MODERN WISDOM: AMERICA’S ONLY HUMOR MAGAZINE
Copyright 2018 Francis DiMenno
A MEMOIR IN THE FORM OF A MEDITATION
PART TWO OF FOUR
II A MEDITATION
You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen,—the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives,—I ran maskless through the crowded streets shouting, ‘Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves.’
Men and women laughed at me and some ran to their houses in fear of me. And when I reached the market place, a youth standing on a house-top cried, “He is a madman.”
I looked up to behold him; the sun kissed my own naked face for the first time. For the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted my masks no more. And as if in a trance I cried, “Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks.
Thus I became a madman.
And I have found both freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.”
—Kahlil Gibran, “The Madman”
“He was a man of great complexity, of reckless, even dangerous extremes. His was a life touched by early tragedy, a setback which…led him…into other worlds with which he was unable to deal….”—Alexander Theroux, The Enigma of Al Capp
Some etymology: Roane/Ruane: Scots/Irish: “Red Seal”. More specifically: Another surname derived from “rua” meaning red. Originated in East County Galway. Galway East is characterized by rich farming plains. In parts of County Mayo the name has evolved into Ryan.
While what I am writing is basically a memoir, it is also shaping up to be a type of meditation on the meaning of Billy’s life and on the meaning of our lives in general. Billy was born the same year I was, and our mutual friend Nita Sembrowich has suggested that much of our cohort’s sadness at his having so suddenly died may have something to do with the perception that it is our own youth passing away along with him. A seemingly banal perception, perhaps, when looked at dispassionately; but a profound one as well, if one is directly affected by it.
Fifty-two is a good age to clean up your act. Medical science concurs. By about your fiftieth year, your sleep patterns change and your metabolism slows. Losing weight become more difficult. Cellular deterioration becomes progressively less reversible. You memory and strength begin to noticeably fade.
But judging from the pictures I’ve seen, and from the stories I’ve been hearing, Billy didn’t slow down at all.
I have written or tried to write about Billy before and have mostly failed. Perhaps while I lived I was lacking that sliver of ice in my heart that would have enabled me to regard him with dispassion. Unfortunately, tragically, he is not alive, and that sliver is ice is forming and it is growing. Growing, but by no means fully grown.
In 1982 I wrote a play between Gunslinger, in 1978, and PRNDL, in 1988. It was called “The Pleasure Bar” but it might as well have been called “Waiting For Billy”. In it, a group of characters in a mill town huddle during a blizzard on an icy winter evening in a bar so named. One of the characters tells stories of this “legendary” figure who is expected to arrive at any minute. Various stories are told of his myriad exploits. The “legend” in question never does arrive. Is he dead? AWOL? This is never revealed. The play was never produced.
Billy was never truly appreciated in his lifetime. In former times, Boston used to burn its witches. Nowadays it just ignores them. In former times, Boston was a citadel of American culture. Nowadays, it seems, its only culture is in its frozen yogurt, and that’s dead too.
You might say that Billy was in love with the limelight. Because he was afraid of the darkness.
You talk of Billy and you have to think back. Way back. The Eleusinian mysteries, sure. And also the Shakers. And all the God-mad prophets who spoke in garbled tongues. There’s was nothing particularly mystical in Billy’s mind set. But he was a mythic sort of guy. Yeah, I know, Aleister Crowley, every man and woman is a star. I’m not talking about that kind of nonsense. I’m talking Jungian archetypes. The Fool in the Tarot Deck. Later, the Hanged Man. Ultimately, the Tower.
Around 1980, at Aggisiz hall, in a building of many windows situated in the Radcliffe Quad, Billy’s father took me aside at an after party for a play that Billy had performed in. He sensed, perhaps, that I was totally adrift. He advised me that I could make my mark by interviewing and writing biographies of eminent businessmen for the prestige magazines. It was eminently sound and practical advice…which I resolutely ignored.
And yet, many years later, in some strange way, I am acting on it. Little did Ruane Sr. then realize that I would be writing about his own eldest son.
I think Billy’s tragedy, and his glory, was that he simply couldn’t not be himself. He did not wear the mask of JFK and the face of LBJ, as DeGaulle famously said of the United States at the flood-tide of its empire. He couldn’t put on a mask, an act. The Billy Routine? He could dim or brighten it like a rheostat but he couldn’t really switch it on and off like a light. In a sense, Billy was quintessentially American. After all, “The pure products of America,” as William Carlos Williams said in his 1923 poem “To Elsie”:
The pure products of America
It is only in isolate flecks that
is given off
It is this pureness, in particular, that was his triumph. And his tragedy. (I feel these words are ominous, for perhaps one could say as much about me.)
Some pertinent details. He was somewhat on the short side. Not stocky; not rail thin either. Of average build. Not as chubby as Truman Capote; not as wiry as Sean Penn. Somewhere in between. Seemingly frail, but physically strong. But what you sensed was his emotional fragility gave you the impression of a certain phantom frailty. Not entirely or even partially physical; almost spiritual. (But let’s not talk mumbo-jumbo here.)
I never knew him to get into a fight with anybody. I never heard of anybody actually cleaning his clock, though more than a few people have actually physically assaulted him, and many people were tempted to try. Men and women.
But Billy would assault people. That leaping for the face to plant a stubbly kiss. Like he was some old school Italian Don. You halfway expected him next to do a Don Corleone number and grab the loose skin of your cheeks between scabby fingers and murmur, ala Marlon Brando, in broken Sicilian. He certainly had a histrionic side.
Not surprising. He loved old movies. According to Pat McGrath, his favorite was Godard’s “Contempt”. But he had many favorites. I’d go with him to the Harvard- Epworth Church (or maybe he would drag me along) to see crazily obscure Samuel Fuller movies like The Steel Helmet, or Verboten! Or sometimes we’d go to the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square to see a revival of some unfathomable foreign classic like Orpheus Descending. We also attended some German film festival at MIT where we saw films like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and real obscurities like Jane Is Jane Forever (Jane Bliebt Jane) by Walter Bockmayer and Rolf Buhrmann.
John Carey: When you went to the movies you would be very likely to see Billy; but not for long. He noted down everything that was playing all over town on a particular evening and, with an encyclopedic knowledge of film, calculated which scene in each production was most worth seeing. And so he would pop up now here, now there, a dapper little figure brandishing a scribbled list, teleporting perhaps across the distances between.
What was it about Billy and movies, and later, vintage television shows? Did he live inside them? Did they make him forget himself for a while? I don’t know. Maybe the latter. At his Boston apartment he had a battered black and white television set that he might have rescued from a garbage can—I wouldn’t be surprised if the antenna was a coat hanger—and late at night, unable to sleep, he would watch old movies. I never saw him watch the thing otherwise. He loved the great films. Foreign, domestic, silent. But he also loved junk. He was inexplicably very enthusiastic about “Every Which Way But Loose”– in which Clint Eastwood plays opposite an Orangutan. (Then again, maybe he just really liked Clint Eastwood.)
He also liked, and cultivated, celluloid obscurities—the stuff that fell in between the cracks. His eventual booking agency HELLDORADO was allegedly named for one such old movie. Which, in turn, was named for a Las Vegas festival: “1935, and [as] the free-spending construction crews began moving on, business got slow fast. That year a showman named Clyde Zerby, with previous experience organizing festivals to bring tourism to small towns, pitched the idea here. The Las Vegas Elks Lodge sponsored it, named it Helldorado,”
He loved Mickey Spillane and old pulp crime novels. He also loved 19th century American literature. Emerson and Thoreau, to be sure, but also long-forgotten authors who had been literary sensations in their day. (Don’t ask me to name any. Even I don’t remember.)
