MODERN WISDOM NUMBER 240

MODERN WISDOM: AMERICA’S ONLY HUMOR MAGAZINE
NUMBER 240
OCTOBER 2018

Copyright 2018 Francis DiMenno
dimenno@gmail.com
http://www.dimenno.wordpress.com

CITIZEN RUANE: A MEMOIR IN THE FORM OF A MEDITATION
PART ONE OF FOUR

TO THE READER
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
–Robert Frost

“No wonder [the French] think we’re all crazy, We are crazy to them. We’re just a pack of children. Senile idiots. What we call life is a five-and-ten-cent store romance. That enthusiasm underneath – what is it? That cheap optimism which turns the stomach of any ordinary European? It’s illusion. No, illusion’s too good a word for it. Illusion means something. No, it’s not that – it’s delusion.”—Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

“The world is my country, and to do good my religion.”–Thomas Paine

Billy Ruane. Born November 10, 1957, died October 26, 2010.

10-5-89 notebook. Excerpt from a fiction written 6-14-1990:

I remember Billy best from when in years past I would hop on back of his orange scooter and go with him to bare lofts in factory districts hard by half-razed tenements to see punk bands so raw and loud no regular club in town would have them. At one such show, Billy, mouth flecked with beer foam and calamari, wild-eyed and whiskey-faced, leapt in front of the band as out groaned harsh, flat discords. I stand by in wonder as he throws off his filthy tweed jacket and rolls on the floor, howling as if in pain, which I only now suspect might have been less theatrical than real.

In 1979, after college, we both remained in Cambridge as carpetbaggers, malingering in the margins of the workforce. I took a variety of phone survey jobs to pay the rent on my slum flat and he lived in an apartment subsidized by his father. He worked desultorily but was mostly idle by day and spent his evenings searching for the mostly bizarre and now forgotten punk ensembles in now-long-defunct venues where now the stage stands bare and mute. Billy, hyper, unable to stand still or on two feet for very long, because he was well known to that underground scene, was eventually able to parlay the connections made over the years in dripping-damp basements and filthy fifth-floor loft spaces into a booking business.

I don’t know what his father thought about all this. I remember him as a beefy but enigmatic businessman with a bulbous port-wine nose, steel-gray hair, and a hearty but somewhat sarcastic spirit of camaraderie. I knew him when, and that is how I came to work with him at the Middle East Café, which attracted students and music fans, but which was also where every eccentric and shiftless vagabond from years past, and a few more he met along the way, congregated every week.

Nita Sembrowich: Billy’s mental illness, for want of a better term, made him seem slightly inhuman, even supernatural. Billy the person suffered within and was consumed by his own persona and mystique, which fascinated the rest of us, as did his outrageous antics. It was easy to see him as a fire-spirit, an ‘elemental’… Peter Pan or Ziggy Stardust. Possessed by a divine or demonic energy, he became Dionysus, or a minor avatar of Shiva, dancing death, chaos, destruction, and creation. Now, looking back, I also think of him as a sort of Mad Maestro orchestrating the scenes of my youth. Because he tended to evoke these undying archetypes, Billy’s death seems particularly poignant and shocking. The masks he borrowed are ripped away. He was mortal after all.

“He was mortal after all.” So. Why should the ostensible story of Billy Ruane, a small-time nightclub impresario, interest us at all? Well, if that’s the way you feel, I don’t mind, to quote the American philosopher Todd Rundgren.

But small-time nightclub impresario is not the sum of Billy’s accomplishments. You should know that. But maybe you don’t. In my opinion, the full story has yet to be told. Billy Ruane: Local character, busy bee, wild shaman, mad actor, or something less (or more)? Read on. I’ll leave it for you to decide.

We often remember Billy in his role as conduit, catalyst, fixer, broker. King of the Bohemians. Patron of the arts, and eccentric dispenser (and sometimes defaulter) of all the money that goes along with such patronage. And also as a heedless, headlong, sometimes almost inadvertent manipulator of the politicking which goes along with the local arts scene.

Billy’s notoriety, already considerable by the late 1980s, grew out of his 1988 association with the Middle East Café and the Sater Brothers, Joseph and Nabil, and their extended family; refugees from war-torn Beirut, and devotees of the artsy Hamra neighborhood. Many today who claim to have known Billy probably knew him best from his role in fomenting that whole Middle East Café scene.

Those who knew him, and many who didn’t, talk of Billy as being eccentric, the proverbial loose cannon, Captain Id, a wild man. We tell each other that Billy was one of those people who were always “on.” (Not so.) There is no lack of stories about “Wild Bill.” (I myself have more than a few.)

Some might have seen Billy as cartoon character. Or as a literary archetype: The Monkey King: Or as a living embodiment not of string theory but of The Yo Yo theory. As a walking, bleating demonstration of Blake’s dictum that “Energy is eternal delight.”

Chris Rich: Billy was enthusiasm and saw getting carried away as an important job.

I myself have tried, many times, to see him whole. Now that he is gone, I feel that one of the central tragedies of Billy’s life was that he was known of by nearly all, loved by many, but that he also gave the impression of being a lonely soul who didn’t really feel very close to anyone; at least, not for very long. Someone as incorrigibly cynical as his old boarding school friend Nick Eberstadt once observed, back in 1978, that Billy was “the closest thing to a truly good person that I ever met.”

If only there wasn’t that stupid money, that stupid stupid money, I am tempted to say. He might still be with us today. But Billy didn’t really care about money itself, but for its transformative effect. No more than a wizard cares about his book of spells; only for what magic its knowledge and its application can effect.

Out-of-towners, some of them, surely thought he was some sport of humanity, some sort of combination of ardent music fan and local character. (I typed the words music fan local character into Google and Billy’s name was the fourth one that came up.) Or perhaps they saw him as some local exhibitionist such as Pittsburgh’s Anna Buckalew (aka Ringside Rosie), or John 3:16, the “Rainbow Man”. Or even as some viral media phenomenon-slash curmudgeon along the lines of Epic Beard Man or Rufus the Stunt Bum. I don’t mind saying that this whole perception vs. reality thing in regards to Billy Ruane really has me bugged. On the one hand, who cares about the opinions of the ignorant and the uninformed? After all, you know what they say about opinions, don’t you? “Opinions are like hemorrhoids. Every asshole has one.” And yet, in the days following October 26, 2010, it seems that every John, Dick and Harriet weighed in, somewhat too often with some inane platitude or self-serving fable about the wonderfulness of Saint William. It is natural to follow the edict de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est. And I don’t want to come off as some sort of latter-day Holden Caulfield, inveighing against the phonies. But let’s be brutally frank. A great many of these people who now wax poetic on the death of young Mr. Ruane would not have given him the sweat off their ass when he was still alive.

