Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Universe Takes a Good One

It is with the greatest sorrow that I must announce that my younger brother, Alan “Phred” Rainey, has passed away following a long struggle with leukemia. He had been hospitalized for quite some time, and we had hoped he might get to a point where he could go back home. But over the past several days, his condition worsened, and a couple of days ago, he was admitted to hospice care. This evening, he slipped away peacefully.

Old dude (pre-old), Oolie-Poolie, Dad

Phred was born in May 1964, five years and two days after me (we always figured our folks might have been aiming for the same month and day; they never told). I well remember Mum bringing him home from the hospital for the first time. She came up the stairs to the kitchen from the basement, bearing a weird, prune-like bundle wearing only diapers. My first words to him were “Hello, dye-dees!” (Some derivation of “diapers,” I suppose it was.) Brother had lots of nicknames as a wee young’un. My 1969 diary indicates that “Oolie-Poolie” was the preferred sobriquet of the day. Countless entries refer to Oolie-Poolie and our beloved dog, Patty (“Patty bit Oolie-Poolie” appearing most frequently). “Phred” didn’t come along until his adult years, sometime post-college. I can’t recall the origin or significance of “Phred,” but he surely made it his own. To this day, I think few people, even his good friends, know his given name was Alan.

Oppressing the peasants

Brother and I had a fairly idyllic childhood, and we got along in the typical way of siblings with an age difference of several years. One of my favorite recollections of brotherly love was when I was 11 or 12, which put him at 6 or 7. Our parents had finally warmed to the idea of letting me stay alone with him for fairly short periods. One night, they went out and left me in charge for about an hour, after which a young lady named Sherry was to come round to babysit us for the rest of the evening. During that hour, due entirely to circumstances beyond my control, I locked Oolie-Poolie out of the house. Before I knew it, a brick came crashing through the backdoor window. Against my better judgment, I let him back in so he could clean up the glass. At this point, marginally peeved, I threatened to stab him with my pocket knife. I ran my thumb along the blade to test its sharpness (I mean, who would want to stab his little brother with a dull blade?), and in the process sliced my finger wide open. So, for a fair spell, I stood there, fussing and bleeding, trying to make sure he understood that his behavior was unacceptable. Soon enough, Sherry arrived to find a broken window, a brick, and a mess of glass and blood in the floor. She bandaged my gaping wound, taped Saran Wrap over the door’s, and told us she never wanted to see either of our faces again. (This was not true, of course; she babysat for us many times in the coming days, and only rarely did Oolie-Poolie cause as much trouble as on that particular night.) Once reconciled (all thanks to Sherry), brother and I devised the perfect alibi: we decided to blame the property damage on Dwayne Sigmon, our mortal enemy from the neighborhood. So, first thing next morning, when pressed to explain events, I told my understandably irate Mum and Dad that Dwayne had come out of the woods and heaved a brick through our backdoor window.

“Really? Why?”

 “Oolie-Poolie must have upset him.”

To this day, I will never understand why Mum and Dad refused to accept this interpretation of events, or why they wouldn’t allow me to babysit for my brother until I was 15 years old.

Despite the harmonious relationship between my brother and I, which you may have sensed from the preceding anecdotes, we did have the occasional rocky moment. Early 1972: I had painstakingly created an audio cassette recording of one of my monster stories, complete with music and sound effects. When I went to play it back, I discovered, not my monster story, but Oolie-Poolie singing along to The Partridge Family Sound Magazine album. Of the unforgivable offenses from childhood, this ranks near the top.

Like so many little brothers, young Phred tended to follow me around, often annoying me to the point that I wanted to shoot him in the butt with my BB gun. One time — I think I was in ninth grade — I shot him in the butt with my BB gun. To my eternal mortification (and yours too, I’ll wager), he violated the sacred trust between brothers and tattled, which resulted in my BB gun being confiscated for a period of two weeks. It may be worth noting that Mum was not known for her ingenuity when it came to hiding things, so whenever she wasn’t around, I grabbed the gun from her closet, shot things to my heart’s content (not little brothers at this point), and re-hid it before she returned.

