Can this be where genius disappears to, after we have flayed it half to death?
Once, a long time ago, Tom Rapp was a rock star. You've probably never heard of him. In 1967, as a scrawny 20-year-old in Melbourne, Fla., he created a band with a name so arrogant it invited failure.
Most musicians selected band names that were safely seditious, like the Rolling Stones; or self-consciously silly, like the Strawberry Alarm Clock; or antiseptically straightforward, like Sonny and Cher. You don't need a degree in marketing to realize you shouldn't alienate people from the get-go.
Tom Rapp called his band Pearls Before Swine. It was a crisp one-finger salute to the listening public.
The band was mostly just Rapp. He wrote the songs, arranged the songs, sang the songs, played lead guitar. He had a dust-bunny beard and Orphan Annie bedspring hair that rode his shoulders and boinged when he walked. His voice could sound thin and doofy like Rudy Vallee, or rich and rumbly like Neil Diamond, or tremulous like a man weeping at his child's grave. Critics called his music acid folk. It trod the familiar 1960s floorboards: anti-war, pro-drug, get-inside-your-mind kindergarten Zen. But upon this floor he built a minaret, a windswept, rococo structure with spooky echoes and forbidding shadows. His lyrics borrowed from A.E. Housman, W.H. Auden, Sara Teasdale, Herodotus. He used cynicism like a horsewhip. When he wrote of love it did not sound like Herman's Hermits:
Bodies on bodiesPearls Before Swine was not always easy to listen to: Rapp made few concessions to popular taste. His instrumentation called to mind lutes and fifes, things from distant places and forgotten times. He used instruments seldom heard in rock: celeste, cello, sarangi, oboe, wind chimes and something called a bowed psaltery. His words sometimes danced just beyond the reach of reason:
When all the people are made of woodFor a brief time in the tumult of the 1960s, great music found its audience. Pearls Before Swine once opened for Pink Floyd before a half-million souls in an open field in Amsterdam. Tom Rapp toured and played the same stage as Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, Chuck Berry, Genesis, Country Joe, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan. He was invited to perform at Woodstock, and turned it down because he was in Holland, living sparely but happily near a flock of swans, in love with a woman named Elisabeth, writing songs.
Rapp recorded nine albums, each selling less than the one before. For a time, Pearls Before Swine existed mostly in discount record bins, marked down to 99 cents, along with "Petula Clark's Greatest Hits" and "Sergio Franchi Sings Songs of Love."
By Rapp's estimation, over the years he made about $200, plus paltry living expenses. He was victimized by his own artistic obstinacy, by record industry chicanery, and by the public's rapidly evolving disco-pop tastes. He nearly starved, disappearing into almost unimaginable privation.
His unruly beard is neatly trimmed now. His orange hair is fading to gray, and his haircut is lawyerly. He is 51. He has not recorded a song in a quarter-century. Most of his writing these days, at the Philadelphia law firm of Jablon, Epstein, PC, involves the field of employment discrimination.
In the case at hand, the defendant corporation is asking a judge to throw out Rapp's most recent lawsuit, saying there are no triable issues of fact. Rapp twitches his displeasure; that diffident duck of the head again. He is preparing a memorandum in support of an answer to the defendant's motion. The fact pattern, he says, obviates summary judgment. He coughs primly. The defendant, he says, engaged in a pattern of behavior violative of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Oh, man. Tom, where are you?
Where have you gone to?
The case, Rapp explains, involves a man who alleges he was harassed out of his job after disclosing that he had multiple sclerosis. The man says his bosses turned the heat in the office up, to throw his ruined body thermostat further out of whack, to make him quit.
"A big company can save itself millions of dollars if it doesn't have someone with MS on payroll," Rapp says.
He stops a moment. The spectacles get punched back up to the bridge of the nose. His songs always used silence like a cudgel.
"People with disabilities, first they get screwed by God and now they get screwed by their employer!"
Ah, there you are.
Life is a process of accommodation. We wear a tie when we'd rather be in a T-shirt and sandals. We pretend to like people we disdain, because we have to work with them. We bear a loveless marriage, for the kids. We give and bend and swerve and if we're lucky we do not forfeit our soul.
For artists, making accommodations is a special risk. To get famous you must sometimes bow to popular taste, dally with mediocrity. Sometimes, however vast your talent, it kills you dead; the Beach Boys produced far more junk than jewels. But sometimes, you become immortal. The Beatles wrote brilliant songs, and then made them hummable.
Tom Rapp has lived two lives. In the first, he gave no artistic quarter. He spent all his time writing music that pleased him, and no time at all doing all the things musicians do to get noticed and rich. He succumbed to his own obstinacy and to those who preyed on his naivete. In the second life, chastened and embittered, he adjusted his priorities. He struggled back from destitution to build something as distant as one could get from art.
