My oh-so-limited writing time has been consumed for the past little while by reviewing for Just Out. I'll be posting my always scintillating pop-culture contemplations here once again very soon, but until then, here are a couple of the new Just Out pieces to tide my ever-growing audience by. (NOTE: These pieces are as submitted, not as published, so it's quite possible that they'll read quite differently in Just Out once they eventually see print. They must adhere to a certain "Just Out style," you know.)

Total Entertainment
Pansy Division
(Alternative Tentacles, 2003)

Who wouldn’t at least want to like Pansy Division? The San Francisco foursome are a queer band whose new album, Total Entertainment!, is their seventh LP for an independent punk label. They’re earnestly committed to their vision and have exposed a great many people of all sexualities (they had the opening slot on a Green Day tour at the height of that band’s popularity) to an enthusiastic and explicit celebration of the intricacies of boy-boy sex.

So why have my feelings about them only ever ranged from indifferent to insulted? It’s simple: While I have to acknowledge that they’re probably doing something culturally positive, the music itself is unequivocally terrible. The Pansy Division catalog mostly consists of leering, joyless novelty songs called things like “Bill and Ted’s Homosexual Adventure” and “Beercan Boy,”- the latter being a reference to penile dimensions- barked out by undeservedly self-satisfied singer/lyricist Jon Ginoli. When gay singer/musician Roddy Bottum of the great queer band Imperial Teen discussed Pansy Division in a 1994 Rolling Stone article, he likened them to Warrant, a band mainly known for their dumb, single-minded objectification (of women, in their case). The comparison was hardly a compliment, but it was accurate. Imagine “Weird Al” Yankovic singing cartoon-graphically about gay male sex in a tone mimicking those testosterone-overdosing straight-boy metal bands of the eighties, all sung over a fairly anonymous punk clatter, and you’ll know what Pansy Division sounds like.

I’m happy to report that Total Entertainment! contains a higher than ever proportion of tolerable tunes to cringe-worthy ones. This is no thanks to Ginoli, whose offerings include the very ill-advised synth-romp “No Protection,” which combines the over-imitated vocoder of Cher’s “Believe” with a lyric that seems to encapsulate an after-school special about barebacking, and “I Whipped his Ass in Tennis (Then he Fucked My Ass in Bed”), which has all of the cheesiness and none of the hotness the title might lead you to expect.

On the other hand, “When He Comes Home,” “Spiral,” and “First Betrayal,” all written and sung by bassist/singer Chris Freeman, are catchy power pop with straightforward, emotively vocalized lyrics, a combination that pleasantly recalls Weezer or The Smoking Popes. A potential Chris Freeman solo career is a more realistic cause for optimism than any hope that Pansy Division might someday find even a shred of the inspiration, wit, or defiance they’ve always been so strangely and thoroughly lacking, so I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed and ears peeled for that.

Augusten Burroughs
(St. Martin's Press, 2003)

The unanimously positive reviews that greeted last year’s publication of Augusten Burroughs’s Running with Scissors, an affectionately rendered autobiographical account of a half eccentric, half traumatic coming of age, were typically rife with David Sedaris comparisons. Like Sedaris, Burroughs is a post-Stonewall gay writer whose liberation extends far beyond his sexuality; cranky sardonicism and unfettered irreverence are certainly something the two writers have in common. But Sedaris’s laughs come from holding a mirror- one with cracks wide enough for a healthy glimpse of the underlying hypocrisy, pettiness, and cruelty- to more or less ordinary, everyday lives, while the abundant humor in Burroughs comes from the incongruously deadpan writer’s voice he uses to relate his decidedly singular, unusually free, sometimes awful life.

Dry, the sequel to Running with Scissors, finds the twentysomething Burroughs living a driven but luxurious yuppie existence as an employee of the creative department at a Manhattan ad agency. His best friends are an undertaker and an HIV-positive investment banker (also an ex-lover with all the ensuing emotional complications) who wryly calls himself an “AIDS baby.” Burroughs himself is a raging alcoholic, which, as it turns out, is quite compatible with the advertising game. His description of the boozehound life- the frenetic rationalizations, the close calls, the inevitable intervention (delivered on the job via coworkers in one of Dry’s funniest episodes), the subsequent shotgun rehabilitation- is packed with liquor-induced humiliations that would make even Liza Minnelli blush. The tone is relentlessly self-critical, but minus the self-aggrandizement or begging for absolution that typifies so many recovery memoirs.

Burroughs is very aware, in hindsight, of his own self-destructive behavior, ignorance, and superficiality (“A rehab hospital run by fags will be hip. Plus there’s the possibility of good music and sex,” he very mistakenly thinks to himself when informed he’ll be checking into Pride Institute, a gay substance abuse center), but he never gives us generalized cautionary-tale homilies, the Big Lessons he’s learned. Instead, we’re left with the simple realization that Augusten Burroughs was a human being guilty of some particularly punishing mistakes and possessed of the good sense to laugh at them, as well as the talent to make us do the same. You don’t feel guilty for finding comic relief in Burroughs’s pain, because he’s clearly tickled to be sharing it. He generously wants us to learn nothing more from his story than that real victory over our flaws and errors comes when we can see how truly funny they are.

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