Farewell to Emitt Rhodes and Peter Green
Tributes to two departed cult figures of the 1960s and 1970s.
|Stephen Thomas Erlewine||Jul 28, 2020||5|
Emitt Rhodes (February 25, 1950—July 19, 2020)
Emitt Rhodes existed upon the fringes of popular music, a place that didn't quite suit him because his gifts and aspirations were shaped by the mainstream. Timing and bad luck prevented him from ever cracking the Top 40 but he got within spitting distance a couple of times. First, his group the Merry-Go-Round brought "Live" to 63 in 1967 while "Fresh As A Daisy," his debut single as a solo artist, climbed to 54 in early 1971. It's the kind of success that could be termed as "promising" if a hit sequel was in the cards, but they weren't for Rhodes. Cursed by a rotten record deal that dictated the delivery of two long-players a year, he turned away from recording his own music once he wrapped up his contractual obligations.
Many musicians suffer similar fates and fade into obscurity but Emitt Rhodes became something of a legend in his absence. His ascendency rested entirely on musical merits, since his backstory, while tragic, didn't quite have any romantic signifiers. Rhodes simply vanished, leaving few clues of his whereabouts in his wake. Crate-diggers occasionally excavated a record bearing his credit but the most notable of these, Gabe Kaplan's 1976 goof "Up Your Nose," almost seemed designed to puncture the idea that he was a pop savant who belonged to no particular time or place.
As it happens, Rhodes was very much a child of Southern California, staying in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne—the same town the Beach Boys called their own—from his childhood until his death on July 19, 2020. He kept his work close to home, purchasing a home across from his parents, and building a recording studio within it. Rhodes also seized the opportunities Hollywood offered in the 1960s. His first band the Palace Guard—originally known as the Emerals (sometimes corrected as "the Emeralds")—supported actor Don Grady as he was attempting to launch a musical career during the mid-'60s heyday of his sitcom My Three Sons and once that alliance frayed, Rhodes formed the Merry-Go-Round and snagged a contract with A&M.
The Merry-Go-Round didn't quite fall in step with the trippy psychedelic sounds of 1967's Summer Of Love but their polished, precise jangle still sounded hip that year, as evidenced by "Live" turning into a regional hit and cracking the Billboard Hot 100. Their moment in the sun didn't last long, though. The melodramatic "You're A Very Lovely Woman," where an orchestra chased the group's harmonies, halted the group's momentum and the louder, noisier "Listen, Listen!" didn't reverse their course, so the group split and Rhodes headed to ABC/Dunhill.
Rhodes' run at ABC/Dunhill resulted in three LPs, the first of which competed with A&M's The American Dream, a collection of Merry-Go-Round leftovers he completed so he could leave the label. All four of these albums were eventually collected on Hip-O Select's 2009 set The Emitt Rhodes Recordings (1969-1973), a double-disc that also added the non-LP single "Tame The Lion" to the mix. By the point this comp hit the net, the makings of a Rhodes comeback were in the works—he tentatively re-entered the studio to cut some new material and the hour-long documentary The One Man Beatles began circulating at film festivals—-but that wouldn't truly materialize until producer Chris Price shepherded Rainbow Ends into existence in 2016.
Rainbow Ends remarkably picked up the threads Rhodes left dangling in the early 1970s but the tenor is notably and understandably quite different. It's softer and smoother, the work of a songwriter who has matured but remains dedicated to his initial influence—specifically, the Beatles and, in particular, Paul McCartney. Many other musicians also found inspiration in the Beatles but Rhodes narrowed in on McCartney's melodic invention and how the group used the studio as another instrument. Once the Merry-Go-Round disbanded, he endeavored to create this layered, intricate sound on his own, overdubbing harmonies, guitars and piano in his home studio so he sounded as lush as the Beatles did at Abbey Road.
Rhodes was hardly the only pop musician of 1970 to be similarly in thrall to Paul McCartney. The early years of that decade were lousy with piano-anchored singer/songwriters conjuring sing-song ditties—Gilbert O'Sullivan would have his first hit in 1970 with "Nothing Rhymed"—but Rhodes' insistence on recording every part on his own did set him somewhat apart from the pack. He did have competition on that front, too. Todd Rundgren recorded a good portion of his-post Nazz 1970 solo debut Runt on his own but Rundgren undercut his earnest piano-driven pleas with a hefty dose of humor and noise. Rhodes seemed allergic to these two qualities. There are moments of whimsy and propulsion scattered throughout his eponymous 1970 debut for ABC/Dunhill—tellingly, they include the opener "With My Face On The Floor" and the single "Fresh As a Daisy," songs designed to grab attention—but the album is introspective even at its sunniest moments; it's clearly the work of an obsessive musician who needed to put every part in its right place.
ABC/Dunhill wouldn't allow Rhodes to record with such precision again. His process couldn't accommodate the required two albums a year, so he gradually loosened his grip on 1971's Mirror and 1973's Farewell To Paradise. The tension of hearing an idealist coming to terms of his dreams tarnishing does result in some compelling music, particularly on the bruised Farewell To Paradise, an album that gives away its game with its title. The ragged ends on this pair of record shines a light upon the peculiar pleasures of Emitt Rhodes, making its sustained control all the more a marvel: it's an album that only could've been released at the dawn of the 1970s, when the record industry still allowed for such idiosyncrasies and before the stereotype of tortured bedroom pop geniuses was invented.
