Tag Archives: desert rock

Fred Mills: THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT. 8 – The Sidewinders

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Dreaming about the bad, crazy sun that gazes down upon Tucson.

BY FRED MILLS

Ed. note: For this installment of my ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: features on Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter Hours, Green On Red and Thomas Anderson) I’m turning shamelessly nostalgic. My reverie was prompted earlier today when my good friend (and BLURT publisher) Stephen Judge sent me a short video clip from Austin featuring Arizona desert rock legends The Sidewinders performing at our annual day party during SXSW at the Ginger Man Pub. There they were, my old pals Dave Slutes, Rich Hopkins and the gang, ripping through one of my all-time favorite songs by the band, “Doesn’t Anyone Believe.” Cue up (a) a ton of regret for not being able to attend SXSW this year; (b) fond memories of our 2013 day party during SXSW when the band also performed, not to mention even fonder memories of seeing them numerous times in the ‘90s when I was living in Tucson; and (c) about an hour’s worth of revisiting Sidewinders videos, reading old clips on the band, and more. Translation: another unapologetically rambling missive from yours truly. Feel free to change the channel now, but if you harbor even the faintest good memories of the group, I trust you’ll appreciate this one in the spirit with which it is served up. As the saying goes—so it’s truth that you desire? Read on….

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“Now I couldn’t tell you what I know/ It changes like the weather/ But what I know is what I feel/ What I feel is enough to get me / Out of life and everything it means/ None of this is really what it seems…” — “Doesn’t Anyone Believe,” from 1990’s Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall

Sometime around 1987 or ‘88 a record turned up in my mailbox. Hardly an unusual occurrence; at the time I was working as a music critic for a number of regional and national publications. Most likely the package was posted my way in hopes of securing a review in East Coast rock mag The Bob, which at the time had achieved a degree of prominence, both for its championing of the burgeoning alternative rock movement—at the time, in this pre-Nirvana era, we called it “college rock”—and for its inclusion, in each issue, a limited edition flexi record, which to date had included then-unreleased material by everyone from R.E.M. to Camper Van Beethoven to The Church. A lot of bands jostled for coverage back in those so-much-younger-than days.

But unlike much of the musical flotsam and jetsam that arrived on a daily basis, this particular artifact established its sonic prominence from the very moment the needle hit the grooves—clear vinyl grooves, at that. (Side note: a cassette copy of the album was also in the package, thereby allowing me a nice sonic preview of the music in the car on the drive home from the post office.) Titled ¡Cuacha!, the debut from Tucson’s Sidewinders was at once familiar and foreign to my ears, a mélange of part-jangly/part-distorted guitars, tuneful-yet-aggressive vocals and thundering rhythms (the familiar part) and otherworldly ambiance steeped in a subtextual yearning that suggested exotic locales and a romance with purpose (the foreign part).

Cuacha

Thus began a musical love affair that has endured for nearly three decades, and I’m proud to report that my initial instincts were accurate: in their lifetime the Sidewinders—or Sand Rubies, the other moniker they operated under for a number of years during the ‘90s due to legal issues arising from a dispute with a lawyered-up North Carolina-based cock-rock/Pat Benatar clone band called Sidewinder—would craft some of the most memorable and timeless tunes ever to emerge from the Arizona scene.

Witchdoctor said to me/ ‘You got no heart/ And you got no soul/ And you’ve got no life of your own/ Surrender what’s left/ And then I’ll set you free’…” —“Witchdoctor,” from 1989’s Witchdoctor

Certainly on their earliest recordings, including the aforementioned indie debut, Witchdoctor and Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall (both released on RCA via N.C.-based Mammoth), one can hear the vestigial remains of the mid-‘80s college rock scene that initially spawned the band (thank you, R.E.M.). The Sidewinders’ proud D.I.Y. ethos is fully evidenced as well, particularly considering that by the tail end of that decade thousands of bands were already tuning in full time to the nascent, noisy rumblings of the Northwest and those who still dared to wield a jangly riff or to sing in a voice south of a shriek risked excommunication from the Temple Of Hip. (My fellow Tarheel Mitch Easter, reflecting on his own band Let’s Active’s experience, told me that by the late ‘80s, anyone who came out on stage with a 12-string was just asking to have his ass kicked.)

