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