--cover story--

By Erik Himmelsbach

With My Face on the Floor

Emitt Rhodes still doesn't know what hit him. Thirty years ago, he was the new Paul McCartney, an ambitious kid who craved the perfect pop song. Then he got blindsided into submission by the heartless business of music. Now he's just another sad guy with a boatload of talent that got buried in a black hole of depression. Rhodes's dreams collapsed in full view. That he showed early promise as a recording artist and made a tuneful blip on the popular consciousness perhaps justifies an examination of his specific version of life gone astray, particularly to those who obsess over the minutiae of Los Angeles pop-music history. But, in a way, Rhodes's story could be anyone's. Certainly, most of us have been one fateful step away from a similar plight. What if, for example, while on an early leg of your particular journey, you were stopped dead in your tracks, crippled by an obstacle that made it impossible to continue pursuing your true calling - yet the majority of your life still lay before you? You'd have options, of course. You might shrug, dust yourself off, and seek fulfillment elsewhere. Or you might decide to live in misery. Stripped of your true love, would you simply count the days until your death? How many of us could live happily if we felt our existence had no meaning? Three decades later, Rhodes is a disoriented 53-year-old musician, still trying to crawl from the emotional wreckage. "Life disappoints me. It's a bitter place," he says, pounding a plethora of cocktails across the table at an El Porto oceanside cantina. "I've had all the good stuff, and I've have all the bad stuff. Sometimes I'm happy to be alive, and sometimes I couldn't care less."

There's an autumn coastal chill, but the stout, bearded Rhodes is oblivious to the weather. He wears baggy shorts, a matching polo shirt, and battered tennis shoes. When I first met him, more than six months earlier, he wore exactly the same thing. He's had two wives and three kids, but communication with them is rare. He owns his Hawthorne home - located directly across the street from where he grew up - but must rent out the bulk of it to cover his nut. His own personal space is a glorified flop at the front of the house, with room enough for a mattress and a TV. He doesn't drive anymore, not since he crashed his car a few years ago - Rhodes lapsed into a diabetic coma with his young daughter in the passenger seat. The totaled vehicle still sits in his driveway, too easily symbolizing the state of its driver's life.

This is Emitt Rhodes, onetime musical wunderkind, playing out the string. He bears little resemblance to the young dreamboat who peered assuredly from the cover of his stunning self-titled 1970 solo debut. Indeed, that was many lives ago, and it's barely even a memory for the man who lived it. The youthful songwriter was a genius inside the recording studio. A master of melody with a voice dipped in honey, he could play any and all instruments and work the console like a vet.

Rhodes created simple, nakedly honest pop songs. And he did it by himself, in the garage studio he set up in his parents' Hawthorne home. He wrote, played, produced, and arranged his debut album, which climbed to No. 29 on the charts and served as a sonic flashpoint at the dawn of the singer-songwriter era. He was 20 years old.

Inside a recording studio, the young Emitt Rhodes could do no wrong, yet all the promise would come undone by bad advice and his own signature. It was a piece of paper that knocked Rhodes's face to the floor. It seems ridiculous now, at a time when recording artists drop a new album only once every few years, if that. (Unless, of course, you're Ryan Adams.) But in 1970, Rhodes signed a laughably impossible contract with ABC/Dunhill that stipulated he deliver a record every six months. Three years and a debilitating lawsuit later, his seemingly insatiable desire to create music would be snuffed out.

Time Will Show the Wiser

Emitt Rhodes came of age in Hawthorne in the early '60s. The Beach Boys, fellow travelers from the neighborhood, were all over the radio. Rhodes, whose first instrument was the drums, was a freshman at Hawthorne High during Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson's senior year. "He borrowed my drums and broke a drum pedal and owes me one of those. I've yet to receive it," he jokes.

The whole of the teenage South Bay was in a band, including Rhodes, whose first group was a Top 40 cover combo called the Emerals. He became its drummer at the tender age of 14, largely because he had a garage in which the group could practice.

The Beatles, of course, changed everything. "The Beatles were an inspiration," he says. "I would have followed them into space."