He had impeccably eclectic taste. I still have his copies—underlined—of Forced Exposure Magazine. (I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he took some of his out-of-town booking cues from the reviews in that magazine.)
He was supportive of, and an enthusiastic fan and advocate of, any number of bands local to Boston and Cambridge. We all know this, if we know anything at all about him. For a person who was at all times on the cutting edge of hip (and even more on the cutting edge of “so-cornball-it’s-perversely-hip) he had a sentimental side. In particular, he loved the Salem 66 song “Across the Sea”. Listen to the lyrics some time. It is a sad and wonderful tune. I once saw him at T.T.’s as Salem 66 performed it, and he was utterly enraptured by it.
That accent of his—affected Brit or was it something else? His friend Dave McMahon says “Connecticut”. But was the accent something more? A key to his character? Something stemming from what was once the shadow of a calm inner essence once known but otherwise almost irretrievably lost?
Anywhere other than Cambridge he probably would have been locked up long before he actually was, in 1990. Cambridge, which should be known as the East Coast Capital of Crazy. Full of drug burn-outs, wrecked minds, broken souls. Homeless, down and out, street people. Crazed eccentrics abounded. People with colorful names. Brother Blue—entirely harmless, and wholly benign. And others, less so. The Yankee Doodle Man, who shrilly whistled the tune in question as he shambled down the street. There was also an elderly black man, a former MIT professor it was rumored, whom I would regularly see walking down the streets of Central Square forming imaginary equations with his fingers and mumbling. And then there was Karmu the Healer, “The Black Christ of Cambridge,” who is said to have “healed 20,000 people.”
“He fed a lot of hippies and gave them a place to sleep. He would tell a girl he was beautiful and you would see a girl become beautiful right before your eyes.” –Bob McQuaid
This sounds an awful lot like a description of Billy.
And then there was Mr. Butch, also known as “The Rasta Wino.” Billy had quite a history with him. Who, but Billy, would have given Harold Madison III (the birth name of Mr. Butch) his own Saturday afternoon show at the Middle East Cafe, from 12 to 2pm? This cracked alternative programming reigned during 1989 and part of 1990. Every week, Butch would complain that he didn’t make enough money, even though we gave him two dollars for every person who paid to get in, and sometimes supplemented his salary from our own pockets. A few of these shows—not necessarily the best ones—were videotaped by street performer Tom Blue. For the most part, Mr. Butch would strum a few bizarre chords on a guitar he didn’t really know how to play, sing a few cracked songs, prance around in a mask and cape backed by “The Mystery Band” (aka Killdevil Blues) and spend the bulk of his set telling the filthiest jokes he knew, intermingled with anecdotes of his life on the street.
Not exactly guaranteed to get the critics from the Globe and the Herald out of their Saturday morning beds to come down and have a look.
The West coast equivalent of Cambridge was San Francisco. But I spent some time there in 1980, and also in 1987, and Billy Ruane was not a San Francisco kind of guy. In his more lucid moments, at least, he was too much of a skeptic to swallow any new age nostrums. And too much of a pragmatic liberal to give himself over wholeheartedly to utopian schemes.
Digression: I was in San Francisco the day John Lennon was shot. I was disconsolate. I saw people walking down Market Street, preoccupied with their Christmas shopping, smiling, even laughing, and thought, with mingled despair and rage, “You fools! Don’t you know what’s HAPPENED?”
I never felt that way again until almost 30 years later, on October 26, 2010 at about 9pm, which was when I first heard the news of Billy’s death, on Facebook, via Steve McDonough, someone I knew from the Middle East Cafe.
Billy was not a political crackpot. But he did have an abiding interest in geopolitics. Sometimes, in my lowest moments, I would think, I don’t care if the world caves in. I’m already living in a cave. But Billy cared about such things. Cared too much, maybe. His mind was too active and wide-ranging, his antennae too sensitive. He could not ignore the world and shut out the unpleasantness. He could not even put it off to one side, as it is said that well-adjusted, well-balanced people often can.
He did give me one great piece of political advice. Circa 1983, he and I attended a documentary film, “The Day After Trinity: Oppenheimer & the Atomic Bomb (1980). It might have been at Harvard’s Carpenter Center. Afterwards, I was very depressed. He could see this. He suggested that if I wanted to do something, then maybe I should get involved with the Boston chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself,” he said. “Do something about it. Do anything. But don’t mope.”
What influence did Billy have on the Boston music scene as a whole? Great.
What influence did the Boston music scene have on music as a whole? Not inconsiderable.
I only knew him well in the summer of his years. That would be from 1977 to 1999. I feel impelled to write about him in part because of the influence he had on the turns my own life took.
Before I met him I was mostly into folk music and conventional big-ticket acts such as the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Zombies, Animals—even the dreaded prog rock. Billy was heavily into jazz and avant-garde rock and also steered me in that direction.
College radio station DJs would frequently borrow his jazz and rock obscurities, which was why, eventually, he would put his name on his LPs. People had a tendency to “borrow” his records and never return them. (Confession: I still own one such record myself: Special View by The Only Ones.)
He loved jazz and esoterica and cocktail music and cheesy American songbook stuff and schlocky Americana in general and in particular, Herb Albert, and the whole corrupt Sinatra-Martin-David Jr. Hollywood showbiz crowd tickled him pink. Billy practically single-handedly geared the zeitgeist back towards what hipsters in March of 1987 were referring to as Grandpa Music. He called it “Ruane’s Mainstream”.
But Billy also introduced me to some great rock music. “Cloud 149” by Pere Ubu. The Spiral Scratch EP and “Orgasm Addict” by the Buzzcocks. “The Ramones Leave Home.” The Stranglers. The first album by the Clash, which he had purchased as a British import. He owned albums by Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker. The first time I heard “Birth of the Cool” by Miles Davis was in his Harvard Square apartment. A lot of the standard stuff, but also some overlooked obscurities. Both versions of Coltrane’s “Ascension,” to name just one example. Ornette Coleman’s “At the Golden Circle Stockholm,” both volumes, to name another. But he also owned albums by Tin Huey, The Bizarros, The Music Machine, and other outlandishly obscure and strange American punk and proto-punk bands. Owned them, and left them out, and not just for show, or for (reverse) snob appeal. He listened to them.
Most people only turn themselves up to 7, or, at the most, 9. Billy, I believe, started out at 10. He could ramp up to 16 or 17 and could ramp down to 12, occasionally at a moment’s notice. Often he could bring himself down to 8, or even 6. Then there were the debilitating, suicidal depressions. About which I do not care to speculate overmuch. Surely, when he slept he dialed himself down to one or two. And surely he must have slept. How many hours each night? I don’t know. But I believe he routinely lived his life at an intensity 25 per cent greater than average.
Perhaps that is why he died nearly 25 per cent sooner than the average. In the often-quoted words of Jack Kerouac, he was one of those people who burn burn burn. More importantly, like Kerouac, he was one of those people who lived for the people who burned. Not for Billy to mope around in public, bemoaning his fate. His depressions were mostly private. I saw him in a funk from time to time. Not often. But more than once. I knew the possibility existed that he was depressed. I had this confirmed by certain of his intimates (whose names I am not going to cite).