Too, key roots and influences jostled for position in the group’s sonic tableaux, from the brawny pop raveups of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Neil Young’s Crazy Horsian gallop to the undulating psychedelia of the ‘60s-era Bay Area bands and—speaking of hip—the classic singer/songwriterdom of Neil Diamond, whose “Solitary Man” found its way into the Sidewinders’ setlists and soon became a performance mainstay.

Still, as with the proverbial “whole/more than the sum” distinction, what you got from the Sidewinders was considerably greater than what appeared to go into the band. First of all, founders Rich Hopkins (guitar) and Dave Slutes (vocals) carried the torch for immaculately-crafted, dynamically-rendered pop out of the ‘80s and into the ‘90s under the somewhat nebulous but still fitting banner of “desert rock.” 1993’s Sand Rubies album, cut for a short-lived subsidiary of Chrysalis Records and by some measures one of those “great lost…” records of the era thanks to a series of label and management missteps, is one of the most powerful documents of the era, panoramic in its sonic detail, richly evocative in its lyric nuance—and still capable, to this day, of taking the listener’s breath away with its scope and power.

And the Hopkins-Slutes duo, along with their shifting array of bandmates, helped lay the groundwork for similarly-inclined younger artists who, after weathering the ensuing decade’s worth of corporatized alterna-rock and its numerous hyphenated variants, would eventually go about the business of restoring the ideals of self-directed and –sustained D.I.Y. to rock ‘n’ roll. Although the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies would wield their greatest impact regionally—hugely respected by the Arizona music community, they were also very vocal and active boosters for scores of other groups—it wasn’t uncommon to find pockets of rabid fans in other locales across the country and around the globe. (I should know; living on the East Coast at the time, I was one of those fans who’d succumbed to the group’s charms. More on that in a sec.)

This was during the pre-Internet age, when following a band involved a lot more than calling up a Wikipedia entry and a Facebook page or clicking on an MP3 download link, and the resulting degree of devotion could be profound to the point of startling. Even as I was corresponding with the band prior to my 1992 relocation from N.C. to A.Z., writing about them for The Bob, England’s Bucketful of Brains and elsewhere (including the official Trouser Press entry), and swapping live tapes with fellow collectors from all points of the globe, other fans, scribes and collectors were doing likewise. You could label this somewhat naively along lines of “grassroots,” but the bottom line is that the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies built up a huge store of goodwill during their initial music industry foray, and no amount of subsequent rock world ups and downs will ever be able to take that away from us or the band.

Legacies are forged over time, of course, and the years have seen a fair share of personal and professional vicissitudes for both Hopkins and Slutes (one feature written about the band called ‘em “Arizona’s ultimate bad luck story”), with albums typically bookending protracted periods of inactivity for the band. More than once, they’ve played an Arizona “farewell” show, including as recently as 2011. Here in 2016, it strikes me as criminal that they haven’t recorded any new music in well over a decade; the Austin performance at this year’s SXSW mentioned in the intro above is but one of just a handful they’ve done since last year’s SXSW, and gig announcements only come sporadically at their Facebook page. That said, Rich and Dave live in different cities nowadays, so we fans will take what we can get.

But the music they’ve made together is permanently woven into the fabric of America’s grand tapestry of rock. 10, 20 or 30 years from now, when some kid encounters a futuristic variant of the mixtape containing, I dunno, the brooding psych-noir of “Bad Crazy Sun,” lush jangler “We Don’t Do That Anymore,” scathing/searing rocker “Goodbye” (one of the greatest kiss-off songs ever), or even the ethereally romantic Old Pueblo travelogue “Santa Maria Street,” he’ll be inspired to investigate further, and in digging deeper will ensure that the Sidewinders legacy continues to be carried forward.

