A Visit with Emitt Rhodes, Hawthorne's OTHER Pop Legend by Kim Cooper and P. Edwin Letcher
When Edwin announced his intention to interview Emitt Rhodes for Garage and Beat, I discouraged him. Sure, Emitt had sufficient neglected pop genius cred to fuel three feature stories, but he also had a reputation as a reluctant, peculiar interview subject. Certainly he'd demur. But as Edwin made initial telephone contact with Emitt, and found him willing to talk, I got excited and volunteered to help out. Originally we planned to split the resulting interview between Scram and GAB, but the conversation proved so organic, and so entertaining, that we're each running the full version. However, the vintage photos included in Scram #18 are unique to Scram, and come courtesy of Emitt's mother's archive.
With the Merry-Go-Round, and on his three solo (and I do mean solo) albums, Emitt Rhodes perfected a stunning strain of romantic power pop, rooted in personal experience, yet with universal appeal. The records are often described as McCartneyesque, but don't mistake the work for clever mimicry. Emitt's songs are totally his own and quite as good as those of the similar-voiced Beatle. Working alone under increasingly hostile record company pressure, he decided in his early 20s to move to the production side of the industry. He was a staff producer at Elektra through most of the '70s. These days he reads theoretical physics and astronomy texts and records bands in the double-wide garage behind his Hawthorne home, directly across the street from his parents' house where he recorded Emitt Rhodes, Mirror and Farewell to Paradise.
Looking back at Emitt's career, it's clear that he never found the creative support system that he needed. His publisher Eddie Shaw convinced him to sign away songwriting rights, and locked him into an impossibly strict contract with ABC that required Emitt to write, perform, record and produce complete albums in six months. When he failed to deliver, ABC sued him for loss of potential earnings. No one ever stood up for his interests, made an effort to place his songs with other performers or on soundtracks, or encouraged him to find collaborators to take some of the creative pressure off his head. Considering the unhappy circumstances, the joyous quality of the music he made is all the more impressive.
Emitt asked if we could conduct the interview at Red Lobster. It was an honor to treat one of my favorite songwriters to a shellfish feast. -Kim Cooper
Edwin: When did you first start playing music? Was it in high school?
Emitt: I was nine years old. I was offered: "you go beat on a bench and learn how to play drums or spend the next hour in class." I decided that, yeah, I can go beat on a bench for an hour-maybe it was a half-hour, I don't really remember-but I was really good at beating on a bench. I was like better than everybody else beating on the bench.
Kim: Was that a music class or just a way for kids to learn their instrument?
Emitt: It was drum class. And I learned how to do flam tap paradiddle on a bench... and the double stroke roll.
Kim: How soon after that until you got your first drum kit?
Kim: So, after you showed some aptitude, they got you a drum kit?
Emitt: No, I was a child prodigy. I beat on the bench better than everybody else.
Edwin: Did you enjoy it?
Emitt: Hey! Did I enjoy it? (laughs)
Edwin: Was the Palace Guard the first band you played in?
Emitt: (with a sour look) Nooooooooooo.
Kim: The Emerals.
Emitt: (laughs) Yes, the Emerals.
Kim: No "D."
Emitt: Same band. Same guys. They were all old guys.
Kim: What about those satin shirts that you guys had? Were those bright green?
Emitt: They were bowling shirts.
Kim: Were they green?
Emitt: Yes, they were green. They weren't emerald. They were green colored satin shirts with our names.
Kim: They looked pretty swell. They had your names on the back?
Emitt: They had our names somewhere; I don't remember now where. I was a young guy.
Edwin: Did you have the shirts first or the name of the band first?
Emitt: We had the name first. I had green drums. Everybody was looking for any reason to pick a name. I had green drums so they called us the Emerals, and they spelled it wrong. Or so I've been told. I didn't know; I was fourteen. If they spelled it funny, I wasn't paying any attention.
Kim: Most of the guys in that band were brothers, right?
Emitt: It was seven of us and three of them were brothers.
Kim: So, they didn't have a majority for voting things for the band?
Emitt: Yeah, they did. Don Beaudoin was the leader of the band. I wrote some liner notes for the Palace Guard [singles compilation recently released by Gear Fab].
Kim: I thought you didn't write the notes?
Emitt: I did, but I was late handing them in I guess, so I returned the money that the guy gave me. It was child abuse. D... B... was the same age as I was and he was abused by G... B... who ran the Hullabaloo and who was the head of Orange Empire Records.
Kim: Was it sexual abuse or physical abuse?
Emitt: Yes, he fucked him.
Kim: Did all you guys in the band know that was going on?
Emitt: I was fourteen at the time and I knew, so I would imagine his brothers knew also and that his parents knew too. He was like the sacrificial goat.
Kim: So that you guys could get that big plum job at the Hullabaloo?
Emitt: Yeah, that was kind of it.
Edwin: How is he doing now? Do you keep in touch with him?
Emitt: He's a strange guy. I saw him on TV once. I like to watch the news. I turned the news on, this was years ago, and he had parked some RV in front of the Hullabaloo club, which is now the Nickelodeon...
Kim: That's the place that was the Aquarius Theater later on. Near Amoeba.
Emitt: Right, it's on Sunset and Vine or just a few blocks away.
Kim: At Argyle, I believe.
Emitt: Yeah, D... parked in front of the club and said he had a bomb... or explosives.
Edwin: I heard about that! I didn't know it was him. That was pretty big.
Emitt: I feel so sorry for him.
Kim: Is the guy who was molesting him around or is he dead?
Emitt: I have no idea. I don't know what happened to G... B...I turned fifteen and decided to form my own band and write my own songs.
Kim: You just wanted to get out of that situation?
Emitt: Yeah, that's exactly what I wanted to do. I was ashamed. I'm wondering where D...'s parents were and what they were feeling.
Kim: But you ended up going back and still playing music with those guys I heard.
Emitt: Boy, was that stupid.
(we turned the tape off and dealt with the waiter bringing salads or some such and assured Emitt we wouldn't use anything he told us not to)
Emitt: Thanks, I appreciate that. That's what I ask at every interview; please don't make me sound stupid, okay.
Edwin: Were you happy with the music that the guys in the Palace Guard were writing?
Emitt: They didn't write it. I didn't write it either. I wrote songs that the Merry Go Round did later, that were hits to some degree, but...