Many people who got to know him were put off by his use of the telephone. It was not unusual for him to call you at some outlandish hour like two in the morning. It was not like he just wanted to have a conversation. His phone calls would devolve into harangues. He would let you get a word in edgewise from time to time, but just enough to keep you on the line. And he never wanted to hang up. One of his tics (or tactics) when finally concluding a conversation was saying, “Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.” And waiting for you to hang up first.
How well did anyone really know him? (I know—how well does anybody ever really know anybody else? I’m way ahead of you.) I suppose you would have to be similar to him in certain ways to understand him. I am, or so I flatter myself. But I can’t say I really knew him. He was like grabbling a blob of quicksilver; hard to get a grip on, and possibly even toxic if you didn’t handle him with care. He was like a hummingbird whose wings beat so rapidly that he had to consume three times his weight to stay alive. He was a living uncertainty principle: The more you poked at him the less of him you actually saw.
Nobody, I believe, would have been unduly shocked had he died at age 65. But dying just before one’s 53rd birthday seems so…so 19th century, almost.
How did he manage to maintain his energy level? Other than the Vivarin, and whatever other substances he swallowed? By eating. Yes, he was quite the gourmand. Obscure, bizarre foods were his forte. Lionel Pauling, I am told, was at one time his medical doctor. I’ve seen Billy eat crazy stuff like raw lamb tongues and have heard that he also ate goat tripe. In general, common fare was not for him, though it would do in a pinch. I once saw him puke after eating a few vile ten-cent Saturday afternoon hot dogs at the bar Fathers Six in Harvard Square. This was probably in 1978. Nick Eberstadt and I were with him. Afterwards, we indulged in a common boyhood prank to punish him for his weakness. Outside, we sprinted away from him, climbed over a tall cyclone fence, and didn’t wait for him to catch up. In the slang of the day, we “ditched” him.
Strange (or not so strange) to say, some ten years later, ten cent hot dogs were on the menu again, this time at the Middle East Saturday afternoon blues jam. We both knew that blues musicians never had money for food. I think that Billy wanted to see to it that they at least had something in their stomachs before they got blind drunk on black-and-tans, even if that “something” happened to be the rendered remains of hog eyebrows, chicken feet, variety meats, soy byproducts, and other unmentionables.
Billy had a love of fine food and his tastes, as in everything else, were eclectic. At his riverside Boston Apartment near Newbury Street, I once saw him pour vodka into his hot and sour soup and drink it down with great relish.
About that riverside apartment. Billy lived there during much of the 1980s after his banishment from the Grolier Apartments, described elsewhere. (He might have been forgiven the transgression with the fire extinguisher, but he made matters far worse by slipping a bizarre apologia using pretentious British spellings into the doors of each and every resident of the building.) From the roof of this apartment, at least, I imagine that he could look westward and see Cambridge in all its cracked glory on the other side of the Charles. The apartment was ideally situated; very close, for instance, to one of his favorite bookstores (now defunct), The Avenue Victor Hugo. Also on that same street was Newbury Comics (still there) and other book and record stores. Berklee and the ICA were both within quick walking distance. And it was only two miles by foot from Harvard Square—about eight minutes by subway and less than eight minutes by cab—during those years (before he bought the notorious scooter)—his preferred mode of
About cabs. Billy at one time went everywhere by cab, as though he were living in Manhattan. He paid for these rides by means of some mysterious scrip known as vouchers. I suppose his father paid one or more cab companies up front for this privilege. If so, it was a wise and judicious use of money. Perhaps it is needless to mention that Billy always tipped these cab drivers generously. Even when venturing far afield to places such as Belmont; even when the cab drivers, some of whom spoke little English, had trouble locating and delivering Billy to the places he wanted to go.
I don’t know who, if anyone, taught Billy how to drive. Don’t know if he had ever had a license for the scooter. But as far as I know, reckless as he was, he never got into a truly serious accident. Unlike his old friend Mr. Butch, who crashed his scooter and died on July 12, 2007.
A charming anecdote: ”One time, waiting in line at the License Commission in Cambridge, I caught a glimpse of Billy’s picture — taped up on the glass facing the clerk.”– Damon Krukowski
Billy had apparently been troubled by a charge of drunk driving sometime in 1988. I know few of the details, or what the eventual outcome was outcome. I do know, however, that he consulted a lawyer.
He was incredibly reckless on the scooter. If you were foolhardy enough to ride with him, you were either very brave or you had a subconscious or even a conscious death wish.
Billy was all about giving. He once gave me a ticket to see the Ventures at J. Swift’s in Harvard Square 1980. How can you forget a gift like that? But he didn’t want to be taken for a sucker. (Although, unfortunately, he often was.) He once saw in my possession the third Velvet Underground album; a record that had gone missing from his own collection. He asked me if I had borrowed it. I showed him the price tag inside the sleeve; I kept these; a habit of mine, if only to facilitate a profit upon resale. He borrowed the record from me and was very careful to return it to me, unharmed, with my name written on it in his own hand. I still own the record. (How could I sell it, after that?)
A composite picture of Billy at a show. I saw him at dozens of these. At The Underground, a former Laundromat in Kenmore Square, he danced himself into a terpsichorean frenzy ala Nijinsky sitting in a cave on the Austro-Hungarian border and greeting the liberating Soviet troops in 1945 with spectacular leaps and unrivalled grace in his last dance —well, maybe I wouldn’t go quite that far. To a trained eye, it might have seemed more like an ungainly white boy thrashing about. Perhaps he was drunk. Whatever his condition, he was utterly lost in himself and in the music. I heard that on a subsequent occasion, he crashed into a pillar or a post or some sort of immovable object, and gave himself a hernia.
In Cambridge Mass., circa 1979, while hanging out with some people I had known in College who had started up an organization called UFI (Unidentified Flying Idea), I first met a rather strange, elderly man. His revolutionary idea: Heroin addiction could be “cured”–by judicious use of hashish and massage. It was one the UFI people practiced by holding daily massage clinics, in which same-sex massage were de rigueur. They also spoke frequently of the strange “lenticular cloud formations”–ones recognized by the National Weather Service but assigned no particularly arcane significance. Except for their predilection for gobbling LSD like candy, they were a fairly benign bunch. The Cambridge City Council even invited them to give a presentation regarding the work they were doing. As I mentioned, every now and again a strange, shuffling, bearded old man would drop by. The UFI folks accorded him enormous respect. It wasn’t long before I learned that he was, in fact, a man I had met before. Harold Doc” Humes.
Of course, Billy knew who he was. Billy knew who everybody was. It was Billy who first introduced me to him.
For six years after graduating from college I led what might charitably be called a peripatetic life. The slogan “See America First,” the pre-hippie public services announcement on ubiquitous television, had commanded, and duly indoctrinated me. So I did.
I didn’t find myself. I didn’t lose myself either, but I was already lost. I just about hit rock bottom in the summer of 1985. Billy was one of the people who, howsoever inadvertently, helped me find myself. It was his inviting me to a party at Wayne Podworny’s Store 54 that enabled me to meet Timothy Maxwell. Writing every month for publication in the Noise gave my life some purpose. I do not overstate the case; I do not know what would have become of me had I not found some sense of purpose in my life. I was 28. It was late, but not too late.
Billy was a great networker, well before that term was widely used.
He introduced me to people like Harry O., a skateboard punk who used to hang out near the Harvard Square subway entrance.
He also introduced me to people who would later have varying influences on my life.
Mr. Butch, whose Middle East Saturday afternoon show I hosted for several months.
