I remember first hearing about Pansy Division in the early '90s. It was only a decade ago, but at that time, the very idea of an all-gay, openly gay rock band seemed so -- subversive. They weren't just overtly gay, either. Pansy Division was in-your-face, provocatively, totally gay, with catchy, pop-influenced punk songs that fearlessly celebrated their sexual orientation. Even the name -- while a clever sabotage of combat machismo -- smacked of something militant, revolutionary, dangerous. Fortunately, the band wrapped its activist stance in so much humor, fun and splashy music that it never came across as ponderous or threatening, thus allowing its message (essentially, one of tolerance and acceptance) to be absorbed relatively easily by its audiences.
After a five-year hiatus, Pansy Division is back with a new record (Total Entertainment!), a new label (Alternative Tentacles) and a new national tour that brings them to the B-Side this Monday night to perform with local bands Mang and Horrible Disaster.
Much in the world -- musically and otherwise -- has changed since guitarist Jon Ginoli and bassist Chris Freeman assembled their first version of Pansy Division (which now also includes Patrick Goodwin on lead guitar and Luis on drums) in San Francisco back in 1991. Some of it, for the better.
"A decade ago, there really weren't any out gay musicians," recalls Ginoli. "And now there's a whole bunch, even if they're on the fringes and a lot of them are past their prime as far as being popular. It's still a big improvement."
Still, he says, the music industry -- and society at large -- has a long way to go.
"You can be a cult artist and be out. But it's still really hard to be a mainstream artist and be out. The Pet Shop Boys and Elton John are mainstream and out, but you don't really hear them on the radio anymore, either, except for their old songs. Somebody who has had it really difficult is Rob Halford. I don't know the whole story but I heard someone in Judas Priest had issues with his gayness. He came out as a gay metal guy only after he left the band. But now he's getting back with them. Maybe they changed their minds, evolved with the times. Now that he's back, it'll be fun to watch."
While the members' sexual orientation set Pansy Division apart from many of their contemporaries, does being gay ever get in the way? In other words, are there moments when Ginoli wishes the group could be recognized simply as a great rock 'n' roll band without the queer tag?
"A little bit," he says. "The previous album we did, Absurd Pop Song Romance, was a pretty direct attempt to say to people who would limit us with 'Oh, they're a gay band, they're a funny band, they're a silly band, thus we can't take them seriously' that we're going to continue to do what we do but make it more 'serious.' But you know, when we started out, we wanted to have a fun band. I like bands that are fun but that don't necessarily have humor in them -- an example would be the Replacements. They were a fun band but they also had this serious side, too. That's what we wanted. We played down the fun aspect on the last record. This time, we wanted to do something that was more upbeat and positive. Not strictly funny, but something with more variety and a different set of moods. That's why it's called Total Entertainment because we think that it's entertaining in a lot of different ways."
Entertaining has always been job one, though Ginoli admits he's unsure if Pansy Division's MO is still seen as radical out there across the land.
"It might still be a radical concept in Coeur d'Alene or someplace like that. I sort of see it both ways. I see it as not as big a deal as it used to be, but in other ways, it's still very potent. It does depend on where you are, and it also assumes that you've heard about it before the first time around. Someone who is 18 now, were they paying attention to rock 'n' roll when they were nine or 10 and we were on tour with Green Day? They probably weren't aware. And unless they've had a really good ear to the underground, we still might be a new concept to them."
The 1994-95 tour opening for Green Day exposed Pansy Division to a mainstream audience for the first time. It raised the band's profile considerably, though crowd reactions were mixed.
"A mainstream audience is something that I never thought we would have access to," says Ginoli. "And when we had the chance to do it, I think we did pretty well. A couple of shows were pretty bad. But most of the time, people were receptive or at least not completely, overtly hostile. But you could see little pockets of people that were cheering and people that were booing. There were times I would look out there and think 'Oh my god, I hope those people don't get beat up for cheering for us.'"
Whether they were loved or despised, Pansy Division had started a dialogue, a dialogue that continues into 2003 and beyond.
"By having us play in front of them, Green Day got the queer subject discussed amongst a wide range of people," says Ginoli. "People would say, 'Did you see that band Pansy Division? They're a gay band. They were awful.' or 'No, I thought that they were great.' I know it got people talking. And I don't mean just about us, but about the subject in general. To me, that was a wonderful victory."
Valle Son -- One listen to Valle Son will convince you that there's a lot more coming out of Cuba these days than just stogies. Valle Son, a seven-piece traditional Cuban band, took our neighbors to the north by surprise when the band toured the Yukon three years ago. Shortly after playing two big-time Canadian music gigs -- Streetfest 2000 and the Dawson City Music Festival -- the group found a home within the Caribou Records lineup. The Whitehorse, Yukon-based label signed them immediately (something of a departure for a label that spends most of its energies helping local talent) and recorded their album in a remarkable three days.
The band hails from Vinales, a village in the highlands of Pinar del Rio, a region of Cuba more famous for its tobacco than its music. Valle Son got its start playing at a local hotel, La Ermita. The six men and one woman realized that their sound was good enough to share with the rest of the world, and that's what brought them to Canada and, eventually, into the studio. They perform at the Met next Wednesday night.
With an authentic Latin sound and a unique combination of instruments, the band's only album starts off with a bang that carries them through the entire record. Son de Cuba is fabulous. Lazaro Wilfredo Rivera Duenas leads the 2001 record with his crisp, high-energy vocals and maracas. Duenas is backed by a band of six musicians: guitar, bass, bassoon, sax and percussion. The sax player, Livan Hernandez Sanchez, does all the arrangements for the group. His brother, Jesus Hernandez Sanchez, plays the rhythm guitar while doubling as the group's manager. Maribel Albiza Leon lends a different flavor to the Latin sound with her bassoon. The sum of all the instruments in this equation produces a sound that may be more palatable to Northern ears than other Latin bands I've heard: think a more authentic Ozomatli without the rap.
Yet Valle Son insists their sound is authentically Cuban at the core, with all of the members representing the diverse backgrounds of the Cuban people. Valle Son has something for everyone: Latin spice, salsa beats and a sound that just makes you wish you could dance.