The short concert Emitt Rhodes is scheduled to give Thursday as part of his evening at the Grammy Museum will be his first public performance in … uh, how long?
“At least a couple of weeks,” says the Hawthorne-based artist.
Well, yeah. By “a couple of weeks,” he means nearly 45 years — the time since an appearance at Philharmonic Hall in New York, his last full show. Even if you count a two-song guest appearance with Ray Paul at a Poptopia club date in 1997, it’s still been an exponentially pumped-up couple of weeks. It’s not the only gap. The Grammy Museum event (with this writer serving as host and interviewer for a chat segment) comes on the eve, literally, of Friday’s release of “Rainbow Ends” (via Omnivore Recordings), the first Emitt Rhodes album since a bracing, rather disconsolate and little-heard 1973 release, “Farewell to Paradise.”
That answer, delivered in a resonant alto as he cruises on a shopping run with Chris Price, the new album’s catalyst and producer, is typical Rhodes deflection, or perhaps protection, somewhat-tongue-in-cheek as it is. He’s jokey, affable, happy to be chatting, but clearly guarded.
I just thought nobody was interested.
“I just thought nobody was interested,” he says of his long break. “Not trying to put myself down. What can I tell you? I wrote songs and had them laying around for a long time.”
So it just wasn’t the right environment for him to record and release the songs?
“Pretty much,” he says. “Some time ago I had a realization, got inspired, wrote all these things, wrote all the parts and put them in envelopes and they stayed.”
“Because I was doing other things.”
“Like surviving,” he says, plainly, again parrying with some awkward humor: “I had to eat, then I pooped. Then I had to sleep, then I woke. That kind of stuff. Over and over again.”
Deflection aside, that’s in keeping with the songs on the album. On one hand, it’s a captivating set, notable for a sense of accomplished confidence from Rhodes and the sharp band led by Price and featuring Jason Falkner and Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (both of L.A. third-generation power-popper Jellyfish and Beck’s touring band), veteran musician-producer and frequent Price collaborator Fernando Perdomo and guest appearances by Bangle Susanna Hoffs, Aimee Mann, multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion and Wilco guitar wizard Nels Cline, among others.
But there’s a recurrent theme in the lyrics of issues with trust — trusting his own judgment, trusting his heart, and trusting his heart with others. As the chorus of the album’s title song puts it:
Always chasing rainbow ends
Head up in the clouds
Thought my dreams would never end
But my eyes, they’re open now
And on “I Can’t Tell My Heart,” he sings that he can’t tell his heart who to love or what to feel, that “you can see what I don’t trust in love.”
Some of those dreams that he thought wouldn’t end came in his life as a ’60s teen pop star, the wunderkind singer-songwriter-architect of the L.A. band the Merry-Go-Round. The quartet hit the Top 40 with the bubbly, Beatles-y hits “You’re a Very Lovely Woman” and “Live” — the latter famously given new life by the Bangles on that band’s 1980 debut album. The Merry-Go-Round even made an appearance on “The Dating Game,” Rhodes making for a shy Bachelor No. 2.
And such album tracks as “Time Will Show the Wiser,” a propulsive, layered, immediately engaging slice of pop that was covered by the early lineup of the English folk-rock band Fairport Convention, revealed the talent and imagination that would get him later dubbed “The One-Man Beatles.” (That was also the title of a 2010 documentary on him.) And there were also inevitable comparisons to the only slightly elder Hawthorne statesman Brian Wilson.
As that decade faded, Rhodes moved into a promising solo career, with two brilliant albums, with him playing and singing all the parts in his Hawthorne home studio, generally, and favorably, compared to Paul McCartney’s early solo work and on par with Harry Nilsson’s brilliance. But a series of ill-wrought music business deals, failed relationships and marriages and other stumbles turned him into a discouraged recluse. It was a situation clear in the tone of “Farewell to Paradise,” which while expanding his musical range with visionary incorporation of R&B influences along with the maturing pop sense, also bore an inward-probing, suspicious-of-the-world tone, perhaps more Tim Buckley than McCartney by now.
“Those things I cherished most I worked long and paid dearly for,” he wrote in the album’s downcast liner note, burnt out at just 23.
And so it stayed. Until now.
The new music is good. I would have hated it to die and not have anybody hear it.
“The new music is good,” he says, by way of explanation as to what brought about his willingness to return to the game. “I would have hated it to die and not have anybody hear it. That’s the bottom line. Had to have Chris do it.”
But given the entrenched trust issues, how did he come to trust Price enough to get to this point? It took the better part of a decade, and it happened very organically.
