John Cafferty & Beaver Brown are still in a bit of a daze. The Rhode Island-based sextet spent 11 years trudging from Virginia to Maine, packing nightclubs but still unable to get a record contract. When they finally landed a record deal, it was the sound track to a movie that bombed at the box office: another career dead end. Or so they thought.
Last weekend they played Toad's Place in this college town, where they've played nearly every other month for eight years. This time was different, though. The line to get in wrapped around the block four hours before the band's midnight showtime. As the witching hour approached, the sardine-packed crowd began to chant: "Beaver! Beaver! Beaver!"
The chant echoed in the basement dressing room below the stage, where lead singer John Cafferty jogged in place to get himself revved up. Short and slight, sort of a leprechaun with a chiseled jaw and square sideburns, Cafferty wore a red work shift rolled up tight at the sleeves and unbuttoned at the chest. As he stretched to touch the toes of his black boots, he shook his head in wonder. "A lot of things have happened since we were last here in July," he said. "For one thing, we sold a million records."
He wasn't exaggerating. Beaver Brown's sound track for "Eddie and the Cruisers" was released a year ago. It did respectably, considering the movie only grossed $4.7 million. By the summer, the album had apparently run its course, selling 175,000 copies, and CBS' Scotti Brothers Records was ready to release Beaver Brown's follow-up.
Then a funny thing happened. "Eddie and the Cruisers" was shown on HBO seven times in July, when a lot of kids were out of school with nothing to do and money to spend. The sound track sold 25,000 copies the week after the cable debut. It doubled that the following week.
By the end of August, the album went gold (500,000 copies sold); last week it went platinum (a million copies sold). Both the album and its first single, "On the Dark Side," went Top 10. The video for the single has been No. 1 on MTV for two weeks. The completed second album, "Tough All Over," has been put on the shelf until next year because the band began a national tour.
"It hasn't quite sunk in yet," says lead guitarist Gary Gramolini. "We're still juggling salaries to pay for carpenters and groceries, but we have a platinum record. It's like, 'What's wrong with this picture?' I mean, we're in the Top 10, but here I am still playing at Toad's Place. The only difference is we're turning more people away."
The band sprinted up the stairs to the stage, and the chant began again. The musicians launched into "Wild Summer Nights," a Cafferty composition from the sound track. As he sang, "All the kids are dancin' as the jockey spins the gold; everybody's fakin' that they'll never grow old," the standing crowd started to sway with upraised arms waving. Michael "Tunes" Antunes, the only band member to appear on camera in the film, capped off the song with a blaring tenor sax solo.
When John Cafferty & Beaver Brown play the Wax Museum Tuesday night, it will be a homecoming of sorts. Although it will be their first D.C. show since the sound track was released, the band regularly played Desperado's, the Cellar Door, Louie's Rock City and the Psychedelly in the late '70s and early '80s. That's because Washington's Mike Nardella, founder of Nard's Rock 'n' Roll Revue, was an early friend and big influence on the band.
"I met Nard in 1973," Cafferty recalls, "when I walked into a bar on Cape Cod where he was spinning discs. They were all great songs, and a lot of them I had never heard before, so I went up and introduced myself.
"We got to be friends, and I'd stay with him after the club closed and tape hundreds of songs -- that Carolina beach music, that New York and Philly doo-wop, those frat-rock songs, Phil Spector stuff. We'd put the tapes on at our house, and the music would seep into our consciousness. That was our rock 'n' roll education; Nard was our rock 'n' roll professor."
Narragansett, R.I., the beach town where Beaver Brown is based, is not so much on the wrong side of the tracks as on the wrong side of the bridge. Across the bay, the glittering resort of Newport hosts international aristocrats and yacht races. Narragansett, by contrast, was a vacation home for blue-collar families from Providence. Cafferty's father, a mailman, and his mother, a housewife, took him there every summer.
"The town was like a Beach Boys song," he remembers. "There were surf shops, boardwalks and cruising strips. I still surf; I still wear a surfer's bracelet." He holds up the braided twine band on his left wrist. "For me, the summertime was rock 'n' roll time. That was the time you didn't have to go to school; you could just hang out and live the songs. Especially on the East Coast where the summer is so short, it's a magical time."
