I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the cohort born in 1957 was anomalous. They were born on a major cusp. Barely old enough to be aware of and terrified by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Or to understand and be traumatized by the Kennedy assassination. But just old enough. (Imagine for a minute how your child might feel if he found out that the world might be destroyed in flames, or that Superman had been gunned down in the public square.)
Too young to be hippies and a hair too old to be convincing punks, the 1957 cohort often found itself uneasily suspended between two camps. Perhaps that is why so few of these people born in 1957 have gone on accomplish great things. Let’s see: Fran Drescher, Donny Osmond, Shannon Tweed, Vanna White…. I rest my case. (OK—I stacked the deck. We also had Frank Miller, Sid Vicious, and Mira Nair. Still….)
The 1957 cohort was young enough to have escaped the Vietnam War, but old enough, in 1968, to be aware that being drafted to serve in it was a distinct possibility. I suppose every cohort considers itself special, but the 1957 cohort truly is.
What was really wrong with Billy? I can’t say. But during the Middle East years, in a letter to Bettina Miller, dated 9-22-88:, I wrote: “I have the impression that some ostensibly insane people are just faking it and using their irrationality to build a wall which protects them from unwanted contacts—until, quite naturally, the wall becomes an intrinsic part of their mental architecture.“
Billy was allegedly bipolar. I’m not a Doctor, and I’m not going to try to second guess this diagnosis. But Bipolar is a diagnosis, not a template. I think there was something more to who Billy was than a handy file number taken from the DSM-IV.
Look at it this way: out of every 25 people you know, one of them has been diagnosed as bipolar.
Before the abolition of Cambridge rent control in December 1994, that percentage was probably much higher. Afterwards, the increased rents very likely drove some of the mentally disturbed to seek cheaper neighborhoods.
This might seem glib, but to me, Billy was a lot like a bipolar St. Nick. Dr. Santa and Mr. Claus.
The trouble with the drugs used to treat mental illness is that sometimes the people with depression or anxiety or unspecified borderline ailments prefer being the way they are, even if their lives are in utter perpetual turmoil due to their inability to fit in. In time, they cultivate that turmoil and even deceive themselves into thinking that they cannot fully live without it.
This point of view is anathema to people who consider themselves normal. After all, aren’t we schooled, practically from the age of five or earlier, that the highest good is to “play well with others”? Aren’t we taught these lessons from K through 12? Those brigands who cultivate their inner madmen are frightening, even repulsive.
But society has always produced pariahs who simply will not, can not, do not fit in. Literature is lousy with them.
Billy was a figure out of Melville. Think of Bartleby the Scrivener, whose constant refrain was “I should prefer not to.” Or of Billy Budd.
He was a figure out of Russian Literature, too. Think of Dostoyevsky’s Gambler, or his Prince Myshkin in The Idiot.
Or think of Salinger’s doomed prodigies, beginning with Holden Caulfield. Or of the young, “frail, but charismatic” (and ultimately doomed) Jordan Legier, in James Kirkwood’s second novel, Good Times/Bad Times.
Finally, think of Edward Dorn’s poem Gunslinger. The title character says, to the character Kool Everything, “Hang light, Kool / The earth moves beneath your feet / Like a ball bearing.”
Billy was like that ball bearing. Or like some celestial body whose gravitational force altered the orbit of anything he drew near to. Or, in his lowest moments, like melancholy Prince Hamlet, saying: “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!”
People have spoken about Billy’s generosity to bands and to friends and to people off the street, and it was all true. I have personally witnessed it countless times. It seemed motivated by some archaic sense of noblesse oblige, a salutary notion that nowadays we do not expect to see among people with money. He did not give things away simply to impress and become well known to people whose opinions didn’t matter to him; people who might otherwise have despised him. In many cases I have heard of, he gave to the needy. To people who needed a hand up. Billy seemed to live his life by Lincoln’s credo: “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”
Ultimately, I do not think Billy thought there was anything wrong with who he was and the way he was.