The Emerals jumped on the British Invasion wave, donning Edwardian garb and morphing into the Palace Guard. By early 1966, the band had issued a single ("Falling Sugar") and had landed a regular gig at the Hullabaloo on the Sunset Strip. "I was right there on Sunset," Rhodes remembers. "People walked the streets, dressed up in paisley and flowers. I was up there with all the hippie stuff, listening to all the hippie bands ... . I was a hippie; it was good, life was good."

The Palace Guard worked two shows a night, six nights a week. Rhodes was given one solo turn per performance, singing the Beatles' "Michelle," replete with McCartney-esque Liverpudlian nuances. The 16-year-old drummer was merely happy to get out from behind the kit. "I was the center of attention," he says.

"I enjoyed singing 'Michelle,' but the drums were a pain in the butt. Everybody up front gets more attention," he says. "Sensory organism, you run through life trying to gratify it." At the Hullabaloo, he began to find ways to feed that jones, writing "You're a Very Lovely Woman" (which would become the second single by his next group, the Merry-Go-Round) while ´´ hanging around backstage.

Russ Shaw caught Rhodes singing "Michelle" and made the drummer a proposition: Leave the band, and I'll make you a star. The son of music publisher Eddie Shaw, Russ was doing gofer work for A&M; Records, and saw the sweet-faced Rhodes as his ticket into the business. He became Rhodes's manager and brought along his dad to handle the publishing. This would be Rhodes's first mistake. "I was a 16-year-old boy when I published my first song, 'Live,' with Eddie Shaw. The contract read 'in perpetuity.'

"I was a teenager," he continues. "I forgive myself only because teenagers are stupid. Hey, I thought Eddie loved me; he was like my second dad." Neither Rhodes nor his parents had the foresight to show the contract to an attorney before signing. "Eddie brought all of the lawyers. I was represented by Eddie's lawyer."

"Live" was among several tracks the Merry-Go-Round (which featured Rhodes on guitar and vocals, high school pal Gary Kato on bass, Joel Larson on drums, and Bill Rinehart on guitar) recorded as a demo in 1966. Russ Shaw brought the material to A&M;, which issued "Live" as a single; it quickly became a huge local hit. And it had legs: Nearly two decades later, the track was covered by the Bangles, who included the song on its 1984 debut album, All Over the Place. (It would subsequently appear on two Bangles hits compilations, as well.)

"I loved 'Live.' I just loved the lyrics; it was so uplifting. It became one of our standards," says Bangles drummer Debbi Peterson, who took the lead vocal on her band's version of the tune.

Rhodes says he's never received a dime of royalties for the Bangles' version of the song. "Eddie Shaw later decided that when the Bangles did 'Live,' that I wasn't entitled to any money," he says. "So he stopped paying me for that song. He didn't feel like it. And I didn't do anything about it because lawyers cost money. And my experience with lawyers isn't so good. They're just like real people, and the law is like a game: Who puts on the best show. It's a weird reality to me."

"Eddie Shaw was a thief," says former Merry-Go-Round drummer Joel Larson. "He ended up fucking Emitt out of all his money. He seemed like your friend, but he was unscrupulous."

Eddie and Russ Shaw are both dead and thus cannot defend themselves. Surviving son Mark Shaw now handles Rhodes's publishing. "I was never privy about too much of what happened," Shaw says. "When you're depressed, it's easy to blame somebody else and not look inwardly."

But when Rhodes signed the deal, in 1966, he wasn't thinking about perpetuity. He was just excited to record his own music. And with the promise of "Live," A&M; rushed the Merry-Go-Round's debut album in 1967, sweetening the band's demos with both instrumental and vocal overdubs. The Merry-Go-Round was loaded with melodic, baroque pop and folk rock punctuated with sweet harmonies and Emitt's wide-eyed South-Bay-meets-North-of-England vocal stylings.

"I thought of the Merry-Go-Round and Rhodes's solo stuff as sunny and quintessentially Southern California as Brian Wilson," says journalist Bud Scoppa, who met Rhodes when penning the liner notes for the 1985 Rhino Records compilation Best of the Merry-Go-Round.

Though the album failed to make a dent nationally, the band continued to cut singles. And, while each new track signaled an upward curve in the development of Rhodes's studio and songcrafting acumen ("Emitt was a perfectionist, he was a melodic genius," says Larson), the record-buying public was not so impressed with swirly psychedelia like "Come Ride Come Ride," "Listen Listen," and the glorious "Hollypark."