As kids, we loved visiting our grandparents in Georgia, and we spent every Christmas with both sets of them until they passed away. (Most of the furniture in Phred’s house originally belonged to one set of grandparents or the other.) I would venture to say that, for both Phred and me, spending time at our grandparents’ was truly our version of heaven. Now, Mum’s mother, whom we called “Neenie,” was not necessarily slight of frame. In those days, we always said the blessing before every meal, and it was customary for our grandfather (“Papa”) to ask “Who’s going to say the blessing?” On one visit, four-year-old Phred brought the house down by pointing to Neenie and shouting, “Let Chubby say it!”

In the bedroom where he and I slept at Neenie & Papa’s house, the door to the living room had glass panes, which were covered by a diaphanous drape. One Christmas Eve, Neenie was wearing a chain belt that jingled, and she happened to walk by the door just after we had gone to bed. Upon seeing her silhouette on the translucent drape, Phred shot out of bed and cried, “Santa!” He suffered marginal disappointment to discover it was only Neenie, but Santa that year (as he was every year), proved very good to both us young rascals. 

A typical Christmas: Dude with gun and brother blowing his bugle

In elementary school, Phred developed a special affinity for music. I taught him to play guitar, and it wasn’t long before his proficiency surpassed mine. He also played clarinet in the school concert and marching bands, so people started calling him “Pete Fountain.” Over the years, he learned to play other instruments, including bass guitar, keyboards, and drums.

In his high school, college, and post-college years, Phred formed a number of bands with similarly talented musician friends. He headed up The Stars & Bars Band, Industrial Soldier, Joe the Fireman, and countless unnamed duets and trios. He wrote, performed, and recorded craploads of songs, sometimes with other folks, sometimes solo. Wherever he lived — from Blacksburg, VA, to Chapel Hill, NC, to Winston-Salem, NC — Phred attracted a considerable local following. A decade or so ago, he played frequently at a club called The Garage (sadly, now defunct) in Winston-Salem, which inspired Brugger and me to play music of our own there from time to time.

Phred provides musical accompaniment to Mum’s reading of The Night Before Christmas

During his Virginia Tech years — and for a long spell afterward — Phred worked for a music shop called The Record Exchange in Blacksburg, VA. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he ended up living several miles out of Blacksburg near Craig Creek in the Jefferson National Forest, where he introduced my (now ex-)wife and me to the joys of exploring endless networks of narrow, winding mountain roads in his pickup truck. We discovered what turned out to be one of our favorite places on Earth: a huge wall of slate cliffs above Craig Creek, with a clearing at its base perfect for camping out — which we did countless times over a couple of decades. On one of our truck outings, we took some random dirt road through the forest and happened upon a stone memorial, standing out there in the middle of nowhere. This turned out to be the site where legendary actor and WWII veteran Audie Murphy had died in a plane crash. Nowadays, the road to the memorial is more heavily traveled (and there is a geocache there), but back then, as near as we could tell, we were the only living human beings for miles around. For me, it was a transcendent experience.

In the early 1990s, Phred acquired a beautiful black lab, whom he named Luther. He loved Luther deeply, and that sweet dog was his constant companion whether he was at home or traveling. When Phred and I got together on our many rural excursions, Luther always accompanied us. One time, though, while just the two of them were out roaming along Marrowbone Creek in rural Henry County, VA, Luther went running after something and, as he often did, joyously leaped into the river. On this occasion — after a period of excessive rainfall — the water was high and fast, and the current swept Luther away. Panicked, Phred ran along the riverbank, trying to keep up with him. When it was clear that Luther was not going to be able to get out on his own, Phred, with no thought of his own safety, jumped into the river and swam after him. Eventually, he caught up to Luther, grabbed his collar, and managed to drag him to the bank and safety. I still get chills thinking about what might have happened to one or both of them. But you know what? I understand it. Like me, Phred loved animals and was fiercely loyal to those in his care (even Patty, who took such pleasure in gnawing on his bones).

Phred and Luther

After Blacksburg, Phred moved to Chapel Hill, NC, to manage The Record Exchange store there. He and I got together there a number of times, but by then, his busy schedule precluded sharing as much social time as he had in the past. After a couple of years in Chapel Hill, he moved to Winston-Salem, again to manage the local Record Exchange store. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the Record Exchange went out of business. However, this ended up offering Phred an opportunity that was too good to pass up: he became owner/manager of Earshot Music, which opened in the same space The Record Exchange had occupied.

