EMITT RHODES: I WAS BRRRROKE MY WHOLE LIFE!
Some musical legends have a great sense of humor and love L.A. RECORD interviews. Others hate us for our trivia-scouring and just want to talk about their new line-up. But pop pioneer and engineer Emitt Rhodes, formerly of the Merry-Go-Round, whose home-recorded solo albums in the early seventies launched a thousand zine articles, and now a documentary film, is in a class by himself. He wants to talk about science, marijuana, and the downfall of society, but he sure as hell doesn’t remember recording the Quick in his garage in the winter of ’77. Dan Collins catches up with Rhodes in his home/recording studio/garage in Hawthorne on the 5th of July, after playing phone tag all day on the anniversary of America’s independence.
The documentary about you is titled ‘The One Man Beatles.’ Where did that name come from?
Emitt Rhodes: Cossimo Messeri, the guy who put it together, of course! Fuck, if you have to ask me…
But do you think it’s an accurate description of your music?
Emitt Rhodes: Well, I was doing the one-man-band thing. If you’re going to liken me to the Beatles, then I suppose I’ve had that correlation before. That’s an honor, really, because the Beatles … I was a big fan. Still am.
But isn’t Paul McCartney himself a one-man Beatles?
Emitt Rhodes: Okay, if you say wanna say so—ha ha! I was just trying to rationalize it for ya. If I had been asked to say something, I wouldn’t have done it! I’ve got other things to do.
People are bringing their records and stuff to the movie to get your autograph. Do you like that kind of adulation?
Emitt Rhodes: Sure! I’m going for that. And then I think I’m going for the bar.
It’s right near Canter’s Kibitz Room.
Emitt Rhodes: That’s it. I’m going!
Your solo stuff and your Merry-Go-Round recordings have a serious Americana streak. Did you consider yourself primarily an American musician, or did you consider yourself working in more of an English idiom?
Emitt Rhodes: Can I be ambiguous now? I don’t know! I was a little boy from Hawthorne.
You were only seventeen.
Emitt Rhodes: The Beatles were my greatest influence! I guess I could have gone the other way and gone for the Stones, but I just didn’t go that way.
Were you are all influenced by what Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks had tried to go for with the Smile recordings?
Emitt Rhodes: Oh, oh yeah. Brian Wilson! He’s, like, brilliant! Totally crazy, but brilliant.
But I was just listening to some of your stuff, and hearing little snippets of banjo and fiddle, it reminds me…
Emitt Rhodes: Oh yeah, I learned to play everything at one point or another.
… but it seems like more of an American flavor than the British bands would have had.
Emitt Rhodes: Uh, okay? It’s all noise to me. I was just makin’ noise.
But you were influential enough that Fairport Convention covered one of your songs, ‘Time Will Show the Wiser,’ in 1967. Do you know how that came about?
Emitt Rhodes: No.
But you are releasing a re-recording of that song that you and Iain Matthews from Fairport Convention just made within the past year.
Emitt Rhodes: Well, he recorded it, and I sang background with him on the chorus. It’s a raga now! It’s very much different than the Fairport Convention version.
When Fairport Convention’s version of ‘Time Will Show the Wiser’ came out, did you think, ‘God, these guys do it better than me?’
Emitt Rhodes: Well, I always think everybody’s better than me. I never tried really hard.
You seem to have tried really hard! One of the things I admired about songs like ‘Gonna Fight the War’ and ‘Tame the Lion’ is the very specific anti-war message.
Emitt Rhodes: Oh yeah—killing people, it’s not one of my favorite things. It frightens me! I have this angst about the world. I really think we’re going to blow ourselves up because we’ve got all this Armageddon shit going on. And I really hope we don’t.
A lot of people in the Sixties sang anti-war songs, but they couched it in these really flowery, psychedelic terms. ‘Gonna Fight the War’ seems really specific—a guy sees Vietnam on TV and wants to go fight.
Emitt Rhodes: Yeah, they take the young people, and they put them out front there, and they give them a gun. We’re animals. We’re just dumb fucking, insane animals. And I’m one of ‘em! We teach our children to kill?! What kind of animals are we?
Do you think any of your songs encouraged people not to sign up for the killing?
Emitt Rhodes: Ha ha—I don’t think so because they’re doing it on TV all over the place! My God, when I was a young man, men didn’t kick one another! Now kicking one another is the right thing to do—like, you teach your children to go out and kick one another. That’s insane! I feel left out in this world. It’s gone horrid!
Has it gotten worse, or are we just seeing it differently?
