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Guest Column - 'Tucson, Rainer Ptacek, Hurricane Agnes & me' a personal history by Giant Sand's Howe Gelb

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Alt-country pioneer, Howe Gelb is credited by many as been key in the rise of Americana due to the role of his band, Giant Sand, in forging the “Tucson sound” (though he’d never admit it himself) attracting many other artists to both the genre and the area. Having recently released new album Tucson – “in homage to a town that took me in 40 years ago with a new family full of beautiful sisters” – and overseen the reissue of the Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, PJ Harvey and Jonathan Richman-featuring The Inner Flame – the 1997 tribute album to Giant Sand guitarist, songwriter, music foil and “older brother I found in Tucson that’d change everything for the sound of the town”, Rainer Ptacek who died aged 46 in 1997 after suffering from a brain tumour – Gelb now explains how Tucson, Rainer and his own personal history are deeply intertwined in a special guest column…

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A short history of fire & Rain(er) – by Howe GelborThe upside to a hurricane named Agnes, a wall called Berlin and a bit of Polanski in the desert thrown in

Forty years ago, on 23 June, a hurricane called Agnes instigated the flood where I was born back in Wilke-Barre, Pennsylvania. The Susquehanna river rose up and swallowed our home and President Nixon came and said it was the worst natural disaster this country had ever seen, but it was hard to ever believe that this guy…

…our congressman at the time was actually a man named Flood. My mom and us kids lived across the street from that river, and when it came knocking, it levelled off at two feet over the roof of our house.

I am here today in the Colorado, Rocky Mountains but instead of rain, the fires rage up on the ridge and a massive plume rises up in volcanic proportion as we head out of town misunderstanding how safely far the fire storm is from my sister’s hood here still, it remains unsettling due to how hard the wind keeps belting, instigating the bark beetle ridden pines to remain as still as sticks of dynamite waiting to ignite. As we leave the wind blown town of Estes park, howling fire trucks race up the other way because a local fire has erupted in a neighbourhood as if to shout out that it doesn’t need a burning forest to take down a town and 21 homes are reduced to ash before our plane touches down back in Tucson a few hours later.

We were there visiting Jude, a park ranger and my hero sister, who’s been fighting off cancer for two years now. The youngest of four sisters, three of whom have already perished from the same damn thing. Jude, of the beautiful family that received me and my brother in Tucson, and gifted us with four brilliant step-sisters when dad remarried there, the same year our home was smashed to soggy bits back in Pennsylvania with mom, that was 1972.

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It was also the same year Rainer Ptacek had landed in Tucson, both of us having had to leave our birth place, his being east berlin, and a matter of escaping the man made disaster before the wall went up and me just escaping a natural disaster. We had both came to america the same year 1956… he by boat… me by birth. Him of German/Czech decent… me of Austrian/Jewish decent, but we wouldn’t meet till a few years later when I was 19.

It was four years later, one night in 1976, while finishing up a three day LSD excursion, I took in a new film by Roman Polanski, The Tenant, and near the end of it was a harrowing applause scene not for the squeamish and not exactly for the acid addled either.

When the film ended and lights went on I noticed one of my sisters there in the audience, t’was a comfort to see her after the film’s questionable visual plunge . Home I walked in the cool air and then remembered I was supposed to meet a fellow named Rainer that same night. I had been seeing his name around Tucson for a while now.

When I got there Rainer was already in mid set on the corner stage next to a piano that faced the wall and the woman who’d wanted us to meet said out loud “Here’s that piano player I was telling you about” and with that he immediately invited me to come up and sit in with him, but i was only 19, on acid and couldn’t play that well unless maybe if it was in the key of G .

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Finding it harder to shrink away from the invite and explain why, I thought I could excuse myself by mentioning the key factor, but Rainer reassured it was no problem cause that was what his old dobro was tuned in too. Now I was stuck and had to play.

A hurricane named Agnes shoved me along to sit here now and play with this fellow, five years my senior, with that big welcoming smile. When we began, it seemed effortless. We’d keep changing the chording a bit, recreating the structure of the one chord jam.

It reminded me of something akin to a sonic MC Escher print.

Like this Escher print we’d start with one a chord jam and allow it to take on an evolution that would still ended up still with the same chord, but the shape of it would change into something else. Sometimes it could be never ending as well like a Mobius Strip, and still have that constant change inside of it, recreating and reconfiguring , but still only working with one or two chords in the process.

Then while in that jam, realising I couldn’t stand the thought of having to endure the applause when we’d end it. It must have been the Polanski film and that applause scene that was weirding me out. So i just kept playing until I could think of another way out. I

was too freaked out to just stop playing and face the crowd.

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Ten minutes went by. Then 20… At 30 minutes the owner of the cafe tried to get everyone to leave because it was now closing time and i could hear them shuffling out behind my back, but i kept on playing to buy more time. At 45 minutes after we started jamming, the place now empty, we stopped. It never seemed to phase Rainer at all and in the end his tip jar was spilling over with cash.

Rainer and I had entered some kind of a sacred sonic bond that evening, a brotherhood of sorts… he the older brother I never had and didn’t know I so very much needed. Lucky me.

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Both of us sent out from the places of our birth for reasons beyond, with that momentum that must have been embedded in the music being formed, then and there in that spontaneous 45 minute jam, the carefree abandon… a restless motion… and then to try and keep it moving too… get it out of town… no matter what… stuff it in a bottle… toss it out into the sea to see if anyone would ever find it and know what to do with it.

If the so-called Tucson sound began that night, it was only because we had nothing to do with it and just followed along with how nature was playing us. We happened to be some years older then anyone else here then that would eventually take the same path, to make a music from this town that would ripple through the years, attracting others to come settle here and do the same, as hopefully allow those born here to remain here and not have to move away to get ‘er done.

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Anyhow, 1976 that same year I got stuck out in the desert with a beautiful Navajo woman whose name was Agnes, my tires spun in the soft sands of an empty wash stuck there, we both climbed up on the roof of the van and held each other under the star spangle all night long there in outer space. It felt I’d been delivered and was so happy now, living in this Tucson, no matter the devastation that got me here in the blink of a hurricane eye and finding a brother in Rainer and all my new sisters. All here underneath new skies, with so many stars and learning to lose myself, here in the desert in her eyes with my own on fire embracing Agnes.

Howe Gelb@GiantSand

For more head to Howegelb.com.


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