***

A caveat: A portion of the foregoing was adapted from the foreword I penned for the 2011 book Came On Like the Sun: Collected Photographs of the Sidewinders and Sand Rubies, published by Hopkins and Doug Finical. In drafting my commentary, I compiled enough notes to disappear down the proverbial band rabbit-hole that we writers are prone to, having hung out with and interviewed the musicians numerous times over the years, dating back to the time of the arrival of that first Sidewinders album in my mailbox. Sometimes your objectivity gradually dissolves, and I will freely admit to being completely biased when it comes to their music.

Sidewinders book

Indeed, more than one friend has heard me talk about the time, circa 1991, when my wife and I were sitting around in our Charlotte, NC, house drinking wine and trying to decide whether it was time to seek out greener pastures, having grown weary and frustrated with our workaday routines in sales for a local shopping mall store chain. One tends to get restless every ten years or so, and thus there we were, literally on the verge of throwing a dart at a map of the United States to see what might be a viable destination. Among our options: New Orleans and Memphis, because we knew it would have to be a music town to make such a move worth cashing in our profit-sharing plans and surrendering our job security.

On the stereo that night were our favorite band, The Sidewinders, and mystically enough, at that precise decision point, “Get Out of That Town” from Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall came on. Against a sturdy backbeat and a bristly-jangly Hopkins guitar riff, vocalist Slutes offered this semi-sage lyrical advice:

“Now I know I’m crazy like a TV evangelist

But that town thinks it’s Los Angeles

And you know what’s worse? It’s trying to be it!

You gotta get out of that town…

And if you don’t know how,

We’ll find a way.

Anything that will allow you

To move out—and get away…

You gotta get out of that town,

Get out of those shopping malls—

C’mon down here!”

Certainly the song was born of the musician’s urging a friend or lover to ditch Phoenix—its sprawl, its plasticity, and yes, its shopping malls—to “c’mon down here” to Tucson. But in that instance, we knew they were surely singing to us as well. Two cross-country fact-finding and house-hunting vacations later, we had hired Mayflower movers to truck us and our stuff out to Tucson. Once we got there, it was not all moonbeams and tequila, of course; no overly romanticized notion ever fulfills itself. But the friends we made were lasting, and the memories we built were permanent. We even decided to have a child, something we’d resisted for ages, feeling that the time just wasn’t yet right for us. In Tucson, though, it finally felt right.

“At night you’ve got to stay awake/ The desert sun won’t even let you think straight…” — “Bad Crazy Sun,” from 1989’s Witchdoctor

Ironically, around the same time we were arriving in Tucson, the Sidewinders were finding themselves in the throes of the aforementioned legal woes, ultimately leading to the name change, a delay in the release of the much-anticipated fourth album, and a series of lineup changes. Within a few years, there would be a breakup and extended hiatus. I distinctly recall feeling, at one point, mildly betrayed: How dare they split after all the energy and emotion I’d put into them.

Maybe that’s why the subsequent Sidewinders reunions have had a certain bittersweet edge for me. Watching that brief video clip of the band live in Austin the other night that Stephen Judge sent me was, well… like I said, I got pretty nostalgic. Happy to see Rich and Dave enjoying themselves (knowing, too, that Stephen was there filming the clip and probably pinching himself with delight), but sad I wasn’t there to be front and center, punching my fist in the air and singing along. Lord knows I have the lyrics to every one of their songs memorized. (Below: a live clip of the band doing “Bad Crazy Sun” from earlier this year.)

Postscript: Years before I moved to the desert, I was dreaming about it. Not just imagining what the desert must be like, or playing back scenes from classic films, but literally: I’d find myself transported to a sandy, saguaro- and yucca-dotted expanse while a bad, crazy sun scorched the back of my neck and an equally blazing brace of guitars played across a background soundtrack like the rumbling of a distant, incoming monsoon. I must have had those dreams for nearly four years before actually arriving in the desert in the summer of ’92, on a wish and a prayer that the physical change in locale—from N.C. to Tucson—would provide me with the psychological change I’d been needing in my life.