Tom Blue, the Cambridge-based videographer who hooked me up with a videographer gig at the ME and a 15-year affiliation with Cambridge Community Access Television.
Dave McMahon, the avant-garde pianist and figure on the New York no wave scene.
Timothy Maxwell. Jimmy Ryan. Wayne Podworny at Store 54.
In 1985 he basically reintroduced me to Joey Harvard nee Incagnoli. What are you doing these days? I asked him. Joey: “Jack of all trades and master of none.”
To the Mystery Girls.
To Corey Loog Brennan and Kate Tews, at a party given by the Amorys in one of the high-rent districts of Boston.
Later, Eric Doberman nee Motte. Mike Higgins. Andrew Lypps. All three soundmen at the Middle East. Chris Rich, later to take over his booking chores when Billy was committed in 1990. Dave Sheehan and Martin Doyle, Rich’s successors.
The list goes on and on.
Lastly, Greg DeVore, the son of Irwin DeVore, a professor of anthropology at Harvard.
Greg DeVore sounds like Greg Devour, but I swear I’m not making this up. “The Lizard King,” as my friend John Price Carey called him at an infamous Harvard Advocate party.
Andrew Morvay: I recall a couple of visits by Greg DeVore to [our apartment at] 494 [Mass.Ave.] (whose very name seemed to evoke awe, fear and trembling) with Billy. They seemed to have a special bond.
Greg died sometime in the mid-1990s. He had cleaned himself up several years before, and had suffered relapses on a few occasions. Ultimately, a life a wretched excess had eventually taken its toll. He couldn’t have been much over 40. Liver failure, it should have been. I think he might have sampled virtually every substance known. I tried some ether proffered by Greg one ill-advised evening, for the first and last time. I had a headache for three weeks afterwards. It hardly seemed to faze him at all. Greg cleaned up his act, circa 1988. At least, for a while. He seemed to be following the twelve steps. He made amends to me, AA style. I did have to remind him that one time he collapsed on my bed, pissed himself, and ruined the mattress.
Greg actually died when he fell in the bathroom and hit his head.
Billy spoke at Greg’s memorial.
In certain respects Greg was Billy’s dark spirit; his shadow, or at least that’s how I think of him. The eminence grise to Billy’s garishly lit Shamanic antics. There were two angels standing on Greg’s shoulders. One was actually a devil, and the other was a truly ferocious devil. There was certainly something feral about Greg. A friend of his told me that Greg Devore lived in the Kalihari Desert in Africa “among baboons and a tribe of Bushmen from the ages of 2 to 4 and the ages of 5 to 7.” Greg told this friend that he and his father “were with the tribal celebration Cooking Ceremonial” and Greg did something forbidden and his father hit him. This blow apparently scarred him, psychically, in a way that is difficult to explicate. “His family,” says this informant, “was like something out of a Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” When Greg was about five years old, he would “hunt cats and dogs in the neighborhood and bring them back to his house, all while running around dressed in loincloths.” He got a whipping and was told that henceforth “he was not to kill the neighborhood cats.”
Like Billy, Greg DeVore had a low tolerance for the strictly maudlin. At an infamous August 1981 Harvard Advocate party I made the ill-advised decision to play a slow number and chose a Smokey Robinson song. “Choosey Beggar” I think it was. “Turn that shit off,” snapped Greg, looking and sounding for all the world like the demonic Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Why, I asked him. “It’s self-pitying horseshit, that’s why.”
Greg was also what Claude Brown of Manchild in the Promised Land would have called a boss thief. At Pinocchio’s Pizzeria in Harvard Square I saw him steal a foot long meatball sub right out from under the nose of the counterman. Other folks have told me that he could steal booze from package stores and never get caught. He could burglarize cars and even homes, and, if apprehended, would always spin a tale plausible enough to ensure that the police were never called.
Billy probably first met Greg circa 1973, though I have been not been able to pin down the exact year. Was Greg a baleful influence on Billy? I am inclined to say yes. How could he not be? But I have been reminded that Greg was a baleful influence on nearly everybody. Myself included.
And you also have to consider this fact: Billy seldom did things against his will. Would Billy’s life have been very different had he never met Greg DeVore? It is hard to be sure, but the answer is probably no. Billy, to some degree or other, was indestructibly Pure.
Oh, I know this is going to sound like a lot of nonsense to people who didn’t know him. I’m not going to indulge in histrionic speculations about some halo or white aura which emanated from the physical corpus of Enlightened Master Ruane. But there was…something. I practiced Kundalini Yoga for a brief spell, and in a trance state, one could deceive oneself into thinking that one saw certain…auras.
When I say Pure, I don’t mean pure in the sense of maculate, unspotted. I mean pure in the sense of purely himself. An indomitable spirit, if you will.
I don’t have much truck with AA-inspired pseudo-psychoanalytic jargon, but Greg was an enabler, all right. In mostly a destructive sense. And so was Billy Ruane. But mostly in a constructive sense.
But Billy, I am beginning to realize, was ultimately best defined by his anger.
Pat McGrath: Billy needed anger really badly. Because he was really traumatized. And anger was the only emotion strong enough to cover everything up. The people that he was shittiest to, invariably, were the people he knew loved him the most. ‘Cause he thought that they could endure that barrage. The abuse that he could heap on. Billy’s mother killed herself in front of him. And Billy was really bright. He knew that he had diminished capacity. I think he mourned his confidence and the ability that he knew he didn’t have. He was so smart that he knew he wasn’t like the other boys. I think that’s what fueled the bad Billy, and good Billy was just good Billy. He needed to go bad, because he needed to be angry, he needed to tilt at windmills, he needed all of that. It was hard for him, because he had no real problems – in the external world. He was fully taken care of. He would do things like, he lived in a not-so-nice place and four blocks away he’s got a three-thousand-square-foot penthouse. Just beautiful. That he picked out.
As for me, personally? Whatever little I gave to Billy, he gave back more. Way way more.
There are many tales of his generosity. One anonymous account is interesting:
I am a longstanding “never was” in the Boston Music scene. I spent many years playing around town with no kind of recognition anywhere. I was standing in line at my bank in Cambridge one afternoon and Billy Ruane approached me. I knew who he was and was shocked to find out he knew who I was. He asked me how I was doing and how my band was—when I replied we were close to breaking up after 5 years of playing once or twice a week to enormous indifference he insisted that we keep playing, how much he loved us and how people thought we were really something special . He offered to book us at a few rooms where he had relationships with the owners, and insisted we couldn’t stop playing because he felt we had so much to offer. To make a long story short we ended up playing for a few more years…it didn’t really amount to anything, but Billy literally forced us, through the strength of his interest, to keep on playing! I am now living in the ‘burbs, with a wife and kids, still playing and I think about Billy once in a while.
When I heard the sad news of his passing it really made me think about a guy who would approach a stranger to tell him how he appreciated his music and to not quit! An enormously special guy.
Then there’s the flip side: An enormously special guy he was. But he sometimes angered me. At other times, among people he knew well, he could put on a certain air of infuriating hauteur—of aristocratic disdain. I do not believe that this was merely assumed. I detected a certain amount of pride, of snobbishness about him. Part of an aristocratic heritage. Like I said, he was sort of a Gatsby in reverse.
There are many local songs that remind me of him:
“Dot on the Map” by Volcano Suns.
“100,000 Fireflies” and “Railroad Boy” and “Lovers from the Moon” by Magnetic Fields.
(Listen to the lyrics of the latter of the three. You will be shocked. They describe him to the letter.)
