(photo borrowed from Katy Lyle. Billy, taking a break at Chet’s Last Call.)
I first encountered Billy Ruane at a Stains show at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church when I was 17 years old ; Billy was 8 years older. We weren’t formally introduced — he was wearing a suit that seemed to be falling off his person, piece by piece, while delivering flying karate kicks to the back of the heads of other dancers. Billy was politely asked to chlll out by the event organizers, then asked again in a less polite manner. I saw him again a few weeks later at a Gang Of Four show in NYC — I had nowhere to crash that night and Billy assured me his father was a member of the Harvard Club and we’d find some shelter in that opulent setting. No dice. Apparently, there was a picture of Billy next to the front desk with instructions saying something to the effect of “do not let this man in”.
A somewhat inauspicious start to our friendship, but one that said a lot about Billy’s ability to make a strong impression. Perhaps the musical superfan of all time. the man who got thrown out of more shows than anyone else (including, perhaps, a few he promoted). Boston musicians (and more than a few from other places) had no better friend. “legendary patron” doesn’t even begin to cover it — from Hidenburg style DIY HC gigs (Billy was perhaps the only person in history who thought it was a good idea to offer the Clitboys a triple digit guarantee) to laying the groundwork for Central Square’s commercial revival, no American rock history book would be complete with a chapter or 3 dedicated to Billy’s exploits.
In a rock world filled with avarice, Billy’s ridiculous generosity, his boundless enthusiasm for shit-you-needed-to-hear would’ve been inspiring enough if he was just a nutty character that turned up at every gig. But he was much more than that — even in a world that was awfully quick to slam doors in his face (I once witnessed Billy getting fired from a kitchen job because his boss lost all patience with Ruane lobbying to have The Neats play the restaurant’s employee booze cruise — Billy had been working there for all of two days), Billy was awesome at making stuff happen, usually with little to show for it besides a hug. . It would be nearly enough to say there’s a long list of bands, known and otherwise, that received their first Boston show because Billy gave them a chance. But he was no mere club booker —Billy’s approach to putting a show together (something he got a lot better at in the years following that Clitboys incident) wasn’t entirely divorced from how he’d make a mixtape. There was no bigger believer in the power of art to transform and inspire, and no one in my lifetime gave as much of himself to make a rather chaotic scene feel like family.
Billy died yesterday. The Boston Phoenix provides some of the details , suffice to say there’s people all over the world — and not just old fuckers like me — who are mourning the loss of a buddy, a drinking partner, a role model (seriously), a fountain of ideas (a handful of ‘em genuinely realistic!) and a guy who even at his most exasperating, was always the funniest person in the room. It would be a huge understatement to say I am very, very lucky to have known Billy Ruane. But even those who didn’t know him benefit from a cultural environment he helped create.