In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: We’re talking about songs we heard once and then had to seek out.
Before I can tell you about “Rocket Man,” a song by Pearls Before Swine, a very good band with a very bad name, I should tell you how I first heard it. It was in a Ragstock store, now long closed, that was located on South Wabash, the first few blocks of which are like a living museum of mid-century Chicago. The street is narrow and enclosed by a dense ceiling of elevated track. It’s the home of Central Camera (“Since 1899”), with its window display of Rolleiflex cameras, and the Iwan Ries & Co. tobacco lounge, which still looks and smells like the late 1960s. It’s where Hasidim sell engagement rings out of little shops you have to be buzzed into, and where you can get a camera lens repaired, same-day and cheap, by a three-fingered man who works from behind a glass counter window. In the cold autumn of 2004, the street did not seem as poignant as it does now.
The Ragstock store—part of a chain of cheap vintage clothing sellers long familiar to the young people of the Upper Midwest—was located on the second floor of a narrow Great Depression-era building. You came in from the street and went straight up a flight of stairs. It was on the last step of those stairs, which I would always run up two-at-a-time, that I first heard “Rocket Man,” which had, at that very moment, come on the in-store sound system. I still picture the opening bars of the song as an ascent, rising as though on an escalator, and can feel myself gliding above the sticky floor of the Ragstock, my fingers hovering over racks of mothball-smelling cardigans as I went through the motions of browsing, locked on the song.
“Rocket Man” is a gem of sparse baroque pop, performed mostly by Nashville session musicians, and written by Tom Rapp, the singer-songwriter who was the only constant member of Pearls Before Swine. Rapp had a soft singing voice with a slight lisp, and he was an often wonderful craftsman of songs, at once very earnest and esoteric. (Sci-fi and fairy tale imagery were favorites, with evocative song titles like “For The Dead In Space” and “Snow Queen.”) Pearls Before Swine sold few records, not even enough to qualify as a cult item, and Rapp eventually retired from music to become a lawyer. “Rocket Man,” which was inspired by the Ray Bradbury story of the same title, was the first I’d heard of the band. It’s the second track on The Use Of Ashes, their fourth album, and, in my opinion, their best.
The Use Of Ashes was playing on the in-store stereo that day, and after listening through the next track, “God Save The Child,” I worked up the courage to ask the guy at the register what he was listening to; to a teenager in the America of the early to mid-2000s, vintage-store clerks seemed like gatekeepers of indifferent cool. Typical of quasi-hip conversations at that time, the question segued into a short history about ESP-Disk, the eccentric, seminal New York label that had released Pearls Before Swine’s first two albums, but not The Use Of Ashes. I left with a head full of information and the urge to listen to a song that I could not hear.
I was working my first grown-up job then, selling CDs in the music section of a chain bookstore. I was able to place special orders, which I did to get The Use Of Ashes into the store; it had just been issued on CD, having only ever been available on vinyl, by a label that was also reissuing records by the likes of Albert Ayer and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, both of whom I would discover soon after. It was not a cheap CD, even with the 20-percent employee discount, and I waited for weeks until I could spare the money, hoping that it wouldn’t be bought or sent back. And then, I remember putting it into my CD player, which I would carry in front of me like a dinner plate, so it wouldn’t skip, listening to the song as I left work, and feeling as though I were gliding along.