Emitt Rhodes: It’s much worse, and it’s much dumber. It’s the lowest common denominator. Everything’s going for the groin. And it isn’t that I ain’t got one. I do! And it isn’t as if it hasn’t ruined my life from the get-go! But I’m not proud of it.
For someone with such a bleak worldview, what’s the purpose of music? Is it a solace for us because we’re all animals, and it’s a respite from pain?
Emitt Rhodes: Oh yeah. Music is pleasant! That’s why I can’t listen to the hip-hop stuff. It’s real ugly to me! Do you listen to that stuff?
I do! But my favorite music is modern classical.
Emitt Rhodes: Oh, I love classical music. I love Mozart, and Bach! It’s like we went from smart to stupid. They’re all thinking with their dicks!
But these guys have to know their Bach and Beethoven to do what they do in the studio when it gets really layered. The only difference between rock recording and hip-hop recording is that rock bands generally make their own drum beats, and hip-hop utilizes samples.
Emitt Rhodes: So what you’re saying is that hip-hop steals its stuff from other people?
Yeah, but so does all rock music. The first thing that struck me about your solo albums was ‘Oh man, the Raspberries totally ripped this off.’ Do you think they were copying you?
Emitt Rhodes: I think this stuff was all just in the air—ha ha! Good things propagate good things, you know? That’s why the world is scary. I turn on the TV and it looks like a bunch of thugs! And everything they worship and they’re going for and they’re proud of is something that I find abhorrent! I mean, it’s bling?! And women are hoes? It’s bestial! I like science and stuff, and thinking about other shit.
We are living in dark times. But maybe we treat gay people a little bit better than we used to.
Emitt Rhodes: Oh, gay people… really? If you say so. It certainly seems to be popular. I don’t go that way. I don’t think men should wear earrings. Or lipstick.
What about a little bit of guy-liner?
Emitt Rhodes: Is that the eyebrow shit?
Under the eyes!
Emitt Rhodes: I think that’s a bit narcissistic. I can’t even look at them! I have to kind of cover their face, or look away.
I’ve been guilty of it, but yeah.
Emitt Rhodes: I look a little bit, and start to get horrified, and then back away. And all the tattooing—it’s a sacrilege to God’s temple, ha ha! I mean come on, ha ha! You got 60 trillion living cells, and you’re there taking care of them!
So no Merry-Go-Round tattoos for you?
Emitt Rhodes: I mean, come on! And body piercing? That scares me too! But maybe you have earrings and you’re covered in tattoos, and I’m talking to the wrong guy! I take it all back—I love tattoos, and I love piercings, and if you’re wearing lipstick, well, I hope it’s a good shade.
Fuschia! But speaking of punk rock fashions, a little bird told me you engineered pioneering pre-punk band the Quick from L.A. Is that true?
Emitt Rhodes: Maybe! I engineered for a long time, and I worked for a lot of people.
Who else? I’m fishing!
Emitt Rhodes: I have no idea … do you know who Enrico Fermi is?
Emitt Rhodes: I do! Do you know Max Planck? Albert Einstein?
Oh, you’re talking about scientists!
Emitt Rhodes: Oh, you know! I know their names, ha ha! I even know their thoughts on occasion, or at least the thoughts they passed on to us. Those are my idols! I don’t really listen to music.
Since we’re plucking obscure names out of the ether, what was it like working with Curt Boettcher, the producer who worked with Sagittarius and the Millenium? What influence did he have on your sound?
Emitt Rhodes: He brought the drugs.
Ha ha! What drugs were popular at the time?
Emitt Rhodes: It was good drugs. It was a lot of marijuana.
Yesterday in San Francisco, I went to see some friends of friends, and these guys literally were shooting up Special K.
Emitt Rhodes: I don’t know what Special K is. Is that like a cereal?
It’s an animal tranquilizer that makes you trip balls. But you’re really not supposed to shoot it up or take it very often. This one guy was just twitching. Do you think drugs have gotten worse?
Emitt Rhodes: Special K doesn’t sound good! I don’t like the sound of it… Alcohol and marijuana is just fine with me, ha ha.
Being a seventeen year old kid when you were starting out, were you hanging out with other ridiculously young people?
Emitt Rhodes: No, I was hanging out with older people most of the time.
What other bands did you try to get on the bills with?
Emitt Rhodes: I did nothing! They told me what to go and what to do. I just got in the car. I never tried to promote anything. I think what made me popular was that I was a drummer and had a garage. I think that was the attraction. Do you play guitar? Drums? Keyboards?
I play keyboards very badly.
