Monday, February 19, 2018


    No, the sorrowful, haunted and lispy moan that was Tom Rapp’s singing was not going to make him a star. Titling his group “Pearls Before Swine,” with the implication that they were singing great music for an audience of pigs, probably didn’t help either. Still, he held a niche for listeners who wanted their "transcendental rock" a little dark than George Harrison and sensitive ballads a little grimmer than Paul Simon. 

    On the title track to “These Things Too,” Rapp offered up his version of a phrase George couched with some degree of optimism as “All Things Must Pass.” Here, a Persian king gathers his wise men to find something “he could say on every occasion that always would be so.” Acknowledging “illusions, circles and changes,” the wise men come up with “these things too shall pass away.” 

    If Paul Simon was Mr. Alienation, what was Tom Rapp? On the same album, he sang, “When I was a child I lived all alone,  all my trials I bore them alone. Sometimes I would smile but often I’d grieve; growing up was learning to disbelieve.” Paul couldn't match such collegiate phrases as: “a saint in the evening, a leper at dawn,” or describe the Escher angst pf being “lost on mobius street,” a line on “If You Don’t Want To I Don’t Mind.” 

    My favorite Pearls Before Swine song, which I played on my radio show late at night, was “The Jeweler.” Well suited to Rapp’s damaged vocal powers, this is a sympathetic look at an old man who tries to find a place in this world polishing old coins. (“He knows the use of ashes. He worships God with ashes.”) Unlike Paul Simon’s boxer, the old jeweler has different scars. Working late into the night “both his hands will blister badly. They will often open painfully and the blood flows from his hands…he sometimes cries…” 

    Undergrads and intellectuals probably stowed their Pearls Before Swine albums on that same shelf as W.H. Auden books (Rapp set one Auden poem to music), or art books filled with the agonies of Bosch (yes, Pearls Before Swine used Bosch artwork on “One Nation Underground,” their 1967 debut album on the indie E.S.P. label, which never paid Tom a royalty or advance.

    Thomas Dale Rapp (March 8, 1947-February 11, 2018) was born in North Dakota, but also spent some early years in Minnesota, and then Florida. Just another folkie in New York, he submitted a demo tape to E.S.P. and he got a two-record deal. And just as E.S.P.’s star group The Fugs signed to Warner/Reprise, so did Pearls Before Swine, eventually. 

      What was "acceptable" in music had begun to change in the late 60's and early 70's, especially thanks to the imperfect vocals of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. Still, reviewers could be hostile. A 1971 Stereo Review critic:

    “At first I thought this junk must be somebody’s idea of a sick joke…unfortunately the mournful wailing contained on this disc is really the way Tom Rapp sounds. He is also the composer-lyricist of eight of the easily forgettable songs I suffered through here…Although Rapp swallows most of his words like lumps, I was occasionally able to hear such scintillating lines as “What does a raindrop know?” or “My talking was only words, my smile was only teeth.” Third-grade doodling…Tom Rapp is a horrendously vulgar no-talent whose very presence on records gives me pause about the rock-bottom tastes and motives of the talent scouts at Reprise Records.”

    Worse than a lack of sympathy for his work was a lack of money. Even in what some consider the “golden era” of music, when hundreds of albums were being issued and FM radio was booming, not every act was making millions, or even breaking even on the road. How many records could anyone afford to buy? Around the same time, even Genesis, fronted by Peter Gabriel, came home broke. After a few solo albums, Rapp found a day job, working behind the popcorn counter at a movie theater. “I knew at the end of the week, every single week, I would get $85,” Rapp recalled. “I was insane with joy.”

    The insane world of acid folk and sensitive rock was left behind for twenty years. Tom went back to college and earned a degree, eventually working on discrimination cases for a Philadelphia law firm. He later moved to Florida. He was married three times. Around 1996, he was persuaded to make some appearances in local clubs. At a gig at NYC’s Knitting Factory in 1997, he explained his long absence: “I got into a 12-step program for reclusivity.”

    To the surprise and delight of his small circle of friends, a new Tom Rapp album appeared in 1999, titled “A Journal of the Plague Year,” which in style wasn’t very different from what he’d done for E.S.P. a generation earlier. It was on an obscure label and Rapp kept his day job.

The Jeweler (The Use of Ashes) - Pearls Before Swine


Timmy said...

I dug his lispy & unique vocals, as well as his songwriting. I still have a few LP's from him. Sorry for his demise. Congrat's, Tom!
Thanx for notifying us whenever a talent passes who isn't recognized by the dominating media.

Fanny Blancmange said...

Mr Rapp seemed a little too avant-garde to be keeping some of the company here. God rest him and keep him.

Thanks for your very thorough blogging and thoroughly jaundiced commentary.


Ill Folks said...

Ah, Fanny Blancmange...I did buy Tom's stuff, did play it on the radio...more a Realist than anything else. But I like your tactful way of explaining the lack of interest in Tom and Pearls Before Swine. They were "a little too avant-garde." Frankly, most of the "ill folks" on this blog were too "something-or-other" to get the money or fame they deserved when they released their music. Being a Realist is to acknowledge that it's often a matter of luck and getting a good break, and nothing else. I like to think Tom was pleased to have gotten some kind of break by ESP signing him, and some gratification in being a Reprise artist who always had some critical acclaim and fan interest. And that his good work as a lawyer brought him great satisfaction. And I trust he had loving friends and family members.