If you know the work of Tom Rapp the songwriter, then you approach Tom Rapp the lawyer with a sense of dread. You make certain assumptions. You do not want to see the pale pulp that is left when life drains us of our creative juice.
But things are not always what they seem. It is that way with music. You think a song is about one thing, and one day you find out it was about something else entirely.
When the history of music is written by someone with a vast storehouse of information both signal and trivial, North Dakota will be known as the birthplace of Lawrence Welk and Tom Rapp, in that order.
In the mid-1950s, in the Midwest, moms and dads drove kids hundreds of miles to compete against one another in regional talent contests. Tommy Rapp wore a cowboy suit and sang and strummed a ukulele.
Once, years ago, Rapp was leafing through his mother's old scrapbooks and found the results of a talent show in Rochester, Minn. The program notes, he says, revealed that there were a few dozen kids competing, including Tommy Rapp, who was 8 or so, and an older kid named Bobby Zimmerman, out of Hibbing.
Bob Dylan placed fifth.
Tom Rapp placed third.
The winner was a cute little girl in a red sequined costume who twirled a baton.
Pearls before swine.
If you blinked, you missed the heyday of Pearls Before Swine. You might remember their first and most successful album, "One Nation Underground," which sold more than 200,000 copies, despite Rapp's best efforts to sabotage his fame. The band's pictures were nowhere on the jacket. Instead there was a repugnant image: Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights," a vision of Purgatory with tormented souls impaled on the strings of a harp, others with arrows in their buttocks, soldiers being devoured by rat-faced hounds of Hades, doomed wretches climbing ladders from one pit of depravity to another.
The album was terrifically inventive and bizarre. The fourth song on the first side was called "(Oh Dear) Miss Morse." It was mostly Rapp's voice, and a lone banjo:
The refrain: Dit dit DAH dit, dit dit DAH, dah DIT dah DIT, dah dit DAH.
Everywhere, stoned-out hippies rummaged through their cinder-block bookshelves for the World Almanac.
"I tried L-O-V-E first," Tom Rapp is saying, "and the cadence was all wrong. Then I tried that, and you know, it was like God wanted that word in that song. It got Murray the K in trouble."
The New York deejay played "(Oh Dear) Miss Morse" on AM radio. It turned out that very few people knew Morse code, but among them was every Boy Scout in America.
Pearls Before Swine's second album was called "Balaklava," named after the scene of the suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War. The album was a dirge, a homage to despair and futility. For the cover, Rapp found the only classic work of art more horrifying than Bosch. It was "The Triumph of Death," by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It featured people being hanged, strangled, beheaded, burned alive.
Again, no picture of the band. Pearls Before Swine was doing its level best to disappear.
The public obliged.
The fourth album, "The Use of Ashes," went virtually unheard, though it was a masterwork. It contained "The Jeweler," probably Rapp's best song, about an honorable man who spends his life in a futile effort to erase from old coins the scars of age and neglect.
The best songs exist on two levels at once. They're about what they seem to be about, and they are also metaphors for something larger. "The Use of Ashes" also contained the song "Rocket Man," written the day Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.
After that, Dale Rapp began vanishing for months at a time. He spiraled into drunken violence and madness, adrift in time and space.
Rapp left home to write songs and become a famous rock star.
Years ago, Bernie Taupin was interviewed in Billboard about a song he wrote for Elton John. It was called "Rocket Man." Taupin was asked about whether he and John had stolen it from David Bowie. Indignantly, he denied this. "We stole it from Tom Rapp and a band called Pearls Before Swine," he said.
Well, not really. Elton John's "Rocket Man" was a different song, a wan song by comparison. It was all turned around, written from the point of view of the astronaut, who by gosh missed his wife and kids. Death did not intrude.
But you could hum it.
It went to No. 6 on the pop charts.
Recently, a fan sent Rapp a cassette tape he had made while a student at Choate prep school in 1971. It was a Pearls Before Swine concert. Rapp, the man who would later be too shy and shuffling to appear in court, had held an audience of hundreds spellbound.
On the tape, Rapp tells the kids he is going to relate an anecdote about taking dope.
A nervous titter.
"This is before we heard it was illegal!"
A growing rumble of laughs and hoots.
"Now, some of you may have friends who know people who are related to someone who might have read about dope . . . "
The rest of the line is lost in thunderous applause.
It seems so very long ago.
Thomas Rapp, Esq., is sitting in his law office, flipping through his nine record albums, which a visitor has brought to show him.
Finally, he hits the original version of "One Nation Underground."
"I don't have this one. Do you mind if I make a tape of it?'
You don't have it?
"Every time we see one in an old record store, he won't buy it." This is Lynn Madison, Rapp's wife, who works as a paralegal in his law office. "He says it costs too much."
"Well, it's $30!" Rapp protests. "I didn't get that much to make the album."
He is not kidding.
