Pearls Before Swine, Tom Rapp & The First Dawning of American Psych Folk: Revisiting’City of Gold’ & ‘Beautiful Lies You Could Live In’

Pearls Before Swine are placed in the liner notes somewhere between the Incredible String Band, Mimi & Richard Farina, Tim Buckley…and Love. Some have likened one of these albums to alt-country but that’s only a fraction: for most the biblically-named Pearls Before Swine are really the vehicle for Tom Rapp and the first dawning of American psychedelic folk. Their nearest cousins this side of the Atlantic are post-debut Dr. Strangely Strange, with American angles rather than the Irish-English beautiful whimsy, although listeners will hear a lot of their likes surfacing via the always-interesting Rapp ploughing his own plot.

Born in 1947, both Tom Rapp’s parents were teachers with father an alcoholic. Bought a guitar when six, Tom later came third in a talent contest that saw Bobby Zimmerman in fifth place. When the family moved to Florida, Pearls Before Swine were formed with three high school friends in 1965. They sent a demo to ESP-Disk in New York, owned by the lawyer Bernie Stollman, whose first release was in Esperanto (1964) and avant-garde jazz before signing the rebels The Fugs and The Godz from the local scene. It is said that the Swines’ debut in a Bosch art cover, One Nation Underground (1967), sold between 100,000 and 250,000 copies but zero royalties for the group (thank goodness Stollman failed to sign Dr Strangely Strange when he saw their concert in Dublin and they went with Island). One reviewer dubbed Rapp “one of the most erudite, literate minds in rock”. In late ’68 Pearls Before Swine issued their magnum opus, Balaklava, with a Bruegel painting cover, which included Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne and the voice of…Florence Nightingale!

The original PBS never played live together, but Rapp continued with the project when he signed to Reprise in ’69 for his third album These Things Too, which featured Dylan’s I Shall Be Released and W.H. Auden’s poem Footnote. Recorded in New York, the same producer was used with local sessionmen. The Use of Ashes (1970) was recorded with his Dutch wife Elisabeth after sailing on the maiden voyage of the QE2 to live in Holland. Its Rocket Man, based on a Ray Bradbury sci-fi short story when Rapp was living near Cape Canaveral, inspired Elton John’s famous song; many years later The Jeweller was covered by This Mortal Coil.

City of Gold, also known as the Nashville album because backed by the cream of that city’s musicians (though recorded again in New York and at Bearsville, Woodstock), was seen by some contemporary reviewers as PBS on the first side and Tom Rapp on the second. This interpretation is fraught because all albums after Balaklava are really Rapp with wife, friends, and sessioneers exploring his quest for new sounds and ideas as a storyteller taking listeners on a voyage. Much of this 5th album featured unused ideas from previous sessions, and according to the singer David Noyes, from as far back as 1969.

Sessions included Charlie McCoy on guitar/bass/harmonica (Presley, Dylan, Cash, Chet Atkins etc), Norbert Putnam bass (Presley, Orbison, J.J. Cale), and Kenny Buttrey on drums (Dylan, Neil Young, Baez, George Harrison etc). McCoy and Buttrey were in Area Code 615, famous for The Old Grey Whistle Test BBC theme (its title was coined by Jake Milton, the drummer of Quintessence). Similar status musicians contribute violin, cello, keys, oboe and flute. Its cover photo of Rapp, hand-coloured like in old postcards, was taken in Holland where several songs were written and played live in ’71, though the back-cover shot of the band didn’t play on the album but on the Lies album.

Not breaking the 30-minute barrier, the cover of Leonard Cohen’s Nancy and Jacques Brel’s Le Moribond, known to English-speakers as Seasons In the Sun, ended and started the two vinyl sides (so here back-to-back) and are the only songs longer than three minutes—though the Belgian poet’s wasn’t! The Canadian Terry Jacks hit with the ten-million-seller in 1974, 13 years after Brel and shortly after Jacks’ produced version with the Beach Boys was shelved. Rapp tries to marry these very different takes. Originally about farewells when facing death, the double-bass-driven original was more sardonic and less sentimental but Rod McKuen’s first English translation removed the more personal aspect such as names. Brel’s last years were scarred with terminal illness before being buried in 1978 a few metres from the painter Paul Gauguin in French Polynesia.

