"Let me tell you a Dallas story," says Jon Ginoli, lead singer and guitarist of the San Francisco-based trio Pansy Division. This follows a rather randy observation he called his "San Francisco story" that I promised not to print. "Right now, I'm dating a guy who moved out here from Texas. His father is a very famous fundamentalist preacher in Fort Worth." He speaks the next sentence with profound disappointment. "Apparently, the father is OK with it."
Mr. Famous Fort Worth Fundamentalist Preacher might be OK with his son dating a male musician from America's premier queercore band; in many parts of the Christian church today, homosexuality is about as controversial as...well, rock and roll.
You have to wonder, though, if Dad has ever given a listen to a CD by his boy's boyfriend's band. Jon Ginoli and singer-bassist Chris Freeman, with the addition of brand new drummer Luis, pound out rough but relentlessly catchy quasi-punk ditties that extol sex between men--sometimes the spiritual and emotional high of it, but usually the sheer physical pleasure of the mechanics involved.
"The same way some people avoid talking about being gay, other people avoid talking about sex," Ginoli complains. "Most pop music is concerned with sex, but they call it romance. The musicians just aren't being honest. Now that we're in the middle of the AIDS crisis, gay sex has come to seem poisonous. Well, I'm a gay man, I'm HIV-negative, I know how to have safe sex, and I love doing it. It seemed like it was time for someone to step up and say that."
For six years now, Ginoli and his musical partner Freeman, who also writes and sings for the group, have been saying it through the medium of two- and three-minute songs. They began selling vinyl 45s to the cult they'd acquired playing in the clubs of San Francisco, then saw their songs distributed internationally by Lookout Records, a Berkeley label that also releases music by The Winona Ryders, Screeching Weasel, The Mr. T Experience, and a pre-Dookie Green Day.
Even a fan must admit that Pansy Division is distinguished less by its standard post-X sound--hard-driven, hook-laden, as tight and light as a rolled-up ball of tinfoil--than by its attitude, the childlike (some would say childish) joyfulness that ambushes you the instant the lyrics hit home. Whether sung in Ginoli's high-pitched, nasally quiver or Freeman's softer, sweeter whine, the typical Pansy Division tune is either: 1) an ode to sex or love or both, or 2) a lament about sex or love or both. Both are housed in lyrics that aren't so much gender-specific as gender-adamant.
"Everybody's toying with the idea of sexual ambiguity," Ginoli says. "And a lot of times, it's a joke. Everybody knows that Morrissey is gay. I knew that Bob Mould and Michael Stipe were gay years before they said anything, because those rumors were out there. But since no other groups had come out [in the early '90s], we decided we'd corner the market and be 'the openly gay band.'"
Into a stripped-clean song formula perfected previously by Buddy Holly and Brian Wilson step two unrepentant phallus worshipers. When the subject turns to horizontal refreshment, Jon and Chris are as giddy as adolescent girls at a Lemonheads concert--with Pamela DeBarres' imagination jacked into their frontal lobes. "Beercan Boy" champions sore jaws in the name of affection ("When I was little they said/That I had a big mouth/But now it comes in handy/When my Beercan Boy gets randy"), while "Fuck Buddy" pleads the case for between-love snacks ("Someday I'll find a guy/Who means something more/But that's not what/This relationship is for"). In the interest of community education, national hotlines for gay youth and illustrated instructions on how to use a condom appear in every Pansy Division CD.
The band occasionally flashes an introspective side with songs like "The Ache," an acoustic weeper about that scary moment when you realize love has devolved from security to imprisonment. Included on the trio's most recent album, 1996's Wish I'd Taken Pictures, it's only the third outright ballad Chris and Jon have recorded. They stick to a recipe Ginoli describes as "fast drums and loud guitars," and retain the label "punk" despite their melodic bent because, in Ginoli's words, "the best punk always had melody, anyway." He admits the combination of hard and soft has confused some people.
"Our music is very playful. If we decided to be harder and more angst-ridden, we'd probably go further faster. At the same time, people hear the word 'punk' and are afraid to come to our shows, because they think it'll be a dangerous setting."
