Tom Rapp, a civil rights attorney and musician best known for his late-'60s and early-'70s recordings under the name Pearls Before Swine, has died while in hospice care at his home in Melbourne, Fla., his publicist confirmed to NPR Music. He was 70 years old.
Like many of his generation, Rapp was inspired Elvis and The Everly Brothers. But it was hearing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" in the early '60s that finally galvanized him to begin writing music in earnest. (A possibly apocryphal tale goes that Rapp and Dylan actually competed as children in the same talent contest, with Dylan placing fifth, Rapp second.)
Pearls Before Swine's first record, One Nation Underground, released in 1967, wore that influence plainly on its sleeve — not so much the fraught Hieronymous Bosch extract that adorned its cover, but in the Xeroxing of Dylan's vocal delivery (with the addition of Rapp's notable and endearing speech impediment) heard on the song "Playmate." While Rapp may have been emulating on the mic there, the rest of the music on "Playmate" is woven with forward-thinking threads of psychedelia and garage rock. Further on, Rapp steps into his own, even presaging punk's approach to institutional fealty (don't) in the lyrics of "Drop Out!" and a avant-garde approach to cursing word, spelled out in Morse code, on "(Oh Dear) Miss Morse."
The album would go on to sell "about 250,000," Rapp told NPR Music's Bob Boilen last fall during a conversation centered on its 50th anniversary reissue. Despite the impressive sales, Rapp and his bandmates received next to no money from them. Bernard Stollman, who ran the label ESP-Disk' that released One Nation Underground and its follow-up, told them that "the CIA and the Mafia were putting [the records] out themselves," and so the sales weren't ending with money in the pocket of ESP-Disk' and, by extension, Pearls Before Swine. (Or many of the label's other artists, the story goes.)
Rapp would go on to release eight more well-regarded records — Balaclava, the follow-up to One Nation Underground, perhaps highest among them — before utterly disappearing from music in 1974, not long after opening a concert for Patti Smith.
Infused with the spirit of the counterculture, but not willing to take his own advice and "drop out," Rapp headed to college and, from there, law school, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1984. Rapp was a civil rights attorney in Philadelphia until 2001, after which he returned again to Florida. His practice emphasized reining in corporations and local governments.
As much as his music, Rapp's work as a lawyer and his attitude towards his rediscovery in the popular imagination were illustrative of his spirit. Nearly 17 years ago, Rapp's career was profiled for Weekend Edition by Peter Clowney. Rapp was bemused at the bloom of his late-in-life celebrity, treating it with a humbled, arm's-length detachment, the attitude of someone who had long since filled his life.
Describing that rediscovery, which began around 1992 while he was in Philadelphia, Rapp said: "They call me a psychedelic godfather and they have these articles about how I'm a legend. The way that works is, you do some albums in the '60s that are OK, you go away for 30 years, and you don't die — then you're a legend."
During that piece, Rapp shared his "lessons from the '60s." They began with a dark half-joke: "One of the lessons of the '60s was that assassination works." He continued: "Love is real. Justice is real. Countries have no morals; you have to kick them to get them to do the right thing. Honesty is possible and necessary. And everything is not for sale."