It happens: you get older, and they start dropping off. Family members, good friends, the actors in those TV sitcoms you watched as a kid, and others you had but a glancing acquaintance with, though you’d instantly recognize them in a photo posted by a friend on Facebook. I’ve been lately reflecting on the departures of a couple of fixtures of what the participants usually refer to as the “Boston scene,” centered around Boston’s local music world and encompassing, besides the musicians themselves, managers, promoters, club owners, booking agents, writers, photographers, PR pe0ple, hangers-on, and fans, supporters and enthusiasts of all stripes. Specifically, I’ve been thinking of the legacies of two exemplary local characters and holy fools of the Boston scene: Mr. Butch, the street poet/musician and denizen of Kenmore Square and, later, Allston, who died at age 56 in July 2007 after crashing a scooter into a light pole, and Billy Ruane, music promoter and fan of fans, who died just last Tuesday (October 26) from medical causes as yet undetermined, having not quite reached his 53rd birthday. For those of you who have never heard of them, these capsule descriptions don’t begin to describe the kind of people they were, or how they appeared to even the casual observer. I didn’t know either of them well (I knew Billy hardly at all — I remember having one brief conversation outside a club once, though I of course saw him constantly in ’80s clubland — and Mr. Butch even less so), but like anyone who was around in those days, I can call them to mind in an instant — Mr. Butch declaiming free verse at 1 a.m. in Kenmore Square, or strolling down the Harvard Avenue commercial strip in Allston in his long black leather coat and dreads, always maintaining a stoic, impenetrable dignity that comes of knowing oneself intimately; Billy, in jacket and undone tie, losing himself in spastic gyrations on the dancefloor over ten thousand nights on the town.
Both Butch and Billy (who as one might expect, knew each other — scroll down a little to the relevant bit) were beloved local characters, well-known free men of Boston, and although being a ‘beloved local character’ may earn you a certain degree of immortality, it exacts a high price. Although both individuals lived far more of their often troubled lives in public than most of us, and both exemplified the eternal manchild and untrammeled id (though both lived longer than one might have expected, nobody really expected them to ever die, either), there are also some obvious differences. Billy Ruane, who was afflicted with bipolar disorder and was occasionally institutionalized, came from a wealthy family and was legendary for his generosity to others, giving away scads of mix tapes and, later, CDs to anyone he thought should have them (he was the son of a highly successful mutual fund manager and lived to a large extent off a trust fund to the end of his days). Butch, born Harold Madison Jr., was a homeless man who lived on the streets and off the charity of friends and strangers, although he, like Billy, was known to be without ulterior motives and occasionally gave money and/or beer to people he thought needed it more than he did. In their later years both became emblems and living legends of a kind. Billy Ruane did much to hold together and seed Boston’s local music scene with his enthusiasm, booking skills, and sizable list of connections; Mr. Butch was the subject of documentaries, videos and a still-extant website.
In truth, I put distance between myself and both of them, perhaps because they represented aspects of myself that I was afraid of becoming. I was shy and socially awkward in my youth, plus I was a writer, which automatically makes you an object of distrust (you never know what a writer is going to write! maybe even something unflattering about you!). These days I’m less shy, at least. I liked to dance myself into a frenzy at clubs, too (yes, I usually pogoed), but like most of us I had no desire to turn myself into too much of a public spectacle, lest I be seen as someone who overly enjoyed himself, better stop before it crosses an ill-defined line. Billy and Butch didn’t have that common inner voice cautioning them against what other people might think; and no, a lot of the time they didn’t act with the best judgment in the world and suffered as a result.
Certain ‘serious’ people, both from the medical community and the Scene, were of the opinion that both were talented, intelligent, creative people who wasted their lives in frivolous pursuits (pot and sex in Butch’s case, aesthetic stimulation in Billy’s). Were both, to some degree, mentally ill lost souls who never got the help they needed? Or is it better to think of them as adults with free will who lived the lives they chose to live, and to hell with anyone who disapproved? I’d go with the latter, myself.
You could make a good argument, moreover, that the holy fool is popular because he (and it’s almost always a he) lives the life most people would like to live if they weren’t afraid of what society would say. Invariably, it’s only after they die that we know how much they did do in their time here, how many lives they touched, how many good things wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t taken the time to act on their caring impulses. After they die is when everyone chimes in to say how much they liked them, post online remembrances, and say how much they’ll be missed. Mr. Butch drew some thousand people to a memorial second-line parade in Allston ten days after his death, and Billy Ruane’s memorial service will no doubt be a huge occasion that the attendees will long remember (I’d go if I could).
I’ve long complained about the invariable pattern in our society to hold off on praising anyone until after they croak, and it’s easy to be cynical about such things (“Beloved local character kicks bucket, hundreds of casual acquaintances mourn!”, like an imagined headline from the Onion). In truth, both Billy and Butch could be pains in the ass — and one wishes a few more people could have shown ’em some of that love while they still walked among us, instead of keeping their distance — and yes, I include myself among this crowd (what’s so special about dying? Does it make you a better person than you were before?).
A lot of the casual acquaintances of the local character are happy playing the enabler role, buying the alcoholic another drink, getting the junkie another hit — people like their local characters to stay in character — but bottom line is, the local characters are adults who make their own choices the same as anyone else, and if “getting the care they need” means locking them away for the rest of their lives, is that really the best thing in the end? It depends on your definition of success — if success means being remembered by large numbers of people in a positive way, both Mr. Butch and Billy Ruane were huge successes in life, although neither man had a ‘career’ in the conventional, tailored, ready-for-LinkedIn sense.
Certainly, not everyone active in the Boston scene, or any city’s comparable scene, has mental problems — hey, we’re just people who like music and art and meeting other fun folks. Certainly, not all the departed ones we miss have had difficulties relating to reality, such as the classy, stylish, smart and eminently sensible radio show host, publicist and social catalyst Spencer Gates, who died of breast cancer in 2008; I knew Spencer a bit better than I knew Billy and Butch and after reading the obituaries and recollections of the real friends of all three, and marveling at the things they’d done and how much they wanted to draw others into their world, I wish I’d taken the trouble to get to know all of them to a much greater degree, so I’d have some of those stories to tell, too. (What was I afraid of?)
So what does it mean to mourn these deaths, besides knowing that we were young and now we’re old (or at least older), and being glad we’re still here and our stories haven’t been played out, everything hasn’t yet been finalized for us and our memorial books have yet to go online? I suppose here is where I wrap up this post (trying hard not to be self-important here, really) by saying something about appreciating the friends and family you still have, and that if you want to be remembered after you’re gone, you should do something worth remembering while you’re here.
Honestly, that doesn’t sound too bad. Want to honor the memories of the people you miss? Do something to alter the universe tonight, and dedicate your good-hearted efforts to them. And hope that people won’t wait until after you’re dead to say some nice things about you.