BY FRANCIS DIMENNO
photos by Wayne Viens
I. A MEDITATION
“He was a man of great complexity, of reckless, even dangerous extremes. His was a life touched by early tragedy, a setback which…led him…into other worlds with which he was unable to deal….”
—Alexander Theroux, The Enigma of Al Capp
Billy Ruane. Born November 10, 1957, died October 26, 2010.
I remember Billy best from when in years past I would hop on back of his orange scooter and go with him to bare lofts in factory districts hard by half-razed tenements to see punk bands so raw and loud no regular club in town would have them. At one such show, Billy, mouth flecked with beer foam and calamari, wild-eyed and whiskey-faced, leapt in front of the band as out groaned harsh, flat discords. I stand by in wonder as he throws off his filthy tweed jacket and rolls on the floor, howling as if in pain, which I only now suspect might have been less theatrical than real.
After college we both remained in Cambridge as carpetbaggers, malingering in the margins of the workforce. I took a variety of phone survey jobs to pay the rent on my slum flat and he lived in an apartment subsidized by his father. He worked desultorily but was mostly idle by day and spent his evenings searching for mostly bizarre and now forgotten punk ensembles in now-long-defunct venues. Partly because he was so well known to that underground scene, Billy, hyper, unable to stand still or on two feet for very long, was eventually able to parlay into a booking business those connections made over the years in gritty sixth-floor loft spaces and dripping-damp basements.
I never knew what Billy’s father thought about all of this. I remember him as a beefy but enigmatic businessman with a bulbous port-wine nose, steel-gray hair, and a hearty but somewhat sarcastic spirit of camaraderie.
I knew Billy when, and that is how I came to work with him at the Middle East, which attracted students and music fans but where also every eccentric and shiftless vagabond from years past, and a few more he met along the way, congregated every week and often nearly every day.
But why should the story of this Billy Ruane, a small-time nightclub impresario, interest us at all? What was he: Local character, busy bee, wild shaman, mad actor, or something less (or more)?
We often remember Billy in his role as conduit, catalyst, fixer, broker. King of the Bohemians. Patron of the arts, and eccentric dispenser of (and sometimes defaulter upon) all the money that goes along with the title. And also, perhaps, as a sometimes heedless, headlong, almost inadvertent manipulator of the political aspects of the local arts scene.
Billy’s notoriety, already considerable by the late 1980s, grew still greater out of his 1988 association with the Middle East Café and the Sater Brothers, Joseph and Nabil, and their extended family; refugees from war-torn Beirut, and devotees of the artsy Hamra neighborhood. Many today who claim to have known Billy probably knew him best from his role in fomenting that whole Middle East scene.
But his success in the music business was not the sum of Billy’s accomplishments.
Those who knew him, and many who didn’t, talked of Billy as being eccentric, the proverbial loose cannon, Captain Id, a wild man. We told each other that Billy was one of those people who were always “on.” (Not so.) There are no lack of stories about “Wild Bill.” (I myself have more than a few.)
Chris Rich: “Billy was enthusiasm and saw getting carried away as an important job.”
Nita Sembrowich: “Billy’s mental illness, for want of a better term, made him seem slightly inhuman, even supernatural. Billy the person suffered within and was consumed by his own persona and mystique, which fascinated the rest of us, as did his outrageous antics. It was easy to see him as a fire-spirit, an ‘elemental’. Possessed by a divine or demonic energy, he became Dionysus, or a minor avatar of Shiva, dancing death, chaos, destruction, and creation. Now, looking back, I also think of him as a sort of Mad Maestro orchestrating the scenes of my youth. Because he tended to evoke these undying archetypes, Billy’s death seems particularly poignant and shocking. The masks he borrowed are ripped away. He was mortal after all.”
He was mortal after all. I myself have tried, many times, to see him whole. Now that he is gone, I feel that one of the central tragedies of Billy’s life was that he was known of by nearly all, loved by many, but, in the end, he gave the impression of being a lonely soul who didn’t really feel very close to anyone; at least, not for very long. Someone as casually cynical as Nick Eberstadt once observed, back in 1978, that Billy was “the closest thing to a truly good person that I ever met.” If only there wasn’t that stupid money, that stupid, stupid money, I am tempted to say. He might still be with us today. But Billy didn’t really care about money itself; no more than a wizard cares about his book of spells. He cared only for what magic its knowledge and its application could effect.
Out-of-towners, and people not in the know, some of them, surely thought that he was some sport of humanity, some sort of combination of ardent music fan and local character. What if what they have to say about Billy Ruane is actually the more accurate perception? What if they find baffling and inexplicable this sudden outpouring of affection for a rare but occasionally ominous fellow who was nearly always both generous and hail-fellow-well met, but also vaguely frightening? What if they’re right?
Oh, they’re most certainly not right. But what if Billy had not been instrumental, after Sue Miller had tested the waters, in founding the Middle East with Skeggie Kendall and Joe Harvard? And, later, with Jennifer Cares and Mike Higgins and Eric Doberman and Chris Rich and (modesty be damned) myself? Then perhaps his death would be little noted and not long remembered.