Emitt Rhodes: I don’t play too good myself. I just got better at it because I learned to play pentatonic-ally. I looked at my hand and said, ‘Holy shit! There’s five fingers on it. Pentatonic! Pythagoras!’ And I put it on the keyboard and I just had a place for every finger. And I went over every scale, and I just now sound like I know what I’m doing—almost.
What’s your favorite minor key? Mine’s the mixolydian.
Emitt Rhodes: I’m not really sure what that is! I suppose I could get a book out. I’m not…. whrooaaaaah… I’m not really sure I’ve got one of those favorites. I kind of just feel like I use whatever I feel is appropriate for your pacing and your tune. I use a whole bunch of chords! The songs I’m recording now all have more chords than there are on the scale.
That’s hard to do.
Emitt Rhodes: No, it’s really easy for me to do now. The pentatonic thing, and that Pythagorean thing. And that diminished chord! You can put the diminished chord practically between anywhere and anything! You take the third and the fifth and you bring it down a half-step, and there you are!
That sounds as complex as the Merry-Go-Round—basically the only other band outside of the Left Banke to be considered ‘Baroque Pop’ by music journalists. But did that phrase come later? At the time, did you consider yourself to be a Baroque popper?
Emitt Rhodes: No… to put myself in a category, okay, pop, yeah, definitely pop. But ‘Brrr-roke?’ Come to think of it, I was brrrroke my whole life! Yeah, a brrrrrrrroke popper! That’s exactly what I am! Holy FUCKING SHIT, it’s just dawned on me, that’s exactly what I am! A brrrrrroke popper! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
The Left Banke got the Four Tops to cover ‘Walk Away Renee.’ Did any of your songs get covered by soul or Motown artists?
Emitt Rhodes: No… I’ve had stars come in and out of the studio here. Somebody brought Little Richard over for this one session, and he passed this bottle of wine around that I think he urinated in. Sam of Sam & Dave. Basketball players. Give me a break, will ya? I don’t remember who’s done what and when and where and why. I haven’t done engineering in some time. I went completely bonkers crazy and stopped doing anything. I stopped communicating with people and just stared at the wall. I don’t drive anymore. I gave that up.
Why’d you give it up?
Emitt Rhodes: I passed out at a stoplight and ran into the back of a truck, and they didn’t trust me anymore.
Was it alcohol-related?
Emitt Rhodes: It wasn’t related to being intoxicated—I’m a diabetic. It was low blood sugar. Before I passed out, I was going into Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and I thought it was the silliest thing in the world. I was having so much fun with just whooa, whaaa! You get really dumb when you have low blood sugar.
Your song ‘Saturday Night’ is so sad—it always makes me want to reach for the Scotch. Do you feel guilty about pushing people towards alcohol?
Emitt Rhodes: That’s too old. You should get into the things I’m doing now! You’re talking about you want to cry, ha ha! I got a bunch of songs that will make you want to die. ‘I think it’s time to give it all up! What do I do?’ kind of shit. Hopelessness. I’m totally hopeless! I don’t think things are gonna get better. I think things are going to stay the same.
Recording at your own home studio in a garage was pretty novel at the time you were doing it—in the late sixties and early seventies. How much did it cost to set up?
Emitt Rhodes: Well, I used egg cartons on the walls, and acoustic tiles. It wasn’t a whole bunch of money. I don’t really recall. Money was so different then. And it was worth so much more! You don’t realize it, but money’s like worthless now. We’re going to start wiping our asses with it really soon.
Besides egg cartons, did you use any crazy Rube Goldberg contraptions to set things up and make them work on the cheap?
Emitt Rhodes: I did things like take two serial tape machines and put them together and twisted the tape between them to make a four track. I pushed in and out with my foot… you name it! All the things that one did back then that one doesn’t have to do now. You just click your mouse.
Does it make you angry that now everyone has a home studio, and you pioneered it?
Emitt Rhodes: No, not in the least bit! I think it’s all remarkable stuff! When my ship comes in, I’m going to get myself a disk drive and a recording system.
Maybe the documentary will be such a resounding success that you’ll get major money out of it.
Emitt Rhodes: I just hope I don’t die of shame!
THE ONE MAN BEATLES + EMITT RHODES TRIBUTE SHOW AS PART OF THE DON’T KNOCK THE ROCK FILM FESTIVAL, ON THURSDAY, JULY 8, AT CINEFAMILY, 611 NORTH FAIRFAX AVE., LOS ANGELES. 8 PM / $15 / ALL AGES. CINEFAMILY.ORG. FIRST 20 VISITORS RECEIVE FREE COPY OF RHODES’ LATEST RECORDING. BRING ALBUMS AND MEMORABILIA FOR SIGNING AFTER THE SHOW.