I’m going to commit the sin one last time, on purpose, and let it be done.
I suspect the musician Emitt Rhodes, who passed away in his sleep overnight, would take umbrage with it. He had every right to, but I need to do the deed to explain the problem, and this mysterious sin is that of the reviewer comparing the artist with a more famous artist as a show of appreciation.
Having left his band, The Merry-Go-Rounds, in 1969, Rhodes embarked on a solo career that, while not setting the world on fire monetarily or legendarily, instilled in a devoted cult following a lifelong love for his music. He recorded the debut solo record in his home studio and it was released by ABC/Dunhill Records in 1970.
He was a critical darling, with Billboard calling Rhodes “one of the finest artists on the music scene today,” later saying his first album one of the “best albums of the decade.” It was, and it languished nonetheless consciousness (except, again, with the faithful). While the single “Fresh as a Daisy” reached number 54 on the pop chart, he was not ascending to the heights of fame and fortune.
One speculates he didn’t necessarily care about the fame and fortune as the rewards, but certainly some more public recognition for the work had to be desired.
This is a lousy time for “classic pop” artists like Emitt Rhodes, rising in the wake of the crumbling ’60s counterculture and in the dust cloud of the collapse of its figurehead leaders, The Beatles. And research as you may, so many commit that sin I talked about: “He’s following in the great tradition of Paul McCartney.”
Ugh. I can tell you directly, Rhodes had no desire to be your Beatles proxy, your stand-in for Paul. Yes, there are similarities. They were masters of songcraft. They worked the material. They did it themselves and, as mentioned earlier, Rhodes was a multi-instrumentalist putting together his proto-bedroom pop at home, much like McCartney did for the most part with his first solo record (being McCartney).
But for me, that’s as far as the comparisons go. Rhodes had more of a melancholic side and was unafraid of inserting that into his music. He wasn’t a good time all the time. He had something to prove, and that wasn’t being McCartney’s heir.
Two more albums emerged: Mirror in 1971 and Farewell to Paradise in 1973. The contract he had with Dunhill was grueling, calling for six albums in three years. Now you can see what a double-edged sword being the sole musician on record for him could be. After Farewell to Paradise and the label conflagration, Rhodes quit performing.
He did not quit writing. Attempts were made to record an album in 1980, and then in 2000, but label issues ensued, the first being the firing of the A&R person at Elektra Records who was shepherding the 1980 project. Later, the Rocktopia label closed shop folded up during the second attempt. And still, he wrote. Recordings were made in 2009 and 2011. Rhodes kept writing. It would not be until 2016 that his now final album Rainbow Ends would emerge through the Omnivore Records label.
The record is a minor miracle. Rhodes is joined with his acolytes Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. and Jason Falkner (both formerly of Jellyfish), Aimee Mann, Jon Brion, Susanna Hoffs from The Bangles, Nels Cline from Wilco, Fernando Perdomo, Joe Seiders from The New Pornographers, Bleu, and many more. They knew what was up and wanted in. And that voice, while now in a lower register, remained as smooth as winter snow, aging like a painting that doesn’t crumble or fade, but reveals new details as background detail emerges, as the impasto pops as the light rakes across. Sorry for the purple prose, but if anyone’s music deserved such rhapsodizing, it is his.
I have no idea what Rhodes felt about it all, but it had to warm the heart to learn of how many students – most of whom you never knew directly – wanted to work with the teacher. The results are here for us to share.
Frustratingly, many of his original master recordings were involved in the 2008 Universal Music warehouse fire, so those tapes are lost to us, and any further releases of these would need to be replaced with rips from the vinyl records.
Let’s vow to not commit that sin ever again. Emitt Rhodes was the very best Emitt Rhodes this world has known. He could stand toe to toe with anyone in his weight class as an equal, and I hope that he will be remembered as such. He was an actual genius, of which we are in desperately short supply.
His students – and I am one – will miss him.