Caged Heat: The day Billy Ruane brought The Del Fuegos to Walpole Prison

The Del Fuegos, 1982. Courtesy of Wayne Valdez.

These days, many Bostonians might harken back and think of the hit ‘80s songs “Don’t Run Wild” and “I Still Want You” when they hear “The Del Fuegos” roll off someone’s lips. The group’s first full-length arrived in 1984 on Slash Records, and by their second LP — Boston, Mass — they had bona fide national hits and “modern rock” radio charting.

But that more polished, radio-ready sound was the group’s second act. In their early days, as with most bands, they were the definition of scrappy.

“They weren’t afraid to try anything,” reminisces Billy Jordan, who patrolled the soundboard in the Del Fuegos early days. “They were raw and sloppy and fun and sincere. And they were having a good old time.” Says guitarist and vocalist Dan Zanes: “We were ragged, and we had no idea how ragged we were.”

The group formed in 1981 and their first single, “I Can’t Sleep” (with “I Always Call Her Back” on the flip), hit in late 1982. It was released on Czech Records — run by Nat Freedberg of The Flies, who would also go on to lead The Titanics and The Upper Crust in the coming years.

Steve Morrell wasn’t the Del Fuegos’ first drummer, but he was established on the skins by the summer of ‘81, backing up Dan Zanes and bassist Tom Lloyd. Future Del Fuegos guitarist Warren Zanes was still in high school at Phillips Academy Andover, too young to be in the band. The group bunked in a windowless, no-running-water craphole in the South End, gigging in town almost every night of any given week.

Virtuosos they may not have been, but they were having one hell of a rock and roll time.

At some point in the fall of 1982, future booking impresario and never-endingly-energetic scenester Billy Ruane had a crazy idea (some might say these were the only kinds of ideas he had): Why not book this ragtag, relatively unknown group at Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Walpole (now known as MCI — Cedar Junction), the state’s most daunting maximum-security prison?

And so, he did — 35 years ago, on January 23, 1983.

The concept wasn’t unheard of, even locally, as Boston punk/rock mainstays The Neighborhoods had performed at Norfolk State Prison a couple years before. But that didn’t make the Walpole opportunity any less interesting, or daunting. (Interestingly, none of the people interviewed for this piece referenced the Neighborhoods Norfolk gig, so it seems that it wasn’t talked about as much in its aftermath, even though it was documented by filmmaker Moe Shore.)

To the benefit of future generations, just about half of the slots on the very limited guest list who attended the concert were press, although no photos were allowed. Doug Simmons covered for The Boston Phoenix (February 1, 1983 issue date) and Richard Cromonic — who tragically passed away in a house fire in 1995 — was there for Sweet Potato magazine (February 1983 issue).

A passage from Cromonic’s lengthy Sweet Potato review of the day’s activities read:

“In some ways they were an ideal choice to play the joint: unpretentious, earthy, spirited, a little tough and hard workin’… Everybody was tired after the night … but even so, not a single person even hinted at regret at having gone through the experience. If nothing else, the rapport struck between the “inside” and “outside” was worth it. The Del Fuegos knew it was a tough audience, but they also got a response from it they’ll never forget.

Below is the story of that infamous show, 35 years later, told by the handful of non-convicts who were there.

Del Fuegos in the truck at Prudence Island in Rhode Island, 1982 or 1983. Courtesy of Wayne Valdez.

The Early Days of The Del Fuegos, 1981 to 1983

Lilli Dennison [Del Fuegos manager]: The Del Fuegos were just a bunch of kids back then. I was managing a rockabilly band [The Alley Beats], who were also a bunch of kids. [laughs]. I managed a couple different bands. The rockabilly band was breaking up and Jim Coffman was booking The Underground and a club called Streets. He told me about The Del Fuegos, he really liked them. I think we booked the DFs to open for the Alley Beats’ last show — I saw them and fell in love with them. They were so crazy, and cool, and weird. I ended up managing them, which was mostly just getting them shows and getting the word out with the press. It grew and grew from there.

