Farewell to Emitt Rhodes, the home recording wizard of Hawthorne, California

Gentle reader,

Greetings from your friendly historic Los Angeles sightseeing tour company, in mothballs until we can again organize groups to gather and explore the city we love. Many of you have asked us about virtual events. We’re working out the bugs to turn the communal Esotouric experience into something that can be enjoyed discretely from the comfort of your bathtub. Thanks for your patience/interest, and watch this space!

EMITT RHODES died this week, in his bed on the quiet suburban Hawthorne block where he lived for 65 of his 70 years. He was one of the generation of non-native Angelenos whose life was shaped by the post-war aerospace industry, which employed his father. His mother was a gifted psychic, and he drew on her empathy and his pop’s precision to craft unforgettable songs.

As a teen, Emitt was a member of two popular bands (The Palace Guard and Merry-Go-Round), but his considerable cult following sprung up around his solo albums. Recorded entirely alone in the home studio in his folks’ garage, and sounding enough like Paul McCartney that the Beatle was namechecked in every review, Emitt Rhodes (1970) and Mirror (1971) are that special kind of pop record that turns a first-time listener into a fan for life.

His tragedy was getting irked with the Merry-Go-Round’s artist friendly label A&M and signing an onerous contract with ABC-Dunhill, which demanded new albums on a schedule that could not be met while writing and arranging all the songs and playing all the instruments. Unable to negotiate with the people who controlled his career, he suffered a breakdown, and dropped out of public life.

Kim found her copies of Emitt’s albums in the quarter bin of the Community Thrift Shop in San Francisco thirty years ago, and wrote about them in an early issue of her fanzine Scram. Years later, her friend P. Edwin Letcher tracked Emitt down and together they conducted an interview that painted a stark picture of a prickly character who appreciated the attention and a free meal at Red Lobster, but lacked any filter between his Id and his tongue. It was pretty awkward, but interesting, and there were more friendly meals, and even a recording session for Edwin’s faux Beatles band.

Kim and Emitt singing “Happy Birthday” before his free dessert was delivered. Note: it was not actually his birthday. (Photo: Jessica Mirmak)

Things went south soon after Kim discovered that many of Emitt’s compositions, which he believed he’d signed away in a bad management deal while under age, were not actually registered with any performing rights agency. These didn’t include his most profitable tunes like “Lullaby” (featured in The Royal Tenenbaums film) or “Live” (covered by The Bangles), but there were a lot of songs he could finally control and potentially see royalties from.

She registered the songs in his name, and not long after, her cell phone rang. It was Emitt, spitting mad and making ugly accusations, after talking to someone who had recently taken a financial interest in his material. Sigh…

Scram was a magazine dedicated to “rooting out the cashews in the bridge mix of unpopular culture,” and Emitt was not the first or the last immensely gifted artist featured in its pages to make a special effort to slap a hand extended in kindness. The music industry had chewed him up, and all he knew how to do was to bite back.

But those early records really were magical, and even if Kim backed off, there were others eager to knock on his door, book a recording session, encourage him to finish that song about rainbows he’d been stuck on for years. And through devotion and kindness and patience that deserve a medal, they actually got a pretty good new album out of him.

And when Emitt Rhodes died this week, long obituaries appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian and Washington Post. They all describe an obscure artist, though in death he seems to have found the acclaim that should have been his all along.

Hawthorne is celebrated as the hometown of the Beach Boys, but the city lost the chance to preserve their childhood home when the 105 Freeway took it out. We hope Hawthorne’s second most famous musical landmark, Emitt Rhodes’ backyard recording studio just two miles from the Wilson Brothers’ home, will have a rosier fate.

And if his name is new to you, or if you’re one of those longtime fans, please join us in raising a glass of something refreshing to a Southern California original, whose music will bring pleasure as long as there are ears to hear.

yours for Los Angeles,

Kim & Richard


Subscribe! In the latest subscriber's edition of this newsletter—$10/month, cheap!—The Mystery Skulls of the Pala Sub-Mission, or that time we went riding with the Notre Dame blues and the spirit of the highway played all the tricks up her sleeve.


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We're dark until public health officials determine that groups can gather safely. But we've got 138 episodes of the podcast You Can't Eat The Sunshine free to download for armchair explorers, and videos of the Downtown L.A. LAVA walking tours, plus Cranky Preservationist videos.


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