On the night it became known, my phone went nuts at around 9pm. "The Phoenix is reporting that Billy Ruane died...." The news moved through the system very fast.
And I flashed to one of our last face to face moments. He stopped by the gallery to give everyone food and make arrangements to get a disc of the night's concert with Junko Simons. My mission was to get it to him. We talked about getting old and he gave me an excited description of his disagreement with his physician about the meaning of blood pressure data and what was more important, with him insisting the opposite of conventional medicine's outlook was true. I had a feeling this would be a problem, in the back of my mind, but also thought, maybe he's right.
He wasn't and now he's gone. Billy loved his salt and his fatty stuff and had gained more weight than his short frame really wanted to handle. And he had three flights of stairs to traverse. I oughta know, I lived there myself. He also loved caffeine. Not coffee, no, his Eucharist was Vivarin and he was despondent when it was discontinued as No Doz would not do. One of my regular chores as his sidekick was to do vivarin runs to 7/11. I imagine whatever substitute he found..,red bull?? counter nostrums?, was the detonater in the ticking bomb of his poor old heart. I assumed he was sturdier.
He wasn't and now he's gone.
The 20 year old in the Untouchables outfit was Billy's beginning for me. I was in an early prototype used vinyl shop, 'Bojo's' holding the place down for the owner who was tanked and asleep somewhere. There were dozens of records with Billy's odd signature that was proto-graffiti. It looked eastern European like 'ruanej'. It was really Ruane Jr truncated and compressed by a hasty hand. We roamed around the merits of Dexter Gordon, Archie Shepp and he extolled Mal Waldron.
He had it figured out. Within a year or so he was inventing slam dancing, inadvertently. Billy was enthusiasm and saw getting carried away as an important job. He loved to bounce and jump around at punk rock shows. I remember one early version at a Decoders show at the Western Front. He was all over the place and in a packed bar that eventually means you crash into people. So he did and soon it became like hockey lite with people imitating and booze fueled crowd mania until... slam dancing.
Billy was here to point things out. He was the purest advocate ever seen. I worked the formal institutional side of advocacy for my philosophical reasons and he worked the free wheeling side for his. We respected each others methods. I worked to be the least visible as he easily became the most. 20th century art and music in all its daunting intricacy was for Billy to find and extol to the sky like some avid beach child roaming all over the strand to find tide carried things and rush back to the group to share the find. He was the best town crier and witness the avante garde ever had.
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 mid teens.
That set his compass. I imagine there were high paternal hopes that he'd join the firm but Billy would have none of it. His initial run of boarding schools ' tightened the screws too much', he said, and he was determined to loosen em. Billy became ever more inventive at finding ways to expel money. While he was a tireless gatherer of stuff, he was unusual in that he was also soon up to his ears in the social and they were some wired ears. Billy became the mayor for life of what passes for the Boston scene. Much of this is now being covered by many as it was an American Marvel.
My Billy lore is another thing, my actual friend and the room he retired to. I helped him move into that room in 89 or so with a couple of band guys and a rental truck. He was bailing on some studio he had across the river on Beacon St. He had a lot of books and if you've ever been a furniture mover, you know a lot of books sucks. He had even more vinyl, even heavier. It was July. We had three flights of stairs. I did mention it sucked. His Middle East gig was hitting its peak and he soon had me covering video shifts and other club chores. He was flailing at a fairly high oscillation rate, maybe his highest.
His father decided it was time to tighten the screws with a regimen of high lithium salt doses and Depakote added to offset seizures.. yay. The quarrels over this landed him at McLean and at that point he trusted me to take over his Middle East duties as a caretaker..yay. You see, I never cared that much about the Boston Rock scene. My choice was to try and help jazz. That's why Billy felt comfortable about it. He knew I didn't give a shit and would happily hand it back to him any time. I was happy to be his stand in, he gave me his place, free, and handed it all over. The owners tossed me around 75 bucks a week, all the falafel sandwiches I could stand, free booze and lots of useless scene cred status with a bunch of people I hardly knew and wasn't psyched to know... yay.
Billy was still able to call a lot of the important shots from McLean and my first chore was low level Augean, to handle the mess of still unpacked stuff and make a home for him to return to. The place was swarming with roaches so their ouster was a first priority. I took care of all of his endless stuff and organized it in ways that would be easy for him to examine when he wanted to. I figured it would be a useful bridge to home coming. He paid unusually high fees for his favorite bands, usually the most disruptive and ridiculous ones out there and was often cheated and humiliated by an artist agent, some vile critter in Minnesota.
The rest of these very important people were decent enough. It was very competitive. Billy was ever looking over his shoulder at his counterparts who were more avid to be a business. They were trying to make money. Billy was trying to give it away. This made a difference and they were better at nailing the more toothsome crumbs that fell from the table of the arena promoter here who dominated anything that made real money.
