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Queer to the Core

[whitespace] Pansy Division

The members of Pansy Division are ready to break through as America's openly gay rock stars

By Michelle Goldberg
Photos by Shane O'Neill

Some of the San Francisco pop-punk band Pansy Division's best-known songs are "Smells Like Queer Spirit," "Dick of Death," "Two-Way Ass," "I'm Gonna Be a Slut," "Political Asshole," "James Bondage" and "For Those About to Suck Cock." Among their more inspired lyrical couplets are the lines "I wanna live a long life, be older than King Tut, 'cause I've got lots of condoms, and they're going up your butt." The band members have performed with dildos as props and huge penises on their T-shirts.

Yet when founder and lead singer Jon Ginoli describes the band as "wholesome," he's not being facetious or coy. There's always been something remarkably innocent and exuberant about the San Francisco foursome, and on the band's just-released new album, Absurd Pop Song Romance (Lookout! Records), hedonistic posturing has been largely replaced by la-la-la doo-wop romanticism.

What stands out about Pansy Division more than its trademark raunchiness is its down-to-earth normality, fierce politics and "doing it for the kids" punk-rock idealism. The anger in Pansy Division's music echoes the frustration of gay kids in nowheresville everywhere, untempered by the knowing irony of camp or the savage decadence of hard-core urbanity.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, I showed up at Ginoli's Guerrero Street fiat, where the band was having a last meeting before its national tour in support of its new album Ginoli's place is big, airy and comfortable in a way that hovers between slapped-together bohemian and Pottery Barn prettiness. The band members--Ginoli, bassist and second vocalist Chris Freeman, drummer Luis and guitarist Patrick Goodwin--were listening to the new Beastie Boys album and addressing their mail orders.

They cooed about one 16-year-old girl who'd sent three orders in as many weeks and debated the sexiness of Iggy Pop and Mark McGwire. Not until their work was done did we head to a taqueria on Mission Street. There, chips, burritos, salsa and guacamole in place, the musicians began explaining why the new record is the beginning of what they call their second career.

"This is what we dreamed we could do," the tall, bleached-blond Freeman says. "It's like we're starting over now. We've got a great drummer, we've got a great guitar player, we're happy. We've achieved every goal we set out to accomplish. So what's the next thing? Well, let's put this band in the mainstream. It's not because we want to be rock stars per se, it's because I want to live in a world where a gay rock band can have a No. 1 hit."

The new album, he continues, "is a much tougher record for us. It's a lot noisier in some ways, and it's also a lot more tender in some ways, and poppier, glossier. It's just bigger in every possible way."

"It's expanding, it's explosive, it's groovy, baby!" Ginoli adds.

Pansy Division has spent the past eight years singing on the pop-music margins, making catchy, Ramones-style punk for queers who never got down with disco as well as for androgynous indie kids and riot grrls. I remember being taken to see the band when I was a teenager in New York by a friend from my hometown whose tenderhearted suburban alt-rock past was at odds with his new image as a Gothamite model and scenester.

My friend hated techno but hardly fit in with the sweaty, aggressive, track-marked hordes at CBGBs. Squeezebox, a Manhattan club that Pansy Division plays every year, was his favorite hangout, a place where skinny go-go boys danced on the bar in tattered Catholic schoolgirl uniforms, and the drag queens seemed to worship David Bowie and Kiss as much as Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor.

As Pansy Division played its brand of hypermelodic, raw, furiously queer three-chord ear candy, my old friend pogoed in front, and the trashy glamorous crowd elbowed in around him. It was one of the few times in years that rock & roll had seemed at all sexy or exciting to me.

Since then, Pansy Division has opened arena shows for Green Day and contributed to dozens of high-profile compilations (including We Will Fall, the Iggy Pop tribute), as well as putting out its own albums. But the band has remained obscure--I was surprised to learn that the members still had day jobs. Pansy Division's failure to crack the alternative-music mainstream has to do, at least partly, with America's inability to fathom openly gay rock stars, despite the easy embrace of ambiguous figures like Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie.

But it's more than that. In the past, Pansy Division has admittedly let its music take a back seat to its message, and the band's outrageous lyrics and song titles (like "Bill and Ted's Homosexual Adventure") often made them seem more like comics than musicians. Now, with the new album, which is a slick, catchy, nuanced record engineered by rock legend Steve Albini, all that may be about to change.

Absurd Pop Song Romance is the group's first record as a four-piece instead of a trio, and it has a fuller, richer sound than previous albums, although the music is still spare and raw. By far the most accessible record Pansy Division has made, Absurd Pop Song Romance is jangly and intensely melodic, full of both cynical tunes sneering at romance and heartbroken laments about longing for it.

