II. A MEMOIR
“I have found both freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.”—Kahlil Gibran, “The Madman”
You talk of Billy and you have to think back. Way back. The Eleusinian mysteries, sure. And also the Shakers. And all the God-mad prophets who spoke in garbled tongues. There’s was nothing particularly mystical in Billy’s mind set. But he was a mythic sort of guy. I’m talking Jungian archetypes. The Fool in the Tarot Deck. Later, the Hanged Man. Ultimately, the Tower.
I think Billy’s tragedy, and his glory, was that he simply couldn’t not be himself. He did not wear the mask of JFK and the face of LBJ, as Charles de Gaulle famously said of the United States at the flood-tide of its empire. He could never put on a mask, an act. The Billy Routine? He could dim or brighten it like a rheostat but he couldn’t really switch it on and off like a light. In a sense, Billy was quintessentially American. After all, “The pure products of America,” as William Carlos Williams said in his 1923 poem, “go crazy,”
It is this pureness, in particular, that was his triumph. And his tragedy.
Some pertinent details: He was somewhat on the short side. Not stocky; not rail thin either. Of average build. Not as chubby as Truman Capote; not as wiry as Sean Penn. Somewhere in between. Seemingly frail, but physically strong. But what you sensed to be his emotional fragility gave you the impression of a certain phantom frailty. Not entirely or even partially physical; almost spiritual. (But let’s not talk mumbo jumbo here.)
He was not one of the violent ones. I never knew him to actually start a fist fight with anybody. I never heard of anybody actually cleaning his clock, though more than a few people physically assaulted him, and many people were tempted to. Men and women.
But Billy would assault people. That leaping for the face to plant a stubbly kiss. Like he was some old school Italian Don. You halfway expected him next to do a Don Corleone number and murmur ala Marlon Brando in broken Sicilian. He certainly had a histrionic side.
Not surprising. He loved old movies. According to Pat McGrath, his favorite was by Godard’s “Contempt”. But he had many favorites. I’d go with him to the Harvard- Epworth Church (or maybe he would drag me along) to see crazily obscure and rarely seen films.
John Price Carey: “When you went to the movies you would be very likely to see Billy; but not for long. He noted down everything that was playing all over town on a particular evening and, with an encyclopedic knowledge of film, calculated which scene in each production was most worth seeing. And so he would pop up now here, now there, a dapper little figure brandishing a scribbled list, teleporting perhaps across the distances between.”
What was it about Billy and movies, and later, vintage television shows? Did he live inside them? Did they make him forget himself for awhile? I don’t know. Maybe the latter. At his Boston apartment he had a battered black and white television set that he might have rescued from a garbage can—I wouldn’t be surprised if the antenna was a coat hanger—and late at night, unable to sleep, he would watch old movies. I never saw him watch the thing otherwise. He loved the great films. Foreign, domestic, silent. But he also loved junk. He was inexplicably very enthusiastic about “Every Which Way But Loose”– in which Clint Eastwood plays opposite an Orangutan. (Then again, maybe he just really liked Clint Eastwood.) He also liked, cultivated, celluloid obscurities—the stuff that fell in between the cracks. His eventual booking agency HELLDORADO was allegedly named for one such old movie.
He loved Mickey Spillane and old pulp crime novels. He also loved 19th century American literature. Emerson and Thoreau, to be sure, but also long-forgotten authors who had been literary sensations in their day. (Don’t ask me to name any. Even I don’t remember.)
He had impeccably eclectic taste. I still have his copies—underlined—of Forced Exposure Magazine. (I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he took some of his out-of-town booking cues from the reviews in that magazine.)
He was supportive of, and an enthusiastic fan and advocate of, any number of local bands. We all know this, if we know anything at all about him. For a person who was at all times on the cutting edge of hip (and even more on the cutting edge of “so-cornball-it’s-perversely-hip) he had a sentimental side. In particular, he loved the Salem 66 song “Across the Sea”. Listen to the lyrics some time. It is a sad and wonderful tune. I once saw him at T.T.’s as Salem 66 performed it, and he was utterly enraptured by it.
That accent of his—affected Brit or was it something else? His friend Dave McMahon says “Connecticut”. But was the accent something more? A key to his character? Or something stemming from what was once the shadow of a calm inner essence once known but otherwise almost irretrievably lost?
Anywhere other than Cambridge he probably would have been asylum-bound long before he actually was, in 1990. Cambridge, which should be known as the East Coast Capital of Crazy. Full of drug burn-outs, wrecked minds, broken souls. Homeless, down and out, street people. Crazed eccentrics abounded. People with colorful names. Brother Blue—entirely harmless, and wholly benign. And others, less so. The Yankee Doodle Man. There was also an elderly black man, a former MIT professor it was rumored, who I would regularly see walking down the streets of Central Square forming imaginary equations with his fingers and mumbling.
And then there were charismatic people like Karmu the Healer, who is said to have “healed 20,000 people.” Bob McQuaid: “He fed a lot of hippies and gave them a place to sleep. He would tell a girl he was beautiful and you would see a girl become beautiful right before your eyes.”
