III. AN ACCOUNTING –
1957: Chris Rich: “He claimed to be descended from Chicago bootleggers and his dad served in World War Two, got a GI Bill education and obtained a seat on the Exchange at Wall St. His classmate was Warren Buffett, Billy’s honorary uncle. His father became one of the legendary old guys, value investors of the highest quality. I learned less about his mom but sensed she was the one who imparted his depth. She left him with some guidelines for life, but marital despair, and whatever else, led her to a walk into Long Island Sound when he was in his [late] teens.”
1967: Timothy Maxwell: “Billy’s cousin discussed going to Uncle Billy’s house at age 12—he ran back to the pool on a 90-degree day only to discover young Billy, aged 10, dressed in a suit and reading Russian literature.”
1972: A longtime friend of his has sent the following account:
I met Billy at Exeter. We both dressed like bums with neckties. He took to me in a rather alarming way, wanting to spend as much time with me as he possibly could. He was like a groupie. I just ain’t groupie friendly. When I got up at 6:30 every morning, after maybe two or three hours of sleep, I’d find him sleeping across my doorstep. I was going to the fucking shower, and did not want witnesses. He never took the hint. The hint like Don’t be here in the morning! Still, there he was, every morning. Estragon to my Vladimir.
A lot of the campus of Exeter Fancy Ass High School is little mimics of Harvard, with some later nods to Yale. Billy was in an ivied barn in the large southern ring of ivied barns. Just like Harvard Yard! Very quaint. Lots of ivy. Ancient quads.
Billy was at Exeter for less than a year. He was very noticeable. Got the boot hard. He would play Captain Beefheart at full volume at 2 or 3 AM. He was not exactly popular. Blew off most classes. He devised many ways of escaping from his forth floor dorm box. (He kept it both empty and messy.) I suspect that he sometimes climbed down the vines, at considerable risk of his life. Mostly he snuck out down the stairs. There was a strict(ish) curfew, and he pissed in its face.
You know the vomit-at-will scene? A good one. Billy could vomit at will. When introducing him I’d always mention that. Any time the introducee noted it, he’d say yup, and vomit a bit, splattering his shoes. Maybe why he grew to avoid me in public.
I always knew Vladimir would outlive Estragon. But I thought Vladimir would be sadder.
Circa 1973-4. Interview with a friend of Billy’s, who knew him at the Cambridge School.
First time I ever met Billy the school was half boarding and half day school, half male and half female…[very] diverse…rich, middle, lower class, over, middle and underachievers—native Americans and inner city kids. People [there] were tripping [all the time]…Billy was right in the middle of a [school full of] acidheads…but he probably never took [acid] himself.
In regards to etiquette—Billy had manners but chose not to use them. In regards to body odor–Billy did not like to take a bath. I remember Billy listening to jazz, talking about jazz, and going to shows. He was really bookish—writing and writing—he had a killer jazz collection with people like Eric Dolphy.
Linus Pauling would prescribe vitamins to Billy. Ones found in their food sources. Chicken livers, avocados, oranges, carrot juice.
His mother was crazy as a loon, drunk and drugged. She was an unhappy lady [who had divorced Billy’s father several years ago because he wasn’t making enough money]…she took an overdose…they say Billy and his sister watched. I don’t remember him drinking that much until he moved to his apartment in Harvard Square. Billy was sometimes very depressed—suicidally so–all the time—he was sort of never really happy—faking happiness.
Around 1974, Billy’s father told him he had to go to two psychiatrists a week, and if he missed one appointment his father wouldn’t pay the rent.
I was 19 when I met Greg Devore. 1974. Billy and Greg were only two years behind me at the Cambridge School. My mother taught an art class there with Greg and Billy. I asked her if that wasn’t the craziest art class she ever taught. She said that it was the best art class that she ever taught.
Greg DeVore and Billy were both addicted to caffeine pills…they can make your pancreas explode—it is also so hard on your stomach—he started taking ‘em at age 11 when he found the pharmacist would give them to him without question. Billy always contended that NoDoz does nothing compared to Vivarin. Vivarin [supposedly] had an added ingredient.”
BILLY IN CAMBRIDGE
“Between thought and expression lies a lifetime.”—Lou Reed
Chris Brokaw claims that this was one of Billy’s favorite lyrics. If so, it seems particularly apt. There was no filter with Billy. Late 70s Harvard was all about chilling out. Billy wasn’t having any. Billy wasn’t built that way.
He never had much to do with pot. I’ve seen him take a reefer when proffered—it was ubiquitous in that era—but he always passed it along to the next person. He was no pothead, that’s for sure. And he wasn’t into hallucinogens at all. At least, not as far as I know.