By 1980, Beaver Brown had moved from rock classics to Cafferty's strong originals. They put out a single of Cafferty's "Wild Summer Nights" and "Tender Years" on their own Coastline Records that year, but they still couldn't get a major label to sign them. They kept hearing the same old refrain from record company reps: "You're good, but we don't hear a hit. Moreover, you sound too much like Bruce Springsteen."
The comparison was understandable. Not only did Beaver Brown play a similar brand of Spectorized R & B with lyrics about cars and beaches, but the band had a black saxophonist, an Italian lead guitarist and a short lead singer with a grainy bray. Cafferty's protests that Beaver Brown had been playing the same music long before Springsteen hit the covers of Time and Newsweek fell on deaf industry ears.
"We met Bruce in 1973," Cafferty explains, "back when we were both playing little clubs and schools up and down the East Coast. His musicians and mine got to be friends as guys in bands. After a while, we'd go to Asbury Park to play for 50 people, and half of them would be famous. Bruce and Southside Johnny would come up on the stage and sing with us.
"When I started writing songs, I had a lot of questions, and Bruce helped me sort it out. I always looked at it as very positive. It's as if I were a baseball player taking batting practice and Mickey Mantle came over to give me a few tips and then I hit a few over the fence. To me it's the same thing; it's nothing to apologize for. People in baseball don't care where you learn to hit home runs; so why do people in music care?"
Beaver Brown's big break came out of the blue in 1983. Kenny Vance, who was an original member of Jay & the Americans, had been named music producer of the fictional rock film "Eddie and the Cruisers." When he was looking for a black saxophonist for the film, he remembered this band called Beaver Brown that he had once seen in Greenwich Village.
"There's an old show biz saying, 'You gotta be great every night, because you never know who's in the audience.' Well, that's how we got the movie deal," Cafferty insists. "Kenny Vance was in the audience at the Other End one night about six years ago. He never introduced himself; I never talked to him until he called one day four years later about 'Eddie and the Cruisers.' "
The film's writer-director, Marty Davidson, showed Cafferty a part in the script where a song is written. They had the scene but not the music.
So Cafferty took the script home and the result was "On the Dark Side." Davidson and Vance liked it so much that they signed Cafferty and Beaver Brown to do all the music for the film.
Cafferty refuses to criticize the film, which reopened in Washington and selected cities last week; he says it was an honest attempt by honest people that gave him the biggest break of his career. Critics with more perspective have condemned it as ripping off Springsteen (a Jersey Shore band), Jim Morrison (a mysterious death), Bob Dylan (a lyricist quoting Rimbaud) and Brian Wilson (an unfinished masterpiece) without doing justice to any of them.
The film was aimed at the 21- to 40-year-old audience that lived through rock's golden era of the '60s. It turned out that that audience knew the era too well to accept the film's distortions. Instead it was the 8- to 21-year-olds who watch cable who responded to the film and the sound track as substitutes for an era they never knew. Now whenever Beaver Brown ventures out of bars into schools and halls, they meet 9- and 10-year-old kids who know the lyrics by heart.
"We were at Toad's Place in July," Cafferty recalls, "when our manager came backstage and said, 'Do you know you've sold 30,000 copies of the sound track this week and you're back on the charts?' It took us completely by surprise. I mean, we weren't caring about what had happened to the album the first time around.
"We're just a working-class band from Rhode Island, just a bunch of guys who've gone out for 12 years to play music and make a week's wages. People always say, 'It must have been so frustrating,' but the truth is, we actually got to do exactly what we wanted. The whole idea wasn't glory or money. We were getting by, and it sure beat the hell out of working."
Back on stage at Toad's Place, Cafferty pauses during a rollicking version of Chuck Willis' "Hang Up My Rock 'n' Roll Shoes" to talk to the crowd.
"I'll tell you a story," he says. "Me and the guys were back in our hometown, when we ran into this guy we knew in school. He said, 'You guys still in that rock 'n' roll band?' We said, 'Yeah, sure.' He said, 'C'mon, you guys, you're getting on. You ought to settle down, get a real job, buy a new car.' So I told him, 'Well, what you're saying makes a lot of sense, but I'll tell you what: We made this album, and it just went platinum!' "
He lets loose a loud, laughing cry and then asks the crowd: "So whaddaya gonna say when you have to go to work Monday?"
And the crowd shouts back: "I don't wanna hang up my rock 'n' roll shoes!"