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Everything's Coming Up Pansy

The Division Is Known for Gay Themes, but Its Treatment of Sex and Romance Are Mostly Universal

February 15, 1996|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When it comes to extreme and risque content, Pansy Division steps way over the line of safety. This openly gay, unabashedly sexual and gleefully bawdy punk-pop trio from San Francisco sings the joys of homoerotic sex to the point where it can seem like 2 Live Crew coming from a different angle.

Never mind whether it will play in Peoria; right now, Pansy Division is too much for Cal State Fullerton (see accompanying story).

But guitarist Jon Ginoli (the main singer and songwriter, who happens to hail from Peoria, Ill.), bassist Chris Freeman and drummer Dustin Donaldson have been well received in Costa Mesa, where they played last April, opening for the Muffs at Our House. Pansy Division will be back in Costa Mesa on Friday, this time at the Lava Room. The band also plays Saturday at the Foothill Club in Signal Hill.

Last year's show at Our House revealed Pansy Division as a confrontational band intent on making straight audiences deal with the anatomically specific nuts and bolts of gay sex. But it was a merry, insouciant form of confrontation, set to simple, catchy tunes and zesty harmonies and leavened by a delivery in which wit and humor, not bluntly leveled anger, provided the cutting edge.

This time, however, Pansy Division arrives with something different. Its just-released fourth album, "Wish I'd Taken Pictures," takes a big step toward embracing listeners who don't want to hear about the nitty-gritty of sex but who do like a sweetly wistful take on that most traditional of pop subjects, the game of love.

Aside from a couple of explicit tracks, the album focuses on loneliness, jealousy, romantic hopes and unrequited feelings, taking a fairly common and widely accepted approach to the relationship song.

Over the phone from San Francisco, Ginoli, 36, acknowledged that "Wish I'd Taken Pictures" marks a progression.

"I think people wanted to see us doing something that's a little more ambitious," he said. "We staked out our [more explicitly erotic] territory quite well, and we were pretty successful in taking our concept and giving it some more variety."

Raw, albeit wittily rendered sex remains in the repertoire: "I feel sexuality is an infinite field for exploration. We've started to write new songs [since the album was recorded], and they've turned out to be more sexual again. But we don't want to repeat ourselves."

Pansy Division has drawn some criticism from gays who think the band's focus on sex acts plays into stereotypes that homosexuals are inherently promiscuous and ruled by libido.

"That issue has arisen from time to time, and my response is that the thing gay people get attacked for most is sexuality," Ginoli said.

"If we're going to let other people dictate our content, then we're not free to express ourselves in the way we like. Also, I think sexuality as a celebration has to be reasserted at a time when people associate gay sexuality with disease."

On its other flank, Ginoli said, Pansy Division has had to put up with a certain--but not inordinate--amount of anti-gay bigotry. But overall, he said, "we've had very little dissent at our shows. . . . By the time people go to a Pansy Division show, they have an idea what they're going to get," he said. Ginoli first emerged fronting the Outnumbered, an Illinois band that recorded for Homestead Records in the mid-'80s. His bandmates were heterosexual, and Ginoli avoided any gay declarations in his lyrics because "I didn't think it represented the other three members of the band."

Ginoli grew frustrated with the seeming schism between gay culture and rock culture that was making him lead a "double life." Torn between musical passions pursued among straights ("Most of the gay people I met pretty much hated the music I played") and his wish for a sense of attachment to the gay community, Ginoli dropped out of music for a time in the late '80s.

As early as 1987 he wanted to start an openly gay band but felt it would be impossible to find like-minded musicians. He was heartened after moving to San Francisco in 1989; although dance music was dominant in gay clubs, Ginoli started playing solo shows under the name Pansy Division in 1991, then recruited Freeman, now 34, through a musician-wanted ad. A succession of drummers followed; Donaldson, 26, has been with the band a year, added not for his sexual orientation (he's not gay) but for his ability.

Pansy Division promoted its first shows to San Francisco's gay community but soon branched out to general punk/alternative audiences.

Now it is planning its biggest promotional push, with five months of touring ahead and hopes for alternative-rock radio play and maybe even MTV exposure for a new video, "I Really Wanted You." The wistful tune follows a lovelorn scenario, with the protagonist pining over the loss of a boyfriend who finds a girlfriend and gets married.

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