Emitt Rhodes, RIP: A TV Producer Recalls Meeting His Ultimate Rock Hero, Decades Into a Disappearing Act

John Wirth
·20 min read

The passing of singer-songwriter Emitt Rhodes, who died July 19 at age 70, produced the kind of small but mighty outpouring of grief that is befitting for one of the great cult figures of rock history. He’s remembered here by television showrunner-producer-writer John Wirth. He was the showrunner and executive producer for the American Western series “Hell on Wheels” and is currently co-creator, executive producer and writer for the Netflix series “Wu Assassin.”

When I was 14, all I wanted to be was Emitt Rhodes. I was enthralled with his band, the Merry-Go-Round, and taken with his silky good looks, vaguely British accent and McCartney-like singing and songwriting. I didn’t know then how much he would come to mean to me as the years went by, and I couldn’t have imagined how our lives would intersect, but they did, on one strange and remarkable afternoon almost 40 years after I first heard his song “You’re a Very Lovely Woman” buzzing out of KRLA on my clock radio.

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The events of the afternoon we spent together came flooding back when I read of his death on July 19th. That sad news was followed by a number of phone calls and emails from friends, evidence that Emitt had been more than a blip on the radar just for me. People who knew and loved me knew I had known and loved him. If only through his music. So I guess this is a love story. Not entirely unrequited, and not entirely a happy one.

I grew up in Diamond Bar, then a sleepy hamlet about 60 miles east of L.A. Emmit grew up in Hawthorne, home of my other favorite band, the Beach Boys. I didn’t know they’d all gone to the same high school, or that Emitt would break up his band, become a solo artist, and release just two more celebrated albums before disappearing in 1973.

The truth is Emitt did not disappear. He just stopped making records, and, well… life goes on. Mine did too. I left California and then came back to Los Angeles at 25 to pursue a career in television. All this time Emitt had stayed put, living in a modest house across the street from the one he grew up in. Not in the music business. But never not in it. My relationship with Emitt was largely imagined. He came to me via his music, and that’s how he communicated with me. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, with his music already 20-30 years past its sell-by date, I was still finding fellow devotees — it wasn’t hard — and still listening to Emitt. Avidly.

In 2006 I was living in New York producing and writing a television show called “Love Monkey,” a delightful concoction about the music business created by Michael Rauch and starring Tom Cavanagh. I regaled the writers room about Emitt, how his music had touched me when I was a boy and stuck with me as a man, how his disappearance from the music scene had always haunted me. We ended up writing an episode about Tom finding and resurrecting the career of a mythical Emitt-like character and helping him finish his long-thought-to-be-lost masterpiece. To my delight, Toni Ellis, our intrepid post producer, was able to license Emitt’s song “Live” for us to use on the show. We played it under an evocative, nostalgia-filled voiceover I wrote for Tom about Emitt and the band, and I felt I’d finally closed a loop, but a loop in… what? TBD.

After we wrapped the show I returned to Los Angeles and was sitting in my home office when my daughter came in and said, “Somebody named Toni’s on the phone for you.” I picked up. “Write this down,” Toni said, “It’s a phone number.” I said, “Whose?” She said, “Emitt’s. You should call him. Get together with him. Let me know how it goes.” She hung up just as my tongue was getting too fat for my mouth.

I sat on the number for two days and two sleepless nights before I couldn’t think of one more good or bad reason not to call it. When I heard the phone ringing, my heart made my chest hurt and my throat started closing up and I didn’t think I’d be able to talk to the man when he answered the phone. I was about to hang up when his voice mail picked up. I stumbled through a message explaining who I was and thanking him for allowing us to use his music in the show, figuring that was as close to him as I’d ever get, and maybe that was just fine.

He called me back the next day. “Hi John, it’s Emitt.” Again, crazy heart, in throat, trying to act cool on the phone, failing. We talked for a few minutes, my head buzzing, and then I actually heard words coming out of my mouth that seemed like they were being spoken by some other me. “Do you want to have lunch sometime?” Cover phone. Choke. Gag. Emitt says sure, lunch. I graciously offer to find a suitable place convenient to both of us, and ask what part of town he lives in. “Hawthorne.” “All right. Well… you want to come up here or meet someplace closer to you?” He says, “Well, it’d be hard for me to come up there since I don’t have a car.”

That’s what we in the television business call a clue. It seemed odd that the great Emitt Rhodes didn’t, or wouldn’t, have a car, living as he did, in Los Angeles. I wasn’t sure what it portended, if anything. But my spidey-sense kicked in. Emitt invited me to pick him up at his house and gave me the address.

