Perfect Sound Forever

Tom Rapp

Early publicity photo of Pearls Before Swine

by Mark Brend (May 2001)

He knows the use of ashes,
He worships God with ashes.
("The Jeweler" - Tom Rapp )

Before recording under his own name, Tom Rapp was known as the leader of a studio-bound psychedelic underground folk group with a penchant for writing songs about big issues - war, space, love - and putting the poetry of Shakespeare and Auden to music. This excerpt from Mark Brend's book, "American Troubadours", tells the story of how this group, Pearls before Swine, came to record their classic first album One Nation Underground.

"American Troubadours" consists of nine profiles (including discographies) of David Ackles, David Blue, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Phil Ochs, Tom Rapp, Tim Rose, Tom Rush. Lots of photos and illustrations of album sleeves are also included. It is published by Backbeat Books, $19.95

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ED NOTE: Readers might also be interested to know that in addition to his career as a writer, Mark Brend is also a member of Farina, whose latest release is the wonderfully lithe Three People on the Pickled Egg label.

A Reprise press release from 1970 charts the points in Rapp's early musical development as follows: "His first influences were Presley, the Everly Brothers and the pop tunes of the '50's... at age 12 [1959] he stopped singing and playing because he found pop material sterile... he was reinspired to play and sing in 1962 by... "Blowin in the Wind." It was a well-trodden path: a love of the first generation of rockers, followed by disillusionment, followed by an attraction to folk music and an encounter with the all-pervading influence of Dylan. It was, in other words, the same route traveled by Phil Ochs, Tom Rush and so many others.

Tom Rapp was born in 1947 in Bottineau, North Dakota, close to the Canadian border. His parents, Dale and Eileen Rapp, were both teachers. He has two sisters, Kathy and Patty. When he was still a young child his family moved to Minnesota where at the age of six he was given a guitar. A country & western player living next door taught Rapp some chords, and a few years later he learned to play the ukulele.

Although he did finally get to share the stage with Dylan in 1975 - at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, with Ramblin' Jack Elliott - there is an intriguing possibility that the two men had been on the same bill nearly two decades earlier. By the age of ten Rapp was entering talent competitions singing Elvis Presley songs. "Looking back at a scrapbook my parents used to keep," he said, "I saw that one of the other contestants on a show was a Bobby Zimmerman, who sang and played guitar. I have no first hand memory of that, or indeed if it was the same Zimmerman who went on to some sort of fame." Rapp came second, losing to a woman who twirled batons. Zimmerman apparently came fifth.

The Rapp family moved from Minnesota to Pennsylvania before settling in Eau Gallie, Florida, in 1963. Whether or not Rapp did encounter the young Bob Dylan at the talent contest, he did come across him indirectly in Florida in 1963. "I heard "Blowin' In The Wind"," he says. "I remember calling into the radio stations [asking them] to play Peter, Paul & Mary's version again and again until I finally bought the single and saw the song was written by someone named Dylan." It was an unfamiliar name, but Rapp had his local record store send away for a copy of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album. Inspired by what he heard, and later by albums by Joan Baez and The Byrds, he became a folk singer and started to perform with his school-friends Wayne Harley (banjo), Lane Lederer (bass) and Roger Crissinger (tambourine and organ). Together they formed the first line-up of Pearls Before Swine.

Over the years Rapp has given different accounts of writing his first song. Sometimes he refers to an unrecorded tune called "Be A Man, Join The Klan" - a liberal protest effort with a title that Phil Ochs would have been proud of. Rapp had the pleasure of seeing this song adopted by the Florida folk scene that centered on Fred Neil (although it is not known that Neil performed it). Different artists added their own verses and customized the melody, just as they did with the traditional songs prevalent in the folk revival.

On other occasions Rapp has said that his first song was "Another Time," a philosophical treatise about the indifference of the universe. He wrote this after surviving a serious car crash unscathed. This became the first song on the first Pearls Before Swine album. Rapp and his fellow nascent avant-folk experimenters had taped on a home reel-to-reel recorder a few of his early songs, including "Another Time," as well as some Dylan covers. They had eight demo discs cut, packaged in a hand-drawn sleeve with a blown-up band snapshot taped to the front. One of these homespun demos was sent to ESP DISK records, home of anti-establishment rock-theatre poets The Fugs.

