Thursday, April 16, 2009

Thursday Night in Greenwich Village: Jon Ginoli & "Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division" at Barnes & Noble

From Harlem and hip-hop, we took the A train downtown five stops to Greenwich Village and queercore once we felt reasonably sure our brother was doing okay (although kidney stone surgery sounded horrific - you don't want to hear where they get it out from - and Marc's description of post-operative bladder problems led us to make a pit stop at the Time Warner Center's men's room).

We still made good time and were early for the 7:30 p.m. event at the Barnes & Noble on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street - a bookstore we have fond memories of, for when it was B. Dalton back in March 1983, it was the scene of our Zephyr Press publication party and a reading for I Brake for Delmore Schwartz.

We were excited about seeing Jon Ginoli, there to perform and read from and talk about his new memoir, Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division. Coming out (OK, odd choice of words) at the same time is the definitive gay rock band's seventh CD, That's So Gay, which this week's Newsweek has called "a catchy call to arms for the gays and lesbians who say they want a revolution while their iPods tell a different story."

Jon was already there, walking around in jeans and a red T-shirt, looking very down-to-earth and unpretentious - probably because he is and always was. He sat down in the front row by Glenn Morrow of The Individuals and a couple of other old friends, telling them his book tour "had been a blast most of the time - a couple of duds, but not for a while now."

We apologize for eavesdropping from the row behind them, but we can assure everyone that Jon's appearance tonight was definitely not a dud. If you can catch him at Bluestockings on Friday evening, his acoustic set at Cake Shop on Saturday night, or Sunday's NYC premiere of the Pansy Division documentary Pansy Division: Life In A Gay Rock Band at Monkeytown in our neck of the Williamsburg woods, we can practically guarantee you'll enjoy going.

We have fond memories of discovering Pansy Division while we working as a staff attorney at the Center for Governmental Responsibility at UF in Gainesville in the mid-'90s. One idyllic Friday afternoon we left work early and drove a convertible down I-75 on our way to an Authors Guild dinner at the home of Betty Castor, then president of the University of South Florida. Headed for Tampa on that gorgeous spring day, we listened to tapes (yes, tapes) of Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, Green Day's Dookie, and Pansy Division's Deflowered. It was bliss.

During dinner that evening we ineptly tried to explain our enthusiasm for both hip-hop and punk music to our tablemates, including Kathy Castor (now a Florida congresswoman), novelist Gay Courter and filmmaker Phil Courter.

Realizing we probably express ourselves better on paper than by talking, that night in our motel off Fowler Avenue - nasty because there were no non-smoking rooms left - we began a Pansy Division-inspired story about a queercore band, a story that eventualy became "Boys Club," which appeared in the summer 1998 issue of Blithe House Quarterly and then in our 2000 collection, The Silicon Valley Diet, whose back cover description began: "The bassist in a gay punk band reflects on his troubled relationship with the band's guitarist/singer."

So we were thrilled to be seeing Jon Ginoli. After Kyle, the Barnes & Noble event coordinator introduced Jon (substituting "blankers" for the B-word when he quoted the lyrics "We're the buttfuckers of rock-and-roll, We want to sock it to your hole!"), Jon said he'd start reading from the prologue, which begins with them driving their rental truck out of Madison Square Garden and heading for the Lincoln Tunnel.

He reproduces his thoughts: "How did we get here?" They'd never planned for this, and if they had, it never would have happened. They got to open for Green Day and changed people's lives by being themselves, and the story of Pansy Division seemed to us not merely a collection of resonant anecdotes about the '90s music scene but a reflection of the metamorphosis in how society viewed gay people.

Rock and roll, Jon noted, always had an undercurrent that subverted male heterosexuality even as it normalized it. Think Elvis's moves and makeup, Little Richard's prancing, the Beatles' feminized hair, Mick Jagger's coyness, David Bowie, Prince, Freddy Mercury, Morrissey. But male rock stars were either not gay, wouldn't come out, or once they did, beat a hasty retreat. Jon said that complete gay history of rock is another book's story to tell.

Deflowered is Jon's story and Pansy Division's story, based on the stuff he's been telling his friends - how, coming of age sexually at a time when punk and queer were going mainstream, Jon created something even he almost thought was impossible: a gay rock band. He tried to go out on his own as a performer in San Francisco first, and then found bassist Chris Freeman by putting a classified ad in an alt-weekly.

Pansy Division, Jon said, was probably the least likely of the four bands Chris was in to succeed, but Chris had the nerve to play Jon's songs at a time when gay culture was under a right-wing attack. But Jon felt the '90s would be more joyful than the '80s, and he didn't want to write heavy, angry lyrics. Only after a few months did Chris remark, "Hey, this song can have political meaning," to which Jon responded: "Dude, it took you long enough."

Jon decided early on that he didn't want costumes, wigs, makeup or flamboyance. In San Francisco, Pansy Division probably could have gotten more attention that way, but he said he was from Peoria and Chris from Aberdeen, WA (Kurt Cobain's hometown) and they felt like jeans and T-shirts were more them. Punk meant being "down to earth, get to the point, cut to the chase." What he hoped for was to produce the kind of music he got enthusiastic about when he heard it, the "Ya gotta hear this" kind.

