The scheduled appearances were to include one night each at the Hong Kong Cafe in Los Angeles's Chinatown, the Fu-Bar in Santa Barbara. Slick Willy's in Sacramento, and two nights at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco.
"If I've had a nutritional meal in the last year, it’ll come as a surprise to my stomach," quips Dan McLain in between resounding burps. It is almost midnight and we are sitting outside a Sacramento Taco Bell, trying our best to savor one of the few semisolid meals we’ve had in three days. McLain continues with an observation on the human body’s tolerance for abuse. “My system's used to junk food and beer. Anything with excess vitamin value makes me throw up. ” He laughs and belches in an inimitable syncopation.
“See, these punk-rock kids, they draw young ones, no able to buy drinks; club make no money. I make no damn money! What good?”
Twenty-four-year-old McLain is the drummer for the San Diego new-wave rock and roll band called The Penetrators, who, with a couple of girlfriends, an equipment carrier, and a tag-along writer in tow, have limped into Sacramento, a one-night stop on their statewide tour. Actually, to call the travels of this impoverished caravan a tour may be a bit misleading, too momentous. McLain wipes a dribble of beans from his face and comments. “When I think about the Rolling Stones carrying sixty people on their tours. I can sec why those jet-set druggies have been able to hang on so long. If we had a fraction that many, we'd be doing just fine. ’’ The amorphous mash of beans, cheese, tortilla swims before my eyes, and combined with my inebriated frame of mind, inspire me to wonder, silently. "What the hell am I doing here?"
The Wong Wars in L.A. - Esther Wong, co-owner of Madame Wong’s, has filed a lawsuit against the Hong Kong Cafe, claiming that her competition has engaged in false advertising.
When I accepted the invitation to accompany The Penetrators on their six-day junket up the California coast (humorously billed as the Penetrators' World Tour ‘79), I realized I could not expect the comforts that might be afforded a Rolling Stone writer chronicling the movements of the latest rock sensations. Warnings from loved ones were abundant. My mother urged me to bring ample provisions, eat at least two meals a day, and stay away from drugs and liquor. Concerned female friends advised me to keep a close eye on my funds and moral virtue. Initially envious male friends, when informed I was unlikely to encounter alluring young groupies along the way, wondered why I was bothering to go at all.
They break into “Sensitive Boy." Until seeing them perform it in the glutted Los Angeles scene. I didn't realize how good it really was.
However, I had resolved that nothing would dissuade me. For the last year, since witnessing The Penetrators nearly upstage The Ramones in concert at San Diego State, I have tried to goad, persuade, and plead with people to take seriously my estimation of them as the best San Diego rock band. My enthusiasm even led me to compare them with the renowned English group. The Clash. At the time I concocted that comparison I knew it smacked of hyperbole, but such an imposing reference point seemed the most effective way of getting people to pay closer attention to the group. The qualities that The Clash are noted for — disgruntled, impassioned lyrics; loud, tempestuous arrangements; and a spirited stage manner — also distinguish the Penetrators. Still. I had to wonder if local chauvinism hadn't played a part in my judgment. Thus, the tour seemed an excellent opportunity to find out if I had put my foot in my mouth. It would give me a chance to see how the Penetrators stood up against some of their California competition, and besides, I hadn't had a vacation in two years. The scheduled appearances, entirely arranged by members of the band through, promotion, phone calls, and gentlemen's agreements, were to include one night each at the Hong Kong Cafe in Los Angeles's Chinatown, the Fu-Bar in Santa Barbara. Slick Willy's in Sacramento, and two nights at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco.
"Hey, we killed 'em. Did you hear 'em hinting us when they heard where we were from?"
I try to revive my earlier zeal as the Penetrators and I stand jostling each other in front of my apartment building's triple garage. Four cars are lined up, ready to transport us to Los Angeles. All of the principals arc accounted for: drummer Dan McLain, vocalist Gary Heffern, bassist Chris Sullivan, synthesizer player Jim Call, and guitarist Chris Davies. Several girlfriends arc included in the entourage: Cheri Cotton (with McLain). Charlene Chu (with Call), and Rita Clark (with Davies as far as Los Angeles). Peter Nowell, custodian of the band's equipment, has promised to meet us at the Hong Kong Cafe. Before embarking, however, there are organizational problems to be resolved. Sullivan, the band's de facto leader, asks everyone to declare his financial resources. Heffern purses his lips, lunges for a nearby palm tree, swings around it, and mischievously avoids the question until being forced to admit that he lost fifty dollars the night before at a party, somewhere, somehow. Aside from Sullivan, who scraped together about a hundred dollars for gasoline, the ante for the others is equally unimpressive: McLain has fifty dollars in food stamps. Davies has no money at all. Call says he and Charlene won't need money since they plan to stay with various friends, and the other two women have come with “pocket money. ” My suitcase ejects a few shirts, and as I force-feed them back inside, both Heffern and Sullivan coyly question the state of my finances.
