Perfect Sound Forever

Emitt Rhodes

Images courtesy of Emitt Rhodes website

by Steven J. Hyden
(January 2001)

Most cult heroes are cult heroes by design. Either his or her music is too esoteric to be accepted by the mainstream, or his or her personality too erratic or weird for most people to understand or tolerate. In either respect, the artist usually has sought out selective rather than widespread acceptance on purpose. The cult audience, in turn, is grateful for the opportunity to feel superior to all the stupid, smelly legions of idiots who make up the majority of the music-buying public.

 Then there's people like Emitt Rhodes, who's a cult hero for no good reason whatsoever. Far from obscure, his music is loaded with melodic charisma, that essential ingredient that makes you want to hear some records over and over again. Often called a musical dead ringer for Sir Paul McCartney, Rhodes is really the Macca we all wish Macca would be: an incredible pop tunesmith without all the gooey sentimentality and overflowing cuteness. The crown jewel of Rhodes' small body of work is his self-titled debut album. Released to critical acclaim and modest commercial success in 1970, Emitt Rhodes has since taken on mythical status among power-pop and '70's rock aficionados. The album is a tour-de-force: just like McCartney on his first solo album, Rhodes played all the instruments and sang all the vocals himself. But even more impressive are the songs. Only 20 years old at the time, Rhodes had already absorbed the best of '60s rock and matched it. Lennon/McCartney certainly weren't writing songs the caliber of "Somebody Made for Me" or "With My Face on the Floor" at that age. This precocious, good-looking kid should have been unstoppable.

 But as it turned out, Rhodes was pretty much dead in the water careerwise at 24. A contract dispute raised the ire of his record company, and instead of nurturing a talented and potentially lucrative artist, they ended up giving Rhodes a royal rogering. Chewed up and spat out, Rhodes was burned out before his career really got started. While he's flattered people still care about the music he made 30 years ago, being a self-described "has-been wannabe" doesn't quite sit well with him. "I wish I had made some money doing it," Rhodes said in a phone interview in November. "I would find life a lot more enjoyable."

 Born and raised in Hawthorne, California, a bastion of power-pop thanks to homeboys The Beach Boys, Rhodes started with rock 'n' roll in his early teens, playing drums in a band called The Emerals. "My father was really nice," Rhodes said. "He let me use the garage. Having a garage was, for a drummer, a really popular thing. Every band needs a place to rehearse and I had one." The Emerals played the local circuit, including Hawthorne High School dances. It was at one of these dances that Rhodes had a run-in with one of his hometown's soon-to-be princes. "Dennis Wilson broke my drum pedal," Rhodes recalled over 35 years later. "He never paid for it or got me a new one. He just broke it and left."

 The Emerals soon evolved into The Palace Guard, who had a minor hit single called "Falling Sugar." Emitt was still the drummer, but he was looking to step out from behind the drum kit and into the spotlight. In 1966, he left The Palace Guard and formed another group with a long name (remember this is mid-60s L.A.) called The Merry-Go-Round. Instead of keeping time, Rhodes was now the guitar-playing frontman and songwriter. Retaining guitarist Gary Kato from his old band, the 16-year-old Rhodes recruited drummer Joel Larson and bassist Bill Rhinehart to complete the line-up.

 The new group quickly recorded what would be its biggest hit, a Rubber Soul soundalike called "Live." Based on a demo of "Live" and another song called "Clown's No Good," A&M Records signed The Merry-Go-Round and released "Live" as a single. After the song shot to number one in L.A., A&M slapped together a bunch of demos and called it M-G-R's debut album. Called simply The Merry-Go-Round, the album holds up surprisingly well considering the circumstances. "Gonna Fight the War" and "Low Down" are tough guitar songs that rival the best Buffalo Springfield, while more melancholy tracks like "You're A Very Lovely Woman" and "On Your Way Out" out-Big Star Big Star more than three years before #1 Record. Essentially a garage "boy band," The M-G-R nevertheless had a sophisticated sound, due in large part to Rhodes' rapidly developing songwriting ability.