Their first album and tour went pretty well, but the gay press didn't know what to do with them since their worldview was at odds with the gay mainstream (blogger's Freudian slip: before correcting the typo, the last word read "meanstream"). In Chicago, the gay weekly Windy City Press only grudgingly interviewed them once straight newspapers had written about Pansy Division and then the WCP editor killed the piece because he was offended by Jon's criticism of Judy Garland.

As Jon said, he had no beef with Garland, just the way an older generation of gays had fetishized her; he felt it was clinging to the past, a way of seeing ourselves as victims. (As someone who was 18 forty summers ago when Garland died - and who later started hanging out in the Village that summer of the Stonewall riot - we thought she was OK but were mystified at Garland- and later Streisand-worship among gay men. We also recall going to see Boys in the Band in August 1969 and realizing that a part with one of the gay characters imitating Garland had to be changed to make him imitate Ruby Keeler, which wasn't exactly the same thing. . .)

Jon reported other ways the gay establishment dissed Pansy Division, from eye-rolling because the band supposedly wasn't charging enough for their CDs to a well-known book about gay musicians whose author felt Pansy Division weren't important enough to be profiled in the volume - unless, cough cough, they would come up with the money to buy their way in. Needless to say, Pansy Division don't play that game.

In the book are some excerpts from Jon's diary on tour, like a July 11, 1994 entry from their tour opening for Green Day - and throughout, Jon praised Green Day for not just choosing Pansy Division to go on tour with them back then (that's how we learned of the band) but for standing up for them when things got rough. On the tour, the gay band would be heckled. (Sometimes they spotted GOD DIDN'T MAKE ADAM AND STEVE and AIDS KILLS FAGS DEAD T-shirts in the audience - or on the security guards assigned to them.) When audience members shouted, "You suck!" Jon replied cheerfully, "Of course we suck."

Jon wrote about the mosh pit that night in Winnipeg and others on the tour and the high school girls who loved Chris and the sweaty, shirtless boys - all the teens, when they talked to band members, couldn't understand why they didn't watch Saved by the Bell. Generation gap. Jon also reported about a tall, hunky "college kid" who flirted with him outrageously during a Nashville appearance: blowing kisses, vamping, etc. After the show, when they met up, Jon asked him how old he was, the kid brightened and said, "Oh, I just turned 15 two weeks ago!" Jon wrote: "Needless to say, I slept alone that night."

The December 2, 1994 opening for Green Day at Nassau Coliseum provided a great show and great diary entry. (We are humiliated to admit that the first concert we ever saw there was John Denver. Hey, it was the Nixon administration!) Backstage, Jon thought he saw Joey Ramone, but it was Howard Stern ("nice" - and Howard referred to the band favorably on his show). Before a sold out crowd of 14,500, Pansy Division was greeted with cheers and applause and it was the best reception they'd had.

Jon also read an excerpt about the Madison Square Garden concert soon after:
The show was a multi-artist extravaganza: faux-alternative station Z-100’s Christmas bash. The lineup from top to bottom: Green Day, Hole, Weezer, Melissa Etheridge, Bon Jovi (gag, choke, splutter, barf), Sheryl Crow, Toad The Wet Sprocket, the Indigo Girls and us. When Green Day found out Bon Jovi was on the bill, they were fit to be tied. This was everything we had ever fought against. This was an alternative station? Z-100 tried to throw us off the bill, but Green Day said they wouldn’t do the show if we didn’t get to play. We’ll always be grateful for the many times they stood up for us that year.

We got a 10-minute slot at 7 p.m., and it was amazing. We squeezed in four songs. The crowd was still coming in; the place was two-thirds to three-quarters full (about 12,000 people) for our set and it was tremendous, loud applause and loud cheers. It was as short as a breath, though, and then it was over. But we’d never dreamed of playing such a place, and it was an incredible experience. If we’d had the goal of playing such a place, we’d never have done the kind of music we were doing, so being there gave us a special kind of satisfaction.

Jon told us dishier stuff about Bon Jovi, about watching him warm up for the concert by punching the air, Rocky-style; about the women with them, with fake orange tans and unnatural-looking breasts; and about their many bodyguards and entourage that displaced the other bands.

There were other good stories Jon told - searching for a drummer for the band, their later "lowkey" years, surprising bandmate Luis by beating him in a club's "hot butt" contest - and we'll be interested in reading them all. He also took his guitar and sang a few songs, including "Twinkie Twinkie, Little Star" from the new CD That's So Gay (remember, the one Newsweek said great things about).

Jon exuberantly sang other songs, too - old ones, new ones -- from the sweet but not sentimental "Life Lovers," an implicit critique of normalizing monogamy and marriage as the be-all and end-all, and the classic "Bad Boyfriend" to the manic energy of the voice of the high school football player on the hilarious "Pat Me on the Ass."

We've gone to lots of worthwhile readings, but tonight at Barnes & Noble, Jon Ginoli gave us a good show that would have been well worth paying for. He's a terrific raconteur, a great performer and a real mensch. Check out his book, the CDs, and the documentary DVD. Long live Pansy Division!

1 comment:

Pete said...

Ginoli's old band, the Outnumbered, was my favorite Champaign-Urbana band from my college days. Nice to see he's still fighting the good fight.