It did, and the ten years I spent in the desert remain among my most vivid, productive and alive. For those, and so much more, I have Rich Hopkins, Dave Slutes and the myriad members of their extended family largely to thank. I plan to get back there one of these days.

Every person needs a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack to his or her dreams, and the Sidewinders are mine.

“In this corner, by candlelight/ And that’s where we’ll meet/ On Santa Maria Street” —“Santa Maria Street,” from 1993’s Sand Rubies

Fred Mills: A Meditation on Rainer Ptacek (June 7, 1951 – November 12, 1997)

Rainer chapel

“What can I say? You can hear it.” (—Howe Gelb) Late Tucson guitarist was the heart, the soul and the soundtrack of the lower Sonoran desert.

BY FRED MILLS

The article below combines stories I originally wrote a number of years ago for the Phoenix New Times and Harp magazine (Blurt’s predecessor). When I posted in a year ago on the anniversary of his death, Nov. 12, 1997, I wanted to archive the piece on the BLURT site in the hopes that whoever reads it might be intrigued enough to check out the music of the late Rainer Ptacek, who died far too young, at the age of 46. I was honored to call him my friend, and his records continue to inspire me to this day. More to the point, it’s important that we occasionally take time out to pay tribute to those who have passed on but whose artistry continues to resonate. His death affected me deeply, and each year around this time I pause, listen to his music – which remains timeless – and reflect on my 10-year stint in Tucson, a period during which I got to know scores of Old Pueblo musicians and gain an appreciation for their collective unique spin on what I always refer to as “desert rock.” Among them, Rainer was and remains my favorite. So enjoy my (admittedly fan-powered) memorial for the guitar virtuoso once more, below. Here is a link to Wikipedia entry , to the Weekly Wire’s compendium of articles, to the Tucson Weekly’s collection of musicians’ testimonials  and to his official website  (which, full disclosure, includes in his bio section a piece I wrote. Some additional links follow the story. And as a kind of postscript to this intro: When the aforementioned Tucson Weekly story was published on Dec. 1, 1997, shortly after his death it featured rather striking art on the cover of the issue that was designed to resemble a colorful, if still somber, Mexican memorial decorated with candles; such memorials you can come across at numerous points in Tucson. What was unusual, however, was how similar the art design and color motif was to Neil Young’s classic early ’90s album Sleeps With Angels, itself a very somber image as befitting its death-fixated themes. The fact that Nov. 12 is also the date of Neil Young’s birthday perhaps has no actual significance, but for me, personally, as a lifelong fan who has often felt Young frequently taps into the same artistic vein a Rainer did, it carried an uncanny resonance. I can’t find the Tucson Weekly cover image anywhere on the web, so if anyone reading this does have it in digital form I’d love to receive a copy of the artwork. -FM

 

November 12 brings the anniversary of the passing of Rainer Ptacek (1951 – 1997), a Tucson-based singer-songwriter who was a bluesman by genre but also a roots innovator and rocker by any measure — and one serious motherfucker of a slide guitar player. Maybe the best I’ve ever seen. With his soulful vocals and unerring instinct on when to rock it out and when to let his muse dance delicately in the ether, unquestionably the most instinctual, pure musician I’ve ever encountered, too.

Born on June 7, 1951, in East Germany, Rainer Jaromir Ptacek grew up in Chicago after his family fled the Communist country in 1953 and moved to the Windy City in ’56. Musically inclined from childhood, in the mid ’60s Rainer swapped violin for guitar, as a teenager forming the usual British Invasion-influenced combos of the day and smitten like most other ’60s teens by the Beatles. (He’d later quip, drily, “None of the Beatles, it seemed, were interested in violin.”) The first record he bought was “Hello Mary Lou” by Ricky Nelson and the first concert he attended was Iron Butterfly; combined with a firsthand exposure to the blues giants that played regularly around Chicago, Rainer’s musical apprenticeship was nothing if not diverse.

