by Brian Smith
Emitt Rhodes' story is as strange and sad as any in pop ... only this guy didn't die. Nearly did. He's alive, in fact, in ill health, with no Internet or mobile phone. A recluse for decades in his Hawthorne, Calif., home (and studio), which sits across from the house he grew up in, he keeps busy looking for bands to produce or recording with pals. He only recently began to receive royalties from songs he penned decades ago.
This fetching, limited-edition two-disc set assembles Rhodes' three highly collectible, out-of-print solo albums (the Japanese CDs were getting as much as $100 and more) released on ABC/Dunhill and one not-so-solo on A&M, all recorded after an increasingly dissolving run with '60s L.A. teen popsters, the Merry Go Round.
The CDs — whose tapes come straight from Universal's vaults — are a study in pop-song psychology by a wunderkind who wrote, arranged, produced and played all the instruments on Emitt Rhodes, Mirror and Farewell to Paradise. And that's no mean feat: Remember, the years are 1970 through '73, and we're talking a four-track tape machine and a crude mixing console for recording.
The McCartney and Beatles comparisons to Rhodes are rampant, but they're reductive; you hear the Macca love, absolutely, but there's a lonely, melancholic pitch to Rhodes' air, a tenderness of a boy-man who's discovering himself as much as he is the actual recording process. It is innocence beautifully captured. Rhodes had something — that gift of song, the ability to raise goosebumps with a single vocal line riding the right chord change, that inexplicable it of worthy (and most often overlooked) songwriters. It's the ability to extract pain from the heart and put it to melody.
To record his self-titled debut, Rhodes, who was all of 20 when the album came out, holed up alone in a shed behind his parents' garage. The results? Power-pop brilliance.
It's hard to imagine the mix of wisdom, innocence, post-hippie skepticism and persuasive pop bustle of "With My Face on the Floor," "Fresh as Daisy" and "Live Till You Die" lifting from such a youthful source, combining nimble-handed piano and drums, melodic (McCartney-style) bass and wily guitar hooks under a clear vocal tenor that routinely gives a sense, on all his albums, that the song is awarded to you, not sung at you.
When this album hit stores, A&M put out a shelved Merry Go Round album (American Dream) that Rhodes had finished — it was basically the then-teenager stroked with a Beatle-y production (mostly Larry Marks) backed by the Wrecking Crew (Hal Blaine et al.) and other Hollywood session stars of the day. Rhodes and his songs stun; hear the rushing sugar-high hooks of "Come Ride, Come Ride" or "Saturday Night." But two albums on two different labels and stocked in hundreds of shops simultaneously confused record-buying kids (though Emitt Rhodes peaked at No. 29 on the Billboard pop charts). It was a ridiculous and greedy move that foreshadowed Rhodes' fate.
1971's Mirror mirrors his debut ... somewhat — the songs shimmer more on the baroque-y side, the self-created sonics rise and fall with studied assurance and the 21-year-old sounds closer to full band. On his 1973 finale, Farewell to Paradise, Rhodes sounds remarkably older, the songs leaned from singsong pop to Harry Nilsson territory — progression over inertia — but with undercurrents of gloom ("Warm Self-Sacrifice," "Nights are Lonely" and "Trust No One"), which tell of his personal and career problems, which were born of his troubles with ABC/Dunhill. It's a beautiful collection of songs that stiffed upon release. And then Rhodes was done. In his mind, a has-been at 24.
Listening today, it's clear where Rhodes was headed; he had a confidence, a singer-songwriter strut of sorts with songs that transcend easy nostalgia — with better career guidance and label mechanics, Rhodes could've ruled the world, or at least managed a nice plateau of a career not unlike what Nilsson or Todd Rundgren did.
His influence, however, was (and is) still felt — from the Bangles, who recorded his "Live" on their debut album, to Aimee Mann, Jellyfish, Jon Brion and Matthew Sweet and so on. Essential stuff.
For Emitt Rhodes put to video go to http://tinyurl.com/emittrhodes
Brian Smith is the features editor of Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.