Interview with brilliant musician/poet Gary Heffern - stories, memoirs and experiences with beautiful people

"The human struggle is a greater weight than most people realize."

Gary Heffern: 

Unholy Dreams & Holy Lives

Gary Heffern began his career the late seventies as the lead singer of the San Diego band The Penetrators. He's done poetry readings with Jim Carroll, John Doe, Nina Hagen, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Henry Rollins. His first solo album, “Bald Tires in the Rain,” featured artwork by an incredible cadre of his admirers, including John Doe, Mojo Nixon, Country Dick, and Victoria Williams, with music provided by The Walkabouts. His following albums have continued to feature a Who's Who of pop, folk and American roots music. Peter Case, Mark Arm of Mudhoney, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Alejandro Escovedo, Peter Buck of R.E.M. Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees), Scott McCaughey (R.E.M.), Chris and Carla of The Walkabouts, Jim Roth (Built to Spill), Jesse Sykes, and Eric "Roscoe" Amble have all appeared on his albums. The depth and breadth of Heffern’s friends and admirers who join him on his musical journey is a continuing testament to his position as an important songwriter whose work rises to the top of the heap. Along with his band The Penetrators, Heffern received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 San Diego Music Awards.                  Photo by Sean N. McMullen

Gary Heffern made his local mark in the 1970s with Monotone and the Nucleoids. He rose to prominence during his stint with proto-punkers the Penetrators, which included several future Beat Farmers, including drummer Country Dick Montana. The Penetrators got their first big break opening for the Ramones at SDSU’s Montezuma Hall. The future Pearl Jam vocalist eventually appeared on Heffern’s second solo album Painful Days, as did REM’s Peter Buck. Heffern later moved to Finland, where he still resides as of early 2009. There, he formed the Beautiful People with guitarist Timo Rautio, aka Luke Whitten. In 2008 Heffern released his solo album Consolation, with guest players Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), Alejandro Escovedo, and Peter Case. He returned to San Diego in 2009, to do a Penetrators reunion show. He visited San Diego again in 2011, to perform with a Penetrators reunion on the 3rd. San Diego also hosted his April 6 release party for Gary Heffern and Beautiful People with his backup band including hometown heroes from Tell-Tale Hearts, the Shambles, Mystery Machine, Gravedigger V, Crawdaddys, the Loons, and others. Gary Heffern and Beautiful People was recorded with his Finnish backing band. In September 2012, the former Penetrators frontman began recording a new album in Norway. January 2014 found him for another Penetrators reunion. Heffern's book of poetry Unholy Dreams (2014), laid out by longtime musical collaborator Ray Brandes.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the poetry and what does outlaw/counterculture poetry mean to you?

I don't read other poets often. I learned the meaning of poetry through songs. Artists from Lou Reed, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Neil Diamond, John Prine, Robert Hunter, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits all wrote songs that were stories to me. Most of them I discovered before they got big. I would hear a song and would seek who wrote it. It took me almost 10 years to find that Phil Och's wrote the song "A Small Circle of Friends". But I never gave up the search. This probably sounds really odd, but all of those people have written great songs that simplified say "fuck you, and what you stand for" without ever using those words. But give you that feeling, and so often when I meet people what comes to mind is Dylan's "Positively 4th Street". I find great satisfaction and comfort in being able to express those same feelings without the "f-bomb". The human struggle is a greater weight than most people realize. And I also see the same thing in the comic books that came out in the past, through people like R. Crumb, Lee Ellingson, and Peter Bagge there is a huge counterculture there that so many people are unaware of.

How do you describe Gary Heffern lyrics and poetry? What characterize your music philosophy?            Photo by David Doyle

I don't know how and would not ever describe my lyrics and poetry. I think that it is best to leave that open to the reader. When I wrote "Hand of the Devil" it was about something else completely different than what we ended up doing with the video. However, when I approached the people I was working with on the video, it was my idea for what to use for the video, as I wanted to make a statement to the world. It was really well received, and I got hundreds of emails from people all over the world thanking me for doing the video. My music philosophy is simply play what is true to you, and what best compliments the lyrics. That probably sounds selfish. But I am a lyricist. At the same time. I think some of the best music in the world right now is being put out by the Glitterbeat label in German. And it's primarily music coming from Mali. Specifically for me my favorite band over the last few years has been Tamikrest. I don't understand a word of what they are singing (their latest has lyrics interpreted in English) but something about the feel of the music transcends me to an indescribable sad place that yet fills me with abundant joy as it makes me feel human and fragile and that somehow makes me feel more alive. I hope my words do the same to others when they read it. And that they also in the way presented in my book can feel free to make their own music out my words. It has worked well with others. As Andrea Schroeder, the Cynz, the sidewalk scene, and friends from the Walkabouts have done that. It’s the most precious gift that others have given me.

