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Remembering Billy Ruane

Posted by James Reed  October 27, 2010 03:58 PM

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"I first encountered Billy Ruane at...."

That's how so many stories begin about Ruane, the veteran local music promoter and champion of Boston bands who died yesterday at age 52. (Bryan Marquard's illuminating obituary can be read here.) A friend found Ruane at his Cambridge apartment, and as of 4 p.m. today, an official cause of death had not been given. However, one of Ruane's family members told the Globe earlier today that his death might be related to recent heart problems.

We all have wild stories about Ruane on the town -- about seeing him, hearing him, experiencing him -- and they've been coming fast and furious on Facebook posts that keep getting passed around. Others have been holding court and swapping Billy memories at the Middle East, the venerable Cambridge rock club that first started booking that kind of music courtesy of Ruane in 1987.

With that in mind, we asked folks who knew Ruane -- from bands he generously supported to fellow booking agents he mentored -- to weigh in on Ruane's legacy with testimonials. If Billy Ruane inspired anything, it's good stories. Here are a few...

BILL JANOVITZ, singer-guitarist for Buffalo Tom, which played one of its first gigs at the Middle East in 1988 thanks to Ruane:
"Ruane was incredibly generous. Whenever [jazz singer] Abbey Lincoln came to town, Billy would buy out whole tables of tickets to give to friends to come and listen to these legends. He also made these mix tapes. They were so eclectic. Here are all these indie bands you don’t know about yet. Here’s Edith Piaf and Betty Carter. The funny thing was, in the days of cassettes, he would put them on these lo-bias cassettes you’d find at the drugstore. [Buffalo Tom's] Chris Colbourn finally just bought a brick of Maxwell high-bias and said, 'If you ever make me tapes, which I love, please put the music on these.' So you had these meticulously pieced together playlists on these tapes that were literally hard to listen to. After Chris gave him the good ones, we thought, 'Oh, boy, we can't wait to actually hear the next tapes.' And still they came on the drugstore tapes. Beggars can't be choosers."

PETER WOLF, solo artist and once and future J. Geils Band frontman:
"There's a thousand stories about Billy, so I can't really tell just one. He was a great ambassador for music in Boston. I first met him when he was a young upstart, and we stayed in communication throughout the years. He was just such a charismatic force and such a generous person to many bands and musicians starting out. He always seemed to be in the know with what was interesting on the musical horizons. He and I would get together from time to time, and we'd have formal teas and do poetry readings. He'd read his favorite poems, and I'd read mine. He was always getting me to check out people he loved, particularly Abbey Lincoln. When he was a fan of your music, he was a great supporter and quite a character. He will be greatly missed."

RuaneGonson.jpgJOYCE LINEHAN, longtime friend who collaborated on shows with Ruane starting in the '80s:
"I am on the board of a halfway house for substance abusers, and Billy made substantial financial donations to this house over the past several years without any request from me. He wanted to support people in recovery. Oh, the irony! He was his own worst enemy and everyone's best friend -- a pain in the neck that I can't imagine not being in the world. His contributions to the Boston music scene can't be overstated, and I can't tell you how many times I've been on the road with bands in other parts of the country who, when learning I'm from Boston, ask about the skinny guy in the trench coat who leapt on the stage while they were playing, twirled around a few times, and then bought every piece of merch they had to sell on the way out, ensuring that they had gas money to get to the next gig."

BILLY BEARD, booking agent for the Lizard Lounge and Toad:
"I knew Billy Ruane for 20-plus years — first as a shadowy figure hanging around 'The Middle,' the Plough, and the Green Street Grill handing out flyers to shows he had booked or cassettes he’d made, and later as a friend and bigger-than-life character hanging from the ceiling of whatever room he was in. He was in many ways a booking mentor and in every way the most passionate music fan I have ever met. Sadly, the same passion that fueled his love of music also fueled the rest of his life. Whatever objects fell under that laser beam of passion tended to burn up from the heat. It was a spectacle to watch but an unnerving thing to know – especially if it was aimed at you. Still, I loved the man, and his friendship, generosity, and musical madness will be sorely missed. The big sweaty kiss? Eh, not so much!"

