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WALL OF FAMERAINER'S POPULARITY IS ABOUT TO SPREAD BEYOND TUCSON'S GRAFFITI ARTISTS

To find out the real history of Tucson you have to go underground. Down into the two-street underpasses that connect the university neighborhoods with downtown. Dank, dark, spotted with puddles of urine, they are places where drug deals go down and drunks take siestas. With its twirled Moorish columns and ogee arches, one underpass even has pretensions toward being art. The one thing these short, concrete labyrinths have in common is the intricate layers of graffiti that cover their walls. To the majority of Tucsonans who rumble through in their cars, the eons' worth of spray paint are just a blur. But to those brave enough to walk through, the words and drawings are like gazing into madness, and reading the desperate pleas of street hieroglyphics. Every so often, the city attempts to scrape the walls clean. But that only opens more space for the angry and the artistic, and before long the walls again are covered with scribbling. Abstruse gang code words, innumerable human profiles and the tried-and-true formulae of graffiti like "Fred's Rule," and "For a good time call . . . " fill up most of the space.

But scattered along these 60-foot- long walls are some of Tucson's more basic truths. "Punk Is Dead," scrawled in basic black, screams from a wall near one tunnel's middle. Farther down, "Hitler Was an Artist" is splashed in red with big loopy swastikas for accents. "There Is No Room in This World for Hate" is spelled out in small, obsessively neat letters. Malcolm X's profile in black stares above the word "Queen." One of the biggest symbols of all, though, is the word "Rainer," spelled out in bright green paint by a steady hand. Here among all the raw emotions, secrets and dirty words is the unlikely name of a blues musician. Of all the compliments he's received, making it onto the walls of the Fourth Avenue tunnel is the surest sign that Rainer's hit the big time.

Rainer Ptacek is a bluesman. A white bluesman. A musician with the kind of talent that comes along once in a lifetime and rarely in Tucson. Rainer (pronounced RYE-ner pa-TAH-chek; he never uses his last name) is both a powerful solo performer and an engaging frontman with his blues/funk trio, Das Combo. Possessing a voice that is good enough to get by, but a mean way with a slide guitar, Rainer also is one of the best steel-bodied guitar players around. He is every bit as talented as most of the so-called "national" blues acts. But Rainer doesn't have a record deal. He doesn't tour, either. Until now, Rainer--Tucson's most respected musical homeboy--has refused to get involved in the music business. In fact, about the only place to catch him is with Das Combo at its regular Saturday-night gig at Cushing Street Bar. Next week, he will make a rare Valley appearance, playing solo at the Rhythm Room.

All along, Rainer's been happy raising a family, working a dream job and being a large musical fish in a small pond. But all that may be changing. These days, Rainer's thoughts have turned to buying a house, landing a record deal and "getting my stuff out there."

Rainer works, in the loosest sense of the word, as a guitar tech at the Chicago Music Store. A scene that even Dickens couldn't have imagined, the Chicago Music Store in downtown Tucson is a monument to the pack-rat impulse, a funky menagerie of anything musical. The owners buy, sell and trade everything from guitar picks to drumsticks, from sheet music to PA systems, from bell mutes to sousaphones. Housed in Tucson's old JC Penney, the Chicago Music Store runs on the never-take-inventory, never-ever-clean-up theory of retail. For customers, though, some of whom come from as far away as India, that translates to: If the Chicago Music Store doesn't have it, it don't exist. Upstairs, under a huge, vaulted glass skylight, are rooms where brass instruments are stacked into piles 20 feet high. On the main floor--the site of Jodie Foster's guitar- string-stealing scene in the film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore--guitars are propped up in ragged lines and telephones ring off the hook. Downstairs is Rainer's lair--a bowling-alley-size room filled with every member of the guitar family. Electric guitar bodies with names like Fender Bullet, Memphis Bass and Hopf Special lie in dusty heaps all around. Stringless mandolins and banjos hang from overstuffed shelves that line the walls. Here and there a random bare bulb shines out. A coat of dust covers everything. Forgotten treasures surely abound. A stack of multicolored Flying Vs peek out from the bottom of one pile. An intricate inlaid wood acoustic guitar hangs in an obscure corner.