 But by 1969 Rhodes, now 19, grew tired of the inevitable in-fighting that comes with being in a group. He wanted to make music for himself and by himself, so he set up a makeshift studio in a shed behind his parents house. "I bought myself a machine. It was an old four track machine, an Ampex," Rhodes recalled. "It had huge knobs and giant meters. It was the size of a washing machine. It looked like something out of Flash Gordon." With his brand new four-track, Rhodes began bashing out songs for his first solo album. His desire to record everything himself was practical because he didn't have any money to hire musicians. Alone in the studio he was open to experimentation. "I was a drummer and I had a piano and I had a guitar and I just started there. The next thing I knew I wanted to play the violin and the sax and the flute and the harmonica and the banjo and everything. I'm a tinkerer. I would buy an instrument and an instructional book, and just play scales for an hour a day until I felt comfortable doing it. And then I would write parts. I was more of an arranger I guess."

 With only three mics, two mixers and his four track crowded in the 20 foot long by 10 foot wide shed, recording was a time consuming process. "I had the machine on one end and the drums on the other, and I'd press the record button and run over and sit down and put the phones on. It was pretty rudimentary." As Rhodes assembled the record, he had no idea he was creating his masterpiece. "I was just doing the best I could do, writing what I thought was important at the time."

In the middle of working on the album, Rhodes approached ABC/Dunhill with some instrumental tracks. The label signed him and paid Rhodes the princely sum of $5,000. When Emitt Rhodes was released in 1970, it charted at #29 and the single, "Fresh as a Daisy," broke the top 60. Rhodes was hailed by critics as an artist to watch, and with the singer-songwriter movement just underway, his career appear to be on the fast track.

 Maybe too fast. ABC/Dunhill wanted more product from their hot new star, and they wanted it soon. His contract stipulated that he release two albums every year, a feat The Beatles regularly pulled off in their heyday. But unlike the Fab Four, Rhodes was only one person doing everything himself. It was hard work and a lot of pressure for a guy still living with his parents, but ABC/Dunhill was less than understanding. As work on his second album "Mirror" dragged on for nearly a year, the record company suspended his contract and sued him. "I got in trouble," Rhodes said. "I was being sued for more money than I ever made. It didn't make any sense to me."

 Released in 1971, Mirror bombed, going to only #182 on the charts. While the record boasts some great songs, Rhodes had clearly lost his momentum. "I worked really hard, did the best I could, and I got in trouble. I mean, it's like, what am I doing? What am I doing this for?" he said. "You have to get your dog biscuit after you rollover or sit up. Otherwise you don't want to do it again ... I burned out." Another album, Farewell to Paradise, followed and did even worse on the charts than "Mirror." At 24, eight years after he formed The Merry-Go-Round, Rhodes stopped recording. "There were lawsuits and lawyers and I wasn't having any fun anymore. That's it. Simple as that. I worked really hard and there was no reward," he said.

 Other than a brief moment in 1980 when he had a record deal with Elektra/Asylum that was eventually terminated, Emitt has stuck to recording demos in his home studio that will probably never the see the light of day. "It's just songs," he said of his demos. "It's melodic. I like melodies that go from one place to the next. I like chords. I can't say what (a new album) would sound like because I haven't heard it yet."

There was some excitement in the past year among Rhodes' fans when the 50-year-old signed to the small indie label Rocktopia. Rhodes even started pre-production work on what would have been his first record in over 25 years, sorting through his collection of hundreds of demos, and he was planning on hiring musicians instead of doing everything himself. "I wanted to hire people to come play with me and just play producer and songwriter," he said. "I'm an old guy now. I get sleepy at night. I have friends that play so much better than me (and) I just love listening sometimes.

 But his deal with Rocktopia ultimately fell through when the label ran out of money. Without an advance to finance a new record, Rhodes can't move forward. "I have the desire to do it but I don't know if I have the time," he said. "It's on hold at the moment, unless I find a way to support myself without working. I could win the lotto I guess."

Today Rhodes still lives in the neighborhood where he grew up, in a house across the street from his parents' old house. "I'm just trying to stay alive," he said. "I have a small studio and I rent studio time ... I'm not a rich person. I make a living."

 "I was real fortunate. I had two parents who allowed me to make noise as long as it was outside in the garage. I made those records when I had no bills. I didn't have a house at the time. I had very little bills and very little worries at the time. Music was pretty much the focus of my life, just making noise. Now it's making noise to pay the landlord."

Special consideration goes to Kevin and his comprehensive web site,, which helped greatly with research for my interview and
this story.

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