Within Him, Without Him
From his quiet life in the desert, Rainer showed the world how to get and give love.
By The Community Of Tucson Musicians
DECEMBER 1, 1997: THERE ARE MANY among us who didn't know Rainer Ptácek as a friend, or even as a musician. But you'd have to have never picked up a local paper in the last two years not to know his name, most often misspelled as "ailing musician Rainer." Really, he was just Rainer. But two years ago, while riding his bike to work at the downtown Chicago Store, as he'd done for more than a decade, he had an accident--a seizure, actually. And when the minor injuries were repaired, the doctors discovered a rather unexpected and irreparable injury, which was an inoperable brain tumor.
Rainer's employers did not provide medical insurance. In a way, that's how the uninitiated finally came to know of the unknown legend who moved in their midst, quietly going about his business and making incredible music when few in his hometown were looking. His five import-only albums are a testament to that.
Rainer's illness brought him into the public eye in a way his music never did, for he made conscious decisions about his musical career--decisions that would confer upon him a humble enjoyment of his talent and his family. But there were no decisions to be made about his illness. Once word got out, there was simply no stopping the outpouring of support from local and international musicians, newspapers, friends, medical personnel and the community at large.
He was revered among fans and awed other musicians, notably longtime friend and collaborator Robert Plant, who produced the Inner Flame tribute album as a way to raise funds for Rainer's costly cancer treatments. Originally conceived by Giant Sand's Howe Gelb and released by Atlantic Records in July of this year, the album features a truly incredible pool of talent, performing the songwriter/guitarist's inspirational work: Plant, Jimmy Page, Emmylou Harris, Evan Dando, P.J. Harvey, Madeleine Peyroux, Victoria Williams and Giant Sand. A portion of the proceeds from the album will continue to support the Ptácek family.
After a 20-month remission, Rainer's cancer returned. A second seizure in October returned him to the hospital, this time with grim news. About three weeks later, on November 12, he died in his mother-in-law's home, with friends and family by his side. He was 46 years old. By all accounts, he lived a full life in the desert he loved.
Born in East Germany of Czech descent, he was raised on Chicago's south side. He moved to Tucson in the 1970s, where he met and married Patti Keating, his wife for 18 years. He is survived by Patti, sons Gabe (age 20) and Rudy (13); daughter Lily (age 2); newborn granddaughter Serena Rain; his mother Inga and brother Robert. To them, and to the some 300 friends, fans and family members who turned out to pay their respects at the November 17 memorial service at San Pedro chapel, this tribute is humbly dedicated.
His legacy will not be forgotten, even if his story remains, even now, only partially revealed to us through the words of his family and friends.
I feel like I've known Rainer longer than just this lifetime; we both knew we were on a deeply spiritual path. I've known for most of my life that I've been on such a path, but being around him upped the ante a little bit.
These last couple of years have been the most poignant years of my life, and a major reason for this has been the influence of Rainer's "fine tuning"...the fine tuning of the quality of life. In the midst of tragedy, the Quality of Life has been enhanced, and I am grateful for this.
Rainer was also aware of the pain and suffering we all experience from time to time, that's part of the human condition. And like one of his recent songs says, "We're here to love away the pain." So let's love each other--that's the greatest gift there is. He was keenly aware of that.
It's tragic that we lost Rainer. We already miss him. But the important thing is that he was in this world...he lived and loved and made wonderful music. He enhanced our lives, and you know what? I bet he'd say the same thing about each and every one of us--that we enhanced his life. Patti and her family and friends created a dignified support system of love and compassion for Rainer, and it's been an honor for me to be a small part of it.
--Kidd Squidd; KXCI deejay
When I first met Rainer in a local record store where I was working, I was reluctant to approach him, assuming him to be an austere, distant, mystical cat of an internationally acclaimed musical icon--the type used to casually brushing off the ministrations of fans like dust on his jacket. I was partially right; Rainer was indeed a mystical cat. But he was also a funny, warm, instantly friendly guy who, in short order following the introduction, engaged me in a bit of verbal thrust-and-parry regarding what cool new music I might recommend. From then on, whenever he came into the store or telephoned, I wound up playing the same game with him: "Hey Rainer, have you heard this record?"
"No, will I like it?"
"I think so, it sounds kinda like..."
