I can't stop thinking about Billy - I've been in the denial phase pretty much from moment I learned that he'd left us on Tuesday night. Heart stuck in my throat, the world looking duller than the day before. How does a lifeforce that strong, that locally pervasive, suddenly just stop? The possibility of him not being around - of him not randomly appearing at all the good shows around town - never even crossed my mind. It's not that I thought he'd outlive us all - I just never even thought of him in terms of not being alive.
Like a lot of people who call Boston their home, I knew of Billy before I really got to know him. I heard his name well before I moved to Boston a dozen years ago from Vermont, through mutual friends and touring bands and their ever-accumulating stories. I can't remember how I first became aware of him, but I'm sure it was from a Boston-based band who'd driven up to Burlington for a show, in drunken late-night recollections that centered around this character. Even after I came to town and started going to local clubs, it took awhile for me to connect that the trenchcoat-wearing, crazy-dancing, slick-haired loudmouth (you know, the guy who knew everyone) was the one and only. It was like a bolt of lightning when a friend finally filled me in - "That's Billy Ruane?!"
It was only in the past couple years that Billy and I really got to know each other, but he was one of those rare people that made you feel close to him immediately - I felt more connected with him after a few conversations than others I've known forever. Once he met you, you were in - he'd never forget your name and would always been glad to see you. I felt no small amount of pride when I 'graduated' to the kissing level - he'd greet friends with two hands to the side of the head and a solid smooch. He'd usually go for the lips, but I was always able to angle in favor of the cheek. I won't sugarcoat it - sometimes those kisses were rough ones, and depending on my mood, not entirely welcome. But they were inevitable. And now I'm grateful for every single sloppy one of 'em.
There have been dozens, hundreds of Billy stories floating around over these past three days, online and among friends in bars - often slightly varied versions of the same story experienced by many different people. They speak to his generosity, his spirit, his unending love of music. All of those qualities, in him, were pretty much unmatched. It's not that they broke the mold when they made Billy - it's that he jumped out and high-kicked it into a million pieces himself.
When I think of Billy, and I always will, here's what I'll remember...
How it felt when he walked into a show - he captured attention, and in so many occasions, jumped on stage to direct more of that attention at the band. If you weren't clapping loud enough for Billy, if you weren't demanding that a band play more songs, he'd get up there and take care of that himself. Sometimes the effort was unwanted - he could derail some nights as easily as he could energize them - but it was always from his heart. Case in point - The Jesus Lizard at the Paradise...
I can't remember where I first heard this, maybe I made it up, but if he showed up at gig, I called it "Getting Ruaned". It meant your show was officially the place to be - that it was christened the coolest thing to be doing at the time. "Hey, look! Your show totally just got Ruaned." It also meant there was the possibility of Billy-fueled calamity, of course.
Getting Ruaned meant you might also get fed - Billy would often waltz into clubs with free food for all, and hand it out himself. He wouldn't just offer it to you, he'd convince you that you wanted it. "Come oooooonnnn... take some!". The picture that tops this post is the perfect example - swirling into the Middle East Upstairs during a Kadane Bros. / Bottomless Pit / Chris Brokaw show with a huge tray of baklava, which he'd just 'stolen' from the restaurant's kitchen. A cook was chasing him, and Billy acted offended - "You know I'm good for it!". And he was.
I loved that he often carried music around with him, earmarked for specific people he intended to give it to. He once had a Chris Brokaw LP he bought me, and since we crossed paths at least once a week, he kept it handy. Somehow we kept missing each other, and when we finally met up weeks later (after the obligatory kiss), he immediately apologized - "I'm so, so sorry... I gave your Brokaw album to someone else who I knew would love it." It was summer, and he feared it would warp. I assured him I understood, because I totally did.
I remember when the Willard Grant Conspiracy played the Lily Pad a couple years back, Billy stormed in mid-set, either bought or brought in an armful of merch, and had to leave before the band was done their last song. Most people would quietly exit, but not Billy - he gave Robert Fisher a mid-song goodbye kiss, started to leave, then decided guest Chris Brokaw needed one, too. So he heads back up, plants one on him, and proceeds to spill the merch on the stage. Aliza captured much of this on video, below. Watching it is so painfully bittersweet - Billy looks right her camera - and you can hear him saying "Too much merch!". As if he ever thought there was any such thing...
Billy hated email. Loathed it. But for someone who did, he sure wrote epic ones. Digital pages and pages of non-capitalized text filled with links to bands he loved that you needed to set aside serious time to decode. I think that's why he couldn't stand it - too much effort to say everything he needed to get out. He was a conversation kinda guy, that's where he shined - and he missed the days when he'd spend all day on the phone booking shows at the Middle East. The internet was way too impersonal for Billy, and he just didn't have the patience for it. He needed your answer now. Needed to know what you thought, how you felt, right then. A prime example was him tracking down Ryan from Hallelujah the Hills by phone at a club in Knoxville, TN because it couldn't wait. I wish I'd taken more of Billy's calls.
How generous was Billy? Sure, there was all the food he handed out, all the merch he bought from bands he loved (he'd buy multiples then give them away), all the donations he made to the Boston-area organizations (WMBR, Girls Rock Camp Boston, many, many more). He'd put together benefits for friends in need and spend more to organize them than he could possibly make back. The first time I discovered this - when he told he'd paid hundreds of dollars to fly a band here to play a benefit that raised, well, several hundred dollars less than that - my obvious first thought was, well, he could have just given money straight to his friend. And of course he knew that, but doing so wouldn't have been Billy-esque. He needed to throw a party, finances be damned, to show his friend how many people cared.
Which brings me to the last thing I'll share, and the foremost thing that will come to mind whenever I think of Billy: When Amie was diagnosed last year, and I hastily put together that spirit-raising benefit at the Middle East, Billy couldn't be there. When he realized this, he contacted me and sounded crushed, more regretful than people we've known forever - and immediately offered to put together another entirely separate benefit later on. We politely declined, despite his persistence - he was a hard man to say no to - and when I next saw him he tried to put far too much money into my hand for Amie and the breast cancer organization we had chosen. He also gave us the phone number for a driver he used, telling Amie to call him up whenever she had chemo or didn't feel well enough to drive, on him. For months, when I'd see him, the first thing he'd ask was "How is Amie?".
Everyone knows how much Billy loved Boston and its music scene, but more importantly, more tellingly, Billy cared about the people who were part of it. And this place will never be the same in his absence.