Despite having established himself as a mature and responsible adult,* Phred enjoyed releasing his inner child whenever possible. From our school days until my dad’s death in the early 2000s, our family owned a timeshare condo at Myrtle Beach, where we all met every summer. Phred loved that place and looked forward to going every year. One time in the late 1990s, when he lived in Chapel Hill, he and I rode down to the beach together. When we got there, he got so excited that he did an expert handstand in the middle of the living room. Did I say expert? Actually, he overbalanced... kept going over...  and CRASH! — right into the lovely glass-topped coffee table. Glass everywhere! Finger-pointing at Dwayne Sigmon! Groundings! Okay, well, no groundings, not this time. My folks were by now pretty well accustomed to Phred’s excesses and simply made him call maintenance and explain to them what had happened.


In the mid-2000s, Phred decided to revisit his fondness for acting. In high school, he had acted in several school plays and proved himself quite adept. In Winston, he joined up with two or three acting companies and performed in a number of stage productions, some comedy, some drama. There was one production at small venue in Winston called The Stained-Glass Theater, which had once been a church. I cannot recall the name of the production, but it was a two-man drama, with him playing one of the two leads. He knocked that role right out of the ballpark.

Unfortunately, the rigors of managing a music store eventually crowded out most of Phred’s favorite creative endeavors. Acting went by the wayside, as did his forays into making music. Still, over the years, Phred became something of a local legend — for his talent, his knowledge, his warmth, and his passion. Since his passing the other day, seeing so many comments from people whose lives he impacted has brought me to tears. 

When we lost our mother last summer, the blow hit us both, but he took it particularly hard. He did not see her as regularly as I did, so on those occasions that he did, her decline appeared far more dramatic. I believe this devastated him, and he became somewhat more withdrawn.

When Phred was diagnosed with Leukemia, he was stoic, determined to overcome the challenges he knew he would face. For a long time, with all the treatments he was getting, he held out hope that he could eventually have a stem cell transplant, which would offer him a new lease on life. However, he continually suffered infections that resisted antibiotic treatment, and it was clear they were inflicting greater and greater damage. The past nine months, he spent more time in the hospital than out of it.

Last week, he and I had been shooting a few messages back and forth regarding Mum’s estate, which is still a long way from resolution. The tone of his texts were “normal,” with an occasional lighthearted quip. We were about done for the evening when he asked if we could talk on the phone. Of course we could, I said.

When I heard his voice — weak, pained — I knew it was bad. “Mark, it’s about time for me to say goodbye.”

Those words hit me like none ever spoken to me. He told me in some detail how he badly he had declined physically; the doctors gave him only a few more days. He asked if I would care to come see him in the hospital the next day, so I headed over to Winston very first thing.

We had a meaningful visit. He was lucid, which wasn’t always the case, given the meds he was on. He couldn’t speak much, as it hurt him and brought on serious coughing. A while back, I had found some of his old diaries in Martinsville, so I took them along and read him some passages that I thought he might find uplifting. I believe he did. The last thing he said before I left was, “The universe is getting the better end of this deal. It’s taking me away.”

Two days later, Phred was moved to hospice care. Once again, I went to see him, and this time, it was clear how little time he had left. He mostly slipped in and out of consciousness, though — thankfully — he was aware of my presence. I sat next to him while he listened to ambient music, which he appeared to find relaxing. When we were kids, back when we visited Neenie & Papa, if either of us didn’t feel well, Neenie would lightly rub our heads, which we both found soothing. So I rubbed his head for a while and reminded him of how Neenie did that way back when. He seemed to find genuine solace in this, and he told me that it really did feel good. After that, he faded away a bit; he just listened to his music and hummed.

Before I left, he reached out and, for the very last time, I held my brother’s hand.

Phred desired to be cremated (as do I, when the time comes), so his wishes are being honored. He asked that his ashes be scattered in several places that were special to him, including some of those I have written about here. Those wishes too will be lovingly honored.

I will never say that my relationship with Phred was without serious complications. We sometimes had them. Outside his more social relationships, he was an intensely private person, and he habitually kept those he loved — and who loved him — at arm’s length. Sometimes, we did not understand each other, and the results weren’t necessarily pretty. Yet, he and I shared a deep, unbreakable bond that I always valued and now treasure. The universe did get the better end of this deal, for it is taking back a gentle, warm, generous, formidably intelligent, sometimes frightened, oftentimes insecure, youthful soul whose life clearly touched many, many people. I can’t count how many of his friends have followed up to check on me. Each and every one has my gratitude.

