Memoir: Pansy Division’s Jon Ginoli

pansypool550Pansy Division was an openly gay rock band at a time when the very notion of an openly gay rock band seemed shocking and political. And the early ’90s weren’t even that long ago. Pansy Division is still a gay rock band—more accurately, a pop/punk band befitting its Lookout! Records/Gilman St. heritage—and have just released eighth album That’s So Gay (Alternative Tentacles), which retains the group’s signature melodic songs and humorous, homo-tawdry lyrics. Frontman Jon Ginoli, who recently published the book Deflowered: My Life In Pansy Division, tells his story:

In 1988, I’d quit playing music. After attending the University of Illinois in the mid-’80s, I’d formed a jangly guitar band called the Outnumbered. Living in Champaign, Ill., we made three albums. We played a couple hundred gigs, toured a little bit and finally wound down and split up. My band had some minor success, and I felt like I’d given music a try, so I gave it up and moved to California.

After moving to San Francisco, I became involved with activist groups such as ACT-UP and Queer Nation. A lot of the art being made in these circles was necessarily dark, shrouded in pain and cathartic; large numbers of people were dying tragic, premature deaths from AIDS. This was the moment, in 1990, when the word “queer” was transformed from an epithet into a weapon. That use of the word was a brash move, a good example of making a positive out of a negative. I thought, “What if someone did songs like that?” It didn’t take long to figure out that if I wanted to see that happen, I’d have to do it myself.

A lot of the Outnumbered’s songs, though poppy and catchy, were fairly bleak lyrically: an emotional response to the Reagan years, a reflection of how much worse things had gotten since the optimistic ’60s. Though I wanted to be as honest and sincere as possible in those songs, playing them meant reliving that frustration with each performance, and if it got me down, what was it going to do for the listener? If I was going to make music again, I wanted to make music that would uplift an audience, make them smile and make me smile, too.

None of the musicians we now know to be gay—such as the Pet Shop Boys, Michael Stipe, Bob Mould, Rob Halford, kd Lang, Melissa Etheridge, Marc Almond—was open and out back then. Some were pretty obvious, but when asked, they would still deny it. We thought that if no one else will step forward and do it, we’ll have the territory to ourselves! In the early days of Pansy Division, we felt like our subject matter was unlimited. We weren’t just gay rock musicians; we wrote songs with specifically gay subject matter: songs about our gay bar experiences, sexy songs without vague pronouns, songs about liking curved dicks. Songs with titles such as “The Cocksucker Club.” We also wrote songs about how we didn’t fit within the confines of the gay subculture—about the triumph of the superficial and about disliking Judy Garland, disco and the sometimes nasty and bitchy underside of gay life. We dared to push ourselves. What do we really want to say? What can we get away with? We were cracking ourselves up, thinking, “Wait until people hear this.”

“Twinkie, Twinkie Little Star” from That’s So Gay (download):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/TwinkieTwinkieLittleStar.mp3

I’d started Pansy Division wanting to have a band that made a point without being preachy, that delivered a message within catchy, rocking songs. A lot of the songs were humorous, which typecast us in some people’s minds. We were serious about what we were doing, but not overly so. It wasn’t that we were necessarily trying to shock people; we aimed for a crowd that would get it, whose shock would be the shock of recognition. The band began with no commercial aspirations whatsoever. All I wanted was to make a dent in San Francisco, where I hoped people would love us; I wasn’t too optimistic of much happening beyond the city limits. Our wildest ambitions involved possibly making an album and maybe playing other big gay cities like Chicago and New York.

By 1994, things were going great, even better than hoped for. We’d made our mark in San Francisco, had done a small national tour and had even made an album that got a national release on Lookout! Records. This label affiliation proved pivotal—it got our records heard by Green Day, who’d left Lookout! for a major label. The surprise mass success of their Dookie album had landed them in the mainstream, where they encountered audiences with attitudes and prejudices they disliked. To make a statement about what kind of people they were, Green Day selected us to be their opening act in the year they went from playing clubs to headlining arenas. Suddenly, this band that had been formed to play music that openly gay guys our age (20s and 30s) could relate to was playing in front of swarms of predominantly straight teenagers.

And a lot of them weren’t too happy about it. We had things thrown at us, people yelled abuse at us and gave us more middle fingers than you could count. (Green Day was getting pelted with things, too—it was just a wild, enthused, crazed crowd.) Despite the boos, a good portion of the crowd did get into it. And we noticed that girls seemed to be much more accepting than boys, so we tailored our between-song stage patter to reach them. Our bassist/vocalist Chris Freeman used to point out, “Girls, most men are assholes.” (This would induce a huge, high-pitched roar.) “We have to date them, too! So if you’re on a date with a guy, and he wants to get off, but won’t get you off, tell him, ‘Go down or go home.’” This would usually be the intro to our song “Reciprocate.”

This new audience didn’t have the frame of reference our own audience did. We had to explain ourselves a bit, but we didn’t change our music. Though gay, we grew up listening to songs about heterosexual relationships and could relate to them, so we figured some people could make that leap with us. We weren’t going to win over everyone, but maybe we could get through to a certain percentage. Besides, the talk at school the next day would be about this crazy opening band that was totally gay! It got the subject out there, and we began to receive incredible mail from kids all over the country. Gay kids would express gratitude and relief that we were so outspoken. Straight kids would write and tell us how even though they weren’t gay, they had gay friends and were members of gay/straight alliances at their high schools. They would tell us tales of homophobic remarks by their teachers.

