A Knowledge of Ashes: A Tribute to Tom Rapp

Tom Rapp 1

“If you can’t be universal, you can at least be ambiguous”
– Tom Rapp

In 1994, I wrote a letter to Tom Rapp after reading an interview with him in Dirty Linen magazine. I don’t usually write fan letters, but I made an exception with Rapp. It was a typically obsequious fan gush: “I love your music,” “Listened to Balaklava non-stop one entire summer,” etc. I didn’t hold out hope for a reply.

A few weeks later, I got one. Rapp not only thanked me for me thanking him, but he sent a cassette of two unreleased, alternate versions of my two favorite songs of his: “Another Time,” and “Translucent Carriages.” I still have the letter and cassette.

I hope that my letter made him smile. Rapp was a prodigious talent, wickedly funny, by all evidence kindhearted, and he deserved better than what this world offered him. He died of cancer February 11 at the age of 70.

***

Tom Rapp started life in 1947 in Bottineau, North Dakota, a speck of a town on the cold northern prairie, way up near the Canadian line. His father was a teacher who was blacklisted for union activities, and who then became a loan officer. After being fleeced for $15,000 one night, he disappeared into the woods for a month without telling his family. The disappearances would continue off and on, and when he was home, he was frequently drunk. Rapp’s song “Rocket Man,” written on the day of the first moon landing, but about his father, talks about a man who flew between the planets, while his lonely wife and son went outside only when it was cloudy, and the stars couldn’t be seen.

(Bernie Taupin claimed he and Elton John wrote their own “Rocket Man” after hearing Rapp’s composition. Both are great songs, but totally unlike. Two major differences: one song made lots of money, and the other made nothing. Also, the John-Taupin song is about space. Rapp’s song occurs in the human heart.)

Sandra Stollman

The first Pearls Before Swine lineup. L to R: Lane Lederer, Tom Rapp, Roger Crissinger, Wayne Harley (Photo Sandra Stollman)

When he was ten, Rapp did a cowboy-Elvis Presley impersonation for a talent contest held in Rochester, Minnesota. He took second place. First prize was won by a baton twirler in a red sequined dress. Fifth-place honors went to an older Minnesota boy named Bobby Zimmerman, who later changed his last name and became somewhat famous.

(Wouldn’t it be great to locate the girl in the red sequined dress? Or track down one of the judges? Wouldn’t it be great if we could prove justice is real?)

Dale Rapp whisked his family out of the flatlands for Minnesota, then Pennsylvania, then Eau Gallie, Florida, where his son graduated high school. In 1963, after hearing Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of “Blowing in the Wind,” Tom became intrigued with the song’s author, Bob Dylan. He had no idea they’d earlier performed on the same stage.

He began writing songs himself. On a lark, he and three friends made some rough demos, then sent them to New York-based ESP-Disk Records, an experimental underground label that had helped pioneer free jazz.  They’d also recorded the infamous Fugs, rock’s first leftist revolutionary band, which featured Beat poet and political agitator Ed Sanders. ESP-Disk invited Rapp and the boys to come up and make a record. In those days, things like that happened.

So, Rapp had to find a name for his band. Cocky, erudite, and only 19, Rapp chose “Pearls Before Swine,” taken from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It may be the most honest band name in history, and it actually has meaning – albeit ambiguous:

“Give not that which is holy unto the dogs; neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

The name was also prophetic.

The first Pearls Before Swine album was titled One Nation Underground and recorded in only four days in the cheapest NYC studio available. Visitors to the studio included Sanders, Peter Stampfel (Holy Modal Rounders), and a standup comic and clown named Hugh Romney (later “Wavy Gravy”), who tried to ply Rapp with LSD tabs, to no success. Like Melville’s Ishmael, Rapp chose to wander through the weird happenings and times as an omniscient narrator only.

One Nation Underground was released in 1967 at practically the same moment as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. Both albums broke ground in popular music. But whereas the Beatles effort was polished to perfection and had a world audience waiting, the Pearls debut was jagged, challenging, defiant, and burst like a green shoot through pavement cracks.

Merlin_Family Photo

(Family Photo)

It included one of the first anti-Vietnam War songs, “Uncle John,” directed toward Lyndon Johnson, where Rapp ended up on the studio floor screaming into the mic. “Another Time” is a haunting song, the first Rapp ever wrote, about a horrific car crash where he survived with only minor cuts. While in the cop car on the way to the hospital, he overheard, on the police radio, reports of people drowning and being burned to death. He surmised that “the universe doesn’t care at all.” But…

“Did you find, that if you don’t care… this whole wrong world will fall?”

“(Oh Dear) Miss Morse” is the humorous flip side to Rapp’s “constructive melancholy.” In this song, he adopts a Victorian persona and attempts to seduce a very proper and very sexy lady, using Morse code, and sounding out the letters F-U-C-K. “Dit-dit… dah… dit” etcetera. Over the years, Rapp loved to recount the story of how deejay Murray the K played this song and was bombarded by angry calls from Boy Scout leaders, the only listeners who understood the code.