Rapp says his record producer had told him there were no proceeds from his album sales but as a favor would mail him a couple hundred dollars every month, for living expenses. Eventually, Rapp began to suspect something was awry. He was kind of famous. He hadn't made a cent. He was living in Woodstock, N.Y., subsisting on handouts with his first wife, Elisabeth, and David, their infant son. Once, he says, the family lived for two weeks on oatmeal alone; there was no money for milk.
Rapp phoned his producer and demanded to see an accounting of monies made and disbursed. Sure, the producer said, come on down.
So Rapp hopped a bus for New York City. The guy handed him a huge brown paper package, elaborately wrapped in duct tape. Rapp brought it home on the bus, got home, took an X-acto knife and sliced it open.
Rapp cadged another $8 and headed south to New York again. When he got there, the office was empty. The producer had fled.
He hasn't been heard from since; even his former partner now says he doesn't know what became of him.
Later, Rapp says, he learned there had been more than $100,000 in royalties he had never seen. And worst of all, a contract he had signed had transferred ownership of his songs to a company the producer had said was wholly owned by Tom Rapp. In fact, it was wholly owned by Tom Rapp's producer. Money had been spent against future earnings. Rapp figured that whatever he wrote from that day on would go to enrich others.
And so one day in 1976, after opening for Patti Smith at Symphony Hall in Boston, Rapp just quit. His marriage broke up; he got a job in Cambridge, Mass., selling popcorn at Harvard Square Theater for $1.35 an hour. "I knew at the end of the week, every single week, I would get $85," he says. "I was insane with joy!"
And his former producer?
Rapp is a courtly man, generous in his assessment of others. On this topic, and on this topic alone, his charity deserts him.
"He is in Hell, I hope, getting shtupped by Richard Nixon."
Rapp went to Brandeis for an undergraduate degree. Studying days, working nights, sleeping for a few hours a week, he then went to law school at the University of Pennsylvania. And in 1984 he landed a job at Jablon, Epstein. Which is where we find him on this day, parsing issues of constitutional law.
This is not an ordinary law firm. The head of the firm, Alan B. Epstein, looks like Ben Franklin, with a fringe of long, cotton-candy white hair surrounding a Bozo the Clown crown. Epstein is a feared litigator. His firm represents only little people whose rights have been trampled on. He employs three lawyers. One acts in regional theater. One used to work for another firm until it discovered he was HIV-positive, and fired him; Epstein won him a big settlement, then hired him.
The third lawyer used to be a psychedelic rock musician.
In the firm's most recent victory, it represented hundreds of clients who'd had their medical benefits terminated under a provision of the state's workers' compensation act. Epstein got the law declared unconstitutional. He did it using a novel argument Rapp had developed at his computer terminal: that because people receiving workers' compensation were not free to choose the details of their medical treatment, they were prisoners of the system, no different from inmates in a prison.
It was an unconventional argument, to say the least. The Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals bought it, to the tune of $145 million in restored benefits.
Epstein says legal research is more than finding citations and precedent. "It is about thought. Tom thinks. And he's a writer. You see his songwriting abilities in his briefs."
Legal briefs tend to be desiccated documents, built on boilerplate. They are issued through pursed lips and appeal to sterile logic. The paragraphs are so spare and technical they often are sequentially numbered.
Not long ago, Rapp submitted a complaint on behalf of a manager dismissed by a major corportation after it learned he had AIDS. From Page 13:
"75. Plaintiff repeats and realleges paragraphs 1 through 74 above as though fully set forth herein . . .
"77. Plaintiff's position was a great solace to him in the face of a diagnosis of HIV which could have crippled his spirit without that support.
"78. In a civilized community, it is an intolerable wrong to abandon the sick and put them out to die.
"79. The acts imposed on plaintiff the social death so commonly inflicted on those who suffer from HIV. . . .
"81. [The company's] turn away from decency in the face of fear of AIDS (or perhaps as a result of commercial calculation in fear of the public's fear), inflicted on plaintiff needless additions to the suffering he already carried . . . "
Words by Tom Rapp.
At the end of each day, Tom Rapp and Lynn Madison take the commuter train to Haddonfield, N.J., where they live in a handsome old house with a fine tree and deck in the back yard, and a slaphappy mutt named Harry whom they have loved to a state of pleasant corpulence.
Madison and Rapp have been lovers for 10 years, and husband and wife for two. They were living together for years before Rapp first hauled out the guitar.
"He would only play half a song," Madison says, "and then he would put it away. It is like he was embarrassed. I think it was painful. I think he felt the music wasn't worthwhile."
Rapp never listened to his own records. Madison never heard them. They were just something packed away, like old photos of a dead marriage.