“Criminal Child” by Uzi.
“Tugboat” by Galaxie 500.
“Red and Grey” by The Neats. (One of his favorite songs.)
Billy was an early and enthusiastic champion of countless bands, and not just local ones. An incomplete roster of out-of-town bands which he brought to the region—many here for the first time–to play at the Middle East includes Beat Happening, 11th Dream Day, Jack O’Nuts, and far too many others to mention.
Chris Rich: Billy was here to point things out. He was the purest advocate ever seen. I worked the formal institutional side of advocacy for my philosophical reasons and he worked the freewheeling side for his. We respected each other’s methods. I worked to be the least visible as he easily became the most. 20th century art and music in all its daunting intricacy was for Billy to find and extol to the sky like some avid beach child roaming all over the strand to find tide carried things and rush back to the group to share the find. He was the best town crier and witness the avant-garde ever had.
Billy didn’t seem to care too much about stand-up comedy. Plays, yes. Movies, yes. Surely he admired the classic silent film clowns like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. There was something a bit Chaplinesque about Billy, too, now that I think of it. There was also a bit of Harpo Marx in his temperament. A sort of angelic impishness. Billy might not have been wholly out of place in a Marx Brothers film, and it seems that from time to time that he would create and then inject himself into some strangely Marx-like scenarios.
Nita Sembrowich: Those who knew Billy as a child speak of his uncanny intelligence and precocity, which must have been an early manifestation of his bipolar condition. Due in part to his small frame, even as an adult he still gave to some extent the impression of a precocious, uncanny child. His mind had a peculiar, paradoxical quality; there was the sense of a flashing, expansive intellect trapped by and struggling to express itself through limiting, imperfect vehicles: ordinary human language, which moved far more slowly than his racing thoughts, further accelerated by NoDoz, and his own wayward brain, presumably the source of those thoughts. Of course he was angry and frustrated. The gifts and the deficits came as a package. He had the terrifying, distorted brilliance of an imploding star. He knew also, I’m sure, that people were too-often inclined to dismiss him as ridiculous. Maybe that’s why he forgave those who respected him enough to consider him impossible. His neediness and insecurity made him exquisitely sensitive to trends. He was the scenester par excellence, surfing precariously on the ever-breaking, ever dissolving crest of THIS IS IT.
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”—E.M. Forster.
“Children have more need of models than of critics.” –Joseph Joubert
I want a drink, and here’s a twenty
And bring my change in dimes
There’s a song on the jukebox
I want to hear a thousand times
It used to be our love song
We played it here before
So let’s be sure it’s playing
When she walks through that door
You see, I had her but then I lost her
But I got one more chance tonight
And if she hears it playing
Maybe things will turn out right
So waitress, take a handful
I’ve just got to hear that song
And I’ll wait here for my baby
If it takes me all night long
—David Wills, “There’s a Song on the Jukebox”
Chris Rich: He claimed to be descended from Chicago bootleggers and his dad served in World War Two, got a GI Bill education and obtained a seat on the Exchange at Wall St. His classmate was Warren Buffett, Billy’s honorary uncle. His father became one of the legendary old guys, value investors of the highest quality. I learned less about his mom but sensed she was the one who imparted his depth. She left him with some guidelines for life, but marital despair, and whatever else, led her to a walk into Long Island Sound when he was in his [late] teens.
The ubiquity of the Beatles back in 1964 was almost enough to make a freethinker and nonconformist like Billy grow to hate them. Why fawn over these four British fops when there was plenty of other music on the radio? Calypso such as “Yellow Bird”. Movie themes, such as “Never on Sunday”. Exotica. Plus all the American songbook singers, from Sinatra and Tony Bennett on down. No, even a six year old could figure out that rock and roll was a pretty unsubtle form of musical expression when so contrasted. No real melody, except in the crude ballads; no real sense of musical proportion, subsumed as it was beneath the monstrous, bludgeoning beat. As for rhythmic subtlety, compared to jazz drumming, rock and roll had virtually none.
1966: Other than the Church–and perhaps even there–the only aesthetics were the aesthetics of Moloch. “They’re Coming to Take Me Away (Ha Ha)” was the song that, in the late summer of 1966, was all the rage. Other contemporary songs on the jukebox would be Herman and the Hermits’ “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am,” an insipid and odious bit of music hall whimsy for those who were too old to appreciate the Beatles, and “Winchester Cathedral,” a novelty tune by the New Vaudeville Band, and their name says it all. The other songs would be blowsy big band standards and Sinatra and Tony Bennett and Bobby Darin and Perry Como and Dean Martin moaning about “Strangers in the Night”; and the whole atmosphere of adult interactions seemed to a nine-year-old grim and dank and smoky and the ambiance was of ill-lit and ill-fated and potentially fatal assignations.
It seemed as though the old folks in the middle nineteen-sixties treated sex, not like a sacrament or a pastime but like a sordid and dirty business transaction. Unlike the nascent Hippies on the West Coast, they weren’t looking for a secret land of bliss where they could carve out some kind of modern-day Sleepy Hollow and enjoy the stolen fruits of a sexual cornucopia. Instead, they were seeking an unspeakable fantasy–Shirley Temple’s face on Jayne Mansfield’s body.
1967: Billy’s cousin discussing going to Uncle Billy’s house at age 12—he ran back to the pool on a 90-degree day only to discover young Billy, aged 10, dressed in a suit and reading Russian literature.—Timothy Maxwell
BILLY AT EXETER.
Even in high school, Billy was what an earlier age would have called a bohemian.
Prior to the Cambridge School, he was enrolled in Exeter, where he met the son of a senator and the son of a man instrumental in founding the OSS. Spooks and pols. Much later these connections would prove significant, though not in a way that one might suspect.
A longtime friend of his, Tim Moynihan, has sent the following account:
You know the vomit-at-will scene?
A good one.
Billy could vomit at will.
When introducing him I’d always mention that.
Any time the introducee noted it,
he’d say yup, and vomit a bit, splattering his shoes.
Maybe why he grew to avoid me in public
I major popped Vivarin in high school.
Learned that too much made me sleepy.
Q: Was it you, or Nick Eberstadt, who said that the closest thing he had ever met to a truly good person was Billy Ruane? Were those the exact words? I was very much taken with the opinion at the time….
I never said any such words about Billy Ruane.
Don’t think I ever came close to that thought.
Thus, natch, got no idea of any exact words.
I have heard this question before.
No doubt, little doubt, from you.
But I really doubt that Eberstadt said it either.
I remember Eberstadt disliking and distrusting Billy.
Perhaps he was testing the irony thing.
Was Billy a truly good person?
Not a truly awful person…perhaps.
I don’t have any interest in music.
I hate being forced to dance.
We had little in common.
Richard Smoley said it!
I remember in detail!
Well, yeah I met Billy at Exeter.
We both dressed like bums with neckties.
He took to me in a rather alarming way,
wanting to spend as much time with me
as he possibly could.
He was like a groupie.
I just ain’t groupie friendly.
When I got up at 6:30 every morning,
after maybe two or three hours of sleep,
I’d find him sleeping across my doorstep.
I was going to the fucking shower,
and did not want witnesses.
He never took the hint.
The hint like Don’t be here in the morning!
Still, there he was, every morning.
I was certainly uncomfortable.
Did he want me to fuck him?
Did he want to fuck me?
Double plus yuk.
Estragon to my Vladimir.
He was in a play in high school
with a huge prop top hat.
