The Punk Series, Segment II
Pansy Division, Still holding On, and Passing the Torch.
The idea of punk is often held out for just the hard, loud, intense, fast, and aggressive sound. However, in looking at the SEX PISTOLS, and many other punk performers, Patty Smith for example, nothing was more punk than being IN YOUR FACE with the subject matter, no matter how uncomfortable it is, just as raw and rude as it needed to be.
For that, we have PANSY DIVISION. Taking the name from the overly powerful historic term “Panzer Division” that came to current usage in World War II, it seemed only fitting to get right in your face, with no shame, you get everything they are thinking of.
Jon Ginoli, founded Pansy Division as the first “Gay Punk Band.” Though the sound was not what I expected, it was clearly as described, the subject matter of Divine, delivered in your face like the Dead Kennedys, or T.S.O.L.
Having gone through more drummers than Spinal Tap, toured with Green Day, done a documentary “Life in a Gay Band,” Pansy Division is nothing to take lightly, you just need to experience them to “get” them, they were one of the first, and best known of the “Queercore” movement in punk (and there’s something for everyone to enjoy). Talking to Jon Ginoli, I found myself speaking to an incredibly educated, intelligent man, who possesses the ability to make you think in places and ideas you never considered. A wise man I have to say (with a HUGE HEART, I need to say that a few times).
Jeremy Hinks: So, I got into your stuff by word of mouth, when I was growing up, and I heard you guys, listening to Fugazi, and then Midnight Oil and U2, I heard your stuff, and though I was expecting something really outlandish and out there. I found it to be very comedic, I loved it, but it was funny, and unsettling at the same time. It was so in your face, and fun, we were laughing cause it was “We’re a bunch of queer guys” in your face, but it was also “FUCK YOU.” It was hard for a lot of people to know how to take you myself included.
Jon Ginoli: When we began the band, it was because we didn’t see gay people that were doing Rock and Roll that were out. I had a band before that, and we were successful, and the band ran its course, as bands do. So, I was then living in San Francisco and realizing that this idea that I had a few years before, that I had been waiting for. I had been waiting for this gay rock band to come along, and one didn’t, and I kept waiting, then I realized WAIT I’M SUPPOSED TO DO THIS!!
So, you were out at this point, and looking, and no one was ready to do it?
Yeah, it was like everybody was too squeamish to do it. I understand people who had major label careers to a certain degree, but if you were Morrissey, or Michael Stipe, we all know… but even somebody like Marc Almond, everybody knows he’s gay but won’t admit it.
Well, true, but then we had Little Richard and Freddie Mercury.
No, actually, that’s not true, the rewriting of history around Freddie Mercury, who came out as bi on his deathbed. He was a rock-star and he had a lot to hide. That was the problem, I wanted to have a band that was “Out” in the open, because people who were clearly obviously gay, weren’t talking about it. So, I thought, “HEY” We will talk about it. And If no one else would, we would have the whole category to do it. So, what prompted me to do this was because I had been in a band in my 20s in the Midwest in a college town. They were called “The Outnumbered,” they did three albums, and after we broke up, I thought well, that’s it. I wanted form a band, I wanted to make records, we wanted to do some touring, and we wanted some fans, and I thought, we did it.
So, there I was, in the Midwest, Illinois, and it was easy to get anywhere from there, and cheap to live there. If I was going to go someplace else, it was not to form a band. But in San Francisco, I just realized the need ‘cause I wasn’t hearing something that was really obvious that I should be hearing. So, for me, having a gay rock band meant that we were going to be out as a foundational statement. But also, it was the time of the AIDS crisis and I thought, I really want to do something that is “Gay Positive” in a time where there was so much negativity, and so much gay prejudice. So, I thought I could do some really serious-minded songs, which is what I had done with my first band. But then I thought NO! That’s not what I’m going to do, because I want to bring joy to people that we are playing music for. And some of the songs were serious, but we wanted to bring something positive to people where there was not much in public life about gay people that was a positive portrayal. And the response we got in the beginning when we were in San Francisco was tremendous, and I realized right away, my timing is good, and I was not the only person who had been waiting for this. So, the trail from the idea of Pansy Division, to producing a record was less than two years (*interviewer’s note: THAT IS EXCEPTIONALLY RARE, AND QUITE AN ACCOMPLISHMENT). And I thought the concept of this band was unique, and was something I could apply my talents to. I mean, there were out gay musicians, but they were mainly people who played dance music that was played in gay clubs. And I thought that was not really my type of music, and I had this other thing that I love. So why does it have to be that if you are gay, you like certain kind of music, but not others. So, I wanted to expand what the idea was, of what a gay person could do. So, when we started playing shows, we took off pretty fast, and it was in our third year, that Green Day asked us to open for them. So we got all these people saying, “You’re not really gay are you?” and I’m saying “Uh YEAH!!”, and they said “But you don’t ACT like gay people” (*interviewer’s note: I am laughing really hard at this segment, I missed some of what he said, glad I recorded it). Ever since I came out, at age 20, I had this running battle with what was “Gay Culture.” And what “Gay Culture” has meant in certain types of music, and at times a certain kind of look, and I never really fit in, so I wanted to be out there expressing something different from the norms of “Gay Culture.” I mean in the straight world, I thought “I’m different” so I don’t fit in, but then in the gay world, in a lot of ways I don’t fit in either. So, I was just trying to resolve my personal alienation, by having this band to connect in ways, that had not really connected before.