One day in early 1997, Rapp got a phone call from Phil McMullen, a rock magazine impresario in England, who told him to his astonishment that his first two records had been issued as CDs in Europe and were selling reasonably well. Apparently the people who owned rights to the records all those years ago had marketed them without telling him. Rapp was appalled, and thrilled: He felt vinyl was a dead language. His songs would be lost forever. Now someone had made them modern.
McMullen asked: Would Rapp like to perform at a small festival in Providence, R.I., a neo-psychelic summit called Terrastock? He'd have to pay his own way.
Rapp said sure.
And so he had to practice some of the old stuff. It was the first time Madison ever heard "The Jeweler" all the way through.
Rapp had lawyer's hands. No calluses. He only had a few weeks to rehearse. It was hell on his fingers.
A gentle man in small spectacles, working desperately against time.
Blood flowed from his hands.
At Terrastock he sang a few old songs. He was a hit. It sparked a modest resurgence of interest in Pearls Before Swine. A young entrepreneur in Providence, Jeffrey Alexander, started calling hip young bands interested in covering Rapp songs, and they put together a tribute album, "For the Dead in Space," featuring groups like the Bevis Frond and Damon & Naomi (formerly of Galaxie 500). The album, issued under the Magic Eye label, surprised its producer by selling several thousand copies.
Now Birdman Records, an affiliate of Reprise, is issuing a retrospective Pearls Before Swine album, to include songs from the LP "The Use of Ashes," among others.
And Bernard Stollman, the New York lawyer who ran ESP Records, which released the first two Pearls albums, is in the process of selling his label. Stollman says he has the legal right to do it. Rapp says he does not.
Stollman says Rapp definitely got ripped off years ago but not by him. He blames the producer who disappeared (who could not be located for comment). Stollman says he himself lost money victimized by the mob, which back then "dominated" the record industry. Hundreds of thousands of Pearls Before Swine albums were bootlegged, he says, which explains why Rapp never got royalties. He knows Rapp won't believe that, but he welcomes a chance to explain it to him.
"Tom has every reason to be profoundly suspicious."
But still Stollman says he intends to market the Pearls albums.
The artist says, simply, that he will not permit it.
Tom Rapp is not a 20-year-old hippie anymore. He is a Philadelphia lawyer. This should be interesting.
Among certain musicians, Tom Rapp is a legend. Bevis Frond, a hot group from England, is on an American tour and has scheduled a stop in New Jersey, to visit a man whom lead singer Nick Salomon calls "totally brilliant."
Dinner is a crock-pot veggie affair, and afterward the musicians retire to the living room, to jam.
Salomon plays his new song, "Stars Burn Out," which laments the collision of ego and age that brings down celebrities:
The old world died and it changed your luck.On their couch, Madison and Rapp sit side by side. They are holding hands, heads bobbing to the music. Rapp's hazel eyes are alive and dancing. Salomon is on his feet, with bassist Adrian Shaw at his side. Drummer Andy Ward is sprawled on the floor, keeping time. With one hand he is slapping a doggy squeak toy against the floorboards. With the other hand he thumps Harry the dog, who sounds like a mid-bass kettledrum.
Rapp is content, a man of 51 who has conducted his life with dignity and honor. He has burned few bridges. His ex-wife, Elisabeth, appeared onstage with him last month at a second Terrastock concert in San Francisco, and they sang a duet. In Massachusetts, their son, Dave, 27, is getting good notices for his band, Shy Camp. If he succeeds, Dave will damn sure make money. There's a lawyer in Philadelphia who can see to that.
Meanwhile, a man with multiple sclerosis may get his day in court.
Life is good. The music is good.
Outside, it is overcast.
Inside, no stars are burning out.
Rapp picks up his guitar. It is a Martin D-18 S, a classic wide-neck, slot-head acoustic. In 1969, at the Other End in Greenwich Village, Rapp was playing on a bill with Ramblin' Jack Elliott when Bob Dylan suddenly strolled onstage and offered to do a duet with Elliott. He had no guitar, so Rapp handed Dylan his.
It's the guitar he is holding now.
Rapp, just home from work, has shed his tie, but is still wearing his lawyer's starched white shirt, with collar tabs dangling. His shoes are oxblood cordovans.
Around his neck he hangs a harmonica brace.
He says he's going to play two songs he's written in the last few years, and never recorded, and maybe never will.
The first is called "The Swimmer," an elegy to Kurt Cobain, singer-songwriter from the band Nirvana who blew his brains out in despair.
Rapp's guitar work is still clean and sweet. His harp is early Dylan, all slide and slobber and controlled mayhem.
The lyrics are Rapp, at his best.
There is a second thing, but it is subtle and you don't notice it for a few minutes more, until Rapp is in the middle of another new song, called "Blind."
That's when you notice the second thing.
That little-man's twitch. When he sings, it's gone.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from "The Jeweler," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8184. For "(Oh Dear) Miss Morse," press 8185.)
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
Back to the top