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By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
When Tucson musician Rainer Ptacek died at the age of 46 on November 12, 1997, he left behind more than a wife and kids and an international community of grieving friends and fans. Rainer -- stricken by an abrupt seizure one February morning in 1996 while riding his bicycle to work and subsequently diagnosed with brain cancer -- also left behind a trove of recordings, one of which has just been issued, kicking off a trilogy of releases.
Thanks to the diligence of Rainer's widow Patti Keating, his friend Howe Gelb (of Giant Sand) and others, Alpaca Lips is now available on Germany's Glitterhouse Records. An astonishingly pure, intensely soulful collection of acoustic folk and blues that actually resides somewhere in a rarefied between-genres space, the disc was recorded and compiled by Rainer himself in early '96, just prior to the fateful seizure.
"Before Rainer got sick," explains Keating, "he'd recorded a lot of songs. He wanted to get these out in Europe; he was already hooked up with Glitterhouse because of Nocturnes [his '95 album issued by the label]. And then he got sick, and it was just pushed under the rug."
Keating recalls going through a handful of Rainer's tapes some time after his death and coming across a DAT labeled "alpaca lips." ("Just his funny little sense of humor, a play on words -- I think he actually wanted a clasp picture of an alpaca on the cover," says Keating, laughing at the memory.) Knowing her husband's intentions, she revived the project precisely as he'd conceived it.
While it may be folly to second-guess the dearly departed, Keating suggests that Rainer may have subconsciously left clues to make such an endeavor possible. Not only did he secure a completed, sequenced and labeled DAT, he also tucked away scores of handwritten notes and hours of tapes chronicling long practice sessions; radiation treatment and chemotherapy had affected his memory, forcing him to relearn his own music. Says Keating, "It's almost as if he left us road maps to where he was going, because he wrote down everything. The tapes, too -- I think that was also his memory."
One of Alpaca Lips' most riveting numbers is a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise." With minimalist backing from Giant Sand/Calexico's Joey Burns (standup bass) and John Convertino (vibraphone), Rainer hangs shimmering, spider's-silk notes in the air; a fragile, world-weary vocal pushes Wonder's cautionary rumination into the realm of existentialism when he sings, "We're spending too much of our lives/Living in a pastime paradise/Yeah, we're wasting most of our time/Glorifying days done gone behind/Tell me who of them/Have come to be?/How many of them/Are you and me?"
"You know, that one was recorded right before he got sick, which is why it seems so profound to me," muses Keating. "It's real eerie to me. Almost like, not an omen, but . . . [voice trailing off momentarily] almost like he knew it was coming on. A premonition."
Born on June 7, 1951, in East Germany, Rainer Jaromir Ptacek grew up in Chicago after his family fled the Communist country in 1953. Musically inclined from childhood, in the mid '60s Rainer swapped violin for guitar. (He once quipped, "None of the Beatles, it seemed, were interested in violin.") A decade later he'd become a fixture on the Tucson music scene, ultimately garnering an international reputation as a song stylist and slide virtuoso that had critics speaking of him, Ry Cooder and John Fahey in the same breath, while pondering the intricacies of an elaborate tape loop and delay pedal strategy he'd developed during his later years that allowed him to sound like three guitarists at once. In addition to five albums (solo and with his power blues trio Das Combo) released between 1986 and 1994, he collaborated with everyone from Giant Sand and Germany's F.S.K. to ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and Led Zep's Robert Plant. (Consult Britain's Sa-Wa-Ro Web site, www.sa-wa-ro.freeserve.co.uk/index-ie.htm, for a discographical overview.)
After Rainer's death, aiming to expand his musical legacy, Keating and Gelb began planning an ongoing archival project. Glitterhouse Records was only too happy to get involved, having worked with Rainer previously on a CD reissue of the '86 Rainer & Das Combo Barefoot Rock album and the Nocturnescollection of ambient-tinged solo pieces.