Emitt Rhodes may have helped invent that pop archetype with his handful of albums but the term doesn't exactly suit him since he did indeed spend his career navigating the torturous waters of the music industry. Similarly, calling him a power pop legend doesn't feel quite right, either. Apart from the pounding riff of "Listen, Listen!," there wasn't much volume or velocity to his music; he preferred the delicate elements of songcraft, seeking last beauty over visceral thrill. That quest is precisely why his music was treasured for decades when he was merely a recluse and why it will still sound transportive now that he's left this earth.
Peter Green (October 29, 1946—July 25, 2020)
Upon learning the news on July 25, 2020, it took a moment for Vernon Reid, the leader of Living Colour, to realize Peter Green had died. Reid Tweeted that he thought a colleague "was bringing up Peter Green because...Peter Green is a perennial Guitar topic. The DEFINITION of a Guitarist's GUITARIST. UnSung GIANT of the art of Blues Rock."
Reid's assessment of Green's reputation isn't hyperbolic. Among guitar aficionados, Green is often mentioned in the same breath as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Jeff Beck, the defining visionaries of blues-rock in the 1960s. Listen to any random episode of Marc Maron's WTF and you're bound to find the comedian rhapsodizing about the guitarist's tone. When guitarists talk amongst themselves, they tend to celebrate such intangible as tone and technique, crucial components of music-making that can be lost on a wider audience; they feel these subtleties but have little interest in exploring their origins. Among the public at large, Green remained something of a footnote, his role in founding Fleetwood Mac overshadowed by the group's blockbuster pop makeover of the mid-1970s. By the time Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green had been gone for years, a departure instigated by mental illness ushered in by too much LSD.
Green eventually found peace but it was a long, complicated journey to that destination. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the mid-'70s, underwent electroconvulsive therapy, then cycled through a series of hospitalizations. Medications helped for a while but it wasn't until the 1990s that he discovered he functioned better when he wasn't taking psychiatric drugs. Once he weaned himself off of his meds, he returned to the stage with the Peter Green Splinter Group, which performed with regularity into the 2000s.
The Peter Green Splinter Group specialized in blues—they released a pair of albums dedicated to the songs of Robert Johnson—which underscored his singular gifts as a guitarist, particularly his lyrical phrasing and rich timbre, qualities that did benefit from the band's relaxed gait. Given his troubled past, it was welcome to hear a Green who sounded relaxed and comfortable, but this is not music that inspires devotion. Like the Green solo albums of the early 1980s, the Spinter Group made records that are easy to appreciate once converted into a discipline of Green's but the only way to become a convert is through the music he made with Fleetwood Mac between 1967 and 1968.
To anybody who came of age after the Buckingham/Nicks version of Fleetwood Mac, this is somewhat easier said than done. Like quite a few British bands of their time, Fleetwood Mac's 1960s discography is a bit of a mess. Singles were kept off of albums, reissues were cluttered with intimidating metadata ("Stop Messin' Round—Take 4 Master with Studio Talk Remix," "My Heart Beat Like A Hammer—Take 2 Master Version"), recycled live recordings and cheapo comps passing off rarities as hits. There never was one collection that told the story of Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac in a succinct fashion which ultimately did a disservice to the guitarist and the band: all the things that made the group and Green more than standard issue British blues required effort to discover.
Fleetwood Mac did happen to excel at British blues, though, picking up on the full-throttle improvs of Cream then adding a significant sense of swing. Their blend of B.B. King, Elmore James, and Chicago boogie dominated their pair of 1968 albums (Fleetwood Mac, Mr. Wonderful), records that showed just enough rhythmic and melodic invention to have their more adventurous non-LP singles not seem like a complete surprise. It was on these singles that Green established himself as a versatile, probing songwriter. "Black Magic Woman" found the group dabbling with Latin rhythms, an expansion embraced and enhanced by Santana on their cover, which turned into a classic rock staple. The silvery, shimmering instrumental "Albatross" went to number one in the UK and proved to be so beguiling, the Beatles swiped its vibe on Abbey Road. With its pummeling, dextrous riff, "Oh Well" became a rock & roll standard covered by every imaginable kind of rocker from Joe Jackson to Jimmy Page & the Black Crowes. "The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)" sounded so menacing, it was no wonder Judas Priest cut their own version.
"The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)" wound up being the last song of note Green wrote and the last thing he recorded with Fleetwood Mac. In a sense, the screed against money is a fitting farewell for the guitarist, since his anti-materialism was one of the many things that fueled his breakdown. It also conjures the sense of doom that sometimes surfaced within the music he made with the band, a vibe that helped fuel his legend, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s when information about Green was scarce. For a long time, his myth was intertwined with that darkness but his serene and fruitful final act concluded his musical career on a sweet note, while not diminishing the enduring power of his prime Fleetwood Mac music in the slightest.