"Well. Esmedina, are you just excess baggage?" asks Heffern, his trouser pockets turned inside-out, empty. I withdraw my wallet from my coat pocket and give them a brief glimpse of my holdings, close to $200. A hoot goes up and I am instantly made an honorary member of the band, a distinction I fear may have as many liabilities as assets. Sullivan nods in approval and shakes my hand. "We're really glad you're coming, Steve. Real glad."
But what am I worried about? This is going to be an experience. After all, the farthest north I have been is Marin County, the farthest south is Ensenada, the farthest east is Yuma, and the farthest west is the South Mission Beach jetty.
I have been to the City of the Angels, however — enough times each year, in fact, to be bored with the journey. On the way, I usually force myself to invent diversions. Today, tucked into the back seat of Sullivan's Pinto. I call upon a reliable standby; I close my eyes and periodically try to guess exactly where we are. I get Leucadia correct, barely miss Oceanside, and am interrupted at San Onofre when Sullivan's tapedeck blares Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" Some months ago I wrote that Heffern is "a dead ringer for Joe Jackson"; it remains an image that simultaneously infuriates and intrigues him. Now, passing the domed, fearsome goliaths on the cliffs at San Onofre. I open my eyes to see a cockatoo crest, bulging blue eyes, and a wide grin hanging over the front seat. Heffern is waiting for a reaction. "Hey, Steve!" he shouts over the din while pointing to the tapedeck. "Here I am!" I am always possessed of delight and embarrassment when anyone reminds me of something I wrote about them; it is sometimes difficult to tell whether they want to hug you or punch you out. Heffern does dramatically raise clenched fists, but instead of taking a swing, he makes an abrupt turnabout and twirls his wrists around one another as if he were attempting to update the hully-gully; he is practicing moves for the evening's performance. “We 're debuting this song tonight,’’ he informs me over his shoulder. His piercing blue eyes bug out even further. The new gem is called "Passion in the Night." Heffern draws back, clutches an imaginary microphone, and snarls like a stir-crazy tiger.
- When it's good
- It's soooo goood
- Passion in the night!
He swings around and nearly grabs me by the throat. "Well, Steve, whaddya think?" Before I have a chance to answer, Sullivan interjects. "The word 'passion' has already been used in a good song this year."
"What song? What?” asks Heffern, furrowing his brow.
"Graham Parker's ‘Passion Is No Ordinary Word,' ” Sullivan says cooly.
"I bet it's not as emotional as ours.” Heffern says. "That’s what life's all about! Passion in the night!"
Sullivan, who hasn't taken his eyes off the road, says, almost to himself, "We got to work on that thing. I don't think it sounds right."
"What? What?" demands Heffern.
"I don't know. It’s just not finished.” The subject seems closed with this last remark, and Heffern, like a distracted four-year-old, ejects the Joe Jackson tape and inserts another one featuring Bruce Springsteen. As Springsteen begins to wail, Heffern again pivots in his scat and glares at me, bug-eyed. "I wanted to kill you for what you wrote about Springsteen. He's the kind of performer — I can't explain it — the kind of performer I consider myself. I never hold back anything and neither does he. I don't understand how you can I be moved by a guy who's so . . . so. . . .” Sullivan, deadpan, finishes the sentence. "Passionate."
Springsteen begins "Born To Run." and Heffern swings back around, arms pumping like egg beaters. He sings over the tape:
- In the day we sweat it out on the streets
- Like a runaway American dream
- At night we through mansions of glory
- Like suicide machines.
Though Heffern and Sullivan have been drawn together through their music, in other ways they couldn't be more dissimilar. Heffern is hyperactive in the extreme, garrulous, physical. Sullivan is much more controlled, cerebral. Seven years ago, when he was sixteen, Sullivan's family moved to San Diego from Yonkers, New York. His father had suffered a serious heart attack, and at the urging of an older sister, the entire family came west for therapeutic reasons. Sullivan enrolled at Mt. Miguel High School, where he starred in baseball (while still in New York, he had been offered a college scholarship by the Kansas City Royals in exchange for a commitment to their farm system, but he turned it down). Besides sports, he concentrated on playing bass guitar, an instrument he had switched to soon after picking up the guitar at age thirteen.
He went to Grossmont College and remained there, off and on, for five years in the telecommunications department. From Grossmont he moved to cable television's Channel 100 for a time, then to radio station KGB-FM. where he currently works in market research. All the while, he continued playing bass; earlier, with nameless pickup bands that would entertain at San Diego State fraternity parties; later, with a group that would become The Penetrators. He is easily the most level-headed, businesslike member of the band today. He also writes most of the music.
