STYX and the Legendary & Historic “Smirk” of Chuck Panozzo

Charles (Chuck) Panozzo of STYX has been playing classic rock, when it was just “Rock”. He started in the 1970s and never quite got out of the rock and roll business. He started STYX with his twin brother John, and now 50 years into his career as the bassist for one of the longest living rock bands, I was able to sit down for a conversation with the bass playing legend, whom I have been a fan of since, well, I discovered rock music in 3rd grade.

Chuck came out as gay and an HIV survivor in 2001. When the rock world was still unforgiving of the LGBTQ community, he helped change so much of that in a very short time. He has survived AIDS, two bouts of cancer, drug addiction, and the fallout from the STYX album “Kilroy Was Here” (you all remember that Mr. Roboto song right?).  At age 73, if none of that as killed him, the only thing that will is the boredom of retirement. After multiple platinum albums, he is still playing a tour as of the writing of this piece supporting the new album “Crash Of The Crown” that went to number one on the amazon charts almost immediately on release.

Chuck with STYX live in SLC (notice the trademarked smirk)

JH: So Chuck, thank you so much for taking the time. I know it took a while to line it up, but, man, I have to say, you trashed the historical stereotype for you Italians, I mean you guys INVENTED the time zone when Columbus proved the earth was round.

CP: Well, when you travel so much on tour, bouncing around in time zones, you don’t know WHEN you are, a lot of the time. Been on tour since June.

JH: Actually on that note of the tour. I was watching that bootleg of your gig in FT Wayne a few weeks ago. Kind of shameless these days, someone just walks in with a phone, but back when I was collecting bootlegs, we had to wait for someone to get the tapes mastered, then printed on vinyl. These days someone just films with a phone. SO, I have been enjoying these recordings. You guys were tight on that gig. But I do want to say, that gig, when they introduced you, you had this smirk on your face, just saying “Yeah, I OWN THIS”. You looked like you were having a great time, how did you feel behind that smirk?

CP: Well, you know when crowds are going to be excited, they get loud, they were that night. And I also knew this new album was going to be good, and it went much better than we imagined, critic-wise. But there is a different attitude I have on stage in 2020, in the earlier years, it was a guy and another guy and another guy on stage, now we are very solid and working together as a single force, and it’s really fun to play with. It was like “Well, which one is your favorite? The blond kid with the nice butt?” (Probably Tommy Shaw, he is blond, and … well short) Now we are seen as we really are, a group of musicians, and it is a lot more fun to perform that way and be seen that way.

JH: Well, interesting, I never would have seen it that way, but you did have a very lively crowd that night, how did it feel being on the stage again after a year of not working?

CP: Well that year of not working was difficult for everyone as they were all getting ready for a tour. But the best part of 2020 was I got a call from Tommy saying he was ready for me to record the new songs. We had all rehearsed over the internet for so long, so we drove to 1800 miles to Tommy’s house in Nashville. And I’ve recorded there before, it’s very welcoming, not like the corporate recording environment where you can’t wait to leave. And he hands me this 20,000 dollar bass guitar, and I thought “How can I not sound GREAT on this?”. So Will (Beunevich) and Tommy (Shaw) are good at pushing us out of our comfort zones, to make us grow and to be relevant as a rock band in 2020, so people don’t just think “Ok here they go, 1977 again”. So I am really happy with the way it was recorded. And it was exciting with all of us learning our parts, being excited to finally record because we had all learned our parts individually from our own homes during the pandemic. So at 72 years old, to be able to perform for the fans like this is a pretty great thing for me, the band AND the fans.

JH: Oh yeah, I’ve seen that these bands with one original member, doing the “Pay the rent tour”, you guys keep putting out new material, and the new work is great, but as much of your catalogue that I love, my perfect set list, I know I’ll never get to hear all of it, even if your set list was 4 hours long.

CP: Yeah, we have had so many hits in the 70s till now, some are very memorable, it is like that, we play a couple of notes and they are all cheering and singing along, you know “Renegade” or “Blue Collar Man”. They all know those, and they like the new songs too. And with Tommy singing, if you didn’t know he was 67 years old, that voice has not aged one bit, he took care of it over the years, and that shows now, so even now when STYX performs musically, and lyrically they still sound incredible, and the words still have meaning.

JH: Yes, you guys were from that era of pure musicianship, the same era as YES, and Deep Purple, when you really had to have the talent to still be standing past a few albums. I was listening to my brother’s cassettes along with Emerson Lake and Palmer, and Yes.

CP: See how generational we were, your brother had to play us to you.

JH: Well, I was 9 and it was 83/84.

CP: See, so was my dentist, he was 10 when he first heard us around that time.

JH: Yeah my brother brought “Grand Illusion” home, we already knew “Paradise Theater” and songs from “Pieces of Eight” and this was all RIGHT before, I mean, MONTHS before “Kilroy Was Here”.

