Editor's Note: A version of this article appears in this week's issue, featuring 100 Songs that Defined Arizona. In celebration of Arizona's centennial, we spoke songwriter Howe Gelb, who has led the constantly mutating Giant Sand in Tucson and all around the world since 1985. Gelb is known for his singular way of speaking, a kind of melodious, lyrical stop-and-start. We spoke with him while mastering a forthcoming Giant Sand record at SAE Mastering in Phoenix. He couldn't pick just one of his late friend's composition, instead discussing three and asking readers to simple "pick whatever one they want."
Blues guitarist Rainer Ptacek was born in East Berlin and spent his childhood in Chicago but rose to prominence in Tucson. Though he never achieved mainstream success, his work is widely admired, with ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and Robert Plant both vocal fans and collaborators. He formed Giant Sand with Howe Gelb, who discussed his favorite Rainer songs with us.
"[Rainer] has one called 'One Man Crusade' that is one of the top 10 best songs ever written -- not just in Arizona's history.
"Yeah, it's a wonderful song. I know that Gibbons tried to record Rainer singing it a long time ago, and when we did the tribute [record] to him, The Inner Flame, [Wild Seeds vocalist] Kris McKay did a version of it that is mind-blowing and beautiful. So beautiful. It's not so easy to peg which genre it's from. Given Rainer's background, it's just a stunning piece of work.
"That was well before he had brain cancer, well before. Then while he had brain cancer he wrote a song called 'The Inner Flame,' which is really amazing, because it came right after he had to teach himself how to play the guitar all over again. When he was diagnosed with brain cancer, it came with a seizure. He had to start the cure of radiation and chemo. It affected his brain in a way that he couldn't remember how to play guitar. And he had to start all over again. I watched him -- I witnessed him -- not only getting to the point where he was at beforehand, prowess-wise, but he surpassed it.
"And in his writing, too, the day he came up with this song, I heard him when he was playing it, and as a writer, as we evolve, we get better and better. You can't help but get better. You draw on your own foundation and keep adding to it, so to speak. So, when I heard the song, I knew it was even better than anything -- not discounting what came before -- but he was back on his path. Either in lieu of, or because of, the disease.
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"Then, near the end, right before he passed away, he came up with this other song, called 'The Farm.' The way he played it -- the way he recorded it, just weeks before he died -- had a really bizarre sense of timing and [was] really evoking. Like a man, literally, poised between the worlds. And how he -- I can't describe it -- you know how Billie Holiday sang behind the beat? [And] in some others, they sing ahead of the beat, to pushing things a little bit. How he would lay his vocals in there, it was just like, new information. Some people might not notice it, but if you listen to it, and you try to do it like him, you can't.
"Some people didn't know him at all, but they gravitated to [him] because there was a sonic merit, sort of like a divining rod, [which] points you in the direction of where the water is. It's impossible to explain. It was really a beautiful thing, and very magical. We all need water."