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"Everyone thought we were sellouts" - the Penetrators' punk POV

Gary Heffern recalls San Diego’s punk heyday of the late 70s and early 80s

An interview with Gary Heffern of the the Penetrators.

What are your best, worst, and oddest stories of playing San Diego over the years?

The best times were the early days, people don't realize the hours of rehearsal and also how many parties and benefits we did. I used to get so nervous before shows that I would throw up. Even before the parties etc. the night we played the Catamaran, Dan (Country Dick Montana ) and I were on our usual walks after soundcheck and he said to me "You know, maybe it will help you get over your nerves if you think like I do, I think it's amazing and kinda funny that now we are finally getting paid to show off." I burst out laughing, he burped, and I never threw up again.

The Skeleton Club show was the first one we sold out, where the police came in and shut down the show. This was right after opening for the Ramones. There was the riot after the Unknowns and Dick Dale show, people lighting trash cans on fire. We were blown away that that too sold out, same thing with the Del Mar Fairgrounds, when we got there I was stunned to see how large the venue was.

It was great also to bring the Meat Puppets to open for us, as we had done a few shows with them in Arizona. They showed up high on acid, and it was at the Bacchanal and people did not know what to think of them. We did a lot of shows with the Plimsouls and the Plugz, and took the Paladins with us to Arizona on one of our tours. I was lucky enough to meet so many great bands as I spent a month in L.A. when I worked for the phone company and they sent me up there for pole climbing school. So I was out every night checking out bands. John and Exene [of the band X] were always really nice to me, and insisted that I come inside to a Germs, Mau-Maus, and Go-Go's show on Halloween at the Hotel Roosevelt. There were maybe 30-40 people at the show, and the lead singer from the Mau-Maus jumped up on stage and hit Darby Crash and knocked him to the floor.

Poetry reading with LUIS GÜEREÑA VIVE, Roger Pinnell, Keith Morris, John Doe, and Greg Hetson, photo by Peggy Sue Amison

Also, I started doing poetry - actually pretty bad stuff - and [Casbah owner] Tim Mays put me on shows with Jim Carroll, Nina Hagen, and Rob from the Street Scene had me open for the Art Ensemble of Chicago at the La Jolla Fine Arts theatre - I could be wrong in the venue. A group of us did a poetry reading at the Lions Club with John Doe, Keith Morris, Greg Hetson, Luis Guerena, and Roger Pinnell. We played with so many bands and really tried to mix it up. Also, I was and still am such a huge fan of music of all kinds. Most of the stuff I listen to is still friends from back in those days.

The worst part of it all was obviously my own self-destructive ways and too many drugs. I got down to less than 100 pounds, and remember being at a dance club sitting with Bob Bennett. I had done some heroin, and was waiting and looking out for someone who had some coke. He said to me bluntly "You are turning into a parody of yourself." I was living with Mojo Nixon and told him I was at wits' end. He pulled out a map and said "If I was you Gary, I would close my eyes and just point my finger and, wherever it lands, go there and get yourself right?" I remember I was crying and said "Okay Mojo." My finger hit Seattle, so I called the Penetrators and said one last show, and gave everything I had away and went up there with 40 bucks in my pocket. A whole new start.

Heffern in Del Mar, photo by Eric Rife

What are your best, worst, and oddest stories of playing all over the world?

We did a tour with the Walkabouts in Europe, right after they signed with Virgin, and they were on MTV in every hotel room we stayed at. The shows were in halls and theatres that held 1,000-2000 people and every show was sold out. Their tour bus had a virus in it which caused them to cancel one show and have to fly out one of their members, because she was too sick to be driven. Peter Blackstock was doing an article on them for No Depression magazine, and had stayed on the bus with them, and the night I showed up he stayed with me in my hotel room. I have never seen anyone as sick as he was those nights. We had to take the Autobahn to go to a gig, and there is no place to pull off to the side, and he was green almost all the way there. I mean, for a couple of hours at least, it was insane.

And our schedule was ruthless, I think we had ten shows and then finally one day off. We were about three days into the tour, and we had a solo show in Hamburg at Knust. So I played for three hours. Actually ended up singing "Kumbaya," with members of my band and also folks from the Walkabouts sitting in. I got back to the hotel and, the minute we got back, I had a cup of tea and then started throwing up. We did every show, but the band had to do soundchecks without me because I was so sick, but I did every interview, and every show. Luckily, we had a driver, and he would pick me up and deliver me to the venue, wait for me to get off stage, and take me right back to the hotel. That was the routine.