"What else have you heard? What about this one I read about? And hey, man, I just heard this, too..." And so on. With more talent in one bottleneck-wielding finger than most musicians develop in entire lifetimes, this man was hungry to hear more, to keep learning, to keep getting closer and closer to the source. I felt privileged to have made his acquaintance.
This past October, I happened to be on the East Coast when I received the news that Rainer's illness had returned. I called to tell him I missed him, that I hoped to see him when I got back to Tucson. Rainer told me first how good it was to hear my voice, then the two of us fell into the familiar routine of verbal music-swapping for a few precious minutes. After I hung up, it occurred to me that in the midst of everything that's going down, Rainer's still hungry for knowledge. How many people would be like that while facing life's one big certainty square in the face? A rare, and yeah, a mystical cat.
Someone once said that we rarely know what in life we're looking for, but when we find it, we instinctively sense its rightness. Over time, I grew to understand that Rainer's music was the heart and soul, the musical essence of and spiritual soundtrack to this sun-kissed place.
As it always shall be. God bless you Rainer, for that gift, for your unbelievable symphonies.
--Fred Mills; music critic
Rainer grabbed the guitar from my hands, almost cradling it, and gave me this withering look. "My god, what the hell did you do to this guitar?"
I couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about. Until that moment, I hadn't even considered it as something to create with--it was just something that was going to look good on stage and make me famous.
Over the years, Rainer taught me a lot about respect, though I'm sure he never knew it. Like many musical visionaries, he was a restless soul. I watched as he continuously searched for new sounds and inspirations, refusing to be pigeonholed as a blues purist or make musical value judgments. I was constantly surprised and delighted when he would incorporate new influences or reinvent material. A Robert Johnson song would be transformed into an exploration of the echo box (something I'm sure Johnson would have understood).
You were just as likely to hear Beck, opera or techno as you were to hear Blind Lemon Jefferson coming out of his tape deck down in the Chicago Store basement. Rainer was so obviously in love with music that he couldn't be confined to any style. He never lost sight of the Delta, but he refused to take up permanent residence there.
Rainer also showed that you could be a loving and devoted husband and father without sacrificing any creativity. I don't think I ever saw him happier than when he was with his family; the look in his eyes was all too obvious. Instead of stifling his creative fire, Rainer's family fueled it, inspired him to see the beauty in the world and the joy of day-to-day living. Musician-family man is a description you don't often hear with sincerity. That Rainer was respected as both stands as testament to his wide-ranging impact. How wonderful for all of us that we were able to share him if even for this all too brief period.
--Sean Murphy; former member of River Roses
At that time, Jo Ann Tamez was bringing a lot of the L.A. bands through Tucson, like The Blasters, who quickly developed a large audience here. After one show at the Night Train in late '81 or early '82, Dave Alvin asked my roommate if he and the band could come over to our place so they could "jam with that amazing cat with the guitar." Of course she said yes.
We were living in a house near the corner of Sixth Street and Park Avenue, not far from the club. The band arrived immediately after us, and Dave made a long distance phone call to John Doe of X and, among other things, told him about this great guitar player they were getting ready to jam with.
They sat in the living room, Dave and Phil with acoustic guitars at the ready, while some late-night party types came and went since none of us had thought to bring any beer. The only heater in the house was in the dining room--the only room nobody ever used--so the house was freezing. A friend kept making hot tea to keep everyone from turning blue.
Come 2:30 a.m., there was still no Patti or Rainer. We checked back at the club, called some people. Maybe they stopped to get some food or something. The band was willing to wait. We kept trying to track them down, to no avail. We assured them there must have been a mix-up with the directions, because Rainer wouldn't have told them he would be there and then blow them off--he wasn't that kind of guy. I found out a couple of days later that's exactly what'd happened. But those guys waited until 4:30 a.m., on the off-chance they'd get to sit around a freezing room to play guitar with Rainer.
--Jennifer Powers-Murphy, family friend
--Robert Baird; Stereophile music editor
"Why don't you get out of this town and go where people will recognize your talents?" I asked. Another smile, another pause and more softly spoken words: His life was with his wife and children. His music was only possible because of the love of Patti and their kids. He wouldn't be the musician he was if he was on the road and away from them, he told me.
