Through three well-regarded bands, a half-dozen releases, and countless live shows, Rhett (who only uses one name), like so many Miamians born to Cuban parents, has always seemed as Anglo as the next straight-up rock and roll singer. His warm and sometimes stunning technique has brought him major recording contracts and countless Rolling Stones comparisons, although the gravelly Lou Reed might be more fitting. Not that it matters now. These days, Rhett is putting Latin before American.
Everything changed when Kike Posada invited Rhett & the Pawn Shop Drunks to appear on his radio show, Fuego Rock, on Salsa 98 (WRTO-FM 98.3). "He told us we could come on," Rhett says, "but that we had to play at least one song in Spanish. I had never performed in Spanish in my life."
Late last August, when MTV brought its Video Music Awards to town, Rhett & the Pawn Shop Drunks made an effort to gain some exposure by playing each night during that weekend. That led to his meeting with Posada. For Fuego Rock, Rhett came up with a searing and haunting ballad called "Quisaz." Despite its slightly slowed-down 4/4 beat, the song has a potent identity, and its pained phrasing sends chills down the spine.
The performance had such an impact on Rhett that he set aside his band's completed English-language album and directed their attention to what will be his Spanish-language debut. Now Rhett & the Pawn Shop Drunks are completing a ten-song album, Entré Dios y el Diablo (Between God and the Devil), which they hope to release in late March.
Besides his musical transformation, Rhett is enjoying another type of catharsis: In Rhett's well-appointed living room his wife of thirteen years, Sylvia, is holding the couple's first child, Gia Isabella, born December 29. On this afternoon, Rhett is thinking about his music and his Latin American city.
"If a gig makes one kid pick up a guitar, or read a book, hell, become President of the United States, it's worth it," he says. And: "If New York was a melting pot, then what the fuck is Miami? Man, I know people come here to party, to get laid, and they don't bring their culture with them. The mistake is to think that's what they do all the time. Back home is where they do their cultural stuff."
Rhett has received accolades throughout his career, but these days he's excited about the reaction to his español endeavor. El Nuevo Herald entertainment writer Erwin Perez hosted Rhett & the Pawn Shop Drunks during his popular Esencia showcase at Hoy Como Ayer last October. Before the showcase, Rhett managed to pen about a half-dozen originals and record them at the Shack, a Hialeah studio run by local rockers Humbert. "I was so impressed by their musical delivery," says Perez. "It's intimidating to get up in front of a seasoned Spanish music audience when you've never written lyrics or performed in Spanish before."
There's both precedent and an explanation for how a writer of heartfelt and often moving lyrics can change languages. "I used to steal from [Argentine folk singer] Facundo Cabral way back when I was in [former band] Young Turk," Rhett explains. "A person doesn't think in a language. You're hungry, you feel hunger, you don't think, I'm hungry. You think of something beautiful, it's just a thought. The lyrics come from the same place."
Born in Miami (which he calls "a beautiful and great city"), the 36-year-old Rhett O'Neil began singing when he was twelve years old, and fronted his first group, Young Turk, before he was old enough to drive.
By 1989, the hard-rocking and engaging Young Turk had signed a six-figure publishing deal with BMG. There was, he recalls, a bidding war between two labels before Turk signed with Geffen and recorded an album. "Then," Rhett says, "Wisconsin happened."
During their decade together, the members of Young Turk often lived communally, sharing houses in North Miami Beach, Pennsylvania, New York, and even Mississippi. When their first album, Tired of Laughing, was completed, they went on a U.S. tour to promote its impending release. After a show in Wisconsin they went back to their motel and partied with fans, including a teenage girl who engaged in sex with some of the band members. Under Wisconsin law, consensual sex with a minor is considered rape.
Rhett and two other Young Turk members were arrested after the girl told her mother why she was out all night. "I can't say for sure what happened with the label," Rhett says, "but I know the folks at Geffen told us the record was great, then after that they put a freeze on it and it never came out."
Soon came a call from another major label, Virgin, and Young Turk spent six months recording a second album, released in 1992 as NE 2nd Ave. Then Rhett received a sentence of six months in jail for the Wisconsin incident. "It was my turn to take a beating," he says.
After he did his bid, Rhett returned to a far less communal Young Turk. "I came out bored," the singer remembers. "We'd been doing the same shit for ten years. There was a lot of blame passed around, a negative atmosphere."
In the mid-Nineties Rhett took to jamming with anyone who showed up at the Hialeah rehearsal studio Young Turk had used. Those sessions ("with Young Turk's leftover equipment," Rhett quips) led to a new group, The Butter Club. Despite the presence of hand percussion, The Butter Club's sound was moody and textured. Darker and more engrossing than the hard rock of Young Turk, the group's approach was even better suited to Rhett's ugly-beautiful, gutter-to-penthouse vocals.
When The Butter Club signed to venerable publishing giant peermusic and released the 1997 album Junkies & Heroes, one reviewer called Rhett's songwriting "jaundiced, cynical, ultimately romantic." In 1998, the band followed up with the equally excellent Lesbian Kiss, then dissolved a year later.
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"With Young Turk we had a co-dictatorship," says Rhett. "The Butter Club was my shot at communism. What I learned from it is that communism doesn't work, in government or in rock and roll. We used to have meetings about having meetings. And we started counting up the money, dividing up what we didn't even have yet. That, and lots of drugs."
So Rhett put together the Pawn Shop Drunks, which currently features guitarist Tony Medina and bassist Michael Mut (they use drummers from other bands). Under the current moniker, Rhett has released two albums independently, God Lost Faith and the incredible All the Things We Couldn't Say.
But after two decades of creating all-American rock and roll, Rhett's new baby has brought a fresh passion to the singer. "It's sort of like having a refrigerator full of food your whole life and one day you discover, I don't know, apples," he says. The [English-language] project will have to wait for the Spanish record."
While his baby steps into the Latin arena will surely be celebrated by fans of Miami's multiculturalism, some of Rhett's followers might still yearn for the North American rock he's crafted over the years. In any case, the title of the new English-language album certainly speaks to the issue. It's called American Spic.