I hung up, disconcerted. The man had disappeared years ago, and I had unearthed him. The disaster fantasies made my armpits swell. I almost chickened out right there. Instead, I enlisted my friend Jeff Whitman to accompany me. Jeff had worked at Leopold Records in Berkeley in the ‘60s and had told me how much the Merry-Go-Round’s album affected him and everybody else who worked there the first time they’d played it in the store. He was curious and eager to meet Emitt, and our reminiscing on the way down to Hawthorne nearly erased any misgivings I’d had about what was to come.

Hawthorne enjoys a beachy mystique due to the Beach Boys having grown up there, but it’s really just a landlocked, nondescript suburb southeast of LAX with El Segundo between it and the ocean. Emitt’s house was the same color as every other suburban SoCal house I’d grown up around, muted stucco, overgrown with shrubs, not clearly visible from the street, dilapidated wooden fence leaning across the driveway. Jeff and I struggled with the gate, gave up and found our way along a narrow path around the other side of the house. We looked around like the two middle-aged treasure hunters we were, lost, looking for our rock ‘n’ roll idol when we heard his voice emanating from inside. “Hi, John? I’ll come out,” Emitt said.

I know this is going to sound stupid, but I kind of really expected 17-year-old Emitt Rhodes to step out of that house, being who he had always been to me, peering out at me from his album covers, forever handsome, forever young. I had no context for the short, pudgy guy in shorts with gray hair and beard who walked out onto the porch. That guy looked like Jerry Garcia. Emitt must’ve seen the look on my face, because he said, “I know, I look like Jerry Garcia.”

The house was, as I said, just like the kinds of houses I’d grown up around: SoCal tract home, ca. 1950. It hadn’t been updated. And Emitt, from what we could tell, lived in the front bedroom, sharing the kitchen and bathroom with a renter who had the rest of the house. It was everything I’d hoped it wouldn’t be. After some 20 minutes of looking around, him showing us his room… the TV… cinderblock shelves… cassette tapes in boxes… and, if I’m remembering correctly, his mattress on the floor.. we got in the car to go to lunch. Emitt wanted to go to the Proud Bird and asked me if I knew it. I didn’t. “I like to watch the planes land,” he said. I prayed the acid in my stomach would stay in my stomach as I drove off.

On the way to the restaurant Emitt showed us where the Beach Boys grew up. Jeff grunted from the back seat — he was on stun by now — as Emitt pointed to the Beach Boys’ landmark on 119th Street. This, Emitt said, was where the Wilson brothers grew up, but they tore the house down to build the freeway. Then he told us how he’d opened a show for the Beach Boys at the Palladium one night and Brian had forgotten his bass guitar. He asked Emitt if he could borrow his. “I never saw that guitar again,” Emitt quipped. “Brian Wilson owes me a bass guitar.” I drove away, accompanied by the lilting harmonies of the Century Freeway.

The Proud Bird is a nifty little food bazaar on the southern edge of LAX with a whole lot of colorfully painted airplanes tilted and mounted on pedestals in the yard. It features diner food with aviation views. After we ordered our food, I asked him straight up, “What happened to you, man? Where did you go? How did the beautiful guy with that beautiful voice, the guy who wrote those songs, the guy with all that talent, how did that guy disappear and drop out after making just three albums?” Emitt said, “You mean, where did I go before, or after, my mental breakdown?” He looked at me through his wire rims. His eyes were blue. I gulped my Arnold Palmer, and chewed the ice.

And that’s how it started. Emitt told us about his days playing music on the Sunset Strip when he was only 15. He talked about the Palace Guard, his band before the Merry-Go-Round. About how he started out as a drummer, but was so taken with the Beatles he’d picked up the guitar and learned every Beatles song he could sitting out on the loading dock during show breaks. All his songs, he said, were just his attempt to write a Beatles song. He told us about a gay promotor who hounded him around the Strip for years. About troubles with Bill Rinehart, the Merry-Go-Round’s bass player (RIP Bill), that led to the breakup of the band. About his onerous contracts with record companies, his inability to live up to his commitments to them, mostly because of his own exacting standards. He told us all about his lawsuits. His marriages, divorces, maltreatment from his ex-wives, and pain he lived with everyday because he had no relationship with his three children — thanks to his ex-wives, who, according to him, had demonized him to the kids.