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In the ‘70s he landed in Tucson and quickly became a fixture on the local music scene, ultimately garnering a reputation as a song stylist and slide virtuoso that one day would have critics speaking of him in the same breath as Ry Cooder, John Fahey and Chris Whitley—no doubt due, in part, to the intricacies of a tape loop/delay pedal strategy he’d developed during his later years that allowed him to sound like several people playing at once. Among Tucson audiences in particular, Rainer was admired for his emotionally vivid lyrics, his high, keening vocals and that near-otherworldly style of guitar. His national and international profile commenced rising around the time he co-founded Giant Sandworms with Howe Gelb; despite the fact that the group’s physical legacy includes but a pair of seven-inch records, to this day critics and collectors in far away places still speak of those singles in reverent tones, citing them as early examples of the area’s vaunted desert rock sound. When Gelb temporarily moved the band to New York, Rainer chose to stay behind in the Old Pueblo. Before too long, in addition to his regular solo gigging, he formed Das Combo, a kind of mutant roots/power blues trio.

The impact that the group’s debut Barefoot Rock With… Rainer and Das Combo wielded was not negligible, despite it originally being released only in Britain. Vacationing in London in 1985, before I’d even heard of the guitarist, I was hanging out one afternoon with some record label people and the publisher of Bucketful Of Brains magazine when someone pulled out a copy of the album and asked me if I was familiar with the band, me being from the U.S. and all that. No, I wasn’t, I told them. “This Tucson guy is incredible,” they advised me, with utmost severity. “One of the best guitarists in your entire country.”

Below: Rainer live on Jools Holland’s “Later” BBC program 7/16/93

In addition to the five albums he released between 1986 and 1994, over the years Rainer collaborated with everyone from Giant Sand, whose Gelb was one of his closest friends, The Grid and Germany’s F.S.K.; to Emmylou Harris (pictured below, w/Rainer), ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Led Zep’s Robert Plant, not to mention scores of Arizona musicians. It’s interesting, though, that Rainer, like his pal Gelb, was always more appreciated in England and Europe than in the States. With the exception of one album, all Rainer’s music was issued, initially at least, on overseas labels. What might potentially have been a significant ticket to fame — a series of tunes he recorded with Plant, who was a big fan of his — came out as UK-only Plant B-sides in 1993. (One of them, an update of Led Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love,” can be checked out at the bottom of this page via a stylized fan-generated video.) A timely mid ‘90s collaboration with British ambient techno outfit The Grid, a mesmerizing instrumental album titled Nocturnes, appeared on a German label.

Rainer w Emmylou

Just the same, Rainer didn’t exactly lack for fans in the U.S. The ZZ Top connection makes for an interesting story. Sometime in the late ‘80s guitarist Gibbons happened to drop by Tucson venue Nino’s after a concert; Das Combo was performing at the club and, taken by Rainer’s unique guitar style, Gibbons sent a note up via one of his bodyguards that he’d like to meet the musician. A few years later Gibbons invited Rainer to his studio in Texas to record with him, and the results eventually appeared in ’93 on Rainer’s The Texas Tapes — minus any Gibbons accreditation. Apparently something in Gibbons’ contract prevented his name being listed on any outside credits, and Rainer always honored that. It was a source of great amusement around Tucson that Rainer would never let himself be pinned down by the Gibbons question, at least not on record, and he consistently danced around the matter. As he told me once during an interview when I asked him could I finally put in print what everyone already knew, “You can write, ‘It has been said that Rainer recorded with members of ZZ Top…’ and that will not be untrue. Because that has been said!”

I can still see the mischievous smile on his face as he said that.

A measure of the love and respect Rainer commanded can be found in the tribute album The Inner Flame, released in ’97 and reissued in expanded form in 2012, which featured covers of Rainer songs performed by Harris, Plant & Jimmy Page, Evan Dando, Victoria Williams & Mark Olson, PJ Harvey, Madeleine Peyroux, Bill Janovitz, Jonathan Richman, Chuck Prophet and others. Rainer himself appears on several of the tracks, including the haunting title track featuring Giant Sand backing him up (and Howe Gelb dueting on vocals):

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Muscle memories: I met Rainer not long after moving to Arizona in 1992, and I was fortunate enough to see him play in various formats, from solo acoustic to electric power trio to gigs with Giant Sand. A story I’ve often enjoyed telling is about the time I saw Rainer and that group at Tucson’s Club Congress one night: midway into a long, gale force jam, as Rainer and Gelb spewed out riff after riff in a magnificent duel, I swear I saw neon green sparks and trails popping and spiraling in the air above their heads. It wasn’t from the weed and alcohol, either.