We had been warned of trouble looming at a show in Fairfax, Va., a conservative suburb outside Washington, D.C. The gig was at the Patriot Center at George Mason University. George Mason, a father of the Bill of Rights, refused to sign the Declaration of Independence because it didn’t guarantee enough rights and freedoms. (Were he still alive, he’d be cast out of Virginia; although its state slogan is “Virginia Is For Lovers,” in 1994, Virginia had an anti-sodomy law.) The promoter told Green Day in advance that they wouldn’t allow us to play, that we were inappropriate; Green Day’s response to the promoter was that if we didn’t play, they wouldn’t play.

The promoter backed down, but when we arrived, he pulled me aside for a lecture. In a friendly-yet-stern way, he said our material was too mature for Green Day’s young audiences. He said that there would be eight-to-12-year-olds in the crowd. I asked why he was worried about our lyrics and not Green Day’s, which also have some references that might not be suitable. And who were these kids, anyway? What parents were letting their kids go to concerts so young? I told him, if they’re that young, much of what we sing about is going to go right over their heads; they won’t get it. But they’ll know they saw a gay band, and it will get them talking one way or the other. To us, that would be a victory, meaning we’ve infiltrated Pat Robertson country. This guy kept saying things like he had a lesbian sister, that he was for gay rights, but not in these circumstances. He said he was dreading the day-after phone calls from parents. I told him I had the right to sing about it, kids had the right not to be censored, and what we sang about was part of the world we live in. Virginia was a sodomy-law state; the discrimination was written into state law. To counter years of hetero propaganda these kids had heard—and would continue to hear—a few bad words and risqué songs wouldn’t do them any harm. This discussion went in circles for 15 minutes, until I finally told him it was a waste of my time. When we played, the reception was mixed but more supportive than I’d feared; it was the only show we played with Green Day in the South.

The apex of that tour was a gig at Madison Square Garden. The show was a multi-artist extravaganza: faux-alternative station Z-100’s Christmas bash. The lineup from top to bottom: Green Day, Hole, Weezer, Melissa Etheridge, Bon Jovi (gag, choke, splutter, barf), Sheryl Crow, Toad The Wet Sprocket, the Indigo Girls and us. When Green Day found out Bon Jovi was on the bill, they were fit to be tied. This was everything we had ever fought against. This was an alternative station? Z-100 tried to throw us off the bill, but Green Day said they wouldn’t do the show if we didn’t get to play. We’ll always be grateful for the many times they stood up for us that year.

We got a 10-minute slot at 7 p.m., and it was amazing. We squeezed in four songs. The crowd was still coming in; the place was two-thirds to three-quarters full (about 12,000 people) for our set and it was tremendous, loud applause and loud cheers. It was as short as a breath, though, and then it was over. But we’d never dreamed of playing such a place, and it was an incredible experience. If we’d had the goal of playing such a place, we’d never have done the kind of music we were doing, so being there gave us a special kind of satisfaction.

The publicity from that tour was amazing. Newspapers and magazines that would never have covered us wrote us up, and MTV News did a segment on us. It enabled us to tour Australia, New Zealand (even Green Day hadn’t been there yet) and Europe. During the next two years, we toured as much as we could to capitalize on this exposure, to try to get the kids who liked us on the Green Day tour to come and see us on our own. This was only partially successful. We had high hopes for a couple of albums recorded after this point, but they didn’t sell as much as the ones that had been released at the time of our peak exposure. We’d established a cult following, but we weren’t able to keep increasing our audience.

By 1996, we’d hit a plateau but were just reaching our peak as a band. We’d had as many problems keeping drummers as Spinal Tap, but by the time we got the right drummer and made our best records, sales were diminishing. We had worked so hard and toured so much that, after six albums in six years, we decided the band would no longer be our living, and from then on it became a hobby. The fact that we were able to devote five full years to doing it full-time still amazes me given our modest goals, but we made the most of the opportunity.

But after a period of inactivity, there’s a blitz of new stuff: We’ve just released our first album in six years, titled That’s So Gay, as well as putting out on DVD the documentary film done on us, titled Pansy Division: Life In A Gay Rock Band. My band memoir, Deflowered: My Life In Pansy Division, has just come out as well. Now we work jobs and do the band in our spare time. Chris audits colleges’ financial aid packages in Los Angeles. Drummer Luis Illades opened an organic grocery in Brooklyn. Joel is a librarian in Boston. For 10 years I worked in a great record store (Amoeba Music), although I just quit so I could do an extended book/band tour.

Growing up, you get fed a lot of propaganda about what a free country this is, but it seems like a lot of people’s goal in life is to try to diminish your freedoms. We tried to utilize that chance to speak as freely as possible: in our lyrics, in interviews and in the suggestive, overtly gay artwork on our records. What our experience proved to me is that things really have changed for the better for gay people in the last couple decades, despite the political ascendance of right-wing Republicans. I don’t think we could have made it if we’d begun in the ’80s. Part of our success was perfect timing, and that’s something you have no control over.

While being gay isn’t the music-biz career killer it would have been in the past and there are more openly gay artists, they’re not on mainstream rock radio and there’s no one in hip hop or country who has managed to come out and still have a mainstream career. Most come out after their peaks, when they’re on the road to cult status. The same is true for pro athletes. In the long term, I think things will continue to improve, and I can’t wait to see what will happen next. Whatever does happen, we’ll probably be singing about it.

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