What were the reasons that you started the folk and American roots music searches and experiments?

I was always aware of folk and American roots throughout my life, as far back as I can remember. A defining moment for me was there was this kid who killed himself on a train track in the north county of San Diego, he was with a bunch of people and they had been drinking, and this was in the beginning of the hardcore movement and his last words were "do you want to see hardcore?" and he stood in front of the train and died. We wanted to do something for him as a memorial, but didn't have time to do it proper so a bunch of us did poetry and some acoustic stuff and his parents came to it, and it meant a lot to them. I think it was the first time I ever did a reading. The next one was with John Doe from X, Keith Morris from the Circle Jerks, Greg Hetson (at the time with the Circle Jerks, now with Bad Religion), Roger Pinell, and Luis Güereña (the last two have sadly departed from this earth). It was the first time there was spoken word by punk rockers in San Diego. When I left San Diego and my band the Penetrators, and moved to Seattle I spent the first year primarily reading poetry and doing shows with people who I admired and many who went on to much bigger things i.e. the Walkabouts, Jesse Bernstein, Dave Alvin, Souxie Sioux, Jim Carroll, and of course Henry Rollins. The music and albums came from the encouragement of Chris Ekman from the Walkabouts who called me one night and said "we are getting on a plane tomorrow to do our first tour of Europe, and will be back in 3 weeks, here's the deal, I expect you to write an album full of songs as you are going to be my next project" I was stuttering and stammering with excuses, and then he cut me off and said "okay, that's the deal. We’ll see you in three weeks. And that's that. And hung up the phone".                               Photo by Jeffrey De Rose

"I would go to the Lorraine Motel and tell Martin Luther King Jr. that he needed to book a room somewhere else. Yes. I really would like to do that. Can you make that happen for me?"

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Ray Brandes is the sole reason that the book was written and he also did the layout and constantly encouraged me to do that. Chris Eckman from the walkabouts is a lifetime friend who has constantly pushed me to do better in everything in my life, both as a writer, singer, performer and as a person in general. He would always say to me "keep it raw". Also Iggy Pop handed me the microphone when he was playing live and it was the first time I ever sang. And I was in the audience. I was instantly hooked. Tom Waits was playing at SDSU’s Backdoor. I was waiting in line with a six pack of beer, and he came walking up, and we sat there and talked and drank the beer.” I gave Tom some of my writings, and turned down an offer from him to buy me dinner. When he got up on stage at the beginning of the show he saw me in the audience and walked up to where I was sitting and shook my hand and said "you know kid, there's some good stuff in there, you should keep writing ". So I did. About 20 years later I would see tom again, and told him that story and gave him my cd's. You should have seen him beaming with pride, and shaking his head and laughing in disbelief. It was a wonderful moment and one of the most beautiful full circle moments I have ever had in life.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Oh man... it would all sound too much like a name dropping contest.an unknown Jeff Buckley opening for me? Such a sweet kid, and what a voice! Recording with Mark Arm of Mudhoney (and later singing MC5's kick out the jams with them in Helsinki). Recording with Mark Lanegan, Eddie Vedder, peter buck, the walkabouts...so many, many people. The biggest thrill of this last year was sitting in and reading a poem at the Tampere Finland jazz happening with Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz. Both the Mudhoney and Bill Frisell performances are on YouTube.   Photo by Jukka Määttä: Gary, Bill Frisell & Greg Leisz

"I don't read other poets often. I learned the meaning of poetry through songs. Artists from Lou Reed, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Neil Diamond, John Prine, Robert Hunter, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits all wrote songs that were stories to me."