Dan Zanes [guitar, vocals]: Back then, I guess it was more about energy for us. It certainly wasn’t about chops. By 1983 I’m not sure if we were turning a corner. I’m not sure there was a corner in sight. [laughs]. We were ragged and we had no idea how ragged we were. We had dropped out of school; Boston was our school. Tom [Lloyd, bass and vocals] was the real musician in the band, he always was. I certainly wasn’t. I didn’t really even know how to tune my guitar.

Billy Jordan [early soundman for the group]: At some point, Dan asked me to do sound for them. I said, “OK but I don’t really know how to do sound,” and he said, “Man, we don’t know how to play!” So right then and there, I knew I had to work with these guys. [laughs]. They were younger than me, but I grew up with them in a lot of ways. We did anything and everything that we could do. I met them right around when the first single came out [1982]. I didn’t have anything to do with the single itself.

In those early days, 1982, they were squatting in some hellhole in the South End with no windows, no running water. It was pretty bad. There were a lot of Tuesday night gigs at Cantones for beer money back then. They just wanted to play. If you want to get better, you play.

Wayne Valdez [a.k.a. Wayne Podworny a.k.a. Wayne Viens; longtime friend of the band and unofficial group photographer in their early years]: There was something about The Del Fuegos that was so… real. Tom was an accomplished musician, but Dan and Steve were still learning. To this day, Steve is one of my favorite drummers. As a photographer, I had a clear vision that they were a group that I wanted to document. They were very photogenic and were fun to photograph.

Jordan: In that time, 1982 and early 1983, The Del Fuegos were a ragtag band, literally sleeping in their clothes. They loved Elvis, they would play any cover and were working on their originals. They were just starting to become popular, after doing crazy gigs. They had a police Interceptor car that they would lug gear in. They would play 5 to 6 days a week back then. And the more they played, the better they got. I mean, it sure beat working. [laughs]. One day, over a four-day weekend, we did 10 gigs in four states.

Dan Zanes: I think people sensed our enthusiasm and our desire to learn. A lot of older cats took us under their wings. James Ryan [owner of the Hoodoo Barbeque at The Rat] turned us on to all kinds of great music. Doug Simmons and Eddie Gordetsky, too. And Lilli [Dennison] did so much for us.

Jordan: James [Ryan] was feeding us at the Hoodoo. He was “Meals On Wheels” for a lot of people in the scene back then. Wayne [Valdez] was taking pictures the whole time. And Lilli [Dennison] was our den mother. She busted her butt for them, she was definitely a mover and a shaker.

Valdez: The group was still very rough back then [in early 1983]. Before we went to Walpole, I was wondering if they would be a good fit. I wasn’t sure if maybe they were an acquired taste. Their covers were good, but I wasn’t sure about the originals [how they would be received]. But I had brought [The Del Fuegos] down to play at a party on Prudence Island in Rhode Island and they went over really well there.

Jordan: They were friends with everybody in the scene and they would get in legendary drinking contests with other bands. I remember one contest with the Real Kids. And Del Fuegos and Dogmatics gigs were notorious because they would literally bleed The Rat dry [of beer]. There wouldn’t be anything left afterwards. The early ‘80s was like the Roaring ’20s. Everything was wide open. Every band of a four-band bill would have a full case of beer on their rider.

For a 40-minute gig back then, they would maybe do half covers and half originals. They would do Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers. They loved the HI Records sound — Ann Peebles, Al Green, but they couldn’t really pull those covers off. They had a roots/Americana thing and they became the bearers for it. No one would really do it like they did it. They used to do “Crying In The Rain” by the Everly Brothers. And also the Everlys’ arrangement of [Chuck Berry’s] “Lucille.” That was fantastic. It was all part of a sub-scene that was coming out of The Rat after the initial punk wave. And James Ryan was the ringleader at the Hoodoo. He would always get up and sing a couple songs with them.