Kim: Did you write "Falling Sugar"?
Emitt: No, I have no idea who wrote that, but it wasn't anybody in the band. That was all stuff that was put together by this guy G... B... who liked to fuck D... B... in the butt.
Edwin: So he was writing the songs and you guys were playing them?
Kim: He was buying songs.
Emitt: He bought them. He was buying everything. He was like Michael Jackson... butt fucker... Michael Jackson... child molester. Sorry. I'm still like people are what they do.
Kim: So this B... guy liked the new uniforms? He set those up for you guys?
Emitt: He bought the uniforms, he put us in the Hullabaloo, he ran the Hullabaloo. I'm not certain how he did it, but he was the guy.
Kim: Did you have national touring bands coming through and playing there?
Emitt: Everybody. Every famous person imaginable... except for the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, but everybody else played the Hullabaloo.
Kim: What were some of the bands you remember enjoying?
Emitt: I don't remember any of them. I don't want to remember that.
Kim: You were too young to get in some of the other clubs weren't you?
Emitt: I was fourteen. I was as young as D... B... and I'm just lucky he didn't like my ass better. I'm lucky I was ugly.
Edwin: At what point did you decide that you wanted to write music? Was that something you were doing already?
Emitt: I did at the Hullabaloo. I wrote songs that I used later in my group while I was at the Hullabaloo. I was the drummer and I realized that everybody up front was getting laid.
Kim: But you were only fourteen. Maybe that was part of it.
Emitt: Okay, I could get laid by fourteen. I think it was about eleven. I don't know the first orgasm you had, but I think I was eleven. By fourteen I was ready. All the guys in the front got to take their shirts off and shake their hips, that kind of stuff. I was way in the back...
Kim: Okay, wait a minute. We were talking about Dennis Wilson on the way over here. Now he was the sex symbol of the Beach Boys and he was the drummer.
Emitt: He killed himself.
Kim: That was years later.
Emitt: Yeah, well... they were... I don't know... I was in the back.
Edwin: That was your perception anyway, you were in the back so you weren't getting any action.
Emitt: I wanted to be up front. I wanted to sing and I was writing songs. I learned how to play the guitar. I love the drums. The drums are great and I love the drums and it's boom boom boom boom boom boom, but I'm good at spacial relationships.
Edwin: Did you kind of know how to play guitar before you ever picked one up?
Emit: No, in fact the first song I ever wrote, I just tuned the guitar to where it sounded good to me, wrote a song and was never able to sing it again. That was it. But I realized that I like doing it so now I have things (calluses?) on my fingers.
Edwin: About how many songs had you written when you started the Merry Go Round?
Emitt: I don't know. I have no idea. I just realized that being up front and playing the guitar and singing was something I wanted to do rather than being behind everybody playing drums.
(We turned the tape off when more food was brought to the table and we started eating. While we were eating we engaged in a discussion of the nature of dark matter and dark energy, which are unknown quantities that make up a majority of the Universe, as well as ghosts. Kim and I decided the discussion was fun so we turned the tape back on mid sentence.)
Emitt: ... it has nothing to do with spirits.
Edwin: The thing about it is, we don't know that. The basic premise that most cosmologists operate under is the fact that we don't know... Let's talk about rock and roll.
Emitt: Okay, rock and roll I know.
Edwin: Who were the first bands that you liked when you were a kid?
Emitt: The Beach Boys. They went to my school.
Kim: Were you a little kid and they were the big kids?
Emitt: (Instead of answering Emitt started playing drums on the table with his fingers.)
Edwin: Did you play Beach Boys music when you learned to drum?
Emitt: You bet I did! Yeah, it was the Beach Boys stuff. Let's see the Turtles...
Edwin: The Crossfires.
Emitt: Okay, the Crossfires and they became the Turtles later. (Emitt switched back to a thread we had been following while the tape wasn't running.) I had a deja vu in some club once. It was in Redondo Beach and I was sitting there behind the drums, playing with the Palace Guard, and it was like I had done this before. I believe in all of the above because I've been half crazy in my life so I believe I all of the above. I read my physics book so I understand the mechanics of the universe.
Kim: What were the Wilson brothers like in high school?
Emitt: I don't know them. I only knew Dennis Wilson. He broke my drum pedal. That's what I remember. I was at this high school dance and it was my drums and he was playing my drums and he broke my drum pedal and he said he'd replace it and he never did.
Kim: Did you get to play or did that ruin your chance to play?
Emitt: I think I played before he played so all I had to do was collect my broken pedal.
Kim: I think that man went through life breaking things.
Emitt: He wasn't a great drummer. He played drums funny, I thought. I was taught by Emery Desso, who played the drums correctly. Dennis played it backwards or something. I feel sorry for Brian Wilson; he could have had a better drummer if it wasn't his brother.
Emitt: I'm sorry. I don't mean to hurt his feelings, but if I were his producer, that's what I would have told him.
Kim: Actually, on the records he did have a better drummer. That was Hal Blaine.
Emitt: Good because I didn't think Dennis Wilson was a great drummer.
Edwin: Who were some of your guitar heroes?
Emitt: George Harrison. He came up with a lot of lines that you can recognize. I thought he was an impressive player. But I know most of the guys in the Rolling Stones. Ron Wood, I've met him and he's a good player. There are a lot of good players. I know a lot of good players.
Edwin: When you started the Merry Go Round, were there others besides the Beatles that you were totally into?
Emitt: Mozart. I like Mozart. He's pretty good.
Kim: Didn't Fairport Convention do "Time Will Show the Wiser"? Did you ever hear that?
Emitt: I know Ian Matthews. He's a really wonderful guy. Good singer, wonderful voice.
Kim: Edwin's a big Ian Matthews fan.
Edwin: Yeah, I love his stuff.
Kim: They did that song of yours, "Time Will Show the Wiser."
Emitt: Yes, and it's probably his fault. Shame on him. (laughs)
Kim: Did you know him before that?
Emitt: No, I met him when I worked for Elektra/Asylum. He was on the label.
Edwin: How long were you at Elektra?
Emitt: Six or seven years, something like that. Long enough to where I felt like an old guy.
Kim: Was that around '73 or so?
Emitt: Yeah, later than that, actually.
