The public library system in Minneapolis pisses me off. They have a really good collection of music and great books, and a helpful knowledgeable staff. But a lot of branches are only open 40 hours a week and their understaffed. And the fines are really high. My hunch is that the problem is that people are in charge who don’t value or understand public libraries. Jerks.
The librarians and the collection are great though. Case in point: I bumped into Jon Ginoli’s book Deflowered on the new acquisition shelf at one of the local branches a few days ago. I finished it today. I recommend it.
Ginoli started the punk rock band Pansy Division, an openly queer band who set out to write about aspects of their lives and sexuality that they didn’t find other music spoke to. I first heard Pansy Division when I was 18 or 19. I was uptight about sex and relationships. The explicitness threw me a bit but I came around.
I’d come from a family where it seemed like men were and should be in charge in pretty clear terms and women were not. My parents both contributed to this sense. What’s more, this was how men and woman had to interact. With that in the background, I was really ready for Propagandhi’s song “Refusing to be a Man,” based on John Stoltenberg’s book of the same name, which I read after the song blew my mind. My involvement in campus activism around sexual and relationship violence tied to the refuse patriarchal masculinity part – and some great comrades in that work helped me get better about habits I wasn’t aware of, calling me out on bad behavior I wasn’t aware of in a respectful way that didn’t make me feel a paralyzing quantity of guilt – but it didn’t give me the alternative stuff that I needed. I still rate Refusing to be a Man – both song and book – quite highly, but it was very trying stuff. I had had an intuitive sense that I didn’t have to be like I thought men had to be, but the problem was in the title: I could refuse to be a man – or I could try anyway in my conscious activities; in reality I was repeating a lot of bad habits without knowing it – but that was about what I *wouldn’t* be. What *would* I be? Not a woman, that didn’t make sense to me and wasn’t what I was after.
Part of the way out was tied to queer friends I made in college. I wasn’t heavily involved but I was part of queer and straight supporter campus politics, in part because of a lot of overlap between the groups doing the anti- sexual violence work and the queer activist folk. The people I got to be pals with through that introduced me to Pansy Division. The band itself wasn’t a huge influence but it was part of the milieu. My friends had frank, funny, positive conversations about sex. Some of it was juvenile, titillating and so on, but that was miles beyond the mortified and guilty and to-do-or-want-this-is-to-be-0ppressive sensibilities that I had had. I started to get a sense that there were alternatives to oppressive gender roles and sexuality, rather than my previous impulses to ‘refuse to be a man’ and/through erasure of sexuality.
With that in mind, I was really excited to read the book. Plus Pansy Division just sound really good, in all the various stages of their sound. The prose is not elegant or beautiful, it’s a contents book, but those contents are definitely worth reading. Ginoli describes growing up in the midwest, focusing on two main themes – coming to terms with sexuality and being a huge music fan. For much of his life he tried to balance these two, because he couldn’t integrate. Ginoli found he could fit into his favorite music scenes as a listener but not as a gay man; likewise he found that scenes based around sexuality involved music and lifestyle components that didn’t appeal to him. As he puts somewhere in the book, he felt he had to choose between being into music and being queer. At some points in his life he picked one emphasis and at others the other. Pansy Division formed when Ginoli no longer was willing to pick sides. Pansy Division would be a queer rock band, speaking to what Ginoli wanted to speak to and sounding like the music he liked.
The book has a similar dynamic as Ginoli describes in his life. Sometimes the book is about music and love of it, sometimes the book is about sexuality and politics and culture (queer and hetero/heteronormative), and sometimes the book is about the relationship between the two. Ginoli the rock fan is really charming. He loves and knows music really well, and has what seems to me like wide ranging tastes based not on narrow genre conventions but on good musicianship and contents. He also knows the music business well, having worked in it in various ways for years, and so the book includes details like royalty rates and how tour promotion can and should work between a band and a label.
Ginoli the cultural/social critic is a little more muted but it comes through – brief asides about Quebecois nationalism, a fair amount of mentions of ACT UP. This angle comes through the most when talking about the sexual and gender politics of rock music. Ginoli is on point discussing the gender bending of 80s hair metal along with its often blatant homophobia. He’s particularly good – or at least, the book particularly spoke to me – in discussing the problems in punk rock. Punks can be just as small minded, homophobic, sexist, and otherwise backward as anyone else. Punks can also have peculiarly self-defeating insular and elitist ideas against the spread of their ideas and a confused equation of a Do-It-Yourself ethic with shoddy quality and irresponsible execution. Ginoli is also quite good on attitudes within queer scenes – the equations and tensions between consumption, identity, sexuality, and equality.
With regard to Pansy Division in particular, Ginoli charts the band’s history from its start in the early 90s through the late 2000s, often with detailed tour diaries. People who don’t like rock tour diaries may find that a bit slow going. People who do like that stuff will eat the book up. A things come through clearly in the stuff about Pansy Division – they’re hard working musicians, being a professional and touring musician can be rally grueling despite the cool parts of it, and success is only some parts hard work and talent (if that was all it took then Pansy Division would have a lot more money and fame).