“I’ve known him now for 10 years, and for the first seven years or so we hardly ever talked about music,” Price says. “I’d come over and we’d go for a drink or have lunch. Occasionally I’d show him music I was working on and he’d give me comments. I met him because I wanted him to produce my first record.”
Price had become a Rhodes devotee while still in high school in Miami around the turn of the millennium, having been turned on to the first two solo albums by a record-collector friend. In 2006, he and his brothers Michael and Corey — having formed a band called simply Price — signed with Geffen Records and moved to L.A. Around that time, via the band’s MySpace page, he became acquainted with a woman who said she knew Rhodes. About six months later, having been unable to reach Rhodes and getting a little worried, she gave Price his address and asked if he could check on him.
“I met him, left him a CD of my music,” Price says. “And then he called and said he liked it and said, ‘Why don’t you come hang out with me.’”
So he did. At that point Rhodes, Price says, had no desire to talk about music, let alone make any — and he didn’t seem to be in any state to do so regardless, having turned the studio in his house (across the street from where he’d grown up) into storage for various bits of equipment and ephemera gathered throughout the years.
I kept coming around because he was Emitt Rhodes.
“I kept coming around because he was Emitt Rhodes,” Price says. “And eventually I kept coming around because he was my friend.”
Then one day in 2013, something different.
“I showed up and he had all these envelopes laid out in the room — songs, 19 of them,” Price says. “He started playing me tunes, like how I would sometimes do with him, pick up a guitar and say, ‘Check out this.’ After seven years, he was doing that with me.”
And with that, Rhodes agreed to let Price make an album with him. For Price, who at the time was working on another time-jumping project, co-producing with Perdomo the first album since 1970 for psych-folk cult hero Linda Perhacs, the approach to a Rhodes album was pretty clear. Most of these songs had their genesis in the several years following the “Farewell” release, though some had gone through many changes since.
“What we were thinking of with the group was, ‘What if he kept making records in the late ’70s?’” he says. “So this is his 1979 record.”
Manning, who became a Rhodes fanatic after hearing a Rhino Records Merry-Go-Round anthology when he was a USC student in the mid ’‘80s, jumped at the chance to get involved as keyboardist and helping arrange the music.
“I said, ‘Wait! You tracked him down? You’re doing new songs with him? We’re actually going to his fabled place?’” he says. “Yeah. Chris said, ‘I got it to work.’ So I’m playing original Emitt songs that no one had heard, sitting 10 feet from the grand piano where it was all written.”
As for meeting his hero …
“It was very peaceful and calm,” Manning says. “He was very appreciative and humble and shy, seemed to be happy being a private person alone in his world. Chris was able to get the trust. Emitt was cordial, but kind of, ‘I don’t want to hang out. I’m going back to the house.’ I got that. Wasn’t put off. This must be a trip for him.”
Whatever concerns there may have been, the recording itself was remarkably quick — two one-day sessions of live tracking with the band (though separated by a year as Falkner and Manning were on tour with Beck) and some harmony and guitar solo overdubs later. And Rhodes was fully involved with every step.
[In the studio] he’s sure and confident and knows what he wants. … He was very specific about things, to the point where we were replacing one single note of a guitar solo.
“Emitt is not a broken guy in the studio,” Price says. “He’s sure and confident and knows what he wants. Those arrangements were pinpointed as he and I went in and dissected them. He was very specific about things, to the point where we were replacing one single note of a guitar solo.”
It certainly doesn’t sound like the work of a fragile artist who has been away for decades. The songs, performances and singing all have a richness that does very much build on Rhodes’ earlier work.
Which leads nicely to the title of one of the album’s key songs, “If I Knew Then.” Anything to read into that?
“Damn,” Rhodes says. “You meet a girl, you like a girl, she’s nice to you. Next thing you know you get close to her, comfortable — and then everything you say is wrong. I get girlfriends, then married again, then divorced. That was one of those phrases. So cliché. I love using clichés! It’s at the end of a relationship. You look at her, she’s beautiful. But at the end you don’t even see her anymore. All you see is the hatred, the unhappiness.”
Price interrupts. “I think he’s asking about the music industry,” he says.
“I wasn’t thinking that,” Rhodes says. “But it certainly applies, if you want to put it that way.”
||| Stream: “Dog on a Chain”
||| Live: Emitt Rhodes appears at the Grammy Museum on Thursday (sold out). He will also perform Saturday, March 19, at the Hotel Vegas Patio in Austin during SXSW.