Kim: So you were there when Television was there?
Kim: The band Television from New York. Were they one of the bands that Elektra had when you were there?
Emitt: The Cars. I don't know Television. The Cars, I know... Queen...
Kim: They were big. I loved Queen when I was a kid. They were my favorite band.
Emitt: I just didn't want to bend over in front of them. I thought his pants were too tight.
Kim: His pants were really too tight.
Emitt: Yeah, but see, I'm not a girl.
Kim: I was shocked when I found out he was gay.
Edwin: Freddie Mercury?
Kim: I was like ten when someone told me he was gay.
Emitt: That was scary to me.
Edwin: You didn't know?
Kim: I was just a little girl, I didn't know. I just thought he was pretty.
Emitt: (laughing) Yeah, anyway, the Eagles... I was hired to say no. That was my job. The head or A&R basically told me to say no unless I was willing to stake my life on it.
Kim: You said yes to Bim?
Emitt: Yeah, because I thought he was great.
Kim: "Right After My Heart."
Emitt: What a wonderful tune. I love that.
Kim: You produced it.
Emitt: Yeah, and he was just thrown to the wind.
Kim: My copy is a promo copy. Do you know if it actually got a proper release?
Emitt: I have no idea what they did or why they did it, but they just threw it to the wind. I was told there was a quarter of a million bucks... that's what you spend on a record.
Kim: That's a lot more than you would ever spend on one of your own records.
Emitt: (laughs) Me?? It was 15... and then I was asking for a kick back because I'd work a whole year for five thousand dollars or no money at all. I made no money. I made no money in the business.
Kim: Do you still own your song writing?
Emitt: Uh... The Royal Tenenbaums. They sent me a check for that.
Kim: It's pretty good to get a check.
Emitt: Oh yeah, no question about it. My problem is "Live." I've had friends tell me this; I don't really know. The Bangles did it and they put it on compilations and I should have got paid for it, but my publisher sent me a statement saying I didn't, that he took the rights to the song back or something. I look at the contracts I signed when I was a sixteen year old, it's child abuse.
Kim: But you can't legally sign a contract. That's how David Cassidy got out of his bad contracts, because he was under age.
Emitt: My mother and my father signed with me. I just wanted to make music. My mother and father didn't know any better so they just signed with me and I have contracts that say "for perpetuity." "We own these songs for perpetuity."
Kim: â€˜Til the end of the universe, right?
Emitt: (laughs) Yeah, forever, and I'm going "oh, okay." I was only fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old and I didn't understand.
Edwin: One thing we want to talk to you about is all the stuff that you've recorded as demos and home recordings.
Emitt: I'm going to release those. I've put together a whole bunch of stuff that I've recorded... It's all horrible and I apologize to everybody. But I have new stuff that is the best stuff that I've ever written. I wrote the best song I've ever written in my life last week.
Kim: What's it called?
Emitt: I'm not real sure, but it could be "Rainbows Ends," which doesn't mean anything, but it's about being optimistic. I'm kind of an optimist even though I'm an old guy.
Edwin: Does it surprise you that there are so many people that are eager to hear what you've been recording for the last thirty years?
Emitt: No, I'm glad.
Edwin: I would imagine.
Emitt: I really meant it. I've written songs for a long time, I mean what I say and say what I mean and write from the heart. I'm hoping that there's people that like that because that's what I always liked.
Kim: When you write your songs, are they about specific people and situations or do you just draw on universal feelings. I noticed on the map as we were coming down here there's a Holly Park right over by your house and you wrote a song about "Holly Park."
Emitt: I went there and wrote it about that. It's all metaphor to me... and I'm a scientist.
Kim: You're a social scientist?
Emitt: I'm a scientist. That's my belief system; it's a metaphor. I went for child custody and I said I was a scientist and the child custody evaluator thought I was deranged.
Kim: A mad scientist.
Emitt: Yeah, I was a mad person.
Kim: So there wasn't really a birthday lady and you liked her sandals?
Emitt: Oh yes, that was my first wife... But she hates me and I don't know why... Well I do know why; I wasn't very much fun. I'm a lot more fun now. (laughs)
Kim: So there you are, you're in the Merry Go Round and you record these demos and they become a surprise hit and then you have to rush an album out, right?
Kim: How long did you spend on that album?
Emitt: We didn't spend any time at all because we had recorded the whole thing as demos.
Kim: Where did you record it?
Emitt: At their studios. They took the sound stages and they turned them into studios. I learned how to engineer at A&M studios. I saw the first 8-track in my life. You know what they did at A&M studios, they put eight speakers along the ceiling so you could hear all eight tracks separate. I mean, Aye yi yi. I'm an old guy; I was learning while everybody else was learning.
Kim: Did you find A&M an artist friendly environment?
Emitt: Yes, no question about it. It was Herb Alpert. He's an artist.
Kim: Was Jerry Moss more the business side of it?
Emitt: Herb Alpert was an artist and Jerry Moss was kind of the business guy for Herb Alpert.
Edwin: What about Chris Montez, one of my favorites? Did you ever meet him?
Emitt: Yeah, of course I did.
Kim: (laughs) Emitt is rolling his eyes.
Edwin: Was he a nice guy?
Emitt: Yeah, he was a nice guy, but he couldn't sing in pitch.
Edwin: But he sure could sing high.
Emitt: It was this falsetto and " ughhh... Call me... wooooooo."
Edwin: (laughs) I love it, though.
Emitt: I don't blame you. Okay, good for you. I'm not going to hurt your feelings, give me a break. I'm just telling you he wasn't in pitch.
Kim: Your label mate, at the time, over at A&M was Phil Ochs, who was going kind of psychedelic...
Emitt: Nobody liked Phil Ochs. Did you like Phil Ochs?
Edwin: I loved his music.
Kim: I heard he was a horrible human being, by all accounts, but I still liked his records.
Emitt: You mean you liked him??
(The waiter walked up at this point to ask if we needed anything and Emitt addressed him.)
Emitt: Ever heard of Phil Ochs?
Emitt: How old are you?
Waiter: I'm nineteen.
Emitt: No, you've never heard of Phil Ochs. Forget it.
(The waiter left and we continued this thread)
Emitt: He had a hit. What was Phill Ochs' hit?
Kim: "Flower Lady" was a hit.