But I think not.
Perhaps one of the reasons so many otherwise stable people liked him, approved of him, even loved him, was because they lived vicariously through him. Come as you are. For Billy, it wasn’t an invitation. It was a mantra. Billy added color to an ugly town. He made a statement virtually every day on earth.
I think of Billy as something out of a figure in mythology. Boston’s Icarus: He flew too close to the sun and ultimately, he scorched his wings. Or maybe the operative myth is Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and as punishment was chained to a rock to have his liver picked at by vultures for all eternity.
In Billy’s case, his impatience with things as they were drove people nuts. On the other hand, his impatience translated itself into innovation. Arguably, Billy was the motive force behind at least two still-potent cultural memes: The invention of slam dancing. (I have long maintained it started with him). And the whole “unplugged” phenomenon. He was promoting shows with that concept back in January 1988. (MTV Unplugged debuted in 1989.)
If you were at or near Billy’s level, you could interact with him, and he with you. But you had to accept the interaction on his terms. (I think that to an extent, his money and his reputation gave him a greater ability to set such parameters.) If you would not, or could not do that, then you were simply left with ENDURING him. Or leaving the room.
Billy was definitely a decided influence on me. He was the most colorful character I’ve ever met, and I’ve met more than my share. Catnip for any writer in or out of his right mind. But slippery as hell.
He had his dark moods. I have had them too. Fortunately for my ongoing sanity, I know that my black dogs only last for two or three days. Then I find some shiny bauble to occupy my monkey mind. I imagine that Billy managed to keep himself busy and that keeping busy was a form of compensation he took from a world that seems cold on its surface, but which can actually surprise us from time to time with its beauty and senseless grace.
Maybe that’s why so many people found him remarkable. And some found him unbearable. He was resilience in motion.
Sandra Monticello Neades: “I once saw him rocket straight up out of his seat when The Tijuana Brass came on the Green Street Grill jukebox. It was marvelous.”
What is it about music that stirs the soul and makes us want to jump and shout? Is it merely a form of mathematical alchemy that short-circuits our logical synapses and sends them into epically balletic contortions? Billy was brilliantly corybantic, but it was nearly always in the context of music of some sort.
He was also extremely intelligent. Scarily so. It is not true that all bipolar people are geniuses, nor is it true that all geniuses are bipolar. Correlation is not causation. But there is a trend. I have heard from many sources that Billy was a child prodigy. Capable of speaking to adults on an adult level, while himself only a few years removed from being a toddler. Of course, we all know of the fate of the child prodigy who grows up to become an obsessive loner who, for the remainder of his life, spends all his time doing something …utterly inexplicable, like collecting bus transfers. Cambridge was (and probably is still) full of these sorts of people.
But our culture as a whole does not admire or celebrate our prodigies, our renaissance men. Not unless they invent a bomb or murder a tyrant. The cruel joke about America is that many of its citizens have been brainwashed into believing that they must somehow better themselves in order to advance within society. While, at the same time, the society itself is acting in subtle ways to keep them in their place. We deplore the fact that teenagers do stupid things because of peer pressure. We do not deplore the fact that adults are also constrained to mostly act as other people do.
Billy without money? Unfathomable. Without money, he could never have followed his avocations as seriously, and as strenuously, as he did.
Well, he did work at jobs. I suspect this was for what mobsters, and droll pensioners, like to refer to as “walking around money”.
Self-indulgence. We’re all capable of it. Did Billy think of himself as self-indulgent? Maybe. He did sometimes seem to have an exaggerated sense of entitlement.
Some people use tranquilizers; some use stimulants. Billy used both in a way that stimulated him while at the same time calming him. There is a seductiveness about speed combined with alcohol. It gives one a marvelous lack of inhibition while at the same time one’s mind is seemingly undulled. But the consequence—the subsequent let-down—is brutal.
He had no use for marijuana. Some find the effects of such an altered state enormously appealing. But I believe that to be Billy was to already live in an altered state—colors were brighter, music more profound, three conversations could be followed and even directed all at once. Pain? What is pain? Who cares? Pain is in the past, or awaits the future. This is now, so live it fully.
I do not think that he really stopped to take the time to consider consequences. He bulldozed his way through life. Billy could range all the way from Gandhi to Stalin. It was the variability of his strenuous life, I think, which held the key to his character, if such a key can ever be found.
What really strikes me is that the story of Billy is, in its way, a story about America. The Great Gatsby, if Gatsby had been born rich to begin with. And had had a father who loved him and wanted him to be happy.
We hear so many stories about people whose fathers were strictly by the book. We do not often hear about who, exactly, wrote that book.
I suspect that it was World War Two.
The war is why so many of the fathers of Baby Boomers were hard-asses. Tough as nails. The kind of fellows who in their formative years responded half in their sleep to commands like Shoulder Arms and Dress Right Dress and Move It On Out. How could they help but to look at their sons—no matter how tenderly they regarded them–and not fear that they might be soft and in need of some rigor—some meticulous toughening up? And that is why the sons of so many of these fathers were so often fucked up. Skeptical of authority and determined at every corner to outrun or defy it.