March 03, 1986 12:00 PM

For a Boston-based band that has slogged through three hardscrabble years of playing summer camps, loft parties, beer halls and even a state prison, facing the crowd at New York’s Beacon Theatre is a reward in itself. Never mind that the Del Fuegos are merely opening for another band, X, or that the lobby is abuzz with stragglers who’d rather shmooze than watch: These people have paid $16.50 in real American money to see the boys rip out a raspy Don’t Run Wild and other exuberant numbers from their back-to-rock-roots repertoire. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the Del Fuegos, a classic case of a group whose egos—and standard of living—have yet to catch up with their rising public profile.

Blame Madison Avenue for the latter. Last spring the advertising minds at the Miller Brewing Company began searching for a hardworking band to star in a cinema-verité commercial. It seems that the campaign for the beer “made the American way” required a set of solid rockers who looked at least a tad more upstanding than Twisted Sister. “We wanted somebody with values,” says a Miller man.

The Del Fuegos fit the bill. The band already had a solid cult following and a scrapbook of critical raves—the Rolling Stone Critics Poll named them one of the five best new acts of 1984—but little cash in the bank. Now they have a contract with Warner Bros. Records and are currently crossing their fingers about the new single, I Still Want You, released from their second album, Boston, Mass. Theirs is a different kind of rock story: It’s not the usual tale of success and excess; it’s the story of a young band at the tantalizing moment when it can see the brass ring but still can’t quite touch it. The Miller ad—which appeared during Monday Night Football and still airs regularly on MTV—has freshened their feeling of momentum and hope. So has tonight’s booking in New York, to the point that the group projects a giddiness unusual in hardened stage acts. After their Beacon set, they commune with well-wishers backstage, put a dent in a case of beer and dance back onstage during X’s final number. The effect is suitably endearing—even if they do dance like white boys.

Eighteen hours later the Del Fuegos’ collective mood is a shade more subdued. The five-hour drive back to Boston hadn’t begun until 4 a.m. “We had a few glasses of champagne, and they went to our heads,” reports Warren Zanes, the group’s 20-year-old guitarist. His brother Dan, 24, lead singer and primary songwriter, is lounging with him in their tour van, a road-weary Econoline. While bassist Tom Lloyd, 24, drummer Woody Giessmann, 25, and keyboard player Cleave Davis, 30 (who was hired for live performances), haul the equipment into The Channel, a club where they are top-billed tonight, the Zanes discuss the Ultimate New York Taxi Experience.

“Warren and I jumped in a cab yesterday, and the lady driver asked us where we were from. We go, ‘From Boston,’ ” says Dan, whose voice is hoarsely reminiscent of Tom Petty’s. “The lady said, ‘I’ve been hearing this new band from Boston.’ We go, ‘The Del Fuegos?’ She says, ‘Yeah. Don’t Run Wild, I heard it this morning.’ Then she goes, ‘You know you’ve really made it when cab drivers in New York know your name.’ It was awesome.”

“Right when she said that, we put on the rock star thing,” adds Warren. “We wouldn’t talk to her.”

But the Del Fuegos are still more accustomed to asking for autographs than doling them out. “When we were playing in North Carolina, we found Nils Lofgren [who was touring with Bruce Springsteen] playing pool in a tiny club,” says Warren. “The next thing we knew we were meeting Bruce. He came to hear our set and said he loved our song Backseat Nothing. He was as cool as you’d imagine. He asked how old we were and he talked about what he’d been doing at our age. We jammed a little backstage.”

“Warren and I turned down our amps a little,” says Dan. “We didn’t want him to hear us too well.”

When the Del Fuegos met up with Petty in L.A., Warren snagged the cognac glass he’d been drinking from. They ran into Huey Lewis at a Midwestern Howard Johnson’s, and Warren got Huey’s autograph for the group’s tour diary. “When Tom Petty comes over to our house and brings Keith Richards and ZZ Top and a case of beer, then we’ll know we’ve made it,” Dan says.

With darkness falling, the Zanes wander inside The Channel. The three-man road crew is still setting up equipment, and Tom is scanning a take-out menu from a nearby Chinese restaurant. (“Don’t go over $50,” says Bob “Gino” Hillman, their road manager.) Dinner will be taken in the club’s graffiti-encrusted dressing room before the five head home to change. (The Del Fuegos have separate living arrangements, and they favor bargain-basement neighborhoods.) Someone appears with a case of beer. It is the wrong brand, and a search is made for plastic cups, since a photographer is lurking nearby. “We don’t mind being company men,” says Dan. “Some people give us crap about the commercial, but it’s helped us stay alive.”

Their secret wish, Tom reveals, is to be on Late Night With David Letterman. Their fan club, the Koo Koo Witchcraft Society, receives two or three letters a day—”although that may be up to three or four now,” someone says. Warren, who is under the legal drinking age in Boston, is a connoisseur of fake IDs, and Woody, a Kansas native who was an art major at Wichita State, is secretly addicted to model airplane kits.

The subject of schooling brings out their protective instincts: Tom’s parents teach at Andover, and he went to school nearby; the Zanes were schooled in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Says Dan: “It would be a misconception if people thought we were any more intelligent than anybody else.”

At the moment, however, money is a bigger problem than public relations. Until recently Woody was the only band member who had a checking account; everyone else stashed cash in socks and duffel bags. Despite the Miller ad—for which they were paid scale—and the contract with Warner Bros., “none of our success is happening in financial terms,” Don says.

“Success is so relative,” Tom adds. “People are always saying, ‘You’ve made it, you guys have made it.’ Then you get out of town and you’re playing for 20 people again because nobody’s heard of you.”

Billy Jordan, the group’s all-purpose roadie, trundles in with the fragrant Chinese takeout, and the comparatively orderly discussion begins to fragment. There is talk of the all-time worst pop record (Muskrat Love, by the Captain & Tennille, gets the nod) and of yesterday’s visit to Warner’s. “We went up to the record company office in New York, and our posters were on the front door,” Dan says dreamily. “We felt like we were in The Buddy Holly Story.”

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