“I grew up in Yonkers and the Bronx in an Italian, black, and Puerto Rican neighborhood,” says bassist Chris Sullivan. “Talk about style and attitude...my mentors were guys like Dion and Jackie Wilson. I lived right near the Apollo Theatre and in the Belmont section of Little Italy in the Bronx. You had to have great hair, sharkskin jackets, and Beatle boots, because style meant a lot.”
Some local rock historians say that his later band the Penetrators were the start of San Diego’s original music scene.
In 1977, the original Penetrators were singer Gary Heffern, Joel Kmak on drums, guitarist Scott Harrington, and Chris Sullivan from La Mesa on bass guitar. They played everywhere, it seemed, from Fairmount Hall to the California Theatre. Labels expressed interest, and one of their records landed in rotation at KROQ in Los Angeles. The band was seen by many, including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
When Kmak left for the Hitmakers, he was replaced by a pianist and record-store owner named Dan McClain. The rumor was that McClain had not played drums professionally until the Penetrators, and it was uphill after that. McClain’s alter ego, Country Dick Montana, would move on to fame with the Beat Farmers.
Sullivan recalls opening for the Ramones at Montezuma Hall in 1978, a show that people remember to this day. “I remember having the feeling of arrival, kinda like, Here’s your shot, kid — show them what ya got.” They also opened for the Ramones at the California Theatre downtown. “The cops came with riot gear and dogs. We were ushered down under the stage and out a side door into waiting cars...I was thinking, cool, this is like a Beatles movie.”
The big break never came for the Penetrators, and by 1984 the band was finished. Sullivan has also played with the Sensational Big M.R. and His All-Bitchin' All-Stud All-Stars, the Jacks (with latterday Beat Farmer Buddy Blue), the Farmers (alongside other former Beat Farmers), and more.
The Penetrators reunited in November 2005 at the Casbah to play a tribute show to McLain/Country Dick called Ten Years Without Dick. The Casbah's 20th anniversary in January 2009 brought out most of the surviving Penetrators for one more reunion performance. Gary Heffern, Joel Kmak, Chris Sullivan, Chris Davies and Jim Call participated in the reunion.
A late January 2010 Penetrators reunion set at the Casbah was cancelled by the band, citing personal reasons. A partial reunion did take place at the Casbah the following year, and they picked up a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 San Diego Music Awards.