The audiences in Europe on that tour were so odd. The Walkabouts actually had a pretty big goth following, but you could hear a pin drop. People really came to listen and were so polite. Then we had to fly back to Austin to play SXSW, and got stuck in NYC as two different planes had problems. We ended up having to take a flight to Milwaukee and put up in a hotel room that smelled like an AA meeting, so much smoke. Arrived around 1 am, and had to catch a 5 am flight to Austin, and play that night. I had a wonderful band and they soldiered through it all. We still crack up talking about the bus from hell! Another highlight was sitting in with Mudhoney in Helsinki, you can find that on YouTube. I have made friends all over the world, many of them musicians, and some have been recording my songs!

Heffern with Mudhoney in Helsinki, photo by Danny Baird

Which years did you spend in San Diego? When did you arrive, and when did you leave?

I was adopted to San Diego, arrived July 8, 1958, left on Christmas Eve of 1984.

What were the biggest changes in San Diego over the time you lived there, musical and non?

When hardcore kicked in, the innocence and joy of just being yourself became lost. We lost a lot of fans during that time, as we were playing bigger places, and everyone thought we were sellouts, so I was surprised to see all the original folks come out to our reunion shows. It was a wonderful feeling to reconnect with all those folks. I keep in touch with many of them. It was great to do a Sunday afternoon show and have Robert Turman from Non joined by Peter Zo, and see a reunion of Black Tango, and Cindy Lee Berryhill as well, and have a good crowd for an afternoon show. I am so happy now that bands like the Dinettes, the Zeros, and Executives are still playing, and of course the Battalion of Saints are still marching on. Also was thrilled to have the Dils on my last show. I followed some of the bands in the 90s like Drip Tank and Fluf and Rocket From the Crypt and really enjoyed them. One thing that surprised me was that people were actually listening to the singer-songwriters and rocking out to the rockers. I just simply love music. Honestly.

What are your final-summary thoughts on your band, the Penetrators? What were your favorite and least-favorite things about them?

Every day, I think about Dan. Every single day. I loved him so much. My God what a character. I still remember how, at the end of every set, he would kick over his drum kit and I would be dodging cymbals and mic stands. I am grinning just thinking about that. Scott Harrington had such a big sound, and he and Chris Sullivan were so tight, and I was scared shitless trying out for them. I was not a very good singer - still not! - but they gave me the chance to write some original songs and it was just us. Dan came a couple of months later, when I was at his store and was approached by two guys, Paul Sansone and Mad Marc Rude, who said they wanted to interview the Penetrators for a fanzine they were starting.

I asked Dan if he played drums or could at least fake it at a rehearsal with Sully and Scott, and he sat in and it worked! And then we started playing parties and shows right away. We got offered to open for Bob Marley at the Sports Arena, as he had just put out his "Punky Reggae Party" single and wanted a punk band to open, but Scott didn't feel we were ready. The rest of us wanted to do it...aack!

Then we were offered the Ramones show and, again, Scott felt that we weren't good enough. But the rest of us were bull-headed, and I had heard Chris Davies from the T-Birds, and asked him if he wanted to do the show, it was in two weeks. Fortunately, he had seen us and, unbeknown to me, had recorded us live and knew a bunch of the songs. But the same day I asked him, we sat and wrote, I think, 4-5 new songs in his bedroom. Those included "Sensitive Boy." I LOVE his sound, his spirit and his profound love of music. Sully is flat out one of the best bass players in the world. We were recording "Sensitive Boy" in the studio, and I kept hearing this wooshing sound in the beginning, and thought of asking Jim call to do some synth sounds on it. All of a sudden he was in the band. He has the rare ability to pull sounds out of nowhere. And I loved and missed his saxophone playing these last few years. Joyce Rooks I have always considered a Penetrator as well, a secret weapon to pull out, and audiences love her. Joel Kmak is an absolute treasure to play with, he's a monster drummer, and always smiling. It blew me away when I came back to do the Country Dick benefit after not playing with them for so long to see and actually listen to how tight they all were.

