Tucson sounds: Meet us when you get to Heaven (or Dudleyville)
Remembering Al Foul
I’ve been writing rock and roll obituaries on and off for the past few years. For some reason I seem to have a knack for it. And I knew this one was coming — had it half-written in my head for weeks, if not months. And there wasn’t even all that more that needed to be said, because the tributes kept pouring in from all across Tucson’s music community and as far away as Nantes, France. But with all of that being the case, with the thing practically written for me, I couldn’t write an obit for Al Foul when the time came.
So I’m writing it now.
I’m older than I look and I’ve been following Tucson’s local music scene since I was way too young to have any business doing so, and so I remember Rainer Ptacek. Rainer was more than a musician, he was a damned musical savant, a blues and slide guitar virtuoso who was not just impressive on his own, but in collaboration with Howe Gelb lit the spark that set off the blaze that was Desert Rock. I’ve been witness a time or two to fellow guitarists describing chords or guitar parts that Rainer once showed them and watched as their fingers engaged in mystical calculus, recreating the kind of artistry that can only be described via movement, because words just won’t do.
Rainer was one of a kind. A Tucson original. (Just like Al Foul.) And Rainer was internationally known and recognized, more than just a local wonderkind. Rainer was a son that Tucson could be proud of. (Just like Al Foul.)
And then, Rainer was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Just like Al Foul.
The outcome for Rainer was much the same as it was so much more recently for Al. A host of talented and impressive musician friends came together to do a tribute album. The artist himself gained a determined and death-defying urge to perform and record. It seemed like willpower and community goodwill might somehow be enough and that Rainer would live forever, purely out of spite and a determination to keep putting his god given talent to use. Rainer simply wasn’t DONE yet. And then one day, in October 1997, roughly 18 months into his ordeal, the cancer won and Rainer died. Just like Al Foul.
So, when Al died, we lost Al. But we also kind of lost Rainer again. And by that, I mean, we lost another piece of the magic fabric of Tucson’s creative magic and energy and spirit. And this in the wake of a few years of tremendous loss in the small but prolific city within a city that is Tucson’s music family.
Al’s real name was…well, as far as most of us are concerned, it was, is and always will be Al Foul. That’s just the way it’s gotta be. But his given name was Alan Curtis. The “Foul” moniker was adopted during a youthful stint in an East Coast punk band and somehow it just stuck.
Al was a man of many tall tales and personal legends, and it’s hard to say with great certainty which were gospel truth, which were factually wrong but spiritually true and which might be woven out of pure imagination.
For instance, his one-man-band set-up seems to have been a matter of professional practicality — no need to assemble a band for last-minute gig opportunities. But when he started doing that, a friend swore to me that it was because Al’s band members both showed up late to practice one week too many and an exasperated Al fired the band and replaced them on the spot. This may or may not be true, but I can picture the scene happening in my head, so my version of Al actually did this. Yours may vary.
What everyone seems to more or less agree on is that Al showed up in town on the train one day in the early '90s, with his girlfriend and his bassist in tow and immediately got invited to a party at Obie Sirius’s house. Soon after, he and his band the Shakes started bewildering Tucson audiences with rave-up, house-party-in-a-bar punk rock energy and solemn rockabilly evangelism, with song titles and lyrics that were a Beefheart/Zappa/Legendary Stardust Cowboy flavor of delightful weirdness (my fave is still “Have You Ever Been Hit By A Flying Saucer.”)
Al was simultaneously a man ahead of his time and an ambassador of a time long past, precipitating and likely helping to inspire Tucson’s mid-2000s rockabilly/psychobilly revival when a glut of motorcycles and lovingly restored convertible Cadillacs graced parts of Fourth Avenue and the front of Vaudeville Cabaret on weekend nights while ducktail-haired guys in fancy bowling shirts danced with girls with perfect ponytails and heels and fire engine red lipstick and Lucky 13 crinoline party dresses.
That scene didn’t last long, but when the dust settled, those bands all faded away and Al remained unfazed as ever.
The man even had a solid, respectable, old-timey sort of job. He was a custom carpenter and furniture maker and GOOD at it. He did the kind of work that causes former customers to pull out the hand-crafted chair or point to the coffee table or whatever and say “Al did that!” with a respectful pause for their guest’s gasps of awe and admiration.
Though you’d be forgiven for thinking he was a relic of the early '50s who’d somehow stayed eerily young for decades, Al was only 50 when he died. And though the man serves as a stunning example of living a full, impactful, intentional life no matter how much time you have, 50 years is still only 50 years, and a man like that should get the full century if anything about life were really fair.
But life isn’t like that, as any good storyteller knows. As Al certainly knew.
As Al lay in hospice with Hannah by his side, tributes, messages and memories flooded in via social media from well wishers both local and far-flung, all linked to the hashtag #welovealfoul. Hannah reported back to us that she was sharing them with Al whenever he had the energy to see them.
At the time, this reporter was saying an unexpected goodbye to my own musician boyfriend, and then grieving him. Shortly thereafter, I ended up having regular phone conversations with the girlfriend of yet another Tucson musical legend whose time on the planet is most likely extremely limited. We commiserated. We wept for our own partners (mine gone, hers holding on stubbornly) and wept for Al and hurt with all our hearts for Hannah and cried some more for how unfair it all was. And we confessed that we’d each had moments of mild envy that Al had a chance to hear all of these memories and witness all this love and that maybe the loves of our respective lives didn’t know how much their work had touched other people.
And then we realized they surely must know that and that it was just a goddamn blessing that Al got to hear it first hand and then we cried some more.
There’s a good chance I’ll be writing another obituary in the next several months and I hope to God it’s later rather than sooner. And maybe there will be some kind of miracle and I’ll just write a retrospective instead. Let’s hope for that. We’ve had too many involuntary inductions into the rock and roll widows club as it is these past few years and it’s time we had some happy news.
But if we can’t beat death, we can be fiercely grateful for life. And Al was grateful indeed. Performing till almost the last minute, recording, even woodworking until he was just too tired to do it anymore. And thank God that he had a chance to know how much he was, IS loved and that the work he did, as an artist, as a craftsman, as a good friend to so many in this community mattered. That’s all that any of us, especially those of us who are artists and creators, could ever ask.
According to Hannah, Al died at sunset on May 25. And as he passed he roared like a lion. True to his character, Tucson’s favorite rockabilly troubadour raged soundly against the dying of the light. And his friends and family and the places and faces that he loved and that loved him back sent him off the planet with the love and fierce energy of a thousand lion’s roars. Like a whole pride of them. And we’re holding Hannah in that loud light too, with all our hearts. We’re so sorry, and Tucson loves you so very much.