As for Cocaine? Not his bag. It didn’t agree with him. If he were ever into it at all, even briefly, I never saw it. Besides, it was so…vulgar. Insufflating this horrible hospital-smelling powder up one’s snot-garage. It vaguely reminded one of sickness and people dying and death. Besides—cocaine on top of everything else that Billy was all about would have been an insult to sense and decency. Like throwing nitroglycerine onto a bonfire.
Caffeine, as we know, was another matter.
Billy was a fixture on the Harvard campus dating back to at least 1974 and possibly earlier. I first met Billy as an undergraduate at Harvard in the fall of 1976. I had begun to run with a fast crowd my sophomore year. It was probably through Richard Smoley that I first encountered Billy. Smoley was on the Harvard Advocate, the college literary magazine, and I had just joined.
Richard Smoley: “Circa 1974 Billy apparently took up residence in a storage unit at Harvard’s Mather House. [But] the first memory I have of Billy Ruane is of his staying overnight in the living room of Canaday G-21. When he emptied his pockets, a handful of little yellow Vivarins scattered all over the already-disgusting living room floor.”
I suppose that Billy moved into the Grolier apartments sometime in 1974 and 1975. A friend of his tells the story of how a bunch of people were crashing in his room, including some young ladies. In the darkness, Billy said, in that quaintly lilting somehow-not-quite-British accent of his, “Do you mind if I masturbate?” One of the girls said, “Ewww!” Billy imperturbably replied, “It helps me to relax.”
1976: When Billy was 19, his mother committed suicide. I have heard it said that she walked into the ocean and drowned herself. And that Billy and his younger sister witnessed this.
I had a suicidal, alcoholic mother who had a diagnosis of “schizophrenia” listed on her death certificate. I can attest that the world can seem a harsh and arbitrary place to a person whose source of nurturing is so afflicted. A generalized mistrust of humanity can easily take the place of fond attachments to any one person.
May 1978: Letter to GMM dated 6/24/78. “Seeing quite a bit of Billy who gave a party at the Advocate a month ago [to which he had invited some street people who hung out down by the river and] which some [of those] street people turned into a brawl.”
Circa 1978: Russ Gershon: “In his early Cambridge years in the late 70s, what was turned out to be so funny was that he was attending the most hot, intellectual courses around Harvard, making the most erudite and outrageous comments, and nobody seemed to realize he wasn’t actually enrolled. He even fooled professors, who couldn’t quite find him on their class lists and were perpetually perplexed.”
Circa 1978: James Gussen: “I think I may actually have had a class with him. Nat Sci 90. …He…showed up only sporadically, made no pretense of having done the reading, and said odd things that aggravated the teacher.”
1978. Dim Sum in Chinatown with Billy, Gus Murphy Moynihan, Nick Eberstadt, and Richard Smoley. Billy orders too many different items and causes a scene. He particularly seemed to piss off Chinese restaurateurs, who apparently had little patience with clowns. They allegedly love children, but not, it seems, children of a larger growth. Curious thing though—Billy pretty much started the fashion for wearing those flat-soled Chinese slippers.
Letter to RMS dated 2-20-79. February 17, 1979. “I didn’t leave the party at 1679 [Massachusetts Avenue] … until it had thinned out entirely, and would have stayed longer except [Billy’s friend] Greg DeVore took too many Percodans and washed them down with too many gallons of lager, so we had to take turns walking him around. An incredible asshole friend of Billy’s, some hyper-conceited dancer type, damn went and said to Greg, said, ‘Why don’t you die?’ I breezed in, gabbled with Greg, said ‘C’mon, Smiley, let’s dance,’ and occupied him long enough so that an incredibly twisted smile animated his ashen face.”
There is a rumor that sometime in the late 70s or early 80s Billy played drums for a band called Havoc, Inc., but I have not been able to confirm this.
Circa 1980: Daniel Gewartz : “I first saw Billy dashing and weaving about Harvard Square, obviously loaded, long ago, perhaps the late ’70s or early ’80s. He had on a suit and tie, as he often did when I saw him in subsequent years. And he appeared to me as an apparition, as some kind of nearly symbolic image, a flash from some stylish, half-made preppie from 1957 come back to grace us.”
February 1980: Billy loans me a picture of a crucified Christ with eyes that open and shut. He claims that he had obtained it during a visit to Vatican City. (He eventually claims it back.)