This sounds an awful lot like a description of Billy.
The West coast equivalent of Cambridge was San Francisco. But I spent some time there in 1980, and also in 1987, and Billy Ruane was not a San Francisco kind of guy. In his more lucid moments, at least, he was too much of a skeptic to swallow any new age nostrums. And too much of a pragmatic liberal to give himself over wholeheartedly to utopian schemes.
But Billy was a political person, with an abiding interest in geopolitics. Billy cared about such things. Cared too much, maybe. His mind was too active and wide-ranging, his antennae too sensitive. He could not ignore the world and shut out all the faraway unpleasantness. He could not even put it off to one side, as it is said that well-adjusted, well-balanced people often can.
What influence did Billy have on the Boston music scene as a whole? Great. What influence did the Boston music scene have on music as a whole? Not inconsiderable.
I only knew him well in the summer of his years. That would be from 1977 to 1999. I feel impelled to write about him in part because of the influence he had on the turns my own life took.
Before I met him I was mostly into folk music and conventional big-ticket acts such as the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Zombies, Animals—even the dreaded Prog Rock. Billy was heavily into punk and avant-garde rock and also steered me in that direction.
He also loved jazz and esoterica and cocktail music and cheesy American songbook stuff and schlocky Americana in general and in particular, Herb Albert, and the whole corrupt Sinatra-Martin-Sammy Davis Jr. Hollywood showbiz crowd tickled him pink. Billy practically single-handedly geared the zeitgeist back towards what hipsters in March of 1987 were referring to as Grandpaw music. He called it “Ruane’s Mainstream”.
Most people only turn themselves up to 7, or, at the most, 9. Billy, I believe, started at 10. He could ramp up to 16 or 17 and could ramp down to 12, occasionally at a moment’s notice. Often he could bring himself down to 8, or even 6. Then there were the debilitating, suicidal depressions. Not for Billy to mope around in public, bemoaning his fate. His depressions were mostly private. I saw him in a funk from time to time. Not often. But more than once. I knew that the possibility existed that he was depressed.
Many people who got to know him were put off by his use of the telephone. It was not unusual for him to call you at some outlandish hour like two or even four in the morning. It was not like he just wanted to have a conversation. His phone calls would devolve into harangues. He would let you get a word in edgewise from time to time, but just enough to keep you on the line. And he never wanted to hang up. One of his tics (or tactics) when finally concluding a conversation was saying, “Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.” And waiting for you to hang up first.
How well did anyone really know him? I can’t say I really did. He was like grabbing a blob of quicksilver; hard to get a grip on, and possibly even toxic if you didn’t handle him with care. He was like a hummingbird whose wings beat so rapidly that he had to consume three times his weight to stay alive. He was a living uncertainty principle: The more you poked at him the less of him you actually saw.
Nobody, I believe, would have been unduly shocked had he died at age 65. But dying just before one’s 53rd birthday seems so…so 19th century, almost.
How did he manage to maintain his energy level? Other than the Vivarin, and whatever other substances he swallowed? By eating. Yes, he was quite the gourmand. Obscure, bizarre foods were his forte. I’ve seen Billy eat crazy stuff like raw lamb tongues and goat tripe. In general, common fare was not for him, though it would do in a pinch. Billy had a love of fine food and his tastes, as in everything else, were eclectic. At his river-side Boston Apartment near Newbury Street, I once saw him pour vodka into his hot and sour soup and drink it down with great relish.
About that river-side apartment. Billy lived there during the lattermost portion of the 1980s after his banishment from the Grolier Apartments, described elsewhere. (He might have been forgiven the transgression with the fire extinguisher, but he made matters far worse by slipping a bizarre note—with British spellings!– into the doors of each and every resident of the building.) From the roof of this apartment, at least, I imagine that he could look westward and see Cambridge in all its cracked glory on the other side of the Charles. It was only two miles by foot from Harvard Square—about eight minutes by subway and less than eight minutes by cab—during those years (before he bought the notorious scooter) his preferred mode of transportation.
About cabs. Billy at one time went everywhere by cab, as though he were living in Manhattan. He paid for these rides by means of some mysterious scrip known as vouchers. I suppose his father paid one or more cab companies up front for this privilege. If so, it was a wise and judicious use of money. Perhaps it is needless to mention that Billy always tipped these cab drivers generously. Even when venturing far afield to places such as Belmont; even when the cab drivers, some of whom spoke little English, had trouble locating and delivering Billy to the places he wanted to go.
I don’t know who, if anyone, taught Billy how to drive. I am told that he did have a license for the scooter. But as far as I know, reckless as he was, he got seriously banged up on at least one occasion but somehow never got into a truly serious accident. (Unlike his old friend Mr. Butch, who crashed his scooter and died on July 12, 2007.)
Damon Krukowski: “One time, waiting in line at the License Commission in Cambridge, I caught a glimpse of Billy’s picture — taped up on the glass facing the clerk.”
Billy had apparently been troubled by a charge of drunk driving sometime in 1988. I know few of the details, nor the outcome. I do know, however, that he consulted a lawyer.
