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?

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.

Guitarist Patrick Goodwin, lead singer Jon 
Ginoli, bassist Chris Freeman (drummer Luis Illades not pictured).
Anthony Pidgeon
Guitarist Patrick Goodwin, lead singer Jon Ginoli, bassist Chris Freeman (drummer Luis Illades not pictured).
And the Boy Band Plays On: Founder Ginoli at 41.
And the Boy Band Plays On: Founder Ginoli at 41.
Pansy in its glory days
Pansy in its glory days
Boy toy models no longer grace Pansy's album covers
Boy toy models no longer grace Pansy's album covers

"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.

Regardless of the music's mood or message, everyone in attendance agrees that Pansy Division sounds good -- better than ever, in fact. Though Ginoli has always penned arguably brilliant lyrics -- witty, snappy, and at times profound -- he's not a musician. His ability to strum three chords on a guitar was OK in the noisy punk scene, where technical skill didn't matter, but it won't do for the group's mature work. Now the band wants to get away from punk, with catchy, rocking songs that have melodies and musical bridges. Fortunately, Pansy Division's newest members can really play.

This first acoustic concert has another curious effect: Finally, listeners can hear the lyrics. Those who never read the liner notes probably missed some of the best lines. But at this performance they ring clear, as in songs like "The Ache":

Out of the race, off the market, for ages now,

Diving back in rekindles buried doubts,

You thought time would help you see things clear,

But after all this time, the ache won't disappear.

You're wondering now if you made a mistake ...

You're feeling stale ...

The words are surprisingly prophetic for Pansy Division.

As boy bands go, Pansy Division is much like 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys in terms of onstage chemistry and formula. "Except we don't pretend to be straight," Chris Freeman jokes. There's a Pansy Division member for every fan: Jon is the brooding one. Chris is the goofy one. "I'm Scary Spice," says Patrick, who wears a long, straggly goatee that makes him look like he's from ZZ Top. And Luis is definitely the cute one.

Guitarist Patrick Goodwin, 28, and drummer Luis Illades, 27, were still teenagers living in conservative parts of Southern California when Ginoli started the band with Freeman in San Francisco in 1991. As the newest members, they missed Pansy Division's heady beginning and the groundbreaking tour with fellow Bay Area band Green Day. Back then, it was just Ginoli and Freeman with a string of freelance drummers who came and went. Their unapologetic and over-the-top celebration of sexuality caught the attention of the young and still-closeted Goodwin and Illades, both budding musicians.

"I liked them a lot. I liked what they stood for," Goodwin says. "But I wasn't their biggest fan. I was always rooting for them to do more, musically. I wanted to hear something more dynamic sounding to go with what they were already doing. When Luis joined, it was a sign of Pansy Division stepping up." Illades' addition in 1996 gave the band its first solid, regular drummer -- a change Goodwin says was a deciding factor for him when he accepted an offer a year later to be the band's premier guitarist. The talented new hires gave Pansy Division some musical polish.

"When I joined, saying you were gay -- and saying that it was fun, good, and OK -- was still radical and different," Illades says. "Now we're a lot less radical, and a lot more human, in a way. Before, the message came before the music. Now they can go hand in hand."

Even Ginoli feels somewhat disconnected from the band's early days, when its sole point was to shock everyone. The lead singer cringes when reminded that at the historic 1993 gay march on Washington, D.C. -- when such major issues as gay marriage and gays in the military ignited significant political debate at the highest levels for the first time -- he was onstage in view of Capitol Hill, screaming the lyrics of "Anthem":

We're the buttfuckers of rock & roll,

We wanna sock it to your hole,

With loud guitars, we're gay and proud,

We gonna get ya with your pants down.

"We don't play that song anymore," Ginoli says matter-of-factly. "It was our declarative statement. Now we can move on and say something else, and not dwell on it."

Pansy Division took a lot of heat for what it did and said, from the media and the audience alike. For example, it wasn't easy to win over the thousands of college-age fraternity guys who had packed sporting arenas around the country to see Green Day, not a gay opening band. Pansy Division considered itself lucky when the crowd threw only coins at the performers. In a Las Vegas theater, patrons began pulling up wooden armrests and hurling them toward the stage. More than a few whizzed past the musicians' heads as they played. Ginoli ducked a plastic nacho dish, but the melted cheese splattered all over his amplifier.

