Obituary: Rainer

Rainer Ptacek, guitarist, singer, songwriter: born East Berlin 7 June 1951; married Patti Keating (two sons, one daughter); died Tucson, Arizona 12 November 1997.

The talent of some musicians can only be measured by the influence they've had on others. The guitarist and singer Rainer had a unique rootsy, melancholic, bluesy style and was a great favourite of Robert Plant, the ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons and the country singer Emmylou Harris. His unusual guitar playing, as well as his heartfelt personal lyrics, recorded simply under his first name Rainer, made him a cult figure in Europe.

His father was a Czech soldier who met his German mother in East Berlin. Rainer Ptacek was born in 1951; three years later, his parents sneaked to West Berlin before the wall went up and then emigrated to America in 1956. They settled in Chicago and Rainer attended the Saint Rita High School; he first discovered the blues through the music of white artists. He would later recall "being influenced by English blues bands - Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall, the Rolling Stones. Then, of course, you start reading where these songs were taken from and everything kind of pointed back to Robert Johnson."

Drifting west, Rainer ended up in Tucson, Arizona, where he drove cabs and worked as a janitor and cabinet maker. In 1972, he finally found a dream job repairing guitars in a Tucson music shop named, ironically enough, the Chicago Music Shop. He occasionally played with local groups like the rambling, swampy Giant Sand, with Howe Gelb as lead singer.

Soon Rainer was lending his guitar to Gelb's countrified and fictitious spin-off group The Band Of Blacky Ranchette, on albums including Heartland (1986). In 1984, Rainer also formed Das Combo. The Rolling Stone journalist Kurt Loder raved about The Mush Mind Blues album and in 1986, Making Waves, a British label, issued Barefoot Rock With Rainer And Das Combo. Rainer's first visit to the UK the same year was as part of a package tour featuring Giant Sand and The Band Of Blacky Ranchette alongside Das Combo, with seven musicians rotating in various permutations to make up all three bands.

However, Rainer's unique guitar style, using a thumb-pick and playing fingerstyle, was better showcased on 1991's Worried Spirits, a solo effort ("Dazzling", said the Guardian; "Startling", enthused the New Musical Express). He had started incorporating natural sounds and tape loops and, on his second UK visit, really hit a chord with lovers of the languid guitar styles of J.J. Cale and Ry Cooder. He appeared with his trademark Dobro and National steel guitar on Radio 4's Midweek, recorded a soundtrack for The Fire Beetle, a BBC2 feature film, toured the UK with Rory Gallagher and then played throughout Europe, even appearing in Prague and visiting the village home of his ancestors.

In the mid-Eighties, Rainer had hooked up with ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons for some mysterious recordings. Dusted down, given a new sheen and finally released in 1993, The Texas Tapes created something of a stir among the cognoscenti trying to second-guess the identity of Rainer's illustrious sidekick (the Justis Walkert pseudonym previously used by Gibbons was the giveaway). The same year, Robert Plant drafted Rainer for part of the sessions which became the Fate Of Nations album. Rainer's guest appearance was especially impressive on an acoustic cover of the Led Zeppelin classic "Whole Lotta Love", which appeared as a bonus track on the "29 Palms" single.

In 1994, Rainer recorded the haunting, ethereal Nocturnes in his local San Pedro Chapel. Making full use of the setting and a sample pedal, the resulting album chimed in well with ambient and new age tendencies. Things were looking up for Rainer, who in 1995 worked with the US singer-songwriter Victoria Williams; but, in February 1996, he crashed his motorbike in Tucson. He broke his clavicle, but doctors were rather more concerned about a brain scan they'd done; he was diagnosed as having a large, inoperable brain tumour. Following intensive chemotherapy, the cancer was thought to have gone into remission. However, Rainer's medical bills had reached a reported $250,000.

Howe Gelb offered to help and decided to emulate the "Sweet Relief" albums which had already supported performers like Victoria Williams and Vic Chesnutt through trying times, with other artists covering their songs. Once Robert Plant and Atlantic Records came on board, The Inner Flame project snowballed, secured the involvement of Emmylou Harris, Jonathan Richman, and Evan Dando, and was released in the United States in August.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Bathroom Showroom Manager / Bathroom Sales Designer

£22 - £25k basic + Commission=OTE £35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Bathroom Sh...

Guru Careers: Marketing Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Marketing / Digital Marketing Executive (CRM, Eve...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Foreign Exchange Dealer - OTE £40,000+

£16000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Foreign Exchange Dealer is re...

Recruitment Genius: IT Engineer

£19000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity now exists for a...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones