Pearls Before Swine – “City of Gold”

September 8, 2017

Pearls Before Swine – “City of Gold”

Tom Rapp Pearls Before Swine:
City of Gold / Beautiful Lies You Could Live In
(BGO Records BGOCD
Pearls Before Swine are placed
in the liner notes somewhere between the Incredible String Band, Mimi &
Richard Farina, Tim Buckley…and Love: wide indeed, but justified. Some liken one
of these albums to alt-country but that’s only a fraction: for most the
biblically-named Pearls Before Swine are really a full-throttle 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 beguiling Irish-English
whimsy, though listeners will hear a lot of their likes surfacing while the
always-interesting Rapp ploughs his own plot.

    Born in 1947, both Tom Rapp’s parents were
teachers struggling with the father’s alcoholism. 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 were in Esperanto (1964) and avant-garde jazz before signing the
rebels The Fugs and The Godz from the local scene. It’s said that the Swines’
debut, in its Bosch art cover (One Nation
1967), sold 100,000-250,000 copies but zero royalties for them
(thank goodness Stollman failed to sign Dr Strangely Strange at their concert
in Dublin and they went with Island). One reviewer saw Rapp as “one of the most
erudite, literate minds in rock”. In late ’68 Pearls Before Swine issued the
magnum opus Balaklava,
with a Bruegel 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,
featuring 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.
of Gold
here, 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 featured
singer David Noyes, from as far back as 1969.
    Along with violin, cello, keys, oboe and
flute, 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). The
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 it but on the next Lies
    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 that 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
more personal aspects such as names. Brel’s last years, probably Rapp’s focus,
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 Jews 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 his father’s alcoholism there’s a moving cover of
Judy Collins’ My Father, sung by Elisabeth Rapp. For Cohen’s (Seems So Long
Ago) Nancy a hi-hat provides an even slower beat than the original, with
plucked acoustic guitar strings, violin, and harpsichord by David Briggs, more
Gothic than Cohen’s one-room setting with choral-like fading on the lyrics.
Wedding also shows his influence: dark poetry 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. 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 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). Again
recorded in New York,
the album (depicting Ophelia by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painter
J.E.Millais) includes longer songs among the 11 self-penned-bar-one signalling
the last use of the Pearls Before Swine moniker. The Baroque-like opener Snow
Queen—yearning lyrics over piano and delicate strings—reprised on the
high-vocal Freedom, rural electric country/folk rock (A Life; Simple Things), the
plaintive Butterflies (aren’t we all such, as the Sufis say?), starkly introvert
yet percussive She’s Gone, the expressive fiddle/piano (Come To Me), and
straight pop-rock of Island Lady, all point to Rapp’s confident wish to be
expressive in many styles. 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 joined by 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 pure and simple; one cannot safely say one album
is more American or European than the other, as reviewers debate, for they
blend in range like all the Pearls Before Swine legacy.      
    Tom Rapp went solo after Lies. 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 music 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 the excellent Secret Eye Records over the years. A new 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) lifted at Yale University during the period of
these two re-releases 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 “an
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 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 and can open interest in other genres for listeners. These
two albums show a richly influential legacy that consisted of barely 100 songs,
the roots forged by such as Tom Rapp that clearly continue to resonate in music
– Brian R. Banks
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