That’s exactly where I want to take this conversation. The readers of instinct are well acquainted with the mainstream media of P!NK and Lady Gaga, all of whom are wonderful artists. BUT, I loved when Bob Mould came out, I thought that was so cool, a guy on the punk side, which was very unusual at the time. There were bands like Erasure, and Frankie goes to Hollywood that were out and open. The Punk scene did not seem to have all the diversity we felt needed to be in there.
Right, I wasn’t trying to say, “This is what gay music should be”, but to say, “This is what gay music CAN be.”
So when you were working in San Francisco at that time, and you were touring with Green Day, and they were obviously gay friendly, but Billy Ray was not out yet.
I don’t know how out he was/is. I think that Green Day was very gay friendly, it didn’t really get any further than that. But they had been small and come from a small scene, then suddenly they were mainstream. And having us open for them was them making a kind of statement of the kind of people they were. “Here is our opening band, a gay band, singing about being gay in explicit terms. And we want our fans to see that, and we also want our fans to realize we are not like other rock bands, and we have our own set of ethics.” And that worked out well for both of us because the music was copacetic between both bands, so their fans could understand that we were playing the “POP” end of Punk Rock, and it went over very well.
And the reaction of the crowd from night to night, could go from fairly hostile, but it was usually mixed, but that was real progress, and some nights it was really positive. It was an eye-opening experience that we didn’t expect to have. We thought, “OK, we are a gay rock band, and not many people are going to be interested or even really care”, but after the Green Day tour, we got WAY more straight fans, than we had gay fans. It changed things for us, and we thus had a longer run as a band than we normally would have. We have now been together for 28 years. People liked it and it has turned out to stand the test of time. Music has changed so much since then, we were really near the mainstream then, but we are so far from it now. So, I don’t think that younger gay people are going to hear about us. Unless they are trying to really dig and look for us.
At about that time, there were some other bands that were trying to do the same thing as us, and thus there became this “Queercore” or “Homo-core” type of music, but we were the band best known for it. Because the gay life has changed in the last 10 years, it’s much broader now than it was when we began. So, the younger gay people aren’t going to know Pansy Division, unless they go back digging for it.
So, you guys were pioneers for one end of the gay music scene, just like Divine was for the other end of the gay music scene. I look at it now and I think with all of the current and new gay artists out there, most people don’t see the shoulders on who they are standing.
Yes, and I think that the big gay musicians today, really often don’t look back to see who paved the way. And I don’t mean just us.
What I think is funny is that you went from Green Day to touring with Rancid. That’s a switch to the extremes. I mean, I LOVE RANCID, because its real punk, people consider Green Day Punk, but I don’t. I think they have punk roots. Tell me Rancid was just as much fun to tour with.
We only played a few shows with Rancid, and the band members were into us, but the audience was very quiet. They were not bad to us, they did not boo us, they were just quiet. It was interesting for us to test the boundaries, because we were just too “Pop” for a lot of the Rancid crowd. It was not hard enough punk. But there is always someone who is going to say we were too punk for some people, for others, not enough punk. So, I think that’s why we had more longevity.
So, I only saw a few minutes of your documentary “Life in a Gay Band”, I have to admit, it was good what I saw, but from what I have heard, it was just as entertaining as “The Leningrad Cowboys Go America.”
I’ve never seen it, but I will take that as a compliment.
I loved your video for “Homo Christmas,” it reminded me of the Bloodhound Gangs “Foxtrot, Uniform, Charlie, Kilo” with all the funny overtly sexual imagery and overtones. There you were, being funny this time, and then say “Why be miserable like Morrissey?” I thought “GOD THESE GUYS ARE AWESOME!”
The Smiths, yes, another band where the singer is obviously gay, and I thought, “How honest are you going to be with your audience, ‘cause I want to be honest with mine.” We had done a cover of a Judas Priest song, and we put it out on a single, and it made its way to Rob Halford (you’ll see this in the movie). He actually came to two shows, and sang “Breaking the Law,” which we had sung about the sodomy laws that were in place in America, but the song is a little outdated now. That’s our ROCK-STAR tribute, and I said to Rob Halford, “We are not going to say anything, but we think you should come out.” And he said, “I’m going to when the moment is right.” About a six months later, he did, which was really good, ‘cause when he sang with us, it made headlines, you know “Rob Halford is gay,” and then later he made his own announcement. So that was great.
Well, full circle, Rob Halford comes up in EVERY interview I do, someone else brings him into it. So, your turn.
Well he’s the biggest star certainly in that style of music to come out. And that audience is less accepting of gay people, so maybe that’s not so true anymore.