On the other hand, consider all the out-of-towners, the cynics, the skeptics, the nay-sayers—what if they have to say about Billy Ruane is actually the more accurate perception? What if they find baffling and inexplicable this sudden outpouring and affection for a rare but occasionally ominous fellow who was nearly always both generous and hail-fellow-well met, but also vaguely frightening? What if they’re right? Oh, they’re most certainly not right. But what if Billy had not been instrumental, after Sue Miller had tested the waters, in founding the Middle East Café as a music venue along with Skeggie Kendall and Joe Harvard—and, later, with Jennifer Cares and Mike Higgins and Eric Doberman né Motte and Chris Rich and (modesty be damned) myself? Then perhaps his death would be little noted and not long remembered.

With Billy’s death we also tragically lost a great deal of music history and historical knowledge.

Dan Spockster: …Billy would trace each band’s lineup to all of the previous bands the players had been in with a kind of curatorial mania. He was the genealogist of Boston rock. An incredible store of knowledge in that man’s head.

Perhaps one of the reasons so many otherwise stable people liked him, approved of him, even loved him, is that they lived vicariously through him. As H. L. Mencken put it, “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.”

Billy was like the hobby of yarn bombing. Call it Billy Bombing. He added color to an ugly town. He made a statement virtually every day on earth.

Come as you are. For Billy, it wasn’t an invitation. It was a mantra.

If you wanted to be cynical about it then you could say that in some respects, Billy’s whole adult life was like a stand-up act with no jokes. More specifically, it was a movie about a guy whose whole shtick was this character he played called “Billy Ruane” and this guy, who was always on, soon discovered that he had no real personality outside of his act. Call it “Mr. Wednesday Night,” because Billy Crystal will not play the lead in any Hollywood version, and, no, there was no devoted younger brother who was there to manage his affairs.

Why do I say that Billy’s was a stand-up act? Because I am very much struck by something Gershon Legman once said which seems frighteningly descriptive:

“Under the mask of humor, our society allows infinite aggressions, by everyone and against everyone. In the culminating laugh by the listener or observer–whose position is
really that of the victim or butt–the teller of the joke betrays his hidden hostility and signals his victory by being, theoretically at least, the one person present who does not laugh. Compulsive storytellers and joke-tellers express almost openly the hostile components of their need, by forcing their jokes upon frankly unwilling audiences among their friends and loved ones, and upon every new person they meet. Often they proffer this openly as their only social grace. The listener’s expected laughter is, therefore, in a most important but unspoken way, a shriving of the teller, a reassurance that he has not been caught, that the listener has partaken with him, willy-nilly, in the hostility or sexuality of the joke, or has even acceded in being its victim or butt….This is particularly clear in the type of rambling or pointless anecdote, nowadays known as the…’shaggy dog’ story….in [which] the avowed butt of the joke is simply the person who has been tricked into listening.” (RATIONALE, 1st Series, first page.)

There were certain affinities to Billy’s act and that of a stand-up comic reduced to fronting a karaoke night at the local Chinese Buffet, where he gets every now and then to sing snatches of Sinatra in between requests for Piano Man, Achy Breaky Heart and She Bangs.

In October of 2010 I had just finished reading Peter Beinart’s The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. Would that it covered more than simply United States foreign policy, for if it were, in fact, an encyclopedic work, then Billy would certainly merit an entry. He was something out of a figure in mythology. Boston’s Icarus: he flew too close to the sun and ultimately, he scorched his wings. Icarus is the figure to cite if you choose to be cheerful about what happened to him. But for a man of saturnine thoughts and face and dark, watchful eyes, a disappointed romantic turned cynic, the operative myth might well be Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and as punishment was chained to a rock to have his liver picked at by vultures for an eternity.

Was he really a multi-faceted personality, as some people would insist? Billy himself maintained that without alcohol and caffeine he was “a rather dull fellow”. He said this in an article published in the Noise #100, in 1991. (The saying is also attributed to David Letterman: “If it weren’t for the coffee, I’d have no identifiable personality whatsoever.”) But I think he was being too modest, in that infuriating fashion inculcated into all aristocrats practically from birth. (To quote George H.W. Bush, “Ask others about me. I’m not good at talking about myself. That is part of my make-up. Some people see it as ‘false’ modesty. But my mother taught me not to brag and she is still watching me.”)

I want this to be a memoir. So I am going to rely mostly (though not exclusively) on my own impressions and speak for the most part only about what I remember and have personally witnessed, though in some cases I will also report the memories of people known to me. And use these to fill in occasional gaps and lapses in my own memory and knowledge.

And yet at the same time, this is going to be something more than a memoir. It will also be a series of anecdotes and meditations on the nature of Billy Ruane, a person who was my friend. Because I cannot bring myself to look fully into the black hole of his constant loneliness and occasional despair, I will be merely circling around the subject; it is for the reader to decide whether in so doing I have done him any justice at all.

So, ultimately, I want this piece to be a memoir in the form of a meditation. It will focus less on a stark chronology of his life and be more, I hope, of an explanation as to why. Why was Billy the way he was? What was it about Cambridge that nurtured his best qualities and encouraged some of his worst ones? And, the hardest question of all to answer, and one I have not yet fully grappled with, what meaning did his life have?

There will, of course, be stories about Billy as I have observed him. They will not all be complimentary. But I don’t want to write a hatchet job. Billy was neither all saint nor mostly devil. He was driven by internal forces which he could not completely control,
howsoever dazzling his intellect and howsoever sharply defined his own sense of self seemed at most times to be.

I mean to make some sort of lasting statement about Billy’s life, but I do not wish to write something that is dull. That is going to be my second most difficult task: to make something interesting to read out of a life which was in turns, spectacular, tragic, and extraordinary, without in any way trivializing the person whose memory I am trying to honor: both by speaking only the truth (admittedly, as I see it), and by trying to explain who he was, and what his role was within his milieu, which he both shaped and was shaped by. Interesting, I hope, even for those who barely knew him, or who didn’t know him at all.

