Emitt Rhodes: Lost & Found
Film Reawakens An Old Melody
By Eli Attie
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 27, 2002; Page G04

Emitt Rhodes isn't exactly flush with cash these days. A few weeks ago, when he took his 10-year-old daughter to see Wes Anderson's new film, "The Royal Tenenbaums," she had to pay for the tickets. "She has more money than I do," Rhodes says of the girl, who lives with his ex-wife.

But that day, Rhodes had something else to offer her. Early in the film, as Gene Hackman stretched across the screen, the theater filled with the sounds of Rhodes himself -- a lilting ballad called "Lullabye," released 32 years ago, when he reached No. 29 on the album charts and Billboard hailed him as "one of the finest artists on the scene today."

Rhodes's career has been dormant for three decades now. But he's inclined to dismiss his sudden cameo on a contemporary soundtrack: "It always seems silly to me, to hear my old stuff. I'd forgotten the tune." But then he adds quietly, "My little girl was proud of me."

It was Jason Schwartzman, the star of Anderson's previous film, "Rushmore," who introduced the director to Rhodes's music. It's surprising that Anderson didn't know it already, for he is acclaimed as much for his retro-chic soundtracks as for his fantastical plot turns. But the inclusion of "Lullabye" on the "Tenenbaums" soundtrack CD, nestled between Nico and the Clash, confirms the bitter irony of Rhodes's career. Long ago consigned to commercial and financial oblivion, his music has ascended to a kind of cult nirvana: coveted by pop aficionados, compiled sporadically by hip reissue labels and now blaring away in multiplexes across America.

It's hard to connect the 51-year-old Rhodes, peering out from behind bifocals and a shaggy gray beard, with the angelic young mop-top who skirted stardom a generation ago. At 17, Rhodes was already a phenomenon in Los Angeles, fronting the sugary pop combo the Merry-Go-Round. The band's appeal was simple: Rhodes wrote flawless melodies -- and his voice was a dead ringer for Paul McCartney's. The band scored two modest hits (the first of which, "Live," is on Rhino's "Nuggets" box set), and even made a brief appearance on "The Dating Game."

"I was chased, I had underwear thrown at me, I had groupies," Rhodes recalls over lunch at his favored Red Lobster restaurant, near his home in Hawthorne, Calif. "It was like being in 'A Hard Day's Night.' "

In 1969, Rhodes dissolved the Merry-Go-Round and embarked on a solo career -- and that's when things got both better and worse. Using a four-track Ampex tape recorder and three microphones, he recorded an album in his parents' garage, playing every instrument, singing every vocal part, and producing the album by himself (with engineering help from Keith Olsen, who later produced Fleetwood Mac's blockbuster "Rumours"). This self-titled 1970 debut, from which "Lullabye" is drawn, seemed poised to earn Rhodes a permanent place in the pop canon.

It isn't an especially original album; it owes a massive debt to the Beatles, in particular McCartney's music-hall stylings. Yet unlike most Beatle disciples, Rhodes somehow cracked their secret code -- for soaring melodies with a touch of melancholy, for bass-and-guitar counterpoint that fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, for music that finds joy even through its own root sadness. No wonder many fans and deejays thought "Emitt Rhodes" was actually a Beatles record, stolen from the vaults and masked by a pseudonym. "It was really flattering," Rhodes says of the mini-controversy. "Those guys were my idols."

But as the record crept up the charts, Rhodes's career came tumbling down. His contract with ABC-Dunhill required an album every six months. When his debut took nine months to complete, the company took legal action. "I was being sued for more money than I'd ever seen," Rhodes explains. "I was horribly confused."

In his rush to record a second LP, Rhodes could barely tour to support the first one, let alone enjoy its success.
"I learned a lot about life from the movie 'Caligula,' " he says. "Who are the richest men in Rome? The pimps, of course."

After two years of legal battles, and two respectable but unsuccessful follow-up albums, Rhodes called it quits. "I was a failure, I couldn't fulfill my contract," he says. A burned-out 10-year veteran of the music industry, Rhodes was 24 years old.

In the decades that followed, Rhodes worked as a recording engineer and ran a studio out of his small, cluttered house in Hawthorne -- until a losing custody battle and a parent's death led to a bout of severe depression, from which he says he is just now recovering. He recently recorded a few songs with Los Angeles pop musician Ray Paul, but as plans for a comeback album were being hatched, the record label went bust.

Nor has "The Royal Tenenbaums" improved Rhodes's fortunes yet. It won't help sales of his back catalogue, since two recent CD reissues are now out of print. And Rhodes isn't sure whether he is owed any royalties by the movie producers. "I'm hoping there's a check out there somewhere," he says.

Rhodes is writing and playing for the first time in years, and eager to record again. "There's not much that makes me happy," he says. "Music makes me happy."

But ask him how he feels about his old music, and Rhodes has little to say. "It's a long time ago," he says apologetically. When a reporter cites "Promises I've Made," a favorite song from his solo debut, Rhodes says he can't quite remember it. Then, on the drive back to his house, the song is played back to him on a CD -- a cascade of shimmering melodies and loping guitar lines. As the chorus kicks in, he starts bobbing back and forth. And for the first time all afternoon, Emitt Rhodes shows a trace of a smile. It's as if he's suddenly realized: My little girl's not the only one who's proud.

(To hear a portion of "Lullabye" from "The Royal Tenenbaums" soundtrack album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8172.)

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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