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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Chuck Panozzo's Grand Illusion

If you grew up in Chicago in the 1970s and listened to pop music, you knew all about Styx. Their hits—“Lady,” “Fooling Yourself,” “Renegade,” “Lorelei,” “Come Sail Away,” “The Grand Illusion,” “Babe,” ad nauseum, and I do mean nauseum--were all over the radio.

Aside from being, at times, decent radio fodder, Styx never did much for me. Dennis DeYoung's vocal histrionics were matched by guitarist James “JY” Young's self-conscious rocking out, while Tommy Shaw, who wrote many of the group's better songs, turned out to be a right-wing cheeseball, chewing raw meat with Ted Nugent in the unnecessary Damn Yankees combo.

For me, the best thing about Styx was the rhythm section, brothers John (drums) and Chuck (bass) Panozzo. The two began playing music together in their early teens, finding success in the band TW-4, which in the early 70s evolved into Styx.

But at the same time Styx was making its run to the top of the charts, bassist Chuck Panozzo was hiding his sexuality from his brother, the rest of his family, his other bandmates, and the world at large. Chuck was gay, trying to make sense of his life at a time when being gay was bad enough; being 1)a rock star, 2)from the south suburbs of Chicago, and 3)being part of a traditional Italian catholic family just made his hell that much deeper.

Chuck Panozzo's new book, The Grand Illusion: Love, Lies, and My Life With Styx (Amacom Books), co-written with Michele Skettino, tells his story from birth to the present day. The book is strong in many ways, weak in others, but I found it an engaging and often affecting read.

Styx' career is described in alternately deep and remarkably shallow detail. We learn plenty about the band's troubles with their first label, Wooden Nickel (including some good stories about label head Bill Traut, a seminal figure in Chicago rock history), and some tidbits about groupies (the band generally abstained), along with the story of how “Lady,” recorded two years earlier, finally became the band’s first hit in 1974.

Unfortunately we get very little sense of what influences, visions, or inspiration lay behind Styx' music. From what we read in Grand Illusion, it's as if the music just happened, which clearly isn't true. The band's arrangements and production were always detailed, to the point of fussiness, but we get very little sense of the creative spark that fueled their albums.

There are hints of the personal discord between band members, but it’s almost as if Panozzo doesn’t want to really talk about why Styx imploded—although he drops enough hints to let us know that Dennis DeYoung’s ego played a major role.

But if you want a personal story, this is the book. Panozzo takes the reader through his discovery of the gay scene in Chicago, at times humorously and often with heartbreaking results. His relationships, and those of his friends, before and during the time of AIDS, form much of the book's emotional center.

In addition to dealing with his own identity problems, Chuck Panozzo also had his mother's fatal illness to shoulder, which was then compounded by his brother John's out-of-control drinking habit, which got worse after Styx broke up in the 1980s and led to the drummer’s death in 1996. Again, these episodes are discussed in wrenching detail.

Chuck Panozzo himself was diagnosed HIV-positive during the nineties, and then with full-blown AIDS in 1998. Having watched many of his friends deny the disease and die in agony, Panozzo decided to become a survivor. He's become stronger physically and emotionally, wrestling his demons, finding a supportive partner, and getting back on the stage with a reunited Styx, first in 1999 and continuously over the years.

His interactions with his family and band members around the disease are telling. Almost to a man (and woman), those close to him accept him for who he is and love him for who he is—a lovely thing, but painful, perhaps, to learn after having shouldered guilt and fear of rejection for so long.

When he publicly outed himself in 2001, Panozzo provided us with a great lesson in the art of being yourself. The support Panozzo received from fans, friends, and bandmembers Shaw, JY, and even the curious DeYoung was clearly a source of strength.

One comes to the end of the book with an admiration for Panozzo's strength, but also a sadness that suffering has suffused so much of his story. I also wish that we got more of an insight into what made Styx' music, because it sure was popular for a long time, and some of it has endured.


Blogger Dan E said...

Thanks for the in-depth review; the book sounds worth reading, especially for anyone who grew up in Chicago back when Styx was one of the bands that caused WLUP to claim Chicago as the "Rock n' Roll Capital of the World". (A rather specious claim, obviously.)

But "a curious DeYoung"? Would that be as in, "Bi-curious"?

3:07 PM, June 18, 2007


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