MGF Reviews The Grand Illusion: Love, Lies, and My Life With Styx by Chuck Panozzo with Michele Skettino

The Grand Illusion: Love, Lies, and My Life With Styx
By Chuck Panozzo with Michelle Skettino
AMACOM Books (5/15/07)
ISBN 0-814409-16-4
225 pages

Available At

This is a very difficult review to handle from my perspective. After all, Chuck Panozzo is essentially me with a couple of decades of separation in time. But those couple of decades are really irrelevant when you’re talking about Chicago, a city where growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s was pretty much the same as growing up in the mid-to-late 1970s. In fact, there’s only one eensty-weentsy little difference between us.

Well, there are a couple of eentsy-weentsy little differences between us. Chuck founded a band with his fraternal twin brother John at the age of 13. One day, a young accordion player (the most popular instrument in the neighborhood) a couple years older than the Panozzos heard the two playing (Chuck on guitar, John on drums) and wanted to join in. They let Dennis DeYoung do so, and found he could sing a little too. That was the beginning of what eventually would become Styx. So, one of those eentsy-weentsy differences between Chuck and myself is that he’s a world-famous rock star who’s known incredible success over the last three decades and lived in an expensive condo on the Gold Coast for decades. Meanwhile, I’m working two jobs, live in an apartment in the suburbs, and despite the evidence displayed on this Web site and numerous others over the past seven years of being able to write a best-seller that would be controversial yet audience-appealing, no one’s offered me so much as a book contract yet.

The other eentsy-weentsy little difference between us is the subject of this book. From the age of five, Chuck Panozzo felt different from other kids, especially his rambuctious twin. At the age of nine, he discovered what that difference was: he was attracted to other boys. The Grand Illusion: Love, Lies, and My Life With Styx is the story of a man haunted by his differences, yet unable to express them thanks to a combination of social brainwashing and an environment of fear. His curse was that he kept exchanging one environment of fear for another as he progressed in his life, going from Roseland on the South Side of Chicago to rock stardom, and kept getting caught in the undertow of expectations.

Let me tell you from experience: if you think that your typical small town in, say, Kansas (just to cite an example from recent personal experience), with its Jesus Freaks and bible bashers and “Choose Life” billboards that seem to be almost a command rather than just a polite suggestion, can be a repressive environment for a young man growing up with the knowledge that he’s gay, it’s nothing compared to your typical Catholic neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. I didn’t even need the sexual component to know about this. Intellectuals were treated as freaks too, and that was my particular sin. And that’s where the comparisons between Chuck Panozzo and myself begin.

We both grew up in Catholic families on the South Side; him in Roseland, me in Archer Heights. We both had similar experiences in lifestyle despite the nearly-two-decade age difference between us. As I said, things didn’t change much between the ’50s and the ’70s in Chicago. When Chuck and I both reached our double-digit years, Richard J. Daley was mayor (The Greatest Mayor There’s Ever Been died just after my twelfth birthday). We both gravitated at a young age to pursuits that were considered “unmanly” in our blue-collar neighborhoods; Chuck to art and me to science. We both attended Catholic high schools (one of the early highlights of this book is Chuck relating his experiences during his year in a seminary preparatory school). We both graduated from colleges on the South Side; Chuck at what is now Chicago State University, me from the University of Chicago. After graduation, we both drifted into teaching at a public school here in town; Chuck taught art while I taught geometry. Our fathers both died of cancer after working themselves to death. We’ve both had relatives die of alcoholism that defied treatment; Chuck his brother and me my uncle. The only difference between us was about eight miles in geography.