I always felt like I was the least musical, and they would have been worldwide with a better singer. But, hey, I do the best I can. Unfortunately, the last few times I have played there, I have had the flu. It seems the flu season arrives there just before I fly in. We had two rehearsals before the last show, and both Sully and I were sick as a dog by the end of the set. They had to pick me up off the floor to do a photo together. The whole town had that bug. I am really proud of the fact that Chris and Chris are playing together as the Flophouse Playboys, I've been checking out some of their videos, and the songs they are covering are wonderful. Also, I was so happy to see that Sully and Joel are with Jerry Raney as the Farmers. It's a perfect fit. I just wish I could have seen them live.

My least favorite thing about them was the way I left them. The first thing I did when we got together for the first time in 20 years was apologize to them. I am a fan of all of them both musically, and individually. I love them to death.

Heffern opening for Iggy Pop at the Roxy in Pacific Beach, photo by Liz Coleman

Anything else?

Playing shows with Iggy Pop, Oingo Boingo, Romeo Void, B-52's, four shows at the Roxy in L.A. with Robert Gordon, the Masque with Middle Class and Rubber City Rebels, and headlining at the Whiskey A Go-Go. I would stand on those stages during soundchecks and think of the bands and people who played those stages and think to myself "I'm standing right here right now and by the end of the night my sweat will be left on the same stage as Jim Morrison, and Arthur Lee, and Bruce Springsteen." At the Robert Gordon show, Mick Jagger and Ron Wood showed up with Marisa Berenson. Also, we played an after prom show with the Paladins, and the Clash showed up. I had broken my leg, and throughout the set Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon kept messing with my cane. They invited us to their two-night stand with the English Beat, but I could not make it to those shows. Sully I think hung out with Stummer a bit during their stay. In Seattle, I did shows with Siouxsie and the Banshees, Dave Alvin, and Jeff Buckley.

Do you ever visit San Diego? If so, your thoughts?

Every time I have come there, it has been pretty much work 24/7. I have enjoyed seeing old friends, but really have missed having quality time with them. That's what I plan to do when I get back just visit. See some shows and go to the beach and do some bodysurfing. I am so grateful to the friends I have and love each and every one of them. I know the world is spinning out of control. And time is going so fast. And so many dying, or hurting. I want to come back and spend some time just sitting and talking and laughing and crying and fucking hugging every one of you.

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“When hardcore kicked in, the innocence and joy of just being yourself became lost. We lost a lot of fans during that time as we were playing bigger places, and everyone thought we were ‘sellouts.’”
“When hardcore kicked in, the innocence and joy of just being yourself became lost. We lost a lot of fans during that time as we were playing bigger places, and everyone thought we were ‘sellouts.’”

An interview with Gary Heffern of the the Penetrators.

What are your best, worst, and oddest stories of playing San Diego over the years?

The best times were the early days, people don't realize the hours of rehearsal and also how many parties and benefits we did. I used to get so nervous before shows that I would throw up. Even before the parties etc. the night we played the Catamaran, Dan (Country Dick Montana ) and I were on our usual walks after soundcheck and he said to me "You know, maybe it will help you get over your nerves if you think like I do, I think it's amazing and kinda funny that now we are finally getting paid to show off." I burst out laughing, he burped, and I never threw up again.

The Skeleton Club show was the first one we sold out, where the police came in and shut down the show. This was right after opening for the Ramones. There was the riot after the Unknowns and Dick Dale show, people lighting trash cans on fire. We were blown away that that too sold out, same thing with the Del Mar Fairgrounds, when we got there I was stunned to see how large the venue was.

It was great also to bring the Meat Puppets to open for us, as we had done a few shows with them in Arizona. They showed up high on acid, and it was at the Bacchanal and people did not know what to think of them. We did a lot of shows with the Plimsouls and the Plugz, and took the Paladins with us to Arizona on one of our tours. I was lucky enough to meet so many great bands as I spent a month in L.A. when I worked for the phone company and they sent me up there for pole climbing school. So I was out every night checking out bands. John and Exene [of the band X] were always really nice to me, and insisted that I come inside to a Germs, Mau-Maus, and Go-Go's show on Halloween at the Hotel Roosevelt. There were maybe 30-40 people at the show, and the lead singer from the Mau-Maus jumped up on stage and hit Darby Crash and knocked him to the floor.

