Billy Ruane; music impresario was ‘whirling dervish’ of appreciation

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / October 29, 2010

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The life force that is music coursed through Billy Ruane as he danced to band after band in club after club, shirt unbuttoned to nearly his navel, swept-back hair tousled by the beat, the beer in his hand never spilling a drop.

“It was athletic, acrobatic, frenzied moves that no one but Billy could execute,’’ said Pat McGrath of West Roxbury, a longtime friend who helped manage Mr. Ruane’s financial affairs. “I’ve seen pictures of him in various states of levitation that defy physics and gravity.’’

More than just a fan extraordinaire, Mr. Ruane was a music promoter and impresario who elevated the alternative rock scene. With exhaustive dedication, he booked bands into Cambridge clubs and promoted musicians. At shows, he bought armloads of their CDs, which he gave away with an evangelical fervor.

Such a life exacts a physical toll that Mr. Ruane was unwilling to acknowledge. Bipolar and brilliant, his preferred prescription being caffeine, he checked himself out of a hospital last week rather than submit to tests for chest pains.

Mr. Ruane was dead when a friend found him Tuesday in his Cambridge apartment. He was 52, and his family said that, while tests are pending, his death probably was related to heart ailments.

“Everyone wanted Billy Ruane’s seal of approval,’’ said guitarist Rich Gilbert, who played with several key Boston bands and now lives in Nashville. “I hate to use this word, but there was real credibility involved. If Billy Ruane supported you, you felt like you were doing something artistically meaningful.’’

As a teenager in the 1970s, Mr. Ruane began hanging out at the Rathskeller, the Kenmore Square nightclub affectionately known as the Rat.

He wrote himself into Greater Boston’s music history in 1987 while planning his 30th birthday party, a multiband extravaganza that promised to overflow available club space in Cambridge’s Central Square. Mr. Ruane persuaded the owners of the Middle East restaurant to use their stage space for live music that night, giving birth to one of the region’s most important venues.

“He was the one and only Billy,’’ said Joseph Sater, co-owner of the Middle East. “He was part of the family.’’

Everywhere Mr. Ruane went, his presence was unforgettable.

“I had this notion of this professor of anarchy in the Boston rock scene,’’ said Alex Ross, a music critic for The New Yorker who was a Harvard student when he encountered Mr. Ruane in clubs. “Even when he seemed to be out of his mind, it was all about the music. It was kind of this totally unchecked, unrestrained enthusiasm for what he loved.’’

Born in New York City, William John Ruane Jr. was the son of a wealthy investment fund manager and philanthropist. The oldest child, he grew up in Manhattan and on the family’s Connecticut farm and spent spring vacations with his mother skiing in Austria.

“He was extraordinarily smart, and as a child he commanded the attention of all the adults at a cocktail party,’’ said his sister Lili of Shelburne, Vt. “Everyone was standing around listening to Billy, and we needed a dictionary to know what he was saying. He was way smarter than his brain could function, honestly, and he was way more sensitive and generous than he could be and still function in this world.’’

At 5, Mr. Ruane was already reading long novels. Educated in private schools, he learned to speak several languages and always sported a tie.

His sister said he was at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire when he suffered his first breakdown at 14, about five years before their mother, who also was bipolar, killed herself.

After leaving Exeter, Mr. Ruane went back to New York, then to The Cambridge School of Weston, and finally enrolled in Harvard University’s Extension School for 10 years. There, he completed a general equivalency diploma and earned a bachelor’s degree in library science, a handy talent for cataloging a personal collection of books and albums that spilled into rented warehouse space.

“He was really an intellectual,’’ said his sister Paige of Brooklyn, N.Y. “He was trying to teach me calculus when I was 5. Our dinner table discussions with him were pretty colorful and dynamic.’’

Though Mr. Ruane loved books and movies and art, music became his dominant passion by his teenage years.

“He described himself as a ‘courtier to the musicians,’ ’’ McGrath said. “What Billy said about musicians was, ‘Man evolved up to a point, but some people kept evolving, and they’re the musicians.’ He felt like musicians were a more evolved species than mere mortals.’’

In the presence of music he loved, Mr. Ruane would react “with his entire being,’’ Gilbert said. “He was this physical whirling dervish of appreciation in the club. You could have a room where everyone was standing stock still and quiet, and Billy would be gesturing and gyrating enthusiastically.’’

Untucked shirttails make some look unkempt, “but it was fashionable for him; he made it work,’’ Gilbert said. “He was quite a dapper man. He had tousled hair that people spend $200 to get it that way, but they don’t realize it comes from the soul. Billy had so much soul.’’

For a time, Mr. Ruane helped put together concerts in prisons, including a show in Walpole.

“It was a pretty intense scene, but Billy was dancing fearlessly in the aisles,’’ said Lilli Dennison, who booked and promoted shows in Boston and Cambridge before moving to Seattle. “The inmates were calling him David Bowie and giving him standing ovations. The guards had to calm him down, not the inmates.’’

Musicians and promoters admired Mr. Ruane’s talent for determining the order in which bands performed at club dates.

His precise ear for how one song flows into another made him a master at creating mix tapes in the cassette era and the compilation CDs that followed. On the tiny card in each case or on a piece of paper he slipped inside, Mr. Ruane annotated every song.

“It would all be handwritten, in tiny little letters, for each track,’’ said Billy Beard, a drummer and music promoter in Boston. “He would write the year it was recorded and say, ‘Listen to the way he sings the first phrase in the second verse and how it differs and how real it is.’ ’’

In addition to his two sisters, Mr. Ruane leaves a brother, Thomas. With no children of his own, he lavished love on his four nieces.

Following Mr. Ruane’s habit of organizing a bash for his November birthday, friends and family hope to organize an event to celebrate his life. His sister Lili said that Mr. Ruane will be cremated, and that the urn with his ashes will be kept at the Middle East.

“He was a happy and angry soul who lived both to extremes,’’ Lili said. “He fought really hard for his joy in his life. He found it in the Middle East, in his music community, and in helping others.’’

When the music stopped and it was time to go home, Mr. Ruane would plant wet kisses all around, his unshaven scruff marking the territory of friendship.

“At the end of the night, he’d always tell you he loved you,’’ Beard said, “and you always believed it.’’

Globe correspondent Steve Morse contributed to this report. Bryan Marquard can be reached at