I will miss my brother till the day I die. Wherever he is right now, I imagine he is running from Patty, who is surely ecstatic to be able to again engage in her favorite activity: chomping on Oolie-Poolie’s leg.


Jeff Ball said...

Jeff Ball here.
This is exactly what I needed to read. I'm so thankful that I was able to talk to Phred to say our goodbyes(he FaceTimed me on the Saturday before he passed).
A remembrance that involves you:
Phred, Monroe, and I once went on a spree in Martinsville where we liberated a collection of lawn ornaments from the surrounding neighborhoods, filling the trunk of his car. When you saw it you were furious and made us take them all back to their respective homes.I said "man, your brother was MAD!" and he said "yes. He was mad"
I was also in the room when he adopted the name Phred. It seemed such a natural fit.
We traveled to New York City to see William Burroughs in December of 1987. At a pre-show booksigning, I asked for mine to be signed TO ELVIS; Burroughs said 'How do you spell that?'
Phred was next and said "Make mine to PHRED with a P-H"
Burroughs said 'WHAT??" Phred repeated "Phred with a P-H"
Burroughs said 'I'll be goddamned if I'll spell Fred with a P-H' and so wrote TO FRED

Unknown said...

Mark, thanks so much for this beautifully written tribute to your brother. I knew Phred very well, as I worked for 17 years at the Record Exchange. I worked at least one or more times with Phred in all three locations he managed at one point... Blacksburg, Chapel Hill, and Winston-Salem. My role varied a lot in 17 years, but I landed on the IT side and had the pleasure of visiting all locations at one time or another. In 1993, I believe I volunteered to drive up to Blacksburg and fill in for a couple of days for spring break. Phred was working there, and I stayed at the Super 8 in Christiansburg. I think the first day was March 12, and I found out Bill Monroe was playing at the Christiansburg High School auditorium. There were foreboding weather forecasts for lot of snow that night, and I went to the show by myself. When I left for the hotel, it was already snowing hard. By morning, there must have already been more than a foot and it just kept coming. All of the fast food options started closing down early, so I was stuck with a lousy vending machine in the Super 8. I'm not sure if it was that day or the next, but I got in touch with Phred by phone. I was in a Honda Accord that was by that point buried in snowdrifts up to the top of the doors with no way to get out of the parking lot. Phred offered to drive out in his Toyota truck and pick me up to get some real food. When you wrote about where he lived up in the mountains of Jefferson National Forest, that really rung a bell for me. Phred picked me up with Luther and a case of Busch that he had sitting in the open bed of the truck. He proceeded to drive north of campus and off onto one of those winding mountain roads. The snow was between 12 and 18 inches deep on that road, and deeper in spots. He stopped the truck, we had a few beers and just enjoyed the beautiful forest with its heavy blanket of snow. I think Luther was playing around in the snow a bit, too. When we decided to leave, Phred tried a three-point turn on this narrow road and the rear end nearly slid off the road and down into a ditch. 4WD saved us, and we got out of there to head back into town. We went to the Cellar, which was the beer and pizza joint in the basement of the Record Exchange location. I remember you used to always smell fresh baked pizza upstairs in that store. Phred and I got a pitcher and a pizza, then he drove me back to the Super 8. That's the kind of guy he was... drove several miles from Virginia Tech out to the hotel so I could get something to eat and we should share a couple of beers.

I always enjoyed catching up with him when I dropped in on the Chapel Hill or Winston-Salem store. I remember one evening at the WS store sitting around with the staff hand-coloring his Joe the Fireman 7" single. I think we had all kinds of things like sharpies, crayons, and water colors. Every one of us hand-colored a bunch of his singles, and I still have my copy to this day.

There are a lot of us from the old Record Exchange days who knew him, and he was a really special guy. Very talented, very thoughtful and kind, and boy did he know his music. I remember some point how deep into old jazz he was, and I was listening to some of the same stuff. There will really be a lot of us from those days who will miss him. Thanks again for sharing this, Mark. Don't hesitate to reach out if you want to chat.

Brett Dupree
Record Exchange 1989 - 2006

Jonas said...

Beautiful words, my friend. I cannot imagine any words I could write that would give you relief from the grief you feel. But do know that I'm more than confident that your brother had read every word of this. Bless you, Brother.

Unknown said...

Incredible words Mark. I was part of Phred's orbit in Blacksburg, and although we hadn't seen each other in well over 20 years, I feel like we were just now sitting around a fire pit shooting the shit. Thanks for your words. Peace.