Emitt: "Flower Lady"?? No, that's not the one I remember. (Emitt signaled the waiter over)
Would you get me a Mexican coffee?
Waiter: A regular coffee?
Emitt: No, a Mexican coffee. It's Kahlua, tequilla and then just as much coffee with whipped cream on top and a cherry on top, like dessert.
(After a while, Emitt explained the intricacies of this exotic adult beverage, Kim decided to try one as well and the waiter left to see if he could remember all the details.)
Edwin: I saw Phil Ochs shortly before he killed himself.
Emitt: Everyone liked Phil Ochs, but he wasn't popular.
Kim: In retrospect, those records were really interesting. He was working with Lincoln Mayorga and did all these weird orchestrations.
Emitt: Yeah, they're great, but nobody liked him.
Kim: Did you ever run into Joe Byrd?
Edwin: He was in that band called the United States of America.
Kim: He was a UCLA professor and an electronic music guy. They (the United States of America) were on Columbia, but he worked on that Ochs record, "Pleasures of the Harbor."
Emitt: No, I was in the studio when I was in the studio and when I was in the studio they locked the door and I got to turn all the knobs myself and it was wonderful.
Kim: So you produced your own stuff?
Emitt: No, I just learned how to engineer at that time and then I met Keith Olsen and then I really learned how to engineer.
Kim: He was from the Music Machine.
Kim: It's a wonderful, interesting, weird band. We actually brought Sean Bonniwell out of retirement to play a festival a couple years ago. They had a Music Machine reunion.
Emitt: Keith played the bass. I was real lucky that I played bass too and drums and everything.
Edwin: What other instruments do you play besides guitar, piano, bass and drums?
Emitt: Nothing. Is there anything?? For me it's one-four-five. It's Pythagorean Theorum. For me it's mathematics. I love Pythagoras. Everybody else in rock and roll loves Pythagoras, too, even if they don't know it. I'm just telling you that Pythagoras was a wonderful guy. He lived a long time ago, nobody knows him and nobody cares. He gave us do re mi fa sol la ti do. Without him... somebody else would have had to do it. I love math. I love science. I love that stuff.
Edwin: Yeah, math and music are pretty much synonymous.
Emitt: It's Pythagoras. You split the string in half and you get an octave. You split it into thirds and you get a third.
Edwin: Yeah, but with music, it depends on who does the splitting.
Emitt: Well, alright...
Edwin: I'm serious.
Emitt: For me... it's just say what you feel, feel what you say.
Kim: Did you guys go out on the road with the Merry Go Round?
Emitt: Yeah, I did first class everywhere.
Kim: Why didn't you stick it out and do another record?
Emitt: Because our first record didn't make money.
Kim: Really? Even with "Live" a hit single?
Edwin: Did it make money for somebody else maybe?
Emitt: It did make some money, but...
(The Mexican coffees arrived and Emitt was a little leery of the waiter's claim that the bartender had made them extra strong for us.)
Emitt: I believe that... my ass. (laughs)
Edwin: You'll know in about half an hour.
Emitt: No, I'll know that in the next sip. (sip) Oh yeah, he did good! He did good!! (laughs)
Edwin: I have an odd question for you. Did you look at McCartney as an idol or did that just come naturally?
Emitt: No, John Lennon. I liked Paul McCartney very much, but John Lennon was my idol. He really bared himself.
Kim: But when you opened your mouth to sing, you sounded more like Paul.
Emitt: Well, yeah, I can't help that.
Edwin: Actually, that was my question, was it natural?
Emitt: Well, yeah, I didn't want to sing like Brian Wilson. (laughs) Or Mike Love. (laughs even louder)
Emitt: So I wound up singing like Paul McCartney, but I really liked John Lennon. I liked Paul McCartney too. I think he's a wonderful writer, but John Lennon was my idol because he said what he felt even though people didn't like it.
Edwin: What were you doing when you found out he had died?
Emitt: I don't know; I was probably in the studio. I heard it on the radio from the studio. It wasn't a good thing. What's the guy's name who killed him? (Mark Chapman) I'd eat his liver. He's a horrible person. The guy's still alive and he doesn't deserve to be.
Kim: Do you believe in the death penalty?
Emitt: I believe in death. It works. It goes black and then you're not there anymore. I've been there a few times. Yeah, I believe in the death penalty and Mark Chapman should be dead. He shouldn't be alive. I don't know why we still feed him. I'm against death. I believe in life. I have my own religion. I'm an atheist. I believe in life being the most important thing there is. Life is it. I believe everybody will agree that life's important. I've been dead so I know what death is.
Kim: Is that when you had blackouts?
Emitt: Yeah, you go black. Kind of whiteout really.
Kim: Do you see the light and you go to it?
Kim: Do you think that's all just a biological effect?
Emitt: Yeah. Your brain works up until the time that it doesn't work anymore.
Edwin: Accepting any explanation of what goes on afterwards is a huge leap of faith...
Emitt: I've been there afterwards.
Edwin: Well then your afterwards is here, though.
Emitt: My afterwards is different than yours might be. My afterwards is I don't have blood sugar. My brain dies. It's like I can't think anymore because I don't have enough blood sugar for my brain to function anymore. The last experience I had is that I was lying in the middle of my room trying not to drown on my own saliva because I couldn't swallow because swallowing means that muscle has blood sugar to do it. I was beyond that.
Kim: How did you get out of it?
Emitt: My little girl called me on the phone and I was real lucky and knocked the phone off the hook and mumbled and she called 911. She's a smart little girl. Of course, I don't see her anymore.
Kim: She saved your life.
Emitt: Yeah, she saved my life, but I don't see her anymore.
Edwin: Hopefully, you can save her life someday.
Emitt: Hey, I caused her life, what are you talking about? I've helped her a lot. I taught her how to read whether she knows that or not. We read Harry Potter, the two of us. She asked me, "How am I going to learn how to read? There's so many words." I said, "Okay, you'll learn one at a time." That's what we did.
Edwin: I'm sure you read reviews of your records as they came out. How much in agreement were you with the reviews as the records came out?
Emitt: I never read anything. I don't read that stuff. I read science books.
Edwin: Did you read them for a while, though?
Emitt: No, I never wanted to read anything that I thought, "Hey, I might say something stupid."
