He was too good too soon in an era when giants walked the earth.
Today it’s de rigueur to cut your album alone at home, you just fire up your computer and…
There were no computers back then. It was an analog world. You used tape. And studio time was expensive. And when the revolution the Beatles started began, you couldn’t even touch the recording console, that was reserved for union engineers.
As time went by acts gained power, as a result of the massive profits they threw off. Music made more money than films, it built the Warner cable system, which is why record company executives were so handsomely compensated. Not that Dick Parsons remembered this when he blew out the labels at the advent of this century, with Napster and other file-trading services putting a huge dent in recorded music revenue. Then again, by this time, Mo and Lenny were gone. Joe Smith too. And Krasnow. Time Warner controlled the records, but those who made them, with their blood sweat and tears, had no control over the distribution and use of their work, never mind getting paid for it. Supposedly this is why Emitt Rhodes gave up, over business issues. Don’t underestimate that, look at the members of Badfinger who committed suicide for the same reason, think of all that coin that should have rained down to Pete Ham and Tom Evans for “Without You,” it was a smash twice, once with Harry Nilsson and then later with Mariah Carey, it’s a standard, not that anyone remembers, if they ever knew, that it was written by these members of Badfinger.
So, in today’s market-driven world, no one takes the long view. Warner Music just went public for a huge multiple of what Time Warner offloaded it for. It’s all about stock price and bonus, and those who create the work are seen as fungible.
But they’re not.
So, not only was it rare back in 1970 to have someone who could both play and record, but to add in the ability to play all the instruments too, that was unfathomable, unless you were Paul McCartney, who released his first solo LP the previous spring. Another strike against Emitt Rhodes was his voice sounded similar to Sir Paul’s. Such that he was pooh-poohed. Furthermore, the album came out on a lame label, ABC/Dunhill, when that made a difference. Emitt Rhodes was not taken seriously, except by those who listened.
It’s almost fifty years since I started college. That’s a long time ago. I had no time for those who’d entered in 1920, why should today’s students have time for me, in 2020?
They don’t. Only in 1970, there was a generation gap, the old were seen as such, and they accepted it. Today boomers are friends with their progeny and still think they’re hip, when the truth is there’s a growing generation gap today, based on technology and income inequality.
So, if you went to college in the seventies in Middlebury, Vermont…
There was no FM radio, except for the lame college station, and if you’d grown up in the New York market, with WOR-FM and then WNEW-FM and WABC-FM, it was unlistenable. The students at my college were not hip. 45% of them went to prep school, the rest were grinds. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t. But by time I realized this, if I transferred I’d have had to go to college for a fifth year, and that was never gonna happen. So, if you wanted to know what was going on in the music world, you had to subscribe to the magazines, “Rolling Stone,” “Fusion,” “Crawdaddy”… And I did. I read them cover to cover. And the knowledge gained has paid more dividends than anything I learned in class.
So, when I went on vacation, I’d go to New York and buy seven or eight albums, the ones I’d read about, and then bring them back to college to listen and dissect them. And I was serious about it, I never bought a clunker, you didn’t have to if you were informed. Same deal with watching a streaming show today, do the research and you will be rewarded. And coming back from spring vacation in April 1971 the three albums I remember buying were…
Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s debut.
James Taylor’s “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.”
And “Emitt Rhodes.”
I did buy “Tarkus,” but then I gave up on ELP, Greg Lake had a phenomenal voice, and Keith Emerson was a virtuoso and Carl Palmer was no slouch, but they lacked great material.
“Mud Slide Slim” was only hobbled by following “Sweet Baby James.” This is the album with the hit “You’ve Got a Friend,” but more importantly it contains “You Can Close Your Eyes,” “Riding on a Railroad” and “Machine Gun Kelly,” the first of which is a classic, and the next two are as good as anything as James has ever done.
And then came the Emitt Rhodes LP.
“Well I’m down with my face on the floor Yes I got what I asked for and more Well the moment she stepped through that door I was down with my face on the floor”
It’s all about the first track, if that doesn’t grab you it’s a bad sign. But as soon as you dropped the needle on Emitt Rhodes’s solo debut you were immediately along for the ride, the theme park attendant pushed back the safety bar and the roller coaster took off like a shot.
“Well now she’s gone away
Just took time to say ‘I’ll drop you a line’ (drop you a line) Well now she’s gone away Just took time to say, ‘I’ll see you sometime'”
Sure the lyrics are simple, but they’re so right, you’re infatuated, you connect and then she leaves.
But what makes “With My Face on the Floor” so magical is the simplicity, that piano hook, and Emitt Rhodes’s mellifluous voice. If this exact same LP was dropped today there’d be hosannas, because we’ve completely lost this formula, used to be to compete you had to have a great voice, you had to write your own songs, and if you didn’t…you didn’t make it, unless maybe like Dylan you were the best lyricist ever, or Jeff Beck…then again, as great as Beck is, the best, his entire career has been a search for material equal to his ability to play his guitar.