Valdez: That first single was great. Both sides. That was exactly how they sounded [live]. I thought it was genius. They weren’t punk rock… but they were. They were doing Chuck Berry covers but there was just something about them. Their energy. Of course, drinking played into that. And weed. They played out all the time back then, they saw it as a positive. I wish they would have done more recording back then.

Dennison: At that point [late ‘82], they were press darlings, the whole Del Fuegos thing was starting. People knew them in LA, they were a favorite local Boston band at that point.

The Lead-Up To Walpole

Dennison: I think Billy [Ruane, who booked the show] was inspired by The Cramps, they had played at a mental institution [California State Mental Hospital in Napa, June 1978]. Then maybe the Dead Kennedys had played at a prison? Bands from the West Coast were doing gigs like those and Billy was inspired by that. I think he started working with Massachusetts Correctional Institute and he had done a couple of events [with MCI, before the Del Fuegos at Walpole].

I don’t remember who, it might have been a singer-songwriter at a women’s prison or something like that. Then he wanted to do The Del Fuegos at Walpole. [laughs]. Billy was a big Del Fuegos fan in the early days, he was always the last one on the dancefloor. [laughs]. And we were game for it. Sure, why not? Billy really loved The Del Fuegos. He loved all of the bands I worked with, even though a lot of his tastes were a bit more artsy. But he got the Del Fuegos’ rawness.

Jordan: I had never heard [about Billy being inspired by the Cramps show at the mental institution], but I can see it. Billy would love that kind of chaos.

Dan Zanes: When we first heard about the gig I think we felt that it was great, bringing music to a prison. There was a do-gooder element to it. And I still believe in that — wherever you can bring music, that’s a good thing. We were definitely accepting all shows [being offered] at the time. [laughs]. It never occurred to us to say no. And, of course, we would want to go and do something different. In a way, it was just another gig and I didn’t have any elevated feeling about it. But once we got to Walpole, there was a whole lot more to it than I thought.

Steve Morell: I think we found out about the gig a couple weeks before it happened. Maybe a month. It was after our single was out and after we were starting to get some better gigs. I think we might have made more money than we usually did, but it wasn’t a giant check or anything. At that point we were doing anything [for gigs]. We were doing 25 shows a month, anywhere. It didn’t matter. And why the hell not play Walpole Prison? [laughs] We knew it was the maximum-security prison in Massachusetts and that’s about all we knew.

Valdez: I first heard about the show from Lilli. I was working at the Hoodoo Barbeque and at that point I was pretty much going to all of The Del Fuegos’ shows. I was photographing them. I didn’t get any photos at Walpole, they didn’t allow cameras in. I guess I could have taken some outside, but I wasn’t thinking.

Jordan: When we first heard about doing that show at Walpole, it was like a challenge. The first thing we thought of was Johnny Cash [who had recorded the album Live at Folsom Prison in 1968 and first played San Quentin prison in 1958]. We were like, “Shit, we’re going to play Walpole? That’s hardcore! That’s Johnny Cash. We’d better do it.” Everybody knew about Walpole. It was the prison. That was Leavenworth, Devil’s Island. That’s where all the hardened criminals went. We definitely knew about its reputation. The idea of doing a gig like that is one thing. You think you’ll be tough and waltz in there. But no, I was petrified! [laughs]. And I stayed scared for the entire time I was there.

Dan Zanes: There were definitely precedents for that kind of thing — Johnny Cash, BB King. Other musicians had gone and played at prisons, so it was a time-honored tradition. We welcomed the opportunity to be a part of it. I wasn’t thinking anything about that Cramps performance, just Johnny Cash at San Quentin and BB King at Cook County. They had recorded albums in those places.