Even our particular psychologies were similar. We both dealt with our differences by withdrawing socially. With Chuck, though, it wasn’t the onset of bipolar disorder, as it was with me. He was ashamed and terrified of what he was, a situation abetted by intense sessions of Catholic brainwashing and family desires to conform. I at least had the option to relish in my differences as a coping mechanism. Being a brainiac was a license to be different, and was in a way accepted. In the early ’60s, you couldn’t be gay on the South Side, not even after Illinois became the first state to eliminate sodomy laws. And we both discovered performing as a coping mechanism. My family accepted me becoming an actor, especially since I was really good at it. Chuck’s uncle was a professional drummer, acceptable employment in the community as long as he had a day job to back it up, and was the inspiration for both Panozzos to take up music.

Therefore, I received a very eerie sense of déjà vu as Chuck talked about his first two-plus decades. In a lot of ways, it was my biography, right down to the overprotective mother who didn’t encourage boys being boys. One of the most important rules in reviewing a work of biography or autobiography is to attempt to remain dispassionate about your subject. That’s very difficult to do when the protagonist of the work you’re reviewing is, for all intents and purposes, the gay Italian version of you. That disconnection is further made impossible by a simple little fact of life: if you’re of a certain age and you grew up in Chicago, you are a Styx fan for life. Therefore, to me, this book’s a bit of a come-down. You want your heroes to have enough critical differences from you to provide something for you to work toward. Chuck’s just another guy from the South Side who can play bass really well and let his sexual proclivities become a dysfunction that took over his life.

That’s also the weakness of this book. Obviously, another desire of anyone’s when they hero-worship is the perverse need to see those heroes struck down, the greater the calamity, the better. This isn’t the book for you if you want someone to dish out the dirt on Styx, or even dish out the details with a healthy amount of dirt like Bob Spitz did in his magnificent book on The Beatles. There’s more attention given to the band’s career pre-name-change as the Trade Winds and TW-4 than to Styx’s progression to superstardom, which is handled with the rapidity of a John Panozzo fill. That book, the full retrospective, has yet to be written. It would require the cooperation of John Curulewski, who’s been painted as the Pete Best of Styx, leaving just before mega-stardom. It would also require the cooperation of Dennis DeYoung, who has no problem performing concerts of Styx music with orchestras but has a great many problems admitting that Styx carried on without him after he became the cause of many of their fights (Chuck admits in the book that he hasn’t talked to Dennis since Dennis sued the rest of the group in 2001). That book won’t be written for a long time. But, in the meantime, this book provides many tantalizing details, just not enough of them to create a mythology behind the group. For a group that named themselves after a piece of mythology, that seems rather odd.

Among those details, who would have ever thought that the path to Styx as rock stars would have begun with a chance remark by a nun? Yes, a nun. She heard the boys perform the Cole Porter Songbook to a bunch of bored high school kids and told them to start playing rock music. And this was before the Singing Nun hit the charts, so who knows where her divine inspiration came from? But cute, fun details are somewhat lacking due to the breakneck pace of this book. A lot of the pre-stardom stories will come across as expressions of every single cliche about up-and-coming bands, only made less cliché by the fact that they actually lived it. The story of them finally breaking through, after four poorly-promoted albums, by getting airplay for a two-year-old song on then-radio powerhouse WLS is also the origin of Styx’s local fanbase, and therefore my entry into his story. It’s then that I started to wish for a little more detail.

(Something that Chuck didn’t mention is that it ended up working both ways. During the early 80s, WLS was still playing rock music, blasting fifty thousand AM watts over a dozen states at night. When Styx came to town to play—it must have been the Paradise Theater tour—every time a Styx song was played, and they were very frequently, the deejay would brag that it was WLS who broke Styx across the country, and WLS was welcoming them home. The obvious egotism on display was countered by a great sense of civic pride. Unlike Cheap Trick, they actually were from Chicago, and unlike Chicago (the group), they were still living in town.)