He wore it around all the time,
‘til they took it away forcibly.
He was very fond of a giant prop top hat.
In high school. They didn’t let him keep it.
Did he still have the Wapati mounted head?
Were the strings still working?
A lot of the campus of Exeter Fancy Ass High School
is little mimics of Harvard, with some later nods to Yale.
Billy was in an ivied barn in the large southern ring of
ivied barns. Just like Harvard Yard!
North of this appended yard is the core, oldest part.
The classroom buildings and the older dorms.
Very quaint. Lots of ivy. Ancient quads.
(I lived my whole time there north of that old batch o’ quads.
Across the highway, impinging on an ancient decrepit graveyard.
Modern dorms. I saw up close idiot architecture meets idiot engineering.
Billy was at Exeter for less than a year.
He was very noticable. Got the boot hard.
He would play Captain Beefheart
at full volume at 2 or 3 AM.
He was not exactly popular.
Blew off most classes.
He devised many ways of escaping from his
fourth floor dorm box. (He kept it both empty and messy.)
I suspect that he sometimes climbed down the vines,
at considerable risk of his life.
Mostly he snuck out down the stairs.
There was a strict(ish) curfew,
and he pissed in its face.
I always knew Vladimir would outlive Estragon.
But I thought Vladimir would be sadder.
1975, or 1976, the first Billy Ruane song: Mine!
You done sung it y’rself: Jesus Helmholtz
Melvin [,] 68 Profane [,] Gucci Gucci Sambo [,]
Melvin M. Ruane! ‘Twas a negotiation.
He asked me to rename him, and I
insisted first on having a tune. —M.
BILLY AT THE CAMBRIDGE SCHOOL
Shortly after the wake I drove about 30 miles to interview a friend of Billy’s, who knew him at the Cambridge School.
In the friend’s apartment, I opened up a book of his. The random passage I selected read as follows: “A nose which was red and swollen on the end is a sign of an enlarged heart and an overburdened circulatory system”
In regards to etiquette—Billy had manners but chose not to use them.
In regards to body odor. Billy did not like to take a bath.
He lived for about two years on Mission Hill with a girl named Karen.
When he was with Karen he was normal all the time.
There’s some spooky shit right there.
I was 19 when I met Greg Devore. 1974. Billy and Greg were only
two years behind me at the Cambridge School. My mother taught a class there with Greg and Billy. I asked her if that wasn’t the craziest class she ever taught. She said that it was the best class that she ever taught.
Billy was all about listening to jazz, talking about jazz, and going to shows.
Linus Pauling would prescribe vitamins to Billy. Ones found in their food sources. Chicken livers, avocados, oranges, carrot juice.
1974-5. Billy’s father told him he had to go to two psychiatrists a
week, and if he missed one appointment his father wouldn’t pay the
His mother was crazy as a loon, drunk and drugged. At a gathering of some of Billy’s friends, his mother offered around Seconal and Jack Daniels” as though these were party favors. She passed out with her dress pulled up over her head. She was an unhappy lady [who had divorced Billy’s father several years ago because he wasn’t making enough money]…she took an overdose…they say Billy and his sister watched.
First time I ever met Billy the school was half boarding and half day school, half male and half female…[very] diverse…rich, middle, lower class, over, middle and underachievers—native Americans and inner city kids. The reason a lot of people got sent there is they got kicked out of other schools. But famous people went there. Billy had a pronounced Connecticut accent. Billy was into art, dance, theatre, music. The Cambridge School had a good math, science and English department—no phys ed to speak of except a rag-tag soccer team…and dancer chicks.
People [there] were tripping [at the time]…Billy was right in the
middle of a [school full of] acidheads…but he probably never took
He was really bookish—writing and writing—he had a killer jazz
collection with people like Eric Dolphy…
I don’t remember him drinking that much until he moved to his
apartment in Harvard Square.
Dorothy Straight—she knew him over the longest period of time…from the time he was at the Cambridge School right up until the end. She was in communication with him.
When I came back from New York age 26—Billy pushed me into an
Eventworks thing 1981-2…just may have been about my last major public performance and it was a disaster—my father dumped some coke onto the keyboard and it really fucked me up…the performance never coalesced…it was a 12 piece no wave/modern classical piece. The bill was Dave McMahon, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, Red, and Martha Sweatsacks.
Billy attracted strange people. He and I hung out with a guy named James Fish: ca. 1985. He was an Acid dealer who slept under leaves in the Jamaica Plain Arboretum and buried his money and acid there, as well as his bicycles and guitars. Under piles of leaves.
Billy took 20-40 Vivarin, sometimes in a single day.
Billy never drank soda; Greg did all the time.
Billy was sometimes very depressed—suicidally so–all the time—he was sort of never really happy—faking happiness.
If you were really his friend, then he did not owe you anything and
you didn’t owe him anything.
In 10th grade I tried to re-live “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”. Billy was also fond of that book.
Greg wasn’t all bad. I called Billy in the Back Bay with a phone card—Greg Devore was there; Greg got me into detox with his Cambridge address. Greg got me sober and nobody else would have done it for me—but, on day two, he got into the detox and throws Xanax and pot and nips into a drawer [in my room]—he has a lit joint in his mouth—I chased him out—later after getting out I found the Xanax in my suitcase and fell off the wagon.
Billy went in to the pharmacist and got me a prescription for Xanax—a stronger sort of valium—a muscle relaxant—hugely abusive—tanazopam is still abused today—one of the most abused drugs in the world: XTC (MDMA), meth, and tanazopam.
Greg DeVore and Billy were both addicted to caffeine pills…they can
make your pancreas explode—it is also so hard on your stomach—he
started taking ‘em at age 11 when he found the pharmacist would give them to him without question.
Billy always contended that NoDoz does nothing compared to Vivarin.
Vivarin had an added ingredient–Phenactin.
(Digression: Was this the same as stimucin? I found no online sources to suggest as much. This may or may not be an urban legend.)
BILLY AT HARVARD
Billy didn’t need to write a novel. Billy’s life was his novel. He needed someone close to him to write it down. All of it. But who could stand to be with him all the time? I’ll tell you this right now: I’m not up for it. This is a warning: What I write is not definitive.
A coincidence is just a cosmic form of irony. That’s the only way I can explain how it was I came to meet and get to know Billy Ruane. The odds against such an encounter were staggering.
(But the odds against nearly all our life-changing events surely are. Mysticism will have little place in this memoir, except when we speak of holy fools, of shamanic rituals, and even –dare we mention it?–of blood sacrifices.)
I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. Reared in slums and housing projects. Left for eight months to fester in a boy’s home. Brought up by relatives. I was largely on my own from age sixteen.
I am terse. Because I was angry about these things. I still am. I fear I always shall be, to some extent. Juvenal has said: Nil habet infelix paupertas durius in se, quam quod ridiculos homines facit. (“Of all the Griefs that harrass the Distrest/ Sure the most bitter is a scornful Jest.) And: Haut facile emergunt quorum virtutibus opstat res angusta domi. (“Slow rises worth, by poverty deprest.”) Both are Samuel Johnson’s translations, in his “London”. (It is a useful poem to read if one wishes to understand Boston as well.)
But I got a scholarship to a boarding school in Rhode Island. That saved me. And a need-based scholarship to Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and that very nearly ruined me.
Billy had a lot of anger in him as well. Unlike me, however, he seldom felt the need to repress or hide what he felt. That turned a lot of people off. Including Erna, my girlfriend at the time, who told me “You and your friends were always trying to get me to go places with Billy and I didn’t want to and you always insisted.” (Why do angry young men so often do this to the women they love?)