Edwin: I'm talking about reviews of the records, what people thought of your music.
Emitt: Okay, I never read anything. If this comes out in your magazine, Garage & Beat!... hey I've got a garage, I have to show you my garage. I'm pretty much a garage kind of guy. I don't read the stuff because I may say something I don't like.
Kim: What were you ambitions as your solo records started to come out?
Emitt: I wanted to be the best drummer in the world.
Kim: What about when you were making your own records? Did you still want to be the best drummer?
Emitt: No, I had already done that. Then I wanted to write the best songs in the world...
Kim: You did real well at that.
Emitt: ...but I hadn't done that until just a few days ago,
Edwin: An awful lot of the songs on your albums are very, very good songs.
Kim: And considering that you did it all by yourself, it's really incredible.
Emitt: I'm a prodigy, what can I say. I mean, I read my physics books. I bought a tape machine and learned how to turn the knobs.
Kim: What was ABC like for you?
Emitt: Who was the head of the record label?
Emitt: Yeah, Lasker. It was like Lasker because he ran everything. What was his first name?
Emitt: Yeah, Jay Lasker. He ran the whole label.
Kim: They were really demanding on you.
Emitt: They just didn't have any idea what the hell I was doing.
Kim: How come you didn't stay at A&M?
Emitt: Because they didn't have any idea what I was doing either. I mean, nobody did.
Kim: You had all these demos put together...
Emitt: I recorded my own record in a little shed behind my parents garage.
Kim: You hadn't done the whole record by yourself before you got the deal, did you?
Emitt: I did half the record by myself before I got the deal. I met Harvey Bruce and played him the tracks that I had recorded on this four-track machine that I had purchased and sang the songs. He liked them and that's how I got the deal.
Kim: What were the first songs you recorded?
Emitt: (zombie voice) "With-my-face-on-the-floor."
Kim: First song on the album.
Emitt: Yeah, that was pretty much it.
Kim: I gotta tell you, when I first heard that record--and I got it for a quarter, at a thrift store--I put it on, heard the first ten seconds of "With My Face on the Floor" and thought, "This is such a good record, I'm going to save it for when I'm in a bad mood. I'm gonna know I have a really good record that I can listen to, and that's what I did. It cheered me up.
Emitt: (long pause) All right. Can we have sex now? (nervous laughter all around) Well, do you have a girl friend, cos I'm an old guy, and I kinda don't remember anymore. (A nearby table is celebrating, and Emitt begins singing loudly) "Happy Birthdayyyy to you!" (applause)
Edwin: Don't you wish you'd written that song?
Emitt: Yeah! I'd get royalties then!
Kim: You got royalties from The Royal Tanenbaums.
Emitt: I had to elicit it. I called up Universal and said, "Look, I have a song in a movie of yours--don't I get paid?" And then like a half hour later, Eddie Shaw's surviving son calls me up and tells me that he couldn't find my number.
Kim: Oh, I talked to Eddie Shaw years ago--I wanted to interview you--and he told me he didn't know where you were.
Emitt: I love Eddie Shaw, like my father, but he wasn't very good to me.
Kim: He was your agent?
Emitt: Yeah, he was my agent, my publisher, he was my mentor. But he was a crook, I think. And of course in the latter part of his life he was an angry person. What was it, the Bangles did "Live"? It's one of the first songs I can remember writing. It was an early song for me that he published, and it was for perpetuity. And somewhere down the line he just decided he wasn't gonna pay me for it, because he was making money.
Emitt: I'm poor. I've been poor my whole life.
Edwin: Do you have a number of people interested in releasing your demos from the last thirty years?
Emitt: Yeah, I've got this guy who's going to give me money for that, but I didn't play him enough songs, so I have to send him a demonstration tape. He's not a record guy, he's in New York and he does lighting, or something.
Edwin: How many songs do you think you have--thirty years worth of recording--is that in the hundreds?
Emitt: Naw. Thirty. I dunno, something like that.
Kim: A song a year?
Emitt: Probably more than that, but some of 'em were rewritten. I wrote the best song I've ever written a week ago, and it was kind of three songs stuck together. Well, it's actually two songs stuck together, with a third part that became the verse. So I had a verse and a chorus, and I didn't decide that I had a chorus up until a few minutes before you came by.
Kim: Can you tell us about the "Tame the Lion" single that came out with your third album?
Emitt: I didn't like the Viet Nam war. Saddam Hussein? Yeah, kill that motherfucker. But Viet Nam? It didn't sound like the kind of war that we wanted to win, and I don't think we should fight a war that we don't want to win.
Kim: So that was your statement on the war?
Emitt: Okay. I've never killed anybody. I'm kind of proud of that. I could have, but I didn't.
Kim: If you did, you'd have to live with it.
Emitt: I just didn't want to kill anybody that I didn't think deserved it. (laughs)
Kim: But you'd go back in time and kill Hitler?
Emitt: (chortling) Oh, I'd kill Hitler, no prob! I'd kill Saddam Hussein. Show him to me, I'll go for him. (drives his butter knife against table repeatedly)
Kim: Put the knife down.
Emitt: I just didn't have anybody in Viet Nam that I didn't like enough to kill them.
Edwin: Did you do miletary service?
Emitt: No. I'm a diabetic, I have a bad back, I'm not healthy.
Edwin: I didn't either.
Kim: What is it about the South Bay? You guys are a mess!
Edwin: Well, I didn't register until it was too late--
Kim: But you couldn't have gotten in anyway--
Emitt: I suppose I could have gone if I'd wanted to, but I didn't want to kill anybody. I didn't want to kill the Viet Namese because I didn't agree with what was going on.
(the waiter comes and we order a slice of key lime pie)
Edwin: How many other songs have you written which are, if not political, just about what's going on in the world?
Emitt: It's not about what's goin on in the world, it's about what's going on in my head. Every song I've ever written is aboutwhat's going on in my head.
Kim: You've written a lot of songs about girls.
Emitt: Oh, okay. I like girls.
Kim: You write songs about grandparents and families--
Emitt: I wish I had a family.
Kim: You did when you were writing those songs.
Emitt: I'm an orphan now.
Kim: That's pretty recent for you.
Emitt: Yeah, the last three years.
Kim: You're lucky, you had them for a long time.
Emitt: Yeah, I was a lucky man.
