Boys' Band

Pansy Division's all-gay punk was a shocking first. Will fans let the group escape its pioneering role and just make music?

Every time Green Day appeared after such egregious displays of bad manners, the headliner would defend its opening band and chastise the audience. "They wanted to make a point by having us on their tour," Ginoli says. "It was brilliant."

In fact, the straight members of Green Day went out of their way to recruit and insist upon Pansy Division for the tour. By foisting an overtly gay band on its unsuspecting -- and primarily straight -- audience, Green Day could claim to be pushing the envelope, a necessity in the mid-1990s as its once-subversive punk music showed up on Top 40 radio. Pansy Division needed Green Day for its reach; Green Day needed Pansy Division for its nerve.

Pansy Division continued to generate controversy outside the concert arenas. In Jupiter, Fla., a police-mounted campaign asked record stores to put Pansy Division albums out of view behind the counter. It was the lead story on all the local newscasts, with reporters doing live remotes in front of CD bins. Rather than describe state-sponsored censorship, however, the stories purported to illustrate Pansy Division's role in the proliferation of risqué music that was supposedly dangerous to kids. There was no mention of the many letters the band had received from closeted 15-year-olds in places like Nebraska, thanking Pansy Division for the gay-positive music that helped keep them from going insane -- or killing themselves. "Those letters alone make me feel like what we did was worthwhile," Ginoli says.

Even during MTV interviews, Green Day had to justify its choice of Pansy Division for the tour. "They're just spewing homosexuality, and I think that's great," lead singer Billie Joe told Kurt Loder. "There's a lot more to punk rock than Green Day and Offspring videos, that's for sure."

In time, Pansy Division would reach a similar level of enlightenment about itself. "There's a lot more to us now," Freeman says, "than songs about big dicks."

Pansy Division's last album, 1998's Absurd Pop Song Romance, was supposed to be its breakthrough "less penis, more music" opus. Instead, it nearly broke the band up, leading to three years of exile and self-examination. The band had barely begun to jell as a foursome when it attempted its great departure into musical respectability. Soon after guitar wizard Goodwin came on board, Pansy Division was in the studio, formulating what would ultimately be a flop.

"We thought this would be the record that changed everything for us," Illades says. "But it felt defeating when we got onstage and all people wanted to hear were the old songs. We had put in so much hard work to improve our sound, and it pretty much didn't change anything. People had already made up their minds as to what Pansy Division was."

Six months of intense and close-quartered touring across the United States and Canada -- in a beat-up, late-model Dodge van -- kept the members on edge. Not that it didn't start out fun. There is plenty of home video to prove these guys do like each other (but not in that way: "No one in the band has cross-pollinated," Freeman reports. "No Fleetwood Macs here"). The videos are full of the guys hamming it up, as when they took over a karaoke bar in Des Moines and sang the Danny/Sandy duet from Grease's "Summer Nights." Or the time in Quebec City when, egged on by the crowd, they all played onstage in their underwear. Or when they snuck up to a car with a "Choose Life" bumper sticker in Wyandotte, Mich., and slapped a "Pansy Division" pink triangle over the word "Life." But patience began to wear thin. The members took turns sleeping and driving, saving money for the occasional fleabag motel. Sometimes they crashed on a fan's floor, arguing over who got to sleep with the fan in the bed.

An equally taxing and bedless run through Europe immediately after the North American tour pushed them over the edge. The travails of the European tour only compounded the band's frustrations with the album's lackluster reception: Everyone except Freeman ended up in the emergency room. Goodwin made two visits in England, first for pneumonia and later for food poisoning. They all went when Ginoli had an asthma attack. In Holland, Illades smashed his hand in the van door. And in Spain, the tour manager broke her leg.

"It was harsh on many levels," Goodwin says. "Because of the language barrier, we were the only people we had to talk to. We were constantly in each other's faces. ... Chris and Jon were at each other's throats. They can be like a married couple, having been together in this band for so long. I was depressed, and a mess. I got as drunk as I could at the end of every night."

There were no sentimental exchanges at the airport when the band finally returned to San Francisco. "We all walked off that plane and never wanted to see each other again," Goodwin says. But there was one more Bay Area show they could not get out of -- a welcome home gig booked months earlier. So after four days without speaking, the band got onstage and played cold. Halfway through the show, Illades announced he was quitting. At the end of the night, Goodwin threw his guitar across the stage and walked off.

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