The worst night was in Detroit's sold-out Cobo Hall. There, more than 20,000 people drowned out Pansy Division's entire act with a half-hour of nonstop booing. "You could actually see battles being fought in the audience between the small pockets of people loving it and everyone else throwing up their middle finger, having none of it," Ginoli says. "The few people who dared to applaud got picked on by the rest of the crowd, and we just got pelted with everything. I did get a nice backpack out of it, and $40 in coins. It was by far our most lucrative night."

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.

"We had high hopes for Absurd Pop, and it didn't turn out the way we wanted. We were reaching for something before we were ready, and we didn't even have a full grasp on what we were trying to accomplish," Goodwin says. "I guess we were reaching just for the sake of reaching. We needed to figure things out. We needed a break."

"We had no idea what to do," Illades says. "We felt lost."

The better part of a year went by without any Pansy Division sessions, and each member went off to join or start other bands. Pansy Division's label, the independent Berkeley-based Lookout! Records (which had also launched Green Day), encouraged the band to cool off but not give up. If Lookout! hadn't asked -- as a favor -- that Pansy Division play a college music festival in New York City in the fall of 1999, the band might have never shared a stage again. "I was wary of going," Goodwin says. "I was still bitter."

Yet when they reunited, any remaining animosity simply fell away. The crowd's enthusiastic response was invigorating and rekindled the passion each member had for the group. "The band is so special and means so much to us, we couldn't bring ourselves to end it," Illades says. "We've all done so much growing with this band. It's a family we don't want to break up."

"I realized I was in this position of elder statesman," Ginoli says. "The people who had heard us when they were very young are grown up now. Those 15-year-olds are now college grads, and that makes me feel very satisfied. I suppose we could stop, but doing the band still seems important. There is still a lot to explore. I don't feel like we've reached our full potential. The story is just not over yet."

The group decided to continue pursuing solo interests but to bring those influences back to Pansy Division, with the goal of making another album. They regularly maintain the band's Web site, www.pansydivision. com, which not only archives all the history but also updates fans on the occasional new gig. Progress on the new record, however, has been slow. "We're still trying to figure out what we want to say," Goodwin says. "We're four different people with four different ideas of what Pansy Division should be."

Freeman is inspired by the challenge. "The best music comes from conflict," he says. "When we started, everyone said a band couldn't be out, and we proved them wrong. Now that we live in a post-Ellen, Will & Grace, big-fag-wins-on-Survivor world, the new conflict is finding a way to stay relevant."

Yet in the wake of Pansy Division's disappointing attempt with its last album, Goodwin broaches the real question: "We've already done the funny thing, and we tried the serious thing. What can we do next, now that we're just like a million other bands?"

Indeed, Ginoli expresses the biggest fear of all. "I don't want to go through all this again, only to be ignored."

Pansy Division debuted as AIDS deaths were at an all-time high, and part of Ginoli's goal was to make "gay" a happy topic once again. Yet even as he celebrated gay sexuality, the message was to do so safely. "While our HIV-positive fans loved the fact [that] we were so life-affirming," he says, "we wanted to make sure our [HIV-]negative listeners stayed negative."

Ginoli has practiced what he preached, staying alive when so many of the gay men of his generation are dead. He grew up in the Midwest and remained there throughout his 20s, finally getting up the nerve to move to San Francisco in 1989. "I was very shy and lonely in Champaign, Illinois. But who would've thought isolating myself [would save me]?" he asks. "If I came and joined the party in 1980, I might not be here now."

The members of Pansy Division were veritable poster boys for safe sex. Every CD came with graphic illustrations and descriptions of how to use a condom properly. And the group followed its own advice. "Everyone in the band is HIV-negative, which affords us a certain luxury," Ginoli says. "We aren't going to have to hurry and make a record before anyone dies."

Having that time has allowed the older members of the band to contemplate life in middle age and beyond.