Kim: Did you socialize a lot with your parents when they lived across the street from you?
Emitt: Yes. I wish I had recognized my mother's illness before I did. My sister did. She knew my mother was sick and allowed my mother to die.
Kim: What did your mother have?
Emitt: A brain tumor. And my mother became less and less coherent as time went on. (A family at a nearby table begins singing "Happy Birthday," and Emitt joins in boisterously, then laughs.) They [the employees] can't sing happy birthday here--
Edwin: That's why everyone sings it themselves.
Emitt: That's why I sing it, anyway.
Edwin: About the girls in the songs, how many of them are about real girls, and how many of them are, ah... science?
Emitt: It's all real girls.
Kim: You'd say, "Hey honey, I wrote you a song" and you'd play it?
Emitt: No, I never wrote anybody a song. I wrote songs about what I understood.
Kim: What about "With My Face on the Floor," is that a real song?
Emitt: Yeah, that's about being unhappy and being shitfaced and falling on the floor. It's a kind of simple thing. You might watch that. Keep this going, and as we get out of here... (laughter) And you can say "Yeah, I saw him do that!" I'm a straight guy, I like girls.
Edwin: I can see that.
Kim: Okay, now you're on ABC. And Jay Lasker runs everything. You brought them half a record, and they gave you, what? $5000 to finish it?
Emitt: Yeah, that was it.
Kim: They must have pushed it, 'cause it did well.
Emitt: Yeah, it was great for them. But for me, I was poor.
Kim: You made a weird little video that we saw on the internet [insert link here], where you're playing all the instruments.
Emitt: That's when I went to London. It was Bristol train station or something. And this was before video, it was all film. The closest thing I ever did to-- (Emitt trails off and checks out a loud table nearby)
Edwin: Is that another birthday?
Kim: Emitt, you gotta wait til they start singing, you can't start it.
Edwin: Don't jump the gun!
Emitt: (clears his throat and tries the first notes) H...hap... happy birthday to--
(the family begins singing the alternate "It's your birthday" cha-cha version, much to Emitt's dismay)
Kim: Was that for British television?
Emitt: Yeah. I never saw it. I didn't see it until a few months ago.
Kim: Who keeps your website up and running?
Emitt: Oh, a friend, a guy named Kevin Ryan.
Kim: He's found some really wild, rare stuff. He's got The Dating Game, radio clips--
Emitt: I saw The Dating Game. I remember, I was asked--and this is a lousy question--"If at twelve o'clock I turn into a pumpkin, what will you do?" And the first thing that came to my mind was (chortling), "I'll eat you!" And then I'm going, "Oh! I can't say that on television!"
Edwin: When's the last time you played live?
Emitt: I did the--
Kim: I was there!
Emitt: Rocktopia, Poptopia, yeah. I wanted to remember what it was like to be onstage.
Kim: You only played half the songs, Ray Paul played the rest.
Emitt: I played three tunes. My friend Ray Paul played three songs, and I played three songs.
Kim: Yeah, I wanted you to play twelve songs.
Emitt: Thanks, but that wasn't the deal. It was like twenty minutes apiece or something, and he said look, "You play three songs, I'll play three songs, I'll put everything together. All you gotta do is show up, do a rehearsal, and there you go." And that was that. I hadn't been on a stage for so long that I didn't remember what it was like to be on a stage.
Kim: When your solo albums came out did you go out and play by yourself?
Emitt: Yeah, I did. For a while I had a band too.
Kim: Who was in your band?
Emitt: I don't remember now, it's so long ago. You're talking thirty years ago.
Kim: Do you remember for which record you put the band together?
Emitt: It was the first record. And then I figured out I hate flying.
Kim: That'll really mess with a career.
Emitt: Oh, it's horrible. I want a train car! I wanna take a train. I like trains. A plane, you fall out of the sky. I hate falling. I can remember I was five years old, and my dad throwing me up in the air and going crazy because he was throwing me up in the air and he wouldn't stop. He didn't know. But I've got this phobia against falling.
Edwin: Do you still play the old songs from time to time on the acoustic guitar, for yourself or for friends?
Emitt: I don't remember any of them.
Kim: When you did the Poptopia show did you have to relearn your songs?
Emitt: Yeah. Ray Paul--
Kim: He brought you the records?
Emitt: (laughing) He brought me a chord chart and said "Here, your songs!" And I said "Oh!"
Kim: Did it come right back to you?
Emitt: No, it took me a while to learn them!
Emitt: You forget them.
Edwin: There's no reason to remember unless you're playing them. That's why I asked.
Kim: So after that first record you went out on the road with a band, and then you came home. You went to England. Where else did you go?
Emitt: I went around the US too. And then I was off on vacation. What was the guy's name that did Motown?
Edwin: Barry Gordy?
Emitt: After Gordy. ABC/ Dunhill.
Kim: Jay Lasker.
Emitt. Jay Lasker, he did Motown too. He wanted me to go out and do like fifty cities in a Lear Jet.
Kim: At that point you were scared of flying.
Emitt: I'm still scared of flying. I want a parachute.
Kim: Was Lou Adler at ABC at all at this point?
Emitt: No, not that I remember.
Kim: Dunhill was his label, right?
Emitt: It was... who was the gay guy?
Emitt: No, record guy. Dreamworks.
Edwin: David Geffen!
Kim: Everyone knows he's gay, it's okay. (laughter)
Edwin: He even knows he's gay!
Emitt: I don't wanna say anything bad about him, 'cause I don't know him.
Kim: But he was Elektra/Asylum.
Emitt: Yeah, and I basically got hired by a fella he hired. And I became an A&R person, which was a good job for me, because I wan't making records then and nobody was really interested in what I was doing anyway. So it gave me something that I got paid for.
Edwin: Did you do any touring for Mirror?
Emitt: I stopped, no, I didn't do any touring. I guess the first record I did touring for, and then I didn't want to do it anymore. I'm not an entertainer, I'm a songwriter.
Kim: How come you didn't just sell your songs to other performers?
Emitt: Well, I didn't have a publisher that was into doing that, I guess.
Kim: I think a lot of your songs would have worked well for the female singers that were coming up--Linda Ronstadt could have done your songs.
Emitt: Oh, yeah. Well, she's a nice girl. She's as big as I am! (chuckles all around) But I like her, okay? You know what I mean.
