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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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  • katt hernandez said:

    thank you for this article. i am very sad to hear about this- he used to be around lots of things at the zeitgeist, and the last time i saw him was when i played at outpost 186.first time i ever met him was when he was doing his Dance, at scullers during the vastly wonderous improbable occurance of teh dan dechellis trio in that place- his dancing filled me with absolute Glee, and made the thing that much more real. he was, in fact, at many of the concerts and shows during my time in boston that the hearing of transformed my ears and soul in some way- gone too soon, that man-  a beautiful, gritty, passionate, Real and genius boston mover and shaker without whom i cannot imagine the city- so crazy this sad year, jack powers, brother blue, howard zinn, and billy- what on earth is left of that town. . . .?

    October 27, 2010 10:32 AM
  • Jan Crocker said:

    Billy may have left the building...but he's hosting the never ending party in the sky.

    October 27, 2010 10:33 AM
  • flavinrock said:

    I played and went to a lot of shows in my day and I swear I saw Billy at every one. RIP Billy

    October 27, 2010 10:33 AM
  • Luanne E Witkowski said:

    Yes, it always amazed me just where I'd run into Billy -- the "thirsty aesthetic sensation" -- reading this 'tribute' I experienced a strange 'memory deja vu'.  I still can't believe it's true -- he seemed so superhuman in his humanity, so immortal and weirdly divine...

    October 27, 2010 10:52 AM
  • Stephanie Zacharek said:

    This is such a lovely remembrance of Billy! It makes this sad news a little easier to take. I hadn't seen him in years, but I've thought of him often. I know I have some of his tapes somewhere. There is only one Billy Ruane -- there could never be another.

    October 27, 2010 10:57 AM
  • PegAloi said:

    Beautiful tribute, Jon.

    October 27, 2010 11:10 AM
  • Ryan said:

    Beautiful eulogy.

    October 27, 2010 11:21 AM
  • Rodrigo said:

    Wonderful words, Jon.

    October 27, 2010 12:16 PM
  • said:

    Thanks, Jon.  You captured Billy's essence wonderfully and movingly.

    October 27, 2010 12:23 PM
  • Dan DeChellis said:

    Billy was like no other person I've ever met and will surely never meet another quite like him....he got me my first improv gig at The Middle East opening for Sam Rivers.....I owe a fair amount to him and the opportunities he afforded all of us....

    October 27, 2010 12:30 PM
  • Crispin Wood said:

    Wow - this photo takes me back. We (The Bags) played a show at the Middle East and Jon's bass was stolen. Billy arranged a benefit to help pay for the bass. The night of the benefit, the three of us performed with Dave and Lee from the Hoods, as Ebeneezer. Check out Jim's kick drum in the photo: "On your Neez." Billy was throwing money all over the place. Unbelievable guy.

    October 27, 2010 1:01 PM
  • dimenno said:

    I am touched by your finely delineated reminiscence.

    October 27, 2010 1:15 PM
  • Carl Biancucci said:

    Billy Ruane,such a wonderful guy-

    a true music enthusiast and a bonafide eccentric.

    When he saw you at a club,you knew you were going to get a hug and a big wet sloppy and sincere kiss on both cheeks (Billy,our very own rock and roll Gen.DeGaulle)

    A shame.

    I do take comfort knowing that he is at rest,relieved of that part of his life that was not so joyous.

    Sleep well,my man!  

    October 27, 2010 1:49 PM
  • paul mcgowan said:

    it still hasn't sunk in. we are all devastated. i met him 25 years ago when i first started working at green street. he asked me what kind of music i liked. two days later he handed me a stack of cassette tapes. he must have stayed "up" that entire time making those tapes. that's not the best story; it's the first....

    October 27, 2010 1:57 PM
  • russ gershon said:

    thanks, Jon - that was Billy!

    there's so much to add, but here's a detail about his 30th birthday party - the invitation was titled "A Poor Excuse for a 30th Year Old has a Great Excuse for a Party" - the perfect Ruan-ian combination of self-deprecation, mordant wit and the manifestation of his urge that everybody MUST come together for a BIG experience

    October 27, 2010 2:04 PM
  • Steve Chaggaris said:

    spot on, Jon!

    October 27, 2010 2:42 PM
  • AJ Wachtel said:

    Nice bit, Jon. R.I.P Billy- I will always smile when I think of you.

    October 27, 2010 3:18 PM
  • james cennamo said:

    I knew Billy from way back. A fixture in the scene...he was always deep into the "next thing". I was pleased he came to my Late father's Memorial this past June....wavy hair, suit jacket, shirt unbuttoned...RIP Billy

    October 27, 2010 4:54 PM
  • Su said:

    Evocative remembrance.  An irreplaceable loss is made easier from these vivid portraits of an irrepressible lover of life, music and people.  Thanks, Jon.  Perfect picture, too.  