August 1, 1980. Harvard Advocate party. Nita Sembrowich: “Billy was in scary whirling dervish mode. I seem to recall him walking around the room, snapping his fingers in a violently insistent manner. And dancing of course. Also, I remember that he carried on an incredibly long, only semi-coherent conversation with John [Price Carey] about Susanne Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key. Most particularly, I recall you gesturing at Billy and saying, ‘There’s a flame flickering.’”
Notebook: August 1980. Billy arrives late at the Underground for a show headlined by I-ses. Erik Rieselbach: “Billy arrives distraught at not yet being drunk, after having consumed half a bottle of Madeira.” Billy does his wild dance. A big guy gets knocked over by Billy, and begins to brutalize him. After about twenty minutes of frenzied protests by Billy, the guy (wearing a Pooh’s Pub t-shirt) leaves. From the stage someone from I-ses comments, “Ladies and gentlemen—Billy Ruane, the human mop.”
June 1981. Letter to DJ dated 9-21-81: “Toward the end of the month Billy Ruane took me to see the Ventures—he almost got beat up in an inevitable altercation with some burly toughs, but the J. Swift’s people interposed and everyone involved got a free t-shirt for their trouble!”
From a letter to RMS and ADL dated 7-25-82. April 10, 1982. Easter Saturday. Xmas, Dangerous Birds, Salem 66 at the Knights of Columbus Hall at 321 Washington Street in Brighton Center. “[During the Xmas set] Billy Ruane joined the fun, and, in his inimitable and lovably cunning fashion very nearly managed to turn what had been merely a jive sock-hop for overgrown adolescents into a catastrophic mass brawl. As Billy commenced his spastic dance-psychodramatics, in which I joined him, things began to get wild…. I got beer thrown on my face and clothing and was very nearly clobbered by some bruisers who thought that the mock-fight which had erupted on the dance floor between myself and Billy was in earnest. (They later apologized, and told me that they didn’t realize that it was all merely a part of the entertainment.)”
1982: Erik Rieselbach: “I mostly remember him cursing our rotary dial phone while he was staying at 494 –the extra ten seconds it took to dial a seven-digit number drove him up the wall. And he hated the Beatles, or at least claimed to.”
3-8-1986: Letter to RMS and ADL. Condo Pygmies Loft Party at 500 Harrison Avenue, Boston. “Billy got up during the second set and performed an insanely vigorous version of “Louie Louie” (which he thoughtfully dedicated to the recently deceased musician Richard Manuel).”
Letter to KS dated 12-29-86. Tuesday, December 23, 1986. “I gave a party at my apartment. Mostly college cronies, theatre people, comedians, musicians. Billy Ruane came late. Meg Herbig, the comic, was notably unimpressed with Billy, who ignored everybody he didn’t know and insisted on playing Christmas records by the likes of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. (Christmas records which, in fact, only days before, he had given me.) “
January 1988. The Middle East. Heavy metal and the blues are popular with club owners because their fans drink lots of beer. I’m not making this up; this is what a club owner once told me. Billy wanted something different. A private club filled with like-minded individuals who would actually sit quietly and listen to the music. Kind of like a jazz club, only with avant-garde rock and solo performers. “Unplugged” before the concept of “unplugged” had caught hold.
Chris Rich: “Fate gave Boston an overly generous dollop of grifters and Billy was their catnip. Boston is insular and stodgy so it viewed the like of him as an irritant. The Boston Rock scene was a ridiculous egocentric shark pit from hell in its prime with Technicolor narcissism. Boston was soaked in heroin and blow, with mobsters on the periphery. At least one club owner bullied Billy to a breaking point. Billy bullying was a sport. This was his working world for most of his life. It took lots of energy. No internet, endless mailings, hours on the phone and Billy would agonize about some band he supported to the point of zooming over to other crowded clubs on his scooter to hand out his small funny Helldorado fliers cause he wasn’t gonna let that band down, dammit. He might hit 5 dumps in a night.”
Billy needed a buffer between himself and the Saters. He would sometimes drive them to distraction. With Billy, it was always MORE. That buffer was frequently Jennifer Cares. And me. I ran an open mike (later a comedy open mike) and a blues jam (later a reggae jam), but I also worked the door for other shows pretty regularly, from 1988 to 1994.
