Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine dies

Tom Rapp of the 1960s psychedelic folk act Pearls Before Swine has died. He was 70.

While Pearls Before Swine began as a band — releasing the classic psych-folk album “One Nation Underground” — the name evolved into a handle for singer-songwriter Rapp’s projects.

Pearls Before Swine singerRapp’s early influences included Bob Dylan and, especially, the raggedy underground folk act the Fugs.

Pearls Before Swine pitched the Fugs’ label, ESP-Disk, via an early demo and succeeded in getting a record deal, albeit one that paid pretty much nothing. The Florida band traveled to New York in 1967 and began recording.

“One Nation Underground,” an early exercise in psychedelic folk tinged with garage rock, found success partly because of its creepy-crawly cover art taken from the hell panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” The early albums did not show photos of the Florida-based band, adding a touch of mystery to their early marketing, such as it was.

The debut album was a rare success for the indie label ESP, which advised its artists that record distribution was being handled by the mob. It sold almost a quarter-million copies over time. Crawdaddy magazine called the album “an essential part of the hippie soundtrack in the summer of ’67.”

“One Nation Underground” has proved durable, with numerous reissues (of varying quality) over the decades, including a 50th anniversary restoration on vinyl and CD (Drag City label).

The second album, “Balaklava,” was an antiwar-themed work dedicated to deserter Private Eddie Slovik. It too found success for ESP — but next to no money flowed to the young musicians.

Rapp moved to Reprise Records in 1969, essentially a solo act but still using the Pearls Before Swine handle. He was sometimes accompanied on vocals by his Dutch wife of the time. He recorded five albums for the L.A. label, mostly in the singer-songwriter vein, including the masterful “The Use of Ashes.”

Rapp’s songs were literate; his voice reedy but powerful. He said his high school poetry studies were a major influence on the early recordings.

In “The Jeweler” (1970) he paints a Joycean portrait:

The jeweler has a shop
On the corner of the boulevard.
In the night, in small spectacles, he polishes old coins
He uses spit and cloth and ashes
He makes them shine with ashes
He knows the use of ashes
He worships God with ashes …

Lyricist Bernie Taupin cheerfully admitted copping the idea behind Rapp’s Space Coast-inspired “Rocket Man” for the Elton John hit of the same name. Again, Rapp failed to profit.

Rapp finished his musical career with Blue Thumb Records, releasing several albums under his own name. In the mid-1970s, he quit the music business and ended up selling popcorn at a movie theater.

In the mid-1980s he graduated from law school and began a career as a civil rights attorney in Philadelphia, targeting corporate evil-doing. He would play occasional gigs and released a solo album, “A Journal of the Plague Year,” in 1999.

Rapp’s underground cred held up over the decades; his work was compiled in various configurations during the CD era. The Rapp tribute project “For the Dead in Space” featured alternative music acts, including Bevis Frond and Thurston Moore, performing Rapp songs across three volumes.

“They call me a psychedelic godfather,” Rapp told NPR early in the new century. This he credited to not dying.

Rapp grew up in Minnesota, where he apparently participated in a talent contest with a young Bob Zimmerman (Dylan). His family moved to Melbourne, Fla., where he formed Pearls Before Swine with some high school buddies.

Tom Rapp reportedly died in a hospice in Melbourne on Feb. 11.

> More reading: “The Lawyer’s Song” (Washington Post profile)


  1. Freddie Bernard says:

    Fell in love with the first album upon its release and remained a fan throughout Tom’s career. Had the privilege of watching him live on the RPI campus in Troy, New York. RIP, Tom.

  2. I was a young teen when I heard the first album on NYC radio station WBAI, listening to a transistor radio under my pillow. I think I wore the album out, playing it on my small record player. Big influence on me.

    RIP, Tom, Thanks for the beautiful music.

  3. luistobayo says:

    Merci Tom pour ces années ou l’UTOPIE avait du sens …

  4. Mike Weiner says:

    What a man. I’m still trying to fully understand The Amber Lady. I even named a cat “Lila.” And may the Gray-Walled Dwarf always live high, dwelling dark, victorious, silent with a cry.

    Tom’s passing is for me the first unzipping of our common generational presence, of which I am so proud. Thanks to our psychedelic past and musical messages like Tom’s, I’m 73 and still can’t seem to feel old. But this loss takes a piece out of me. RIP.

  5. I discovered Tom’s music as a psychedelically-minded teenager in mid-1980s England. His albums were hard to obtain and often expensive, and I cherish them all to this day. Rest in Peace Tom, thanks for your beguiling music and lyrics.

  6. Marco Alexandre Rosário says:

    I knew the work of Tom Rapp in 1983, through the album One Nation Undergroud (1967). In 2001, I talked to Tom Rapp via e-mail, and we got pretty close. In 2002 he made a song for a poem he had written in 1985, Lírio (Lily / Marco’s Song / 2002 – Lily / Overture / 2005). He was the great influence of my artistic project Editora Ogmios (Seaculum Obscurum)/Gravadora Arte Degenerada. I live in the north of Brazil.

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