Heffern, who is 25 years old, was born in Rovaniiem, Finland. He and his sister were abandoned by their parents when Heffern was less than a year old. A social worker, John C. Caldwell, took in the children, and for the next four years they lived in a Finnish orphanage. Caldwell later wrote a book, Children of Calamity, which detailed the saga of Gary and his sister. The book found its way into the Ocean Beach home of Kenneth and Marian Heffern, who were so moved by Caldwell's account that they arranged to adopt the children.
Heffern arrived here in 1959 and spent most of his early years in Ocean Beach. By his own admission, his time at Point Loma High School didn't amount to much; he wasn't particularly ambitious. However, he was, and is, high-strung, which is perhaps a factor in his employment history — since high school he's had well over a dozen different jobs and claims that he's perennially broke, this in spite of the fact that for the last year he's been employed as an installer at Pacific Telephone.
Heffern is a super-patriot, sternly anticommunist. It is a political attitude that sets him apart somewhat from his more cynical contemporaries in the new-wave scene. His song, “I Wanna Be an American'' begins with the Pledge of Allegiance: and he is not kidding, even when he clowns about his beliefs and his career, which is most of the time.
After a brief stop on Hollywood Boulevard to reconnoiter, we set our sights on Beverly Hills. Originally, the band was supposed to have the use of an elegant home there — complete with swimming pool and sauna — while the owners were out of town. Unfortunately, other friends popped in and the would-be hosts regretfully retracted the invitation. (At least that’s what they said.) We are still destined for Beverly Hills, but will stay in considerably more modest digs — the studio apartment of a friend of a friend. Aside from being a bit cramped, the place isn't that bad, despite the pile of dirty utensils stacked up in the sink like a pile of kindling, the moss-ridden bathtub, the various and unidentifiable odors. And who's to complain? It's free. In any event, it’s the show that matters; this is just a place to dump belongings and to fall unconscious later tonight.
It's been more than fifteen years since I ventured to Los Angeles’s Chinatown; when I was a child, my parents would drag me to all of the more enticing tourist spots — Watts, central and east L.A., El Segundo. Chinatown. Since my clearest memories of this downtown enclave come from Roman Polanski's film of the same name. I can't say whether Chinatown has changed much. The traffic is impossibly congested, and tourists still have to sprint around like rats in a maze in order to find a parking spot. Heffern and I don't care to sit through the ordeal, and leap from Sullivan's car.
For walkers, Chinatown could easily be Tijuana North. We half expect a kid to approach us and ask if we want to buy chiclet. There is a surreal quality to the neighborhood. It's both authentically foreign and strangely familiar. If every storefront had fresh paint, if the sidewalks were glistening, if the brooding statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen were polished, you might think you were entering a new addition to Disneyland. It seems to be a peculiar place for two very popular new-wave clubs. The Hong Kong Cafe is the younger of these two. Madame Wong's, located across a courtyard from the Hong Kong, is by now a venerable institution among new-wave aficionados.
A little more than a year ago, a Los Angeles artist named Paul Greenstein had the idea that punk should come to Chinatown. Madame Wong's was one of his favorite hangouts in one of his favorite parts of the city. He approached the owners of Wong's with the suggestion that they set aside one night a week for popular music (for years Madame Wong’s had featured somewhat more conventional live music). After months of haggling, the first show (Gary Valentine and the Furies) was held, and it proved to be an unexpected success. In the ensuing months, Madame Wong's developed a city wide reputation as a slightly bizarre and chic place to hear new-wave music. There were problems, to be sure: Other merchants in the area did not appreciate the influx of costumed, weird, sometimes violent young people the music attracted; and the club's owners sometimes wondered why they had ever encouraged pot-smoking, foul-mouthed punks to come to Chinatown. Of course, the money was good. So good, in fact, that early last summer the Hong Kong Cafe also began to book punk-rock bands. It didn't take long for the two clubs to develop distinct identities in the subcultural world of new wave. Madame Wong's is now considered to be somewhat more "respectable"; record company executives frequently stop by to hear a promising new band or to show support for one they've signed to their label; and the proprietors will not tolerate rowdiness of any sort.
The Hong Kong Cafe is generally more raunchy. The club has no age limit (thus lots of young kids, some of whom are overzealous in their punk fervor); the bands, like the Penetrators, are not so well-known as those playing Wong's; and unlike Wong's, there is dancing at the Hong Kong (shoving is a more accurate description). Recently, the two clubs have been involved in a spat that has come to be known as the Wong Wars. Esther Wong, co-owner of Madame Wong’s, has fired the latest volley in a battle that has until now primarily been verbal — she has filed a lawsuit against the Hong Kong Cafe, claiming that her competition has engaged in false advertising (the Hong Kong, with tongue in check, publicly boasted that it regularly put on its stage the world's greatest singers: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr., et al).