“Somewhere someone special just for me
Somewhere someone special must be”
Maybe you don’t remember your teens, your twenties, the agony of loneliness, the dream of meeting your soul mate, back when you still thought that was possible.
“I’ve been searching all my life
Guess I’ve looked most everywhere
Many girls have caught my eye
But that special one’s not there”
A bridge? This is not rocket science, but the formula seems to have been lost. A melodious song, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge. But today no one can do it. Not that everybody back then did it as well as Emitt Rhodes.
And “Somebody Made for Me” was guitar-based rather than featuring the piano of “With My Face on the Floor,” it was slower and groovier, illustrating the chops of this cat, but for some reason the tastemakers just couldn’t come down off the mountaintop to anoint him.
“It’s been a long time I remember you well It’s been a long time no see where you been keeping yourself”
“Long Time No See” sounds like it would fit nicely on the White Album. It’s not made for the radio, it’s made for headphones in your bedroom, it’s not a ditty like what’s come before, it’s more of an album track, a mood-setter.
“Tears that angels cry
And they darken all the sky
When the one you love says goodbye”
With just Emitt and his guitar, “Lullabye” does sound like McCartney, but it’s not an imitation, and it’s so heartfelt. This is what the listening experience used to be, before music was seen as background, grease for the party, the dance, gaming… “Lullabye” was made just for you, to make you feel human, part of something, to know someone else is on your wavelength, our musical heroes were not brands, they were artists, who did their best to reflect life back at us, so we could understand it.
“Well if you come from heaven
You know that that’s okay
Just as long as you’re here to help me
It doesn’t matter how long you stay
Talking ’bout you, baby
Don’t you know you’re fresh as a daisy, fresh as a daisy”
“Fresh as a Daisy” has a magical bridge too, this and “With My Face on the Floor” are the cuts that floated above the detritus, that got a bit of radio airplay, or so they tell me, I never heard Emitt Rhodes on the radio.
“You must live till you die
You must fight to survive
You must live till you die
You must feel to be alive
You must live till you die”
The funny thing is so many of Rhodes’s songs evidenced optimism, when he was notably depressed. Then again, when you’re young and depressed you believe a change of scenery will fix everything, if you meet the right person, it’s all situational, you have hope and then…when your dreams don’t come true…you hide in your house and watch television and watch the rest of the world go by.
In retrospect, Emitt’s debut is a masterpiece.
But this was in an era of “Elton John” and “Tumbleweed Connection,” “Stephen Stills” and “Sticky Fingers,” never mind “Exile on Main Street.” What did Joni Mitchell sing, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”?
But Rhodes had made inroads. His fans had hope. Not that we connected. For years people have talked to me about Emitt’s music, but I had to come to Los Angeles, get into the music business to find them. We could not connect on social media, we just listened and hoped there were like-minded people out there.
“You don’t have to be alone to feel alone You can have someone and still feel alone”
It was a year later, Emitt released a second LP, “Mirror.” I was no longer residing in Hepburn Hall with an assigned roommate, now I got to choose my living companion, who was not alienated by my music, which I could play every night as we fell asleep, never mind during the day.
“And there’s a strong possibility
That we might often fail to see the better side of life”
Ain’t that the truth. But this juxtaposition of alienation and optimism…there’s Emitt’s hope once again…and one thing is for sure, it bonded listeners to him, they embraced every word.
“Every time I feel this way I pick up my guitar And sing a song of faraway lands, ego and facade I often feel like sailing but I always miss the boat And every time I feel this way I pick up my guitar”
The closest analogue is James Taylor’s “Me and my Guitar,” from “Walking Man,” but that was released three years later, in 1974!
“When I needed someone
Tell me who came along
I was hoping you’d come
‘Cause I really wanted you
Yes I really wanted you”
“Really Wanted You,” the second side opener of “Mirror,” is in the league of “With My Face on the Floor” and “Fresh as a Daisy,” stone cold smashes. Then again, AM radio no longer played this sound, unless it came from McCartney himself, and FM wanted something heavier, something darker, Emitt Rhodes resided in no-man’s land.
And now comes the piece-de-resistance.
It’s funny how all these love songs resonated so much when I was getting no love. Oh, I had crushes, but Middlebury was like a giant high school, relationships were rare, I had to move to L.A. to get a chance, but still… What ended earlier was still prominent in my heart, funny how these high school relationships resonate for so long.
“Love will stone you, but you’ll come down”
Ain’t that the truth!
There was a third solo LP in ’73, “Farewell to Paradise.” I got it from the Record Club of America, but it was laden with surface noise, I returned it. No one was talking about Emitt Rhodes anymore, no one was listening to him, few outlets even stocked the LP, it was more of a rumor than a release.
I mean absolutely nothing. Which is strange, unless you get sick or die, this rarely happens.
But word was he was living in the South Bay, you could research Emitt once the web arrived, and fans coalesced.