He was open and unguarded about all of it, and talked with us like we were old friends. Which, from our side, we were. We’d been staring at this guy’s pictures on albums and listening to him sing to us for 40 years. He was known to us. A confidant. One of our spiritual guides. But what was it from his side? Who were we to him but two middle-aged white dudes he’d known for a couple hours, might know for a couple more, and then we’d be gone. The lunch was enlightening and depressing, and yes, we saw a lot of planes land. It was everything I’d been dreading, and yet… it was him. Emitt Rhodes. Sitting there. The only, the one. Granting us an audience, eating his burger, his eyes finding the big wide-bodies out the window as they touched down, the earth pulling at their bellies, luck and wheels offering the kind of soft landing Emitt himself may have always been searching for.

After lunch we went back to his house. I pulled into the drive and we sat there for a moment. Sensing the encounter about over, I slipped out the Merry-Go-Round album I’d stolen when I was 14 and had played hundreds, maybe thousands of times. The album I had studied closely – the band members on the cover, their body language, their suits, the way Emitt stood there cooler than the others, cool like I wanted to be, cooler than I ever could be. I had read and re-read the liner notes written by a guy named Dick Moreland, hoping for some little glimmer of insight on how to be. Because if anyone could teach me how to be, it was the guy who had composed and sung the amazing songs on this album. The guy sitting next to me now, in my dad car, on a hazy afternoon in Hawthorne, long past the time when cool was possible for either one of us.

On the album cover in my lap, Emitt looked like he was maybe 25. The perfect age. My 14-year-old self thought he must’ve been about the same age as the Beatles, who were also the perfect age (for all time). But Emitt was only 17 when the picture was taken, young enough to have been my brother. In the awkward moments between him signing our albums (Jeff had brought Emitt’s first and great solo album) and us saying goodbye, Emitt said, “So… you guys want to see my studio?”

He unlocked the door to the dilapidated garage and we pushed our way through cobwebs to get inside the famous Emitt Rhodes home studio I’d by now heard so much about. This is where he had made his solo records, writing all the songs, playing all the instruments, singing all the vocals, and recording it himself on the old analog recording equipment collecting dust in the dim studio. My eyes went immediately to the instruments. The drums. The covered grand piano. Guitars. Organ. Homemade percussion instruments and thing-a-ma-jiggies hanging from the walls and ceiling — the very same instruments I’d seen on the covers and inside jackets of his solo records. There they were. Right in front of me. Now I realized why I had asked Jeff to come. Because if this was real… he wouldn’t be able to forget it either.

Now I’m 14 again, peeing my pants that by some stroke I’d made it into Emitt’s studio. Before I could ask him, he asked us if we played. We said we did, a little. He handed Jeff a guitar which he fiddled with, and then threw back the cover on the Bluthner grand and told me to play something for him. I nearly choked. “You’re frickin’ Emitt Rhodes,” I stuttered, “You play something.” He put his hand on my shoulder and sat me down on the bench, gentle as a bumble bee. I fumbled through a couple verses of “Lady Madonna” and Emitt smiled. “That song has a great left hand,” he said.

I’m like the guy in the third row at a Beach Boys concert holding up a “Barbara Ann” sign. I wanted to hear the great Emitt Rhodes play one of his hits.He said he didn’t remember any. I begged him, “Come on, man. You wrote all these amazing songs.” I started naming them. “Live”; “Where Have You Been All of My Life”; “Fresh as a Daisy”; “With My Face on Tthe Floor.” He said again he had no idea how they went. I pressed him, “What are the chords to ‘You’re a Very Lovely Woman’? What key’s it in?” “No idea, he said. “I’d have to listen to the record to remember what I did. I don’t know.”

Lots of acts from the ’60s and ’70s were on the road, of course, and after three Arnold Palmers, I’d swung up the nerve to tell Emitt that if he’d just put together a tour people would line up to see him play. I was sure they would. “You could make a pretty good living,” I said, and by that I meant maybe he could even buy a car, a bed, some furniture, take back his house — all of his house.

“I don’t know,” Emitt said. “I’d have to learn all those songs again. Hire a band. Teach those guys the songs. Rehearse. I’d have to get a tour manager, somebody to do the business…” I said, expectantly, “And…?” He sagged, and said, “That’d be a lot of work.” The weight of it all settled on him. I saw his shoulders heavy with the burden. Still, I’m cheerleading. I said, “I know, but how great would it be?” He said, “I don’t know how great it’d be, but it sure would be a lot of work.”