In the middle of this scene--like the final shot of Citizen Kane, in which the camera pans back to reveal Kane's endless plunder--is Rainer's workbench. Photographs of his wife and sons are at eye level. Cassettes of music by Verdi, Frank Stokes and Ma Rainey are piled up on an overhead shelf. A biography of Wittgenstein and a book titled The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African/American Literary Criticism lie nearby. Dressed in jeans, tee shirt, black leather vest, black boots and a Cleveland Indians baseball cap, Rainer drags on a cigarette while cleaning and restringing a Black Fender Squire II Stratocaster. In a sign of the times, this version of America's legendary guitar has "Made in Korea" stamped prominently on the neck.

"I can still see it," Rainer says, his eyes staring off as his mind travels back. "The smell of the grass, the crickets goin', the sounds of kids riding their bicycles. It was in Amery, Mississippi. I went there with a friend who had a cousin who operated a gravel pit there. If you look, it's not even on the map.

"My friend's cousin knew a man and we went out to his house to see him. His house was a plywood shack up on cinder blocks, and it was really dark inside. The curtains looked like oiled linen. All around was this dense forest with kudzu everywhere. It made you feel more isolated than you really were.

"The man we went to see was John Arthur Williams and, at that time, he was old. He's probably dead now. At that time, he was a sanctified blues player--he didn't play the devil's music no more. He had an old Catalina guitar with a movable bridge. It was completely out of tune when I played it, but when he played, smoke came out of it. We sat out in his front yard for hours playing and listenin' to each other. The whole time I couldn't believe that there I was, listening and playing blues in the Delta. It made me feel it was worth the gamble to try it."

That was Rainer's blues epiphany, the moment he caught the fever, the night he understood where the blues began and why Robert Johnson would make a deal with the devil to play them.

He's been devoted to the blues since that night. Rainer's forays into the music business have come in a rush after his years of laboring in near-obscurity.

For the past several years, it has been common knowledge around Tucson that longtime friends Rainer and ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons have been working on a project together. Informally known as the "Texas Tapes," this project has been cloaked in secrecy from the beginning. Rainer, who signed a contract requiring him to remain silent, is still unable to talk. Asked if the record is close to being done, Rainer smiles and says, "No comment." His new attitude toward promoting himself and his career got a shot in the arm in November when Cajun fiddler extraordinaire Michael Doucet and his band Beausoleil came to Tucson for a show. Also in town for the concert was producer John Chelew, who is currently assembling a Richard Thompson tribute record. Best known as the producer of John Hiatt's masterwork Bring the Family, Chelew is also a Rainer fan, having seen him live in Tucson many times.

When Chelew and Beausoleil decided to use a Tucson recording studio to cut their Richard Thompson track, "Valerie," they tapped Rainer to sit in and play steel guitar. The best part is that after "Valerie" was finished, Chelew brought Das Combo in and, as Rainer says, "We went hog wild and burned through an hour and a half of tape." Although not totally pleased with the results, Rainer and the rest of Das Combo--bassist Nick Augustine and drummer Ralph Gilmore--agree that three cuts from the session are keepers. Chelew remains enthusiastic about getting the band back into the studio and shopping the finished demo to record labels. If a label bites and agrees to release the record, it will be the first time a Rainer recording will be widely available in America. Rainer's recording history reads a lot like his performing history: great, but hard to find. In 1985, the first Das Combo recording, a homemade cassette called The Mush Mind Blues, moved writer-turned-MTV star Kurt Loder to review it in major label- dominated Rolling Stone. Das Combo's second tape, 1986's Barefoot Rock was released on the English independent label Making Waves Records and reviewer for the Times of London David Sinclair called it "the album I will cherish most of '86." Another factor in Rainer's newfound desire to finally break out of Tucson is the musical company he's been keeping. Last month superfolkie Greg Brown asked him to open a string of California dates. And when major-label solo blues guitarist Chris Whitley came to Tucson, he ended up having dinner with Rainer.

Although he denies it, Whitley and John Campbell, both solo white bluesmen signed to major labels, may be the examples that convinced Rainer he has a future.

But the biggest motivating factor of all behind his new determination to get his career moving is that in 1991, Rainer turned 40.

"Make no mistake about what I'm saying, the music business still sucks," he says slowly, his blue eyes flashing. "What's changed, though, is my determination to finally do something. I've seen that graffiti too, and I've gotten hardened in the belief that it's time."