Again: this is a memoir but also a meditation.

Billy didn’t need to have a novel based on him. Billy didn’t need to write a novel. Billy’s life was his novel. He needed someone close to him to write it all down. All of it. But who could stand to be with him all the time?

I know I should try to keep my distance but I am no clinician. I think I can understand some of the impulses that drove Billy to behave the way he did, for in some degree, I share them. These are:

Impulsivity: Blurting out the first thing that comes to mind, regardless if the social context. Impatience with the slowness of other people’s thought; talking over them, talking at them, interrupting them, verbally bulldozing through them on occasion.

Didacticism: I myself have been accused of this, frequently. An urge to teach, instruct, guide, lead; be the alpha dog in every intellectual (and ever strictly non-intellectual) interaction, regardless of (and often even in spite of) ones actual qualifications.

Need for attention: This perhaps comes from being made to feel as though one is the smallest and least consequential person in the room. You’ll show ‘em. Show ‘em you’re actually the biggest person in the room, if not in size than in sheer brainpower. Then they’ll be sorry they treated you this way. (We see this thought process driving the behavior of individuals as disparate as fictional mad scientists and troubled superheroes, computer hackers, televised tycoons, and endless legions of pop stars. See, for instance, Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen”.)

A desire, verging upon a need, for perpetual distraction. If you don’t have children (seemingly purpose-made for such people) then you must find the outlet elsewhere. Many people eventually settle down. Maybe even take the opposite tack. Long for a time when every second of the day is not occupied. Even though, when they finally get their wish, they feel bereft. Look at the sadness of the unemployed and laid-off; of empty-nesters; of newly minted college graduates who have failed to line up a lucrative gig; of retirees. Or of the dead, whose ghosts are said to haunt us because of unfinished business in the previous life.

Impatience with routine drudgery. Sure, I’ll wash the dishes. But first, I’ll let ‘em pile up and make a project of it. Sure, I’ll pay the bills. Write the letters. Read the homework assignment. Write the paper. Deal with the bureaucracy. But I’ll do it tomorrow, next week, someday, never. Right now, I have other fish to fry. All that stuff is OLD and I’ve got a NEW thing here that I’d much rather be doing NOW. Plus, there’s something BIG going on tonight.

This goes hand-in-hand with…an inability to systematize effectively. Do it on the fly, that’s the operative mantra. Planning ahead is for frightened people and chumps. Improvisation is of all acts the most impressive and therefore the most glorious. Bury yourself in trouble; then brilliantly, splendidly dig yourself out. This, I think, is how Billy often ran the Middle East Café during its heyday.

These are, in case you haven’t guessed it, all traits associated with creative people who have been diagnosed with ADD, aka ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

“Today most clinical professionals -physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, and others- believe that ADHD consists of three primary problems in a person’s ability to control behavior: difficulties in sustained attention, impulse control and inhibition, and excessive activity. Other professionals (myself included) recognize that those with ADHD have two additional problems: difficulty following rules and instructions and excessive variability in their responses to situations –particularly doing work”. –Russell Barkley

http://www.ukessays.com/essays/health/adhd.php

Billy himself thought his problem (insofar as it was a problem; insofar as he conceived of it as a problem) was ADD. Boston-area impresario Mickey Bliss once told me, in 1992, that “just about everyone under forty has ADD.” There is a germ of great truth in this offhand observation. I’m not blaming television, though it does play a role. I’m not pointing to the ever-growing-more-frenetic pace of modern life; I’ll leave theories like that to Wolfgang
Schivelbusch, who has explicated this historical phenomenon far better than I ever could.

But there was something going on with people born in the late 1950s that made its people passive rather than active observers.

And then there was also another factor: IMPATIENCE.

In Billy’s case, his impatience with things as they were drove people nuts. On the other hand, his impatience translated itself into innovation. Arguably, Billy was the motive force behind at least two still-potent cultural memes: The Invention of slam dancing. (I have long maintained it started with him). And the whole “unplugged” phenomenon. (He was doing promoting shows with that concept back in January 1988. Whereas, “In 1989, MTV began to premiere music-based specials such as MTV Unplugged, an acoustic performance show, which has featured dozens of acts as its guests and has remained active in numerous iterations on various platforms for over 20 years.”)

If you were at or near Billy’s level, you could interact with him, and he with you. But you had to accept the interaction on his terms. (I think that to an extent, his money and his reputation gave him a greater ability to set such parameters.) If you would not, or could not do that—because you were much smarter than he was (not likely, within his preferred milieu), or because you were somewhat saner than him (very likely, within his preferred milieu), then you were simply left with ENDURING him. Or leaving the room.

Billy was definitely a decided influence on me. He was the most colorful character I’ve ever met, and I’ve met more than my share. He was catnip for any writer in or out of his right mind–but slippery as hell.

He had his moods. Moods in which he felt humiliated. Sometimes even devastated. Hey, I understood. I have felt pretty devastated and humiliated too. Frequently. Fortunately for my ongoing sanity, I know that these black dogs only last for two or three days. Then I find some shiny bauble to occupy my monkey mind. I imagine that Billy managed to keep himself busy and that was a form of compensation he took from a world that seems cold on its surface, but which can actually surprise us from time to time with its beauty and senseless grace.

Maybe that’s why so many people found him remarkable. And some found him unbearable. He was resilience in motion.

Sandra Monticello Neades: I once saw him rocket straight up out of his seat when The Tijuana Brass came on the Green Street Grill jukebox. It was marvelous.

What is it about music that stirs the soul and makes us want to jump and shout? Is it merely a form of mathematical alchemy that short-circuits our logical synapses and sends them into epically balletic contortions? Billy seemed nearly always to be brilliantly corybantic, but it was
also nearly always in the context of music of some sort.

He was also extremely intelligent. Scarily so. I was once told by Professor Gary Thurston that anybody whose IQ is 25 points higher than virtually anybody else around them is considered scarily off the scale. And even in the Boston and Cambridge area, one with no shortage of extremely smart (and extremely stupid) people, Billy could more than hold his own (or not).

It is not true that all bipolar people are geniuses, nor is it true that all geniuses are bipolar. Correlation is not causation. But there is a trend.

I have heard from many sources that Billy was a child prodigy. Capable of speaking to adults on an adult level, while himself only a few years removing from being a toddler. Of course, we all know of the fate of the child prodigy who grew up to become an obsessive loner who for the remainder of his life spends all of his time doing something …utterly inexplicable, like collecting bus transfers. Cambridge was (and probably still may be) full of these sorts of people.

But our culture as a whole does not admire or celebrate our generalists and renaissance men. Not unless they invent a new bomb or murder a tyrant.

All right, so maybe I’m reaching a bit here. And sounding like a radical stripling in my encroaching senescence. (Did I mention that, as I write this, I ams currently at the same age that Billy would have been, had he lived to see his 54th birthday?) But look around you. Unless you are so top-out-of-sight extraordinary that you are celebrated for that trait alone—like being an exceptionally tall basketball player, say, or a person exceptionally good at striking a ball traveling in speeds of excess of 94 miles per hour with a bat—then, in this country, you are nothing. True acclaim goes to the people who amuse or astonish us without in any real way threatening either us, or our assumptions. The United States has been like this for quite some time. And curmudgeons have always bewailed this fact. H.L. Mencken admitted to a sneaking sympathy for Rudolf Valentino, but abhorred his rapacious fans. It is a fine paradox that in a democracy, those who rise to the top are those who please the greatest numbers of people, to spread ambiguous dark surmises among the vulgar, “Spargere voces in vulgum ambiguas,” as Vergil put it. Or, to quote Leigh Hunt::

See that the others Misdeem, and misconstrue, like miscreant brothers; Misquote, and misplace, and mislead, and misstate, Misapply, misinterpret, misreckon, misdate, Misinform, misconjecture, misargue; in short, Miss all that is good, that ye miss not the Court.

Would-be elitist types with true skills and high qualities are often left in the dust.

This tendency is not unique to democratic republics. One might also say the same thing of other republics and empires, where military and athletic prowess is celebrated and intellectual accomplishments are considered suspect. In the 1950s, Senator Hugh Butler regarded the Secretary of State and sneered, “I look at that fellow. I watch his smart-aleck manner and his British clothes, and that New Dealism in everything he says and does, and I want to shout, ‘Get out, Get out. You stand for everything that has been wrong with the United States for years!'” It’s the whole Sparta vs. Athens divide. Cambridge, of course, is firmly on the side of Athens. Boston, of course, was once called “The American Athens.”

The cruel joke about America is that many Americans have been brainwashed into believing that they must somehow better themselves in order to advance within society. While, at the same time, the society itself is acting in subtle ways to keep them in their place. We deplore the fact that teenagers do stupid things because of peer pressure. We do not deplore the fact that adults are also constrained to mostly act as other people do.

One might even take Shakespeare’s Coriolanus as an object lesson in precisely how to lose friends and antagonize people. One word: pride.

Billy was not proud. But he had a great deal of pride. Make of that what you will.

Billy without money? What I often, in darker moods, thought of as his “stupid, stupid money”? Unfathomable. Without money, he could never have followed his avocations as seriously, and as strenuously, as he did.

Well, he did work at jobs. I suspect this was for what mobsters, and droll pensioners, like to refer to as “walking around money”. Back in the late 70s and early 80s he worked at a Mexican restaurant in Harvard Square with the singularly imaginative name of “Casa Mexico”. It was famously derided as inauthentic by none other than Hunter S. Thompson. (A writer who, incidentally, Billy admired immoderately.) Maybe it was inauthentic. But it was good enough for drunk and hungry college students. Maybe (though probably not) a cut above merely ordinary. Remember that in the 1970s, Mexican cuisine was by no means as ubiquitous as it is today. Salsa had not yet replaced Ketchup as America’s favorite condiment. There simply weren’t that many Mexican restaurants in the Boston area. Billy’s job was that of a plongeur. Basically, a dishwasher, or other menial restaurant worker, ala George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. (Could you see Billy as a waiter at a swanky brasserie? Starched white shirt and bowtie, regally bearing steaming platters on high? Unlikely. He was too scattered. A top-flight albeit temperamental celebrity chef, barking orders to quavering underlings? That I could see. Maybe, someday. But such was not to be….)

Self-indulgence. We’re all capable of it. Did Billy think of himself as self-indulgent. Never? Seldom? Or maybe all the time. He did seem to have an exaggerated sense of entitlement.

Some people use tranquilizers; some use stimulants. Billy used both in a way that stimulated him while at the same time calming him. I know about the seductiveness of speed and alcohol. I have been drunk while on speed exactly once that I remember. It was in 1981, but I recall the sensation vividly. It gives one a marvelous lack of inhibition while at the same time one’s mind is seemingly undulled. But the consequences—the subsequent let-down—is brutal. Once was certainly enough for me. Once, a philosopher; twice, a pervert, as Voltaire so wisely opined.

I do not think that Billy regarded consequences. He bulldozed his way through life. He had no use for marijuana or other, less benign stupefacients and hallucinogenic palliatives. Some find the altered state imbued by these drugs to be enormously seductive. I believe that to be Billy was to already live in an altered state—colors were brighter, music more profound, three conversations could be followed and even directed all at once. Pain? What is pain? Who cares? Pain is in the past, or awaits the future. This is now, so live it fully.

Picture a continuum of people, eminent to infamous, consisting of:

Jesus

Mahatma Gandhi

Albert Schweitzer
Abraham Lincoln
Martin Luther King
Bobby Kennedy

J. Edgar Hoover

General Curtis LeMay

Adolf Hitler

Joe Stalin

I guess I’d put Billy somewhere between King and Kennedy, but with the caveat that he could range all the way from Gandhi to Stalin. It was the variability of his strenuous life, I think, which held the key to his character, if such a key can ever be found.

What really strikes me is that the story of Billy is, in its way, a story about America. The Great Gatsby, if Gatsby had been born rich to begin with. And had had a father who loved him and wanted him to be happy.

We hear so many stories about people whose fathers were strictly by the book. We do not often hear about what, exactly, it was that wrote that book.

I suspect that it was World War Two.

