Graham Reid | | 2 min read
When rock magazines do their “favourite cult heroes” lists and pull out the eccentric Daniel Johnston, drug-damaged types like Roky Erickson, the late Syd Barrett and Skip Spence, and bands like the Slits or the Sonics, one name never appears: Singer-guitarist and songwriter Rainer Ptacek who died of a brain tumour in 1997 at age 46.
Perhaps Ptacek was too big to qualify for cult status, although few have heard of him. But his reputation is secure among fellow musicians.
Some of the biggest names in rock and alt.country lined up for a benefit-cum-tribute album The Inner Flame earlier the year of his death, among them Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Emmylou Harris, PJ Harvey, Jonathan Richman and Vic Chesnutt.
Ptacek was born in East Berlin to Czech and German parents. They escaped when he was five and went to Chicago's South Side where he first encountered American music. In his early 20s he moved to Tucson where he co-founded Giant Sandworms (now there's a cult band!) with Howe Gelb, which morphed in Giant Sand. Ptacek was the architect of their expansive, desert blues-rock sound with his National steel guitar and dobro.
When Giant Sand's line-up changed and they tried their hand in New York, Ptacek stayed behind in Tucson with his young family and got serious about a solo career, sometimes working with his band Das Combo.
It was his distinctive guitar style – and deeply poetic songs – which brought him to the attention of musicians like Plant and Page. Ptacek experimented with loops and electronic sounds which gave his distinctive style texture and breadth. Plant flew him to London for some sessions, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top was a big supporter, and when Giant Sand returned to Tucson, Gelb remained a friend and collaborator.
Gelb and Plant were behind The Inner Flame tribute and had no trouble getting the big names. Ptacek was also well enough to play on a number of the songs.
The songs were haunting and undeniably beautiful, but – as with the man himself – the album was a cult item. But to kick off a reissue of all Ptacek's albums, Fire Records (behind the extensive Giant Sand reissue) have brought the album back – dropping a few songs from the original but adding extra tracks by Lucinda Williams, Grandaddy, Chuck Prophet, John Wesley Harding and Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino (former Giant Sand members).
“We offer up this new version,” says Gelb, “to pay tribute and celebrate the man, the likes of whom I've yet to ever encounter again, and allowing a glimpse now of what he had done here on the planet and to share that embrace for ever having knowing him at all.”
There are quietly beautiful songs here – Evan Dando's version of Rudy with a Flashlight will stop you dead for its poetic imagery – but also those songs (Harvey, John Parish and Eric Drew Feldman on Losin' Ground) which nod to the more electrostatic edge Ptacek sometimes brought.
It says much about Ptacek that, 15 years after his death, his music still lives and famous musicians line up to pay their respects. It's some kind of cult musician who can offer songs which artists as diverse as Grandaddy, Chris Whitley, Emmylou Harris and Plant'n'Page can find something in.
Rainer Ptacek: remember that name, add him to you “cult” list.
There is an in-dpeth interview with Howe Gelb at Elsewhere here.