CP: Yeah, there has been a great evolution of recording since then.

JH: Well, I’ll tell you a story of how far-reaching you guys are. If you saw the Live Aid concert in 85, there was this one Russian band called “AVTOGRAPH” the first time anyone ever saw them outside of Russia. And I heard them thinking “Man, these guys totally sound like STYX”. And 10 years later, I was in Germany, and talking to a Russian guy, I said “All I know about Russian Rock and Roll was that band “AVTOGRAPH”. He showed me an article about them in the Russian version of “Smash Hits” magazine, and they talked about how in those days, getting American rock and roll in Russia was almost impossible. But they were able to get stuff out of Germany. And I think you guys were on EMI at the time and were getting released in West Germany, and thus easier to get stuff into East Germany. And someone in East Germany recorded a take of Paradise Theater. And this bootleg tape made it to Moscow, and they heard it, and that was what made these kids want to form a rock band. So, that is pretty far-reaching for you guys.

CP: You know, I still have fans from Russia, which still kind of shocks me, because it was so far away, but what broke us in Europe was “Boat on the River”, it wasn’t a hit in America, but it worked in Europe and places like Israel. We have a huge fan base in Europe, I was surprised when we went back the first time in 8 years they were still very welcoming which was pretty thrilling.

JH: This is funny for me, when I was 12, some guy named Bill Bryson was going around telling us Mormon kids the dangers of Satanism in rock and roll, and he was playing music backwards, you know the Zeppelin thing, and your song “Snow Blind” he said was about being on cocaine, then the satanic backward messages made it even more “evil”. We thought it was so cool, we wanted to listen to it.

CP: We had some fans that said they wanted to come and see STYX but they weren’t allowed to because of satanic messages. All I could say was “Sorry you had idiot parents”. The reality is the sheer nuttiness of putting backward satanic messages in our songs, I thought these people are out of their minds. But we did get a lot of press from that good and bad. But it did inspire the stuff on “Kilroy Was Here” with Dr. Righteous, and all that.

JH: Yeah I remember that, it was hard to “Get it” on a whole concept level, but the individual songs were great.

CP: It was a little too ambitious from the other songwriters, I mean, I never thought I would be dancing on a stage in a costume at a rock concert. Though we play it on stage now, the fans enjoy it, and Lawrence (replacement vocalist for Dennis De Young) does a great job of it. There were so many phases of my career, that basically, I like them all.

JH: I had a hard time with Kilroy Was Here, cause I was stuck on Grand Illusion, you know “Best of Times”, and “Superstars”. Kilroy was cool from the aspect that Shogun was airing on TV at the same time it hit the radio, and it had all this sci-fi to it, the greatest song on there, that was still STYX was “Don’t Let it End”. That worked for us young kids but didn’t last long. I remember some kid showing up to school on Halloween in a Mr. Roboto mask he made of paper mâché.

CP: Well, I was a high school art teacher, and I like art, I still do, and I wanted to teach something without people having to read, it was boring and we all wanted to have fun. So while I was teaching, we were also playing shows, I knew I was going to get a record deal, but my dad didn’t want to see his two twin sons go on tour. And were 22, and .. well I think the right choice was made. I enjoyed teaching, but I also have to honor the fact that I have platinum records. BUT, the travel that I have done, going around the world, making people happy. I can honestly say that I have had an incredible life, in many ways.

Lawrence Gowan (l) and Chuck Panozzo (r)

JH: You would have had more regular hours as a teacher, but not nearly as much excitement.

CP: Yeah, but high school kids… (Laughing)

JH: So, when guys did “Dear John” the fans took it pretty hard when your brother died.

CP: Yeah, it was sad, we knew he might pass away when we were on tour, I was in New York when I got the call that John and died. So, all the band came down, and we cried, we knew it was going to happen. To lose my twin, half my rhythm section. I said we could play the show, but I was in a state of shock. Even though you are prepared for that, you’re not really prepared. Then Tommy wrote this beautiful song to him. A lot of people thought we would break up at that point. But the only way to honor him was to keep going on, STYX is his legacy as much as it is mine. It allows me to work with another drummer, right now, I am working with the greatest rock and roll drummers in the world according to “Drummer World” (magazine). I have a sense of him sometimes on the stage, and I think to be part of that legacy, as long as our music is played, he will be remembered. *His twin brother John died from liver disease in 1996.

JH: Well, not just with the song, but in general you guys did him right, him and his memory.

CP: Yeah, we have all become a kind of a family as a band, same with our crew. Our tour manager has been with us for 40 years. We have a very committed road crew. One time the crew invited me to a post-tour party, none of the other band members were invited.

JH: So when did the band know that you were gay, and how hard was it being quiet about that in the 80s.