“Between thought and expression lies a lifetime.”—Lou Reed
Chris Brokaw claims that this was one of Billy’s favorite lyrics. If so, it seems particularly apt.
There was no filter with Billy. Late 70s Harvard was all about chilling out. Billy wasn’t having any. Billy wasn’t built that way.
Humorist Artemus Ward said of George Washington that “He never slopp’d over.” Billy was the anti-Washington. He nearly always “slopp’d over”.
In his recent book At Home, Bill Bryson describes a man assigned to head up a nineteenth century parsonage as a man who is very fortunate indeed, particularly if he is a man of an intellectual bent, for he had adequate time, income and leisure to follow his avocations. A boarding school in the latter part of the twentieth century was not very different. Boarding school was hard work. But it was also a sanctuary in which one could, if one chose to, cultivate one’s own intellectual garden.
Why do boys get sent to boarding schools? “Go away son, you bother me.” That about explains it. Boarding schools were (and to some extent still are) a warehouse for the unruly sons of the ruling elite. Also: They are (and were) training grounds for elite etiquette.
It was also a form of exile (of a kind) from NYC (which might very well have eaten him alive).
Billy used Vivarin, from one account from age 11. I don’t know when he started to drink but I assume it was well before the legal age in Massachusetts, which was then 18.
He never had much to do with pot. I’ve seen him take a reefer when proffered—it was ubiquitous in that era—but he always passed it along to the next person. He was no pothead, that’s for sure.
And he wasn’t into hallucinogens at all. At least, not as far as I know.
Another thing I was trying to figure out is whether Billy ever used coke? Or heroin, after the one time I actually saw him try it, in 1985.
As for Cocaine? Not his bag. It didn’t agree with him. If he were ever into it at all, even briefly, I never saw it. Besides, it was so…vulgar. Insufflating this horrible hospital-smelling powder up one’s snot-garage. It vaguely reminded one of sickness and people dying and death. You never saw bright-eyed and healthy-minded people using it, and if they did, they didn’t stay that way for long. Lady Cocaine had a talent for dragging them down to her level. It was all right to flirt, but a full-fledged relationship was bound to end poorly. Besides—cocaine on top of everything else that Billy was all about would have been an insult to sense and decency. Like throwing nitroglycerine onto a bonfire.
Coffee was another matter.
Coffee leads men to trifle away their time, scald their chops, and spend their money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water. ~The Women’s Petition Against Coffee, 1674
This coffee falls into your stomach, and straightway there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army of the battlefield, and the battle takes place. Things remembered arrive at full gallop, ensuing to the wind. The light cavalry of comparisons deliver a magnificent deploying charge, the artillery of logic hurry up with their train and ammunition, the shafts of with start up like sharpshooters. Similes arise, the paper is covered with ink; for the struggle commences and is concluded with torrents of black water, just as a battle with powder. –Honore de Balzac, “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee”
Coffee is a beverage that puts one to sleep when NOT drunk. ~Alphonse Allais
Sometimes Billy was so hyper that he reminded me of a line from Lenny Bruce’s classic bit, “The Palladium”: “Some of these boys come here and do their shows…and they’re not very f-funny…But you…YOU have a knack for making people vicious!”
Billy also had “a knack for making people vicious”. Viz:
Gerard Cosloy: I had nowhere to crash [in NYC] 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.”
But he also stuck up for the underdog.
Andrew Lypps: Billy gave me my first paying live sound gig when I got to Boston in 1990. Turns out it was a West Virginian Neo-Nazi band at Green Street Station, and I was the only sound guy who’d do it… 😉
Very soon after that, Billy gave Andrew a coveted job as one of the three official soundpersons at the Middle East Cafe. (I also did sound, but pro bono, so to speak. At one time or other, for some shows I was the one who was doing sound, and shooting video, and collecting money at the door, and introducing the acts, and feeding and watering the talent, and serving as a bouncer as needed, and settling any other of the many beefs, squabbles, misunderstandings and minor emergencies that took place during Saturday afternoon blues jams and open mikes.)
For the first half of the 1980s, other than my roommates, Billy was one of my few Boston-area friends.
Billy’s father would have liked Billy to go into the family business. But it never happened. You did not look at Billy and think, “Businessman”. And he was extraordinarily poor at it. His initial forays into booking were disasters. I have heard this from several sources. One example of an early booking foray: Andrew Morvay tells me ca. 1983 Billy promoted Human Switchboard at the Channel and lost 500 dollars—a not inconsiderable sum in the early 1980s. It would be like about 2000 dollars now.
For his part, Billy himself it seems never wanted anything to do with the business world, which requires at a minimum, persistence, as well as a specialized acumen in financial matters, which he seemed to have little interest in. There is, perhaps, also the matter of business decorum. Can anyone who knew him imagine Mr. William Ruane Jr. dressed in a neatly pressed suit and power tie exchanging dry quips about politicians and sports figures while getting restrainedly well-lubricated at the 19th hole? I imagine that, if he made a supreme effort, he could have briefly tortured himself into that role. Particularly if it were in the context of a play or a stage performance. Billy, as I have mentioned, was a fine character actor. But day after day the role—and it would decidedly have been a role—would have proven oppressive. Inside of three years I would bet he would have had an ulcer. Or maybe something even more damaging. Damaging to his soul, psychically eating at him from within.
It’s not as though he couldn’t play a role. But it had to be a role of his own choosing.
For many years he worked at the reception desk of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Room (not the rare book room, as some have erroneously reported) at Harvard’s Widener Library. His was the first face seen by those with a love of antiquarian volumes. (The HEW room had a Gutenberg Bible.)
Andrew Morvay: He worked in the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial room, in the center of
Widener, a dark wood paneled room, like an old gents club, with the portrait of Harry on the wall. The room is not Houghton, the Harvard rare book library. But it housed Harry’s personal collection of rare books including the famous Gutenberg bible. (Harry was on a book buying trip to Europe when he went down on the Titanic.) There are all kinds of stipulations for the room that went with the bequest to build the library, including the fresh flowers every day. It was a 35 or 40 hour per week position which he split with another person, whom I never met.
Knowing Harvard’s employment policy from the inside, he was likely an employee at will,
essentially a temp, with no job security, no paid holidays—in fact, no benefits of any kind save a not unduly onerous job and a reasonable but my no means extravagant hourly wage. It was by all means easier than working in a restaurant, which he also did when still a teenager. In fact, it was something of a sinecure. One friend of mine has remarked that there was humor to be found in the fact that he was the face of Harvard’s rare book room. He was like an antiquarian book himself, in certain respects—somewhat fragile, practically unique, priceless to people of a certain temperament and elusive and incomprehensible to the unlettered and unlearned.
Billy’s father wanted him to go to graduate school and take a degree in library science, presumably so he could get a professional-level job in some library or other. Say whatever else you will about him, but the old man was no fool. Had Billy actually taken a professional library job, he would have been a more-than-adequate reference librarian, given his wide and eclectic range of interests and his fabulously retentive memory. Billy would probably have been an even better collection development librarian, particularly for an institution looking to build a comprehensive collection of twentieth-century music or motion pictures. He would certainly have been an enthusiastic and effective reader’s advisory librarian, given his wide-ranging knowledge of and interest in literature of all types.
