Chris Sullivan: “I grew up in Yonkers and the Bronx. Talk about style and attitude...”
The rough cut of Eric Rife’s rockumentary Garageland begins with the shrill alarm of “Walk the Beat” by the Penetrators. And rightly so — some local rock historians say that the Penetrators, in 1978, were the start of San Diego’s original music scene, a time that the as-yet-unfinished Garageland hopes to document.
In 1977, the original Penetrators were singer Gerry 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. The big break never came for the Penetrators, and by 1984 the band was finished.
I talked to Chris Sullivan.
1978 was the first time that you guys opened for the Ramones at Montezuma Hall, 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.”
Violent outbursts and insurrection followed whenever the Penetrators were on a bill. Did it ever get out of control to the point that you were scared?
“No, I always felt like we were the ringmasters. The wildest time may have been a show at the California Theatre with the Ramones. The cops came with riot gear and dogs. We were ushered down under the stage and out a side door into waiting cars.”
What was going through your mind?
“I was thinking, Cool. This is like a Beatles movie.”
The Pens had big fans in Steve Esmedina, the Reader music critic at that time, and Jim McInnes, who was a DJ at KGB FM and a supporter of local bands.
“Jim first came to see us the first time we played with the Ramones. He loved the music and was, and is, a sharp wit. I kept after him, trying to get a job at the radio station. He finally said to just come on down to the station and talk to some people. I don’t miss many opportunities, so I came to the station and talked myself into a job.”
You worked there when I did…and for the life of me, I can’t remember what it is you did.
“At first it was market research, and then I went on to giving station tours, working promotions, driving the van, and eventually pulling some on-air shifts.”
The Pens had another fan named Eddie Vedder, who was in high school at the time. Did he ever help roadie your band’s gear? As I recall, he hung around the clubs and had played in a band called Bad Radio.
“I wish he did; it would have made a great story! I know the show we did at San Dieguito High School left an impression on him [Vedder attended the North County high school; he would later tell a reporter that the Penetrators were an influence]. It was another one of those riot situations.”
I remember you as a sharp-dressed man. This was during a time when everybody else wore jeans and whatever free T-shirt we could mooch from touring bands and record labels.
“I grew up in Yonkers and the Bronx in an Italian, black, and Puerto Rican neighborhood. 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.”
Those zebra boots you wore at SDMA this year — man, where do you shop?
“Most of my clothes I pick up at second-hand stores. The leopard and zebra boots I got from a guy in Mexico. Seems like the Latin culture still likes Cuban heels and pointed toes.”
When the Penetrators did come back together, how did it feel to be playing your songs 30 years later?
“It felt like we didn’t miss a beat. I love the guys, and the songs hold up.”
You guys burned it up…you could have coasted….
“When I was a kid, I read a story about Joe DiMaggio. A sports writer asked him, ‘Why did you try to stretch a single into a double, risking injury during a game that the Yankees were sure to win?’ He said there could be some kid in the stands who never saw him play. That has always stuck with me…there might be somebody who has never seen me play.” ■