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I don't listen to the radio because I don't hear stories or passion there. What my hope is that friends of mine and others that I look to for inspiration simply because they are not well enough known will be discovered and shared and get radio play on big stations, people like who I have mentioned above Chris Ekman, Peter Case, Jesse Sykes, Andrea Shroeder, Chip Robinson, Cindy Lee Berryhill, Victoria Williams, the list goes on and on, musicians of all kinds who's music is not getting out there that deserve it. My greatest fear is that these people give up the business, and stop putting out their art for the world to see and hear. They are my constant inspiration. I constantly am searching for inspiration. In my book I also handpicked all of the artwork from artists from all over the world. Some are known, but most of them are not. And can't make a living doing it. Something has to change. I try to do my bit by including work by some of the unknowns to help get their word out. But there also is a selfish side of me that does it because I LOVE their work.

What is the Impact of Beat movements on the proto-punk era and continue to folk roots music?

Who was it that said "only 1,000 people bought that first Velvet Underground album and every single one of them started bands" I am such a music geek that I probably know someone in each and every one of those bands! And if you ask any of my friends after greeting them the first words out of either their mouths or mine is "what are you listening to?". I love that. I continue to get email from people turning me on to new music. And my friends are always sending me their new albums. One thing I do notice is the concept of less is more comes into play, and people I listen to are making aural landscapes and letting the songs breathe. And there is some brutally honest lyrics that are coming through. And a lot of important work that 20 years or 100 years from now will stand on its own, and someone’s grandchild will find a record and say this is really great. I had a teacher here in Finland come up to me (she was in her 30's) and tell me her mother was a penetrators fan. It cracked me up in the most beautiful way. As we had nothing released here in Europe. I still go back to do penetrators shows in San Diego, and they all sell out, amazing. It blows my mind. The last one was sold out a month in advance. And the punks brought their children and introduced me to their kids. I also did a show of more of my roots/ country side as well and it was the same punks that came out to that. And another doing more folkish, and some poetry and the same punks came out to that...I dig the fact that some people didn't get stuck into just one kind of music. When I write now, I listen to Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, Thelonious Monk, and a lot of Bill Evans’ stuff I never would have listened to in the past.                                                Photo by Jim Carter

"My greatest fear is that these people give up the business, and stop putting out their art for the world to see and hear. They are my constant inspiration. I constantly am searching for inspiration."

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

The deaths, whether by murder, accidental, or suicide. I’ve lost so many friends. Far, far too many. And it puts a dagger into my heart every time.

What is the relationship between of poetry and music to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

When I was growing up it had a HUGE impact on me. I still can't hear songs like "We Shall Overcome", "I Pity the Poor Immigrant", "Simple Song of Freedom" without tears streaming down my face. Once they were tears of hope. But now it seems that the tears come from the shame and anger watching a world that is destroying itself with hatred and ignorance. I keep thinking that things will get better but it just doesn't. Sorry to be so pessimistic about this. But just being honest.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the world and people todays?

I did a radio interview with Angie Bowie, and it was to start at a specific time, and we were going to do it via skype. of course my skype goes down, and Angie and rick hunt had to kill air time for about 20 minutes, and my computer was going on an off and finally I had to call them, so the interview was shorter than I had planned because of it, but she hung in there like a trooper, and didn't give up. and filled that time talking about me and the band etc. but she didn't have all her notes, so there were some things that were a bit exaggerated that had I been able to be there I would have corrected, but she is so wonderful, and I just love her and her spirit to death! She is so enthusiastic and has supported me so much that I grin ear to ear whenever I even think of her. You can find the interview on line. I was just thrilled that she hung in there for me.                                   Photo by Sini-Marianne Saransalmi

That meant a lot. Getting the email from you about doing this interview with someone from Greece touched my heart. I get email from people all over the world who are genuinely moved by my work, whether by my songs, poems, book (UNHOLY DREAMS) or the documentary the Gary Heffern story on YouTube. Even stuff people post on my Facebook page it's all really wonderful. And I hope that your readers will buy the book, as it will help me move back to the states. I did it through amazon so it can be available everywhere. And it is print on demand. People post pictures of themselves with the book. And it makes my day when they do that!

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I would go to the Lorraine Motel and tell Martin Luther King Jr. that he needed to book a room somewhere else. Yes. I really would like to do that. Can you make that happen for me?  Thank you for the interview! I enjoyed the questions.

Gary Heffern - Unholy Dreams

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