The truth of sissy force

The guys who are known as Romanovsky and Phillips are funny and freewheeling during their Sunday afternoon interview from New Mexico, but one question quickly corks their flow of irreverence and candor:

"Is Romanovsky and Phillips still a duo romantically as well as professionally?"

A throat clears and feet shuffle during a loaded pause. "Do you want to know the truth?" asks Ron Romanovsky, the chief songwriter and guitarist of the pair. "No, not anymore. We live in the same apartment building and share an office at Paul's place."

Those unfamiliar with the often comic, sometimes poignant songs about gay romance written and recorded by Romanovsky and Phillips should know this is not like last year's split of gay-marriage poster babes Bob and Rod Paris-Jackson. Paul and Ron dispense wry wisdom about the tarpits of same-sex romance that coincidentally dot the landscape of heterosexual love, as well. You don't have to be gay to heed the advice of "Don't Use Your Penis (For a Brain)," although it helps to have both to get the thrust of the message.

It's not like Romanovsky and Phillips ever presented themselves as role models for commitment; a part of you just wants to think two gays who survey broken hearts with such droll wisdom might have the key to maintaining a monogamy that's always romantic and never dull.

"It hasn't been easy," Ron admits, although he compares he and Paul's collaborative career to "having a kid and then splitting up; you have to talk to each other even when you don't want to."

"It's never easy working with an ex, but it's never been backbreaking," offers Paul Phillips, the group's keyboardist, co-writer, and self-confessed "screaming queen." "There've been hard times and easy times, but they've evened out. Don't you think, Ron?"

"It's been all over the map," Ron asserts.
So have Romanovsky and Phillips, who during their 14-year career have wielded a melodicism that finds the links between singer-songwriter confessionalism and show tune jauntiness, and ties it to some very topical issues. Throw in a forthright satirical sensibility ("Homophobes in Robes" catches Pope John Paul II, the justices on the Supreme Court, and the Ku Klux Klan in the same net), and Romanovsky and Phillips are doomed to that marketing black hole where Christine Lavin, Phranc, Loudon Wainwright III, and the Roches (a major influence on Ron) dwell. Nobody knows how to describe their music: Are they comic musicians, or musical comics?

Ron is quick to soft-pedal the comic side of their persona. "We developed the comedy as a defense mechanism," he explains. "We started our career performing musical breaks on comedy nights at gay and lesbian clubs with people like [comics] Lea DeLaria and Marga Gomez. People were still expecting laughs, so we tried to give them...and a lot of it has to do with a basic insecurity I still have about performing." Ron laughs. "I feel more comfortable up there when I can hear people's response, and laughter is one of the most reassuring things to hear."

From the beginning Paul and Ron have released albums on their own label, Fresh Fruit. The number totals seven with the release of 1995's CD, Let's Flaunt It!, recorded live before a raucously enthusiastic crowd in Cathedral City, California. The two are wary of the explosion of major label interest in the homo community; most of those labels now have offices devoted exclusively to marketing music to gay and lesbian consumers, but the hazards are legion.

"It's not about what the record companies can sell to gay and lesbian consumers," Phillips says. "It's about what they know gay and lesbian consumers will buy. These companies don't have a strategy when they're trying to promote music that's not dance or cabaret. When an artist steps out there and tries to do something different, they get zero push. When the album doesn't sell, the artist is blamed."

The cautionary tale on every gay musician's lips is Extra Fancy, the alternative rock band whose major label debut was released by Atlantic Records early this year. The label bought ads in homo publications, using the group's handsome, HIV-positive stripper-turned-lead singer Grillo as the hook, but offered the band no support outside that demographic. The album, Sinnerman, died upon release, and Extra Fancy was dropped. The band members learned their fate not from an executive's phone call, but from a chat room on the Internet.

Then again, Romanovsky and Phillips admit, there is precedence for a major label to narrow-cast the marketplace. "By and large, queer audiences don't seem to be rock 'n' rollers," Phillips says. "Pansy Division (the San Francisco-based queercore act) tells me that 70 or 80 percent of their audience is straight."

Reaching the gay masses is not a problem for Romanovsky and Phillips, whose music and chatter on Let's Flaunt It! transforms a houseful of enthusiastic ticket buyers into what sounds like a Pentecostal revival. The gospel here is sexual egalitarianism, whether R and P are stumping for more tolerance toward heterosexuals in "Some of My Best Friends Are Straight" ("Don't make a scene if you see them arm in arm/It's best to act casual, as if you're not alarmed") or declaring the joys of gay public displays of affection ("Long as we're gonna go to hell/We might as well have some fun").

They've been profiled by newspapers like The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune, and have seen their albums climb the charts that national magazines like The Advocate use to assess the business done by national gay-lesbian book and music stores. To their surprise, the gay press has been as perplexed by their musical precociousness as the straight press, maybe even more so.

"I used to feel like we were in the vanguard of the gay music scene," Phillips declares. "Now I feel like we're not part of the mainstream there, either. We've been covered often and well by the local gay press and the city papers, but we don't seem to suit the tastemakers of the national periodicals."

Once again, the dualistic American approach to comedy and tragedy comes into play, as we tend to overlook the artistry behind anything that makes us laugh. Romanovsky and Phillips are composers with one set of fingers in the Porter-Sondheim bowl and the other in protest music of an earthiness that Pete Seeger would approve of; Seeger has in fact gone on record as a Phillips and Romanovsky fan. Check out their a cappella harmony on "Missy and Heidi," an ode to lesbian prom romance that could be described as a protest song for the sexual proletariat.

Romanovsky and Phillips--who do their own promotion--have accumulated a faithful fan base through their club and concert hall appearances. "Independent" is a label thrown around far too easily in the popular music press, but Romanovsky and Phillips successfully employ alternatives to the corporate method, and all the effort keeping their music true has left the boys a tad impatient with the coyness of other gay and lesbian performers.

"The last time I saw k.d. lang--who's a fantastic talent--she was still using that shtick: 'I have something to tell you; I am a...Lawrence Welk fan!'" Phillips sniffs. "If I were a lesbian fan, I think I'd walk out. Coming out is the hardest thing any of us have had to do, and it's also the most important. To have a lesbian performer who won't even say the word 'lesbian' to her lesbian fans is a little insulting, no matter how clever she tries to make it sound."

Romanovsky and Phillips perform Saturday, November 9, at the Orchestra Hall in Fort Worth.

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