Front Porch

Gary Heffern: Where Sun Diego Meets the North Pole

The Penetrators back in the day: Gary Heffern, Chris Davies, Jim Call, Chris Sullivan, Dan McLain.

Gary Heffern today.

Penetrators’ Reunion a few years back: Jim Call, Joel Kmak, Chris Sullivan, Heffern, Chris Davies.

Question: who’s flying in from the tundra of Finland to visit the boys and girls of San Diego this winter? I’m sure many said “Santa Claus” because, yes, Santa does live in northern Finland. Don’t believe me? Just visit Santa’s Village in Rovaniemi in the Arctic Circle. But, unfortunately, “Santa Claus” is not the correct answer.

“Gary Heffern” is the correct answer. Yes, Gary is coming to town for a Penetrators’ reunion at the Casbah on Friday, January 18. The show is sold out!

The reunion came together as part of the Casbah’s 30th Anniversary celebrations, which lasts the entire month of January. But it also has special meaning because this, according to Gary, will be the last time he performs on stage.

Actually, Gary will be performing a second show at the Casbah, titled Gary Heffern’s Last Waltz, on Monday, January 28. But these two shows will be the last opportunities to see Gary performing live. “I need to do the second show to help pay for the trip,” says Gary on the phone from his snowy home. “Tim Mays helped with expenses. But I still need to make some money to get back home.”

The Penetrators, of course, are San Diego’s preeminent punk rock band. Formed in 1978 with Gary Heffern playing the vocal chords, the Pens found fast yet fleeting national fame. They also held court locally as San Diego’s best band as Punk was breaking in San Diego on the heels of New York and London.

The Pens seminal influence was felt throughout the 1980s as its members went on to form new bands. Most notably, Penetrator drummer Dan McLain morphed into Country Dick Montana and created the Cow Punk sensation, the Beat Farmers. The Pens roster remains a who’s—who of the San Diego music scene: Chris Sullivan, Chris Davies, Scott Harrington, Joel Kmak, Joyce Rooks, Jim Call, and Steve Kelly. In its heyday, the band opened for the Ramones at SDSU’s old Montezuma Hall. They were also comfortable as headliners and once had Dick Dale open for them. The Pens would inspire many locals to shoot higher, including then-high school student and San Diegan Eddie Vedder. The Penetrators finally parted ways in 1984.

So the Penetrators stopped, well, penetrating for 25 years until the Casbah’s 20th anniversary in 2009 when they performed their first reunion show. Various reunions have taken place since and the band was given the Country Dick Montana Lifetime Achievement Award by the San Diego Music Awards in 2011.

“We’re a good machine,” Gary adds. With the rest of the band still in San Diego and Gary living near the North Pole, rehearsal time is usually sparse. But everything falls into place quickly just as it did 40 years ago. “The set list for the January show may surprise some people,” says Gary.

After the Penetrators, Gary Heffern embarked on a solo career that resulted in several albums. He’s recorded and performed with Peter Buck of REM, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Mudhoney, the MC5, and that former high school student he so greatly influenced: Eddie Vedder. His song “Blackberry Wine” became a hit in Germany as covered by Andrea Schroeder.

Gary Heffern’s Last Waltz promises to be a smorgasbord. Gary will be performing songs from throughout his 40-year career. And he’ll be reading poetry. The show also features Ray Brandes, Cindy Lee Berryhill, David Doyle, David Fleminger, Victor Penalosa, Kevin Ring, Manual Scan, the Dils, and the Executives. All of the artists will be performing their own work and some will be joining Gary on stage throughout the evening. Gary Heffern’s Last Waltz is dedicated to creating “love, human kindness, and to get people to stop hating each other,” says Gary. In today’s volcanic political environment, who’s going to argue?

With Gary still in Finland (he flies into San Diego toward the middle of January), rehearsals for the show have depended on modern technology and cyber space. “We did a set list early. And now we’re sending songs around using Dropbox. We’re rehearsing individually with me in Finland.”

Then, once January 28th rolls around, Gary will be returning to his native Finland, this time for good. (By the way, if anyone is interested in Gary’s incredible life story, the film documentary Sweet Kisses from Mommy discusses how young Veli-Matti Tervaniemi was adopted by American parents and brought to the United States. His name was changed to “Gary.”)

Yet those Finnish winters have an allure. And Gary chose decades later to re-adopt the country of his birth. “I’m close to paying off my house. Medical insurance is much cheaper there. A recent car accident has slowed me down. So I want to retire. The time is right.”

Penetrators Reunion, Casbah, 2501 Kettner Blvd., Friday January 18, 8pm Sold Out.
Gary Heffern’s Last Waltz, Casbah, Monday, January 28.

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