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Brian Grillo's Got a Real HIV-Positive Attitude

September 15, 1996|Steve Hochman

Sex, HIV and rock 'n' roll?

Does that variation of the familiar phrase make any sense? Can the virus that causes AIDS go together with sex appeal in the world of rock?

Yes, insists Brian Grillo, lead singer of the Los Angeles band Extra Fancy. Where neither Freddie Mercury nor rapper Eazy-E publicly acknowledged being HIV-positive until shortly before they died, Grillo is one of the few people in pop music who has openly discussed being infected.

And he's determined to prove that it's possible to be HIV positive without losing either rock credentials or sex appeal.

"I'm proving the whole myth that people with HIV aren't sexual is wrong," says Grillo, who has had the virus for 10 years without developing AIDS symptoms. "I don't have any problem with lacking people who see me on stage [who fantasize] about wanting to have sex with me--male and female. A lot of people who get tested positive give up, treat it like a death sentence and even think that they deserve to die. What I try to be is a role model that life goes on."

For that stance, Grillo has been honored as the cover subject of a special music issue of POZ magazine, a New York-based publication founded in 1994 by editor Sean Strub and geared toward the HIV community.

In addition to the Grillo feature, the central music feature of the issue, on newsstands this week, is an account by writer Dream Hampton about the checkered history of AIDS and hip-hop.

While the genre was at the forefront of addressing the topic of safe sex and AIDS prevention, Hampton writes, it has also established a legacy of homophobia and misogyny surrounding the subject, a trend unchanged by Eazy-E's death last year.

There is also a piece by Patti Smith about her long friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (who died of AIDS) and a look at the paintings of former Frankie Goes to Hollywood singer Holly Johnson (who is also HIV positive).

But the strongest message comes from the cover photo of the tattooed, shaved-headed Grillo, determined to be seen as a rocker, not a victim.

"In a lot of ways he is a lone wolf," says POZ Publisher Megan Strub Whiting (the editor's sister), praising Grillo's openness. "There's a fear coming from the perceived stigma on the part of people doing the marketing in music."

Grillo says that he often encountered that fear as the band was first looking for a record deal.

"I heard people say, 'How are you going to market a gay rock singer who is HIV positive?' " he says. "And when I was outed [as having HIV] in a brief mention in Rolling Stone, some of the record companies that had been sniffing around stopped."

Extra Fancy ultimately signed with Atlantic Records last year, but was dropped just two months after the company released its debut album, "Sinnerman," as part of a roster-trimming move.

Some around the band suggested that the dropping had to do with Grillo's status, but both the singer and label representatives say it had more to do with the exit from the label of A&R executives Janet Billig and Jolene Cherry, the band's strongest supporters. The band, which plays on Monday at the Opium Den, is now in discussion with three other major label about a new deal.

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