A Stone’s Throw Away

On Rainer Ptacek and the Giant Sandworms first-ever gig

Recently, I found an old box of cassette tapes—things even I couldn't destroy. I came upon a green TDK with the words "Giant Sandworms 1st Gig" scrolled on it. A neighbor still owned a tape deck—the old kind. I took it home and ran a pencil through the spools to loosen up 30-some years, sat down, switched off the light, pushed play, and for a second, I could almost make out the faces ...

Tumbleweeds Bar down on Fourth Ave, 'cross from Choo Choo's, stamping hands, a crowd, Giant Sandworms. The first four or five songs—a schizoid mix, stuff we must have been practicing, fashioned by an estranged anger, so necessary at that time.

The stink of the joint, P.A. beating the walls with sheets of noise, bursts of protest, beer bottles, young bodies moving through each other. That long urinal packed high with ice, drenched in the ache of impersonal chatter.

We finished an extremely loud song. A kid is heaving up his guts, a girlfriend whistling on two fingers, driving energy toward the stage, when all of a sudden, the whole place goes silent. Like a shipwreck, all of the oxygen sucked right out. Rainer Ptacek steps up to the mic, "This is a tune by James Brown," he says, "Has anybody heard of James Brown?"

It was not a rhetorical question or measured cool—it was just Rainer, excited and moved by the Godfather of Funk, urgently talking with the kids to vitalize the sincerity and reverence he held for The Man's music. But hardly a sound emerged. Rainer moved up, stomping his boot in time as he began two measures on the guitar, splitting a slow, unhurried groove.

East Germany, by way of Chicago, he cries, "I can't stand it." A piece of my drumstick flies as Dave Seger and I jackhammer that thing, leaving not one fraction of space. Howe Gelb, to my far left, looks stunned, hitting the downbeat, entranced, but returns to further attack this number alongside us. Rainer, primal, and "oh you make my body wet," with all his might, tries to wrestle "Cold Sweat" back to its original soil where the highest notes are reborn.

He had this thing. It was as if he'd chipped away at some private sculpture, his calling set a high bar as a man and a musician. His greatest achievements, his sons Gabe, Rudy and later, daughter Lily. He was a Cleveland Indians fan, worked down in the acrid pigeon artery of Joe's Chicago Store, filled with guitars and amps from a different era, often with opera playing as he carved, varnished, the deliverance of musician's instruments. Everybody took their guitar to Rainer.

After he left the band, he formed Das Combo. With it, many great records and a loyalty to Nick Augustine, his sideman, electric bass slung like a machine gun on one shoulder. On drums there was Will Clipman, then Bruce Halper and Ralph Gilmore. They would harness his power, achieved well beyond what most will ever hear as a white-man's blues.

Now the rainermusic.org website is a work in progress. Tucson musicologist and radio DJ David LaRussa and writer Fred Mills have liner notes and really cool pictures/videos. In November, Fire Records will reissue Rainer's Worried Spirits and The Texas Tapes, each with bonus tracks.

When I first received Worried Spirits, 25 years ago, the song "Stone's Throw Away" stopped me dead. It was Rainer, his soul and body. It's hard to pull away from, even as I listen today. It's so stirring, astoundingly full. The steel and the voice are one. "Stone's Throw Away" is more profound than ever. It all but bruises the listener, trapped in the will to live. I leave you with the second verse: "Tell the men in Tel Aviv/We won't go and we won't leave/All the armies and all their tanks/And their homes and all their banks/Are only a stone's throw away."

Perhaps it is a lullaby to a world that has dug itself deep. It ends with an outro where the strings are tangled as they fade away in burning resuscitation.

I knew then and know now that this song and so many others are magic. This man will never repeat, not in this or any other world he felt under his feet. Rainer Ptacek R.I.P.