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One music critic recently wrote that Consolation is “Music to commit suicide to, made by a singer who can't sing” and Gary Heffern considered it a compliment. I chuckled when I read that, remembering the old adage that even extreme humor contains the grain of truth, and I am not talking about the singing. I am talking about the man. Heffern lives and has lived on levels most of us never experience. He has hit bottom or if he hasn't has come damn close now and again. There have been moments when I am sure he was ready to toss it all away but didn't. Something pulled him back--- friends, art, music maybe--- and he today tenaciously hangs on to life in Finland. Yeah, Finland. He started life as a Finn. I guess you can go home again.
I first met Gary at a small record store in San Diego back in the late seventies. I had this idea that if people who loved music could get together, they could make a real difference in music and the music scene so I scheduled a meeting to see if anyone felt the same way and, not at all surprisingly, a few of them did. Among that group were members of The Zeros, The Hitmakers and later, The Dils--- the lineup for a concert which grew from the seeds of that meeting--- San Diego's first punk concert featuring local artists, as far as I know. Also there were people who later would be crucial to the new wave and punk scene--- Tom and Tim Griswold, Jacqui Ramirez and a few whose names escape me but whose faces are as clear to me today as they were then.
Yes, Heffern was there--- young, brash--- a rebel who my father would have called full of piss and vinegar. He was loud, wound up tighter than a drum and anxious. He was also full of what I can only describe as exuberance for everything punk, especially the music. A few weeks later at an impromptu gathering at my place after a meeting had ended, he would be bouncing around the rooms like a pogo stick, colander plastered to his head with shaving cream, headbutting everyone and shouting, “Look, everybody, I'm Sieve Bators!” and if you don't get the humor in that, you don't know The Dead Boys and you will have trouble understanding who Heffern is. That night, Gary turned to me and told me he was going to put together a band and become a musician. I remember thinking, what the hell? He doesn't even play an instrument. A few years later, while unpacking records at a record store in Seattle, I would see his name alongside those of Dan McClain (later, Country Dick of The Beat Farmers) and Jim Call, two of my favorite San Diegans from my days down there and two characters in their own right. The album was The Penetrators' A Sweet Kiss From Mommy and right underneath it in the box was their earlier EP, Walk the Beat, which I had given up on receiving it had been back-ordered so many times. As I read Heffern's name all I could think was “Sonofabitch, the kid did it” and became a fan on the spot. Heffern, Call & McClain in the same band? Who cared if it was good. They were my friends, after a fashion. (Read the fascinating story of The Penetrators here). And for those who wonder, it was good.
Of course, that was another time in another universe. The Penetrators never quite got the respect they deserved, major labels (the only real chance at national success in those ancient times) refused to bite and the band went the way of so many others, fading out of existence. The various members went their separate ways, Heffern dabbling in collaboration after collaboration and struggling with personal problems all the while. I ran into him on the streets of Seattle and he looked good, probably healthier than he had any right to be (thanks to some very good friends), and was trying to pull it together again. New Wave, Punk and the street scene was his domain and he was involved in a series of concerts and shows involving members of The Cunninghams and various spoken word artists along the lines of Dave Alvin (The Blasters), who along with Heffern was also a poet as well as a musician. It was a struggle. Gigs were few and far between, the scene limited though loyal.
I left Seattle and lost track of Heffern. I wondered what had happened to him until one day while piddling around on the Internet he appeared, cybernetically. He was moving to Finland, he said, and had been working on a solo album. Would I be interested in hearing it when it was done? Surely, I replied, and settled in for a wait. I pondered what I knew of Heffern and Heffern's life, my past in SD and the music business in general. I pulled out and listened to my copies of The Penetrators' two releases. The Net provided renewed contact with Tom Griswold and Jacqui Ramirez as well as Jim Call. And I waited.
One day, a package arrived--- a copy of Heffern's latest album, Consolation. I wasn't sure what to expect. Heffern has jumped fences a number of times and has surprised me more than once. His brash punk attitude was noticeable in The Penetrators, though there was much more there. His willingness to take spoken word to the fullest caught me by surprise, but even I could not deny his enthusiasm. He has dabbled in pop and country and stretched numerous genres to fit his vision. I wondered which Gary Heffern would show up on Consolation.
Not surprisingly, the real Gary Heffern showed up. The walking dichotomous Garyy Heffern, and I don't say that in a negative way at all. There have always been extremes in Gary's life and in his music, but those extremes have been tempered by those surrounding him. This time, Gary chooses his surroundings, the musicians and people he recognizes, and lays himself out for dissection. Charles Cross sees it and in his liner notes writes “In Heffern's own songs there is a constant struggle between darkness and light, between failed dreams and reckless prayer, between a world where all hope is lost and one where a consoling friend offers a sliver of deliverance.” Cross understands that we are all a walking contradiction of ourselves and points to it as a strength in the makeup of Heffern and, correspondingly, his music. Cross gets it right.
Label this album “Not for the squeamish” in spite of sweet moments. These songs are here for a reason and they are very personal. (I Am Your) Destroyer, a seemingly light Americana-esque offering, has a fifties-edged feel, a time less of genre than music as music and following it with a Heffern-ized version of the Merle Travis classic Dark As a Dungeon drives home that point. Simply put, Heffern is about the music and about the song rather than the genre. Ghosts On the Screen offers a look at serious topics through an upbeat and shit-kickin' country window and turns Country & Western on the title track. He tosses in some oddities (Alejandro Escovedo guests on Peter Blackstock's Down Time and Mark Lanegan leads us through All His Children (the theme from Sometimes a Great Notion, a movie I didn't even know had a theme), but even they follow the semblance of a theme. Friendly Fire may be more of what I expected, I don't know, it having that strange talking poetic stance Heffern is known for, the background an adventure in itself.
Of the tracks on the album, the one which hits me the hardest is La La Land, an emotional blanket for a mother suffering Alzheimer's (see music video here). I journeyed through over two years of dementia with my own mother and suffered the realization of that ultimate end. Because of that, it is hard for me to listen to the song at all because it still strikes too close to home. There are all kinds of pains in the world but none as devastating as watching one you really love slip away and knowing there is nothing you can do. Heffern gets it. Helplessness is a scourge of mankind.
Consolation shows a side of Gary Heffern that I knew was there but have until now neither heard nor seen. He is a man who struggles in a world full of pain and destruction but who also knows the importance of love and friendship and all of the good things that make life worth living. He is a good man and I thank him for this album.
By the way, you can purchase Consolation from Gary through his Paypal account. His account is evidently firstname.lastname@example.org (I have no idea how Paypal works) and if you have trouble, contact him directly at that email address. Tell him Frank sent you. Cost is $15.00 US, including postage and shipped from Finland. If this were the old days, I'd say it would be worth it for the stamps alone. I know. Stamps. Proves I'm old. Not my fault.
Frank O. Gutch Jr.
Supporting the Indies Since 1969