Last February, I wrote an obituary/tribute to a gentleman named Tom Rapp (see A Knowledge of Ashes). Rapp was a singer-songwriter and recording artist from 1965 to 1976 who retired from music to become a civil rights lawyer. He was a musician of uncommon intelligence, with an unyielding commitment to social justice, leavened by the unexpected humorous wink. His music was too cryptic and melancholic to ever earn a listing on the Billboard Hot 100. So if you’re unfamiliar with him, it’s understandable.
To put it another way, James Taylor or Dan Fogelberg, Tom Rapp was not. But artistic ambiguity and professional obscurity have never prevented longitudes from recognizing someone. In fact, they often indicate a vision too luminous for most of us to process.
Fifty years ago, Rapp released his second, most ambiguous, and arguably best album, credited to his band Pearls Before Swine, on the underground label ESP-Disk. It’s called Balaklava.
Scholars of European history might recognize Balaklava (also spelled with a ‘c’, “Balaclava”) as the name of the place where a famous British cavalry charge occurred in 1854 during the Crimean War. The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson immortalized it in his poem about valor, The Charge of the Light Brigade. The truth was that this charge was an unnecessary military action, a suicidal maneuver that dissolved 40 percent of an entire brigade. Valor in suicide. Irony, like this, was a Tom Rapp specialty.
The year 1968 had a similarly senseless military action going on, this one in Southeast Asia. More irony: Rapp dedicated his record to WWII soldier Eddie Slovik, the only U.S. soldier executed for desertion since the American Civil War.
“Some people thought (my) songs were hopeless…I was being realistic about the pain that’s out there. If you say life is wonderful, people know it isn’t true, but if you talk about the pain, someone will listen.” (Crawdaddy, December 2008)
Tears are often jewel-like…
The first thing that makes Balaklava different from other records is its unusual sleeve art. Album reproductions of paintings later became popular, but Balaklava is one of the first examples, and the painting chosen partially relates to the music inside. It’s a reproduction of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s 16th-century, apocalyptic oil panel “The Triumph of Death,” with typewriter characters of the band name and album title stamped across the top…as if this record is a dispatch being wired from the abyss below.
The back cover features surreal illustrations by French avant-garde writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. Also, a quote from American philosopher and poet George Santayana: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” And yet more irony: a photograph of a freckle-faced girl wearing a shy smile, with a daisy protruding from her plaid dress, and a button reading “Pearls Before Swine.”
(The photo was snapped at a peace rally by photographer Mel Zimmer. The girl’s button actually said “Flower Power.” Zimmer identifies his photo as “Molly Stewart.”)
So, the listener has an idea where this record is headed even before the needle strikes the wax. The packaging is deliberate and unapologetic. As Dante wrote in “The Inferno:” All hope abandon, ye who enter here.
Another striking thing about Balaklava: the music is introduced by a ghost. The first “song” is titled “Trumpeter Landfrey,” and is the actual voice and bugle call of a survivor of the Light Brigade charge, a man named Martin Leonard Landfried. With brimming pride, Landfried announces, “I am now going to sound the bugle that was sounded at Waterloo, and sound the charge that was sounded at Balaklava on that very same bugle, the 25th of October, 1854.” Landfried’s scratchy voice comes from a cylinder recording from 1890 that was reissued on a vinyl record that Rapp owned.
Landfried’s bugle notes smoothly segue into the strummed guitar notes of “Translucent Carriages.” Wikipedia calls this one of Rapp’s “most enduring songs,” a shivering tune whose title again harkens to yesteryear, and whose languid music includes ghostly background whisperings. One of them is the Herodotus quote “In peace, sons bury their fathers / In war, fathers bury their sons.” Another is the Rapp quote “Jesus raised the dead / But who will raise the living?”
The recurring chorus goes “Every time I see you, passing by, I have to wonder…why?” The identity of the “you” can be interpreted differently. Are they ancient carriages, perhaps Roman? Hearses? Maybe a woman? Is Rapp referring to Jesus? Or the pointlessness of war?
“Images of April” burrows deeper into the murky surreal. It features vocal echoes, flute, bird songs, and even frog croaks to paint a world of desolation, where springtime exists in fleeting images that only memory can summon. If you’re open to something strange, hypnotic, and completely different:
As unconventional as is “Images of April,” the next song, “There Was a Man,” is totally conventional—the guitar/vocal music, that is. The words, maybe less so. They relate a story about a stranger who one day arrives in a village. The stranger has a scar on his head, “where there used to be a crown.” He amazes the people by doing wonderful, magical things. Then the stranger leaves, sadly, suddenly. He has heard “the news from the war.”
“I Saw the World” is maybe the most passionate song on Balaklava. Rapp pleads, with palpable emotion in his voice, that he’s seen the world “spinning like a toy,” and “hate seems so small compared to it all.” A melodious cello and piano passage helps boost this song to another plane.
Rapp was an admirer of songwriter Leonard Cohen, and the “Swine” honor him with a rendition of Cohen’s “Suzanne.” They supposedly recorded this song in one take, while sitting on the studio floor, in the dark, with candles burning. (Yes, very Sixties.) The hushed ambience they created must have succeeded, since this is one of the most respectfully rendered versions of this acclaimed song.
Other titles include “Guardian Angels” and “Lepers and Roses,” both of which further the odd, time-frozen quality of Balaklava. At the end of the record, there’s another vintage 1890 recording, this one of Florence Nightingale, who oversaw the nurses during the Crimean War. She prays that her Balaklava “comrades” will all return “safe to shore.” The record trails off with Trumpeter Landfried’s opening again. It’s a reminder that everything is a circle, that everything “comes back again,” both love and hate.
While not a perfect record, and certainly not for every ear, Balaklava’s best moments overflow with a perceptiveness, mystery, and beauty not usually occurring in rock music. Today, we hear the word “alternative”—which means “different” or “unconventional”—applied to a certain style of music (for the sake of convenience, branding, and marketing). But Pearls Before Swine’s Balaklava defines the word alternative. There’s not another record like it.
Even more, the record is a unique and fervent indictment of the idea that warfare is some kind of glorious endeavor. It is music with meaning. But unlike most anti-war artists of the Sixties—idealistic and well-meaning, but who relied on anthems or derivative platitudes about peace and love—Tom Rapp used irony, surrealism, and religious and historical allusions to present his worldview. He drew from a war in 1854 to indict a war of 1968, which still resonates in 2018.
We’re all familiar with that line in Tennyson’s famous poem…that universal expression of blind patriotic duty, which goes “Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die.” Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine question that sentiment with Balaklava. And, I think they’re also saying…shouldn’t everybody?