The album cover for Donnie (left) and Joe Emerson's "Dreamin'… (Light In The Attic, Light…)
In 1978 on a 1,600-acre farm in rural Washington, Don Emerson Sr., one of a long line of builders, loggers and sawmill workers whose livelihood was earned in the timber surrounding them, noticed that two of his teenage sons, Joe and Donnie, had taken a liking to music.
He'd see them doing their chores while listening to radio from Spokane 70 miles to the southeast and encouraged them as they began writing and playing their own music. They even went into a studio to make a record but were disappointed with the experience. So when the brothers came to their pragmatic father and said they'd like to try again, he gave them a straight answer.
"I commented that I wasn't going to support them unless they'd done something that you could market — do an album or something like that," says Don Sr., now in his early 80s, on the phone from that same farm. "I didn't want to see them just playing the bars and doing that stuff only. I wanted to see something done that was tangible."
Donnie, then 17, and Joe, then 19, agreed, and the father set to work on something remarkably — some would say extravagantly — tangible. On an empty plot of the family farm, he built a state-of-the-art $100,000 recording studio. And in that studio, the boys recorded the newly reissued "Dreamin' Wild," a naive but utterly beguiling private-press 1979 rock curio that at its best, reveals the young songwriter of the two, Donnie, learning to express his inner feelings via the mix of rock, soul, R&B, country and funk music he and his older brother/drummer Joe heard on the radio.
And then … a profound silence. The couple of thousand vinyl copies languished in boxes in the basement. That is, until this year. Thirty-three years later, the record has just been reissued by the respected Light in the Attic records, and the best song on it, "Baby," has already become an unlikely summer 2012 underground hit. The music website Pitchfork just scored the album 8.0 on a scale of 10. L.A. avant rock singer Ariel Pink has released his version of the song, a collaboration with L.A. funk revivalist Dam-Funk, as the first single on his forthcoming album.
The story is starting to spread. Who were these two feathered-hair teenagers who on the cover are wearing white, jumbo-collared polyester Vegas-era Elvis Presley jumpsuits? Is this real? At least one blogger speculated, because of the way they were posed on the cover, that the two were conjoined twins.
Donnie and Joe Emerson's experience is part of a bigger narrative that Light in the Attic, with offices in Seattle and Los Angeles, has been telling for the last decade. By focusing its beam in the dust-gathered corners of music, the label is uncovering and telling remarkable musical stories, and the Emersons' is one of its most compelling — no small feat for a company that has released essential recordings by, among others, Kris Kristofferson, Karen Dalton, Lee Hazlewood and Rodriguez.
The last, in fact, is the subject of the new documentary "Searching for Sugar Man," which will be released in Los Angeles and New York on July 27, by Sony Pictures Classics and tells the story of a singer who released music in the 1960s to little notice in the U.S. but whose two early albums became important and acclaimed in South Africa and Australia and have been reissued by Light in the Attic, which will also be releasing the album's soundtrack via Sony Legacy.
The Emerson story is much smaller than Rodriguez's but no less engaging, and it's one that Donnie, Joe and Don Sr. have been telling a lot lately.
The youngsters had shown promise on their instruments, recalls Don Sr. Donnie, especially, had a knack for composing songs at an early age. When Donnie's high school music teacher echoed this enthusiasm, he, the father, and a few neighborhood friends started building the studio. The teacher, Gary Toleffsen, understood recording studios and helped as an informal advisor.
Don recalls Toleffsen coming to the farm with gear in tow: "He'd come out and say, 'You oughta have this, you oughta have that,' and then he'd hand it to Donnie — and then he'd have to learn it. Donnie was learning all this time, running the equipment, doing the recording. It was amazing."
Donnie and Joe experimented after school and chores were finished for the day. Because of their remote locale — five hours east of Seattle, 70 miles from Spokane — they had no access to record stores, so they relied on what they heard on the tractor radio as their inspiration.
"The thing is, you have one station, you got six different styles of music played on one station," says Donnie, interviewed with Joe by phone from Spokane. "You have Motown, you have soul, you have funk, you have classical music, country." He cites music by Bruce Springsteen, Kool & the Gang, Brothers Johnson, Kris Kristofferson and others as influences. "It's all mixed up."