His typical response to any of my exclamations about his talents, or questions about his life and career, was a smile and a pause. And in those pauses, patient smiles and thoughtful words, I learned from him. The talent was inexplicable. The choices were the essence of Rainer; they weren't easily translated into glib phrases or offhand comments to be printed on paper for people to read and toss away.
What I never learned from him, and still don't understand, is how a man could be so talented and so accepting of the world's so-often casual dismissal of what he had to offer. I'm at a loss to explain--to even understand--what it was inside him, around him or flowing through him that allowed him to make such tender judgments. It makes me miss him and wish for more lessons.
--Michael Metzger, freelance writer, former Tucson Weekly music editor
Behind Rainer's chair there's a 49-cent flute, the kind he gave me when I went through my I-want-to-play-something phase. In a box on the shelf, out of reach if he's sitting--under the National Geographic but on top of Rolling Stone and Science Today--are soup cans full of nails and screws. Just above are postcards from abroad, and pictures of his family. Directly in front, where the hands must have shuffled back and forth so many times, the hammers await--small and delicate to the eye, tender to the touch. And within easy reach in every direction are stained coffee cups and loose chocolate wrappers.
Looking around this dank room full of tools of the trade, I can only think of his hands. Hands that felt and looked like they'd traveled the world, his world, the one he spoke of: the Far East, Northern Ireland, Morocco, where there's some "Sufi stuff going on that interests me." I met Rainer well after I'd traveled the world; yet all points abroad seemed well-traveled to this man who lived solidly at home, taking time to shape his hands, big as a giant's and as gentle as a master musician's.
And as we take the last box of his personal affects away, there sits at his desk a new guy, plucking away at the endless stack of broken guitars. This younger man doesn't seem out of place, which can easily happen when sitting in another's spot. He seems to just be keeping the chair warm, something Rainer knew deeply that we all do in life from time to time, if we're lucky--to keep the chair warm for a while.
--Bill Carter; local filmmaker
Off-stage, Rainer was as humble, earthy, and good-natured a man as I've ever known, someone who was genuinely embarrassed by the adulation of strangers and seemed most comfortable within the circle of family, band, and friends. Rainer discovered the extraordinary in the ordinary. His talent was big but his heart was bigger. His life and art have, for me, a mythic resonance. His song lives.
--Will Clipman; musician, poet,
Rainer's music has been the soundtrack of my adulthood, encircling two decades and more now. All these years later I can place where I was when I first heard songs like "Mad City," "I Am a Sinner," "Broken Promises"--and, much later, "Rudy with a Flashlight," that singular gesture of hope and love. That I have such exact memories is testimony, I think, to just how good his music is. I count myself fortunate to know those songs, and fortunate, too, to have known their maker.
The dead do not rest, the Greek poet Callimachus wrote, but fly over the sea like gulls. Their souls, I would add, remain with us, moving with grace and freedom, helping us weather the world: Rainer is gone, but he is here. He added beauty to his time, and I will thank him for that each time I hear a train whistle blow or a slide guitar cry.
--Gregory McNamee, local writer
I remember this one day in particular: It was the first day it was cold out--shortly after his relapse. We'd just found out it was terminal. We all knew, but didn't know if he knew. It was this beautiful day, and we were standing in the front yard. I said something about how beautiful it was, and he said, "This is the day we've been waiting for. All summer long, we've been waiting for this day." He could have been talking about the cancer, or he could have been talking about the weather. Either way, he was just standing outside, loving it.
Though he had problems--got disoriented, had trouble remembering things--he didn't get really sick until the last few days. He got to enjoy this past year, and do a lot of cool stuff. He and Rudy took the train to California to see his brother, for instance. They were really into trains. From what I've been told about this particular cancer, his remission was really long. I guess most people don't even get one.
--Fonda Hamilton, family friend
Rainer loved his family and music. He was a great dad, one who
would play ball with his son often, and take his nephews to play
ball at the school. He loved baseball and trains. He was a most
generous and unpretentious person. His music, lyrics and writing
speak for themselves. He lived a full, meaningful life, choosing
The only other thing I really want to say is how truly appreciative
--Karen Keating, sister-in-law
--Donna Keating, sister-in-law
And he says, "Yeah, I was wondering if I could play guitar here."
I'm tired, and I've never seen this guy before, and I say sort of magnanimously, "Sure...whenever you want."
He says, "Alright. Can I just set it up for this Friday or something?"