Dennison: I don’t even remember if there was any money involved in the gig. We did a lot of stuff for no pay back then. I think we did it more because it was a crazy thing to do. Billy [Ruane] had done a lot of the legwork on it and had already done one or two others in the MCI system and had a track record with them. I might have worked with Billy to get the press people to go, but Billy set everything else up.

It was definitely an early show for Billy [as a promoter/booker] but I’m not sure it was his first. And it didn’t seem crazy to me that Billy was putting this together. He wasn’t booking shows all the time, but he would definitely have parties and have bands play. He was doing everything all by himself, for better or worse. I didn’t know about any partners he might have had.

The Del Fuegos upcoming gigs, December 1982. Courtesy of Billy Jordan.

Tight Security

Dennison: The Del Fuegos were not urban guys. [laughs]. They were from Andover and everything. We weren’t really part of the crime world, so we were all super nervous when we went into Walpole. I had never been to a prison of any sort, before or since, thank God. Going in, we knew it was going to be different, but I hadn’t really thought about it that much until the day of the show. We hadn’t gotten any info beforehand [about security procedures or what to expect]. Billy [Ruane] didn’t give a shit about details like that.

James Ryan: I think we were originally supposed to go at Christmas [1982], but officials didn’t think it would have been the best time. It was a Sunday evening, and there was snow on the ground.

Dennison: We got there [to Walpole] and it was hardcore. There were signs everywhere. “If you are bringing drugs in here, you aren’t leaving!” For visitors, it was intense. Beyond that, I remember that it was pretty gloomy and foreboding when we were driving in, since it was winter. It must have been an early evening gig. I have a vague recollection of it being dark. Maybe it was an after-dinner entertainment thing for the convicts.

Jordan: I remember we had to go through these big, heavy steel gates to get in. We got there kind of early. We either had some beer or smoked a joint [beforehand, or in the parking lot]. We weren’t supposed to, but we did anyways.

Dennison: We weren’t allowed many people to come with us. Wayne Valdez was there, posing as a roadie. I don’t think he was taking photos, they wouldn’t have allowed that. Doug Simmons from the Phoenix was there, and Richard [Cromonic] from Sweet Potato. James Ryan was there, and Keith Dunn, too. Keith played harmonica.

Valdez: I remember that they looked at everything. Inside the amps, and then they searched us. They were clear about the no drinking before we went. I remember there was some question about how the writers were going to take notes. Something about how a pen or pencil could be used as a weapon. So that slowed things down a bit. I don’t remember the security process being that bad. It was just what we had to do, to show that we weren’t sneaking anything in.

Dennison: There were some journalists with us, and they had to take the wire spirals off their notebook pads, because they could be used as a weapon. We were all scared at that point.

Morell: We probably had some rules that we were supposed to follow, but I can’t remember any. Just getting into the auditorium was an ordeal. It took forever, probably an hour. Maybe less. It was fish locks, one locked room into another locked room, into another.

Ryan: I distinctly remember that it took an inordinate amount of time during the “checking in” phase, as they looked at everything we had with us. They counted the guitar strings, going in and out, so that none of them would be “guillotine use,” perhaps.

Dennison: [The group] had their rinky-dink little amps and they turned to me and were like, “I think we might have some [marijuana] seeds inside our amp. We keep them in there sometimes.” [laughs]. This is after we were already there. I guess they would clean their weed [before smoking it] and put the leftover seeds in the amp.

Morell: I used to tune my drums with a butter knife, a solid metal one. That didn’t make it through security. [laughs]. I guess that would have made a good shiv. [laughs]. The woman [guard] looked at me, like, “Really?” And then took it.

Dennison:: That’s right, Steve [Morell] had a butter knife for his drums. [laughs hysterically]. Steve walked up to me, all pale, and said, “They took my butter knife.” [laughs hysterically again].

I used to wear a lot of bracelets, like up to my elbow. A lot of them. And [the guards] were like, “Take those off!” And I’m like ripping the skin off my arms trying to take all these bangly bracelets off. [laughs]. It was all really scary.