A typical day at the Middle East? Billy bustling about. Always bustling. Seldom in any one place. A glory to behold; Blake’s paradigm of energy as “eternal delight”. A quintessential host, majordomo, blackslapping pol. “Swilling the planters with bumbo,” as George Washington put it. “Watering the talent,” as the nightclub lingo had it. Not to mention feeding them. Catering to their needs. Not in a slow, solicitous manner, like a Marcus Welby or a Robert Young. More like a frenzied triage doctor forced to perform rapid-fire check-ups. Cursory but thorough. The same with his ministering to the bands. He always needed to be somewhere else, but he could never seem to completely tear himself away. Everybody needed to feel welcome. Even the unpaid guests, who, by July or August of 1988, were myriad. More of these made it into the Middle East upstairs despite the best efforts of his co-conspirators—at that time, Jennifer Cares and myself—and in spite of all the stern resolutions to keep the comps to a minimum. “Everyone pays,” was Billy’s mantra. With the unspoken proviso: “Except.” There was the rub. Except the media. And the guests of the bands. And their plus-ones. And the staff from other clubs: “professional courtesy.” And the scene hangers-on–who never paid, ever. And, oh, why not let that crazed carrot-topped skateboard punk in for free, too, while we’re at it. He’s probably homeless. Anyway, he has no money. Or so he says. And he’s so persistent. Anybody who wants anything so badly really ought to have it.
Billy was no cold-hearted businessman. He was no Don Law. More like his precise opposite. More like Don Lawless.
Plus, of course, there were also the local musicians who absolutely NEEDED to see a certain act. These were always ushered in. Maybe they’d buy some beer. Or maybe Billy would simply bring them some. He was always hustling foaming pitchers of beer from the bar, to the predictable consternation of one or other or both of the Sater Brothers, who surely must have been appalled to see their profits being poured down the ungrateful gullets of insatiably thirsty freeloaders.
And so what if the bands didn’t make enough at the door to pay their guarantees? Out-of-towners in particular often asked for, and got, a guarantee. Even if there was no chance in hell the door would ever take in enough to enable Billy to pay it. When the door came up short—and nine times out of ten, it seemed, it did–Billy would have me, or someone else, try to wheedle some cash out of the Saters to make up the difference. More than once he had to chip in some money from his own pocket.
1990: At age 32, weeks before his 33rd birthday, Billy was committed, essentially involuntarily. The actual details are somewhat murky. One version of the reason for this was because of “caffeine addiction”. This sounds ludicrous until one considers that Billy was alledged to consume up to 20 Vivarin tablets at a time, and as many as 40 a day, maybe more. Each pill carried a load of 200 mgs of caffeine. 8000 milligrams of caffeine. The French novelist Honoré de Balzac was known to have drunk two dozen cups of very strong coffee a day. Close to the same amount of caffeine, though nobody knows for sure. He did so to fuel his admittedly prodigious literary output. Balzac died at age 51.
Right around the time that Billy was committed, I stopped drinking. Cold. No AA, no focus groups, no psychiatrists, no interventions. It was like a switch had been thrown in my head. It probably saved my life. Funny thing is, following that decision, I worked at the Middle East for fifty-one more months. I was surrounded by rivers of booze. All the free beer I wanted, and I never again touched one drop of it.
Shortly after Billy’s hiatus, by about December of 1990 the first, old crowd was being pushed aside in favor of newcomers who were, in fact, long-time locals rather than transplants from elsewhere.
Following his commitment, Billy was more or less absent from the Middle East for a considerable spell. As early as 1989 the Sater Brothers had offered the booking job to soundman Mike Higgins and myself, but we wisely turned it down. We, along with Eric Motte and Jennifer Cares, were essentially already responsible for many of the day to day musical operations of the club. Furthermore, we decided that we had virtually no practical experience in booking, few of Billy’s contacts, and little if any of his charisma or expertise. Chris Rich was recruited, with, by his own account, Billy calling many of the shots regarding booking decisions from behind the scenes. From late 1990 to 1992, Chris oversaw the Middle East booking as it hosted many innovative acts, along with the open mike for new talent—initially for all comers , but, under Martin Doyle and later Dave Sheehan, especially a showcase for comedy. The Saters pulled the plug on the comedy open mike in December of 1994—just as (it seemed to me) this unlikely time (Saturday afternoon) and venue (a rock club) was starting to gain traction among area comics. By the time this happened, Chris Rich, Martin Doyle, and Dave Sheehan were all long gone.
From what I’ve been given to understand, the great purge of Billy from the Middle East took place in early 1995. In Lost Illusions, Balzac says something very apropos: “When you have ruined your life and your digestion in order to give life to this creation of yours, you will see it condemned, betrayed, sold and swept into the backwaters of oblivion by the journalists, and disregarded by your best friends. Will you be able to wait for the day when your work will emerge again into the light of day? Who will resurrect it, and when and how?”
