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Issue 138 Streams N Demos (Narrow Waves)

Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band (dir: Michael Carmona) 

Probably one of the more interesting periods of underground rock music culturally had been the early 1990s.  Previously a mostly straight white male domain, it was challenged on its biases by the Riot Grrrl movement’s infusing feminist thought into punk and adding a woman’s perspective as well as by the Latin punk scene singing in Spanish often about topics relating to their community.  Then there’s queercore, a punk rock subgenre where gay lesbian and transgender/transsexual artists proceeded to make their voices heard in the underground and offer their experiences.  Amongst the leading lights of the queercore movement was the first openly gay rock band, Pansy Division.

Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band tells the story of this band and their surprising journey.  Started by guitarist/vocalist Jon Ginoli and bassist Chris Freeman in 1991, they believed their appeal would only be a handful of their friends in San Francisco.  Instead they put a simmering movement into hyperdrive.  Playing melodic (almost to the point of pop) songs with an admittedly out and in your face perspective, the band ended up creating a collection of songs that won over people alienated by mainstream music and seeking more in punk and indie circles regardless of sexual orientation (FULL DISCLOSURE: Pansy Division has been the most interviewed band in the history of TTWN. Ed). 

This documentary uses interviews (both of band members and people close to the band over the years), music videos, and live footage to tell a story not just of the reaction both pro (reactions to reading letters from closeted kids who hid their records from homophobic parents) and con (such as the band’s fears they’d be killed during their first tour and dealing with jock fans when opening for Green Day in 1994).  It also details some universal band issues such as lineup changes (the revolving drummer lineup in the first six or so years, expanding the lineup to a quartet, etc) and dealing with record label politics.  Told in a basic, straight ahead style, Life in a Gay Rock Band manages to both show how a band made music (and even cultural) history at a time when the LGBT community was far less accepted than it is now as well as the universality of band dynamics and the pressures it can bring to a band under any circumstances.

In the end though, this documentary tells a story of a band who managed to endure and survive in a constantly changing artistic climate (Pansy Division remains the last band standing from the early 90s queercore scene) as well as how friendships can sometimes survive situations as fragile as a band (ask any musician about how hard this is).  Not for everybody but openminded music fans would do well to see this doc and be surprised.

The second disc of this two DVD set features footage of live concerts as well as an unplugged TV appearance from the bands early years.  Musically, it shows the band at its out and proud glory, both rockin’ out, a bit rough around the edges, and fun.  The only downside is the lack of footage from the later years.  Still, it’s a must watch to see why Pansy Division managed to still stick around after nearly 19 years.  

They may not have intended to change the boundaries of who could play rock music, but we all can be grateful for the fact that they did so.  See both the doc and the live footage.

-          Boone

Available from Alternative Tentacles (the band's current label) or via from the official Pansy Division website.

All contents this page  2010, Boone Stigall/The Trouble With Normal