“What can I say? You can hear it.”(—Howe Gelb) The 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). I wanted to archive the piece here 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. -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.
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. (Below: a young Ptacek and Gelb, mid ’80s)
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 & Das Combo live in ’85 at the University of Arizona’s Studio A.
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.
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.
Below: Rainer live on Jools Holland’s “Later” BBC program 7/16/93
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.
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.
“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 , 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.
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)
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.”
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.