That is why so many of the fathers of Baby Boomers were hard-asses. Tough as nails. The kind of fellows who in their formative years responded half in their sleep to commands like shoulder arms and dress right dress and move it on out. How could they help but to look at their sons—no matter how tenderly they regarded them–and not fear that they might be soft and in need of some rigor—some meticulous toughening up? And that is why the sons of so many of these fathers were so often fucked up. Skeptical of authority and determined at every corner to outrun or defy it.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the cohort born in 1957 was anomalous; a lost generation. The last of the old boomers were born in 1956; the first of the new cohort, known as young boomers, were born in 1957. 4.2 million of them. More than any year before. A record that would stand for 51 years. But the 1957 crew were also born on a major cusp. Neither wholly of the old nor of the new. Barely old enough to be aware of and terrified by the Cuban Missile Crisis. But just old enough. Barely old enough to understand and be traumatized by the Kennedy assassination. But just old enough. (Imagine how your child might feel if told the world might be destroyed in flames, or that Superman, or Santa Claus, had been gunned down in the public square.) Too young to be hippies and a hair too old to be convincing punks, the 1957 cohort often found itself uneasily suspended between two camps. Perhaps that is why so few of these people born in 1957 have accomplished great things. Let’s see:

Scott Adams

Osama bin Laden

Berkeley Breathed
Steve Buscemi
Nick Cave
Andrew Dice Clay
Katie Couric

Fran Drescher
Bill Engvall
Gloria Estefan
Falco
Nick Hornby
Marlon Jackson

Hamid Karzai
Matt Lauer
Denis Leary

Spike Lee
Dolph Lundgren
Jon Lovitz
Bernie Mac

Donny Osmond
Susan Powter
Judge Reinhold
Ray Romano
Shannon Tweed
Vanna White

I rest my case. (OK—I stacked the deck. We also had Frank Miller, Sid Vicious and Mira Nair. Still….)

The 1957 cohort was young enough to have escaped the Vietnam War, but old enough, in 1969, to be aware that being drafted to serve in it was a distinct possibility. I suppose every cohort considers itself special, but the 1957 cohort truly is.

What was really wrong with Billy? I can’t say. But during the Middle East years, in a letter to Bettina Miller, dated 9-22-88:, I wrote: “I have the impression that some ostensibly insane people are just faking it and using their irrationality to build a wall which protects them from unwanted contacts—until, quite naturally, the wall becomes an intrinsic part of their mental architecture.”

Billy was allegedly bipolar. I’m not a Doctor, and I’m not going to try to second guess this diagnosis. But Bipolar is indeed a diagnosis, and not a template. I think there was something more to who Billy was than a handy file number taken from the DSM-IV.

Bipolar. What do these labels really mean? According to NIMH, “26.4%–about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. The condition known as Bipolar disorder “affects …about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year.” That means that it is likely that a minimum of about 2,600 people living in Cambridge had the disorder. Or, looked at another way, out of every 25 people you know, one of them is bipolar.

Before the abolition of rent control in December 1994, the percentage was probably much higher. Afterwards, the increased rents very likely drove some of the mentally disturbed to seek cheaper neighborhoods.

This might seem glib, but to me, Billy was a lot like a bipolar St. Nick: Dr. Santa and Mr. Claus.

Billy would have been great as one of those legendary colorful Southern senators like Lyndon Johnson and his many predecessors—think Foghorn Leghorn, based on the fictional character Senator Claghorn. In late pictures of him, Billy looks the part. Silver mane, unfashionably long. Pot belly. But still self-possessed, with that indomitable ATTITUDE of his.

I don’t really understand bipolar illness. Perhaps future psychiatrists will dismiss the condition as a quaint catch-all, a relic, much as they regard terms such as “neurasthenia” or “fugue state” or even “phrenology”. Point being that psychiatrists are by no means immune to the cultural imperatives of their day. If the society perceives a need for a diagnosis such as “hysteria” (or “bipolar,”) then the diagnosis will be duly arrived at, and a set of symptoms will be checked off from a swelling list.

Don’t get me wrong—I have studied motivational psychology under David McClelland
and developmental psychology under Dante Cicchetti, and group psychology under students of Robert Bales. So I am no agnostic when it comes to the very real phenomenon of mental illness. I do believe that at least certain psychiatrists can ably minister to people who are in emotional distress. But thanks to—call them what they are—medical drug cartels—psychopharmacology has erected an edifice of supposed magic bullets for all manners of so-called ailments such as “social anxiety disorder”. I strongly suspect that many of these drugs are still blunt instruments—hammers in search of an elusive nail, when it is scalpels that are called for. Twenty years down the road, things may change even more than they have in the past twenty years. But that change will come too late for some.

The trouble with the drugs used to treat mental illness is that sometimes the people with depression or anxiety or unspecified borderline ailments prefer being the way they are, even if their lives are in utter perpetual turmoil due to their inability to fit in. In time, they cultivate that turmoil and even deceive themselves into thinking that they cannot fully live without it.

This point of view is anathema to people who consider themselves normal. After all, aren’t we schooled, practically from the age of five or earlier, that the highest good consists of a reputation for being one who “plays well with others”? Aren’t we taught these lessons from K through 12? Those brigands who cultivate their inner madmen are frightening, even repulsive.

But then there are always those pariahs who simply will not, can not, so not fit in.
I am reminded of the lament of the beat writer Gregory Corso, in his poem “Marriage”: “How to be other than what I am?” And of the words of the 19th century poet John Clare:

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am, and live – like vapors tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems….

Think also of Melville’s Billy Budd. Or of his Bartleby the Scrivener, whose constant refrain was “I should prefer not to.”

Billy was very much a figure out of Melville.

“… for not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them. Appreciation! Recognition! Is Jove appreciated? Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of his great allegory—the world? Then we pigmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended. I say your appreciation is my glorious gratuity.”—Melville, in a letter to Hawthorne, 1851

A figure out of Russian Literature, too:

“Have you ever noticed what makes Russian literary heroes different from the heroes of western novels? The heroes of Western Literature are after careers, money, fame. The Russians can get along without food or drink—it’s justice and good that they’re after. –Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle

Or think of Salinger’s doomed prodigies, beginning with Holden Caulfield. Or of the young, “frail, but charismatic” (and ultimately doomed) Jordan Legier, in James Kirkwood’s second novel, Good Times/Bad Times.