OEDIPUS, longtime friend and host of the Oedipus Project:
"The Boston music scene has for many years been filled with eccentrics. This may not be unique to Boston, but due to the size of this town and the geographic concentration of music venues, these characters are all the more pronounced. The students may come and go, but these unconventional, iconoclastic, individually stylized artists, and scene-makers help to define and create an environment that embraces new and different musics. Names like Willie Loco Alexander, Monoman, Peter Wolf, Amanda Palmer, Rick Berlin, T. Max, and Mary Lou Lord immediately come to mind. Yet, perhaps the most eccentric of all was Billy Ruane. Dapperly dressed in his trademark suit, Billy had an enthusiasm that was wildly infectious whether he was madly twirling around the dance floor or screaming above the din about his latest musical discovery. He possessed depth of knowledge of all types of music and avidly absorbed it. As a listener of my annual radio Christmas Eve Show, he long ago gave me his treasured copy of Al Green’s "White Christmas" album -- on white vinyl, no less. I always think of him when I play it, and this year I will play it for him. Billy passionately loved that dirty water, our home."

SARAH CRONIN, half of local indie-pop band Drug Rug (from a Facebook entry posted earlier today):
"I don't think I ever met anyone who cared as much as Billy. He cared about all of the little details; the lyrics to an obscure song written by a musician no one had ever heard of; a slip of conversation had in passing, about a band or show from years and years ago; the way some unknown young artist could turn a phrase into something unexpected. He was open to it -- it reached him and he wanted to share that feeling with us. The way he saw things was different. He was stream of consciousness, every second turning his impressions and his love for music into pure, uninhibited, joyful energy. In this sense, he was a living example of the potential we all have to be our most honest selves. Life in the moment, to be grasped, violently kissed and loudly encored. Caring about the details is also a nice way of saying that Billy tended to obsess. I don't think he would like me saying that, and he never would have listened if I had, but now I'm able to get a word in edgewise, Billy. And following in the grand tradition you had of speaking your mind, I say to you: 'Hey man, you gotta know when to just chill out!' And you know what, Billy? Now you are free! On this unseasonably warm fall night [on Tuesday], one of your favorites, Nina Violet, is playing down the street, your friends are all gathering to share happy memories of you, candles are flickering in the jack-o'-lanterns, and the world is yours now. It's all love, my friend, and you are a part of it. Know that we will miss you, and as you exit this stage, we are clapping and dancing, and wildly applauding, just for you."

DEAN WAREHAM, formerly of Galaxie 500, which originated in Cambridge:
"I first encountered Billy Ruane at the Harvard Freshman Union in 1982, at a gig by the Human Sexual Response. I was standing pretty close to the stage and all of a sudden someone was climbing on my back. I turned around and that someone was Billy Ruane, already in the tie and coat that became his uniform. Years later he booked an important early show for Galaxie 500 at the Middle East -- opening for Beat Happening on a Saturday afternoon in 1988. In the years since he has regularly showed up at my Boston gigs, usually bearing gifts."

CLINT CONLEY, bassist-singer for Mission of Burma:
"No phony Hollywood air kisses for Mr. Billy Ruane of Cambridgeport -- who I first came to know as an ecstatically spastic dancer at early-'80s punk clubs, and later as the large-hearted, intellectually curious, much-beloved presiding spirit of a certain rock scene. I last saw Billy outside T.T.'s a month or so ago -- a last bit of fresh air and conversation between friends before entering the sonic onslaught of that black little rock-box. Billy's entrances were never less than dramatic: He alit out of the dark, trench coat flapping, shirt open to the navel, and set about unleashing a round of his trademark wet kisses. He seemed in reasonably good shape, and happy as I was to see him, I resolved that this time I would be strong and resist his embrace. When I stepped back and offered him a handshake, I was already losing my will -- dear Billy was so stricken-looking, so hurt, I completely caved. He cupped my head in both his hands and drew me to him for the familiar sloppy, scratchy kiss on the cheek. As always, just a shade of desperation beneath the affection, like this might be the last time."

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Photo credits:
Top: Ruane at the Middle East in the late 1980s. Courtesy of Wayne Viens.
Middle: Ruane circa '87 at Green Street Grill. Courtesy of JJ Gonson.
Bottom: Ruane at the Middle East in the late '80s. Courtesy of Wayne Viens.

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The latest news, commentary, and reviews on music in Boston and beyond.

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Sarah Rodman is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

James Reed is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

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