In 2011, the Penetrators received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the San Diego Music Awards. It was presented by Jim McInnes, a radio disc jockey who became one of the band’s earliest supporters after their unofficial launch late in 1978 when they opened for the Ramones at Montezuma Hall on the campus of San Diego State University. Fronting the Penetrators was one of the original angry young men, Gary Heffern.
Heffern’s path seemed destined for punk rock from birth. His first home was an orphanage in Finland. He and one of his sisters were brought to Ocean Beach at the age of four by an adoptive — and, as it turned out, physically and mentally abusive — family that spoke not a word of Finnish. Music became Heffern’s solace as a teenager.
By the age of 14, he was sneaking out of the house and hitchhiking to rock shows. He saw Velvet Underground at a venue called the Hippodrome (now long-gone) in downtown San Diego and the Stooges at SDSU. He became a front man himself after Iggy Pop randomly handed him the microphone at a show. That’s when he learned he could sing. Today, Gary Heffern lives in an apartment he owns that is just outside of Rovaniemi, Finland.
- Friday, January 17, 2014, 8 p.m.
2501 Kettner Boulevard,
Heffern visits San Diego next month in honor of the Casbah’s 25-year anniversary, where his Penetrators will perform on Friday, January 17; Heffern and Friends take the stage for an early show on Sunday, January 26.
As a Penetrator, you seemed made for the job of fronting a punk band. But in truth, you had been in only one band prior, yes?
“We were called Monotone and the Nucleoids. The band started after I came up with the name. I made a T-shirt with that name on it, and I wore it to an Iggy Pop show at Montezuma Hall. While I was waiting in line, three guys in suits that looked like the Zeros came up and started asking me about the Nucleoids. I asked them if they were in a band and they said they wanted to join one.”
Unlike other local bands in the day, the Pens inspired riots. There was a riot at San Dieguito high when you guys played there that made a lifelong fan out of one of the students, Eddie Vedder. Then there was the riot at the California Theatre...
“I jumped offstage to grab a bouncer who was beating up a kid for dancing. The bouncers just went crazy, and then people were pulling up their seats and throwing them at the bouncers. I jumped back up onstage and grabbed the microphone to try to cool things down, and as I was doing that I got a tap on my shoulder from a cop saying I was under arrest for inciting a riot.”
You guys got a reputation for that sort of thing, some level of violence. I’m remembering Jerry Herrera, who owned the Spirit Club (now Brick By Brick) and his weekly ads in the Reader in which he wrote little stories about the scene.
“The most memorable one for me was one of Jerry’s year-end ‘Bests’ lists. I was voted Best Fight of the Year with Joey Harris. My girlfriend at the time was an ex of one of Joey’s friends, Paul Kamanski. I was onstage singing and I saw Paul paying a lot of attention to her. Mid song, I jumped off the stage and grabbed him and punched him through the door and out into the parking lot and then went back up and finished the song. After the set was over, I was going outside and Joey hit me. We wrestled around and threw a few punches, and I ended up breaking a beer bottle and putting it up to him.”
Was the fuel for those Penetrators songs drawn from the childhood abuse you suffered?
“No, not consciously. When I write, it only takes a few minutes, but I live with the idea or subject matter sometimes for months. Most times it just will be a phrase or a situation or something that I can connect with some way, like the Penetrators song ‘Walk the Beat.’ It was actually written about the early punks in Los Angeles.”
So, your songs have at least a basis in the past and in events that you were a part of.
“There are different characters in each song, and I wish I could make them happy characters. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel gets longer and harder, and sometimes in the end it becomes a crawlspace and a candle. I write about love and truth, and with love and truth there’s always a little pain and loss. That’s harsh, but honest.”