By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Debbie Davies/ITVS
Nobody knows how Rodd Keith wound up standing on Santa Monica Boulevard at 5 a.m., 10 days before Christmas, looking down at the Hollywood Freeway. Nobody knows if he was alone, or what the hell even happened.
Earlier that night, Rodd Keith had called his brother, Gerald Eskelin. "He was living in a sort of loft above a recording studio on Sunset, around Highland, and he wanted me to come down and have a drink with him," Eskelin recalls. "I could tell on the phone he was blazingly out of it, and I said, 'Rodd, let's get together tomorrow.'"
By this point, in 1974, Rodd Keith's drug problem (he used LSD, PCP and heroin, according to his friends) had taken over his life, and his personal manner had become pretty unbearable. Looking back, Eskelin believes Keith was suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia. "He began freaking people out, developing his own cute little language," Eskelin remembers. "He loved using words that sound similar — 'cheese sauce' was Jesus. He called himself 'Shom Howe' — show 'em how. Combining all that with the angel dust and other drugs he got into, sometimes it was impossible to sit down and discuss anything with him." Keith refused to get help, though. "He used to say, 'I can pull the wool over those guys' eyes,'" Eskelin says.
It's not that Rodd Keith was an asshole — he was a sweet, lovable guy. But, as Eskelin explains it, "He wasn't hooked into reality. He had such a sense of being bigger than everyone else. He used to say he spelled his name with two D's because God only used one." The son remains the same: Song-poem legacy Ellery Eskelin. (Photo by Van Natta/ITVS)
According to everyone who knew him, Keith was a musical genius — the type who can pick up any instrument and play it, create melodies on the spot, improvise on piano for hours, write gorgeous arrangements and compose in any genre. He had the talent to go as far as he wanted. Somehow, though, he could never quite get it together.
"Rodd used to come over and we'd crack a bottle of wine and cry about the 'legitimate' music business," says his old friend and colleague Dick Castle. "That's really what we were all after. I think the last time I saw him, he was sitting here crying in his beer, calling himself a prostitute. He said, 'I'm prostituting music — I'm literally going out and selling myself to the highest bidder.'"
Still, Gerald Eskelin never thought his brother was suicidal. In fact, nobody's certain whether Rodd jumped or was so high he thought he could fly, or maybe walk the railing like a tightrope.
"Part of me feels like, gee, I wonder if things would have been different if I'd gone down there that night," Eskelin says. "Who knows? Maybe it would have saved him for another week or month. Or he might have gotten into more trouble and ended up in an institution.
"I have to look at it like, that's it, that's what happened."
Rodd and Dick, with those porn-star names, were working in the dingiest outpost of the record industry: the "song-poem," or "demo" business. "Song-sharking" may be its most accurate label. You know, those outfits that advertise in the backs of tabloids: "Poems Wanted for Recording Consideration," "Earn royalties!" "Poems Wanted for Songs & Records!"
Naive would-be poets sent in their lyrics — and a fee (nowadays around $100 to $400), expecting entrée to the music business, maybe even a hit song. What they got, instead, was a cheap-ass recording of their words set to music — usually recorded in four or five minutes. One take.
If they were very lucky, Rodd Keith, who worked for several song-poem companies in the '60s and '70s, had composed the accompanying melody and arrangement. In his hands, leaden, awkward poetry sometimes achieved a kind of transcendence; he could actually extract the original intent of the writer, it seemed — or else make something far more interesting, at risk of offending the customer. On "I'm Just the Other Woman," Keith sang in a woman's falsetto over a piano recording played backward. The lyricist demanded a new version. The singer is the song: Gene Merlino in action(Photo by Lyle Gamm/ITVS)
In the pre-digital heyday of song-poetry (the '50s through the '70s), song-sharks employed full bands to record demos. And while Keith was the best, the song-poem netherworld was full of talented musicians, usually working under pseudonyms, trying to supplement their legit gigs. The hackish circumstances required unusual skill. "You really had to be a fabulous reader to sing demos," says Castle.
"You'd go through 12 songs in an hour," says "Mary," who sang demos for 20 years. "It was a challenge. Though the songs were not songs, you had to make them into songs. It made me a better musician, and you got to work with really good musicians."
If the singer flubbed a line, he or she tried to fudge it. Laughter was a distinct hazard. "I used to force myself to think of something sad," Mary says. "Something horrible." You'd have to. Just consider a few song titles: "I Am a Ginseng Digger," "Song of the Burmese Land," "Listen Mr. Hat," "Non-Violent Taikwondo Troopers."