Book Review: The Grand Illusion: Love, Lies, and My Life with Styx by Chuck Panozzo with Michele Skettino

I first liked Styx because the girl I liked liked Styx. Then I liked Styx because, well, I just liked them. Their shiny brand of rock may have been tailor-made for teenage girls, but its romanticism and drama also appealed to a certain type of geeky adolescent boy. I saw them in 1979 at Nassau Coliseum, with the Good Rats (Long Island’s best-ever band that didn’t quite make it) opening. It was a memorable concert. My friend threw a lit sparkler and got thrown out before the show even started. The rest of us stayed. What good friends we were.

The Good Rats banged on their garbage cans. Then Styx brought their colorful corporate rock show to the stage. When Tommy Shaw shouted “Get Up” we might have felt a little stupid, but we all got up. And “Come Sail Away” was as awesome in concert as it was on the record. Which I owned. And had listened to many many times.

Behind the band’s three frontmen, brothers Chuck and John Panozzo churned away on the bass and drums respectively. One didn’t pay too much attention to these darker, unflashy members of the band. Chuck addresses this: “I always had a dark, brooding look… In some ways, I used my physical appearance as a deflector. I played it.” Your reviewer wasn’t a bass player yet, so didn’t appreciate Chuck Panozzo’s importance. I suppose I did know the band’s story enough to know that the Panozzo brothers and Dennis DeYoung had formed it as young teenagers. But one forgets the details of fandom even though one remembers the songs.

Chuck Panozzo’s new autobiography tells the story of the band and the even more interesting story of how a closeted gay musician dealt with the “manly” world of rock, the AIDS epidemic, and his own demons.

Talk about high notes and low notes. Panozzo had co-founded one of rock’s most successful bands, and by his own account, after four successive triple-platinum albums and years of lucrative touring, he didn’t ever have to work again. On the personal side, there were co-dependency issues with his mother as well as his alcoholic fraternal twin brother John, the band’s volatile drummer, who Panozzo says would today probably have been diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder or learning disability. But how many of us are lucky enough to have no family drama in our lives? From outward appearances, fate had smiled on our hero.

Thing was, Chuck was gay, and he feared, with some justification, that coming out of the closet would endanger his career, his band, and his family relationships – his whole existence. So he stayed closeted and miserable. For decades.

Oh, and by the way, during the days before AIDS awareness, Chuck contracted HIV, and he later developed full-blown AIDS. Also his beloved, troubled brother lost his battle with the bottle and died. His mother passed away while Chuck was at his sickest. And his best friend died of AIDS. And, oh yeah – prostate cancer! Now do you want to trade places with Chuck Panozzo, the big rock star?

Remarkably, Panozzo has lived – and thrived – to tell the tale. He still has medical complications, but his AIDS drug treatment – which he started late in the game, largely because of his own denial – has worked. His HIV levels are undetectable. He’s in a lasting, loving relationship after decades of utter inability to establish one, for reasons the book makes clear. And he is finding fulfillment by using his celebrity to influence the lives of young people confused about their sexual identities. “If I can make one person question why he’s hiding his authentic self,” he writes in the Introduction, “…and give him courage to make a change, then I’ve succeeded.”

Like sports, rock is a pretty macho field. Even now, many gay musicians remain closeted for the sake of their careers. During Styx’s heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it seemed inconceivable for a member of such a popular group, with its throngs of young female fans, to be openly gay. Hence, although Panozzo is pretty tough on himself, only a hard-hearted reader could blame him for lacking the courage to come out. On the contrary, one closes the book feeling considerable admiration for Panozzo for having come through such adversity with a positive outlook and a much-improved life.

My admiration doesn’t extend to his writing style, however, and I guess on this count one has to point a finger at co-writer Michele Skettino. Panozzo may have come up with the lyrical hook to the Styx hit “Show Me the Way,” but he’s not a writer and doesn’t claim to be. Yet, for a book that’s had the benefit of a professional co-writer and (presumably) copy editing, it has far too many errors and misprints. When I see a celebrity autobiography with a co-writer credited by name, I expect a competent text, and I have to say that in a literary sense, Ms. Skettino and the publisher’s editorial staff seem to have let our hero down.

Nevertheless I found the book hard to put down, especially during its first half as Panozzo relates how music came into his life, how Styx formed, and how hard they worked before (and during) their years of success. “It is not an understatement,” he writes of his teen years, “to say that music was changing my life. Once I started to play an instrument, suddenly I felt that I had something of value to contribute. Guitar was my thing. Now, in my own head, I was someone beyond the little, fag queer on the playground.” That will resonate with anyone who has discovered his “thing,” a specific talent or drive that gives his life meaning and makes him feel worthy to exist.

Panozzo’s detour to a seminary, which he says “essentially… turned out to be a boarding school for incorrigible young men,” gives his discussion of Catholicism credibility. “I think part of the problem with the issue of gays and the Catholic Church is that gay priests within the church refuse to speak out. It is not uncommon to see a priest in a gay bar. Of course, they wear street clothes and don’t publicize what they do for a living…” And of course, “Our environment and Catholic upbringing did a very good job at repressing our sexuality – gay or straight.”

Writing of the band’s days as a Chicago-area favorite in the early 1960s, he explains that “The more popular we became, the more I began to wonder what would happen if anyone found out that I was gay. Would that be the end of it? This made me even more reluctant to begin exploring my sexuality. Playing in the hottest band around was a sort of redemption from the barbs and abuse that had haunted me in the early part of my school life. I wasn’t going to mess around with that.”

The author’s wry humor peeks through his rather plodding prose. “A huge bear of a man in leather pants and a cop hat can be a bit intimidating to a newbie,” he says of a visit to a gay bar, “[b]ut as I worked my way into the crowd and began to hear snippets of conversations, I realized, ‘These guys are talking about recipes!'” Amusingly, our rock star hero was able to hang out anonymously in the gay community because “not one gay man I knew cared much about rock ‘n’ roll.” It was the disco era, after all. I suppose there were probably very few gay people in the audience at Nassau Coliseum that day in 1979 when I saw Styx.

You can detect the sparkle in Panozzo’s eye even in the misfortune-ridden second half of the book: “Of course, no one can solve an alcoholic’s problems except the alcoholic himself, but I could kill myself trying.” Fortunately he didn’t. His narrative is interesting, and the added psychological complication of a hidden sexual orientation makes it more than just a rock bio.

The band that started as a schoolboy accordion trio playing Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra hits grew into one of rock’s biggest and most original acts. Through infighting, personnel changes, and breakups, Styx persevered in one form or another and has even had something of a renaissance in the new century, though without Dennis DeYoung, who was responsible for many of the band’s biggest hits.

Speaking of DeYoung, honest creative differences weren’t the only things that stood in the way of a harmonious band history. A bit passive-aggressively, Panozzo gets in his digs at the theatrical front man. But the book isn’t primarily a tell-all. It recounts a life in music that will interest Styx fans as well as the gay community. Its main message can probably be summed up in this admission: “I did a disservice to myself and to the people who loved me by underestimating their compassion… That is one of the main reasons that I was motivated to write this book – to help others as others have helped me.” Visit Panozzo’s website for more about the bassist, his music, and his causes.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics.