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."

During the day, he worked at a music shop, repairing guitars, a task for which he had no qualifications but much enthusiasm. One day a man came in to sell a National steel guitar, and Ptacek bought it on the spot for $175. When he learned some open tunings (he leans toward E and G) and put a slide to it, he discovered a guitar style for which he's justly acclaimed.

"I'd heard the Dobro in my dreams or something," he recalls. "I do remember hearing it and not knowing what it was but making a mental note of it. It's such a cool sound, and it's so unique. When I heard it again, I found out what it was."

Ptacek began playing Tucson coffee houses as a solo act, and one night Howe Gelb came in during his set and asked if he could join in on piano. They jammed for hours, bouncing riffs off each other with the telepathy of musical brethren.

In the early '80s, they formed Giant Sand, one of the longest-running and best-loved Amerindie bands of the postpunk era. Ptacek bowed out after recording one four-song single, but his connection with Gelb remained strong, and led to offers from European labels for Ptacek's solo material.

None of his five albums has been released in the United States, and his albums have been issued in so many forms with so many imprints that tracking down a particular album can be daunting. Even Ptacek says, "I get confused about what records I have and where they were released." As a result, his records have sold poorly and provided him with scant income.

European audiences started to notice him, though, and one British show included a fairly prominent audience member--Robert Plant. A few months later, Plant asked to work with him.

They sat down with nothing planned, and Ptacek played Dobro while Plant sang whatever occurred to him. It was an improvisational approach that Ptacek himself developed years before. Ptacek tends to borrow recording equipment and spend days casually putting music on tape. Then he goes back and whittles hours of tape down to a few minutes of usable material. From his collaboration with Plant came three B-sides for singles from Plant's 1993 album Fate of Nations.

What Plant discovered in Ptacek was something the former Led Zeppelin singer often talked of wanting to find for himself: a way to take the dark, brooding spirit of the blues and make it contemporary.

Much as critics try to pin a blues label on Ptacek's music, his work is too slippery for the tag. None of his songs follows the traditional 12-bar blues form. Many employ minor chords atypical of blues songwriting. His fondness for ambient textures and techno drum patterns don't quite conform to blues standards, either.

Ptacek can best be compared with artists like Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Los Lobos and Daniel Lanois--people who've melded the ultratraditional with the ultramodern, distorting old musical forms just enough to breathe new life into them.

"I never pin myself down to only listening to one thing," he says. "Blues always appealed to me 'cause it was so direct and straight from the heart. But I also love flamenco music, which is like Spanish blues, straight from the heart and so much emotion.

"What I got bored with, and what I wouldn't do, were songs that were slight, poppy kind of songs. Why even bother writing a song like that? If you're gonna write a song, why not write a song that means something?"

Thanks to Gelb and Plant's enthusiastic support, The Inner Flame is that unique tribute album that illuminates something more than the performers' listening tastes.

Because Ptacek plays guitar on several tracks, his distinct sound is not lost in the translation, but merely adorned by a host of great singers. For instance, Kris McKay's powerhouse rendition of "One Man Crusade" pushes Ptacek to dizzying heights on his Dobro. Victoria Williams and husband Mark Olson find the Eastern heart of the droning "Something's Got to Be Done." And PJ Harvey--another artist who knows that the blues must be destroyed in order to be saved--goes industrial with the funky "Losin' Ground," aided by John Parish and Eric Drew Feldman.

The best track on the album, though, comes from a somewhat unlikely source. Evan Dando delivers a perfectly understated baritone reading of "Rudy With a Flashlight" (a tribute to Ptacek's son), sounding like the wise old bluesman he'll never be mistaken for. It's a perfect example of how the spirit of this project carried artists to new places.

The album's title song is the only one Ptacek wrote after his seizure. Backed by Giant Sand, and trading vocal lines with his old buddy Gelb, Ptacek reveals what his life-threatening experience taught him. "Love is a crucible, open to all," he sings. "Everything should come from the deepest place." Repeatedly, in the song, he questions himself, "What do I know about love?"

A local booking agent who's worked with Ptacek over the years says Ptacek always struck him as distant, possibly even bitter. The agent noticed a huge change when he saw Ptacek last year and heard him speak with such enthusiasm about his life. Ptacek himself will tell you he feels like a new man.

"These whole wards with people getting chemo, it's something else to be in the midst of that," he says. "No one wants to be there. And they're not suffering from toothaches. This is real-life shit. You better learn something. It's a unique thing that you either come to terms with or don't. And you have to realize that life is short and love is the only thing that matters. Everything else is frivolous.

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