Another time, watching Rainer perform a solo set in a tiny coffee shop down on Tucson’s Fourth Avenue, I was mesmerized by the way his hands floated over the strings and fretboard of his beloved old National Steel. Slide guitar is not an easy technique to master, but Rainer was a master’s master, and he’d also designed his ingenious tape loop system years before other slide guitarists thought to try similar things to enhance their solo sound. This was well before the advent of affordable/portable digital samplers. With the resonator on his guitar adding additional tones and harmonics, at times he could sound like four (or more) guitarists.

I got to know Rainer in bits and pieces—chatting casually at a show; visiting him at his day job to conduct an interview (he repaired guitars down in the basement of a Tucson music gear shop, the aptly-named Chicago Store); swapping tales at my day job, a local store called Zia Record Exchange where he’d frequently drop by to get his music fix. I recall him coming by to see me one day some time after he’d fallen ill for the first time: in 1996 while riding his bicycle to work he experienced a seizure and was subsequently diagnosed with a brain tumor, the ensuing chemo/radiation therapy making for a long and no doubt frustrating recovery. I asked him if he was playing again and writing songs, and he gave me a funny look. “You know, these” — Rainer held up his hands and nodded at them — “know where they want to go. They remember the chords, the notes. The problem is that I still can’t remember all of those chords and notes.”

When the cancer returned, it came after about a year of remission, although thankfully Rainer’s musical skills had returned so thoroughly that during that year his creativity reached new peaks. It was early October 1997; I had temporarily left Tucson to take care of family business when I heard the news; I understood it was bad this time. I called him up in Tucson one Saturday afternoon, and there was a note of pleasure in his voice when he learned it was me calling. He talked about his plans to record a slew of new material he’d been writing, told me about all the classical music he’d been enjoying lately and asked me what I’d been listening to. He never once mentioned the illness, and in my awkwardness I didn’t know how to bring it up myself. I don’t think I had ever talked to someone who knew he was dying. Yet there was nothing in what he said or how he said it to suggest that he had any plans other than to keep making music.

Nocturnes front

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“Before Rainer got sick, he’d recorded a lot of songs. He wanted to get these out in Europe; he was already hooked up with Germany’s Glitterhouse Records. And then he got sick, and it was just pushed under the rug.” Patti Keating, Rainer’s widow, talking to me in 2000, explained how she and Howe Gelb were planning a series of posthumous archival releases intended to document Rainer’s final recordings as well as restore some of his earlier albums to print. The initial fruits of their efforts arrived via Glitterhouse later that year in the form of Alpaca Lips, an astonishingly pure, intensely soulful collection of acoustic folk and blues that actually resides somewhere in a rarefied between-genres space.

Keating recalled going through a handful of Rainer’s tapes some time after his death and coming across a DAT labeled “alpaca lips.” (“Just his funny little sense of humor, a play on words — I think he actually wanted a picture of an alpaca on the cover,” she said, laughing at the memory.) Knowing her husband’s intentions, she revived the project precisely as he’d conceived it.

While it may be folly to second-guess the dearly departed, Keating suggested that Rainer may have subconsciously left clues to make such an endeavor possible. Not only did he secure a completed, sequenced and labeled DAT, he also tucked away scores of handwritten notes and hours of tapes chronicling long practice sessions; radiation treatment and chemotherapy had affected his memory, forcing him to relearn his own music. “It’s almost as if he left us road maps to where he was going, because he wrote down everything. The tapes, too—I think that was also his memory.”

