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America's first gay band is looking a little older and less rebellious under the lights in a rare San Francisco performance. Pansy Division hasn't been heard from in a while, other than at the occasional gay pride festival in places like St. Paul, Minn. It's been three years since its last album, and in the downtime the band has been quietly trying to work through a musical midlife crisis.
The group of men who started a revolution of sorts by daring to sing about morning erections -- in a scream-and-stomp punk rock way -- are determined to move on to more soothing sounds and mature subject matter. They didn't expect to still be singing the same silly, sex-obsessed songs that made them (in)famous in the early 1990s, especially now that the band's founders have reached middle age. But they know their place: After all, Chubby Checker continues to fill county-fair grandstands only because he still belts out his 1960 hit, "The Twist." Similarly, the decade-old Pansy Division -- almost as ancient as Checker in gay years -- has a legion of devoted fans who want nothing more from their beloved band than songs like "Fem in a Black Leather Jacket" and "James Bondage" with which to relive bygone days.
About 75 people cluster around the main stage of SOMA's Paradise Lounge, a dingy venue that caters to up-and-coming bands. The crowd is impressive, however, for a Tuesday night in late summer. The audience has gathered to pay homage to the band that has, in so many ways, told the story of their lives. Long gone are the profiles on MTV Newsand the sold-out 20,000-seat arenas, when the explosively popular punk rockers of Green Day asked Pansy Division to be the opening band on their multiplatinum Dookie tour in 1994. Now, gay and punk are equally mainstream. So on this recent night in San Francisco, the doubly irrelevant gay punk band Pansy Division tries something truly radical.
"Should we sit? I vote to sit," bassist Chris Freeman asks his fellow band members as they take the stage.
A row of barstools awaits them. It is quite a departure for the famously loud, high-energy band: This will be its first unplugged concert. The crowd is most perplexed by Freeman, dressed up in a tuxedo, sans tie. He still has fluorescent hair (blond dye tonight), but where is the frilly tutu in which he used to prance around the stage?
"Welcome to VH1 Storytellers," Freeman announces from his perch on the stool.
The crowd laughs, hoping something ironic might happen. But Freeman, who is just days away from turning the big 4-0, is only half joking. He doesn't care to sing about giant penises, as he has so many times before; he'd rather sing about relationships. He wants to tell universal stories. Yeah, he's gay, but now there is so much more to say. Too bad the people who paid the $10 cover expect to hear something else.
As Pansy Division's once-shocking music broke social barriers, its members never dreamed they would so quickly be relegated to the nostalgia bin -- or worse, considered a novelty act. They were surprised that their vigorous push for gay acceptance would be so successful as to make them obsolete. Now that it doesn't mean much to be gay, can the band make a success out of just making music? If not, there is always a long, profitable future in self-parody.
The audience at the Paradise Lounge is a little skeptical of Pansy Division's slower, quieter comeback act, but no one is thinking Ricky Nelson at Madison Square Garden. At that fiasco, the crowd booed the former teen idol for his attempt to be anything else. Instead, Pansy Division's fans cheer loudly because the band wisely sprinkles plenty of its fun, head-bopping classics between songs of more recent vintage. The bartenders are busier during the new songs, though.
It's clear people love the Pansy Division they remember, especially when lead singer and founder Jon Ginoli, 41, introduces "Tinted Windows," about the joys of furtive sex in a parking lot. He begins to explain his own experience with vehicular privacy: "See, we're a band who tours with a van ..."
"Not for three years!" Freeman interrupts, cracking a boisterous laugh that lasts too long, then trails into nervousness when he senses the audience's dead silence. His reminder of Pansy Division's extended absence is not well received.
"You're the only one who found that funny," Ginoli scolds Freeman, salvaging the moment by launching into song.
Soon, Ginoli finds himself apologizing again -- this time, for one of the tracks he wrote for an album tentatively due next spring. "Not all the songs on our new album will be so sad, I promise," he explains.
The aptly titled "Saddest Song" is about how listening to gloomy tunes can make you feel better when you're down. It's a good companion to the next new piece, "First Betrayal," introduced by Freeman. He says it's about the realization that love will betray you, and for his song, Freeman offers no apology. The new material is sung softly, with a melancholy, folksy feel -- like Indigo Girls, but less butch. The older material is still goofball and punchy, but comes across more slick in this format. The lyric-driven songs tell offbeat stories, and the band sounds much like Canada's famously irreverent group Barenaked Ladies, only gay.