Here’s how my mind works sometimes. Like a relay race. Alex Chilton dies and the synapses start yapping and snapping and something like this comes out. I had read and heard in different places, Paul Westerberg’s tribute in the online New York Times, a conversation I had with someone who knew him, that in the years after he moved from Memphis to New Orleans, Chilton was washing dishes for a living or as Westerberg mentioned, living in a tent in Tennessee. Whether these things were about choice or necessity, I don’t know. On the face of it, they are not activities one associates with legendary rock status, or lifestyle choices popular musicians normally make. But I don’t claim to have known Alex Chilton through anything but his music, and although his talent for melody seemed to flow without effort, there was nothing easy about the way Chilton treated it, as has been previously noted by Robert Hull on this site.
So what do I know? Washing dishes and living in a tent might have fulfilled some promise he made to himself. He would try to live like an ascetic. He would try the mendicant path. Maybe anything worth saying isn’t supposed to come easy.
But the synapses start yapping and snapping and the baton gets passed. I think, hey, what about That 70’s Show? Didn’t he make a pile from “In the Street?” Didn’t that show give the world Mila Kunis from Kiev? Didn’t Chilton agree to a Box Tops tour not so long ago? Hey, didn’t Big Star make their first studio record since 1973 in 2005 and weren’t they scheduled to play at South by Southwest when Chilton passed away. Wasn’t the world becoming A.C.’s oyster again?
He looks great in the last pictures I’ve seen of him playing. Still thin, still has his hair. The point is the questions, and I have questions, come too late and now to talk about it, even the weirder aspects, such as the biggest Alex Chilton song of the last 20 years being the Replacements song that names him, forever immortalized by its inclusion in Rock Band 2, seems like reinvention. Chilton was, by all accounts, reclusive and taciturn. Is there any way to read him other than to say he was a musician who wanted his music to do the talking? To whit, this exchange from a 2007 interview with Russell Hall for the Gibson Guitar blog, Gibson Lifestyle:
“Do you have any thoughts as to why there’s such a fascination with Big Star, or where the genesis of that fascination came from?
AC: No, I don’t.
In the mid ‘80s a lot of high-profile artists began to champion you and your work. What was going through your head as that happened, or did you give it much thought?
AC: I never gave it much thought.
When Paul Westerberg wrote the song “Alex Chilton,” how did that make you feel?
AC: It didn’t make me feel any way in particular.
___Which leads me to where the baton was going all along, the actual subject of this rant: Emitt Rhodes. Another wunderkind. As a teenager he had two top forty hits with the Merry-Go-Round, broke up that band, released a string of critically acclaimed solo records, each increasingly broodier and disenchanted, and dropped out of sight in 1973.
But you know what, Rhodes, who celebrated his 60th birthday recently, is currently the subject of an Italian made documentary film by Cosimo Messeri called The One Man Beatles. And rumors are floating that he may be recording music again.
It’s ironic that Chilton is associated with groups when he spent the bulk of his career working as Alex Chilton. Rhodes, on the other hand, was always the band. Recording himself in a shed behind his parent’s garage in Hawthorne, California, he turned out two sparkly and bright solo records in two years, the first, American Dream, in theory to be the second and last Merry-Go-Round record for A&M, and the second, Rhodes’ self-titled debut record for ABC Dunhill. On the basis of latter record alone, the pop world should have been a luxury cruise for the then 20 year old singer/songwriter.
What happened? In an all too familiar scenario, A&M balked on releasing American Dream until ABC Dunhill released Mirror, Rhodes' follow-up to the critically-acclaimed first record, hence causing confusion about which record was the new Emitt Rhodes record and derailing the chances for Rhodes to ride “Fresh as a Daisy,” the one bona-fide hit from the previous record, to major exposure. When Mirror failed to do well, the already discouraged Rhodes took an even longer time to record Farewell to Paradise, engendering a lawsuit from ABC/Dunhill, who wanted new Emitt Rhodes product every six months. You don’t have to be a diviner to know that the paradise Rhodes was kissing off was no paradise at all. The result, the disheartened Rhodes retreated to some garage or another to make his own private music.
That was nearly forty years ago, which seems like a preposterous number on the face of it, especially when you hear Rhodes out of the blue, which was the case in 2001 when his music showed up alongside that of John Lennon, the Rolling Stones, Nico, the Velvet Underground, and Van Morrison, in other words, the toppermost of 60’s and 70’s rock, in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. That tune “Lullaby,” is a short and simple bridge between two songs on Emitt Rhodes: “Long Time No See,” and “Fresh as A Daisy,” but it has the delicate, teasing quality of the best Abbey Road snippets.
Certainly Rhodes’ one man ethic---in the original liner notes of Farewell to Paradise, he writes-“Entire album written, arranged, produced, recorded engineered and all instruments performed by Emmit Rhodes,”—might suggest a lack of humility but it could also be read as the artist trying to find his own way first. There’s nothing in the language that says he might go it alone forever. Besides, that one man ethic had produced one very good record for ABC Dunhill, and another for A&M. Mirror, the third, although continuing to show Beatles influences and bright California shine in some tunes, took a turn toward louder guitars, more insistent rhythms and dare I say it, unconvincing rock.
Rhodes’ shift from melody and poetry to a harder, more aggressive style parallels Harry Nillson’s, with whom he can be favorably compared, both in sweetness of his harmonics, the utter tunefulness of his work, and his gift for writing lyric poetry.
Take a song like “The Man He Was,” from American Dream. The physically twisted young boy of the song, who is represented by a deformed tree throughout his short but not entirely miserable life, could have been imagined by Sherwood Anderson and would have fit well into the jagged landscape of Winesburg, Ohio. And this from the fresh-faced kid of twenty who by 1973, had grown his hair and a beard and although not traipsing around in a bathrobe and getting loaded with John Lennon, looked for all the world like the sometimes troubled soul of his earlier songs.
As far as the rocked-up sounds of “Paradise” were concerned, Rhodes neither had the supporting cast nor the attitude to pull it off entirely. After the failure of that record, he went underground until he worked a short shift with Elektra/Asylum, doing the John Cale, A&R/producer/engineer bit, but the yield was minimal (and this was back in the late 70’s). It too was followed by another disappearing act, lasting lo these many years, turning Rhodes into the J.D. Salinger of power pop.
Whether or not The One Man Beatles will re-energize Rhodes, or bring attention back to his work, which was the effect of the Scott Walker documentary, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, remains to be seen. And before you remind me that Walker’s case is different because he never stopped working, the rumor is that Rhodes didn’t either and has recorded who knows how many songs, which may to our benefit, one day float to the surface and wash ashore on the ever-rolling tides of pop.