Glitterhouse owner Reinhard Holstein remembers his first exposure to Rainer's music: "I bought [1992 album] Worried Spirits and loved it. Then came Texas Tapes, and the fact that it was unmistakably ZZ Top backing him blew me away. My initial impressions then were the same as they are now: I like the way he constructs his songs, I love his electric guitar work and I'm totally into his dobro virtuosity. But what I like most is his voice, or the combination of his guitar style and the vocals. That howl is maximum intensity for me.
"We did Nocturnes, got a lot of great press and did reasonably well," continues Holstein. "And I knew that Rainer had something coming; he'd sent me some of the stuff that finally made it onto Alpaca Lips. But at the time, the record was not put together yet and he wanted to send me something that was finished. So now, we want to do it right, and give it a fair chance to make an impact."
Alpaca Lips includes the Wonder song, one each by Greg Brown and Howe Gelb, and 14 originals. Notable among them: "Bo Weavil," a funky country blues song and a vocal showcase for the slurring, falsetto-swooping Rainer; the ominously droning, almost wraithlike "Rude World"; a nine-minute freeform improvisation called "Horse Hair"; and a playful, touching number, "Rudy With a Flashlight," about watching his son search the starry heavens with the light. Complex and riveting yet accessible on multiple levels, the album locates Rainer at an artistic peak -- songwriting, singing and playing.
"It took some time to relearn everything he'd known before the seizure," says Gelb of Rainer's initial recovery period. "The most amazing part of his trek -- which was unbearably frustrating, given how his brain wouldn't work with him for the longest time to remember so many things, let alone the coordination it takes for his hands to carry out his brain's ideas -- was that he not only was able to teach himself all over again; his stunning achievement was then to surpass his ability before he got sick! I remember coming over to where he was practicing what would become 'The Inner Flame' [recorded by Giant Sand and Rainer as the title track for the '97 InnerFlame Rainer tribute/benefit album featuring Page & Plant, Emmylou Harris, PJ Harvey and more]. The moment I heard it, I could hear the progression of his writing ability. And it was as if he were never sick at all. It was astonishing to me since I'd watched him struggle with relearning to even hold a guitar again."
Another triumph occurred at a Tucson concert on June 6, 1997, prior to Rainer's relapse. Recorded professionally and now slated to become the second installment in the trilogy, Live at the Performance Center is, by Gelb's description, "the best live recording I have ever heard from anyone, anywhere, from any time. And if you listen with a critical ear -- which is hard to do, given the emotional status -- he keeps getting it better and better as the set goes on. He's on a plane I have never heard anyone ever get to."
The third release will be called The Farm, comprising new songs culled from the more than 15 hours of material recorded in the weeks immediately prior to Rainer's passing. Recalls Gelb, "That came about after his final seizure [in '97]. I raced home from a European tour to find him talking in numbers. Again, he slowly began to relearn his guitar, but this time the end was imminent. We all knew it. And we had to tell him, as well. Anyway, I mentioned to him that he was coming up with all kinds of ideas on the guitar; would he like to record again? To focus on that for the healing it can do, and the relief of the art he gave himself to his whole life. A day or so later, he was up for it. We headed up to Harvey's place [Harvey Moltz, Tucson studio owner], and three sessions later we had a slew of material."
Glitterhouse is additionally set to reissue Worried Spiritsand The Texas Tapes, both originally released by Demon Records but currently out of print. (Consult the label's Web site at www.glitterhouse.com for mail-order details.)
Meanwhile, Gelb, who penned Alpaca Lips' heartfelt liner notes, observes that there's perhaps a deeper significance to what Rainer accomplished, saying, "What a great struggle for him at times to even read and make sense of the notes he'd made. The spine tingle is the delivery from a man who is perched on the precipice and able to look over into the void and deliver still, in this world, what he sees on both sides.
"What can I say? You can hear it."