Billy had a weak stomach. A decided disadvantage for someone who was so very fond of alcohol. Not to mention caffeine. Sometime in the early 1980s Billy had to go to Mass General Hospital to have an operation for a serious stomach condition. A doctor told him that if he took caffeine in any form ever again he would be dead in a couple of years. Doctors are apparently given to saying such things to scare their patients into adopting healthy habits. Dave McMahon, Greg Devore and Georgio Della Terza apparently visited Billy while he was there. They were smoking and drinking and, according to Dave, “it was a real Marx Brothers scene” because the nurses kept telling the visitors that smoking and drinking were not permitted and that visiting hours were over and that, anyway, the patient was not permitted to have visitors. Meanwhile, Greg kept offering various substances to Billy. Alcohol. Xanax. Vivarin. Billy kept declining: “No, no, I can’t do that, no no, I’m not supposed to have that.”
All the same, a few days after leaving the hospital, Billy was apparently back to his old tricks.
About the way that Billy dressed: I don’t believe it was anything as simple as his being a holy fool making some sort of anti-fashion statement. Billy wanted to please his father and conform to his demands but not at the expense of his own integrity. So in time he wore the suit for which he had been fitted, but he allowed it to turn into a raggedy-assed remnant. It’s almost like he was reenacting a Potemkin replica of his father’s notion of proper dress; a mocking, scarecrow simulacrum; something, perhaps, out of Hawthorne’s Feathertop.
Billy could sometimes be of “opprobrious demeanor and condescending attitude.” Rarely. But the potential was always there.
Ultimately, the goal of relaxation must surely have been some part of whatever search Billy was engaged in. Because it seemed to many of us as though he simply could not relax. ”[How do I remember him?] Jumping up and down and screaming with a beer in his hand.”—Tom Hutcheson.
There are certain biographical facts which should be mentioned and perhaps looked into to better present a somewhat more well-rounded portrait of this Citizen. Billy attended Exeter and the Cambridge School in the first part of 70s. He moved into a Harvard Square apartment over the Grolier Bookstore circa 1975. In the early-to-mid-80s he moved to an apartment across the river in Boston, then, in the late 1980s, he finally moved to an apartment in Central Square.
How Billy got evicted from the Grolier apartments is indicative. From a letter to DDS [dated as having been begun 10-3-81]: “Billy Ruane [has been] kicked out of his apartment at the Grolier after long years of habitation for allowing people to use his place when he wasn’t there… these people included street derelicts and the street derelicts invited knife-wielding ex-cons and the ex-cons got the amusing idea of throwing a fire extinguisher down an air shaft at some incredible a.m. in the morning with rather… explosive results; the [other] tenants refused to pay their rent until Billy was evicted, but he managed to negotiate a settlement wherein he’d be allowed to stay until the end of June .”
While residing at the Grolier, Billy hung around with and was well-known to Harvard undergrads, which is how I first met him and got to know him. He appeared in a play I adapted, a dramatic version of Gunslinger, put on at the Loeb Experimental Theatre in the Spring of 1978. Billy portrayed a character called Kool Everything. He was brilliant.
Billy was enrolled for many years in the Harvard extension school. One time, I recall, he was assigned a 20 page paper on Emerson. He wrote 200 pages, with no end in sight, and if he handed it in at all, it was months late.
I was at a party given by his father for his 21st birthday, in a high-end Chinese Restaurant on Mass Avenue. Presumably the date was on or around November 10, 1978. Billy was relatively restrained; his friends all got exceedingly, hilariously drunk. Billy’s father came up from New York City to preside over the gathering, and toward the end he read a poem — a bit of doggerel in which he pointed out how much his son loved to collect records and do all the other Billy Ruane sort of stuff that his father apparently found incomprehensible. I would characterize his attitude toward Billy as ruefully baffled exasperated pride. I do not believe at that time that Billy had been diagnosed as bipolar. The 70s were, after all, a crazy time, and Cambridge was full of eccentric characters.