Jordan: I remember we had to take off all our jewelry and Lilli used to wear a lot of bangles and bracelets and chains and stuff. She had to take them off and put them into a box, it took about 10 minutes. We were all sitting there with our arms crossed, waiting for her. “I’m getting’ there,” she was saying. She had chains around her boots and everything. It was a process, to say the least.

One of the inmates was helping us load equipment in and out and I remember that when we left, one of the tubes from our amp was gone. So someone had a four inch long glass tube they could use for doing some damage. I didn’t tell anyone at the prison about it, I was too worried.

Boston Phoenix article on The Del Fuegos, 1983. Courtesy of Lilli Dennison.

The Walpole “Captive Audience”

Morell: It was a basic, school-sized auditorium. When we finally got in, we found out that none of the guards had guns. That was a little alarming. [laughs]. The convicts just looked like guys, really. Some were scary looking, for sure. A couple of them. It was a quiet, sit-down audience, and they were pretty appreciative.

Ryan: I think they had one night per month when they allowed the entire population to mingle. We were introduced to Myles Connor [Jr, famed local criminal and art thief]. He was a local musician doing time… as opposed to keeping it. He was in the audience and made himself known to us.

Dan Zanes: It was a bit intimidating, but we knew we were in a regimented and secure environment. We weren’t in a bar with all those prisoners or anything. And either way, we didn’t know what any of them were in there for. I mean, they might have been in for the same bags of weed that we were carrying around [on any given day].

Valdez: The convicts didn’t look that scary to me. I had been in the Marines and I had been to prisons and jails before. I’m not saying I wasn’t watching myself, but I don’t remember being scared at all. I mean, there were a bunch of guards there, nothing that bad was going to happen. We weren’t going to get murdered or robbed.

Dennison: Me and the press people sat all together. They brought us in first, and put us in the back row. We were separated from the band, they went backstage. We were in the auditorium, all alone, and then all of a sudden alarm bells went off and they let the convicts in. That was scary. It was shocking. Most of them were in their pajamas. I had never been around those types of people before. All the white guys were on one side, and all the black guys were on the other side. And everyone was pretty rowdy. This was their time to actually do something and be together outside of their cells. So, they were all messing around.

Dan Zanes: From up on stage, I definitely saw that the room was segregated. It was a lot like Boston, really, just in one room. And it felt even weirder because it was a theater space. Looking back, I really had a lot of fear that day, because I had internalized so many negative images of people of color. It was a classic example of a white person stepping into a space where they’re not the majority.

Dennison: They really did look like killers and criminals, to me. There were swastika tattoos. The black guys weren’t as bad or as gross. The white guys were disgusting, to be honest. As I recall, all the inmates were trying to talk to us. I was the only female in there, except for a couple guards.

Morell: When Lilli was in the audience, I think some guy next to her… I want to remember that he was trying to lick her ear or something [cracks up laughing]. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what I remember.

Dennison: At one point, there was a convict guy who grabbed me and stuck his tongue in my ear and was talking to me. We were on the white guys’ side, and he was a gross white guy. I think he pulled me over to ask me a question and I leaned into it and he just stuck his tongue in my ear. It was disgusting. We were in the back row and he was in the row in front of us. I think I might have asked him what he was in for and he said, “Murdering a n*****.” He was acting out stabbing somebody, and I was like, “Oh my god.” I was in the middle of the row and the guards couldn’t see me that well [when he was talking to her]. There weren’t that many guards anyways.

The Del Fuegos upcoming gigs, November 1982. Courtesy of Billy Jordan.

The Opening Band: Shabazz

Dan Zanes: We sat in the front row as the men started filing in and we were too afraid to turn around. We sat up front and watched the opening band. [The band] had invited us to smoke a join with them during soundcheck, but we said no. We would have liked to, of course, but it just didn’t seem like a smart move, to get high in a prison. It was a multi-racial group and they played Stones and r&b songs. They played music for everybody, white and black. Some Latin rock, too. It was great watching them. In Boston, there really just weren’t many integrated groups.