Fear whiplashed him throughout. A part of him was always waiting for some ax to fall and he sought counsel from those among us who were less anxious. And I don't imagine many understood how lonely his existence was, when the last gin mill closed and sidewalks rolled up. His fervent wish for romance and intimacy was thwarted for most of his life. He had an archetype he yearned for, (always a problem). He wanted a lithe huggable woman near his stature, but most women really didn't quite know what to make of him and the whole calculus of attraction was complicated by his scene status.
He'd have aspirants he didn't quite know what to make of while longing for others who didn't quite know what to make of him. Everyone knows this experience. For some, it stops being important, you give up and move on to the remaining fat slice of life left you. This was not so for Billy. The cd delivery mission I had was to get the sound of Junko to a young cellist who became a focus of his yearning. He bought her a cello and it no doubt made the woman nervous.
I never thought I'd be bringing Billy to his final home that July day of endless boxes. It was a crappy classic three decker indifferently banged together around the time Johnny Hodges was born nearby. The floor plan was from hell and what would now be generously called 'non conforming'. There is a tiny room in the front right where he slept with doors opening out to the hall and to the next larger room where he kept his music and audio gear focused, the hatchery for his many mix tapes. Heading back, it was like a shotgun line of various rooms all with too many doors.. I got the one way in back near the kitchen.
The kitchen was circa 50s slum, a crappy gas stove readily encrusted, a wheezing fridge, bad outlet locations, a tired blue formica cabinet counter with some other wall cabinets. The sink was a massive porcelain 2 basin job. A back egress door opened out to a sagging three decker porch and the back stairs. The bathroom was wretched too. I tricked out shower curtains using wire coat hangers to cover the weird frame distance to normal curtain hang lengths.
Okay, so you get the floor plan. Throw in archaic wiring and floor to ceiling stuff, stuff in every closet, a few bedraggled couches, a deskish thing and thrift store bureaus and you have a fairly low cost life style. For all the resources he had, he really didn't give himself some lap of luxury. No, he had the zeal of a monk pursuing art elements. He needed another huge storage space in an old brick castle simulacrum near MIT that was like Jack Benny's vault. He could have easily bailed and got a place custom fit, but no. He was too busy circulating and extolling and inhaling it all.
It's important to me to bring this up. Billy didn't care about any old stuff. He had Sammy Davis Jr.s pants, a gift from Ted Widmer. Stuff had to answer his voracity for an eclectic universe of human creative strivings whether historic or from people down the street. We spent weeks hashing over inclusions for one Lee Morgan mix tape which he circulated to most of the people who ever played at Lallopalooza.
Another essential thing to understand about Billy. For all of his legendary public flamboyance and adventures, he really didn't like being a public focus. As he aged, he half hated to get credit for anything and really didn't like getting his mug in the paper.
And yet, it is one of the most compelling works by one of the most compelling songwriters ever born around here. It answers Billy like nothing else and it just became iconic.But Billy wanted to direct the attention beyond self, to his discoveries.
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 it's 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.
He was like that to the end. Here at the gallery alone, in the past two years, Billy covered transportation and lodging for Matthew Shipp, Darius Jones, and Bern Nix and was always ready to help. He owned a luxury condo in Central square that was worth more than the building where he lived but made a bed and breakfast of it and a job for an old rocker. Shipp et al stayed in better accommodations than Billy lived in for the last two decades of his life.
I get the sense a lot of the scene lived vicariously through Billy. He was routinely exploited and called me, despondent, in Seattle about some junkie who was blackmailing and tormenting him. I wanted to get on a bus and find the guy. Billy had lots of fans but very few who went to bat for him through thick and thin. At some point, the magnificent Pat McGrath realized that Billy needed attentive and alert help and the worst of the trough point subsided and he began his years of puttering around. The music scene changed. It grew old and sclerotic. The kids don't give a shit about it, so it freed Billy up to just see the things he wanted to. His flier passing days were over.
Of course some will argue he was an adult and made his choices but I'd argue his choice was to run himself under the earth for the things he loved and for what he felt was his community, very loosly defined. You'd think the community would have done a bit more out of some reciprocal understanding of the mountain of effort he made. I like to think that a kindlier culture would have figured out what a treasure he was and it would have done a better job of rising to his occasions to the benefit of all. Those who did rise to his occasion may well be among our best, especially when there wasn't much status. I'm not about to include myself among them, cause in a way, I made out like a bandit. Free flops, phone and a job. In various situations, his home was mine for several memorable years. The best I can do is try and describe the now passed human and let others cover the thing he graced.