That same label, he thinks, has intimidated some writers in the gay press because of the fascist reputation a few punk listeners have earned. Ginoli speaks with a little sadness about his earliest experiences as both a gay man and a fan of music that seemingly nobody liked.
"I went to high school and college in the '70s, when punk hit really big in the States," says the 37-year-old musician. "And a lot of straight people called me a fag because I listened to Blondie, The Clash, X-Ray Specs, and stuff like that. I remember when Patti Smith's album Horses came out. Here was this sexually ambiguous woman on the cover in a white shirt. Nobody wore a white shirt like that in the mid-'70s, so I went out and bought one just like it.
"When I came out as a gay man, nobody in the community seemed to be listening to this kind of music, so I felt ostracized again. Our first album, Undressed, was a reaction against the whole Judy Garland thing, against the idea that as a gay man I was supposed to relate to this singer because she had a miserable life. Well, I haven't had a miserable life. Maybe straight people have an easier time, but I like my life."
The creation of Pansy Division, says Jon Ginoli, was an attempt to "marry my gay life and my music life" as well as "clear the deck" of gay musical culture and "start all over." In San Francisco, he placed a newspaper ad seeking a musician and met 35-year-old Chris Freeman, who is, he says, "the talented one...I just get by." Freeman was in three other bands at the time, all of which he took more seriously; he played in Pansy Division for the fun of it. The band's local, then national, reputation began to rise thanks to publicity from 'zines such as Outpunk for singles like "Touch My Joe Camel" and "Bill and Ted's Homosexual Adventure" ("After trying to deny it/They went ahead and tried it/Couldn't believe how excellent it felt"). After this, Chris Freeman became a full-time Pansy.
Not unlike Spinal Tap (whose stomper "Big Bottom" they cover), Ginoli estimates that he and Freeman have worked with a total of 10 drummers during the last six years. The usual personality conflicts played into this, but so did the twosome's desire to have an all-gay trio. It was, he says, "difficult to find an out gay drummer." A 22-year-old former fan named Luis ("no last names, please, he wants to be mysterious") has taken up the sticks for what Ginoli hopes is the long haul.
Although not their best album (that distinction belongs to 1994's snappy, rollicking Deflowered), Wish I'd Taken Pictures reflects a tighter musical focus, as well as a more varied production palette. The extensive touring Pansy Division has done since 1994--first opening for Green Day on their world tour and then supporting their own albums tirelessly across the club circuit--has streamlined their music, but at the same time made them more conscious of the little touches that make a song stick in people's heads. With Luis in place, they also have a different approach to the songwriting process.
"With the other drummers, Chris and I would sit at home alone and write songs with an acoustic guitar, then bring them into the studio," says Jon. "Our last experience in the studio was much more collaborative."
"It" boy producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, The Breeders, and Bush, a band whose name makes Ginoli cringe) helmed the boards for a series of songs Pansy Division recorded recently that will be released this summer by Lookout, along with some previously uncollected singles. The presence of a superstar knobsman like Albini begs the question--how far away is Pansy Division from signing with a major label? Are they even interested?
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"We're not against the idea per se, if we thought we'd be treated right," says Ginoli. "And some people have expressed interest for a while now. But I think it would serve our career better in the long run if we stayed independent. Right now if we signed, we'd get a major push and then fade away. Besides, your song has to be on the radio to sell, and right now I don't think many stations in America would play a Pansy Division song."
Last year they shot a video for a song called "I Really Wanted You" from Wish I'd Taken Pictures. It was played on MTV's 120 Minutes and then many more times in Canada. Ginoli expects it'll be included on a collection of music videos by Lookout bands due--perhaps--at the end of the year. In the meantime, though, Ginoli and company are half-considering a more personal way to showcase their talents.
"We've been thinking about making our own porn film," he snickers. "We already shot some photos of ourselves looking like the models in those ads that got Calvin Klein in trouble; we sold them on our last tour. But I want to make a video where I turn my head to the camera while I'm fucking some guy and say, 'And now, here's the video for 'I Really Wanted You'...'"
Pansy Division performs March 12 at the Orbit Room.