"Yeah, sure," I tell him. "Just bring whatever you need, and play guitar. What's your name?"
"Okay, Rainer, we'll see you on Friday."
So, I go back to washing dishes. This is maybe Monday or Tuesday. Then people start calling: "Hey, is it true Rainer's playing on Friday?" And I try to remember, and tell them that yeah, I guess it is true. "What time is he playing?" I think I told him 8 p.m. "What's the cover?" Surprised, I tell them there's no cover.
"You just come on in," I say, with no idea what I'm in for. Next thing I know, it's Friday...and we're packed. It's completely packed. He was going to play two days, a Friday and a Saturday. We had just opened, and it was only my partner and I--we didn't have any employees or anything. The next day, the daily paper had an article on Rainer, and how he'd played at our café. It put us on the map.
He knew, and later he knew that I knew, that he helped me out a lot by playing his music here. In response, he would always say, "Well, one day maybe you'll give me a cappuccino." The master of understatement. So he would ride by--he rode his bike everywhere--and I'd be sweeping the sidewalk, and I'd yell, "Rainer! Come in for your free cappuccino!" He was almost past by the time he heard me, but he'd stop and come in, and have a cappuccino. He wasn't a regular, but whenever I could snag him off his bicycle, he'd come in. That was nice. He was a real character.
He was so soft spoken, about everything he did. Just like he was at that first introduction: Hey, can I play guitar? After that first time, he would call often and ask if he could play, and I would say, "Of course you can play." He played at Epic about a half-dozen times over the past three years, I think.
One time I asked him, "Is it true you played with that band Giant Sand?" He said, smiling, "I started that band."
This other gentleman I used to do business with--he was counting heads, telling me how much money I could make off Rainer if I charged five bucks a head. And I was looking at Rainer, who had such a...positive energy...and how he just gave his music away, to whoever wanted to listen. It wasn't something you'd want to charge. What you were getting, this music, was such a gift. He was just that way. Very willing to give, and to share.
Before this last time he played, he said casually, "It's going to be a little bit bigger than normal."
Coming from Rainer, I thought, "Oh, no, what does that mean?" I didn't know if we could handle "bigger than normal." There were a couple of camera crews there (Arizona Illustrated, on local KUAT-TV Channel 6, taped that performance for broadcast); and in fact, it was...bigger. But he was exactly the same.
Normal capacity is 45 people. It was easily twice that whenever he played. And on that night, there were people lined up outside, pressed up against the windows, on the sidewalk. I couldn't see outside; once you were inside, you couldn't get outside. But when I saw the film of that concert, I could see the people on the curb. It was amazing. I didn't even know there were all those people out there.
That was the last time I saw him. I shook his hand, he bought some things for his family, I wished him good luck. He looked strong, full of life. The next thing I heard, he'd passed away. I have such a clear image of him riding his bike. It was this sort of rickety old bike. I can see just what he looked like, what he was wearing, what kind of day he was having. It's hard to believe he's no longer with us.
--Jack Green; co-owner of Epic Café
His legacy is a little bit different for each of us. There's a notion that when we're born, we choose our parents. Well...when I was 19, I chose an older brother. And he had the patience to put up with that. And he changed things forever, as he did with all of us. Having him around for the last 22 years has granted us all something to draw upon the next 22 or so.
The size and shape of his hands were remarkable if you ever stopped to look at them. The way he could fix a guitar, work on his car, or play at the bar...the kind of things he could do, and knowing when it was good. The surprising thing was getting lost in his rhythm; and having the songs he wrote as an excuse for the chance to be lost in his rhythm. And then when The Inner Flame came out, we got to see how well-written his songs actually were. His songs make more sense now than ever. I'm glad we didn't know full well that he was a prophet when he was alive.
Rainer--I should say "we"--were granted a stay of execution, by almost two years. The doctors always knew it wasn't curable, but they never let on. So we believed that anything was possible; and so the impossible became possible for about 20 months. In the time, lifetimes were spent--he was here; he got to enjoy it. It wasn't like he was laid up in a hospital. Rainer still had plenty left to do. A master craftsman, his work was never done.
Going to Nashville and bearing witness for him and Emmylou Harris getting together was something; the kinship he got with Robert Plant...just more evidence of that subtle power that was his casual strength. I was there at Nino's the night (ZZ Top guitarist) Billy Gibbons came in and sat down, and sent his bodyguard up to Rainer, sent him over to the table.