Poetry reading with LUIS GÜEREÑA VIVE, Roger Pinnell, Keith Morris, John Doe, and Greg Hetson, photo by Peggy Sue Amison

Also, I started doing poetry - actually pretty bad stuff - and [Casbah owner] Tim Mays put me on shows with Jim Carroll, Nina Hagen, and Rob from the Street Scene had me open for the Art Ensemble of Chicago at the La Jolla Fine Arts theatre - I could be wrong in the venue. A group of us did a poetry reading at the Lions Club with John Doe, Keith Morris, Greg Hetson, Luis Guerena, and Roger Pinnell. We played with so many bands and really tried to mix it up. Also, I was and still am such a huge fan of music of all kinds. Most of the stuff I listen to is still friends from back in those days.

The worst part of it all was obviously my own self-destructive ways and too many drugs. I got down to less than 100 pounds, and remember being at a dance club sitting with Bob Bennett. I had done some heroin, and was waiting and looking out for someone who had some coke. He said to me bluntly "You are turning into a parody of yourself." I was living with Mojo Nixon and told him I was at wits' end. He pulled out a map and said "If I was you Gary, I would close my eyes and just point my finger and, wherever it lands, go there and get yourself right?" I remember I was crying and said "Okay Mojo." My finger hit Seattle, so I called the Penetrators and said one last show, and gave everything I had away and went up there with 40 bucks in my pocket. A whole new start.

Heffern in Del Mar, photo by Eric Rife

What are your best, worst, and oddest stories of playing all over the world?

We did a tour with the Walkabouts in Europe, right after they signed with Virgin, and they were on MTV in every hotel room we stayed at. The shows were in halls and theatres that held 1,000-2000 people and every show was sold out. Their tour bus had a virus in it which caused them to cancel one show and have to fly out one of their members, because she was too sick to be driven. Peter Blackstock was doing an article on them for No Depression magazine, and had stayed on the bus with them, and the night I showed up he stayed with me in my hotel room. I have never seen anyone as sick as he was those nights. We had to take the Autobahn to go to a gig, and there is no place to pull off to the side, and he was green almost all the way there. I mean, for a couple of hours at least, it was insane.

And our schedule was ruthless, I think we had ten shows and then finally one day off. We were about three days into the tour, and we had a solo show in Hamburg at Knust. So I played for three hours. Actually ended up singing "Kumbaya," with members of my band and also folks from the Walkabouts sitting in. I got back to the hotel and, the minute we got back, I had a cup of tea and then started throwing up. We did every show, but the band had to do soundchecks without me because I was so sick, but I did every interview, and every show. Luckily, we had a driver, and he would pick me up and deliver me to the venue, wait for me to get off stage, and take me right back to the hotel. That was the routine.

The audiences in Europe on that tour were so odd. The Walkabouts actually had a pretty big goth following, but you could hear a pin drop. People really came to listen and were so polite. Then we had to fly back to Austin to play SXSW, and got stuck in NYC as two different planes had problems. We ended up having to take a flight to Milwaukee and put up in a hotel room that smelled like an AA meeting, so much smoke. Arrived around 1 am, and had to catch a 5 am flight to Austin, and play that night. I had a wonderful band and they soldiered through it all. We still crack up talking about the bus from hell! Another highlight was sitting in with Mudhoney in Helsinki, you can find that on YouTube. I have made friends all over the world, many of them musicians, and some have been recording my songs!

Heffern with Mudhoney in Helsinki, photo by Danny Baird

Which years did you spend in San Diego? When did you arrive, and when did you leave?

I was adopted to San Diego, arrived July 8, 1958, left on Christmas Eve of 1984.

What were the biggest changes in San Diego over the time you lived there, musical and non?

When hardcore kicked in, the innocence and joy of just being yourself became lost. We lost a lot of fans during that time, as we were playing bigger places, and everyone thought we were sellouts, so I was surprised to see all the original folks come out to our reunion shows. It was a wonderful feeling to reconnect with all those folks. I keep in touch with many of them. It was great to do a Sunday afternoon show and have Robert Turman from Non joined by Peter Zo, and see a reunion of Black Tango, and Cindy Lee Berryhill as well, and have a good crowd for an afternoon show. I am so happy now that bands like the Dinettes, the Zeros, and Executives are still playing, and of course the Battalion of Saints are still marching on. Also was thrilled to have the Dils on my last show. I followed some of the bands in the 90s like Drip Tank and Fluf and Rocket From the Crypt and really enjoyed them. One thing that surprised me was that people were actually listening to the singer-songwriters and rocking out to the rockers. I just simply love music. Honestly.

What are your final-summary thoughts on your band, the Penetrators? What were your favorite and least-favorite things about them?