Heffern and McLain are seated at the upstairs bar as I enter the Hong Kong Cafe. They have engaged the bartender in a hopelessly rhetorical debate about what rock and roll means to the growth of Chinatown. The bartender is in good spirits, but he has a vital, legitimate complaint. "Rock-a-roll no good, no good,” he declares as he pours a vodka martini. “See, these punk-rock kids, they draw young ones, no able to buy drinks; club make no money. I make no damn money! What good?” Heffern, McLain, and I look at each other and turn our bar stools in different directions to avoid direct eye contact and possible laughter.
McLain, articulate as always, responds with a gurgling burp. Heffern, ever the optimistic self-promoter, proudly tells the bartender that we are all part of the headlining band. The bartender grabs three glasses and flushes them with hot water; he is not the least impressed. The crucial question finally comes as he pours a tequila shooter for an impatient customer. "You guys punk rock? You really know how to play?" He shakes his head, "This punk rock no music. I know music because I play organ for twenty years. But I like songs, melodies. This punk just sound like shit. And damn kids never buy drinks! One beer for ten people sometimes!”
Peter Nowell has arrived and most of the Penetrators’ equipment is in place on the tiny stage. As the band members begin a rock and roll ritual — the sound check — I slip away while the bartender, with his back turned, continues his diatribe. Outside. a crowd has gathered around an organ grinder and his scrawny monkey. The man seems to know only one song, "Santa Lucia," and when a tourist flips a quarter to the monkey, the showman belts it out like a palsied Enrico Caruso.
The Penetrators have moved their equipment to the side of the stage to allow the opening band. Spy, to begin their set. The first song is about cheating girls. The second song is about cheating girls. The third song is about cheating girls. The fourth song is about . . . cheating boys. These three thin young men from Santa Barbara, who look like runners-up in a malnutrition contest, have a message, and it seems to be that girls are "creepy little creeps” and “smelly little rats.” We all agree that without their die-hard legion of friends and family, these chaps wouldn't have made it out of a garage. In fact, the crowd appears to be largely composed of imported Spy fans.
The Penetrators take their turn, and they look great. McLain, a perfect Bill Medley look-alike, towers over his minimal Ringo Starr-styled trap set; Chris Sullivan, decked out in black leather, holds his bass as if it were a bazooka; Chris Davies is a shadowy young man who keeps to himself, as much on stage as off. Jim Call, who only recently joined the group, hovers over his Moog synthesizer like an earnest and somber technician, while Heffern darts, flops, pirouettes, like Daffy Duck. He drops to his knees and face, slithers around a cumbersome pillar, nearly swallows the handheld microphone. He'll do practically anything to make you understand he's the one you're here to see.
They break into “Sensitive Boy," a song I believe is as good as any I've heard lately from any so-called new-wave artists. Since first becoming acquainted with the band. I had heard about this marvelous tune, but until seeing them perform it in the glutted Los Angeles scene. I didn't realize how good it really was. It opens with Jim Call’s synthesizer producing a sheet of noise that sounds like steam escaping from a cracked pipe, followed by an ominous bass ostinato. a Ventures-Safari-styled guitar riff, and a cymbal crash. Then Heffern enters, with lyrics that accurately describe him and the band.
- I’m a sensitive boy
- A hyperkinetic, agitated boy
- I go a little crazy now and then
- I feel a bit suspicious now and then
- I'm a sensitive boy.
Most of the audience has either left or has moved over to a corner of the club to fawn over Spy, but the Penetrators plunge forward undaunted. They play a song called “Vengeance."
- You gotta live fast (do it with a vengeance)
- It won’t last (unless you do it with a vengeance)
- Get your revenge (with a vengeance).
I'm angry that the crowd is not more receptive, but the Penetrators leave the stage with gentlemanly sobriety. In a moment they appear at my side. “Did we do it?" Heffern asks eagerly. I tell him they didn’t play enough; they were on stage less than 30 minutes. Also, I couldn't hear Call's synthesizer much of the time, and Sullivan's bass was infected with an annoying buzz. “Well, what’d ya think of the bridge song?"
This tune, which doesn't yet have a title, calls for some dramatic choreography on Heffern's part. At the song's climactic moment, he is supposed to throw himself from the stage and crash into the people lined up against the bandstand. It's intended to represent a suicidal leap from a bridge, and Heffern loves to ham it up. At the Hong Kong, though, the bandstand is raised only a few inches off the ground, and instead of a mob squished up against the stage, there are only a couple of tables, one of which is empty. Nonetheless, at just the right moment, Heffern plunged headlong from the stage to the floor. But where it was supposed to be a musing leap to the death, it came off as only a stumble. From where I sat, it appeared as if he simply fell over and rolled under a table. “You looked like a wino tripping over some steps." I tell him.
