Inner Flame

New tribute album illuminates the art of Rainer Ptacek

Rainer Ptacek smiles. He remembers the day his doctor gave him the dreaded diagnosis.

"You have the best cancer, Rainer. You really have a very good cancer."
The 46-year-old Tucson slide-guitar master seemed to be sailing through life in February 1996. His haunting music--a stark, inimitable kind of postmodern desert blues--was beginning to attract bigger crowds every time he went to Europe, and he'd recently recorded with Robert Plant.

Best of all, his wife Patti had just given birth to their third child, a beautiful girl named Lily. But one morning, while Ptacek rode his bike to work at the Chicago Store, a legendary Tucson music shop, he had a seizure. He fell off his bike and awoke in a hospital bed. Doctors informed him he had a brain tumor the size of a fist.

Unlike most brain tumors, this one was located in the inner brain, which made it unreachable to surgeons. Fortunately, its location also prevented it from spreading. So, after months of grueling chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Ptacek found that he could actually co-exist with this tumor.

Of course, the tumor has not left him unscathed. He has two sizable bumps on his head, the coordinates used for his radiation treatments.

He also has trouble remembering things. "My memory's out the window," he says, noting that when he writes a song these days, he needs to get it on tape within five minutes, or he'll forget it completely.

Despite these nagging vestiges of his condition, Ptacek now understands what his doctor meant. This is the best cancer. It's a disease that's allowed him to see how much he's loved and appreciated, without forcing him to relinquish his life in the bargain.

And it's provided us with The Inner Flame, a brilliant tribute album on Atlantic Records, featuring such artists as PJ Harvey, Evan Dando, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Jonathan Richman, and Vic Chesnutt, all reinterpreting Ptacek's heartfelt but obscure compositions.

"As funny as it sounds, this is the best thing that could have happened to me," Ptacek says of the tumor. "It taught me so much about being alive, and about being in love with the people that love me. Some people never get that lesson. I got it, and it took a while, and it wasn't free, but it was a great lesson."

The Inner Flame--organized by Ptacek's close friend and fellow Arizonan Howe Gelb, with help from Plant--is one of the finest albums released this year, and possibly the most surprising. Halfway through your first listen, you find yourself asking: Where did these songs come from? By your second listen, you wonder: How could such an artist be unknown to the masses?

If you weren't looking for it, you'd never spot Rainer Ptacek's (pronounced "RY-ner THA-check") house in east Tucson. From the street, all that's visible is an empty dirt lot, with only a beat-up, white Ford Ranchero and a baby stroller offering any clue that someone lives close by. Behind the lot, hidden by a thicket of trees, is the small, two-room frame house where Rainer and Patti live with Lily and her older brothers, 20-year-old Gabe and 13-year-old Rudy.

The living room also serves as a bedroom, a dining room and a makeshift recording studio. When the baby sleeps in the other room, the rest of the family tends to cram into the living room, using the bed for a chair. It sounds like a sure recipe for family tension, but when you're around them, you're struck by how positive and cooperative they all are with each other. Ptacek seems thrilled just to have his family near him. He insists that his baby daughter helped to save his life.

"There was no way I wasn't going to see her grow up," he says, his eyes welling up with tears. "Just seeing her face helped to heal me."

Ptacek was born in East Berlin in 1951 to parents of Czech descent. His father was a banker, and his mother ran a delicatessen.

In that pre-Berlin Wall phase of the Cold War, some people would cross to the west, ostensibly for a day of shopping, and never go back. When Ptacek was 5, his parents did just that, leaving behind a home and all their possessions.

They came to America, and settled on the west side of Chicago. Ptacek fell in love with the electrifying urban blues he heard on the radio, only gradually discovering that many of his favorite records were made a few blocks away at Chess Studio.

He studied the violin, then traded it in for a guitar when he realized that none of the Beatles played violin. He played for a time in "basement beer-drinking delinquent bands," cranking out sloppy covers of songs by the Jeff Beck Group.

In the early '70s, Ptacek tagged along with a friend making a trip west. They stopped in Tucson on the way back. Twenty-five years later, Ptacek's still there.

"I got a job with the University [of Arizona] as a janitor," he says. "Interestingly enough, the job happened to be in the music building, so I had free access--and all the keys to the doors--during the night when no one was there. It was almost like Disneyland. You could go into any music room and plunk on the piano, or turn the organ on. It was a really cool job."

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