Or, to quote the more prosaic Chris Rich: “The post McLean period was all about others profiting from the work he did as he was marginalized personally by the very buffoons and grifters now making the biggest displays.”
I more or less lost touch with Billy after 1994. I would see him around town, but certainly not daily, as before. By March of 1995 I had given up my apartment at 494 Mass. Ave. and had more or less relocated to Providence RI.
1999. Billy at my wedding. He asked to attend. I suppose he heard about it through my friend and former roommate John Hansen. He promised to “behave”. Meaning, in his case, not to ruin the wedding reception. He did not. He was, in fact, the life of the party.
My wife said he was “turning cartwheels”.
I now reflect how curious it is that he had a perception about how he himself was perceived. And that to some extent he could turn such behavior on and off at will.
The last time I spoke to Billy was probably in 2004, during the time of the Iraq War, right after Abu Ghraib. I thought he was cracking up. It was a long, incoherent phone call. A seamless psychotic ramble. I have since tried to push it out of my mind. I say psychotic because Billy seemed utterly delusional. He was talking as though he were a major player on the world stage. He was going to call his connections in New York and Washington. He was going to see to it that this war came to an end. The only thing I remember exactly from his call was that I recommended to him that he take a look at the 1982 book The Real Terror Network: Terrorism in Fact and Propaganda by Edward S. Herman. It was a book he was familiar with, but had forgotten about. “Oh yeah, that’s a good one,” he said. Eventually, he rang off.
2005. Harvard Advocate reunion. Mary Rhinelander was there, I think. And others who had known Billy as undergraduates. All of them asked about him. Sadly, I had little to report other than that, based on that phone conversation, he was in something of a bad way. I still felt guilty because I had had my own problems at the time he called, and could not engage with his to the fullest degree.
We all have our own problems. Billy needed someone who wasn’t burdened with their own problems to listen to him. An honest broker. Pat McGrath served that purpose, I am supposing, from everything that I have gathered. But Pat was only one man and I suspect that even a dozen people would have barely been enough. Maybe Billy’s father was correct to insist that he see two psychiatrists a week.
Pat McGrath took over Billy’s affairs in 2002.
Pat McGrath: “You have to strategize with people. And Billy had a lot of fun the last eight years, I know. It wasn’t matter of, oh, he lived some kind of diminished existence. He did all kinds of wild shit. But I just didn’t ever let him get what he wanted most of all — which was that crazy mania.”
In 2010 Billy was trying to get involved with the Middle East again.
Excerpt of an email from Billy Ruane dated 4-16-2010: “I feel the place needs one or a pair of ombudsmen, not booking agents, which of course is a draining job… it takes a toll and I don’t understand people who don’t burn out from it…. I am considered a lunatic to be indulged only [but] so far….”
I always knew, deep down, that Billy was not going to be with us for a very long time. On the day he died, I thought of the fine old song performed by Dave Van Ronk called “Tell Old Bill”:
Mary Lou Lord: “Billy was found sitting in his chair, computer on. We put some clues together and realized that this was the last song he must have heard before he passed:
Out on the job
Work like the devil for my pay
But that lucky old sun got nothin’ to do
But roll around heaven all day.
You have to wonder: What if?
What if God’s mad clown had found some kind of lasting love; what if he had been successfully treated for whatever demons were consuming him (there were demons; he simply never spoke of them); what if he had something to truly fulfill and stabilize him; what if he had found a place in a world which seemed to have no place for one such as him?
But that would be the subject for a fairy tale. And we live in a mostly colorless world. One made more so, now that he has gone from us so soon, so soon, and far too soon.
Ultimately, Billy cured his hatred for the world’s cruelties by letting the world consume him.
Nita Sembrowich: “Like William Blake’s London, Billy Ruane was ‘a Human awful wonder of God.’ He paid an exorbitant price for the extraordinary wealth, tangible and intangible, that he showered on everyone he knew. Perhaps it was karma. I’d like to think that Billy, a free spirit, is now free. Otherwise, this story is just too sad.”
We must pity him. And we must also pity ourselves. We now face a world without Billy.
More than one person has described him as “a force of nature.”
And I am reminded of Hosea 8:7: “For they have sown the wind and shall reap the whirlwind.”
But let the last word be Billy’s. This is the first quote you’ll see when you look at his Facebook page:
“Nothing in the world is any good unless you can share it.” –Robert Mitchum, “Out of the Past.”
[This article is excerpted from a longer work. I hope to post the full text of the memoir, CITIZEN RUANE, on the Noise Board, sometime in December 2010.-fd]