The stories the songs tell are comfortably familiar pop tropes given new life by their blatantly homoerotic charge. Aside from their queer content, these tracks wouldn't be at all out of place on Alice 97 or Live 105, on the pop charts or on MTV. And in the age of Ellen, with a music industry famished for transgression, Pansy Division seems ready to break through.

Ginoli began Pansy Division in 1991 with the hope of forming a band that he'd "dreamed of but never heard." He writes on the Pansy Division Web site, "By 1990, it seemed like you could do anything in popular music but be gay. The time was so ripe that even enlightened straights were singing gay and gay-friendly lyrics, but where were the open queers?

"There were a few in the uncontested terrain of disco and show tunes, but none doing rock, where you are assumed to be hetero unless stated otherwise. There had been queer rock stars before, but there were always cloaked in an air of ambiguity, and they all later renounced their queer club memberships (David Bowie, Lou Reed, Prince) or never came out (Freddie Mercury, on his deathbed). Frustrated by this, and waiting for the hoped-for queer rock icon to come along, we had decided: if nobody else was going to come out and risk having their career ruined by unwanted disclosures, that disclosure would be the basis for our band. We figured there were X number of people who might be into it, and we'd play for them ... and if people couldn't handle it, fuck 'em."

When the band started, Ginoli tells me, "we wanted to be as blunt as possible. We were coming from a point of view being such outsiders that we really wanted to get our message across. We didn't want it to get diluted. We were so disappointed by so many bands that we knew were gay or that had gay members, and yet the best we could hope for from them was ambiguity. So we were blunt. Now we don't feel like we have to do it forever. People know what we're about now."

Before, says Freeman, Pansy Division's music was just the background to its queer message. "At the beginning it was very simple, just a few chords. I think people who might have written us off before as this one-dimensional, cartoonlike, Weird Al kind of band should give this new record another shot, because it's quite a bit different."

Now, the members of Pansy Division say, they're over queercore--they just want to be a rock band. "There isn't any such thing as queercore anymore. It fell apart," Freeman says. "A few years ago, there was some hope that homocore could be the 'next big thing,' that it could briefly revitalize rock the way the riot grrls did. We thought that there would be more bands after we started. It was like, OK, we've gotten this far, where's all the other guys doing bands? Right about that time there was all these dyke bands, Tribe 8, Team Dresch, the whole riot grrl thing, but there still weren't any guys doing it. I'm mystified as to why that's the case."

It seems especially odd given that so much alternative music takes inspiration from bad middle-class childhoods, and gay kids have it notoriously hard growing up. Yet gay culture, aside from its political wings like ACT-UP, tends to bury anguish under layers of sophistication, drama-queen camp and irony--originally as a response to forced subterfuge, but now often just out of tradition.

According to the beautiful, black-haired Luis, the brother of Atom X from the punk-metal band Rocket From the Crypt, "It seems the music and the club scene in the gay community doesn't have, for lack of a better word, angst or anger in it. It's all about, party, party, let's go party. There's not that many people in the music scene writing more emotional or political songs, songs with much depth, unless they're getting into really sappy contrived Elton John kind of stuff."

Pansy Division Though it plays Gay Pride events and is active in queer politics, Pansy Division is tremendously ambivalent about monolithic, Castro Street-style gay culture. "I can't be your standard-issue, regulation fag," Ginoli sings on "Better Off Just Friends." "Camp is fun, I love camp and I love a lot of the aspects of gay life that people will be quick to dismiss, but it's funny for a little bit," Luis says. "It's funny to go out for a night or a couple of nights, but when it becomes an everyday lifestyle, then it's just silly."

Luis grew up in Mexico, and he says that his ideas of gay culture formed around Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol. When he moved to San Diego, he was shocked by what gay life really meant. "Growing up, I thought gay people were really interesting, freaky artists," he says. "Then in 1992, I moved up to San Diego. I got this job working in a deli in Hillcrest, which was the queer part of town, and I was so shocked to find out what gay culture really was. There were all these disco ridiculous nelly things that I couldn't relate to on any level. I was a 17-year-old moving up to San Diego from Mexico who was supposed to know less about America than they did, and I was so surprised to find that there was not one gay guy in that whole deli who knew who Lou Reed was. What, are you guys crazy? There was no culture."

Goodwin, the band's stoical guitar player, adds, "I think the actual gay culture that I experienced kept me from coming out sooner. It was just another thing that I felt alienated from."

Freeman picks up the thought, continuing, "What's so ironic is that when you grow up you're forced to break out of everything around you to be who you are, and then as soon as you come out and be who you are, there's a whole new set of restraints that you're supposed to put on yourself. If the whole idea is that you're trying to find yourself, why do you need to go back and put the Judy Garland mantle on?"