(Ed. note: He would later record The Texas Tapes as a result of that meeting. And Gibbons, whose contractual obligations prevented the collaboration he'd envisioned, would extend to him an incredible, handcrafted guitar, with "Das Combo" inlaid in silver on the body, as a token of his appreciation for the man and his music.)
I took him on a solo tour in Austria, where I was ready for World War III with an Austrian conductor. We were having trouble communicating, and at its worst, when we were ready to duke it out, Rainer just spoke...in German. Exactly what I was trying to tell the old boy, he said in German, perfectly... Never having let on for the half-hour prior that he knew German. He had the touch. That's how he made his mark: by his smile and his touch.
We were extremely blessed to have known him. And I think he was extremely blessed to have so much time to understand his death and make arrangements; and when he needed a little more time it was granted to him. He had a few more songs to write, to record, time to spend with his family. Ultimately, that was the thing that made Rainer greater: That which was most important to him was always right there in front of him. And it was realized when all these people dropped what they were doing to record some of his songs, for him. And he never had to leave his little two-room home; and he never had to go any farther than the Epic Café to prove his point.
All that love...the real thick kind. The every minute of every day kind. The sliding, grand-master craftsman of love kind. It glows, it waits, it sticks around.
--Howe Gelb; member of Giant Sand
I loved the way he got inside of a song or a groove and where he took it. He was all about the journey, whether it was between the audience, fellow musicians or the music hanging in the air. Always in the moment and never without a surprise, I wonder what he's got looped inside those blue echo boxes now?
--Joey Burns; member of Giant Sand/Calexico
--John Convertino; member of Giant Sand/Calexico
--Tasha Bundy, family friend
With the exception of Barefoot Rock and The Texas Tapes (both of which were recorded before Rainer found that microphone) none of the music has a studio sound to it, because it was recorded in a garage or a chapel or a house. The resulting music has a great sound, but it's still very real; nothing artificial about it. Very much like the man himself. I love him dearly, and miss him very much.
--Clif Eager; recording consultant, engineer, co-worker and friend.
When the cancer returned, Rainer simply got down to business and wrote a batch of new songs. Shortly before he died, he said, "I'm going to die but at least I've been able to be here for it." He truly lived, and lived well, until the day he died.
With his music, he took us into the realm of the transcendent, the near-mystical, where we could be something greater than ourselves. Only by singing the blues can people sometimes escape them. Rainer helped us get to that place. (Ed. note: A lifetime achievement for which he was inducted, with good-natured reluctance on his part, into the 1997 TAMMIES Hall of Fame.)
Rainer was extra-special and I miss him. I'm grateful for the way the man and his music enhanced life in Tucson. I'm ever so proud to say he was my friend.
--Carol Anderson, former executive director of the Tucson Area Music
--Jacob Keating, brother-in-law
Being your nurse and sharing with your family those few hours, those few days, has changed my life. The first thing I noticed was a picture of Robert Johnson hanging on the cork board. I think the first thing I said to you was, "So why do you have a picture of Robert Johnson?" (Now I understand why!) You looked so shocked that I knew who he was. That opened so many conversations. From that time on, I was filled with a sense of awe of your soul.
And what do I know about love...? I know I love being a nurse, and I loved caring for you. It was an honor and privilege to care, support and touch. I loved hugging you, Patti, and smiling at your beautiful children. Three years ago I almost died from an anaphylaxis reaction. Since that near-death experience, my understanding of death has transformed me. Being your nurse was a profound gift to me. I really felt your soul and mine gave a gift to each other. I have followed your case, closely at first with Dr. Apple. I miss her. I bought the CDs when you came back to play at UMC. Your words still echo in me, for when I get tired and nursing is sometimes hard, I recall you saying, "...just take a walk around (this hospital) and look, and really see the work that is being done in these halls."
Now I am listening to the Inner Flame and I just wanted you to know I am grateful for the few footsteps on this life's path, that ours have crossed.
I am enclosing a small contribution in honor of the following patients who changed my life, and who also have made me a better nurse: Marc Buckholtz, Nick Shoemaker, April Hines, Ruben Sainz, and Rainer Ptácek.
--Erin Marie Brown, RN
The above letter was written on October 12, 1997. On October 15, Rainer responded:
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