Finally, think of Edward Dorn’s poem Gunslinger. The title character says, to the character Kool Everything,

Hang light, Kool
The earth moves beneath your feet
Like a ball bearing

Billy was like that ball nearing. Or like some celestial body whose gravitational force altered the orbit of anything he drew near to. Or maybe you could think of Billy as reincarnation of Prince Myishkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Or, in his lowest moments, as Prince Hamlet:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.– Hamlet I,ii

People have spoken about Billy’s generosity to bands and to friends and to people off the street, and it was all true. I have personally witnessed it countless times. It seemed motivated by some archaic sense of noblesse oblige, a salutary notion that nowadays we do not expect to see among people with money. He did not give things away simply to impress and become well known to people whose opinions didn’t matter to him; people who might otherwise have despised him. In many cases I have heard of, he gave to the needy. To people who needed a hand up. It was Carl Sandberg (him, with his crusty Americana) who expressed this impulse best:

Jesus had a way of talking soft and outside of a few bankers and higher-ups among the con men of Jerusalem everybody liked to have this Jesus around because he never made any fake passes and everything he said went and he helped the sick and gave the people hope….I won’t take my religion from any man who never works except with his mouth.

Billy seemed to live his life by Lincoln’s credo: “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”

Ultimately, I do not think Billy thought there was anything wrong with who he was and the way he was.

Billy had a weak stomach. A decided disadvantage for someone with a marked fondness for alcohol. Not to mention caffeine. Sometime in the early 1980s Billy had to go to Mass General Hospital to be treated for a serious stomach operation. A doctor told him that if he took caffeine in any form ever again he would be dead in a couple of years. Doctors are apparently given to saying such things to scare their patients into adopting healthy habits. Dave McMahon, Greg Devore and Georgio Della Terza apparently visited Billy while he was there. They were smoking and drinking and, according to Dave, “it was a real Marx Brothers scene” because the nurses kept telling the visitors that smoking and drinking were not permitted and that visiting hours were over and that, anyway, the patient was permitted to have no visitors. Meanwhile, Greg kept offering various substances to Billy. Alcohol. Xanax. Vivarin. Billy kept declining: “No, no, I can’t do that, no no, I’m not supposed to have that.” All the same, a few days after leaving the hospital, Billy was apparently back to his old tricks.

About the way that Billy dressed: I don’t believe it was anything as simple as his being a holy fool making some sort of anti-fashion statement. Billy wanted to please his father and conform to his demands but not at the expense of his own integrity. So in time he wore the suit for which he had been fitted, but he allowed it to turn into a raggedy-assed remnant. It’s almost like he was reenacting a Potemkin replica of his father’s notion of proper dress; a mocking, scarecrow simulacrum; something, perhaps, out of Hawthorne’s Feathertop.

Billy also had a darker side that only a few of his intimates were aware of, but you may not hear much about it from other sources in the weeks and years to come because, again, as the saying goes: de mortuis nil nisi bonum.

But I’m not those other guys. Billy could sometimes be of “opprobrious demeanor and condescending attitude.” Rarely. But the potential was always there.

The goal of relaxation must surely have been part of whatever search Billy was engaged in. Because it seemed as though he simply could not simply relax.

”[How do I remember him?] Jumping up and down and screaming with a beer in his hand.”—Tom Hutcheson.

There are certain biographical facts which should be mentioned and perhaps looked into to better present a somewhat more well-rounded portrait of Citizen Ruane. Billy attended the Cambridge School in the 70s. He lived in North Cambridge for a couple of years in the mid-70s. He moved into a Harvard Square apartment over the Grolier Bookstore circa 1976, which is where and about when I first met him. In mid 1982 he moved to an apartment across the river in Boston, then, in the late 1980s, he finally moved to an apartment in Central Square, over Keezer’s Used Clothing (irony, there), where he stayed until the year of his death.

How Billy got evicted from the Grolier apartments is indicative. He brought itinerant street musician Mr. Butch home there one day. Mr. Butch, and some ex-con pals he met, presumably in stir, practically took up residence in his apartment. Eventually, Billy was evicted from the Grolier when, late one evening, these folks got drunk and rather frisky and threw a fire extinguisher down an airshaft, with predictable results.

While at the Grolier, Billy hung around with and was well-known to Harvard undergrads, which is how I first met him and got to know him. He appeared in a play I adapted, a dramatic version of Gunslinger, put on at the Loeb Experimental Theatre in the Spring of 1978. (He was quite a good actor.) I would characterize Gunslinger as an adaptation, but even that is stretching it. It wouldn’t be fair to say I wrote it. The first two acts were almost word for word from the Edward Dorn’s cryptic and brilliant epic poem. Andy Borowitz played the lead. We had disagreements. For starters, Borowitz wanted to interpolate Bee Gees’ theme from “Stayin’ Alive” into an ostensible Western. I felt then, and still feel, that in drama, these pandering strategies and cute stunts are never a good idea. They cheapen the work, and the insult the intelligent members of the audience. So I opposed the move. Strenuously. But the Director overruled me. I had no choice, I felt, but to allow it. I had had only one very negligible stage credit to my name at that point. A funny scene from a comedy sketch review titled “Do It Yourself”, which, unfortunately, was never produced because the review never got off the ground. Possibly because I had decamped to Rochester, New York for spring break. (Where I paid a dollar to take a sledgehammer to a car. The rest of my stay there is rather woozily recollected, if at all.) I did recycle the scene for a play called “The Pleasure Bar,” also never produced.

In Gunslinger, Billy portrayed a character called Kool Everything. He was brilliant. (Check out Dorn’s Gunslinger to get an idea of the character and the role Billy had to play.)

The play was, itself, hardly a rousing success. It was a cryptic poem and I was so in awe of Edward Dorn, with whom I had discussed the adaptation, that I did hardly anything to change his words in order to make his work even slightly more stage-worthy.

Except for one innovation. Act III was recast as an 8 page comic book that playgoers were to read in lieu of an intermission. Unfortunately, I had no money to print dozens of copies so I had to edit the work down to two pages, rendering it basically incomprehensible. The artist, Billy’s friend and former Exeter classmate Gus Murphy Moynihan, who also designed the absolutely brilliant poster and fabricated out of felt cloth and wire the horse’s head for another character, Claude Levi-Strauss, was not at all pleased.

There is one thing I remember about the play, other than Billy’s own stellar performance and my own drunken antics at the after-party, where I ill-advisedly drank my first and last boilermaker and tried to climb a rope suspended over the stage from the ceiling (and failed, drunkenly, ignominiously). I also recall that, following the second act, I was told that a patron ran out of the theatre screaming, “The author is trying to fuck with my head!”