“Damn." says Heffern “I need a real stage." And he bursts into a loud rendition of “Passion in the Night."
Because the evening got started late and Spy played longer than they were supposed to. The Penetrators will not perform a second set as planned. Losing a second chance on stage may be disappointing, but it doesn't compare with the news Sullivan brings back from the club's manager. The two bands had agreed to split the admission money from the small crowd that had come to hear them — a paltry 68 dollars. Nearly all of The Penetrators' 34-dollar share, however, had been consumed at the bar. Just about anyone who showed some interest in them was shoved up to the rail and treated to the exotic drink of his choice. Their munificence rang up to exactly 32 dollars. Two dollars left to split among all members for a long drive and a night's work — that is disappointing. “Hey, I guess we screwed up, huh?" says Heffern in mock apology. When the manager pushes two one-dollar bills into Sullivan's hand, the band feebly tries to protest — a rip-off, an outrage! The caustic bartender takes the opportunity to lean over and comment. “Like I said, punk rocker no play or deserve shit!” he says, and breaks into a cackling laugh. Chris Sullivan looks at everyone and smiles. “We’ll make it up tomorrow in Santa Barbara,” he says half-heartedly. McLain burps and laughs. “Well, it could be worse, but I don’t know how.”
As the equipment is packed away in Nowell’s van and we gather together on the sidewalk for the trip to Beverly Hills and a night of fitful, uncomfortable sleep, crushed together on the floor of the studio apartment, I pull a fortune cookie from my shirt pocket. The message inside could not be more prophetic: “A tiresome, eventful journey awaits you.”
By 11:00 a.m. the next morning, the Penetrators’ World Tour ’79 is again on the road, this time in search of cheap eats. But the hunt proves to be fruitless, and we end up paying almost five dollars apiece for breakfast plates no better than what we could have had at McDonald’s for under two dollars. After the bill is paid, the band is forced to digest yet another bit of bad news. “Guess what,” Sullivan says, “We got canceled in Santa Barbara.” He had just phoned the Fu-Bar to confirm the time of their sound check, only to be told that the top-billed group, San Francisco’s Readymades, had dropped out, and since it was a “package deal,” the Penetrators were out too. Sullivan moans slightly and says they’d expected to do well there, maybe $150 for the single show. Heffern is adamant. "Let's go anyway. If we just show up and tell ’em we didn't know it was canceled, maybe they'll let us play." McLain sidles up to me and snakes an arm around my shoulder. "Steve," he says sweetly, "we're really glad you're here. ”
The decision is made to head for Santa Barbara and reconsider things there. Windows are opened. My head reclines on my suitcase-cum-pillow. I finally feel I am genuinely slumming. For the first lime in two days I am comfortable. The only thing I'm worried about is McLain's reminder to all that I am the only member of this troupe with more than a hundred dollars on his person. Surely these guys wouldn't. . . . McLain, though, I'm not so sure about. Knowing something about his past. I have to wonder.
He was once the student body vice-president of Grossmont High School, but was booted out after a long string of rows with the principal and students who didn't appreciate his flair for the outrageous. The coup de grace came about as a result of his refusal to stand at attention during an assembly while the "Star Spangled Banner” was being played. He laughs about it now, and almost apologizes, saying, "You gotta remember that a lot of stupid stuff like that seemed important then. ”
His first band was the Screaming Chicken, in 1970; his second was Queenie, in 1972. At the time he was a keyboard player (he’s only been at the drums for two years), and the groups bombed.
Steady employment has also been elusive. He hung on for two years working the graveyard shift at a 7-Eleven, but was eventually fired, he was told, “for lacking the 7-Eleven spirit." He was an original partner in Monty Rockers, a record store specializing in independently released and out-of-print singles and imports, but relinquished his share in the venture because the business squabbles were no longer "fun." He is unemployed at the moment, except for work with the Penetrators and occasional jobs with another local band, the Crawdaddys. McLain describes himself as “an advocate of cigarette smoking, alcoholism, a divorce, a cross to bear for my parents, and anything else you want to make up that will make me look bad.”
For The Penetrators, this journey really began in the winter of 1977, when Chris Sullivan placed a classified ad in this paper. He was looking for a guitar player who could join with him to form a group that would play oldies hits. A musician named Scott Harrington answered the ad, and when he and Sullivan found themselves to be compatible, another ad was placed — this time for a singer and a drummer. Gary Heffern offered his services as a singer, but Harrington wasn't completely happy with Heffern’s talents. Sullivan liked him, though, and in January of 1978 Heffern officially became lead singer for the new group. Auditions for a drummer dragged on for three months; McLain was finally selected.