Kim: You got sued by ABC because you hadn't delivered a record.
Emitt: Yeah. I don't know, somehow they figure out how much money you owe them by how much money they would have made had you put a record out--and they sued me for more money than I'd ever seen! And I'm going--
Kim: It was like a half million bucks, right?
Emitt: Yeah! And I'm going, "I've never even seen this amount--I'm, like, poor! How can you sue me for this amount?" It didn't make any sense at all. They were suing me for more money than I'd ever sen in my whole life.
Kim: Had they been bothering you for a long time?
Emitt: No. I signed a deal with them that I shouldn't have signed. I signed a deal where I was supposedly gonna make a record every six months. And it took me nine months to make the first record. And I was convinced by Eddie Shaw that I should sign the deal, because I could make records quicker.
Kim: By yourself?
Emitt: Yeah. And then I realized, hold it, when am I supposed to live? When am I supposed to vacation? When am I supposed to go on tour? When am I supposed to write these songs?
Edwin: I know this is completely hypothetical, but was there ever a point in your life when you thought, "Why don't I just crank out some songs--?"
Edwin: Okay, 'cause that's not what you're about.
Emitt: Yeah, I can do that, I just don't... (trails off)
Kim: Did you think about getting a band again?
Emitt: Yeah. I had players that were willing to play with me. It just wasn't what I wanted to do. I had learned--I had my Mel Bay song book, for how to play the saxophone, and the violin--
Kim: God, you learned how to play everything!
Emitt: Yeah, it was before the synthesizer, so for me, I spent six months learning how to play the saxophone. (laughing) And then I played it for a couple of hours, and then never played it again!
Kim: What was it like working with Curt Boettcher in the studio?
Emitt: Well, Curt Boettcher was a gay guy!
Kim: Yeah. But what was he like?
Emitt: He was just gay.
Kim: He liked those high pitched vocals, a lot of harmonies--
Emitt: Yeah, he wanted to fuck me in the butt.
Kim: Well, that was awkward.
Emitt: Nooo, it's just not what I do. (laughs)
Kim: Did you make music with Curt?
Emitt: Yeah, I kinda wrote music. And I'm sorry, Curt, but my butt is my territory.
Kim: So Keith Olsen was more the guy that you--?
Emitt: Yeah, Keith Olsen was the straight of the two. I liked Curt Boettcher, but I'm just not gay.
Kim: What did you think of that Sagitarius record?
Emitt: Sagitarius? I know nothing about it. All I know is I was up in his house in a spire in Lookout Mountain or something, and he wanted to fuck me in the ass. Sorry, I don't go that way. I didn't have that problem with Keith.
Kim: You did come back and did Mirror for ABC, and they put it out.
Emitt: Yeah. (waiter comes by and asks if we're okay) Yeah, unless there's something else you can bring us.
Emitt: Yeah, okay, water.
Kim: They sued you, you got the whole record together--
Emitt: I'm not good with pressure. I just do it when I can. I finished it and gave it to 'em.
Kim: So you didn't let the pressure effect your work?
Emitt: Oh, no no no, it effected me, but it was like, it wasn't as if I was going to stand up and sprint because of it. I just did what I normally do. I'm not good with pressure.
Kim: Do you feel like they were behind that record?
Emitt: No, they weren't behind it. They just wanted to make money. They were shoe salesmen--they just wanted to sell shoes.
Kim: But they pushed the first record and it did well.
Emitt: Yeah, that's right. I don't know, maybe they thought the first, the shoe people would like. What was his name again?
Kim: Jay Lasker.
Emitt: Jay Lasker. He was a weird--he was a strange person. He's the kind of guy who would hurt himself to hurt you if he thought that's what he wanted to do. It's a weird feeling. You don't want to deal with people like that. I'm an old guy now, and you don't want to deal with people like that. You want to deal with people that are nice people that want to do the right thing.
Kim: Do you think if you had done your record a couple of years later and worked with Geffen and come out on Asylum--?
Emitt: Oh, I have no idea. I never met Geffen, so I don't know.
Kim: He's more of an artist's manager--
Emitt: I met Chuck Plotkin, who Geffen signed as the head of A&R. My impression is that David Geffen is probably a nicer guy than Jay Lasker. He signed Chuck Plotkin, who's a weird dude who didn't sign me. (chuckles) Nonetheless, he signed other people who didn't make money. So there! But I liked them, too. Hey, I just write songs, make noise.
Kim: What about Farewell to Paradise? It was a departure from the earlier style.
Emitt: Yeah. I learned how to engineer, so Farewell to Paradise was probably the best-engineered record I made, but at the time it was--it was so long ago. It was way before digital. I just read my physics book and saw God. I don't know what the hell I'm doing. I just do it because I don't know any better.
Edwin: Which is your favorite of the three albums?
Emitt: None. None of the above.
Kim: Even when you were working on them?
Emitt: Oh, I enjoyed all of them, but I didn't like any of them. I never like what I do.
Kim: Are you to much of a perfectionist?
Emitt: No, I just don't like what I do. (laughs)
Kim: Why not? Other people like what you do.
Emitt: Okay. I can't tell the difference. I know Pythagorus' theorum--hey! 1-4-5! And then all the chords in between. (giggling maniacally) See, I know there's twelve of them. Sometimes I use all twelve. It's a silly thing, but I do that. It doesn't mean that other people do it.
Edwin: I think that's a good place to stop. Anything you'd like to add?
Emitt: Oh. Hi, Mom. I'll be there someday. Oh yeah, I did an 18-second commercial for the Yellow Pages, called--I think they called it "The Light Show" or something. They asked me to write a song that sounded like "Help!" and it was supposed to be 18 seconds long, so it took me 18 seconds to write it. And it sounded like "Help!"
Kim: How does it go?
Emitt: I can't remember! (laughter) Now you're asking for too much. I can remember I did it.
Edwin: (singing) "The Yellow Pages, dip dip dip."
Emitt: I wrote another one after that (singing) "Da-da-da-da-da, Yellow Pages." Whatever. The one they wanted to sound like "Help!" sounded just like "Help!" except it was 18 seconds long, and I didn't get sued, and neither did they, so it must not have been that close to "Help!"
Kim: Or nobody cared.