Sometimes a person is difficult to understand unless seen in the context of his milieu…in fact, to a certain extent, a person is his milieu.
His father remarried, and I hear that the new wife did not care for Billy at all and–this is rumor–saw to it that Billy stayed in Cambridge rather than move to New York. Perhaps it is just as well. I spent time in NYC in the summer of 1978—that was not the place for Billy.
Some friends of mine—Gus Murphy Moynihan and Nick Eberstadt in particular–said Billy changed after his mother committed suicide; at least one person I spoke to, Dave McMahon, said that, actually, he didn’t; he said that even in 10th grade Billy was always interested in esoteric jazz; always compulsively taking Vivarin; always talking a mile a minute.
Beginning on 26 January 1988, Joe Harvard, Skeggie Kendall and Billy founded the Middle East. Then came Jennifer Cares. I started working there in earnest sometime in June or July of 1988. At first, at office work; eventually, working the door along with Jennifer and others. I saw Jen nearly kill him on at least one occasion. (I held her back.) As an employer, Billy could be quite exasperating. As a club promoter, his behavior could be inexplicable. For instance, on Easter Sunday in 1989 Billy got up on the stage of the Middle East and gave a brief (and presumably intoxicated) talk to the small crowd, culminating in his saying, “Fuck you all very much”.
We flatter ourselves that we are somehow very different from the animals whose antics we observe with mingled amusement and scorn. That we are somehow profound. But we operate under many of the same cruel imperatives and instincts. Only we assign them names. Names which justify them. Names like “rationalization” and “common sense” and “logic”.
Animals are superior to us in at least one respect: they do not deliberately mutilate and confuse themselves. Unless they are imprisoned.
Many people feel imprisoned by the mores of society. Billy was no different from most of us, only he loudly rattled his tin cup against the side of the cage and shouted Yadda Yadda at the warden.
There is always a price to be paid for such behavior.
Billy was not a sly evader of society’s strictures. He was a bulldozer. I have always observed this tendency of his with mingled awe, amazement and envy.
Billy willfully transformed himself into a local celebrity. It was a long slog. The details are vague. I would say it took him about thirteen years. Cold, imperious Boston was an unlikely launching platform in many ways. But tolerant, eccentric, and brilliant Cambridge was another matter. According to my friend, and Billy’s, John Price Carey, Cambridge, in the early to mid 1980s, was Babytown. I found this an intriguing notion and we set about composing a list of its attributes.
Crammed croissants, pocket bread sandwiches, ice cream stores. Flyer distributors and political canvassers. Woody Allen film festivals and non-stop Australian sensitivity and French tu jour amour cinema. Dogs wearing bandanas, We Love Russia agitprop, and crazy wheat-pasted posters that make no sense. Self-adulatory folk singers and white boy blues musicians. Cyclists with white plastic helmets and tiny mirrors bowling up the street the wrong way and knocking over pedestrians and old ladies; pedestrians walking into the middle of traffic. Humid muggy weather with the aroma of rancid catfish, omnipresent cockroaches, and overpriced, vile little markets that smell like 1963 with dried-out, fly-ridden produce. Street people who collect deposit bottles, and street singers, and assorted panhandlers. And a shrewd, ungrammatical Mayor given to making pronouncements which occasionally sounded crazed.
It was this milieu in which Billy thrived. At his best he was a very sweet person but he also had a mischievous streak. Billy the Patron Saint of Boston Bands he may have been, but he also was a Saint with an edge. And the more well-known he became, the more this edge manifested itself.
And then, of course, there was the booze. It’s a social lubricant, they say. Maybe because it brings everybody up—or drags them down—to a certain level. IT CHANGES THE RULES. Billy was, for a time, quite conversant with and very good at manipulating the rules of Boozeworld. (Not so much in later life, when he visibly overindulged in an unpleasant way and was barred from the very premises he had boozed himself up to storm and conquer.)