Ryan: We shared a “dressing room” with the opening act — an “in house” band of six. Five black gents and one Hispanic. There were armed guards just outside, and on the stage. One of the band members asked me where we were going when we left. I mentioned something about “the nearest bar,” since we were told we would have to take a breathalizer on the way in. The guy looked at me, calmly, as he lit up a joint, and said, “You want whiskey? All these dudes got liquor.” We were in the front row and ready to go on right when the band finished. The band was all dressed in starched fatigues, with black berets. And for an encore, they covered [The Rolling Stones’] “Time Is On My Side.”

Valdez: They were a really good band, we were all impressed. The audience had probably heard them before, the audience let loose, they were rowdy. I do remember the band playing “Time Is On My Side,” that stuck with me. I don’t remember anything else they played. And I do remember somehow that one of the opening band guys asked us if we wanted a drink or something. We were like, “No, I don’t think so.”

Dennison: There was an opening band that went on first. They were a really fucking hot funk band. They were great. They did a short set and were really nice guys. I think the leader was named Kenny. They came back and were hanging out with us in the back row. I was a heavy smoker at the time and we couldn’t bring in cigarettes. Kenny gave me a cigarette, which was great because I was so nervous. I think it was Kenny McIntyre. We were pen pals for a while afterwards.

Morell: The opening band was great. I definitely remember them playing “Time Is On My Side,” I could have sworn they did it a capella. But it was beautiful. One of the guys in that group was named Kenny, and I ended up working on a construction site up in Beverly somewhere, years later, with him. He was a laborer there. We recognized each other.

Del Fuegos at Prudence Island in Rhode Island, with Billy Jordan. Curtesy of Wayne Valdez.

The Del Fuegos Rock The Captive Audience

Jordan: Technically, I still didn’t know what I was doing [when it came to live mixing for a rock band]. I don’t recall any big sound problems or equipment problems. I just mic-ed the vocals and maybe the kick drum and snare. I don’t think we got a soundcheck. It was an auditorium that was all hard wood. And The Del Fuegos were a band who couldn’t really play, but they were still playing on 11. The sound system they had [in the auditorium] was crappy. It was just cacophony. It was a big wash of sound, a bunch of kids with torn jeans, howling away.

Valdez: I can still see the auditorium. We went in when it was empty. It was pretty big, and the stage was pretty big. The stage was definitely raised a bit. There were three sections on the floor, like a typical movie theater. One in the middle and two sides.

Jordan: The gig itself is a blur to me, honestly. I was petrified, my sphincter was as tight as you can get. I mean, there are murderers in here. I was never exposed to anything like that. I was in the front row, I had all these convicts behind me. I did not want to look around and look back at them, at all. I thought I would burst into flames if I did. I was so scared.

Valdez: The guys in the group were sober for that gig, so that was definitely a different thing. I don’t know if it made it better or worse. I think they did try harder than other gigs when they played Walpole. They were nervous beforehand, and they put some pressure on themselves. Even if at that point no one knew who they were. If it was two years later, people might have expected more.

Morell: James Ryan sang with us. He did that a lot back then, especially when we played at The Rat. We played a pretty long set, as I remember. We didn’t have that many of our own songs back then, but we had a lot of covers.

Dennison: I honestly don’t have a lot of specific memories of The Del Fuegos’ set. I know they did some covers. They did [Rufus Thomas’] “Walkin’ The Dog.” James Ryan always sang that one with them. And Keith Dunn got up and did his thing [on harmonica].

