Love And Survival
Rainer's Tribute Album Offers A Lesson About Friendship And Life.
By Gil Kauffman
July 14, 1997: RAINER PTACEK SAYS the title track to The Inner Flame: The Rainer Ptacek Tribute, a song of quiet beauty and grace, "wrote itself" a few months before the album was set for release. "It sprang out whole--like a baby," says Ptacek about the spooky meditation on love and survival that was one of the first songs he wrote after a year-long, devastating bout with brain cancer. The track, on which he is joined by his good friends in Giant Sand, is one of 14 Ptacek originals recorded by an impressive list of contributors for the tribute. A portion of the proceeds will help the desert blues giant settle some of his considerable medical bills.
All-star tribute albums have become so ubiquitous it's sometimes hard to tell them apart, let alone judge them on musical accomplishment by any subjective standard. But to every exception there's a rule; and, if you ask his friends, fans and admirers, Ptacek is the exception, the exceptional.
Like his good friend Victoria Williams, who was overwhelmed with support in the form of the "Sweet Relief" project a few years ago when it was discovered she was suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, Ptacek quickly found out how many people's lives he'd touched when he fell ill last February. The finger-picking guitarist, best known for being least known at home (his albums are nearly impossible to find stateside), for being the only artist to have a cassette-only release reviewed in Rolling Stone and for his distinctive desert blues dobro mastery, certainly could have used some help when he suffered a seizure last February and was subsequently diagnosed with a brain tumor. Friend and former Giant Sand bandmate Howe Gelb explains:
"When Rainer was diagnosed last year, the town really rallied to help in every way they could. They did what thought they could do best and when the dust settled, it was determined a benefit record should take place."
But this would be a different kind of tribute album, for a number of reasons, the least of which was that the notoriously hands-on Gelb was heading it up, the greatest of which was that Ptacek was hardly a household name. "We saw what happened with our friend Victoria (Williams) and Vic (Chesnutt) and that really helped, but we decided that instead of going through the Sweet Relief circuit (which had just wrapped work on the Vic album), it would be best if we did it ourselves and used some of our connections to get people interested," says Gelb, no stranger to circumventing traditional channels. Gelb's first call was to Williams, "who knows and loves" Ptacek, and who "understands the process of doing a benefit and how to make it effective."
The second name to attach itself to the then-unnamed project was PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish. Parish had heard the Giant Sand tune Rainer played on the first "Sweet Relief" record and had written Gelb to sing Ptacek's praises. "I asked him if he and PJ Harvey would submit a track, and he didn't hesitate for a moment," says Gelb. The next step, however, was the most crucial. "Soon after that, Robert Plant was notified of Rainer's illness and he totally began championing the cause," says Gelb. Ptacek, whom Plant had spotted playing in a London pub years ago and been fascinated by ever since, had been invited by the former Zep singer to play on a number of "B" sides from Plant's 1993 solo album Fate of Nations. The pair ended up writing some new songs together, and when Plant learned of Ptacek's illness, he hooked up with Gelb as co-executive producer of the project and instigated the participation of his label, Atlantic Records.
Gelb then sent notices out to a number of artists, some of whom knew Ptacek, others who knew Plant, and still others whose work they all admired. The list of contributors grew quickly and impressively. PJ Harvey and John Parish worked up a ghostly, almost jungle-like version of "Losing Ground"; Evan Dando submitted a solo acoustic campfire take on "Rudy With a Flashlight"; Emmylou Harris cut an elegiac "The Good Book"; a shambling, loose cover of the eerily appropriate call to spiritual action "Something's Gotta Be Done" came in from Victoria Williams and husband/ex-Jayhawk Mark Olson; and a bedroom-waltz duet between Vic & Tina Chesnutt on "Where's That At" managed to capture the grace and depth of both artists.
Other contributors include: Chicago's Drovers, laying a trippy, psychedelic vibe to "On My Worried Spirit"; Ptacek's old friend Jonathan Richman, with an uncharacteristically somber instrumental version of "Broken Promises"; Austin, Texas, singer/songwriter Kris McKay, with Giant Sand, doing "One Man Crusade"; torch singer Madeleine Peyroux with "Life Is Fine"; Buffalo Tom's Bill Janovitz offering his take on "Powder Keg" (on which Gelb slyly slides in a Zeppelin reference); England's Little Killers with "I Am a Sinner"; and a pair of Robert Plant tunes, one with Zep mate Jimmy Page ("Rude World") and another with Ptacek, "21 Years," as bluesy and raw a track as Plant has been associated with in many a hair color.
"This thing just happened organically," says Ptacek about his good fortune in touching so many fellow artists and inspiring their musical gratitude.
"It also had to do with Howe wanting to help; and I knew if he was going to help, he was going to damn well help all the way." Ptacek, who had to endure months of re-learning how to play guitar and sing again following treatment, says he's reached a point where he can call his experience a "learning process," one that taught him about the truly vital things in his life.
"People might think this album is really important on one level," says the Czechoslovakian-born musician, "but on another it's pretty meaningless. I don't want to belittle the efforts--people have done some really great versions of my songs. But on a cosmic level of male, female, children, grandchildren, it doesn't matter a bit. What's important is I'm alive and I've been healed."
Gelb, clearly in awe of his friend's perseverance and strength, agrees, adding, "This album is so important because he's come all the way back from the cancer almost killing him and certainly disabling him, to the point where he's slowly writing and playing again. He had a hard time remembering how to play guitar at first, and it was unclear if he would ever play again, and now he's writing new music that sounds better than ever.
"The important thing, really," says Gelb about the project, "is to understand what he means, the kind of person he is, the centripetal force about him that's so highly-valued by his friends and peers."
Donations to defray Ptacek's medical costs can be sent to: Charitable Fund for Rainer, P.O. Box 13719, Tucson, AZ, 85732-3719.
The Inner Flame is available now from local music sellers.
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