But this isn’t Styx’s story on display. It’s Chuck Panozzo’s. During the life of the band, he was always the quiet one, a great deal like his fellow bassists John Entwhistle and John Paul Jones. It’s only now that he’s come to terms with himself and his life that he explains why this was so. The main feeling that you get from this book is one of fear. It drips off the pages. Every one of Chuck’s attempted forays into the expanding gay life of Chicago during the 1970s is prefaced by his attempts to explain to the audience the precautions he would take not to be recognized. He truly felt his career was dead if his sexuality was discovered, and it would drag the band that he co-founded down with him. Given the press reaction in 1976 to Elton John’s admission of bisexuality, he had good reason to be afraid. It’s something that’s very difficult to explain these days, with rock stars coming out of the closet by the day, and Chuck takes great care to attempt to explain. Sometimes he doesn’t cross that bridge all too effectively, but it’s a difficult task, and credit has to be given to him for the attempt.

But closets can be deep, and even years after his public admission of his sexuality and a decade and a half of dealing with being HIV positive (and a decade after being diagnosed as having full-blown AIDS) hasn’t fully opened the door. There’s a great reticence from Chuck when he talks about his attempts in the 1970s to experience life as a gay man. He never mentions the names of the venues he would attend in search of finding people like him. For instance, he was a virgin well into his twenties when he made his first venture to a gay porn movie house. He mentions that it was in Old Town, but that’s it. Given the time period and the way he found out about it, it was almost certainly the Bijou, which is still around (and became a pioneer in the release of gay videos). But he never mentions the name. Same goes for the gay bars he used to frequent. Same goes for the gay men who he befriended and/or slept with, invariably mentioned by first name only, even if they’re no longer with us. In a way, he’s still hiding. It does have the effect of properly projecting the sort of anonymity that he sought at the time, though, so to most of the audience, the details won’t be missed. But to a Chicagoan who knows his city, the admissions are strange. He takes great pains to show everyone that he wasn’t in denial about his sexuality, but his desire to not be that way is palpable. It’s also understandable to someone like me, but may not be so to a younger audience.

Denial is the theme of the second half of the book. It’s not denial about being gay, though. Chuck was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1991, something he attributes to the casual sex that he actually did end up having in the ’70s in between bouts of subterfuge. He didn’t seek treatment until it became full-blown AIDS in 1997. The denial of his HIV status came at a time when Styx was fallow, between their 1990 reunion album Edge of the Century and their mid-’90s reunion tours. He found things to occupy himself. However, unlike with Styx’s last fallow period between their initial break-up in 1984 and the reunion, they weren’t positive ones. John Panozzo didn’t have Chuck’s ability to channel things in a positive fashion, and his heavy drinking turned into full-blown alcoholism. At the same time, Chuck’s and John’s mother started to decline from cancer. Chuck put off getting treatment for his own problems to take care of them. John’s death in 1996, after many attempts to save him and his position in the band, was a great blow. It allowed Chuck to further delay things until it almost was too late. He uses his experience to attempt to teach his audience an object lesson in getting treatment as soon as possible. Unfortunately, both he and his twin teach the audience another lesson, one that Chuck leaves unsaid: treatment won’t work if you’re not receptive to it.

Nowadays, Chuck’s living in Miami with his long-term partner, his viral level is down to undetectable levels, he performs with Styx as often as possible given his health (and reveals that he had a cancer scare, diagnosed with prostate cancer at the same age cancer killed his father), and he is a frequent public speaker on gay and lesbian issues. It’s a great story, featuring an unexpected protagonist (to anyone who was a fan of Styx back in the day), a fight that only his belated desire to seek help won him, a happy ending for a man who’d been looking for love all of his life under impossible conditions, and an inspiration for people to keep fighting when the fight seems to be impossible, whether it be against incompetent record executives, dead-end constant touring, or a battle against a retrovirus. The Grand Illusion is a story of heartbreak at its center, and the story of reassembling that heart, showing to everyone not only the triumph, but the damage done and the lives lost in the process. It may not be the story you’re looking for if you want to learn everything about Styx, but the story you get is one that needs to be told and needs to be read.