Remembering Billy Ruane


Anyone who’s spent any significant time around the Boston music scene probably has scores of memories of Billy Ruane — all of them vivid.

Before I knew who he was, I seemed to spot him everywhere. Sitting in the old Central Square Cinema at a screening of Who’ll Stop the Rain, smelling of booze and cursing out Tuesday Weld’s character, muttering under his breath, “Stupid bitch,” as she unwittingly sold out Nick Nolte. At the opposite end of the spectrum: at the Coolidge Corner, Dinner at Eight, sitting with both feet under him on the seat, throwing his fist in the air and cackling wildly at absolutely everything Jean Harlow said or did. And, somewhere in between, emerging from Harvard Yard on some professor’s arm, leaning into him, sharing some important information about Ralph Waldo Emerson.


Billy had what some writer somewhere has called “a thirst for aesthetic sensation.” Movies, concerts, plays — of all kinds. He’d show up at the ART, at concerts of avant-garde jazz at the old ICA, at Toad to see Monique Ortiz, and probably at every show jazz singer Abbey Lincoln played in Boston for the past 20 years. Last year, he bought a huge block of tickets to one of Irma Thomas’s shows at the Regattabar and distributed them to friends. Billy thought everyone should hear Irma (he was right), and he made sure everyone he knew did. It was a diverse crowd of rock musicians, jazz musicians, music fans (John Felice? Ran Blake?). After the show (not one of Irma’s best, as I recall), some of them looked bewildered to be there.

The operative word was “sensation.” Billy wanted intensity of experience. I remember seeing him dance to the Gun Club at the Channel. Leaping in the air, slamming himself to the concrete floor. The band were playing John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” The girl Billy was dancing “with” began to back off and Billy looked at her, frustrated — “Come on!”

Writing about music, I of course got to know Billy. For years, whenever I ran into him, he’d shove a cassette tape in my hand — out-of-print Betty Carter, his beloved Abbey, who knows what else. Carefully annotated. Had he intended the tapes for me and was carrying them around until he ran into me — or was I just the first fellow-enthusiast he ran into that day? When I saw him one day at the Porter Square Blockbuster as we were both combing the discount VHS bins, he scooped up five or six tapes, paid for them, and handed me Agnès Varda’s Vagabond with Sandrine Bonnaire.

In a concert crowd, you could never miss him. Or at least, he never missed you. The thick shock of slicked back hair, grayer with the years, the sport jacket, the white dress shirt untucked and unbuttoned to the fifth button exposing his chest. (Irresistible to women, he thought.) And always coming at you — grabbing your face, giving you a big wet kiss on the cheek. When my wife and I couldn’t get into the Abbey Lounge on that last, crazy, sold-out night, it was Billy who talked us past the doorman.

And then there were his manic harangues. He essentially — and legendarily — started rock-music programming at the Middle East with his famous three-club birthday party (Middle East, T.T.’s, Green Street — as I recall). But then came long, incomprehensible phone calls about his disagreements with the Sater brothers, whom he loved dearly, and who loved him back. Or he’d give elaborate, equally incomprehensible explanations about his latest system of self-medication, involving caffeine and god knows what else. When you met him, you didn’t know whether he’d be manic or subdued, and however you met him seemed to be wrong. If you shouted a wild greeting, he was subdued. If you were trying to slink away, he’d scream. He’d throw his signature pseudo flamenco dance move — right arm in the air in a finger-snap, the other thrown around his waist. And then he was on you. “Are you going to see Abbey?” he’d say quietly. “This show is very important.” A bit desperate, maybe. And a mess, definitely. But he was guileless, and generous to a fault.

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