"I went to college and came out not knowing what career I wanted. Twenty years later, I still wonder -- and I still live like a college student. That worries me," says Ginoli, who scrapes by working at a used record store and sharing a rent-controlled apartment with four roommates. "In some ways, I'm amazed that at 41 I'm still doing all this stuff. I really refused to grow up for a long time. But I'm not trying to run away from being an adult anymore, like I did in my 20s and 30s. I think about what it is like to be older. I have an IRA. I am content to say that I may be in a rock band, but I don't have to lead a rock lifestyle. Now I read more."

For Freeman, who recently turned 40, keeping up with the half of the band still in its 20s is no problem. But he is glad to be past that age. "I feel more settled and happier in myself now. More comfortable in my skin," he says. "I'm not as angry as much anymore. There are less things to rail about. The larger issues are what make me angry now; like President Bush and the environment."

Freeman holds a full-time job as a financial aid director at a film school in Los Angeles, where he moved earlier this year for a change of pace (and in the hope that he could afford a house there). He flies back to the Bay Area on alternating weekends to rehearse with Pansy Division. On the surface, Freeman appears to be the most mature member, with the most stable day job (Goodwin is unemployed -- the victim of a dot-com layoff -- and Illades supports himself with nightclub DJ gigs). But the other members consider Freeman the least serious of the bunch. He is the only one not in a committed relationship, the only one who still arranges two dates on the same day, gleefully boasting of his conquest to everyone in the band.

"So are these ice-cream-parlor, let's-hold-hands dates; let's-talk-politics dates; or let's-get-down-to-business dates?" Illades asks.

"No, no, and yes," Freeman responds unabashedly.

Illades, the young heartthrob of the group, is the least likely to partake in the promiscuity that often defines the gay scene. He currently holds the band record for longest period of monogamy -- three years with his boyfriend -- and says he wouldn't want to go back to a life of one-night stands. Goodwin and Ginoli, both in relationships, follow Illades' example. They agree on Ginoli's assessment of typical gay dating: "I have certainly enjoyed meaningless sex in my time, so I don't want to be too judgmental, but I think it's a lousy trend."

There is little generational clash among Pansy Division's members, beyond the occasional obscure 1970s pop culture reference used by Ginoli or Freeman that Illades and Goodwin just don't get. They find themselves at the same emotional place in life, as the older founders have remained young at heart, while the newer, younger members grew up quickly.

"Me and Patrick are a lot older souls," Illades says. "So we all meet in the middle."

While Ginoli and Freeman describe their teenage angst as centered mostly around finding good music during the height of 1970s disco -- and hiding British punk rocker Tom Robinson's album (with the song "Glad to Be Gay") from their parents -- Illades and Goodwin had harder paths to adulthood.

At 16, Goodwin became the primary caregiver to his single dad, who fought a losing battle with liver cancer for two years. "I had a lot to deal with that most kids don't," he says. "I came out a year after my dad died. It was something I always knew, but didn't want to handle at the time."

Illades wasn't a typically sheltered teenager, either. When he was 16, he left his home in Tijuana, Mexico, to seek a better life in the United States, where he could be openly gay. "In Mexico, you live with your parents until the day you get married to a wife," he says. "It was scandalous for me to leave, but I was miserable."

After a stop in San Diego, he eventually made it to San Francisco. He kept in touch with his family, telling them he was pursuing a music career. Still, his mother inadvertently outed him after he joined Pansy Division. When she asked to hear his music, Illades refused to send the band's album home. So his mom bought a copy herself. "She was really upset, telling me, "I can't believe the things you sing about,'" Illades recalls. "But now I'm out, and my family is cool with it. They still have problems with my music and won't listen to it, but they accept me and what I do."

Freeman's vision of Pansy Division's next album cover involves a burning rainbow flag defaced by a spray-painted dollar sign. Gone are the images of seminaked, nubile boys that graced most of the band's previous six CDs. The record's working title is Total Entertainment Value.