Now he suddenly volunteered that there was one song… he could play a little of it for us if we wanted. Hell, yeah we wanted. Jeff handed him the guitar and Emitt started to play an unreleased song. It didn’t sound like what guitar sounds like when I play it. It sounded… cool. Effortless. Beautiful. And when he started to sing, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. His voice, almost angelic as a young man, was deeper, and wiser, still clear, still beautiful, tinged now with the sound pain makes when it comes out of a hurting body. But he’d wrapped it in a gorgeous Emitt Rhodes melody and we were… transported, feeling lucky to be standing right there right then.

Emitt played a couple bars and stopped. Abruptly. “That’s all I got,” he said. I don’t remember what song he played that day, I want it to have been “Isn’t It So,” his gorgeous ballad from “Rainbow Ends,” his last album, which was released in 2016, but I don’t remember. And then, as suddenly and as weirdly as this remarkable day with Emitt Rhodes began, it ended. He escorted us out of the studio, said goodbye at the car, and was gone. Jeff and I sat there a moment. I remember looking down at Emitt’s name on the album where he’d scrawled it just above the title in blue ink, the signature bold, confident, full of promise. Everything the man who’d just written it there wasn’t.

Twenty minutes later Jeff and I were on the 405, awkward silence, neither of us having spoken a word since we’d left Emitt’s house. My mind was spinning. What really happened to him? I knew from my own life and career that the show business gods aren’t fair. That good is often a crass euphemism for money-making. That great is the most over-used and unimaginative adjective, a cocktail party crutch, a blandly vanilla way to talk about art when you, yourself, can’t make it. But Emitt Rhodes really was great, as in magnificent, remarkable, impressive, singular, spectacular, gifted, beguiling, profound. At least, he had been, once upon a time.

I thought about how much music Paul McCartney has made since he turned 40, and how much John Lennon music we never got. I thought about how as a young man in a hurry to grow up Emitt had found a way to get through to me. He really had been a spirit guide. And then, with no warning, he’d stopped guiding. I know he talked about his intractable issues with his record companies, and maybe like Springsteen and Fogerty he just decided he wouldn’t make music for them anymore. But, what if it wasn’t that he wouldn’t, but that he couldn’t? What if the crackup he told me about hit him so hard it knocked his art out of him? Could I accept that? Could Emitt?

I may not be a gifted writer, but I can sit down and write. That heart-to-head-to-hands-to-page connection is there. Writers’ block is not and never has been a part of my vocabulary. But I was thinking about it now, about what if I woke up tomorrow and couldn’t do the thing that makes me, me? The thing that gratifies my ego, allows me to express myself, clothes me, houses me, and provides for my wife and children. Could I survive that kind of cut?

Emitt did go on to resurface 43 years later with his fourth and final album, a mature, bittersweet, wistful rumination on a life somewhat less than well-lived, maybe the only kind any of us can hope for.

The heart of it is this: Emitt spoke to me when I wasn’t yet a man, when I was desperate for someone to tell me how you become one. He talked to me in a language I understood: music. How much might Emitt have said to me during those 43 years he remained mute, between his third and fourth albums? How many age-appropriate lyrics, melodies and stories might he have shared? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a wreck. Emitt Rhodes is not church. His music or lack of it is not the end of the world. I’m here. We’re here. Things work out as they work out. But I can’t help but think his loss is my loss. Our loss. And regrettable, as all things left undone are.

Jeff and I drove on in silence, away from Emitt’s house toward our own homes, our own lives, our wives and children, and jobs. The afternoon behind us, I smiled. Emitt’s songs are still with me, I thought. After all these years. After all that’s happened to him, after what didn’t happen for him, the songs are there. They haven’t flaked off. When I hear them, and think about them, I feel something. The songs still have the power to take me out of here and put me right back there.

The back there I’m talking about is the land of my youth — southern California… late ‘60s. I can see myself there, moving through the idealized version of my life — the one that lives in my memory alone. Emitt’s music is the soundtrack of that life, and it brings back images of my first girlfriend, Tawny Wilson, her beautiful face, the white two-story tract home she lived in, three houses from the corner. I see myself standing barefoot in front of her house on a fragrant night, trying to avoid her father, trying to act older than I was, armed with a pocket tee, a pair of Levis, and words Emitt Rhodes had thought of, strung together, put to music, and gave to me for the very affordable price of just $3.99.

Those melodious words had fallen from his lips onto vinyl, and then flew up to my ears and found their way out of my mouth, pretending to be my own. Those words Emitt lent me, and others like me, were words a girl might’ve wanted to hear back then. I remember the sweet skin of Tawny’s neck when I kissed it with my stupid 14-year-old lips. I can hear myself saying, You’re a very lovely woman, very lovely, yes you are… Thank you, Emitt. For the words. And the melodies.

 

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