Giant Sandworms members Scott Garber and Howe Gelb. Magazine cover photo by Lydia L. Young, December 1984. Not pictured: Billy Sed and Dave Seger.
By Constance Commonplace
It’s summer. The heat of the day can be assessed before ever opening a blind in the morning by sensing the quiet of the outdoors. A silence, broken only by the mating songs of the cicadas whose life span is so short they can’t afford the luxury of waiting ‘til the sun goes down.
‘Yeah, but it’s a dry heat,’ is a true enough statement to an east coaster used to the moisture making-humidity. But, no matter how dry, at 101 degrees Tucsonans still sweat. We may moan about the cultural drought existing in our environment as our energy is being zapped by the sun– yet, we stay.
So why are we here? There seems to be an attraction about Tucson that seeps in and never quite leaves the bloodstream. Perhaps it’s a matter of learning to survive on so little– like the saguaro growing in grains of intensely hot sand, getting minimal amounts of water yet greening and stretching their arms toward the sun. It is not all so bleak as we sip margaritas and tequila relaxing in our cultivated mañana attitudes or experiencing the wonder of a desert night with gnomes and UFOs dancing in the silhouette of mountains under spectacularly starry skies.
Tucson is a healthy incubating environment that allows us to stretch out and take risks. We are surrounded by an inexplicable energy that somehow nourishes the spirit– something magically magnetic that keeps sucking us back from wherever it is we go when we say we’re finally getting out of this bloody town. Ask the Sandworms– for it is from this Sonoran desert that the Giant Sandworms were spawned and ran from only to return.
It has been three years this August (1983) since Rainer Ptacek invited his friend Howe Gelb to return to the desert and make music. “My first picture of the city’s music scene was in June (1980). The Pills were playing on a Monday night and I went down with Rainer to see what was going on. We had left and come back as everybody was leaving the place. This car rolls around, does a u-turn and a guy gets out of the back rear window with a semiautomatic and starts opening up on the crowd. It was then we knew that people weren’t happy with what was going on and needed something new,” wryly recalls Gelb.
A few days later, drummer Billy Sed went to Howe and Rainer for a jam bringing guitarist David Seger along. Seger and Sed had been playing together for six years in this desert town. They tried to loosen up with the old standard, “Louie, Louie,” and just couldn’t do it. The next attempt was “Me and My Rocker” which “was awful, but there was a magic there.”
The band (which was not yet the Sandworms) definitely had some beginning of a ‘sound’ yet was rather amorphous. Rainer’s influence was felt in the rhythm and blues aura conveyed in some of the covers played by the band. There was no one arranger for the music. “Somebody would say what flavor they thought they wanted, but everyone would interpret that flavor differently,” explained Howe. Somewhere along the way Rainer left the band and the remaining trio decided to make the musical move to New York. “We wanted to see what was going on,” cites Howe, “which meant leaving the desert, making us very sad.”
The cross-country trip was “wild” by their own description communicating via walkie-talkies and running out of money and gas. Settling in a rural New Jersey town close to the city limits, they practiced in what was once the lion house of the Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey circus. The owner turned-out to be a bit of a maniac– “he had a nasty habit of shooting at werewolves and vampires in his house”– the Worms made the city move. Dredging through New York’s outrageously priced apartments for two weeks while crashing on various friends’ floors they met Larry, a red-haired Irishman who said with a bit of a brogue, “It’s a great little place, you guys.”
In a recent Rolling Stone article, reference was made to Toilet, a renowned scoring place on the Lower East Side. It was in a cubbyhole occupying the fifth floor of this building on Avenue B that the Sandworms called home. Once settled, they immediately began hitting the clubs and tried to find a place to play music. Appropriately enough, they connect with a Mexican man who rented practice space for a fee that seemed to vary with his mood but averaging about ten dollars an hour. Many of the popular neighborhood bands played there– popularity being determined by neighborhood demand and the amount of time put into the music. The Sandworms were not a popular band but began accumulating the necessary hours to become contenders for the coveted title of best band on Avenue B. Dropping off tapes and making continuous club cans consumed much of their time. Meanwhile...