Initially, there had been no intention to pursue new-wave music, but Harrington's enthusiasm for it prevailed, and almost by default the group developed a musical identity. (The name was chosen because it sounded "tough and sexual.”) Their first paying job took place in the recreation room of the Sea Colony Inn in Ocean Beach. After that came fraternity parties at SDSU, private parties in La Jolla, summertime gigs at Abbey Road, Glorietta Bay Park, and the North Park Lions Club.
Within a few months, however, Heffern and McLain were not getting along well with Harrington. The tensions worsened, and in December of last year Harrington left the group just three days before they were to open for the Ramones at San Diego State's Montezuma Hall. They called on guitarist Chris Davies, an old friend of Heffern’s and an avid follower of the group. A native San Diegan who had been playing guitar since he was fourteen. Davies had decided about a year before to make whatever living he could by playing music. The timing was perfect. From recordings he had made of Penetrators' concerts, he already knew most of the repertoire, and the Ramones concert came off without a hitch. In fact, it was a tremendous success.
The tail end of summer is beautiful. Framed by the rear window of Sullivan's car, the skies are clear, clean, aqua blue; the hills and cliffs are camel backs, perfectly sculpted; the highway to Santa Barbara is free of speed-freak crazies. Looking to my left, all I can think of is how gorgeous the ocean is, a flawless, curved piece of painted glass. We pull into a Santa Barbara gas station to fill up. When the last car is ready, no one moves, no engines start. What now?
"Burrppp!” offers Dan McLain. "Let's get some food and get ripped. We're not gonna play tonight.”
There is no argument. McLain fishes out his food stamps and we walk across the street to the Food Basket. Everyone seems to be taking this latest setback in stride, but I wonder, how do they feel, really? I'll never understand musicians. They do not care how bad they look in the eyes of their peers, elders, or the media; they will do exactly what they want, when and where they want. They are a special breed of professionals: amateurs who don't realize they are professionals.
Hamburgers versus foot-long hot dogs, romaine lettuce versus head lettuce, pastry versus fruit, beer versus two quarts of tequila. Why not? We have nothing to do but get loaded. After some deliberation, we accept Sullivan's suggestion that we sleep tonight at Pismo Beach. This will aid us in making better time to Sacramento. We'll camp out on the beach, eat, drink a bit, then get up at dawn and leave. Aside from having nowhere else to go, Pismo seems like a good idea because it is Heffern's twenty-fifth birthday and everyone is excited at the thought of celebrating with a drunken beach party. Still, it is not comforting to think that the group's limited resources are going to be stretched to the breaking point.
The beach party is a lot of fun. We drink, eat, drink, and are merry until the rapidly falling temperature forces us to concentrate on avoiding pneumonia. In the course of the evening we join forces at least four times to push each automobile out of the sand, drunkenly try to best each other with our knowledge of old rock and roll hits, brave the freezing temperature of the ocean at 3:00 a m. because McLain keeps insisting that it's "bitchin',” and. finally, bed down — Call and Charlene in their car; McLain and Cheri in their double sleeping bag; Davies in the back scat of Sullivan's car; Heffern in Sullivan's driver's seat, his forehead resting on the steering wheel; Peter Nowell in a straightjacket position amid the group's equipment in his van; Sullivan atop the van. I have a soft, silken mattress. I place an issue of someone's Los Angeles porno paper down on the fine, smooth sand as a bottom sheet, and use the latest Rolling Stone for a blanket. As I turn on my stomach and taste sand. McLain offers a goodnight salute. “Hey, Steve, there's a couple of copies of the Reader in one of the cars if you need a pillow.”
With red eyes, foul breath, unwashed bodies, and diminished expectations, we forge on to Sacramento, supposedly a four-hour drive from Pismo Beach. But several wild chases for gasoline result in a late arrival. Since Jim Call’s parents live in Sacramento, there will be two less bodies to worry about sheltering tor the night. As we roll into the parking lot of a Motel 6, two problems arise: how to sneak seven people into two double rooms, and more important, how to pay for them. The first problem comes to little consequence: the management doesn’t take a head count. The second one is a bit more complicated. I pay for the rooms. I don't doubt that someday I will be repaid in full, but I am tempted to suggest that we search for a nearby cow pasture. Thirty-seven dollars seems a high price for a shower. (Why do they call it Motel 6? Was there actually a time when they charged six dollars a night?)
Upon arriving at Slick Willy’s, a beer-and-peanuts bar purported to be the most popular rock spot in Brown town, we see that it has a depressingly familiar look to it — the Boll Weevil with a stage, Mom’s Saloon with a dinner menu. The only thing even marginally noteworthy is the graffiti scrawled on the dressing room wall: "I hate art bands”: "Rock and roll is here to get laid”; "This band's girlfriends have brown teeth.”