One Nation Underground sold about 200,000 copies, surprisingly good for a debut album of psychedelic baroque-folk on a shoestring underground label. Some of its success may have had to do with the eye-catching sleeve art: Rapp chose the apocalyptic “Hell Panel” from Hieronymous Bosch’s 15th century painting “Garden of Earthly Delights” (the hard rock band Deep Purple later used this for its third album, and longitudes also borrowed it for its series on Nazism).pearls

Encouraged by this modest success, Rapp made a follow-up album with ESP-Disk. I’d review Balaklava here, but I’m straining my space limit, and I plan to cover it later this year on its 50th anniversary. So, I’ll merely say it’s arguably the best record by the Pearls/Rapp, an existential concept album about war (Vietnam, again) with moments of astonishing beauty. For Balaklava’s sleeve art, Rapp chose “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

ESP-Disk seemed like the perfect vehicle for Tom Rapp’s music. It was a label that allowed the artist total creativity, no restrictions, whose studio floor was littered with exotic instruments like celesta, marimba, vibraphone, clavinette, Nepalese sarangi, and “swinehorn,” and whose owner, Bernard Stollman, was an energetic advocate of the universal language Esperanto. Problem was, Rapp didn’t make a dime (things like that happened in the ‘60s, too). He would later humorously claim that Stollman was abducted by aliens, who washed Stollman’s memory of where all the record profits went.

Rapp soon disbanded the original Pearls and jumped to the mainstream label Reprise. By this time, all sorts of rumors had arisen about the band, since there were never any photographs or interviews. Some fans thought all the members were geriatrics. Others believed the drummer was a dwarf. While on Reprise, Rapp’s songs became less strange, but tighter. He wrote beautiful songs, such as  “Rocket Man,” “The Jeweler,” “Island Lady,” and “Look into Her Eyes,” the instrumentation and presentation cleaner, the songs no less transcendent.

Eventually, after several lineup changes and paltry earnings, Rapp dropped the Pearls Before Swine name and used his own, jumping to Blue Thumb Records for two albums.  He opened for many of the top names in the 1970s: Pink Floyd, Gordon Lightfoot, Patti Smith, and much earlier was invited to the original Woodstock festival, but declined because he was living in The Netherlands and couldn’t afford to make the trip.

A typical show was like the one in Philadelphia in 1974, during Watergate, when he appeared with Genesis and Wishbone Ash. He was told backstage that he only had a few minutes, and that he could back out while still being paid. Rapp insisted on going on. And he made a bet with someone that he’d get a standing ovation. After walking out on stage, Rapp asked the crowd “If you believe he’s guilty, please stand up and cheer,” without even saying who “he” was. Rapp easily won the bet.Bill O'Leary

It’s not difficult to see where this is headed. It was a matter of time before Rapp was serving popcorn in a Boston movie theatre, his young family surviving on oatmeal. Surprisingly, he was happy. “I knew at the end of the week, every single week, I would get $85. I was insane with joy!”

With an indomitable will, he put himself through college, attending classes by day and working nights. He earned a law degree at University of Pennsylvania. He joined a law practice in Philadelphia, continuing his ‘60s work by fighting for social justice, this time in court on behalf of people who’d been discriminated against. His briefs often deviated from standard judicial dryness. One of them, filed for a man who was fired after contracting AIDS, reads partly: “In a civilized community, it is an intolerable wrong to abandon the sick and put them out to die.” Classic Rapp.

In the late 1990s, Rapp made a mild comeback. He was lauded by various British journalists and musicians, including The Bevis Frond and This Mortal Coil, and appeared at several small music festivals (why do the Brits always have to show us Yanks what we’ve ignored in our own backyard?). He also made a remarkable album, his first in 26 years, entitled A Journal of the Plague Year, with the wrenching “The Swimmer (for Kurt Cobain).” Rapp borrowed the evocative album title, characteristically, from a book by 18th-century novelist Daniel Defoe. Assisting him with the music were members of the American group Galaxie 500, Bevis Frond, and his son, David.

He also lost his job. Now living in Florida, Rapp and another lawyer became litigants, charging age discrimination, just like some of the people he’d once fought for.

***

Rapp appreciated history and the old things. He understood that old things have value. He sang about people who were flawed, physically or psychically: lepers, old Jews with lisps, lonely jewelers with cracked and bleeding hands, strangers with scars on their heads from wearing crowns. He chronicled and championed insignificant people who were lost in the ashes of time.

He undoubtedly saw himself as one of them.

bill o'learygetty

(Photo Bill O’Leary/Getty)

(Special thanks to the Washington Post and Gene Weingarten, who wrote the best article on Rapp I’ve yet read)

A Conclusion: Tom Rapp’s Lesson of the ‘60s:
(shared by longitudes)

Love is real.
Justice is real.
Everything is not for sale.
Honesty is possible, and necessary.
Governments have no morals, and you’ve got to kick their ass.
And, most importantly: never buy drugs from a policeman.

2 thoughts on “A Knowledge of Ashes: A Tribute to Tom Rapp

    • I recommend starting with the double CD “Constructive Melancholy.” It’s a selective compilation of his four albums on Reprise (minus a couple great songs that these collections invariably omit). It sells for about $25 on Amazon.

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