Scott Garber, who currently plays bass with the Giant Sandworms, was not a Toilet resident (didn’t even know the Sandworms existed), was doing the same dance with a more visually oriented beat. A landscape photographer from Rochester, New York, Garber was in the city hustling his portfolio around art galleries. Seems the thing was more S&M oriented. Success was contingent on who you knew and Garber never met the right ones. He wanted to photograph…the desert. So, Scott ran to the desert while the trio of Sandworms were running around the city he was running from.
The Sandworms played a few of the lesser known clubs and were told they had a “western sound,” a definition they never quite understood. The first time they played “Mad City” (a popular Sandworm song) in CBGBs the person at the board added echoes on the drum and vocals-– it was a major awakening of what Sandworm music could become. They experienced an incredible high and felt that the dream freeway may be clearing a lane for them.
Reality and time tends to pale the techno-color quality of dreams and after months of slum living– the dream was over. Howe was in Atlantic City gambling, David was an x-ray technician in Jersey, and Billy was doing the city slide of trying to get by. At their various locations they learned they were booked at CBGB’s for that night. Howe who was the farthest away arrived first with ten minutes before they were due on stage. Mishaps and breakdowns had to be dealt with and while they were setting up, Billy and David were ragging at each other. It was not a great gig. Though they persevered through the sequence of obstacles– the Giant Sandworms heard the call of the desert. David and Billy left the city slums and saw saguaros forty-two hours later. Howe stayed a bit longer selling Indian artifacts and pots in an American Indian art gallery and met someone who had connections at Trax– a coveted club date-– but it was too late. Truly, it was a matter of just not the right time for Sandworm success. Early photo of Giant Sand, sans Rainer, in New York before returning to the Old Pueblo. February 1985,
Back in the desert the guys took a summer sabbatical ... from each other. The city scene had frayed some wires weakening the connections. Howe played with Ned Sutton in the Black Hills (South Dakota). Billy and David continued to play together.
Around July, Scott was introduced to David and the three began jamming on a regular basis. He was interested in joining the band as bassist that would allow David to get back to his preferred guitar. The only thing left was to talk to Howe about it when he returned from playing with Ned. “I remember the first time I met Howe,” Scott conveys, “It was like the decision had come into town.” Scott became a Sandworm.
Retrospectively, Howe feels the effects of the city on their music, “exorcised all of our demons toward each other and because of that we can perform and create together a lot better.” The music that left the desert had become sophisticated, with crisp edges and a city strut enriched by a fourth member. Scott holds down the backbeat freeing Howe to interact with David and to play his keyboard more often. The band’s original music has no real game plan. Each tune has a structure that each member builds his own sound around: Howe, the great experimenter; shy David, popster who lets his lyrics convey his message; Euro-techno is Scott’s addition; and Billy is Mr. Soul himself.
The idea of an identity caused a bit of discussion as they felt they don’t have one. Scott felt that the urban experience has been ingrained in their music, “the whole idea of cacophony, of everything happening at once is very much like the way the city is. For every city block there are at least five stories going on; someone trying to pick your pocket, people in business suits and folks with no arms or legs– all aspects of life occurring at the same time.”
There have been four stages of evolution since the inception of the band and with Scott having been with the band for almost a year, Gelb feels they are moving into a fifth. No matter what phase of progression, the Giant Sandworms is one of the most exciting bands around. Each performance is fresh because they are free to interpret the song for that moment and the delivery conveys commitment to their craft. A Giant Sandworm’s gig leaves you dripping with dance sweat and the satisfaction of being able to say, “I can feel the passion.”
 Rainer Ptacek passed away on November 17, 1997 from a brain tumor discovered in early 1996. He was born on June 7, 1951 in East Berlin.
2014 © Entertainment Magazine and BZB Publishing, Inc., Robert Zucker and Newsreal, Jonathan L. All rights are reserved. These are the compiled works of contributed materials from writers and photographers previously published in the Tucson Teen, Magazine, Entertainment Magazine and Newsreal newspapers, and from Entertainment Magazine On Line (EMOL.org). No part of the material protected by this copyright may be reproduced or utilized in any means, electronic or mechanical, without written permission from the publisher.
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