Heffern cannot wait to take the stage. If he were an athlete, he would surely win his team's most inspirational player award. The mediocre smattering of applause when they are announced causes mild anxiety among the Penetrators, but they perform before these strangers with the same aplomb they show in front of the well-known faces at the North Park Lions Club. The lack of attention early in the set doesn't detract from the music’s blistering tension. This time, Heffern’s jump from the bridge is as melodramatically effective as he intends it to be, and during (he encore. a number of natives are stirred up enough to discard their beers and tree peanuts and Hop around to their hearts' content.
The moment Heffern walks in my direction, I know what he's going to ask, so I beat him to it. I give him the high sign as he draws near "You did it. You were great.”
Jim Call, whose Mormon parents consented to attend the concert but did not promise to remain, are nowhere to be found. Their early departure doesn’t seem to bother Call: in fact, he's amused. "Oh, well.” he shrugs. "I was surprised they came at all. I hope they admired my dynamic stage presence, heh, heh.”
One of the main reasons I joined the World Tour was to determine the Penetrators' standing in the western division of the new-wave league. The two bands preceding them — Suspect, from Davis, and Sumner, from Los Angeles — are flaccid by comparison. Suspect is not really bad: they have a clean, sunny, pop sound and a cute, effervescent female vocalist. But this sort of bubble-gum punk (which includes bands such as Blondie and The Knack) becomes cloying awfully fast. It is processed sugar for the ears. Sumner is punk fusion: well-trained session players who, not willing to take chances, mix a bit of everything—Allman Brothers, Eagles, Beautiful Day, Talking Heads—under the guise of being versatile. If the perpetration of boredom were a crime, these two bands would stand guilty.
Sumner is finishing a languid set as McLain, Cheri, and I return in anticipation of learning about the night’s profits. “Goddamn!” says McLain as he listens in disgust to Sumner. “It doesn’t make any sense to me that bands like this are called new wave. Some of those things they’re doing might have been new when the guys ripped off did them, but now?” Sumner’s two guitarists are running through the crowd, bumping into each other and getting themselves entangled in their guitar cords. “Come on,” McLain says, whirling around, “by now Sullivan ought to know how much we got.”
Indeed. Sullivan is directly behind us staring blankly. In his hand is the evening’s take — 48 dollars.
“What? How’d the hell they figure that one?” demands McLain.
“It’s a three-way split,” says Sullivan, “but it still doesn’t seem right. What sort of tab did we run up? Damn it, get Gary; this can’t be right.”
The three storm to the front of the club, ready to do battle with the manager. Chris Davies retains his composure, undisturbed, as if he figured that arriving with nothing and leaving with nothing means he’s breaking even. But the show of strength is pointless: even the stars of the night, Sumner, receive only ten dollars more. In three days the Penetrators have earned a total of fifty dollars. Each member has traveled close to 700 miles to make ten bucks a man. This time Chris Sullivan doesn’t attempt to ease the disappointment by promising that they’ll make it up in San Francisco; he looks positively guilty. But as the other paupers in our party dig up loose change for a six-pack of beer, the bitterness becomes resignation.
In his book Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Norman Mailer wrote that “San Francisco is a lady.” I don’t believe there could be a more precise description. Whenever I am in this city, I experience a sensual jolt. It is urbane yet pastoral, bustling yet demure, brutal but elegant. We cross over the Oakland Bay Bridge, and for the first time on the tour, I’m sad that it won’t continue much longer.
The magic dissipates as we drive into the parking lot of the Conquistador Motel in San Bruno, a bedroom community about twelve miles south of the city and close to the airport. This time the scenario is even more humorous and complex than it has been the last four days. Peter Nowell’s grandmother, who lives in San Bruno, has paid the Conquistador for two rooms in advance, an act of generosity (mercy?) for which we will all be forever grateful. But just in case, Sullivan and Nowell have hatched another scheme to save us money. Sullivan parks off to the side of the motel and somberly details the plan. The Penetrators are not scheduled to play until the next day, which means there's an extra night of cash out and no cash in.
"Steve, to save money, we're going to trade two rooms for one room, so we'll have a place to sleep two nights. Now, in case that can't be done, you have enough to cover, right?"
I don't say no, but I don't say yes, either.
"Good. Now, you, me, and Peter are going to the office and act like we're the ones renting the room. Things are probably taken care of, but if not, you have about a hundred? Okay. Good."
Luckily, there is no problem juggling the reservations. Now comes the difficult part. How are we going to keep the human traffic unnoticed by the managers? The rest of the crew, who have remained in their cars and out of sight, is instructed to wait until the three of us have our belongings squared away. Then, casually, quietly, one-by-one, they can come in. We are to avoid unnecessary outdoor trips. When desiring entry, we must knock, pause, then knock twice again. And the last one inside at night must post the Do Not Disturb sign on the door.
Once inside, with danger behind us, rock and roll restlessness sets in. "Let's go to the city right now." I suggest.
