Queer punk pioneers Pansy Division in 2003 and now
Once upon a time, lesbians listened to earnest folk music and gay men listened to sounds anywhere on the spectrum from opera to show tunes to Judy to Barbra to disco, with a possible dash of glam rock for the truly adventurous.
And then along came Pansy Division, who decided they’d take a crack at redefining queer music for all time. They erupted on the post-AIDS, post-punk San Francisco music scene with their own thrashing, funny, sexually explicit brand of punk.
That was back in 1991. The years that followed saw them brush the edges of fame with a tour opening for label-mates Green Day, and then fade into something that might have become obscurity but morphed into legendary status instead.
Pansy Division’s Jon Ginoli with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong
Now they’re on the brink of a media explosion. They have a new album due out at the end of the month. Michael Carmona’s documentary, "Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band," hits the stores the same day after making the film fest circuit all last year. And band founder and lead singer Jon Ginoli? Seems he’s written a book about the whole thing.
Jon Ginoli and fan at a San Francisco book signing. Photo by Leanne Santoro.
AfterElton.com caught up with Ginoli at a reading and acoustic performance at a Haight St. bookstore in San Francisco. He read a few excerpts from Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division, all of which were exactly as funny and as filthy as his lyrics. Then he sang a few old songs and some new ones from the forthcoming album That’s So Gay, most notably the pointed (and, of course, blisteringly funny) "Obsessed with Me," an ode to the joyous homoeroticism of American sports called "Pat Me on the Ass," and "Twinkie Twinkie Little Star," which had the audience laughing almost as loudly as Jon was playing.
He took questions from the audience, one of which was about "Smells Like Queer Spirit." Was Kurt Cobain okay with the queerification of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"?
"People can sue you if they feel you’ve defamed their song," Ginoli answered. "You can cover anybody’s song without asking permission, just paying a royalty, but we were changing the lyrics. We figured Nirvana would be cool about it, but Jello Biafra, who was the singer of the Dead Kennedys and who runs the record label we’re on now, Alternative Tentacles, was the MC at a rally in Portland against an anti-gay amendment they were putting on the ballot … and Nirvana played it, which was amazing. And he talked to them about us doing it. He said, ‘There’s this band, Pansy Division, and they changed it to "Smells Like Queer Spirit," and do you have a problem with that?’"
They didn’t, but EMI/Virgin, who owned half the rights of the song, didn’t feel the same way, and came after Pansy Division later on. Ginoli told them they had permission from the band, and Nirvana’s manager took care of it.
Jon Ginoli in San Francisco. Photo by Leanne Santoro.
After the reading, performance, and Q&A were over, Ginoli sat down and chatted with me about the early days of the punk movement in San Francisco and the birth of Pansy Division.
We talked a little bit about how how he’d never fit in with the then-dominant gay male dance club scene. "I was trying to do something that I thought was missing," he said. "For two years I was consciously looking for gay musicians, and all I could find was dance music. Where were all the gay rock musicians?"
It wasn’t just gay musicians that were missing from the punk scene, though. It was gay sexuality itself. Hence Pansy Division’s sexually explicit, in-your-face lyrics.
"I wanted it to be sexual because rock and roll is about sexuality," Jon said. "And I felt that by being blunt, it would disarm people. People were trying to assimilate at that time. It was the time of AIDS, and people felt, we can’t misbehave because we want straight people to support us over this important issue. And I said, I see your point but I disagree.
"I think we should be as bold and as out and upfront as possible, and that people will respect us for that. To not be cowed, to not be cautious, about what people might think. Because if you’re always worried about what people might think it’s going to inhibit you, and I wanted to have honest expression. And I thought, I can do this. It’s my sense of humor, and using that, I can get this message across."
Jon Ginoli’s book tour, frequently paired with screenings of the documentary and live acoustic performances, will be pretty much blanketing the nation between now and the end of May. A full list of dates can be found here. For more information on Pansy Division, their forthcoming album, the DVD release of Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band, and dates for a summer Pansy Division tour, visit pansydivision.com.