Rainer's journey to the basement of the Chicago Music Store began behind the Iron Curtain. Born in East Germany, Rainer crossed over to West Berlin with his family in 1956. Three years later, they immigrated to Chicago. Although he later learned that his boyhood home was only blocks away from a blues club owned by J.B. Lenoir, the story of how Rainer began playing is not the millionth retelling of how yet another white boy from Chicago got the blues.

Rainer found his blues on the radio. Later, while he was a student at Saint Rita High School on Chicago's west side, he'd go to places like the Electric Theatre and the Aragon Ballroom to hear blues players like Charlie Musselwhite, Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield. Heading west with friends going to Colorado, Rainer ended up staying in Tucson in 1972. Landing the first of what would be a lifetime of music-store jobs, he also worked nights as a janitor at the University of Arizona. This wasn't just any janitorial job, however. Somehow, Rainer and a couple of other musicians were assigned to scrub toilets and buff floors in, of all places, the music building.

"We used to hold little janitor's concerts in the theatre there--one guy onstage banging away at a piano, the rest of us out in the audience in jumpsuits applauding and all at three o'clock in the morning. And then there was the big pipe organ downstairs which we used to crank up."

Although the "real money" came from his night work at the UofA, Rainer's music-store job provided him with the connections to get playing gigs. Much of what now looks like innate wisdom was instilled during the very first job he landed as a musician in Tucson.

"One day this guy comes into the music store with a guitar to fix. He was kind of a schlocky, Las Vegas entertainer who called himself Roy Clayborne. He said he was Wayne Newton's understudy," Rainer says without a smile. "He did Johnny Cash impersonations, told crude jokes--the kinds of thing you'd expect from a guy like that. Had a midget brother who played drums in the band, too. He said, `Why don't you come down to the club, boy, and bring your GEE-tar?' Well, he hired me and we toured Oklahoma. When we got back, he replaced me with a keyboard player. Whoever was cheaper is better, was his theory of musicians. Years later, I actually saw him on the Tonight Show. He had shaved off all his hair and had a heavy mustache. He was always into gimmicks. People would say `Roy Clayborne' and someone would go, `Oh, yeah, he's the bald guy.'"

After his brush with this lounge act, Rainer spent time working at Lear Jet as a cabinetmaker and even wrung out a few rags at the Octopus Car Wash. Around this time, he also began to play with Billy Sedlmayer, a brilliant Tucson musician who's spent more time in prison than playing (he's currently in the Arizona State Prison in Tucson), and future Naked Prey guitarist Dave Seger.

This embryonic group found its direction when a talented, curly headed singer-songwriter from Scranton, Pennsylvania, named Howe Gelb moved west. Calling themselves the Giant Sandworms, the members of the group worked up a set of originals, Richard Thompson covers and Sixties soul knockoffs and began opening shows for bands like X.

For Rainer though, the Sandworms (who've since metamorphosed into just Giant Sand) were too pop for his tastes. In 1981, he quit and began woodshedding his solo blues act. He also began forming a new blues-based electric band. In 1983, Das Combo played its first gig at the key Tucson venue of that time, the now-extinct bad steak house and new-wave music mecca, Nino's.

Along the way, Rainer had married Patti Keating and started a family. His two sons, Rudy and Gabe, are now 7 and 14.

Rainer says he has no regrets about the years he's spent as a relative unknown in Tucson. Record deal or not, he still has no plans to leave the city, which suits his family and his many fans there just fine. But his associations with Gibbons and Chelew have given him new confidence. And there's a new look in his eye that says looking forward to the future.

"I know a good thing when I see it, and that's why I'm still in Tucson. I guess it's like what Miles Davis always said, `I'm local as a motherfucker,'" he says with his small grin. "But I am more focused these days. And I've adapted `serendipity' as my new favorite word. Right now, I'm expecting nothing but prepared for anything."

Rainer will perform on Monday, December 16, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 9 p.m. Hans Olson will open.

Making it onto the walls of the Fourth Avenue tunnel is the surest sign that Rainer's hit the big time.

He is every bit as talented as most of the so-called "national" blues acts. If the Chicago Music Store doesn't have it, it don't exist. "The whole time I couldn't believe that there I was, listening and playing blues in the Delta."

Rainer's recording history reads a lot like his performing history: great, but hard to find.

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Robert Baird