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Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band

Two discs; Alternative Tentacle; $19.98

By Richard von Busack

Mike Carmona follows the nearly 20-year-long career of the pioneering homocore band, which started out as a near-prank group by John Ginoli on self-recorded four-track tapes. With the collaboration of Sook-Yin Lee and Chris Freeman, Pansy Division ended up as a big enough phenomenon to draw collaboration with Kirk Hammett of Metallica and Rob Halford of Judas Priest. Ginoli, from Peoria, Ill., is as gay as they come, but he never cared for disco—a real setback for someone languishing in the gay bars of the Midwest.

Relocating to San Francisco, he started the popular band as an identity-politics statement, predating Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang and Michael Stipe's decloseting (though the film doesn't mention U.K. rocker Tom Robinson, as Ginoli does in his recent memoir Deflowered; and somehow Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks also gets overlooked). The group was a San Francisco favorite as it went through an ever-rotating inventory of drummers (12 in 15 years).

Carmona's genial, informative and talking-heads-rich doc shows how close Pansy Division got to the big time; as label mates with Green Day in its Lookout Records days, the group opened for that indie phenomenon and had enough power in its power trio to entertain Madison Square Garden. And Pansy Division even made a pro-gay video (for $5,000) that MTV, sweating profusely and praying no one noticed, aired exactly once.

What lesson can one draw from Pansy Division's career? Well, one thing is that if you win over the women in the audience, you don't have to deal with the homophobic men. Another is that wearing a T-shirt with a Robert Mapplethorpe–size choad on it seems to shut up some of the hecklers who think they've really said something when they yell, "Faggot!" Entertaining and indefatigable, Pansy Division escapes being filed under novelty records (though they made some beauts like "Have a Homo Christmas" and "Touch My Joe Camel," a salute to the weirdly penislike cigarette mascot); adding personnel in the early 1990s made the sound bigger and heavier, and the real masterpiece here might be "Tinted Windows," seen in the act of being recorded at Steve Albini's Chicago studio. The bonus disc includes five different mid-1990s performances by the band, including an unplugged set of six songs on the TV show San Francisco Sound, and a raucous balls-out rock set at L.A.'s Spaceland on Sept. 11, 1998.

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