There's a story that was making the rounds at Billy Ruane's funeral, goes something like this. One of Billy's relatives once got a call, and the caller ID reads "Looney Tunes." She picks up the phone anyway, and on the other end, a man says, "You don't know me, but my name is Pat McGrath, and I'm a friend of Billy's." To which she responds, "Of course you are."
McGrath, a musician, enthusiast, and collector (of people as well as of cultural artifacts), has owned the vinyl oasis Looney Tunes, in the Fenway near Berklee, since 1988. He's known Billy Ruane for far longer. For the better part of the past decade, McGrath was the man who was entrusted – eventually in an official capacity by the Ruane family trust – to keep an eye on Billy. It was a full-time job and a labor of love. It could also, often, be a nightmare – one that ended just before Ruane's 53rd birthday. McGrath was in the process of getting Ruane committed to a mental institution when Billy's body was found by his driver, Sam. It's been a rough couple of weeks. We caught up with McGrath again last weekend, on the phone from Ohio. We talked about Billy's mania, his wealth and his ignorance of money, his tragic family history, and the epic task of keeping him (just barely) on track. McGrath mentioned in our talk that he hasn't played Billy's birthday parties in years – but he'll be onstage, performing with Stephen Fredette and Peter Wolf, during the Billy Ruane Memorial Birthday Party at the Middle East and T.T. the Bear's Place on November 17.
You'd known Billy for a long time. When did you become, for lack of a better word, his caretaker?
It was not so long after my mother died. My mother lived here a couple of times. She loved Billy. We'd go out to dinner a lot and she just thought Billy was a hoot and a half. I really hadn't seen him much since then -- when my mother was sick, I was gone all the time. Then I ran into Billy at a liquor store in Cambridge. He saw me and I really think I saw a light bulb go off over his head. This was about eight years ago. And next thing you know I got a call over at Looney Tunes, my record store. He said [adopts grave Billy voice], "I want to propose something to you. I'd like you to think about assisting me in some manner. I will pay you sixty dollars an hour." I said, "You don't have to pay me, I'll do whatever you want." But he made such a big deal out of it – that he was going pay me – until I agreed. And then he never paid me! I heard that story from any number of people who he wanted help from. I know a lawyer who Billy kept pushing him to give him the lawyer-style billing. Then when he did, Billy was outraged.