One of Alpaca Lips‘ most riveting numbers is a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise.” With minimalist backing from Calexico’s Joey Burns (standup bass) and John Convertino (vibraphone), Rainer hangs shimmering, spider’s-silk notes in the air; a fragile, world-weary vocal pushes Wonder’s cautionary rumination into the realm of existentialism when he sings, “We’re spending too much of our lives/Living in a pastime paradise/Yeah, we’re wasting most of our time/Glorifying days done gone behind/Tell me who of them/Have come to be?/How many of them/Are you and me?”

“You know, that one was recorded right before he got sick, which is why it seems so profound to me,” mused Keating. “It’s real eerie to me. Almost like, not an omen, but… [voice trailing off momentarily] almost like he knew it was coming on. A premonition.”

Having worked with Rainer previously on a CD reissue of Barefoot Rock and the 1995 Nocturnes collection of ambient-tinged solo pieces, Glitterhouse owner Reinhard Holstein was eager to release Alpaca Lips. Talking to me about the musician, Holstein recalled his first exposure to Rainer’s music: “I bought [1992 album] Worried Spirits and loved it. Then came Texas Tapes [1993], and the fact that it was unmistakably ZZ Top backing him blew me away. My initial impressions then were the same as they are now: I like the way he constructs his songs, I love his electric guitar work and I’m totally into his Dobro virtuosity. But what I like most is his voice, or the combination of his guitar style and the vocals. That howl is maximum intensity for me.

“We did Nocturnes, got a lot of great press and did reasonably well. And I knew that Rainer had something coming; he’d sent me some of the stuff that finally made it onto Alpaca Lips. But at the time, the record was not put together yet and he wanted to send me something that was finished. So [after he died we wanted] to do it right, and give it a fair chance to make an impact.”

Complex and riveting yet accessible on multiple levels, the album locates Rainer at an artistic peak—songwriting, singing and playing, and all the more improbable, given his situation at the time of the initial recordings. Howe Gelb, talking to me about Rainer’s initial recovery period, explained, “It took some time to relearn everything he’d known before the seizure. The most amazing part of his trek—which was unbearably frustrating, given how his brain wouldn’t work with him for the longest time to remember so many things, let alone the coordination it takes for his hands to carry out his brain’s ideas—was that he not only was able to teach himself all over again. His stunning achievement was then to surpass his ability before he got sick! I remember coming over to where he was practicing what would become ‘The Inner Flame’ [recorded by Giant Sand and Rainer as the title track for the Inner Flame project]. The moment I heard it, I could hear the progression of his writing ability. And it was as if he were never sick at all! It was astonishing to me since I’d watched him struggle with relearning to even hold a guitar again.”

Below: Live recording (no video) of Rainer doing “The Farm” at Tucson’s Performance Center in ’97.

Another triumph occurred at a Tucson concert on June 6, 1997, prior to Rainer’s relapse. Recorded professionally and the second installment in what turned out to be a Glitterhouse trilogy, Live at the Performance Center was, by Gelb’s description, “the best live recording I have ever heard from anyone, anywhere, from any time. And if you listen with a critical ear — which is hard to do, given the emotional status—he keeps getting better and better as the set goes on. He’s on a plain I have never heard anyone ever get to.”

The third release was The Farm, comprising songs culled from the more than 15 hours of material recorded in the weeks immediately prior to Rainer’s passing. “That came about after his final seizure [in ’97],” explained Gelb, his voice choking with emotion at the memory. “I raced home from a European tour to find him talking in numbers. Again, he slowly began to relearn his guitar, but this time the end was imminent. We all knew it. And we had to tell him, as well. Anyway, I mentioned to him that he was coming up with all kinds of ideas on the guitar; would he like to record again? To focus on that for the healing it can do, and the relief of the art he gave himself to his whole life. A day or so later, he was up for it. We headed up to Harvey’s place [Harvey Moltz, Tucson studio owner], and three sessions later we had a slew of material.”