Nor was A&M;, which pulled the plug on the group in 1969. The Merry-Go-Round would soon disband. With the money he'd earned, Rhodes purchased a four-track board and set it up in his parents' garage, where he would create demos for what would become his first solo album.

He was quickly snatched up by ABC/Dunhill. "I loved the demos that he had, they had a great sound," says Steve Barrie, then the label's vice president of A&R.; "He was just a natural for that time. His songs were very melodic; he was a young, good-looking guy. With Emitt, it was just about his talent and the feeling that we could develop him." For his efforts, Rhodes netted $5,000.

Yet, at the behest of Eddie Shaw, Rhodes signed a deal that required him to produce a full album of material every six months, a tall order for a one-man band. He signed on the dotted line, knowing full well that the album he'd just submitted to ABC/Dunhill had taken nearly a year to make.

"I knew it was wrong, because it didn't make sense," Rhodes says. "Six months a record ... and I just spent nine months in the studio every day. When was I going to perform? When was I going to tour? When was I going to take a vacation? When was I going to have a life? I did it because I was stupid.

"I had spent nine months making a record, and he wanted me to make a deal for two albums a year," Rhodes continues. "[Eddie] said, 'We'll get people to play and get people to write your songs.' I was gonna be Elvis. I was gonna be, you know, Frank Sinatra. But that's not what I was. He had no concept of what I was doing."

"At that time, there was tremendous pressure on artists to do two LPs a year," says Barrie, who also signed Steely Dan and Jim Croce to ABC/Dunhill. "It was just so difficult to do so. [Label president] Jay Lasker was a tough guy; he was a tough cookie. He was very hard on the artists."

Emitt Rhodes was critically well received, and the artist toured to promote the record, which put him behind schedule. "I should have had 18 months to make a record, I should have been pampered ... because I did a good thing."

But by the time he was prepared to cut the followup, Mirror, in early 1971, he learned he was being sued by his label for breach of contract. "The harder I worked, the more trouble I was in," Rhodes says. "I should have been put on drugs immediately.

"It was a nightmare," he adds. "By the time the record was successful, my contract was already on suspension." The label was asking for damages in the amount of $250,000.

"Emitt did it all himself, but he didn't have a support system that would withstand the blue meanies of the record business," says his friend, musician and writer Ken Sharp.

Rhodes says, "To me, it was a nightmare. I was bad, I was wrong. All of a sudden I wasn't doing what I was supposed to do, and I couldn't do it. It was the beginning of my hopelessness."

The suit wasn't settled until 1973, when Rhodes delivered his third and final solo record, the aptly titled Farewell to Paradise. "That was it, I didn't want to do it anymore," he says. "I wanted to open a Laundromat and watch the dryers go around."

Though he believed his days as a recording artist were finished, Rhodes was still a marketable studio guy, and he landed a gig as a producer-engineer and as a staff A&R; person for Elektra/Asylum for four years starting in 1976. "I was hired to say no, to say no unless my life depended on it." He said yes only once, signing Canadian popper Bim to Elektra and producing his 1978 album, Thistles.

In 1980, Rhodes attempted a half-hearted recorded comeback - for Elektra/Asylum - but only one song, the slickly mellow "Isn't It So," has ever emerged. Then, Rhodes says, "My life went weird."

Live Till You Die

Emitt Rhodes currently resides in a wilderness, lost in the thick brush of his own mind. He's seldom able to look forward, preferring the slow death of dwelling on the past. "I was diagnosed as depressed," he says. "Just unhappy stuff. The lack of future. No hope. No hope is a horrible place to be." It's a place he's inhabited for most of the past two decades.

When Scoppa made the pilgrimage to Rhodes's Hawthorne home in the mid-'80s, he was surprised by what he saw. "He seemed angry, kind of unsure of what he was going to do with his talent," the writer says. "I half-expected that he'd be delighted to see me as the archival biographer of his oeuvre. It didn't seem to light him up at all. It seemed like a chore. The other impression was one of extreme isolation. He was a community of one, almost defiantly so."

Debbi Peterson had a similar experience when she and her Bangles bandmates visited Rhodes to tell him about their desire to play "Live." "He seemed kind of down," she recalls. "It's disillusioning and sad to see how bitter he was. How the music business can do that to you."