Jordan: I think they were just starting to work out “The Longest Day” (title track from the group’s 1984 debut album), or it was at least a song in that vein, with a soft intro and they would crash into the song itself. When the song kicked in, they would all jump up and crash down, with the guitar, bass and cymbals. When they did that song, I heard this howl behind me, a roar. And I looked around and the [convicts] had come out of their seats. They were cheering and totally into it. It was a rock god moment. And I was also like, “I’m going to die. They’re going to lose it, they have incited these guys to riot.” That might not have been right at the beginning, it was maybe a couple songs in.

Dan Zanes: I remember that part, jumping in the air. It was an exciting moment, and really exciting to connect [with the audience].

Morell: The audience was into the show, they seemed to enjoy it. I think the guys in the audience were happy to be anywhere, you know? I don’t think the sound was that great in there, but I don’t think it mattered.

Valdez: The crowd would have definitely let the band know if they hadn’t liked it. I remember one of the guys saying, “This is like hippy, go-go music.” [laughs]. But people were into it. No one yelled out, “You suck!” They had a lot of energy on stage.

Jordan: They played Chuck Berry, and Tom [Lloyd] sang lead on Elvis’ “(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame.” They did [Archie Bell & The Drells’] “Tighten Up,” with James [Ryan singing]. And “Walkin’ The Dog.”

Valdez: They might have played for 40 minutes. James Ryan did “Walkin’ The Dog” and [BB King’s] “I’m A Man” with them. And [Elvis’] “Fever.” They played Chuck Berry songs, as they always did.

Dan Zanes: I’m sure we did mostly covers. In spite of everything, we wanted to connect with the crowd. That’s what we were there for. With Chuck Berry songs, back then we would play “Talking About You,” “Around And Around,” “Carol,” and “Catch Me If You Can.”

Ryan: When we finished our set, the gathering yelled for an encore. I asked what they wanted to hear, and someone quaintly yelled, “Do ‘Jailhouse Rock,’ you motherfucker!” [Author’s Note: James mentioned that they had indeed played the song, but press coverage afterwards did not mention it, so it’s likely they did not.]

Jordan: I didn’t hear anyone in the audience yelling “Get off the stage!,” or booing. The loud cacophony of sounds probably broke up their monotony. It might not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but the band didn’t bomb. I mean, if you’re doing Elvis and Chuck Berry covers, how can you go wrong? Still, it wasn’t like a typical Tuesday night at Cantone’s. The guys in there were hardcore. We had no idea how we would be received. We just wanted to put it on our resume. “Yeah dude, we played Walpole.” But then it was like, “Wait, we’re playing Walpole??? How the fuck did I get here???” [laughs].

Sweet Potato article on The Del Fuegos, 1983. Courtesy of Lilli Dennison.

Billy Being Billy

Dennison: Billy [Ruane] almost started a riot during the show!

Jordan: People in the scene at the time knew Billy as the crazy guy at shows. You had to make sure he didn’t damage anything, or anyone, on stage. He was the crazy, whirling dervish at the front of the stage on any given night. If he loved a band, you knew it.

Dennison: Before the Del Fuegos were done performing, Billy started dancing… [laughs]. He was running up and down the aisles. I don’t remember what song lifted his spirits. We were all freaked out and still scared. But Billy wasn’t. He was with us in the back row, maybe on the aisle. He tried to order the guards around, and then he took off. He would almost ascend the Earth when he did his thing [“The Billy Dance,” well known to Boston clubgoers in the ‘80s]. He was doing his little dance in the aisle, and all the black guys started chanting, “David Bowie! David Bowie!”

Morell: We were on stage, and it was killers and who the hell knows what [in the audience]. I remember Billy dancing up and down the aisles, with his flowing overcoat and unbuttoned shirt. And he was… Ahhh… [laughs]. He was the youngest, most alive thing those inmates had seen in a long time. [laughs]. You could just tell, you could see from the stage that guys were looking at him like… I just imagined in the cartoons when the skunk [Pepe LePew] sees the girl skunk, and she is beautiful to him. But anyways, Billy was attracting a lot of attention and he didn’t even care. He was dancing like crazy. He could have been anywhere, it didn’t matter. He was just from another planet, and he was having a blast that day at Walpole.