Glitterhouse went on to additionally reissue Worried Spirits and The Texas Tapes, both originally released by Demon Records. In 2007 Keating and Gelb assembled The Westwood Sessions for Gelb’s Ow Om label, material recorded in 1987 with Das Combo. In 2011 Roll Back the Years was released featuring Rainer backed up by Burns and Convertino of Calexico. There have also been two compilations to come out in the last few years, 17 Miracles: The Best of Rainer, and the two-CD The Rainer Collection, both of which make excellent introductions to his music. Meanwhile, UK label Fire, long a home to Giant Sand and Howe Gelb, commenced a comprehensive reissue campaign for Rainer’s back catalog starting in 2012 with an expanded version of the Inner Flame tribute and then in 2013 with Barefoot Rock; more are en route. Finally, Rainer’s estate has made available a number of digital-only albums, which can be purchased at the Rainer Bandcamp page.

Rainer desert

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A desert symphony: Humans seem to have a genetic predisposition towards the marking of anniversaries, either on formal, outward terms (celebrations, vigils, family gatherings, etc.) or on subtler, more subliminal — but no less meaningful — levels. Each year around this time I find myself going through the latter process as I mark once again the death of a gifted, visionary artist who was also a friend and an inspiration to me. I had even played the Nocturnes CD in the delivery room when my son was born in 2001. And in the music he created and in the life examples that, as a citizen and a family man, he set, I continue to draw that inspiration from him more than a decade and a half since his passing.

I recall how in ’97, a few days after Rainer’s death, a memorial service was held at Tucson’s ancient San Pedro Chapel, a holy place with marvelous acoustics where Rainer had recorded on numerous occasions. An overflow crowd spilled out the Chapel doors and into the yard as Howe Gelb and local deejay Kidd Squidd offered moving testimonials. Austin singer-songwriter Kris McKay got up and sang a song while backed by Giant Sand, followed by a number from Giant Sand themselves. Wandering around the yard afterwards, I saw a lot of moist eyes. A couple of mounted displays featuring snapshots of Rainer from over the years had been set up in the yard and small knots of people would cluster around them, some gesturing and smiling, others gazing silently. There was Rainer’s widow Patti, and I spoke to her and hugged her. Up walked Gelb, and I greeted him too, and as we talked I swear it was the first time I’d ever heard his voice tremble. When someone pointed out Rainer’s mom to me, I wondered what it must be like for a mother to lose a son. Unable, for some self-conscious reason, to make myself go over to her, I stood there and silently hoped she understood how much we had loved him. (Below: Rainer’s obituary as published in the Arizona Daily Star)

Rainer obit 2

I also recall the arrival of the annual monsoon season in Arizona. While the rain storms can be frightfully intense, often prompting dangerous flash floods, they still mark a time for rejoicing among natives of this hot, dry, parched place. The rains signal rebirth and life, and there’s a certain vibrant, physical quality to the air and to the light after a late afternoon monsoon that you never forget. At times, when I reflect on my 10 years living in the desert, I think about those monsoons, and I think about Rainer also. To me, the two will always be linked. When Rainer left us, the desert shuddered for a moment, took a long deep breath, then began to sing. And what an unbelievable symphony it was.

Someone once said that we rarely know what in life we’re looking for, but when we find it, we instinctively sense its rightness. For me, my arrival in the desert in the summer of ’92, was a coming home to a place I’d only known from books. Over time, I grew to understand that Rainer’s music was the heart and soul, the musical essence, and spiritual soundtrack to this sun-kissed place.

As it always shall be. God bless you Rainer, for that gift. You gave us the most unbelievable symphonies.

Longtime friend Gelb, who observed that there’s perhaps a deeper significance to what Rainer accomplished, gets the last word:

“What a great struggle for him at times to even read and make sense of the notes he’d made. The spine tingle is the delivery from a man who is perched on the precipice and able to look over into the void and deliver still, in this world, what he sees on both sides.

“What can I say? You can hear it.”

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There are a number of resources on the Web for people looking to delve more deeply in Rainer and his music. The first places to start would be his official website, RainerMusic.org, plus of course the memorial Facebook page,. There’s also a musical oasis of Rainer downloads organized by Rainer/Giant Sand/Calexico archivist Jim Blackwood located at the live Rainer Archive.