And these fans rallied around Emitt’s earlier work, with the Merry-Go-Round. Emitt had not emerged fully-formed, he’d paid his dues, still, the tastemakers of the seventies did not care. But there was a low rumbling online, very low…
And then came…
There’s always a comeback album, and it’s always disappointing, you’ve got to square your memories with the present. Usually the playing is cool, but the songs suck. And either the material sounds completely different from what came before, or it’s a pale imitation of the originals.
But not “Rainbow Ends.”
“Rainbow Ends” is my favorite album of the last five years. I don’t know another record like it. The oldsters are still dealing with teenage subjects, but Emitt’s singing from an adult perspective, and it’s so soul-fulfilling!
“‘You ain’t no good,’ I hear her say
Under her breath as she turns away
‘I’ll take the car, I’ll take the house
I’ll take the kids and then I’ll turn you out'”
Ever been divorced? You usually lose EVERYTHING!
This is not the Emitt of the seventies. First and foremost he no longer sounds like McCartney, his voice is deeper, maybe if he’d had this sound back in the seventies…nah.
And unlike “Emitt Rhodes,” “Dog on a Chain” does not start on a tear. It’s confessional, quiet, just Emitt and guitar, but then, fully forty five seconds into the song, the band comes in, lays down a groove and…
“She berates me, calls me crazy
Once she praised me, now she hates me
I can’t see how I have changed”
You’re the same person, but suddenly you’re the ENEMY! Nothing you do is right. That seventies optimism, it’s been eviscerated, Emitt’s testifying, world-wearily, but the groove eliminates any trace of self-pity.
“Whenever I’m worried and I’m feelin’ alone When problems are many and I’m all alone When all the world’s troubles are too much to bear Well that’s when I break down and I wish you were here”
WHEW! It’s so hard to go from two to one.
“I’m still trying to please you even though you’re not here Still talking to you even though you can’t hear And the more I deny it the more that it’s true There’s hardly a moment I’m not thinkin’ of you”
The funny thing is it works both ways. The leaver and the leavee have these same thoughts. The person is in your life every day, and then suddenly they’re gone, we’re just animals at heart, but with brains, this separation is intolerable.
“When you tell someone you care a lot
Prepare yourself for a broken heart
You think you’re so strong, think you’re so brave You’ll feel so small, be so afraid Whoa, whoa”
Can you risk it, tell them how you feel?
I must admit I’ve thought about it for eons, but I usually can’t take action, fearing the rejection.
“You like her so much it makes you sick
And you just can’t make no sense of it”
Adult crushes are even worse than high school ones. At least in high school you see them on a regular basis, you’ve got a chance of interaction, to get your dreams fulfilled. But when you’re home alone in your apartment…
“Before you say I’m really very special
Then run to another’s arms”
If they really felt that way about you, they would stay with you.
“I wanna be somewhere far away
Somewhere where I won’t be afraid
I wanna be sheltered safe and warm
I wanna be somewhere far from harm”
Emitt’s finally achieved his goal. Last night he died.
I could recite his personal history, what I’ve gleaned from the web, but I never met the man, even when he was coming back he shrank from the publicity. He canceled appearances, his record spoke for him.
And his recordings speak for him now. And forevermore.
And the funny thing is those who are remembered frequently weren’t made for these times. Like Nick Drake. Others who fought their demons but had to die to be accepted.
Forget writing camps. Just give wannabe songmeisters an Emitt Rhodes LP, there’s more instruction there than you’ll find in a room of umpteen writers with credits today.
“I want to to be loved no matter what
Not just for now, ’til bad is gone
I want to be someone’s only one
Not just for now, ’til better comes”
Isn’t that what we’re all looking for, love and acceptance?
You can be in a relationship, even married, and have neither.
Then you can have both for a while…but then it’s over.
And life goes on and the wounds have healed and you don’t want to risk being cut again, you want to stay out of danger, in your own small universe. The world has beaten you down, you give up.
But ain’t that America, where no one comes to your rescue until you die. Where being rich and famous is everything, when the truth is if you’ve got one person you can call a friend, who gets you, who is there for you, you’re wealthier than most of the people on the cover of the magazines, featured in the gossip columns.
Ultimately, Emitt Rhodes’s story is a sad one. Could it have gone another way? If he were on Columbia or Warner Brothers, if he got good mental health treatment? I don’t know. But I do know this world is made up of alienated people, who look to music to connect, make their lives whole, and Emitt Rhodes gets an A+ on that score. His music means a lot to me. I don’t need to convince you. I wish I could have convinced him. But it’s too late.
The older you get, the less you know, the more questions you’ve got.
Why does life work out for some, but not others? Why do some gain success, and not others? Why do some have happy relationships and they elude others completely? How can it be your genius hides in plain sight, unseen by the masses?
Emitt Rhodes is at the end of the rainbow now. Up in the clouds. His dreams are over, that’s all she wrote. His eyes are closed, but if you listen to his music yours will open. And see the human condition in a world where everybody professes to be a winner, where everybody wants to deny their feelings.
But not Emitt Rhodes.