Remembering Rainer Ptacek
1951 – 1997
by Fred Mills
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. 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 inspiration from him more than a decade after his death.
Today, 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 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 seen, too.
Over the years Rainer worked and recorded with Giant Sand (whose Howe Gelb was one of his closest friends), ZZ Top, Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, the Grid and Los Lobos, not to mention scores of Arizona musicians. A measure of the love and respect Rainer commanded can be found in the 1997 tribute album The Inner Flame, which features covers of Rainer songs performed by Harris, Plant & Jimmy Page, Evan Dando, Victoria Williams & Mark Olson, PJ Harvey, Madeleine Peyroux, Bill Janovitz, Jonathan Richman and others (Rainer himself appears on several of the tracks).
Rainer was born in East Germany, but his family fled in 1953, eventually settling in Chicago in 1956. As a teenager he formed the usual British Invasion-influenced combos of the day, smitten like most other ’60s teens by the Beatles. Years later, in an interview on Tucson’s KXCI-FM, he would recall that the first record he bought was “Hello Mary Lou” by Ricky Nelson and the first concert he attended was most likely Iron Butterfly; combined with a firsthand exposure to the blues giants that played regularly around Chicago, Rainer’s musical apprenticeship, clearly, was nothing if not diverse.
In the ’70s he landed in Tucson and quickly became a favorite among local audiences for his emotionally vivid lyrics, his high, keening vocals and his near-otherworldly style of slide guitar. His national and international profile commenced rising around the time he 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 in Tucson. 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, 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.”
It’s interesting that Rainer, like his pal Gelb and Giant Sand, 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 Robert Plant, who was a big fan of his – came out as UK-only Plant singles B-sides in 1993. A timely mid ’90s collaboration with British ambient techno outfit The Grid, a mesmerizing instrumental CD titled Nocturnes, appeared on a German label.
Just the same, Rainer was never lacking for fans in the U.S. (see the above note about the tribute album). The Billy Gibbons connection makes for an interesting story. Sometime in the late ’80s Gibbons happened to drop by Tucson club Nino’s after a ZZ Top concert; Das Combo was performing, and taken by Rainer’s unique slide 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 record with him, and the results eventually appeared in ’93 on Rainer’s The Texas Tapes – minus any Gibbons sleeve credits. Apparently something in Gibbons’ contract prevented his name being listed on any outside credits, and Rainer always honored that. It’s always been a source of great amusement around Tucson that Rainer would never let himself be pinned down by the Gibbons question, at least not for the public 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.
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. And 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 an 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 at once.
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 well-Tucson music gear store), swapping music tales at my day job, a local CD shop where he’d frequently drop by to get his record fix. I recall him coming by to see me one day some time after he’d fallen ill for the first time; in 1996 a seizure brought on by a brain tumor had put him in the hospital, and the ensuing chemical/radiation therapy made for a long and no doubt frustrating recovery process. 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.
A few days after his death a memorial service for Rainer 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.
In Arizona each summer the annual monsoon season arrives, and 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 of and spiritual soundtrack to this sunkissed place.
As it always shall be. God bless you Rainer, for that gift. You gave us the most unbelievable symphonies.
True to his word, Rainer had kept working and got a lot of material down on tape up until just a few weeks before his death. Howe Gelb, local archivist Jim Blackwood and Rainer’s wife Patti also diligently worked on getting his archives in order. Among the records released posthumously have been Alpaca Lips, recorded in 1996 prior to his first seizure; Live At the Performance Center, a sizzling concert from June of ’97; The Farm, culled from among the final recordings he made October 1997; and The Westwood Sessions, material recorded in 1987 with Das Combo. 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.