He was incredibly reckless on the scooter. If you were foolhardy enough to ride with him, you were either very brave or you had a subconscious or even a conscious death wish.
I saw Billy at dozens of shows. One in particular was quite memorable. It was in August of 1980 at The Underground, a former Laundromat in Kenmore Square, during a show featuring I-Ses and V;. Billy danced himself into a terpsichorean frenzy ala Nijinsky sitting in a cave on the Austro-Hungarian border and greeting the liberating Soviet troops in 1945 with spectacular leaps and unrivalled grace in his last dance —well, maybe I wouldn’t go quite that far. To a trained eye, it might have seemed more like an ungainly white boy thrashing about. He was quite drunk. But whatever his condition, he was utterly lost in himself and in the music. I heard that on a subsequent occasion, he crashed into a pillar or a post or some sort of immovable object, and gave himself a hernia.
He was great at networking, well before that term was widely used. One of the people I met through Billy was Greg DeVore, the son of Irven DeVore, a professor of anthropology at Harvard. Billy probably first met Greg circa 1973, though I have been not been able to pin down the exact year.
Greg DeVore sounds like Greg Devour, but I swear I’m not making this up. “The Lizard King” as my friend Nita Sembrowich called him, at an infamous Harvard Advocate party.
Andrew Morvay: “I recall a couple of visits by Greg DeVore (whose very name seemed to evoke awe, fear and trembling) with Billy. They seemed to have a special bond.”
Greg died sometime in the mid-1990s. He had cleaned himself up several years before, and had suffered relapses on numerous occasions, yet a life of wretched excess had eventually taken its toll. He couldn’t have been much over 40. Liver failure, is what he should have died of. I think he might have sampled virtually every substance known. Instead, he fell in the bathroom and hit his head. Billy spoke at Greg’s memorial.
In certain respects he was Billy’s dark spirit, or at least that’s how I think of him. The gray eminence to Billy’s garishly lit Shamanic antics. There were two angels standing on Greg’s shoulders. One was actually a devil, and the other was a truly ferocious devil. There was something feral about Greg. A friend of his told me that Greg Devore lived in the Kalahari Desert in Africa “among baboons and a tribe of Bushmen at the ages of 2 to 4 and the ages of 5 to 7.” Greg told him that he and his father “were with the tribal celebration cooking ceremonial” and that Greg did something forbidden and his father hit him. When Greg was about five years old, he would “hunt cats and dogs in the neighborhood and bring them back to his house in Cambridge, all while running around dressed in loincloths.” He got a whipping and was told that henceforth “he was not to kill the neighborhood cats. His family,” says this informant, “was like something out of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Was Greg a baleful influence on Billy? I am inclined to say yes. How could he not be? But then again, Billy seldom did things against his will. Would Billy’s life have been very different had he never met Greg DeVore? It is hard to be sure, but the answer is probably no. Billy, to some degree or other, was indestructibly pure. Oh, I know this is going to sound like a lot of nonsense to people who didn’t know him. I’m not going to indulge in histrionic speculations about some halo or white aura which emanated from the physical corpus of Enlightened Master Ruane. But there was…something. I don’t mean pure in the sense of maculate, unspotted. I mean pure in the sense of his being purely himself. An indomitable spirit, if you will.
I don’t have much truck with AA-inspired pseudo-psychoanalytic jargon, but Greg was an enabler, all right. In mostly a destructive sense. And so was Billy Ruane. But mostly in a constructive sense. But Billy was also defined by his anger.
Pat McGrath: “Billy needed anger really badly. Because he was really traumatized. And anger was the only emotion strong enough to cover everything up. The people that he was shittiest to, invariably, were the people he knew loved him the most. ‘Cause he thought that they could endure that barrage. The abuse that he could heap on. Billy’s mother killed herself in front of him. And Billy was really bright. He knew that he had diminished capacity. I think he mourned his competence and the ability that he knew he didn’t have. He was so smart that he knew he wasn’t like the other boys. I think that’s what fueled the bad Billy, and good Billy was just good Billy. He needed to go bad, because he needed to be angry, he needed to tilt at windmills, he needed all of that.”
Billy sometimes angered me. At times, among people he knew well, he could put on a certain air of infuriating hauteur—of aristocratic disdain. I do not believe that this was merely assumed. I detected a certain amount of pride, of snobbishness about him. Part of an aristocratic heritage. Like I said, he was a sort of Gatsby in reverse.
Wednesday, March 21, 1990. Diary entry. “In the Club, in front of Cathy Houlihan, Billy said he’d fire me, if I weren’t a welfare case.”
Nita Sembrowich: “Of course he was angry and frustrated. The gifts and the deficits came as a package. He had the terrifying, distorted brilliance of an imploding star. He knew also, I’m sure, that people were too often inclined to dismiss him as ridiculous. Maybe that’s why he forgave those who respected him enough to consider him impossible. His neediness and insecurity made him exquisitely sensitive to trends. He was the scenester par excellence, surfing precariously on the ever-breaking, ever dissolving crest of THIS IS IT.”