But the library world is a comparatively sedate one, and acting out is considered a problem, and is not encouraged. Whether Billy would have had the patience to endure the drudgery of cataloging, bibliographic instruction, or business and government reference, is an open question. (Library school was good advice. For me, at least. I did it and was never sorry. )
Billy himself seemed to lack the ability to write fiction, He showed me a page he had written one time. It wasn’t really fiction; nor was it poetry. It was essentially a list. A disjointed list of seemingly random words—all assonance, ala Joyce, but no through-line or plot. A would-be sycophant of his who was also in the room also read it and proclaimed it “brilliant”. I should have asked Billy if I could keep it. It would now be a most valuable artifact. (Besides, first impressions can be deceiving.)
Billy might have become a writer. I see an essayist or a critic of some sort. He had the intelligence, the critical acuity, the imagination. And most of all, the memory.
But he didn’t have the sheer drive to sit down in front of a keyboard and so the work on a consistent basis. Long-form wasn’t his strong suit. He wasn’t built for the grueling long haul—mentally, physically, or emotionally. Furthermore, clear and concise writing demands that one reign in one’s frenzied associative leaps and that one provide connective tissue between the spontaneous and out-of-context thoughts, that one provide the reader a beginning, a middle and an end, and proceed in a fashion that shows evidence of some sort of consistently applied logic, howsoever intuitive or thematic or even symbolic. In other words, long-form writing demands SANITY. That…well, you know.
Or maybe Billy saw writing as the mug’s game it all too often seems to be. You sweat blood for days, weeks, months, maybe even years–and the end product is read in a matter of minutes and hours. Then put aside, and, in nearly all cases, forgotten.
First thought, best thought. That was the dictum of Ezra Pound and his acolytes, the Beats.
Billy’s thoughts were racing, constantly racing. But he didn’t have the patience for exacting and sometimes excruciating revisions. Indeed, he himself said as much in one of his email correspondences with QV.
But good writing demands revision. Saul Bellow revised some of his sentences ten times. And good writing takes patience. Most of all, good writing takes detached observation. But Billy was seldom content to watch a room; he always seemed to want to act upon it in some way. Billy was not really a pure observer. He had to go into any situation like a rogue molecule and act upon the situation, upon every interaction that he could.
I also almost never saw Billy in repose but at some point or another—maybe lying in bed, unable to sleep—he surely must have read. A lot.
You wouldn’t have to talk with him long to realize that he had a quick, retentive mind. I can’t imagine that he forgot very much. That, of course, can be a curse as much as a blessing. Perhaps the booze served to soak up some of the less desirable recollections.
He also possessed a vastly counterintuitive sense of good taste.
A cynical side too. He did not suffer pretentious fools gladly. Nor liars.
He also had a certain compulsion to put things into what he considered to be some kind of order.
Diane Bergamasco: [I remember] Billy sitting on the living room floor of my apartment on Green St. in Jamaica Plain “organizing” my vinyl record collection for hours. I could never easily find what I wanted to listen to after that. And going to the beach with Billy in Wellfleet, his skin as white as the sand, scampering up a dune just as maniacally as he danced.
I first met Billy as an undergraduate at Harvard. Probably through Richard Smoley, and the Harvard Advocate, the college literary magazine which we both belonged to, which is how I met Richard. Richard lived off-campus in a third-floor apartment with a rotating cast of roommates who included Sam Seymour and Maura Moynihan and Erik Breindel. It was a brownstone located at 1679 Mass. Ave. The first floor had a general practitioner M.D.; the second floor was occupied by the office of Alan DerKazarian, D.D.S., whose drill could be heard on certain mornings.
Billy was a fixture on Harvard’s campus dating back to at least 1974 and possibly earlier. At some point, he enrolled in the Harvard Extension School. Did he even try to get into Harvard proper? Does it matter? He might as well have gone there. Many people assumed that he did.
At the insistence of his friend Nick Eberstadt I was persuaded to warn Billy off of trying heroin. (I suppose that, at that time, Breindel was dabbling in it. It was an Exeter thing, according to my then-girlfriend Erna, who decidedly did not run with that crowd. ) As a matter of fact, I threatened to kick his ass if I ever heard about him even dabbling in the stuff. I guess he took me seriously. I heard no more of the matter, Until about seven years later.
I suppose that Billy moved into the Grolier apartments sometime in 1974 and 1975. Dave tells the story of how a bunch of people were crashing in his room, including some young ladies. Michelle Le Brun and Jean Rosenberger, David McMahon and David Kohlberg. Greg DeVore and Giorgio Della Terza. In the darkness, Billy said, in that quaintly lilting somehow-not-quite-British accent of his, “Do you mind if I masturbate?” One of the girls said, “Ew!” Billy imperturbably replies, “It helps me to relax”.
Richard Smoley: Circa 1974 Billy apparently took up residence in a storage unit at Harvard’s Mather House. [But] the first memory I have of Billy Ruane is of his staying overnight in the living room of Canaday G-21. When he emptied his pockets, a handful of little yellow Vivarins scattered all over the already-disgusting living room floor.
May of 1978: “Seeing quite a bit of Billy who gave a party at the Advocate a month ago [to which he had invited some street people who hung out down by the river and] which some [of those] street people turned into a brawl.”—letter to GMM dated 6/24/78
That was quite a festive event. It was at Billy’s instigation, I think, that we threw the party, which I sponsored as a member of the magazine, and it was, of course, duly attended by the campus literary crowd, who, whatever their bohemian avocations might otherwise have been, were, at least to Billy’s eyes, a rather stodgy bunch. Billy decided the party needed some livening up, so he went out and like some Pied-Piper in reverse, brought all the street rats he could locate into town and into the Advocate building, where they began swilling free vodka with all the avidity of starving tramps who have just happened upon an abandoned picnic table groaning with treats. My parties tended to be somewhat wild affairs, because instead of the standard disco and Motown fare served up by more conventional litterateurs, I favored wild hippie blooze and other heavy duty rock and roll. This music was not conducive to a peaceful time; the party turned into a riot. Me, my friend Steve Bonsey, and a muscular girl named Leslie were backed against the wall in a small booth-sized area by a crowd of marauding thugs. A hand wielding a bottle was aimed at Bonsey’s blonde California God-boy head. I deflected it. Leslie, in her turn, clobbered a fellow who was set to brain me from behind. The police were called. I I’ll never forget the tragic, twisted look on the face of one of the townies as he heard the sirens and bolted down the stairs. Afterwards, I was testosterone charged and elated for having survived the encounter. Me and Leslie forthwith went down by the river to neck. It was too cold for outdoor fucking. We lost the mood, and later ended up going to the room she shared with one of my best friends’ girlfriends, who, unbeknownst to me, had a secret crush on me. I left a medallion behind, she figured out what was going on, and was mad at Leslie for weeks. Later, Leslie came out. Good times.
Lots of people used Billy. I used Billy. As a potential girlfriend test. If a girl could remain in his presence for twenty minutes she was probably patient, understanding and unflappable and could therefore presumably put up with me. In 1979 I took a girl I was quite sweet on named Sandra DeJong to meet him. All went swimmingly. For about 15 minutes. I left briefly to take a piss in his bathroom. Sure enough I heard a noise from Billy. It sounded like this: WAAAAUGH!
Sandra had spilled something on the rug and was bending down to clean it up and Billy was screaming at her that he would do it and that he wouldn’t hear of her doing it. I made up some cockamamie excuse and, Sandra in tow, we got out of there fast.
Something had dropped.
In Billy’s life, something was always dropping.