Tom Rapp photographed in 1998 at the Haddonfield train
station in Philadelphia. The Washington Post/Washington
Post/Getty Images
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Washington Post/Washington Post/Getty Images

Tom Rapp photographed in 1998 at the Haddonfield train
station in Philadelphia.

The
Washington Post/Washington Post/Getty Images

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.)

Cover art for Pearls Before Swine’s album One
Nation Underground
, a detail from Hieronymous
Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Courtesy of
the artist
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Courtesy
of the artist

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.”

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