Valdez: At that point, I was still new to Billy. I would see him around, but I hadn’t hung out with him. We had to sit Billy down many times [during the Del Fuegos’ performance]. I think they [prison guards] finally addressed it. “You’re getting the crowd going.” I think we all knew it could happen, and it did. He was eventually right up front, doing the “Billy Dance.” He started in his seat doing the dance, then he moved up front. He didn’t really care what the crowd thought, he just couldn’t help himself. People were laughing at him, like, “Who the fuck is this guy?”

Dan Zanes: I don’t remember seeing Billy dancing while we were playing, but I certainly believe it. [laughs].

Ryan: I do recall seeing Billy “being himself.” And the woman who had escorted us through the whole process that day asked him to stop.

Valdez: I was more worried about them stopping the show because of what Billy was doing, and them asking us to leave. I don’t think I was worried about anyone beating Billy up. But I do remember thinking that they were just going to pull the plug.

Dennison: I think Billy [dancing] might have shut the show down, because it got everybody a little too excited. That’s my recollection. I think the guards tried to stop Billy and he was barred from doing anything else with MCI after that. He got booted. [laughs].

The Billy Dance. Courtesy of Margot Edwards.

“Get Thee To The Rat

Dennison: When the show was done, the prisoners all went out of the auditorium, before we left. Then we were escorted out. And we just asked, “Where is the closest bar?” [laughs].

Morell: In my memory, they filed everyone that I guess would be considered dangerous out. I think the guys in the opening band were hanging around. But there wasn’t much interaction between us and the prisoners. They went out, and then we packed up and left. We all went to the Hoodoo Barbeque and had dinner and started our evening.

Jordan: Afterwards, we went directly back to The Rat and got ripped out of our minds. I definitely know that. It was a release after what we had done earlier in the day.

Valdez: We couldn’t wait to have a drink.

Looking Back, 35 Years Later

Dan Zanes: I’m definitely glad we had the opportunity to do that show! I wouldn’t call it a strange gig, I would probably say memorable. It was good for me. I would do something like that again in a second.

Valdez: That was probably the weirdest gig that I have been to. It was pretty out there.

Dennison: It was a very intense event, and it took a bunch of hours. We were all equally affected by everything. No one was really taking it easy during the whole time we were there. It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And even with that said, I think we all would have done it again.

Dan Zanes: The one thing that didn’t occur to me at the time was why there were so many black and Latino prisoners in there. I had no concept… it never once occurred to me that the system was rigged against them. Meanwhile, we are a bunch of drug-addled 20-year-olds, committing crimes every single day. It never once occurred to me that there must be something radically wrong [with the system, and society]. It took me years and years to unpack that and deal with it.

Morell: We definitely never had another gig like that. It was the most intense one we ever did. Even if the audience was pretty restrained. We were all just 20 and 21, we were just having fun back then. It was a cool thing that we had never done before, so it was a blast.

Dan Zanes: The second we got out of there we wanted to tell people about it. Like, “You’ll never believe what we just did.” It was another incredible experience, and it was definitely a good story to tell in a barroom setting. [laughs].

Dennison: Any struggling band coming up had to play a lot of gigs where people [in the audience] didn’t give a shit. I think The Del Fuegos rose to the occasion at Walpole, playing outside the box. I suppose they hadn’t ever played for a segregated audience that might have killed them if they didn’t like them. [laughs]. Rapists and murderers and child molesters. It was a memorable experience for everybody involved.

Featured Del Fuegos image courtesy of Wayne Valdez. Brian Coleman is the author of ‘Check the Technique Vols 1 & 2’ and ‘Rakim Told Me’. Among other places, he can be found online at briancolemanbooks.com, on Instagram @checkthetech, and Facebook @BillyRuaneForever.