"What are you in such a hurry for?" asks McLain. "Why can't we just rest here for a while and go get some food later and go downtown tonight?"
"Yeah." says Heffern. “I’d kind of like to reserve my energy."
What's this? I think to myself. The Penetrators want to . . . mellow out?
The idea is to collect the evening's meal with the remainder of McLain's food stamps and enjoy a pleasant sunset picnic at a nearby playground. After an hour and a half of television (including a re-run episode of The Monkees), I stealthily, surreptitiously poke my head out the door to see if the coast is clear. We quickly pile into Nowell's van.
"I feel like we're starring in an update of A Hard Day's Night." fantasizes Heffern. "Steve, check out the window and see if any of those thousands of screaming groupies spotted us."
Spending time at the park makes me feel as if we are committing an unpardonable sin. We shouldn't be standing here in a sandbox devouring half-raw hamburgers when the big city beckons us. It is somewhat disconcerting to see these intense, aggressive, badass punk rockers playing clumsy games of horse, arcing back and forth on children’s’ swings, and tossing sand on a slide to ensure a swift descent.
Our itinerary in San Francisco begins with window shopping, and I really don't mind following Sullivan and Nowell as they scout for a pair of Beatle boots, or watching Heffern and Davies stand at the window of a posh restaurant and stare ravenously at intimidated couples who pretend not to notice. I don't even mind risking cardiac arrest by joining the whole group in a furious charge down a long alley in order to frighten strolling lovers at the opposite end. Considering where I am and what I might otherwise be doing, this isn't at all a bad way to pass the time.
The Mabuhuy Philippine Gardens, located on North Beach's upper-Broadway skin strip, is another of those numerous restaurants, which, seeking a novel method of heeling up profits, decided a few years ago to do double duty as a new-wave. This place enjoys a relatively lofty reputation in the punk community: a number of well-knowing acts have performed here at early stages in their careers, and among musicians it is looked upon as one of those make-or-break showcases.
We walk in for the sound check while rehearsal for a skit is taking place. The club's manager, Dirk Dirksen, who is generally considered to be a first-class jerk, is to be honored by a local punk-theater group. While the actors work out their arcane routine. The Penetrators set up for the sound check and are loudly, gruffly informed by the middle-aged Dirksen of their place on the bill. “You guys are second, after The Aggravators, or The Reactors — whoever the hell. I don't give a damn. Got it?"
The Mabuhay is only half full as the show begins. The opening act, the Reactors, clock out after only twenty minutes, but even that seems too long. Those who deride new wave as inept garage-band garbage probably have this sort of unit in mind. I become discouraged about it myself when rank amateurs like the Reactors have the gall to go onstage. The same goes for the featured group. Next, a heavy-metal trio with expensive hardware and tuxedos, but little else. I am losing any sense of what is implied by the term “new wave." Too often it is a handy catch-all phrase for poseurs who have meager technical skills and no direction but still think they deserve an audience. At the Mabuhay, however, the Penetrators again manage to bolster my confidence, and they clearly win over the skeptical, jaundiced crowd.
I am not surprised to find that the evening’s percentage, about fifty dollars, although more than they have received thus far on the tour, is hardly enough to alleviate the band's monetary woes. Heffern, who is used to being broke, could care less. “I don't worry about that. Hey, we killed 'em. Did you hear 'em hinting us when they heard where we were from? Well, they weren't booing at the end. Some guy who was booing told me that he only does that to bands he thinks are great so that they'll push harder. That's the stuff that counts: money will follow later."
Money had better follow soon. I don't imagine that every time they travel (hey want to play cat-and-mouse games at motels. We go through our routine once more at the Conquistador in San Bruno, and no one misses a beat. The Do Not Disturb sign is in place within two minutes. This is my last night (tomorrow The Penetrators share the bill with two popular San Francisco bands. The Dead Kennedys and the Go Go's and the boys have parting questions and instructions. McLain is first to articulate the most important one.
"Well, Steve, what arc you gonna say about us? You gonna write how the relentlessly savage rock of the Penetrators discouraged the other bands so much they gave it up? Hah! Burrpp!"
“What would you do if I say you guys bombed?”
“We'd tie you down and kick your teeth in.”
“No,” Sullivan says. “We'd tell everyone at home you became a heroin addict.”
After a few more stimulating farewell shots, I cuddle up on what has been my regular mattress all week: the ground.
Morning arrives, and as I leave, the Penetrators are barely conscious enough to offer their good-byes. It is an anticlimactic bon voyage. On the flight to San Diego, as I stare out the window, my eyes transfixed on PSA Flight 130's left wing, I have only one comfortable moment. I discover that, without realizing it, the Penetrators' World Tour '79 has indeed left me corrupted. I down my morning Bloody Mary too fast and what do you suppose emanates from my throat? A reverberating burrrpp! that Dan McLain might be proud of.