The play was not reviewed in any of the local or even any of the school newspapers. Richard Smoley, Billy’s friend (and likely the man who introduced me to him) had been called in as a consultant to the production. He said to me, “It was a good typing job.” John Batki, the creative writing teacher who knew Dorn and had introduced me to him, said, ruefully, “Well, at least you tried.”

Billy was enrolled for many years in the Harvard extension school. One time, I recall, he was assigned a 20 page paper on Emerson. He wrote 200 pages, with no end in sight, and if he handed it in at all, it was months late.

I was at a party given by his father for his 21st birthday, in a high-end Chinese Restaurant on Mass Avenue. Presumably the date was on or around November 10, 1978. Billy was relatively restrained; however, all of his friends all got exceedingly, hilariously drunk. Billy’s father came up from New York City to preside over the gathering and towards the end he read a poem–a bit of doggerel in which he pointed out how much his son loved to collect records and do all the other Billy Ruane sort of stuff that his father apparently found incomprehensible. I would characterize his attitude toward Billy as ruefully baffled exasperated pride. I do not believe at that time that Billy had been diagnosed as bipolar. The 70s were, after all, a crazy time, and Cambridge was full of eccentric characters.

The father remarried, and I hear that the new wife did not care for Billy at all and–this is rumor–saw to it that Billy stayed in Cambridge rather than move to New York.

I spent time in NYC in the summer of 1978—this was not the place for Billy.

Sometimes a person is difficult to understand unless seem in the context of his milieu…in fact, to a certain extent, a person is his milieu.

Some friends of mine—Gus Murphy Moynihan and Nick Eberstadt in particular–said Billy changed after his mother committed suicide; at least one person I spoke to, Dave McMahon, said that, actually, in his opinion, although his mother’s death clearly scarred him, Billy didn’t change all that much; he said that even in 10th grade Billy was always interested in esoteric jazz; always compulsively taking Vivarin; always talking a mile a minute.

From his beloved Emerson: “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you have gained, you lose something else.”

And from Milan Kundera: “Right in the middle of Prague, Wenceslaus Square, there’s this guy throwing up. And this other guy comes along, takes a look at him, shakes his head, and says, ‘I know just what you mean.’”

And from Hermann Hesse: “I have no objection to worshiping this God Jehovah, far from it. But I mean we ought to consider everything sacred, the entire world, not merely the artificially separated half! Thus alongside the divine service we should also have a service for the devil.”

Joe Harvard, Skeggie Kendall and Billy worked together to create the rock and roll club known as the Middle East Café practically from the start, which was 26 January 1988. Then along came Jennifer Cares, who was then the doorperson at T.T. the Bears, next door. I started working there in earnest sometime in June or July of 1988. At first, at office work; eventually, working the door along with Jennifer Cares and others. I saw Jennifer Cares nearly kill him on at least one occasion. As an employer, Billy could be quite exasperating. As a club promoter, his behavior could be inexplicable. For instance, on Easter Sunday in 1989 Billy got up on the stage of the Middle East Up and gave a brief (and presumably intoxicated) talk to the small crowd, culminating in his saying, “Fuck you all very much”.

We flatter ourselves that we are somehow very different from the animals whose antics we observe with mingled amusement and scorn. That we are somehow profound. But we operate under many of the same cruel imperatives and instincts. Only we assign them names. Names which justify them. Names like “rationalization” and “common sense” and “logic”.

Animals are superior to us in at least one respect: they do not deliberately mutilate and confuse themselves. Unless they are imprisoned.

Many people are imprisoned by the mores of society. Billy was no different from most of us; only he loudly rattled his tin cup against the side of the cage and shouted Yadda Yadda at the warden.

There is always a price to be paid later for such behavior.

Billy was not a sly evader of society’s strictures. He was a bulldozer. I have always observed this tendency of his with mingled awe, amazement and envy.

There are, of course, many ways to bulldoze. Look at these, from Robert Greene and Joost Elffers’ book The 48 Laws of Power (a big favorite, incidentally, with prisoners, who, I have been told, steal it from prison libraries more than any other book):

Court Attention at all Cost

Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability

Re-Create Yourself

Create a Cult-like Following

Be Royal in your Own Fashion

Create Compelling Spectacles

Assume Formlessness

(Nowadays, one can also be a cyber-celebrity, though that is like being the most famous criminal in the Phantom Zone.)

Americans have a penchant for putting celebrity nonentities on a pedestal and ignoring the people with actual talents. And Americans love their temperamental celebrities. They are the national Id writ large and they perform in a spotlighted stage. They are our kooky relatives in a nationwide kabuki farce. However, displays of temperament from people who are deemed unworthy of our own devotion or attention are summed up thus: “He’s an asshole”…”She’s a bitch….”

Billy willfully transformed himself into a local celebrity. It was a long slog. The details are vague. I would say it took him about thirteen years. In many ways cold, imperious Boston was an unlikely launching platform for him. But tolerant, eccentric, and brilliant Cambridge was another matter. There, you could become a local “character” in a matter of months. Ask Bob Dylan, Gregory Corso, Brother Blue, or any of a number of other celebrated people. But one’s staying power was another matter. According to my friend, and Billy’s, John Price Carey, Cambridge, in the early to mid-1980s, was Babytown, I found this an intriguing notion and we set composing a list of its attributes.

Crammed croissants, pocket bread sandwiches, ice cream stores, flyer distributors and canvassers. Woody Allen film festivals and non-stop Australian sensitivity and French tu jour amour cinema. We Love Russia agitprop, dogs with bandanas, and crazy wheat-pasted posters which make no sense. Self-adulatory folk singers and white boy blues musicians. Cyclists with white plastic helmets and tiny mirrors bowling up the street the wrong way and knocking over pedestrians and old ladies, and Pedestrians walking into the middle of the street. Humid muggy weather with the aroma of rancid catfish, roaches, and overpriced vile little markets with fly-ridden produce that smell like 1963. Bums who collect bottles and street singers and assorted panhandlers. And a shrewd, ungrammatical Mayor named Alfred Vellucci (1915-2002), who was given to making pronouncements which occasionally sounded crazed.

Also, Nita Sembrowich has reminded me, “Cookies as big as your head”… ice cream shops on every corner… adults and children alike sucking on nippled bottles… pizza and hamburgers for every meal….”

It was in this milieu Billy thrived. At his best he was a very sweet person but he also had a mischievous streak. Billy the Patron Saint of Boston Bands he may have been, but he also was a Saint with an edge. And the more well-known he became, the more this edge manifested itself.

