NEW: DETAILS: BILLY RUANE'S WAKE TO BE HELD ON SATURDAY IN CAMBRIDGE
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.
BREAKING NEWS: BILLY RUANE RIP (1957-2010)
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,
— 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.