CP: Well, if you were in the band, and you didn’t know I was gay, there was something wrong with you. You know, not dating anyone, had a girlfriend for a brief time, but when I told my brother he just said “Well, now I know why you acted the way you did”. It was this unspoken thing we went through together, but assuming that coming from the south side of Chicago, if you are queer, you’re not going anywhere. And to have gone solo at that time, there was still a lot of discrimination in the 80s. But in the end, what I liked about being in music is that I was accepted. In elementary school, kids can be brutal if they have any inkling that you are weaker than them. I think music helped me a lot. When I got sick, Tommy said “Chuck, I’m afraid I’ll never see you alive again”. When I told my friends told me I should get tested, but I was afraid of the social stigma. But after about 7 years, when I was losing too much weight, and Tommy recognized that I was really sick. But the band was very good at supporting me, making sure that when I got better I would still have a job. I don’t take that for granted, to see that level of commitment to another band member. Not to get a permanent replacement because I was too sick. For them to embrace me as a brother, and I had already lost 2 brothers, and to have that kind of feeling about them. It makes STYX uniquely different, that we care enough about each other to get us through these situations.

JH: I’m learning about the family situation you had, those are remarkable steps they took.

CP: I had cancer twice, and when I have to go away for a few months at a time for treatment, you come back, and you are never quite the same. They are always going to make sure that I am healthy enough to be out there, and they are very supportive. But when Tommy introduces me as the founding member of STYX, I don’t know how old I should feel, but it certainly is a wonderful feeling. When he says “Does anyone remember when there was a time before STYX? Well, here is the guy who remembers it” then will push me out on stage. So, to not have a smirk for that, I’d have to be out of my mind.

JH: That says a lot about Tommy, the stories I always heard were in the fallout of “Killroy Was Here” were that he was really difficult, you are putting him up in glowing lights.

CP: People need to stop looking at us like a 1977 band, we are the 1977 band that ushered their way into 2021. We are different now, we’re better, more forward-thinking, yes we have our past, and it makes our fans happy to have that, but we have more forward motion in the band. When I say I have performed with some of the best singers and performers, I mean it. Though I also feel like I’ve been married to 6 guys and their wives for 50 years.

JH: So, in 2001, that was probably the year to come out, and the push for HIV awareness. I thought at the time we were very progressive, how was that from your point of view of having HIV.

CP: If I had to worry about ruing my career it’s one thing, but the other guys in the band being affected by someone being gay, people already thought we were satan worshipers. Those kinds of things make a difference in your judgment, but I said “I can not live this double life anymore, I will quit this band, any band.” if you can’t live your truth, what is the point of any of it. Thankfully the fans embraced it, they never had a problem with it.

JH: I wish that it was like that across the board, that is great that it worked like that for you.

CP: I always say there is that little boy or girl out there in the audience that thinks “I can never be him”. I hope that I can inspire them to do for themselves, to not care when someone says “You’re too dumb” or “You don’t look right”, that’s nonsense cause I made it, so why can’t everyone else. That’s my attitude about it. If I had to be the cutest, the smartest or best looking to make it, man, that’s not gonna happen. So you just make it happen for yourself.

JH: As you said, you were the queer kid in south Chicago, and now look at you. (saying this as over the zoom, he had on his wall behind him so many platinum records on the wall). That mutual friend of ours, speaks highly of you. Says you are a giant, and how he is standing on your shoulders to become who he is.

CP: Yeah, I love Brian and his husband, I love what they do in GAYC/DC, I think it’s brilliant. They have had me out for Pride there for a “Night at the Whiskey”. I am happy they have a published song.

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JH: So, you’re nowhere near retiring then?

CP: I think when you retire it’s over, what’s the point. But sometimes it’s hard to get back out there, and my roommate is always saying “Are you going to stay here and be bored? Or get out there in front of 13,000 people this week”. If you thought we were good before, wait till you hear this live, you know we are better than we ever have been.

JH: Yeah, “Crash of the Crown” great songs, you did this at this phase in your career, with the release of this album then it climbed to the top of the Amazon chart that quickly, you have everything to be proud of for this.

CP: Yeah, timing is everything in life. (I am laughing at this) I was thrilled to see that.

JH: It sounds current, fave song, “Save Us From Ourselves” that you can still do one like that after 50 years, I hope people get into this album. Here is my final question, what would your message be to the young gay kid who is out there, who is afraid and in that vulnerable state?

CP: The best advice I can give is to live your truth, not someone else, one day you can walk away from it all. Don’t believe what religion tells you, you’re not “BAD”. Don’t let anybody judge you, teachers shame you. If you don’t live your own life, who’s life are you going to live? Theirs? Otherwise, you’re fooling yourself, so don’t believe it. (*I can assure you all, he waited the entire interview to tell that joke).

JH: Chuck, it has been a great conversation, thank you so much for your time… (and music).

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The full audio of this interview, with all rambling tangents can be heard here.

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