Michael Kurtz said...

Thanks for writing this. I only knew Phred through our jobs at The Record Exchange. I was the guy with the responsibility of lining up record reviews for The Record Exchange's publication The Music Monitor. Quite early on I pegged Phred as a good writer, funny and honest. Of course he was often difficult to get up with to actually get the reviews out of him but it was always worth it. Even from a distance I knew Phred was an exceptional person, with a true child like sense of innocence and mischief and an adult's recognition of the universe. Even to the end.

Sput said...

Stephen... Lhred was such a monstrous force in the Blacksburg musical scene and I was so fortunate to have been onstage with him many times... Is there anywhere we can send condolences to the family?

Paul said...


This is a beautiful piece of writing. I worked with Phred in Blacksburg and we had touched base over the years; though, I regret not seeing him in person in twenty plus years.

Phred, quite literally, saved my life. I had an event occur that just completely shattered my world. I eventually returned to Blacksburg and to work, but I was very much on autopilot. I was just surviving, and wasn’t happy with the prospects of moving forward. I was in a very bad place, and I remember the one morning at 6:45 or 7, just laying in bed at my house on Giles Road. I didn’t have to work that day and I vividly recall contemplating irreversible actions that I thought would resolve my problems. There was knock at the door.

There stood Phred with his silver pickup behind him. He pretty much told me to get a five minute shower, and get dressed for a day in the woods. What the hell? What did I have to lose?

We drove by the gas station and filled-up, grabbed some water and a six-pack. Phred took me for one of his excursions into the mountains and we went exploring. He had his guitar and every once in a while, we’d stop and just sit. He’d play a little. He’d sing a little. We amble on the rocks. We’d climb trees. It was awesome.

He never came out and said, “you’ve got to get your crap together,” but he talked about hope, love, forgiveness, and opportunity. For lack of a better term, Phred was ministering to me.

We got back into Blacksburg late that afternoon and we went to his place and he put on a live Roky Erickson album. We just sat on his porch, drank beer, and listened to music. It was, from the moment he showed-up at my door, one of the most important days of my life.

Phred knew I desperately needed a lifeline. And, he threw it without hesitation. I will always love your brother for that.


Unknown said...

Thanks so much, Mark. So true: for someone with plenty of stories, he was indeed a private person, and among the many emotions I'm being hit with is the vacuum of what I didn't know but wish I'd learned. Thanks for filling in some of those gaps.

I played music with Phred and the gang in Blacksburg, and he was an important influence on me in how I experience art. Sure, he was a great musician whose influence on this universe we will never fully comprehend, but it should be said that his highest art was humor. Surely his work in that space will stick with me longest.

The Punk Next Door said...

Mark: I knew Phred from the Blacksburg days. He was a friend, occasional co-conspirator, and one of my all-time musical idols. Please know that there are lots of folks who will miss and always love him. Musical tribute coming soon.

Stephen Mark Rainey said...

These comments mean so much, especially as they give me so much insight into Phred's life from an entirely different perspective than my own. Thank you all for such wonderful memories, thoughts, and feelings.

I am now, to my sorrow, the last of Phred's immediate family. But he had a world of friends and people who loved him, so it feels like a very real extension -- bonds of love to a precious soul taken too soon.

Samaire Provost said...

Oh, my dear Mark. I am so sorry Oolie Poolie is gone. I want to give you a night, big hug.

Stephen H. Provost said...

Mark, that was such a poignant remembrance. I didn't know your brother, except through what you'd shared, and I regret that I didn't. Your tribute almost makes me wish I'd had a brother. I can tell how much you treasure those memories, and I can tell how hard it must be to lose him.

One of the things that hit me most was how many lives he touched through his music and just the spirit of who he was. It's easy to think that we don't make a difference, especially if we keep people at arm's length. The way you describe his musical endeavors and his passion for his business and his acting, I can tell he made a huge difference in this life. I hope he knew that. I'm sure he knew it was true with you, from how you describe your farewell.

Thank you for sharing this. If you ever want to call, email, or visit, you know you're always welcome.

Unknown said...

very sad to hear about Phred. I knew him in the 90's when I worked at the Record Exchange in Raleigh. I remember him working so hard at opening the store in Chapel Hill. He was always a really great guy. So sorry for your loss Mark.