Officially diagnosed as depressed, Rhodes has tried doctor-prescribed drugs but found them wanting. "I tried Prozac. It was good. I ran around smiling, and I wondered why the hell I was smiling. But it didn't get me loaded. Make the trees stretch, will ya? A kaleidoscope of colors or something? Otherwise, I can't tell I'm on drugs."

Compounding his depression is diabetes, which led to his 2001 automobile accident. He says he spent the day before that incident "on the floor, trying not to drown in my own saliva because I couldn't swallow." He thought he'd gotten his blood sugar under control, but he blacked out at a stoplight and rolled his car into a truck. "That was the last time I saw [my daughter], because I'm not a good dad. She's afraid to be with me."

Rhodes may prefer to view his legacy as one of failure, but he's a minority in this regard. And just maybe there's a renaissance afoot. In 2001, film director Wes Anderson used, to poignant effect, the musician's 1970 tune "Lullabye" in the soundtrack to The Royal Tenenbaums.

It was great to hear Rhodes's music in a big Hollywood movie, but he still wanted to get paid. When Ken Sharp, who had formed a friendship with Rhodes after interviewing the musician for his book Power Pop!, learned the song was to be in the film, he asked Rhodes if he'd received a royalty for its use. The songwriter said he hadn't heard a thing.

"I made a bunch of calls on his behalf," Sharp says. "Ten minutes after I got off the phone with the label, [publisher] Mark Shaw called him. He told him that he couldn't find his number. It's ironic, because he's listed in the phone book and lives across the street from where he grew up."

Now, Rhodes says, he gets the occasional check from Shaw. "I'm not sure I would have seen them had Ken Sharp not told me who to call."

For his part, Shaw says he's now attempting to license other Rhodes songs for film and commercials, to help ease the burden of the artist's rapidly approaching golden years. "My heart's out to him," Shaw says. But it hasn't been easy, given Rhodes's fragile emotional state. "You have to pick yourself up. He doesn't seem to have picked himself up for what he feels Dunhill's done to him. He has a hard time getting things together. It's not an easy thing to work with somebody who is too depressed to get motivated."

Shaw seems sincere in his efforts and sounds understandably frustrated. He is dealing with a man who is uncertain of his abilities, almost paralyzed to follow his muse to completion. "You're talking to a sick person," Rhodes says. "I have difficulty completing things. My whole life. I'll die and say, 'Hold on, I'm not done yet.'"

Sharp believes Rhodes could reverse his fortunes by performing around Los Angeles, to adoring crowds of pop fanatics who found Rhodes's scratched solo discs in thrift shops. "It's depressing that someone of his stature is just scraping by," he says. "Emitt has the power to save himself. He could do the Troubadour, and all the pop heads would support him, and he could revive his career. He just loved recording, he lived and died to make music."

The audience is there, as proven by the buzz generated before his short performance at the 1998 Poptopia Festival. Not surprisingly, Rhodes is mortified by the idea of gigging more frequently. "It scares me doing that," he says. "I might pass out, go into convulsions onstage."

The stage may just be a bit too public an arena for the reclusive musician, but the studio is an altogether more comfortable place. Rhodes stopped making records, but he never stopped making music.

Located just beyond his parched backyard, his garage studio is a disheveled holding pen for keyboards, drums, guitars, physics books, and empty bottles of booze. But no matter. Rhodes has a song to play, a melancholy tune called "Rainbow's Ends." He says it's the first track he's finished in 15 years.

The song is simple, but that pure, sweet voice, burnished with years of pain and disappointment, sounds more poignant than ever. It's a touching, undeniably beautiful piece of work.

"I got to the point where I didn't like anything I was doing," he says. "I just started liking it now. So now I kind of want to do it.

"I do it because it's the only thing I know," he continues. In his garage, there are song fragments that go back a quarter century. "I may make another record," he says. "I'm working on it now. I'm thinking about it. It might not take very long, because I have all these tunes. I just have to put them together. And I know what I like now, so that's a good thing.

"You put some chords together, and you like the way it sounds," he adds. "It means something to you. It's always therapy, but it doesn't solve anything. It's making wishes. It's like hoping the world's flat, hoping there's a heaven. You got your vest on, you're walking up to the crowd, you're getting ready to blow yourself up."

Published: 01/22/2004

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