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

Esotouric


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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AND FINALLY, LINKS

Road Trip! Although public bus tours are on hiatus, we still get around on our social distancing road trips around our beloved Los Angeles. Be a virtual backseat companion when you click the #esotouricroadtrip hashtag, on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

New on the Esotouric blog: The Eagle Tree: Dead or Alive? Our latest historic preservation and cultural stewardship challenge is to try to save one of L.A.’s oldest trees, a distinguished landmark that started to flatline in 2015, and nobody noticed!

Insect Husbandry: We’ve been raising monarch butterfly caterpillars in Kim’s office, and the first generation of little beauties have soared off on new adventures. Here’s the moment one emerged from its chrysalis.

Corruption Corner: City moves to kill $700M megaproject linked to Jose Huizar scandal…. Crickets from the L.A. Times about another Huizar linked megaproject, but here's the Commercial Observer on the Planning Commission's approving Onni Group's demolition of half the historic newspaper HQ… Full page ad in the Times from AIDS Healthcare Foundation, calling city government out for stonewalling improvements at the historic Skid Row SRO hotels they are turning into homeless housing at a fraction of the cost politicians' developer pals charge under Measure HHH…. Suppressed geological reports paint terrifying picture of multiple earthquake faults under the Millennium Hollywood high-rise project pushed through by corrupt city officials… Huizar aide cooperating, pleads guilty in RICO case.

The personal effects of Howard Hughes were inherited by his ultra discrete accountant Vernon C. Olson. These artifacts of a weird and fascinating life come to auction today. Should've burned those love notes from Katharine Hepburn and Gloria Vanderbilt.

One of the weirder 1980s Los Angeles radio airchecks starts with the Kinks' "Come Dancing," leads into KRTH jocks pretending to broadcast live through an 8.3 quake on the Southern portion of the San Andreas fault.

Kim likes to pester her friends into taking weird things home from thrift stores, and in the case of The Maxwell portraits, it spawned an obsession!

Spectacular hand-painted Par-T-Pak Cola ad (briefly) revealed by San Francisco construction workers.

Pneumatic tubes, tons of paper, rumpled old editors. "A Newspaper Serves Its Community" (1959), a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the machine for news making Gordon Kaufmann built at 1st & Spring for The Los Angeles Times.

A fascinating grave, captured in 3-D. English Menagerist Frank Bostock brought lion tamer Charles Gay to California, where he established Gay’s Lion Farm in El Monte, a favorite stop on our Blood & Dumplings tours and subject of Kim’s radio piece.

The long obscured Art Deco facade of the Montrose Pharmacy (which was most recently Rocky Cola, shuttered 2012) emerged from its stucco shell. Sadly, after getting the community excited about his restoration plans, the property owner reneged.

RIP 1218 South Arapahoe (1900), the Frederick and Anna Gros House. A fresh scar in the center of a block of beautiful homes and apartments. How many of these landmark houses, officially vacant but illegally occupied by Angelenos with no other place to go, will burn before something is done about our housing USE crisis?

The Van Pelt Estate is on the market. We have a couple of bookcases that used to reside in this storybook-nautical Silver Lake compound, a gift from Kim's publisher Adam Parfrey when he moved to Washington State. The shelves are not haunted, but the property might be!

Prof. Steve Hackel has a unique perspective on the potential to restore Mission San Gabriel to its original 18th century appearance after the 1870s wood shake roof was destroyed by fire. See also his Op-Ed in the L.A. Times on erasing Serra and losing consciousness of Spanish California.

Vintage sign fan David A. Silvas tips us off that South El Monte's Starlite Swap Meet has closed, and the 13.5 acre property is for lease. Obviously, this stunning marquee must be preserved at all costs! Anyone feel like reviving the drive-in (established 1950)?

We've never seen this before in English-language Los Angeles media, and it's very moving: a translation of Filiberto’s Gonzalez's obituary into his indigenous Oaxacan language, Zapoteco. Thank you, L.A. Taco, for reflecting this city in all its facets.

Bittersweet news from our pal Philip Mershon, who is winding down his terrific one-man history tour business, Felix in Hollywood. But his charm and cinema smarts can now be enjoyed on his Poverty Row YouTube channel, so tune in.

L.A. City Councilmen have always thrown their weight around, but it's hard to top Art Snyder renaming Hermon Ave for his toddler. 42 years later the community seeks a fix. Considering Snyder lost custody for abuse of the poor kid, we think it's long overdue.

This fanciful, wee castle in the Pico-Robertson district is threatened with demolition for a massive TOC project with a 70% density bonus. L.A. needs more castles, less rule breaking hyper-development.

Reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez is lucky to be alive after being shot in the throat by a ricocheting rubber bullet fired by a Long Beach police officer. These uncontrollable projectiles need to be banned. Pass AB-66!

Diamond Bakery in the Fairfax District wants to make it to 2021, their 75th anniversary. You can help, by noshing or throwing a few bucks in the pishka.