WORDS: Howe Gelb.
I was 19. Still impressionable. Living in Tucson. 1976. A good decade & age to allow the usefulness of psychedelics.
It was also a time of great emptiness.
It was more than possible to head out to the forest of giant saguaro ( which were only minutes away ) and swallow a fist full of psilocybin ( mushrooms ) or a coupla peyote buttons ( cactus ) or maybe a pinch of mescaline ( teeny pill things ) and travel to all corners of this existence for untold hours of uninterrupted inner excursion in a landscape severely decorated for it.
On one such excursion me and my friends were finishing up a 3 day acid trip. At the end of it we sensibly ducked into a theater to see whatever was being shown in order to ride out the final hours of the trip.
The film showing was Polanski’s “The Tennant”. If you knew it you would be mouthing “Nooooooooo” by now
3 unsuspecting acid heads walking into the film in progress and hoping to just chill out. Nope. An impact was made all the more substantial.
In other words I was primed for what fate had coming next; Meeting Rainer Ptàćek for the first time.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, we had both discovered Tucson in 1972 and we had also both came to America in 1956. He by transatlantic ship and me by birth canal.
From 5 years old on, Rainer grew up in Chicago. It was there he began to discover guitar. The sound of the Dobro was calling out to him. Possibly because he and he instrument were both of Czech descent. The playing of the Dobro led him in to acquire a National Duolian too. Both of these kinds of guitars were played with tunings in one open chord that demanded the slip of a brass slide instead of regular fingered chords. The sound was immediately haunting.
In 1980 we formed The Giant Sandworms .. which was just Giant Sand waiting to be dewormed.
In 1986 when our touring collective were about to enter East Germany to drive to West Berlin for the gig, we suddenly realized that Rainer had actually been snuck out of East Berlin as a baby and there could be a problem at the border with the machine gun guards and his identification papers. So we flew him to West Berlin from Hamburg instead so his wife, and my oldest pal, Patti, would not kill me if I lost him back to the confines of Soviet Occupation.
But first, back there in 1976 as I entered into the tiny coffee house where he was playing, as inconspicuous as possible to not attract attention interrupting his set in progress, his then girlfriend, Helen, shouted out to Rainer as he was just finishing his song: “Rainer this is the piano
player I told you about !” .. and the whole place looked at poor acid drenched me.
I had always been an abnormally shy kid. On illicit psychedelics now, ever more so. Rainer turns to me in that instant and with a stunningly broad smile that blinded as much as it attracted, invited me up immediately to sit in on the upright piano.
My ability to converse was still damaged by the Polanski experience and the slow draining of acidic particles still determining what was real.
I had one chance to speak up and relieve myself from this debacle in front of the cluster of judging humans. I let loose with the best excuse I could muster to alleviate my worst fears of crippling shyness.
“I’m sorry, but I can only play in the key of G. ” ( What idiot piano player would say such a thing ? )
Rainer smiled broader: “That’s fine .. come on up! “
I was mortified. I gave it my one shot being coherent to excuse myself from the disastrous public focus I had diabolically walked into.
See. Fate was at work here.
Months ago I had seen Rainer’s name on a flyer at a coffee house called “The Basement Cafe”, which ironically was located below the tiny movie theater I had just seen the Polanski film in, and it called out to me then. I don’t know why. Then one day sometime soon after that I met a woman named Helen from Alberta, Canada who made guitar straps and asked if I knew where she could park her camper truck for a while. I said sure .. on my curb is fine. I actually lived on a street called Helen. And sometime soon after that she started to date Rainer.
Another funny thing I had not yet realized was that Rainer’s duolian guitar was always tuned to a G chord. The whole set was in G. ( Or D when he played the Dobro. )
I begrudgingly shuffled to the piano that was thankfully facing the wall so I did not have to look at the human faces behind me. Rainer began playing directly to my right on the small stage. We said nothing else to each other as we began to hang out in G for a while.
Our playing morphed from that one chord jam into sections that often resembled a sonic Escher print. After a while it occurred to me I was incapable of facing the audience applause if we stopped. When I watched the Polanski film decades later it revealed why. But for now I just kept playing to avoid the audience response by ending. I would not stop. I didn’t know what to do. It was like flying a plane in a dream when you realize it has no landing gear. I kept hoping for a way out. And Rainer was comfortable with this. We both just kept playing without stopping. 20 minutes. 30. 40. ..
We played in G for 45 minutes until the owner of the cafe called it quits and loudly exclaimed “ok people. We are closing. Please exit and we will see ya next time. Thank you all. But we are closed. “
I waited a few more moments for the shuffling behind me to remove themselves and then brought this craft in for a landing. Rainer never flinched. Rainer never saw anything wrong it. My first conversation with Rainer was literally a 45 minute jam in G. Thanks to Polanski. Thanks to the acid. Thanks to the fates.
I had been delivered to the most important older male figure in my life. I had no older brother and since my dad was removed from my childhood early on, Rainer became all of that for me.
This is what the fates insisted.
Eventually I would introduce him to the woman who become his wife. They would go on to raise 3 children.
In the interim Rainer and I had a myriad of sonic adventures. We formed that band called Giant Sandworms and another called The Band of … Blacky Ranchette all the while he had his own band called Das Combo.
He, his wife Patti and I were inseparable.
In time he would be discovered by Billy Gibbons and Robert Plant. Billy actually produced an entire album of his the only way he could by making it sound insanely like Z. Z. Top. And Robert would invite Rainer back to England to record a series of B side tracks for his solo albums.
One morning after we dropped our kids off at school and then would settle down at his house to sip black coffee and smoke a doob of dirt weed, we’d play each other something each other had been working on. That morning was a recording of him and Plant jamming Whole Lotta Love !
When Rainer got sick in 1996, it destroyed the town. Everyone was heartsick. Tucson was still a place most people hadn’t discovered yet. Rainer came down with brain cancer. It made no sense. No one was as loved or admired as he was here.
I began to assemble a benefit album to help with many medical costs. Plant helped by taking it to Atlantic records to release it. My new friend John Parish had recorded a track for it with P. J. Harvey. The list of people covering a relatively unknown Rainer was staggering. Emmylou Harris. Lucinda Williams. Grandaddy. Jonathan Richman. Evan Dando. .. it goes on and on. It’ll blow your mind. That album is called “The Inner Flame”.
Rainer passed away November 12, 1997. His 2 year old baby girl’s birthday was The day before, but his wife asked him please don’t die on Lilly’s birthday. And somehow he obliged. That was so Rainer.
His most famous quote when interviewed during the time of his treatment was:
“ We are here to love away the pain. .. That’s it. To love away the pain.“
And then he was gone.
Patti had gathered us all together this past Saturday nite for her annual fire circle commemorating his life on the day of his death. It was a great gift of his existence to be surrounded by so many people who loved him, there with his children and grandkids, marking his 25 years gone and still so deeply embedded within our hearts.
A newly unearthed collection of Rainer and Das Combo was uploaded to bandcamp the same day. “The Tucson Tapes”. It says it all. Just like our first conversation without words. Just that smile that blinds and his heart that binds.
Love (away the pain)