Say what you think. It won’t be held against you. You’re lit. And who’s going to remember anyway? And even if they do, so what? That’s the past.
Be affectionate. Inappropriately so. Ditto.
Most of all, BE YOURSELF. That was Billy’s inner guiding light. No wonder he drank! Booze is a license to swill.
The 1957 cohort had an ambivalent attitude towards booze. Our older brothers, the hippies, preached that the sauce was slop-water; jive-ass fare for the so-called Greatest Generation; a death-trip for lifers. Dope was where it’s at. Our younger brothers, the punks, said dope was for fossils and zombie slugs. Booze was good. Speed was better. Why not both?
But I think Billy was addicted to his manic state most of all.
Billy’s father would have liked Billy to go into the family business. But it never happened. You did not look at Billy and think, “Businessman”. And he was extraordinarily poor at it. His initial forays into booking were disasters. I have heard this from several sources.
For his part, Billy himself, it seems, never wanted anything to do with the business world, which requires at a minimum, persistence, as well as a specialized acumen in financial matters, which he seemed to have little interest in. There was, perhaps, also the matter of business decorum. Can anyone who knew him imagine Mr. William Ruane Jr. dressed in a neatly pressed suit and power tie exchanging dry quips about politicians and sports figures while getting restrainedly well-lubricated at the 19th hole?
It’s not as though he couldn’t play a role. But it had to be a role of his own choosing.
Andrew Morvay: “[During much of the 1980s Billy] worked [at the reception desk] in the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial room, in the center of Widener, a dark wood paneled room, like an old gents club, with the portrait of Harry on the wall. The room is not Houghton, the Harvard rare book library. But it housed Harry’ s personal collection of rare books including the famous Gutenberg Bible. There are all kinds of stipulations for the room that went with the bequest to build the library, including the fresh flowers every day.”
It was a 35 or 40 hour per week position which he split with another person, whom I never met. Knowing Harvard’s employment policy from the inside, he was likely an employee at will, essentially a temp, with no job security, no paid holidays—in fact, no benefits of any kind save a not unduly onerous job and a reasonable but by no means extravagant hourly wage. It was by all means easier than hustling bus-trays in a restaurant, which he also did when still a teenager. In fact, it was something of a sinecure. One friend of mine has remarked that there was humor to be found in the fact that he was the face of Harvard’s rare book room. He was like an antiquarian book himself, in certain respects—somewhat fragile, practically unique, priceless to people of a certain temperament and elusive and incomprehensible to the unlettered and unlearned.
Billy’s father told him to go to graduate school and take a degree in library science, presumably so he could get a professional-level job in some library or other. Say whatever else you will about him, but the old man was no fool.
But the library world is a comparatively sedate one, and acting out is considered a problem, and is not encouraged. Whether Billy would have had the patience to endure the drudgery of cataloging, bibliographic instruction, or business and government reference, is an open question.
Billy might have become a writer. I see an essayist or a critic of some sort. He had the intelligence, the critical acuity, the imagination. And most of all, the memory. But he didn’t have the sheer drive to sit down in front of a keyboard and do the work on a consistent basis. It wasn’t his strong suit. He wasn’t built for the grueling long haul—mentally, physically, or emotionally. Furthermore, clear and concise writing demands that one reign in one’s frenzied associative leaps and that one provide connective tissue between the spontaneous and out-of-context thoughts, that one provide the reader a beginning, a middle and an end, and proceed in a fashion that shows evidence of some sort of consistently applied logic, howsoever intuitive or thematic or even symbolic. In other words, long-form writing demands SANITY. That…well, you know. Or maybe Billy saw writing as the mug’s game it all too often seems to be.
