The Last Waltz: Rainer Ptacek
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Singer Songwriter, Guitarist (born East Germany on June 7 1951), died of brain cancer, aged 46.
Singer, songwriter and guitarist, Rainer Ptacek passed away on November 12, 1997 after succumbing to brain cancer. He left behind a musical legacy and an unrivalled reputation as a “musician’s musician.” His progressive approach to guitar playing was wholly unique and revolutionary. His unique guitar technique, which incorporated slide, finger-picking, tape loops and electronic manipulation won him huge critical acclaim from luminaries such as Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris and PJ Harvey. Earlier this year, ‘The Inner Flame’ was released on Fire Records which is a tribute record celebrating the talented life and music of the great musician and songwriter. ‘The Inner Flame’ features a whole host of rock ‘n’ roll greats. ‘The Farm’ is reinterpreted by Lucinda Williams, ‘Rude World’ is covered by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and PJ Harvey, Emmylou Harris, Evan Dando, Vic Chesnutt, Grandaddy and Chuck Prophet amongst others also feature. The special spark arrives at the end in the shape of ‘Be Prepared’, performed live by Rainer, alongside Joey Burns and John Convertino (of Calexico/Giant Sand fame). The compilation opens with the title track ‘Inner Flame’, where Giant Sand alongside Rainer deliver one of Americana’s defining moments ever put to tape. The benefit album ‘Inner Flame’ was originally released in 1997 with the proceeds going towards Ptacek’s medical bills. The re-released version contains many extras not featured on the original release. It is reissued now in 2012, to pay tribute and celebrate the remarkable artist. In the words of Howe Gelb: “We offer up this new version to pay tribute and celebrate the man, the likes of whom I’ve yet to ever encounter again, and allowing a glimpse now of what he had done here on the planet and to share that embrace for ever having known him at all.”
‘Inner Flame’ and Giant Sand was how I first discovered Rainer. I remember picking up Giant Sand’s ‘Selections Circa 1990-2000’ compilation in Plugd and immediately became utterly transfixed by their visionary and beguiling sound. Classics such as ‘Shiver’, ‘Inner Flame’, ‘Corridor’, ‘Yer Ropes’ and ‘Temptation Of Egg’ introduced me to the sound of Americana. ‘Inner Flame’ was my first glimpse of Rainer. His slide guitar and vocals on the song is awe-inspiring. The weight of the song is staggering, with a force to be reckoned with. It’s the spark of musicianship between frontman Howe Gelb and Rainer, together with the rhythm backbone of Joey Burns and John Convertino, that makes for a truly special sonic landscape. It’s cinematic blues covering the plains of Arizona and beyond. The lyric ‘Everything should come from the deepest place’ is one of my favourite moments from the stellar Giant Sand songbook. In fact, it’s the essence of Rainer’s music, where his songs transcend space and time.
Over the years, several releases featured the songs of Rainer, of which I only realized a good time later. One of those such songs is ‘Square’, which was taken from one of Howe Gelb’s many off-shoot projects, The Band of Blacky Ranchette. The album was entitled ‘Still Lookin’ Good To Me’. The album features everyone from Kurt Wagner and Cat Power to M. Ward and Grandaddy. ‘Square’ is a gem of a song, which was co-written by Howe Gelb and Rainer Ptacek. The version of the song found here is recorded live in Austin, Texas and the magical trio of Howe Gelb (vocals, guitar), John Convertino (drums) and Joey Burns (cello) weave their magic. Howe Gelb’s vocal delivery hits you deep and hard, amidst the heart wrenching bowed cello of Burns and Convertino’s evocative drumming. The song is achingly beautiful. A lyric on the opening verse: ‘Times spent with you is always way too few. Finer than the finest dream well displayed on the silver screen.’ The lyrics of the chorus, for me, epitomizes the life and music of Rainer: ‘You’re way too real for wide appeal/You’re one of the last of a kind/Out of the past and right in time.’ Listening to the lyrics echoes Howe Gelb’s words for his best friend, ‘the likes of whom I’ve yet to ever encounter again.’ Certainly, Rainer is just that, ‘one of the last few one of a kind.’ It is only fitting in 2012, fifteen years since Rainer’s passing, that we see his music being released again, where Rainer’s music will be introduced to new audiences.
My favourite Rainer song must be ‘Rudy With A Flashlight’. Funnily enough, five or six years passed before I heard the original version of Rainer’s! The song was beautifully covered by Evan Dando (featuring Howe Gelb) on The Lemonheads’ ‘Best Of’ compilation. ‘Rudy With A Flashlight’ always strikes me with its powerful emotion and its immediacy and directness. The guitar playing by Rainer is astounding. You can hear John Fahey, Ry Cooder and Richard Thompson all at once in his unique style of guitar playing. The opening verse recounts watching his son playing in the yard, ‘Rudy with a flashlight, playing out in the yard, shining it straight up, right at the stars.’ In a later verse, Rainer sings ‘Some times all we need/Is right in front of us/Right in front of us.’ I can visualize Rainer singing with his guitar, while watching his son playing in the yard and in the process writing ‘Rudy With A Flashlight.’ A very special song, that pours with a father’s love.
Several of Rainer’s albums I’ve been listening to lately for the first time. My current favourite is ‘Rolling Back The Years’, which is Rainer with John Convertino and Joey Burns. Three musicians in deep communication with one another at the highest level, through music. It was recorded in late July/early August 1997 in Tucson, Arizona at the Barrio Viejo home of journalist, author and activist, Bill Carter. Rainer was at a high point in his recovery from a brain tumor when these sessions were recorded. ‘The Farm’ is another striking document of Rainer’s legacy. The sessions recorded would be the last recordings Rainer ever put to tape, before his untimely passing in November 1997. Those sessions were released in 2002, after being untouched for several years. A whole host of recordings are available across many releases, where Rainer’s phenomenal talent is showcased.
Throughout 2012, Fire Records will be releasing the vast archives of Rainer Ptacek’s works. The much beloved slide guitarist from Tucson, Arizona who originated Giant Sand’s sound from their inception to creating a stream of remarkable solo albums and with his band, Das Combo, described as mutant roots/power blues. Near the end of Rainer’s life, when asked the impossible question of what he thinks we are all doing here in this life, Rainer answered without hesitation: “to love away the pain”.
Listen to Rainer’s music and you soon feel just that.
‘Inner Flame’ is out now on Fire Records.