Meet us when you arrive in Heaven (or Dudleyville)
Published on June 12, 2022 at 7:26 p.m.
Julie Jennings Patterson
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 – I had it half-written in my head for weeks, even months. And there wasn’t even much more to say, as the tributes kept pouring in from all over the musical community in Tucson 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 obituary for Al Foul when the time came.
So I write it now.
I’m older than I look and I’ve followed the local Tucson music scene since I was way too young to have a business in it, so I remember Rainer Ptacek. Rainer was more than a musician, he was one hell of a musical scholar, a blues and slide guitar virtuoso who was not only impressive on his own, but in collaboration with Howe Gelb lit the spark that ignited sparked the fire that was Desert Rock. I’ve witnessed a time or two of other guitarists describing chords or guitar parts that Rainer once showed them and watched their fingers engage in mystical calculation, recreating the kind of art that can only be described by movement, because words win. t do.
Rainer was one of a kind. A Tucson original. (As was Al Foul.) And Rainer was internationally known and recognized, more than just a local prodigy. Rainer was a son Tucson could be proud of. (Just like Al Foul.)
And then Rainer was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Just like Al Foul.
The result for Rainer was much the same as it was much more recently for Al. A host of talented and impressive musician friends came together to make a tribute album. The artist himself has acquired a determined, death-defying urge to perform and record. It seemed that the will and good will of the community might somehow be enough and that Rainer would live forever, only out of spite and determination to keep using his God-given talent. Rainer just wasn’t DONE yet. And then one day, in October 1997, about 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. And by that, I mean, we’ve lost another piece of the magical fabric of Tucson’s creative magic, energy, and spirit. And this comes on the heels of a few years of huge loss in the small but prolific city within a city that is Tucson’s musical family.
Al’s real name was… well, for most of us it was, is, and always will be Al Foul. That’s how it should be. But his first name was Alan Curtis. The nickname “Foul” was adopted during a youthful stint in an East Coast punk band, and somehow it stuck.
Al was a man of many personal stories and legends, and it is difficult to say with any great certainty which gospel truth was, which was factually false but spiritually true, and which could be woven by sheer imagination.
For example, his one-man-band set-up seems to have been a matter of professional practicality – no need to put a band together for last-minute gig opportunities. But when he started doing this, a friend swore to me 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 imagine the scene going on in my head, so my version of Al did. 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 bassist in tow and was immediately invited to a party at Obie Sirius’s. Soon after, he and his band The Shakes began to unnerve Tucson audiences with delirious punk rock energy, a bar house party and solemn rockabilly evangelism, with song titles and lyrics that were a Beefheart/Zappa/Legendary Stardust Cowboy flavor of delicious weirdness (my favorite is still “Have you ever been hit by a flying saucer.”)
Al was both a man ahead of his time and an ambassador of a bygone era, precipitating and likely helping to inspire Tucson’s rockabilly/psychobilly revival in the mid-2000s when a glut of motorcycles and Cadillac convertibles lovingly restored adorned parts of Fourth Avenue and the front. of Vaudeville Cabaret on weekend nights while ducktail-haired guys in fancy bowling shirts danced with girls in ponytails and perfect heels and fire engine red lipstick and party dresses with Lucky 13 crinoline.
This scene didn’t last long, but when the dust settled, those groups all faded and Al remained unfazed as ever.
The man even had a solid, respectable, old-fashioned job. He was a custom carpenter and furniture maker and good at it. He’s done the kind of work that has past clients pulling out the craft chair or pointing to the coffee table or whatever and saying “Al did that!” with a respectful pause for their guest’s gasps of awe and admiration.
Although you’d be forgiven for thinking he was an early ’50s relic that had somehow remained oddly young for decades, Al was only 50 when he died. And while the man is an amazing example of living a full, impactful, intentional life, no matter how much time you have, 50 is still just 50, and a man like him should have the full century if anything in life was really fair.
But life isn’t like that, as any good storyteller knows. As Al certainly knew.
As Al lay in a hospice with Hannah by his side, tributes, messages and memories poured in via social media from supporters local and far afield, all linked to the hashtag #welovealfoul. Hannah reported to us that she shared 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, then mourning him. Soon after, I ended up having regular phone conversations with the girlfriend of another Tucson music legend whose time on the planet is most likely extremely limited. We sympathize. We cried for our own partners (mine is gone, hers clings stubbornly) and cried 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 each had moments of slight envy that Al had had the chance to hear all those memories and witness all that love and that maybe the loves of our respective lives didn’t know not how much their work had touched other people.
And then we realized that they must have known and it was just a goddamn blessing that Al got to hear it first hand, and then we cried again.
Chances are I’ll be writing another obituary in the next few months and hopefully it will be later rather than sooner. And maybe there will be some kind of miracle and I’ll just write a retrospective instead. Hope that. We’ve had too many unwitting inductions into the rock and roll widows club in recent years and it’s time for some good news.
But if we can’t beat death, we can be fiercely grateful for life. And Al was really grateful. Playing until the last minute, recording, even woodworking until he was too tired to continue. And thank God he was blessed 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 people in this community mattered. That’s all any of us, especially those of us who are artists and creators, could ask for.
According to Hannah, Al died at sundown on May 25. And as he passed, he roared like a lion. True to character, Tucson’s favorite rockabilly troubadour raged soundly against the death of light. And his friends and family and the places and faces he loved and who loved him back sent him away from the planet with the love and fierce energy of a thousand lion roars. Like a whole pride of them. And we also hold Hannah in that strong light, with all of our hearts. We’re so sorry, and Tucson loves you so much.
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