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Remembering Billy Ruane

A local legend leaves behind the scene he helped create, and a host of stories

Billy Ruane, with Jennifer Cares, in 1988. Ruane died Tuesday at the age of 52. Billy Ruane, with Jennifer Cares, in 1988. Ruane died Tuesday at the age of 52. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File 1988)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / October 29, 2010

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Even if he didn’t know you, chances were good you knew about Billy Ruane. That’s assuming you’ve ever attended a concert around town since the 1980s, when Ruane became a fixture on the music scene and a generous early champion of local bands that went on to define their era.

Ruane, who died on Tuesday at 52 from causes that had not been determined at press time, cut an unforgettable figure, both at the shows he booked at venues such as the Middle East and Green Street Grill, and at the ones he crashed just long enough to dance like a wild man and make some serious waves.

Since everyone has a tall tale about Ruane, we asked folks — from bands he supported to fellow music promoters he influenced — to share their memories of Ruane. (Go to www.boston.com/ae/music/blog to read more testimonials and to share your own.)

BILL JANOVITZ, singer-guitarist for Buffalo Tom, to whom Ruane gave one of their first gigs at the Middle East in 1988

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

PETER WOLF, solo artist and once and future J. Geils Band frontman

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

JOYCE LINEHAN, longtime friend who collaborated on shows with Ruane starting in the ’80s

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

BILLY BEARD, booking agent for the Lizard Lounge and Toad

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

CLINT CONLEY, bassist-singer for Mission of Burma

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

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.