MIAMI - Imagine you are a founding member of a rock group once deemed the most popular by American teens, but you have a secret that could upset not only your place in this carefully cultivated demimonde of willing groupies, sex, fame and money, but your bandmates’ futures as well.
Now, imagine one of your biggest hits has the refrain, “Secret, secret, I’ve got a secret,” and you have to play that on stage every night and keep a - forgive the word - straight face while doing so.
For Chuck Panozzo, Styx’s original bassist, his group’s “Mr. Roboto” was not just a catchy pop song about man’s future harmony with machines. It contained unintended truth.
Except Panozzo wasn’t ready to let anyone know this truth - until recently. Panozzo, 58, has written his autobiography, “The Grand Illusion: Love, Lies, and My Life With Styx” (Amacom; $24.95).
“I wrote a fairy tale about a fairy who finally grew up to be a man who found his truth,” Panozzo quips while standing in his refuge - a lovingly detailed, tranquil, Asian-themed garden winding around the back of his Wilton Manors, Fla., home. From the front, Panozzo’s house is like any other single-family home in this neighborhood. But out back, in this oasis within a bustling city, amid the bonsai, the Buddha statue, the koi ponds, a hand-laid swimming pool and shady pavilions, Panozzo finally feels grounded.
Now, he can talk about being a gay man in the hetero world of `70s and `80s big-time rock `n’ roll. Sure, the boys of rock liked to play dress-up, but make no mistake, Panozzo says, the rock industry prided itself on heterosexuality. The androgyny and makeup? Merely a shortcut to getting laid, he reveals.
“You’d see rock stars make fun of gay men, but then you see these guys put on makeup and have long hair and take on affectations like girls, but that’s so they would not be threatening to girls. If you were masculine-looking, the young females were threatened. They go for cuties.”
Yet, for a gay man it was slightly easier being in Styx rather than in say, Kiss or Aerosmith, whose randy songs celebrated sex and whose members actively researched that material. Not that Styx groupies were totally banished backstage.
“Boys will be boys,” Panozzo cracks, “and when the wives were not around the guys would talk. If I brought my locker room talk they wouldn’t understand a thing I said.”
Of course, Panozzo wasn’t the only rock star in the closet. During Styx’s late `70s heyday, Elton John and David Bowie only copped to being “bisexual.” Judas Priest lead singer Rob Halford was silent. Even the flamboyant Freddie Mercury of Queen didn’t publicly declare his sexuality until he was on his deathbed in 1991, suffering from AIDS. Among Panozzo’s bandmates, only his twin brother, drummer John Panozzo, knew Chuck’s truth.
“The secret was so deep and so hidden to me I believed the secret,” Panozzo says.
In the book, Panozzo writes about growing up gay in Chicago, his double life in Styx, and his HIV diagnosis in 1991 - yet another secret he once kept hidden.
In denial, Panozzo opted to forgo treatment, nearly dying from fear of the medication then available to AIDS patients. After all, acquaintances were committing suicide rather than endure AZT’s side effects, he writes. He still gets a catch in his voice when he talks about a close friend being shunned by family while dying from the disease. Panozzo was diagnosed with AIDS in 1998 and had most of the symptoms: Kaposi’s sarcoma, anemia, thrush. His weight dropped to 130 pounds.
Still, he’s one of the lucky ones.
“I decided to wait and to hope for researchers to develop new drugs. I just kept my fingers crossed that I would be on the right side of the bell curve in terms of treatment. It was a gamble with fate, but I didn’t see the options,” he writes in “The Grand Illusion.”
Besides, it was easier to ignore his own health to concentrate on trying to save his brother John, who was in the grip of alcoholism.
John’s death in 1996 was a wake-up call.
“When my brother got ill, besides destroying him as a human being, to destroy his gift of music was so unacceptable and heartbreaking,” Panozzo says. “He couldn’t be there for me. But it was not like my career was over. I couldn’t let that idea of him dying make me die with him. I had to accept that and go beyond that, for him and for me. I have to hold on and carry on.”
Advancements in medication and diligence in monitoring his health have made Panozzo’s viral load nearly undetectable. Three times a week, he works out in a nearby gym. He’s toned, muscled, strong; so is partner Tim McCarron, who is on the same AIDS regimen as Panozzo.
“It’s hard to leave here,” McCarron, a portrait artist, says from a redesigned kitchen where windows spill light directly across the living room into the backyard retreat, which he maintains himself.
Now, able to introduce Tim as someone who isn’t just “a friend,” a freer Panozzo can find the irony amusing in “Mr. Roboto.”
“Secret, secret, I’ve got a secret. I always make fun of it now,” he says, smiling. Not that he has to play the infernal song anymore.
That’s because Styx lead singer Dennis DeYoung, who wrote the song, was eventually forced out of the band (“He’s a dictator and dictators can’t last forever, they eventually implode,” Panozzo says about the split). So went most of his pop-oriented material - “Babe,” “Mr. Roboto,” “Don’t Let It End.” But Styx still has songwriter-singer Tommy Shaw on board so plenty of durable hits remain, including some of Panozzo’s favorite rockers like “Renegade,” “Too Much Time on My Hands” and, in particular, “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man),” a song he quotes in conversation.
“`Why must you be such an angry young man, when the future looks so bright to me’ - those words are so powerful,” he says. Panozzo, who is active in gay rights and also dabbles in art, tours with the band as often as his health allows. Traveling, even for younger musicians, is not easy. When Panozzo can’t tour or has other commitments, Styx has a replacement bass player.
“I’m performing with world class musicians, shoulder to shoulder,” Panozzo smiles. “I try to represent my own community and (so) any kid who wants to be in popular music doesn’t have to hide anymore. Maybe they can think, `Hey, if Chuck did it, why can’t I do it?’
`I want young kids who are different to understand it’s OK. Don’t let that power - that `You’re no good’ - bother you because you’ll overcome that.”