So, your song “Headbanger” … I had a hard time taking Metallica fans, and metal-heads seriously, that song seems to be making fun of them.
It’s not about the music, it’s about the guys, it’s long haired dudes, it’s another thing you’re not supposed to like if you’re gay, and so many of them are just so homophobic. So, I wrote that song about a fantasy about wanting to get it on with a headbanger guy, and the guitar solo on it is played by Kirk Hammett from Metallica, under a pseudonym, our drummer at the time knew him, brought him in on it (Spinal Tap Reference, he stated they have had a dozen drummers, current one 20+ years). In the first 5 years, it was hard finding gay rock musicians. Now we have a straight guitarist, and 3 gay guys. So, the “Headbanger” song was, well, metal dudes are forbidden guys, and some of them have since come out. So I felt like our band was pushing the edge of what you could get people to admit to. There was such a fight in the country about gay issues, not like everything has been solved, but much better now. So, a lot of the songs were really blunt and edgy, because it had not been done before. But, mixing the political stuff into your music makes it go outdated much earlier. But now, since you are hearing about so many current new bands with a gay singer or whatever, I can feel like I can say its “Mission Accomplished.”
I am falling out of my religion and going back to just trusting my instincts. Dogma has been tossed, in so many ways. I have enjoyed using your song “Blame the Bible” to play to a lot of the Mormon folk, or just general Christian folk. For me it is the most fitting thing I have heard out of you guys. BUT that one is the winner right there.
It’s not a subtle song, not at all. That song came out of some of the stuff we had been talking about between ourselves in the band. Just people falling back on the Bible as a way to discredit people who don’t believe the things they do. And we got really angry, and I remember when Mike Pence got in as the Vice Presidential candidate and I thought “Oh my god, this guy is really extreme.” So we did the song and I’m sure a lot of people won’t like it, but a lot did.
Well, that was one of those where you were taking the subject matter of Divine, and handing it over in the Jello (Biafra , lead singer of the Dead Kennedys) format. And your song, “That’s so Gay”, “I’ll show you what it’s like to be gay,” but “Blame the Bible” was you just bitch slapping people with it. And I was raised a devout Mormon, hardcore, Christian, all of that. And now I think, “How Horrible we are as people,” because of this song. So why do we let something like this tell how to treat people. So, you have been delivered to many self-righteous people in the last year or so.
Our song “That’s So Gay” actually is our most played song on Spotify, I think it’s because of the name, that one comes up, Google the name, that song comes up. It’s a funny angry song. I think we are good at funny angry songs.
Pansy Division presents: JONAH – Episode 1: “That’s So Gay”
“This is the first of four webisodes in the JONAH series, produced for Pansy Division to promote their latest album, ‘That’s So Gay.’ In this episode, the main character, Jonah (played by Mark Strano) is 21 and in college. He’s hanging out at the college quad, reading before class starts. Some of the local bullies are taunting other students as they pass by. Finally, Jonah gets his fill of hearing them using ‘gay’ and ‘faggot’ as derogatory terms and decides to stand up for what’s right.”
*Editor’s note: this film was created in 2009. The actual song begins around 3:45.
“Homo Christmas” was funny too, I mean I watched that video, 10 seconds into it, I was laughing ‘cause it was so tacky funny.
I wrote that song was because Christmas/the holidays can be a terribly lonely time for gay people and dealing with their families. I wanted to do something dirty and funny, and I think it worked.
OK, one more question then. What would your message be to the young LGBTQ people, who might be in, or out, or whatever. Who is in the vulnerable state?
When you are young, you don’t realize how much life can change and improve once you get older. We have a song called “Deep Water.” It’s about being vulnerable and feeling suicidal. The song says, “We know you feel this way, but hang in there.” This was before the “It Gets Better” campaign. When you are young, you don’t know how big the world can be and you only know the parts you are familiar with, other things might seem so far away, different viewpoints, or places to be. You just have to bide your time, hopefully sooner than later, you can go out and live your life, in the way your family, or your religion or your church tells you you have to be. You and can be free, that is your choice. That is in the background all of our songs, the funny and the serious ones. You can’t always be yourself when you are fourteen, or sixteen. But it’s hard to tell teenager to be patient.
Well, thank you for that Jon.
About the Author:
An indie GONZO music journalist in Salt Lake City, and an Anarchist behind the Zion Curtain. Jeremy Hinks is an obnoxious Type-A Male, who is embarrassingly straight and a staunch LGBTQ Ally with little tact, and a big heart. He has supported his LGBTQ friends since he was a teenager.
He has photographed on multiple tours U2, The English Beat, Peter Hook & The Light, and is somehow making a name for himself photographing Pink Floyd Tribute bands, The Australian Pink Floyd Show, Britfloyd, Dead Floyd. He is one of the photographers for the LOVELOUD Foundation in Utah, an organization to bring awareness and support for the young LGBT community in Utah, and to bring an end to the epidemic of suicides there.
He also drives a Vespa, and wears kilts, is rarely seen wearing pants, should be considered armed and dangerous, so do not approach without extreme caution.