First thought, best thought. That was the dictum of Ezra Pound and his acolytes, the Beats. Billy’s thoughts were racing, constantly racing. But he didn’t have the patience for exacting and sometimes excruciating revisions. Indeed, he himself said as much about himself. But good writing demands revision. Saul Bellow revised some of his sentences ten times. And good writing takes patience. Most of all, good writing demands detached observation. And Billy was seldom content to sit and watch a room; he always seemed to want to act upon it in some way. Billy was in no way a pure observer. He had to go into any situation like a rogue molecule and act upon it, and alter every interaction that he could.
I also almost never saw Billy in repose but at some point or another—maybe lying in bed, unable to sleep—he surely must have read. A lot.
You wouldn’t have to talk with him long to realize that he had a quick, retentive mind. I can’t imagine that he forgot very much. That, of course, can be a curse as much as a blessing. Perhaps the booze served to soak up some of the less desirable recollections.
He also possessed a vastly counterintuitive sense of good taste. And a cynical side too. He did not suffer pretentious fools gladly. Nor liars.
Billy’s two great romantic attachments—that I was aware of—are living people whom I am unwilling to discuss except in the most general terms. He had one long-time 80s girlfriend. I will call her the Dark Lady. She was dark in appearance but fair in her demeanor. Circumspect. Perhaps a bit of a homebody. And most of all, kind and patient. I may be entirely wrong, but these are the impressions she left me with on the few occasions I spent time with her.
Dave Mc Mahon: “He lived for about two years on Mission Hill with her. When he was with her he was normal all the time.”
There was another woman. I will call her the Fair Lady. Fair in her outer appearance but a bit wild, a bit mystical. She lived in Cambridge. For a brief time she lived in my apartment. She was up for excitement. But she had morality. She didn’t do bad things because doing bad things made her feel bad. I do not know if Billy could have ultimately found contentment with her. Although, at the time, he was excessively smitten with her. I know this because I have kept a written record of the dozens of phone messages he left for her during the nine weeks she lived there.
If he weren’t otherwise so scattershot, such a loose cannon, Billy might have been a genius DJ. Trouble was, his taste wasn’t what businessmen (or anybody else) would regard as commercial. In fact, his taste seemed deliberately, resolutely, anti-commercial.
He was better suited to be a tastemaker. Once you tapped into Billy’s world-view, you were no longer satisfied with “garden-variety Alabama country fare.” It was akin to having tasted the forbidden fruit. I am overstating my case, perhaps, but not by much. Billy was always three moves ahead of everybody else on the great chessboard of musical taste. His opinions may not always have been, but always seemed, at least, unerringly right. If not in this world, then in some other, better one. He was a visionary in that respect. He saw potential in bands that might not have even been aware themselves that any such potential existed.
So — Billy would have been a good A&R man, right? Well, maybe in that mythical other, better world. But as I have mentioned, his taste and temperament were resolutely anti-commercial.
Billy was a music promoter and an impresario. And something more. A music evangelist, one who brought to public light the music he was convinced that as many people as possible simply had to hear. What motivates this impulse? I never knew Billy’s thoughts on this, but my own might be similar enough.
Let’s face facts: Theodore Sturgeon was an optimist. In 1958 the science fiction writer famously stated that “90 per cent of everything is crud.” Life is short. Why waste your time with shit? OK, so music appreciation at its best involves trying new things. But a deadened musical palate means you’ll only favor swill. Many people use music as a soundtrack to their lives. Like Koala Bears who insist on a diet of Eucalyptus leaves only, they either can’t or won’t appreciate any sounds that they didn’t grow up with. That’s why you see so many sad old duffers crying into their beer with Sinatra on the juke. Never mind that the man was a snarling mad dog at worst and a thug at best. Man. Can that guy sing.
Don’t get me started on Pierre Bourdieu, who said (more or less) that what you like is determined by your social status, and vice versa. It explains a lot. It even helps to explains Billy. Generalism was his vice. Eclecticism was his drug. Glorious and wretched excess was his delivery system.
Cambridge, of course, is full of evangelists. In our time, Billy was the one who rose to the top.
I am sadder than I can say that he is gone so soon.