And then, of course, there was the booze. It’s a social lubricant, they say. Maybe because it brings everybody up—or-down—to a certain level. IT CHANGES THE RULES. Billy was, for a time, quite conversant and very good at manipulating the rules of Boozeworld. (Not so much in later life, when he visibly overindulged in an unpleasant way and was barred from the very premises he had boozed himself up to storm and conquer.) The rules:

Say what you think. It won’t be held against you. You’re lit. And who’s going to remember anyway? And even if they do, so what? That’s the past.

Be affectionate. Inappropriately so. Ditto.

Most of all, BE YOURSELF. That was Billy’s inner guiding light. No wonder he drank! Booze is a license to swill.

The 1957 cohort often had an ambivalent attitude towards booze. Our older brothers, the hippies, preached that the sauce was fare for the so-called greatest generation; a death-trip for lifers. Dope was where it’s at. Our younger brothers, the punks, said dope was for fossils and zombie slugs. Booze was good. Speed was better. Why not both?

But I suspect that Billy was addicted to his manic state most of all.

Billy’s two great romantic attachments—that I was aware of—are living people who I am unwilling to discuss except in the most general terms. He had one long-time 80s girlfriend. I will call her the Dark Lady. She lived on Mission Hill. She was dark in appearance but fair in her demeanor. Circumspect. Perhaps a bit of a homebody. And most of all, kind and patient. I may be entirely wrong, but these are the impressions she left me with on the few occasions I met her. I am told that with her Billy found some degree of domestic bliss and contentment. She was lovable. This is a woman with whom he could have settled down. Or so I am trying to convince myself. Wishful thinking?

There was another woman. I will call her the Fair Lady. Fair in her outer appearance but a bit wild, a bit mystical. She lived in Cambridge. For a brief time she lived in my apartment. She was up for excitement. But she had morality. She didn’t do bad things because doing bad things made her feel bad. I do not know if Billy could have ultimately found contentment with her. Although at the time he was excessively smitten with her. I know this because I have a written record of all the phone messages he left for her.

She loved music. But was that enough? Could anybody, man or women, compete with, challenge and stimulate Billy, on that playing field? Pat McGrath is a musician who runs a record store. He is about as knowledgeable about popular music as any person I’ve ever met. And even he has stated that he could not outdo Billy in that field. I believe him, implicitly. I’m no slouch in that field myself. I studied ethnomusicology in college.

But Billy could have taught ethnomusicology. Only he didn’t really play music. (Drums, I’ve heard. That’s rhythm. There’s more to music than rhythm. Don’t get me wrong—drummers are musicians. There are never enough good ones. Many years of reviewing music locally has convinced me of that much.) Billy could have taught music appreciation, only what college would have hired him? He didn’t have the academic credentials. (Colleges tend to be fussy about that.)

If he weren’t otherwise so scattershot, such a loose cannon, he might have been a genius DJ. Not some bored college intern or some grinning on-air automaton, either, but a legendary, taste- making DJ whose acumen could have enriched thousands more. Billy was such a person, but he didn’t have a platform. (So was the late John Peel, and he did–but that was the UK.)

Trouble was, his taste wasn’t what businessmen (or anybody else) would regard as commercial. In fact, his taste seemed deliberately, resolutely, anti-commercial.

Let me explain. I have already discussed, and given examples of, Billy’s mind-numbing eclecticism. But what I didn’t mention was that once you’ve tapped into Billy’s world-view, you were no longer satisfied with “garden-variety Alabama country fare”—to quote Van Dyke Parks. It was akin to having tasted the forbidden fruit. I am overstating my case, perhaps, but not by much. Billy was always three moves ahead of everybody else on the great chessboard of musical taste. His opinions may not always have been, but they always seemed, unerringly right. If not in this world, then in some other, better one. He was a visionary in that respect. He saw potential in bands whose members might not have even been aware themselves that any potential existed.

So—Billy would be a good A&R man, right? Well, maybe in that mythical other, better world. But as I have mentioned, his taste and temperament were resolutely anti-commercial. One example (of many): late in 1989, Billy booked a Boston band called Gingerbutkis at the Middle East. Critic Chris Rich thought they were brilliant; soundman Eric Doberman praised them to the skies; I myself did everything I could as a music critic to champion them. A bunch of townies and civilians, somehow attuned to the buzz, showed up to see what it was all about. They hated them. It was a Captain Beefheart-Pere Ubu level of incomprehension: What IS this shit? But Gingerbutkis gave a superb performance. One of the 20 or so best I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen thousands. It’s just that they were over the heads of that particular crowd. They played quirky jazz rhythms. Their melodies erupted in abrupt spasms. They had an over-the-top dynamism that could give epileptic fits to a yellow dog. If you were educated in the School of Billy, all this was like sweet sweet balm. If not? Then if probably sounded like dogshit. If you don’t believe me, try to hunt down their track titled “Pan-Blackened Anger” (aka “Men With Tools in Hand”). You’ll immediately see what I mean.

I’m a music critic, among other things. I use words on a page to express my enthusiasm for what I like. Billy was a music promoter. And something more. A music evangelist. An impresario who brought to public light the music he was convinced that as many people as possible simply had to hear. What motivates this impulse? I never knew Billy’s thoughts on this, but my own might be similar enough.

Let’s face facts: Theodore Sturgeon was an optimist. In 1958 the science fiction writer famously stated that “90 per cent of everything is crud.” Life is short. Why waste your time with shit? OK, so music appreciation at its best involves trying new things. But a deadened musical palate means you’ll only favor paintings rendered from a limited primary color palette. (Mixed metaphors; I know.)

Many people use music as a soundtrack to their lives. Like Koala Bears who insist on a diet of Eucalyptus leaves only, they either can’t or won’t appreciate any sounds that they didn’t grow up with. That’s why you see so many sad old duffers crying into their beer with Sinatra on the juke. Never mind that the man was a snarling mad dog at worst and a thug at best. Man. Could that guy sing.

Don’t get me started on Pierre Bourdieu, who said (more or less) what you like is determined by your social status, and vice versa. It explains a lot. It even explains Billy. Eclecticism was his vice. Generalism was his drug. Glorious and wretched excess was his delivery system.

Cambridge, of course, is full of proselytizers. In our time, Billy was the one who rose to the top.

I am sadder than I can say that he is gone so soon.

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