Rapp had bought some Fugs albums from the same store that had supplied his copy of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. The group's primitive experimentation struck a chord, and Rapp thought that ESP were just waiting for some teenagers from Florida to provide twisted, amateurish folk-rock songs that shared something of the same spirit. ESP wrote back saying that the Pearls Before Swine demo, despite being so badly pressed as to be virtually inaudible, was probably the sort of thing they were looking for.

It was ESP's habit to pay for their artists to record using the cheapest local facilities available, so Pearls Before Swine booked into a primitive two-track studio set up in a garage owned by a country & western musician. There the youngsters awkwardly and anxiously recorded their anti-Vietnam songs as the studio owner's redneck friends looked on suspiciously. Inevitably the results were unsatisfactory, and the band were invited to New York City for a second effort. They spent four days and nights recording their first album with engineer Richard Alderson at the tiny Impact four-track studio. The entire album was recorded for $1,500. It was May 1967.

At the time ESP was a small independent label, expecting to sell no more than 10,000 copies of each release. "They hired people that they thought had something interesting to say. They had simple one-page contracts and put you in the studio and said, 'Do what you want, don't spend too much money doing it,'" says Rapp. The ethos of low budgets and artistic freedom suited Rapp and his cohorts, giving them space to explore their fertile ideas unhindered by conventions of musical and technical correctness, or requests for hit singles. It was this spirit of naive musical adventure that has done much to endear Rapp to subsequent generations of underground musicians.

The ESP label was the focal point for a loose-knit scene. "Most of those I knew were the other groups who recorded at Impact Sound behind what is now called Lincoln Center: The Fugs and Ed Sanders; Pete Stampfel and the Holy Modal Rounders," says Rapp. Although each of these groups had its own agenda, there were similarities between them. They combined literary, hippie and anti-establishment aspirations in often folk-influenced music. But where Sanders and Stampfel were almost old enough to be beatniks, Pearls Before Swine were the new kids on the block, a bunch of fresh-faced enthusiasts barely out of their teens.

By 1967, when Pearls Before Swine first arrived in New York, the Greenwich Village folk circuit was past its heyday. Many of the prime movers had drifted to the West Coast where attention was focused on the burgeoning psychedelic scene. Culturally, the ESP bands had more in common with this West Coast underground than with their near-contemporaries in Greenwich Village. They were resolutely experimental and self-consciously part of the counter-culture. Their hair was long and their politics confrontational.

Sanders, who was involved with the Yippies (the Youth International Party) was a prime mover. "He took a group of hippies on a bus tour of the suburbs," says Rapp. "All the hippies were gawking and pointing at the suburbanites with their backyard grills and swimming pools. A very political time... lots of anti-war songs." Musically, the ESP groups had a closer link with the Village writers, sharing with them roots in folk, bluegrass, jug-band and country music, though with less of an obvious debt to Dylan.

In the absence of formal musical expertise, and with a low budget, Rapp and his colleagues were forced to rely on innovations and ideas when recording their debut, One Nation Underground.

They had both in abundance. On the record, released in 1967, psychedelic folk reminiscent of Donovan collides with Farfisa-driven punk and hard-to-categorize repetitive minimalism, all thrown together with the undisciplined, creative exuberance of youth. A children's song, "Playmate," gets a garage-band treatment; "Morning Song" is a mantra-like organ-based drone; and "Another Time" is cast as a gentle acoustic folk song. "I Shall Not Care," one of the album's most unusual and complex songs, moves through successive phases of all three styles.

One Nation Underground introduced all the characteristics that would appear in Rapp's later recordings. The songwriting was consistently interesting though rarely exceptional, with unexpected details often cropping up in the arrangements, and the themes explored were more literary and intellectual than was common in pop music of the era. Despite the eccentric, unconventional nature of the album, it became the most successful ESP release ever. Different estimates have it selling between 100,000 and 250,000 copies. Even the lowest of those would make it one of the best-selling albums featured in this book.

Pearls Before Swine's status as psychedelic mavericks was confirmed by their decision to use a reproduction of the then obscure Hieronymus Bosch painting, The Garden Of Earthly Delights, on the front cover of their debut. No photographs of the band themselves appeared for some time, which gave rise to many rumors about their identity - rumors which the ever-mischievous Rapp was happy to let go unchecked.

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