Hawthorne, California, located 16 miles from Los Angeles, has a musical mystique as it is the hometown of the Beach Boys. But there was another musician who grew up there with those band members (he went to high school with them), and at one point seemed to have the potential for a similar musical trajectory. Until it all goes up in smoke. The story of Emitt Rhodes is a cautionary tale of the damage a ruthless and malevolent record company can do to a budding talent. In a universal sense, it’s a commentary on how easily a successful or promising life can be derailed in an instant by one wrong decision.
Rhodes was playing music on the Sunset Strip at age 15. He had a band called Palace Guard, then Merry-Go-Round, an A&M Records psychedelic rock band signed in 1967. The teenager started out as a drummer, but took up guitar because of the Beatles. This influence was never far below the surface of his music. Shortly after the young musician began writing songs for his critically acclaimed albums, “Beatlesque” became the most common descriptor of his sound.
Rhodes went solo after Merry-Go-Round disbanded. A&M released an album in 1970, The American Dream, featuring Rhodes’ early solo masters. He recorded and mixed his next and first real solo album, Emitt Rhodes, on his own, and it went to number 29 on the Billboard charts. The musician used the money he earned (from the “salary” his manager paid him) to buy studio equipment to make more of his own records. ABC/Dunhill then released Mirror in 1971 and Farewell to Paradise in 1973.
With four albums in the span of three years, just after going solo, things were looking bright for Rhodes. But that’s where the weirdness comes in. Try to imagine the worst thing ABC/Dunhill could have done to a precocious talent (and to himself). A good answer would be to contractually require this already hardworking artist to produce two albums a year, which is exactly what the clueless label did. Maybe the ABC/Dunhill fools thought they were dealing with Three Dog Night. It was too much for a musician with such exacting standards, so an exhausted and disillusioned Rhodes left his contract at 23. His authoritarian label sued him for breach of contract, and he wouldn’t release another album for 43 years.
Why the label wouldn’t find a way to work with such a special artist, thereby ensuring they would get more albums from him, remains a mystery that reaffirms all the horror stories about the brutal and exploitative nature of the music industry. Requiring two new albums (24 original, polished pop songs) per year meant, among other things, that the musician had no time to go out and play – and promote – the record company’s product. There was no identifiable business logic in ABC/Dunhill’s behavior. Rhodes said in a 2010 interview that he reviewed the contract and told his manager he didn’t think it was a good thing to sign it, but claimed his manager told him to sign it. because the guy “was paid”, which seems believable.
The first work by Emitt Rhodes that I remember hearing was the catchy love song, “Fresh as a Daisy”, from his self-titled 1970 album. It sounded like Paul McCartney had given the youngster a song for the help launch his career. Although comparisons to the Beatles are commonplace (Italian director Cosimo Messeri made a 2009 documentary about Rhodes titled The One Man Beatles), Rhodes has always been more McCartney than Lennon.
It was sad to see Rhodes say in an interview several years after he quit making records that he wouldn’t stop trying because he wanted to make enough money to be able to buy health insurance. It was a statement of desperation from someone who should have released 20 albums by the time he said that. It was equally sad to read a Account written by a television producer who had visited Rhodes in the modest Hawthorne house from which he had never had enough money to move. From what the writer could tell, the musician lived in the front bedroom which had a mattress on the floor and shared the kitchen and bathroom with a tenant who had the rest of the house. Rhodes shared stories at that meeting about his lawsuits, his failed marriages and the pain he felt because he had no relationship with his three children because, as he claimed, his ex-wives poisoned their mind about their father.
Rhodes, however, made a comeback – 43 years after choosing not to stay sane – with the release of his latest album, 2016 Rainbow ends, a bittersweet and loving contemplation on a life of melancholy. Wilco guitarist Nels Cline participated, and Aimee Mann and Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles added vocals. After the album’s release, Rhodes canceled all public performances, including an appearance at Austin’s South by Southwest. A man in his 60s who still couldn’t afford a car was unwilling to leave the home that had been his refuge for so many decades for a chance to start his life. Perhaps that life had taken too much of a toll at that point to muster the extra effort needed to pull himself out of his depressing existence and sustenance in a Hawthorne house directly across from the one he had grown up in.
Emitt Rhodes died in his sleep on July 19, 2020 at age 70, marking the passing of one of rock history’s great cult figures. The sadness written on his face in interviews available online was finally erased forever, as was the regret that lit up his voice.