SONG OF THE WEEK – ROCKET MAN

On this day in history:

July 20, 1969:  Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are the first humans to set foot on the the Moon.  This occurred during NASA’s Apollo 11 expedition, and I have previously written a little bit about that.

July 20, 1976:  NASA’s Viking 1 spacecraft makes first soft landing on Mars.

July 20, 1969 (again):  Singer-songwriter Tom Rapp composes the song, “Rocket Man.”

July 20, 2016:  “Rocket Man” chosen as Song of the Week.
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Most people are familiar with Elton John’s song, “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be a Long, Long Time).”  That is not the song featured here.  This one came first, and apparently influenced the more famous hit by Elton John.  Bernie Taupin, John’s lyricist and co-writer, once responded to the suggestion, by an interviewer for Billboard magazine, that his “Rocket Man” was influenced by David Bowie’s “Space Odditiy” by saying:  “We didn’t steal that one from Bowie.  We stole it from another guy, called Tom Rapp.”

So, who is this guy called Tom Rapp.  If they have heard of him at all, a few people may recall that he was the moving force behind the late-1960s/early 1970’s avant garde psychedelic folk rock band, Pearls Before Swine.  And most remember that band only because its album covers featured allegorical paintings by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Pearls Before Swine was formed in Florida in 1965 by Tom Rapp and two of his high school buddies.  Tom had been interested in music since he was given his first guitar at the age of six.  His desire to write songs and perform was kindled when he first heard Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

That may not have been the first time that Dylan had crossed his path.  When Tom was eight years old and living in Minnesota, he had entered a talent contest in Rochester, MN, in which he played a ukelele and finished in third place.  The program listed another contestant who was a couple of years older – a boy named Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing, who came in fifth.  The contest was won by a little girl in a sequined suit who twirled a baton.

Pearls Before Swine made some interesting music, but never became popular enough to generate even a cult following.  One of the reasons may have been the name.  It seemed a bit smug to insinuate that the band’s musical pearls were being offered to the swine comprising the audience.  That type of smugness was reinforced by songs like “Miss Morse” on their first album in which an obscenity was repeatedly spelled out in Morse code, implicitly saying, “see how clever we are.”1.

The original band stayed for the first three albums, after which Rapp’s high school friends sought real jobs.  The later albums were the work of Rapp, his first wife and studio musicians.  The fourth album, which was the first that was basically a Tom Rapp solo, was called The Use of Ashes and released in 1970.  The album title was taken from one of his songs called “The Jeweler,” which tells of a man who knew the “use of ashes” as he worked into the night using them to polish old coins.  Although that song was not too popular at the time, it became a minor hit for the group The Mortal Coil some 20 years later.

The Use of Ashes also included “Rocket Man,” which Rapp was inspired to write after watching the first moon landing.  The song is based on a 1951 short story by Ray Bradbury, entitled “The Rocket Man.”  That story, like this song, is written from the point of view of a young boy whose astronaut father is killed by a solar flare.  Since it was the Sun which took the father’s life, the boy and his mother decide never to look upon the Sun again.  A good summary of the story can be read on thebestnotes.com.2.

By 1973, Tom Rapp had released three more albums as Pearls Before Swine and two (including a collection of demos, Familiar Songs, released by the record company without his approval or knowledge, which is actually one of the best collections of some of his most impressive songs.)  None of those enjoyed any more commercial success than had the earlier works, so Tom, like his high school buddies, dropped out of the music business.  Like most old rock and rollers, he went on to law school.3.

Rapp’s legal career was mainly focused on civil rights and employment discrimination cases, first in private practice in Philadelphia and then as a county attorney for Charlotte County, Florida.  That latter job was terminated in 2008, but he used his skills to sue the county for age discrimination.  The case was settled, and soon thereafter he retired to have more time to care for his second wife, who was in failing health.

The version of “Rocket Man” here is not the original one from The Use of Ashes.  Instead, it seems to be a remastered version of the one found on Familiar Songs.

Rocket Man
By Tom Rapp

My father was a rocket man
He often went to Jupiter or Mercury, to Venus or to Mars
My mother and I would watch the sky
And wonder if a falling star
Was a ship becoming ashes with a rocket man inside

My mother and I
Never went out
Unless the sky was cloudy or the sun was blotted out
Or to escape the pain
We only went out when it rained

My father was a rocket man
He loved the world beyond the world, the sky beyond the sky
And on my mother’s face, as lonely as the world in space
I could read the silent cry
That if my father fell into a star
We must not look upon that star again

My mother and I
Never went out
Unless the sky was cloudy or the sun was blotted out
Or to escape the pain
We only went out when it rained

Tears are often jewel-like
My mother’s went unnoticed by my father, for his jewels were the stars
And in my father’s eyes I knew he had to find
In the sanctity of distance something brighter than a star
One day they told us the sun had flared and taken him inside

My mother and I
Never went out
Unless the sky was cloudy or the sun was blotted out
Or to escape the pain
We only went out when it rained

[I have been unable to find current copyright information for this song]

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  1.  I’ll admit that I was also a bit smug because I had learned Morse code while studying for a ham radio license when I was in junior high, so I got their little “joke.”
  2. There is a typographical error on that page and this story is referred to as “The Long Rain,” which was actually the story just before this one in Bradbury’s collection, The Illustrated Man.
  3. Another example of that trend is Barry Melton.  Barry “The Fish” Melton was “The Fish” of Country Joe and the Fish.  Melton earned his law degree by mail from LaSalle Extension University, a now-defunct correspondence school, that was more legitimate than, say, Trump University.  He passed the California
    Bar Exam in 1982 and worked as a public defender for several years, becoming California’s deputy state public defender from 1998 to 1999.  He then went into private practice, continuing to represent criminal defendants.

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