    October 27, 2010 5:16 PM
  • Johnny Angel said:

    It's amazing how much Billy was like a character from a Terry Southern story, an inside outsider or vice versa, ridiculously colorful and completely impossible. I have to admit, when asked for a spicy recollection of Bill that is anything close to specific, I don't have any--he was more like a tornado than a human being, you can describe a windstorm like that vividly, but the particulars? There was too much energy to absorb in too short a space of time.

    As the counter-cultural zeigeist slips ever further into pre-packaged crapola, the Ruane's of the world do their slow fade which, as Neil Young might say, is not preferable to burning out or in Bill's case, blazing out. I'd trade a thousand manufactured arbiters of non-taste spewing forth their predictable opinions for one crazy ole Billy Ruane. Maybe he stumbled it like he mumbled it as opposed to walking and talking it, but so what? Motherfucker was alive--how many other supposed music lovers can you apply that simple adjective to?

    October 27, 2010 6:12 PM
  • Laurie Lindeen said:

    My former band, Zuzu's Petals, hailing from the midwest loooved Billy with a passion, and we felt extra special when he loved us back.  He made our bass player a dozen custom made tapes because he found our bass player to be "the sexiest woman in show business."  So sad.  Beautifully written eulogy, thanks.

    October 27, 2010 10:07 PM
  • Liz Hill said:

    Johnny A. nailed it - well said, see above.  Whenever Billy entered the building, whether I was bartending, dancing, or just holding up a wall...the mood changed.  Motherfucker was alive- you said it Johnny!  

    Go ahead, fess up - when was the last time you met anyone as intense, in say, the past 20 years?  Life's a little more boring eh?

    October 27, 2010 10:15 PM
  • dimenno said:

    Things you might not have known about Billy

    In honor of my dear old friend Billy Ruane, songs from some of the local Boston acts he worked so hard to promote.His enthusiasm for Boston and its music scene will always be his most enduring legacy.

    Read more:

    October 27, 2010 11:05 PM
  • junkmafia said:

    i remember the time we were playing a house party in roxbury in 2006 and he somehow just kind of appeared out of nowehere in this loft space (not sure he was invited) and proceeded to drink the rest of the wine, kiss some guy's girlfriend a...nd just when the guy (who obviously had no idea who billy was or what the hell he was doing kissing his date) looked like he was about to deck billy, billy kissed HIM and just about every guy and girl in the room (i remained unscathed that time but wasn't so lucky the next time i saw him), do a final bow, and leave. long sentence, but talking about billy requires long sentences!

    October 27, 2010 11:07 PM
  • Stella said:

    billy ruane was such an integral part of the boston music scene through the 80s and 90s and i didn't even know him but he touched me, physically and emotionally... that is the mark of a great person, i won't soon forget him

    October 27, 2010 11:43 PM
  • PM said:

    Memories of Billy - 30 years ago almost being pitched out of a 3rd story window at Philip's Brooks House for your exhuberant floor dancing / Another night watching you being flung over the mosh pit in a state of rapture, then trying to help you find your keys - you didn't care about your shoes or jacket, but you did want to get home / An afternoon spent trying to erase the ferocious scribbles you had put in the Rimbaud first editions that I had insanely taken out of Widner's special collections for you, because you "just wanted to hold them in your hands" / Your sadness about your truly crazy family / Telling me about the importance of good shoes / The flamenco arch of your fingers and their wicked snaps like sonic laser pointers / The supreme generosity that you flung far and wide / Your ferocious joy at being alive.    Wish you could have KNOWN how much you were truly the spark.  

    October 28, 2010 2:24 AM
  • Patrick McCormack said:

    I barely knew him but saw him all the time at shows, twice he was generous to me, he is so large in people's hearts who know music in Boston !

    October 28, 2010 10:57 AM
  • Ed Yazijian said:

    I can't imagine Cambridge and Boston without Billy.  I met him right before his famous 30th birthday party in a most unusual way.  He knocked on my door one evening out of the blue and was carrying a huge bag full of Chinese food and the Lyres "Lyres Lyres" record.  He asked if I and my housemates all wanted to join him for dinner and then proceeded to pull out all the food and set it on our kitchen table. Of course I had no idea at the time who he was, I was in shock, but just by chance Debbie Shane, then working at Ace of Hearts Records, happened to be visiting and she introduced us all to Billy.  We had a great meal together along with copious amounts of alcohol and then  Billy asked if he could hear his new Lyres record.  I put it on the turntable and turned it up loud while he proceeded to dance wildly all over our kitchen, well, like Billy.  Afterwards he insisted on single-handedly washing all the dishes.  He cleaned up all the empty containers and bid us goodbye.