Every day, I think about Dan. Every single day. I loved him so much. My God what a character. I still remember how, at the end of every set, he would kick over his drum kit and I would be dodging cymbals and mic stands. I am grinning just thinking about that. Scott Harrington had such a big sound, and he and Chris Sullivan were so tight, and I was scared shitless trying out for them. I was not a very good singer - still not! - but they gave me the chance to write some original songs and it was just us. Dan came a couple of months later, when I was at his store and was approached by two guys, Paul Sansone and Mad Marc Rude, who said they wanted to interview the Penetrators for a fanzine they were starting.

I asked Dan if he played drums or could at least fake it at a rehearsal with Sully and Scott, and he sat in and it worked! And then we started playing parties and shows right away. We got offered to open for Bob Marley at the Sports Arena, as he had just put out his "Punky Reggae Party" single and wanted a punk band to open, but Scott didn't feel we were ready. The rest of us wanted to do it...aack!

Then we were offered the Ramones show and, again, Scott felt that we weren't good enough. But the rest of us were bull-headed, and I had heard Chris Davies from the T-Birds, and asked him if he wanted to do the show, it was in two weeks. Fortunately, he had seen us and, unbeknown to me, had recorded us live and knew a bunch of the songs. But the same day I asked him, we sat and wrote, I think, 4-5 new songs in his bedroom. Those included "Sensitive Boy." I LOVE his sound, his spirit and his profound love of music. Sully is flat out one of the best bass players in the world. We were recording "Sensitive Boy" in the studio, and I kept hearing this wooshing sound in the beginning, and thought of asking Jim call to do some synth sounds on it. All of a sudden he was in the band. He has the rare ability to pull sounds out of nowhere. And I loved and missed his saxophone playing these last few years. Joyce Rooks I have always considered a Penetrator as well, a secret weapon to pull out, and audiences love her. Joel Kmak is an absolute treasure to play with, he's a monster drummer, and always smiling. It blew me away when I came back to do the Country Dick benefit after not playing with them for so long to see and actually listen to how tight they all were.

I always felt like I was the least musical, and they would have been worldwide with a better singer. But, hey, I do the best I can. Unfortunately, the last few times I have played there, I have had the flu. It seems the flu season arrives there just before I fly in. We had two rehearsals before the last show, and both Sully and I were sick as a dog by the end of the set. They had to pick me up off the floor to do a photo together. The whole town had that bug. I am really proud of the fact that Chris and Chris are playing together as the Flophouse Playboys, I've been checking out some of their videos, and the songs they are covering are wonderful. Also, I was so happy to see that Sully and Joel are with Jerry Raney as the Farmers. It's a perfect fit. I just wish I could have seen them live.

My least favorite thing about them was the way I left them. The first thing I did when we got together for the first time in 20 years was apologize to them. I am a fan of all of them both musically, and individually. I love them to death.

Heffern opening for Iggy Pop at the Roxy in Pacific Beach, photo by Liz Coleman

Anything else?

Playing shows with Iggy Pop, Oingo Boingo, Romeo Void, B-52's, four shows at the Roxy in L.A. with Robert Gordon, the Masque with Middle Class and Rubber City Rebels, and headlining at the Whiskey A Go-Go. I would stand on those stages during soundchecks and think of the bands and people who played those stages and think to myself "I'm standing right here right now and by the end of the night my sweat will be left on the same stage as Jim Morrison, and Arthur Lee, and Bruce Springsteen." At the Robert Gordon show, Mick Jagger and Ron Wood showed up with Marisa Berenson. Also, we played an after prom show with the Paladins, and the Clash showed up. I had broken my leg, and throughout the set Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon kept messing with my cane. They invited us to their two-night stand with the English Beat, but I could not make it to those shows. Sully I think hung out with Stummer a bit during their stay. In Seattle, I did shows with Siouxsie and the Banshees, Dave Alvin, and Jeff Buckley.

Do you ever visit San Diego? If so, your thoughts?

Every time I have come there, it has been pretty much work 24/7. I have enjoyed seeing old friends, but really have missed having quality time with them. That's what I plan to do when I get back just visit. See some shows and go to the beach and do some bodysurfing. I am so grateful to the friends I have and love each and every one of them. I know the world is spinning out of control. And time is going so fast. And so many dying, or hurting. I want to come back and spend some time just sitting and talking and laughing and crying and fucking hugging every one of you.

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