Photo by Richard TurtletaubWhen the Supreme Court decriminalized anal sex for a grateful nation of horny queers and breeders a few weeks back, we naturally assumed the men of San Francisco's Pansy Division would've been all for it. But the decision left singer/guitarist Jon Ginoli feeling artistically suppressed. Because now, his band will never be able to play their pro-sodomy protest cover of Judas Priest's "Breaking the Law" again—it's been instantly outdated.
But Ginoli welcomes the trade-off. There's no shortage of adaptable cover songs: Pansy Division can continue with Prince's "Jack U Off"; Spinal Tap's "Big Bottom"; Liz Phair's "Flower"; maybe "Smells Like Queer Spirit," their tweaked take on Nirvana. Or the way they took the Ramones' "Rock 'N' Roll High School" and flipped it into "Rock and Roll Queer Bar."
Then again, they don't really need to funny-up other people's songs when they've got so many of their own—all those early Pansy Division tunes like "Fuck Buddy," "Bill and Ted's Homosexual Adventure" and "Homo Christmas." And "The Cocksucker Club," "Dick of Death" and "James Bondage." And "Fem in a Black Leather Jacket," "Beercan Boy" and "Anthem"—the one with the chorus that goes, "We're the buttfuckers of rock & roll!/We're gonna sock it to your hole!"
Yet Pansy Division's penchant for great, witty, loud, crunchy, queer-empowering rock & roll tunes pretty much dried up with their 1998 album Absurd Pop Song Romance. This was their serious, adult album, an attempt to move away from the novelty act. Though it ranked with all their other discs, and though they had recorded serious songs before, here was a collection of songs about getting older, imploded romances, emotional insecurities, shitty boyfriends, heartbreaking flings and unfulfilled promises. Even the record's cheeriest-sounding song, "Luv, Luv, Luv," came off cynical.
Brooding photos of the band in the CD booklet had them posed in wrecked cars, atop buildings and bridges, cloaked in black outfits, looking none too happy. Bassist Chris Freeman—onstage, Pansy's most outgoing, yakkity member—appeared as if he'd been punched in the gut. Who were these people, and what had they done with the real Pansy Division?
Though the band saw the Absurd Pop album as a Pansy Division-comes-of-age manifest, it only wound up alienating longtime fans who were initially attracted to the band for their ribald sense of homo humor. There were few fun moments on the record—and Pansy Division had always been about the fun.
"I'm still happy with Absurd Pop Song Romance. I think it holds up quite well," Ginoli says five years later. "I'm really glad we did it. We were trying to find the balance between what people expected from us and what we wanted to do, and that album was part of that growth. If you don't evolve, you become Screeching Weasel, putting out 12 albums that all sound the same.
"It's weird to think how musical trends ebb and flow, and for us, mainstream trends still have a lot to do with things, even though we've never really been a part of it."
Ginoli is talking about the mid-'90s, when the band had a fleeting taste of mega-banddom. Green Day had invited Pansy Division to open for them on a tour of huge sports arenas. MTV played a Pansy Division video—sure, only once, but still. A slew of music magazines and alternative papers even dubbed them leaders of a movement they didn't know they were part of: "homocore."
"In 1994 into 1996, we got a lot of attention because of the whole Green Day thing," says Ginoli. "Then when that faded away, whenever people would see we had a new record out, a lot of fans we picked up earlier figured that they knew us, and weren't really noticing that we were growing as a band—those are the same fans who like bands for not changing. With the Absurd Pop Song record, some people didn't take us seriously, they thought that us being serious was a joke itself. On the other side, humor confuses people. They think that if it's funny, then the music isn't very good. We got that a lot with the early albums."
So after the longest recording layoff in Pansy Division history—partly because they needed a break, but mostly because Chris Freeman moved south to LA, which always makes those pesky rehearsals problematic—they're back with a new album, Total Entertainment!, and a tour that brings them to the Detroit Bar Sunday night. Also back are those silly, glorious, bent Pansy Division tunes, enough to assure you they're much happier now.
Not too happy. There are still grim relationship songs, obvious from their titles alone: "First Betrayal," "Scared to Death," "Saddest Song," "When He Comes Home," "Who Treats You Right," "Not Good Enough 4 U" and "I'm Alright." There's "Spiral," a desperate plea for a meth-addled lover to save himself. But this time, for every heavy message, there's something that makes you smile, like "Alpine Skiing"—it's what you call it when you're jerking off two guys at the same time, y'see. There are disco experiments with the safe-sex anthem "No Protection," and the sweet, stick-in-your-head pop of "At the Mall," a 12-minute hidden track about the joys and grotesques of climate-controlled consumerism. (Power walkers! Trees that grow indoors! Hot Dog on a Stick! Public restroom glory holes!)