Scenes from a life

Todd Rundgren talks about how to write about yourself, how ratings killed the album, why rock critics loved punk rock, the Coachella imperative, and music as branding

Todd Rundgren

In the earliest days of my residence in the People’s Republic, I lived next door to a guy who designed and crafted molds for fake teeth. He worked at home and played his stereo more or less all the time, except when the TV was on. That was actually a pretty cool thing, since he had cable (and pretty much no one else we knew did), and I’d go hang out at his house and listen to records or watch stuff like coverage of the Korean passenger jet shoot-down on Ted Turner’s brand-new-and-not-yet-wince-inducing CNN station.  

Some years later, he caught one of my stories in the paper and phoned me up, asking if I were interested in doing a story on him and his girlfriend, who had just started the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Todd Rundgren Fan Club. Their mission was to promote Rundgren’s music and his stature as one of American rock’s under-appreciated virtuosos. And to get as many people as possible to pressure radio stations to play more of Rundgren’s music — and not just “Hello It’s Me” or “I Saw The Light,” but the deep cuts, the Utopia stuff, the early interactive/multimedia  projects. Everything. 

They were committed, to be sure, and while I shared a healthy measure of respect for Rundgren’s storied career, this was a bit outside my usual remit. I did what I could with the piece, turned it in, and my editor at the time didn’t run it. It may have been a short paper that week, or they found the piece awkward or ill-suited to the section… one reason or another. I did hear from him again once he saw that the story didn’t run; he was more than a little annoyed with me, almost suggesting I was part of the global conspiracy to keep Todd off the airwaves. 

Equally amused and flattered in a sideways sort of way, Rundgren chuckled a bit at this tale during a recent phone interview. I insisted I didn’t have much influence on local radio programming 25 years ago, but he already knew that. 

“Yeah,” he says, “the Arbitron rating system essentially killed off radio. But it didn’t go without its consequences, ’cause it eventually killed off record companies as well.”

A native of suburban Philadelphia, Rundgren was a major player in the making of records in a world far removed from the one we live in now. Scoring success with his band Nazz at an early age, just out of high school, Rundgren leveraged his Beatles-informed gift for melody and his restless-tinkerer facility with studio production into a wildly successful early career, landing several hits and getting calls for producing gigs in New York. He went on to lead the prog ensemble Utopia for much of the late ’70s, dividing his time between his own music and producing albums by the likes of Grand Funk Railroad, Meatloaf, Hall and Oates and Patti Smith.   

At a time when the rock star was being codified as both a cultural icon and a keenly crafted industry marketing device, Rundgren was a hard guy to pin down. Unfairly perhaps, his earliest radio presence was associated with the male singer-songwriter pop-wave that also gave us early James Taylor and John Denver and Jim Croce. But Rundgren’s turn toward flamboyantly costumed and musically ambitious progressive rock with Utopia promptly upset that profile. And within the industry itself, Rundgren was feted as a star producer, the kind of guy who could turn disjointed musical ideas from stoned or inebriated or uninspired contract-bound musicians into a finished product. His later experiments with production techniques, the incorporation of computers and synthesizers and interactive media were groundbreaking. 

All of the Todd Rundgrens that co-existed in those days are well documented in his recently released autobiography The Individualist, titled after a 1991 project, the second of his TR-I interactive projects.  

Rock star autobiographies are usually dicey propositions; a reader can expect anything from remorseful apologia for the excesses of The Life, to dishy celeb-gossip titillations, to embittered score-settling against former managers, accountants, band mates or industry villains. And there’s some of that in here, but for his part, Rundgren recounts most of his youth and professional life (up until his wedding at age 50) in a generally wry, often dispassionate voice. 

The book is rendered in three-part micro-chapters; first part being what happened, second part why it mattered (if it mattered), and the third part some distilled bit of wisdom he (or we) might derive from it. Funny, informative and insightful, the book is easy to digest, delivered in bite-sized portions, subtly inviting the reader to hopscotch their way through Rundgren’s life. A mini-series in seven-minute episodes, chronologically linear but not compellingly so, Rundgren examining Rundgren.

“That’s the idea of the book. You’re supposed to be able to hopscotch through it. You should be able to open it, read a page, and decide if you want to read anything else,” he laughs.

“Which is kind of the way I designed it; I designed it for a reader like myself, someone who doesn’t necessarily sit down and commit to a long read. I’ve done it sometimes and regretted it. What is that… that stupid Dan Brown book… the first one, [The DaVinci Code]. I got two-thirds of the way through it and tossed it in the trash.

“It’s supposed to be a different sort of a read, partly because of my proclivities as the way I like to read and how much I don’t like to write.”

(It’s worth noting, as a testament to enduring foreverness of the internet, that some guy’s review of the original The Individualist, another committed Rundgren obsessive who posted his column on the net years after the fact, included this observation on Rundgren’s lyric talents: “To call Mr. Rundgren the Joyce Carol Oates of pop music would probably be an understatement.” The guy who swears he doesn’t like to write.) 

The book project was actually pitched to him 20 years ago; Rundgren started it, put it aside, came back to it, and finally finished it last year. We wondered if the broken timeline meant some revisions to passages, reconsiderations over time. Self-reflection, as well as the fickle whims of memory, can change how we summon bits of our past.

