Now I get to be producer and director and all this kind of stuff! I have more tapes in my house now than ever before from bands that want me to look at them.

GB: I realize you are moving on to more literary creative paths, but during your years with Styx, did you ever entertain the idea of doing a solo album?

Chuck:  You know, I never did. I don't know how viable that would have been. Maybe I just lacked the courage. I always talked to John about doing a video together and for some reason we never did that. We were a great rhythm team that could make the connection, I always thought he just didn't live long enough for us to do that. It would have taken just a little more to mature into our instruments, because we were headed that way! But we just somehow never made it.

GB:  Were you also great friends?

GB:  As a twin, did he look a lot like you?

I have a trainer that helps me work out. I do it three times a week, it helps me a lot psychologically and physically. It really helps me out in my head. I had lost 50 pounds, I was down to 130 pounds two years ago. So that kinda does a whole trip on your self image. I felt better, but I just wanted to make sure I started to look better.

GB:  No adult male of average height is supposed to weigh 130 pounds! At that weight you must have exhausted.

GB:  Do you think that because the slide downwards was slow, you just didn't see it.

Chuck: It took a while.

GB:  And also the denial.

He died in July and I was rendered speechless. It was not necessary for it to go that far. It was a totally pointless death. He died just shy of his 47th birthday. It was too young.

GB:  Have you noticed too that as you grow older, that sense of 'too young' moves forward. Suddenly death at age 68 seems unfair where 25 years ago it would have seem reasonable, even fair?

Chuck:  I totally agree with that.

GB:  There is a part of us that truly thinks we will live forever and that part never truly goes away.

Chuck:  Well, when I was at my lowest, I just looked around at my house, it was the end of 1999, my mom had died, and I said to myself, " I am not gonna make it to the year 2000!". I have all these golden records and all this neat stuff around my house and it means nothing. I thought "What did I do with my life?".

GB:  All the stuff doesn't love you, it doesn't even know you're there"

Chuck: No, it doesn't, it was just stuff.

GB: At this point in your life, have you been fortunate enough to find a group of people that are there for you as a support network? Perhaps a partner, someone to share the normal things in life with?

Chuck:  I am actually going to spend 3 months in South Beach, Florida, this year. After the SuperBowl, I have a friend that lives out there and he's introduced me to a nice group of people. I'm just gonna spend some time out there. Just kinda get away from Chicago for a while. (Editor's Note"... and away from the endless renovations!) Just have some sun everyday. I want to wake up to summer every morning now. I don't want to deal with winter any more.

GB:  I have come to think over the years, that as humankind, we are hardwired to find partners in life. We were not meant to be on our own our whole lives.

Chuck:  I totally agree with that. I had some questions posed to me by relatives when I told them I was 'coming out'. They said, "Well, gee, do you have to, can't you just keep it in the family". I said, "I don't have to, but I want to."

I said then that one day I would like to have a partner. They said, "Isn't your family enough?". So I said, "Isn't your family enough?" If you don't have a reason to come home to or you don't have someone you can call every night, it's all kind of meaningless. Look, I would play in front of 5000 or 10,000 people but at night when I'm sitting in that hotel room by myself, talk about a high and a low, all in one day.

GB:  No kidding! Almost a form of self-abuse. You're adored on one level and ignored on another.

Chuck:  It is really an exaggerated extreme. I find that to be a problem for entertainers in general. This is why drugs and alcohol can become such a real cool thing.

GB: Over all these years, even though it can be a very schizoid life, you found a way to survive and to finally find a way to stand up to the demons that life can present.

Chuck:  It's been an incredible career. It opened up a lot of new worlds to me. I got to travel all over the world.

GB:  ...and now is the time for another new world for you, a different kind of creativity.

Chuck:  Totally! That's my intent. To not be so serious, to have some joy here. Just to find what I really am all about now. Now is my time to grow up again. I can finally answer the question, "Who am I?"  I can finally take off those rock `n roll shoes.

You can visit Chucks website at:

 http://www.chuckpanozzo.com

Read this article in German

 

 

 

                                  

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