    That night I got up to go to the bathroom and kicked something in the kitchen.  It was his wallet filled with a gigantic wad of cash and credit cards.  We called him the next morning to let him know that his wallet was safe and when he picked it up he couldn't believe that everything was still there.  Billy invited the whole house to his birthday party that day and we remained friends ever since.  He always showed a genuine interest in people, and his affection and generosity was unparalleled.  I really miss him--it's a cliche to say he was one of a kind, but in his case it's so completely true.  And yeah, I never minded the wet kiss.

    October 28, 2010 11:41 AM
  • Susan Anway said:

    J, this character sketch is pitch-perfect, like a Steadman drawing. Billy's life inspired people to live it large! The huge online grief group sharing Billy moments are his success stories ;-)

    October 28, 2010 1:36 PM
  • Caroline Leavitt said:

    What a great, moving and brilliantly written article. And so sad to lose him.

    October 28, 2010 2:14 PM
  • Amy Paul said:

    For maybe as many as ten years it seemed Billy was at every show I went to.  I didn't know him, but occasionally we'd lock eyes while he was doing his mad dance, and I'd feel reassured to be part of a music community that was small enough and warm enough to embrace colorful characters that everyone could recognize, if not know.  To me he symbolizes a certain time in my life, a time that has been over for quite a while.  That Billy's gone puts such finality on that end.

    October 28, 2010 9:00 PM
  • Julian said:

    Who is singing the song in the video at the top of the page? What a great song.

    October 29, 2010 9:35 AM
  • Martha Swetzoff said:

    Looking at this montage, and thank you, for putting it together! I am actually in the opening image, which I think was probably La Peste at the Ground Zero Loft, maybe? But mostly I'm struck by all the connections that Billy had with women making music, how supportive he was when I was in Bound and Gagged, an early girl band in Boston. When Billy gave his support it could literally knock you down, and even though it got a more than a little overwhelming, I so appreciated that enthusiasm, because I dropped out of college to pursue this crazy endeavour and didn't find much support from family and old friends. Billy bridged two worlds for me, from my head space to making music, but more to the point today, and what seems so evident in the montage here, he loved seeing women entering this world, and not in a voyeuristic sense (chicks with guitars! cool!), but because he appreciated new voices and ways of approaching music. This inclusiveness and sensitivity benefited many people, for sure, and I don't mean to belabor this point, but when I entered music in the late '70's it felt like such a boy's club. Billy's enthusiasm continued long after I left making music my primary focus, but I will wager (! like I have anything to wager with) he had much to do with many subsequent women artists from Boston finding support in gigs and exposure -- and the tapes, and conversations, the hugging and hand-clasping, the sloppy kisses, the sight of his dapper self reduced to sweaty, appreciative exhaustion. Well, for a minute, at least. He would bound up and away, and for all those times I worried about his safety...

    I have several gong-like things here, am banging them now. Will retire to play some guitar for this generous soul. And of course, he was funny as ---- (use your word, he wouldn't mind).

    November 2, 2010 9:49 PM
  • dave fabris said:

    Great to read the superb tribute and all the comments. One memory I can add: Billy had Sunday afternoon concert series at the ME back room where he would supply free hot dogs. We played the event several times, but on this one occasion, we heard that Billy was in an accident on his scooter (maybe bicycle?? memory fades). We still went on, but midway through our set Billy jumped up on stage, battered and scratched up with torn clothes, with hands held over his head triumphantly clutching the hot dogs "I got 'em"!

    I hadn't seen him for 10 years but when I ran into him waiting in line to get into the Abbey Lincoln tribute ceremony in Harlem last month, he remembered me right away and planted the trademark kiss. I never thought it would be a goodbye kiss...

    November 13, 2010 1:15 PM
  • bertlarry said:

    In September 79,I was broke  illegal alien, and landed square into the Boston Punk scene. I was crashing  Frank's loft on Thayer street. Frank (Where are you? thanks again!) was the manager for the incredible band "The Girls". he said "wanna check out a crazy band? ". The  Girls were playing in some turgid basement on Thayer St. and as I stepped in, the heat wave of the band 's intensity freak me out (They were playing "Jeffrey I hear you") but it was Billy who focused the moment. He helped energized the room like a lightning rod that was channeling the band .With his gyrations right fist pumping the air, biting left fist in the mouth, pogoing, slamming like the was no tomorrow… and the suit and tie flying around. I could see how the music moved every molecules of his nervous system and  his total abandon the Music helped me accept and absorb the vibes. That moment is etched in my psyche forever.

    Whenever I bumped into Billy, a few times, throughout the years I would get that same charge, whether in an art gallery or even at Wholefoods.

    Billy was and is a big part of my ongoing Boston experience. A live wire that plugged me right into the electric city.

    Billy, I am forever grateful for having witnessed your Passion and Freedom to be,

    And I hope your enjoying the Best Music Ever,


    November 17, 2010 8:48 PM

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