“As I got further into the project and got used to writing in that form, I did go back to some of the earlier things I had written and did a lot of editing,” he says. “Partly because I found passages that were more appropriate to different stories, so I had to move things around. Sometimes I would have an objection to my own style of writing. I think by then, I had developed an instinct for it, and anything that didn’t agree with that particular instinct would get a second look.”

And the stories are great: working with the NY Dolls (“…Johnny Thunders, the ‘Keith Richards’ of the band, was working on a doctorate in sullenness…”); how he saw Meatloaf as the perfect Bruce Springsteen spoof; Andy Partridge (of XTC fame) threatening to cleave his skull with an axe; tripping with Cameron Crowe in the New Mexico desert on the then-rookie writer’s first assignment; a slightly weird story about Burton Cummings’ mic stand; the whole Liv Tyler/Bebe Buell thing (look it up). 

Much of the book’s content centers on the production work and the various characters Rundgren encountered in the studio. We pointed out to Rundgren that we found an odd paradox; in the studio, at the controls, Rundgren was the guy who could get things done, the reliable producer, the steady hand. Yet elsewhere, by his own admission, he infuriated the people around him for his muse-chasing and surrender to creative caprice. The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect, or something like it.  

“Well, it kind of represents the dichotomy of my professional life, if nothing else. I got into record production fairly early on, after I graduated high school and I was out on my own and had the responsibility to support myself. And I was fortunate enough to have some success with a band that I put together, at least got me some notoriety and got me established in the music business.  

“But once I got into the music business, I realized the dichotomy between the necessity to be commercial and the desire to explore and be free and discover new musical things like my heroes the Beatles did… Being responsible in the studio with the acts I was producing freed me up to do anything I wanted when I was working on my own music.”

But what exactly is a producer these days? Rundgren worked in a world where the primary format was an album, and the producer was there to polish the material and present it/record it/sequence it as an album. In the days of Spotify and Apple music, where the album is a fading anachronism, does the producer even matter… except for maybe Ariana Grande, Beyonce or Taylor Swift? 

“Well, there are record producers, but you just cited three examples where the producer has been, not necessarily marginalized but… categorized in a certain way. If you look at the credits for any of those artists’ records, you’ll see five songwriters and three producers for every song. So the whole idea of pairing up with an artist to help them accomplish this process, that’s gone, as well as the idea of the album. The album is not the principal form factor anymore, it’s the single again,” Rundgren says.

“Most of the songs that are popular these days, you won’t ever hear again after, like, a year. They will be completely forgotten. And the point of that is that music has simply become an aspect of your self-promotion. You, yourself, are the product… You’re more known for the fights you pick with other artists. It’s like, I couldn’t hum you a single line from a Cardi B song, but my Apple News gets clotted up with news from all kinds of artists for their antics.”

And as for festival culture…

“A couple of years ago, I went to Coachella. I had never been before, and I went and sat in on a song with the Lemon Twigs. So I had a chance to walk around a little bit to see what it was like. And I got the impression that nobody was there for any particular artist. It was mostly a hook-up — it was mostly men looking for women, and women looking for men. So they didn’t care much about the music, it was just a backdrop to a giant hook-up scene.”

And finally I had to take some issue with the suggestion, in the chapter titled “Critical,” when Rundgren throws a bit of humorous and admittedly well-deserved shade at rock critics.

Lester Bangs more or less defined the form: If you could not project your own anger and ignorance into the music it wasn’t worth listening to. Unfortunately, that green lit every angry ignoramus to get into criticism, the end result being music that could no longer be criticized… Disco. 

OK, most music critics with even a molecule of self-awareness would concede that we’re the music industry equivalent of remora, self-anointing in the great cultural ocean by gnawing at the Great Ones’ leftovers. (Wikipedia clarifies: “Although it was initially believed that remoras fed off particulate matter from the host’s meals, this has been shown to be false; in reality, their diets are composed primarily of host feces.” We stand by our analogy…)

But really, did we give the world disco? 

Rundgren laughs.

“Well, rock criticism, for what it’s worth [wry laugh], does have an effect. There was certainly a time where an artist felt like, if you got a bad review in Rolling Stone, it was just the death of your career. You don’t want to cede that much power to someone. You do all the work making it, someone makes a snide comment about it and it’s all worthless,” he says.  

“I’d have to go back and read it, if I really said that critics created disco. But I do know they created punk rock. There were just a bunch of critics who didn’t like music they couldn’t understand. So they demanded a kind of music they did understand, and could play. 

“That essentially was why all the critics, when punk rock came along, said, ‘Yeah, that’s what you’re supposed to play. You’re supposed to play like you don’t know how to play.’”

But it’s not about the critics, after all. 

“I expect to learn new things as long as I live. Some people think you get to a certain point in life, and you know everything you’re supposed to know. You don’t have to go through the trouble of learning anything else. But I get a lot of pleasure out of discovering new things, especially things that I may not have known about myself,” Rundgren says. 

“Because the music over the years has evolved into my personal therapy. It’s taking ideas that are floating around in my head and concretize them. Make them into something real. And the process of doing that reveals to me the nature of what I’m thinking. Once I’ve objectified it and put it into a song, I can say, ‘Yeah, that makes sense…’

“Or conversely I can say, ‘What an idiot you are.’”  

ON THE BILL:  Todd Rundrgren: The Individualist Tour. 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 30, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder. Tickets: $45-$300