"Being gay doesn't feel useful anymore," Freeman says. "I admit I wished for the day when K-Tel would put out a Pansy Division compilation and say, "Remember when gay mattered?' I thought it would be great if we became irrelevant. But I didn't expect gay to end up being more about credit cards and things than people. Sure, gays are accepted now, but instead of contributing anything of use to society, we are just marginalized and marketed. I mean, how are any of those muscle queens dancing to "YMCA' one more time on a gay pride float helping anyone?"

Ginoli pulls out a copy of Frontiers magazine and opens it to an interview with songwriter Rufus Wainwright -- a rising young star who also happens to be gay. In many ways, Pansy Division helped pave the way for people like Wainwright, noted for his talent rather than for his sexuality. Ginoli begins reading Wainwright's quotes from the article: ""I find myself outside the gay milieu. ... I do find a soullessness that's happened.'"

"His critique of gay culture resonates with me; the soullessness and shallowness of it," Ginoli says, looking up from the magazine. "We could write a bunch of songs about being bitter and being marketed to death. I don't know what we're going to end up with, except the songs will probably be of a more personal nature. We want to be as open and honest as we were when we started out; we just don't want to let our past become our straitjacket."

Having already been accepted, what can Pansy Division sing about that's not merely an echo of newer, fresher gay acts? Plenty, Ginoli argues, such as each member's unique life experience.

Pansy Division's label is supportive of whatever its history-making band chooses to do. "We have a family vibe here, and they are old family," says Lookout!'s general manager, Molly Neuman. But she is also a realist.

"It is possible that Jon Ginoli alone could identify himself less with gay issues and more with personal issues, but Pansy Division as a group will have a much harder time. That's how they started and why they started, so it will never be possible for them to not be known as a gay band," Neuman says. "Hopefully they can do something fabulous. They don't want to be the Village People; I hear that."

Goodwin describes the band's dilemma as a Catch-22. "Our history and name can simultaneously detract [from] and elevate how people think about us," he says. "It's a love-hate relationship, and it can be a complete drag."

Consider Pansy Division's recent gig at the Paradise Lounge. The crowd came for the band's reputation, but left with mixed reviews. "Their sit-down-and-be-serious performance does them dirty. I was thinking how much they resembled a lesbian folk band. It wasn't working for me, or them," says Alvin Mangosing, 22, a fan since he was 15. "Pansy Division is all about chuckling, pointing fingers, singing along, and laughing while you pogo on the dance floor. I wasn't feeling the serious songs. I guess that's just stuff guys my age won't be thinking of for a while. Maybe I'll have to start a Pansy Division cover band to keep the classic songs alive."

Pansy Division's older fans better understand what the group is trying to accomplish, but they're still not inclined to embrace the new style over the one they know and love. "Bands do need to evolve, but with Absurd Pop it was too much of a shocking jump from one style to another," says Steven Foster, 36, a devotee from a decade ago. "I like songs from the early albums the best; that's what I came to hear."

British musician Tom Robinson, the first soloist to write gay-themed songs, doesn't think Pansy Division can ever free itself from audience expectations. But to him, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"I have a theory that every band fortunate enough to write songs that become a soundtrack for other people's lives ceases in time to own those songs. They have a responsibility to act as caretakers for that heritage," Robinson says. He argues that a band can pay respect to the romantic dreams and fantasies an audience attaches to its earlier work without betraying its quest to create new art. His only caveat: "All the new songs have to be is good."

Of course, the members of Pansy Division have no idea if anyone will like what they produce between now and next spring, but the band is paying more attention to the quality of its songs than ever before. The quartet has already thrown out enough new songs to fill an entire album. "We're trying to keep only the really good songs, and not sabotage them to sound quirky, or use smoke and mirrors to cover up a bad one," Goodwin says. "We're doing a lot more editing."

Freeman also promises to follow Robinson's advice. "We're not trying to dump our past. We'll still do our old songs. We understand people love that," he says. "But we can't keep writing new songs about chasing "boys' anymore. We are 40. We don't want to have to call NAMBLA."

For Pansy Division fans who might have a hard time warming up to the band's new direction, Freeman's joking becomes a plea. "We're used to being labeled a carnival act and a novelty band, so call us that if you must," he says. "Just don't dismiss us."

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