If you didn’t know him, you might cross the street when he approached. The rangy black man with a scraggly beard and dreadlocks looked scary and smelled rank — a mix of beer, weed, and God knows what else. He played abrasive electric guitar — or plastic tub drums — on the street, encouraged donations, and sometimes wore a black motorcycle jacket with the words “Goddamn Motherfucking Mr. Butch” emblazoned on the back. The streets of Boston were his home. On cold nights he’d sleep inside a friend’s apartment or vehicle.
Footage courtesy of Bill T. Miller
On one such night, back in the ’80s, Mr. Butch was napping in the back of a busted-up van owned by James Ryan, chef-owner of the Hoodoo Barbeque, Kenmore Square’s former hip bar and restaurant above the dear, departed Rat. (Butch did odd jobs for Ryan; Ryan kept Butch fed and clothed.) The van was parked outside Fenway Park. “Somebody was trying to boost the truck,” recalls Ryan, “and Butch was under a blanket. When he pulled the blanket off and sat up,” the intruders beat it fast. “Butch said, ‘All I saw was asses and elbows running up the street.’ ”
Mr. Butch, who was born Harold Madison Jr. and grew up in Worcester, died July 12 when his Vespa motor scooter crashed along Brighton Avenue in Allston, the neighborhood he called home after gentrification drove him out of Kenmore. Butch was 56. His parents are both deceased. He is survived by six siblings.
Mr. Butch was a streetscape fixture — popular among Boston’s punk crowd and with Phoenix readers, who persistently voted him their favorite “neighborhood character” in the paper’s annual Best-issue readers’ polls. He was also the subject of a short film made by S.G. Collins, Searching for Mr. Butch, which screened at the 2003 Boston Underground Film Festival.
“Butch had gone from the hippie to punk stage,” says Tina Fairbank, a friend from the ’80s punk scene. “He tuned in, turned on, dropped out, and stayed that way.”
Since the mid ’90s, the one-time “King of Kenmore Square” was most often seen along Harvard Avenue. Toni Fanning, owner of the curio store Ritual Arts, said she, Regeneration Tattoo owner Sue Jeiven, and former Flyrabbit store-owner Brooke Corey managed Butch’s health and financial issues. “We handled his money and made sure he had a place to sleep in the winter, in a van behind the store,” Fanning says. “He would not go into detox and public housing wouldn’t take him.”
“He was funny and gregarious,” adds Corey. “He could be obnoxious. He was intoxicated, but he wasn’t crazy. He chose not to live a normal life.”
In 1984, Butch went on WMBR-FM’s The Mystery Girls show to announce his platform for a gubernatorial run. Co-host Spencer Gates expected a wild ride, but remembers, “[Butch] made total sense. It was not crazy-drunk talk. He was clear, lucid. Who would’ve thought that?”
Says the Lyres’ Jeff Conolly: “Mr. Butch never gave off any negative vibes.”