Edwin: Or caught it.
Kim: When was that?
Emitt: Oh, that was long ago, that was before I was old and gray.
Kim: You can shave your beard, Emitt.
Emitt: Yeah, I do. I shave my beard, I look a lot younger.
Kim: The beard's the first thing that goes gray. Your hair isn't--
Emitt: Okay. Neither is my pubics! (laughter) There's a few gray ones, but the beard, that's the first thing.
Kim: You're not one of those guys who grows a scrawny beard.
Edwin: Like me. I have bald spots, I have huge bald spots!
Emitt: I'm working on bald spots. At least my dad had one of those, right here. It was like he was a monk, but it was after sixty. So maybe.
Kim: It runs down the mother's side of the line.
Emitt: In that case my mother had a lot of hair. She didn't have any bald spots at all.
Kim: You said your mom was a psychic? Did she charge people?
Emitt: Ahhh, donations. She was the real thing, if you believe it.
Kim: If you had problems?
Emitt: Oh, she'd make you feel better. She might as well have become a psychiatrist. She would have probably made more money doing that. Hey, I went through levitation, ouija boards, numerology, astrology--
Kim: What's your number?
Emitt: I don't know.
Kim: Do you have a middle name?
Emitt: Lynn. Emitt Lynn Rhodes, it's kind of like, I could be a country artist. I'm working on it.
Edwin: Was Emitt a family name?
Emitt: Yes, my uncle's name was Emitt, but he went by Jackson, or Jack. He didn't like Emitt. But I was too stupid to know any different. And in my time there wasn't an Emitt Smith, you know what I mean? Hey, I'm Emitt, emit, emit me!
Kim: You have a hard time with people mangling your name?
Edwin: Where were you born?
Emitt: Decatur, Illinois. Not Chicago, but just south.
Kim: When did your family come out here?
Emitt: I was five years old, so all I remember is being an LA person.
Kim: What brought your folks out here?
Emitt: Jobs. My dad worked in aerospace. He did A-4s, Macdonald Douglas.
Edwin: My dad did, too. My mom worked at North American Rockwell. They did a lot of the space shuttle stuff--
Emitt: Well, rockets. They didn't really do space shutte stuff. And nobody's proud of that any more.
Kim: Oh, that was just a mistake! They didn't mean to do that.
Emitt: (dripping sarcasm) Why would you launch a rocket, and then have it normal to have flotsum fall off of the gas tank and destroy your wing?
Kim: The worst thing is they knew the whole damn time and they kept those slobs in the dark.
Emitt: Yes, I believe that too. I believe they knew at launch that they were doomed.
Kim: There are emails that show that they knew.
Emitt: And they didn't have any way to bring them back, so they just kind of let them die. And I think that sucks. I agree. Hey, let's go to space, let's do all that stuff. But it costs money. And I'd rather spend it on going into space than fighting Saddam. Ten billion--
Kim: Eighty billion.
Emitt: We could have a sattelite with a laser beam on it that coulda just spotted Saddam and vaporized him! I'd rather go for that!
Kim: And we can fry someone else with it later.
Emitt: Exactly! We run the world! You don't wanna go outside, do you? Because if you do... By all means. If we're gonna run the world, let's run the world.
Edwin: That money could've been spent to check out the planets--
Emitt: Oh, all of the above.
Edwin: We're gonna do that if we have an administration that considers it important.
Kim: Why does that stuff have to cost money? Why don't we just do it?
Emitt: The money gets spent here, it's Americans paying Americans.
Kim: But if everyone had everything they needed you wouldn't have to pay for the work, you'd just pay for the equipment.
Emitt: We go the Mars and we buy the vehicle from TRW, we don't buy it from Saddam Hussein. We buy it from Americans.
Kim: Who overcharge us.
Emitt: They charge whatever they charge. I don't believe in interest!
Kim: You don't? That's how the Jews survived.
Emitt: Yeah, I don't believe in it, Jews or not.
Kim: Why should anybody risk their money for someone else?
Emitt: They shouldn't, unless they want to profit. And interest is--do you own a house? We buy a house for a quarter of a million and we pay two and a half million by the time we're done. It's five times.
Kim: Screw that, I'm buying my house with cash--back in West Virginia. Bye, guys.
Emitt: I had grandparents there. My grandfather, he never went fifty miles from where he was born. I was there one time, when I was fourteen years old.
Kim: Your family came to America early on?
Emitt: I don't know when my family came to America. I just know that my grandfather was an American.
Kim: A lot of people in the Appalachians came over in the 1600s. What's your mother's family name?
Emitt: Kramer. My father's name was Rhodes, my mother's name was Kramer, both real English names. I know my grandfather never went fifty miles from where he was born. My dad of course went to Europe and got Hitler, and died because of it. He died much younger than his father, and I think it was just from stress. I don't think it was a good thing. Killing people isn't some honor. I never killed anyone.
Kim: Me neither. I never killed anything. You ever kill anything?
Edwin: Well, yeah.
Emitt: A bird.
Kim: You shoot a bird?
Emitt: I was at my grandfather's house. He gave me a .22 and I went out in the woods and saw a bird in a tree and just lifted up the rifle and pointed at it and pulled the trigger and the bird went, boof, to the ground. That was the last thing I ever killed.
Kim: I've heard that story enough times from other people to almost make me think the birds are put out there to stop people from killing other people.
Emitt: Huh, okay. I think they're just dumb and they're in the trees and they make noise! It's like a target for me.
Edwin: That's pretty obvious, when you first get your first BB gun. That's about it.
Kim: Couldn't you shoot ...flower?
Edwin: Yeah, you do that too, but then a bird is the ultimate, when you're a kid.
Emitt: It was a bird in a tree, and it was singing, and it was alive, and it was a target and I hit it and that was it. I decided I didn't want to kill anything.
Kim: Be glad no one ever put a gun in my hand when I was a kid. I probably would have killed a person. (long silence)
Emitt: Well, I'd do that now, but it would have to be Saddam. (laughing)
Kim: I threw a rock at a girl's head when I was eleven years old. I was an angry little kid.
Emitt: I'm older now. I was young then.
Wanna have your own copy of the Scram portion of this interview, and see the previously unpublished photos from Emitt's mom's collection? Scram #18 is available on this website. For details click here.