Thus, Pansy Division is almost alone in singing about the special hells and intense, furtive romances of gay kids. Ginoli actually grew up in Peoria, the town in Illinois, not just the concept. The new album has a snippet of a newscaster reporting on a boy who was beaten by his father after coming out and had to run away.

"Glenview" is about a gay boy's painful relationship to his tiny hometown; "Vicious Beauty" spins a fantasy about seeing an old high school bully in a gay porn video. The band gets tons of letters from confused queer teenagers asking for advice. "After the Green Day tour, we were getting unbelievable teenage mail," Ginoli says, then, pausing, adds, "M-A-I-L, not M-A-L-E."

So why don't more gay boys grow up to be punk rockers? Partly, says the band, because although the gay scene doesn't appeal to angry queer kids, the punk scene can scare them.

"When I was first listening to punk rock, I was afraid of going to shows and being beaten up," Freeman says. "If you're a fag and you're going to a rock show, you're just asking for it in a lot of ways. So I think a lot of gay people might look at punk rock and be like, 'Oh, I can't go there.' Once I got into it I realized--see, I'm a lot older, I'm 37--that it was all the people that I wanted to be around. There weren't the jerk jocks like there are now. It was more the freaks who were getting away from all the people who liked Bad Company."

All the members of Pansy Division have stories about feeling threatened in rock clubs. "I remember going to see the Descendants in '84 or '85 in Illinois," Ginoli says. "I was right up front, and they did this song called 'I Don't Want to be a Loser.' And the lead singer sang, 'I don't want to be a loser, I don't want to be a homosexual!' I wanted to kill him! But I thought if I grabbed the mike away from this guy--'cause I was right in front of him--who's gonna back me up? Who's going to defend my point of view? No one. It's going to be me by myself. So I don't own any Descendants records."

The band faced that hatred from the other side when it toured with Green Day. "Thank God there were barriers between us and the audience," Ginoli says. Every night, he explains, there were pockets of vicious rage in the crowd, and often homophobes got into fights with fans.

That tour took place in 1994, three years before Goodwin joined the band, and he was in the audience at one show. "I remember sitting at the amphitheater in Denver. It's a big place. I just remember sitting in the audience and watching this band--the buttfuckers of rock & roll--and I was just cracking up. The vibe in the audience was absolute confusion. Most people just didn't know what to think. There was a bunch of 12- and 13-year-old kids sitting around there trying to be punk rock, trying to do their thing, and they couldn't get over what was going on stage. It was so loud that it couldn't just pass them by. Mostly they would just sit there and not react to anything going on."

Despite the stress of facing vitriol night after night, though, the Green Day tour yielded several of the kind of spine-tingling moments that seem to redeem everything. Freeman recalls sitting at his own merchandise table after one set and seeing a crowd of sweaty, frat boy thugs heading determinedly toward him. Thinking he was about to get thumped, he asked the guys manning the Green Day table to watch his back. But when the threatening group reached him, they put out their hands and said, "Man, you guys were great! That was so cool!" "I was like, ahhhhh. We got through to these jocks. That was a victory," Freeman says.

Ginoli recalls a concert in Saint Paul, Minn., when the band was hanging out in the arena lobby after the show. A group of preteens came asked for autographs, and one of them, an 8- or 9-year-old boy, inquired, "Are you really gay?" "Yes," Ginoli told him. And the boy said, "That's sooo cool!"

"So there is hope for the future," Ginoli laughs.

And a while ago, Karl Alvarez, the Descendants' bass player, showed up at a Pansy Division gig. He'd read what Ginoli said about his band in an interview, and he apologized, insisting the band wasn't homophobic. "It was just goofy teenage stuff, he said," Ginoli recalls. "No hard feelings?" The Descendants have since changed the song's lyrics.

As we leave the taqueria to walk back to Ginoli's, we run into both Slade from Tribe 8 and Matt Wobensmith from Queercore records on the street, suggesting that reports of queercore's death have been exaggerated. For Wobensmith, obviously, it's still alive.

"I think what we're doing is really ahead of its time," Wobensmith says. "People aren't ready to accept it on so many levels. And it doesn't mean that we won't do it. I feel really good about this movement, if you wanna call it that. People are very self-sufficient. We know that we like it, we know that our friends and our fans like it, but I don't think acceptance has ever been our No. 1 goal. We've been doing it for us and for kids and [for] people who identify. Ten years from now, you'll look back on this time and it will be really something special. Maybe by then people will take it to the next level."

Is Pansy Division the band to do it? "I hope they do," Wobensmith says. "I always wanted to see the queercore thing become bigger than just a little subgenre. It doesn't have to stay underground, because I think there's a lot more that we can do. If they can cross over and make more fans, more power to them. They're pioneers" b

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From the October 5-18, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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