Opening with Shakespeare’s Sonnet #65 for 43 seconds, with Rapp’s characteristic (C&W style?) partial lisp, Once Upon A Time features harmonica and Jew’s harp while Raindrops is more prog-folk 1969-71, a little like Trees in their quieter moments. The title track City Of Gold refers, over an organ, to the violence of (American) urban life and seeing a man all wrapped in chains and pain. In view of Rapp’s father struggling with alcoholism, there is a moving cover of Judy Collins’ My Father sung by Elisabeth Rapp. For Cohen’s (Seems So Long Ago) Nancy a hi-hat provides the beat that is even slower than the original, with plucked acoustic guitar strings, violin, and harpsichord by David Briggs, more Gothic Romantic than Cohen’s bleaker setting with a fading on the lyrics adding to that interpretation. Wedding shows the late Cohen’s influence: dark poetic lyrics with organ (and strumming) as if witnessing the ceremony.

Harpsichord returns for the closer “Did You Dream Of” (unicorns, wizard, “roses or thorns” about mortality and that some people are dying before they die). Drums, piano and all lifts the mood that the words fight against, typical of Rapp’s wistful embodiment of acid-folk themes. Breadth can be felt with upbeat evangelism (The Man) and slurred country vocal tricked with oboe for a faux Middle-Eastern flavour (Casablanca). His wife Elizabeth appears on just two songs, and in spite of the abundance of resources available the arrangements are quite sparse and so in-keeping with the PBS style.

Always trying to tease out a different sound, his 6th album Beautiful Lies You Could Live In prefers a heavier bass than before. Among the dozen top session musicians are Amos Grant (lead guitar on Maria Muldaur’s Midnight At The Oasis world hit) and Billy Mundi (ex-Mothers of Invention and Todd Rundgren). In a cover depicting Ophelia by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painter J.E.Millais, the album (also recorded in New York) includes some longer songs among the 11 titles signalling the last use of the Pearls Before Swine moniker. The Baroque-like opener Snow Queen—yearning lyrics over piano, guitar and delicate strings—later reprised on the high-vocal of Freedom, rural electric country/folk rock (A Life; Simple Things), the plaintive Butterflies (aren’t we all such, as the Sufis talk about?) and starkly introvert yet percussive She’s Gone, the expressive fiddle and piano on Come To Me, the straight pop-rock of Island Lady, all point to Rapp’s confident wish to be expressive in many styles all written bar one by him. The duet with his wife on Everybody’s Got Pain could be Fleetwood Mac or Fairport Convention, sung in Dylan mode.

The almost obligatory cover of Cohen (“Bird On A Wire”) is also reflected in the album title referencing the late Canadian’s written work; Rapp has been compared to his lyrical complexity. Unaccompanied vocals open and the delivery continues in a heart-felt waltz arrangement with organ that some call the best-ever recorded cover. It closes with Epitaph (the English poet A.E. Houseman’s Epitaph On An Army Of Mercenaries) evocatively adapted by Elisabeth Rapp. Sometimes called folk rock or country in places, the last three songs certainly point more to folk; one cannot safely say one album is more American or European than the other for they blend in range like all the Pearls Before Swine legacy.

Tom Rapp went solo after Lies, and his last Reprise LP Familiar Songs (1972) was actually issued without his permission or knowledge (an unfortunate trait of that company) with only two new songs among eight outtakes. On Blue Thumb Records came Stardancer (late 1972) and Sunforest (1973), performing live for the last time in ’76 supporting Patti Smith, before leaving the business to study at university to become a successful civil rights lawyer when marrying for a second time. A tribute album appeared in 1997 (For The Dead In Space, Magic Eye) followed by at least three more on Secret Eye Records over the years. A new and last album was released on Bevis Frond’s Woronzow label, A Journal of the Plague Year (1999), showing Rapp’s literary interests again.        

A live bootleg exists (Live Pearls 2008) made at Yale University during the period of these two albums from BGO that are warm and rich in their mastering with fascinating sleeve notes. Clem, the guitarist of Nazareth, called these two his favourite Rapp albums, with City of Gold “a moderately interesting piece of musical history that isn’t entirely without its little charms”. In fact all of Rapp’s albums contain their own charm, remembering that it is prog-folk at its dawn in the 69-71 climate. Lies is an unduly neglected work by a master.

Reviewers often call his work “captivating”, “enchanting”, “exotic and eclectic”, and this is grounded in a frayed romanticism that is always erudite and as artistic as the album sleeves. Thought-provoking in delivery and subject choice, slightly psychedelic and dreamy but never wallowing or clingy, his music haunts for all the right reasons with mysterious melodies that linger. These two albums show a richly influential legacy that consisted of barely 100 songs, the roots forged by such as Tom Rapp that continue to resonate in music today.

 

          

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