By Phyllis Pollack
Todd Rundgren’s appearance at the Los Angeles Grammy Museum at the campus at AEG Live in Los Angeles on Monday, July 18 brought a sense of “Utopia” to the Clive Davis Theater, as the acclaimed record producer, composer, songwriter and recording artist shared his views, and played a short stripped down acoustic set. Among the fans that came to watch “The Runt” expound on his four-decade career at the sold-out event was Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh. He offered praise to Rundgren’s ninth studio album, 1981’s ‘Healing,’ calling it “one of my favorite albums.”
Rundgren responded to Walsh modestly, explaining, “I do most of my records for me. It’s my catharsis, my self-analysis. I was in a phase in my life, wondering if music does have that power.” Rundgren added, “I wanted to experiment in that regard. All my records are reflections of me.” Rundgren conceded that when he went into the studio to record ‘Healing,’ “I was spiritually exhausted.” It is an ironic fact, given the therapeutic listening experience that myriads of Rundgren fans have reported over the years from listening to that album.
Rundgren added, “I bought a round the world ticket to Istanbul, not knowing where I was going.” Rundgren confessed, “I’ve always” used “self-examination” in concert with writing and composing songs.
Rundgren observed, “Michael Jackson spent most of his career trying to create a facade of what he was. There is no joy in me for that. I feel that if get no joy in it, I feel there is no joy in it for anyone else. I’m selfish that way.”
Walsh, himself, was praised in Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards’ best-selling 2010 autobiography ‘Life.’
Rundgren has long been regarded as a visionary when it comes to the marriage of music and multimedia, having delved into the idea of music on demand by a server as early as 1997.
Rundgren first became known as a result of his quality work with The Nazz, resulting in three albums, and his leaving the band in 1969 to pursue a solo career, recording his exquisite debut album ‘Runt.’ However, it was 1972’s double album ‘Something/Anything?,’ with its radio friendly hits “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw The Light,” which thrust him into the limelight, and gave Rundgren his “Initiation” into fame. A studio prodigy, he played all the instruments on the album, including keyboards and guitar on the album, and offered its vocals. The critically acclaimed work also flaunted Rundgren’s talent as an impressive producer.
Highly respected for his work behind the board, Rundgren has produced works by artists including The Tubes, Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, Psychedelic Furs, XTC, Grand Funk Railroad, Johnny Winter and Hall & Oates, and most famously Meat Loaf’s multi-platinum debut ‘Bat Out Of Hell.’
The Grammy Museum event began with a short film featuring photos and videos showcasing highlights in Rundgren’s career. Its story made its start from as bar back as 1968 in Philadelphia, and took viewers through 1971’s “A Long Time Away, A Long Way To Go,” visuals from Rundgren’s band The Nazz, a taste of ’70’s hits like the Runt’s “We’ve Got To Get You A Woman,” then “I Saw The Light” from his 1972 double album ‘Something Anything?’ double disc. A fan favorite, footage of Rundgren’s legendary 1973 appearance on ‘Midnight Special,’ during which he played his megahit single “Hello It’s Me” was among favorite fare in the audio visual flashback. Music and visuals were included from Rundgren’s production work that spawned singles including Grand Funk’s “We’re An American Band,” Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” Meat Loaf’s iconic “Paradise By The Dashboard Lights,” and Grand Funk’s “Locomotion,” penned by Carole King and originally recorded by the late “Little Eva” Boyd. The video also provided a flash of Rundgren’s Utopia’s recording “Love Is The Answer,” the sentimental “Can We Still Be Friends,” and the Rundgren composition “Bang On The Drum All Day.” More of the video’s offerings included part of an appearance he had made on the Letterman Show, and a reminder of his album “Nearly Human.”
The 1990’s segments from the film included the introspective “Change Myself,” and Rundgren demonstrating interactive music technology that would let the audience remove vocals and edit tracks.
The biographical film that focused on Rundgren’s professional achievements depicted his first decade of this century with a look back at Bad Religion’s 2000 album ‘New America,’ which he produced at the behest of Geffen Records. A humorous scene in the video included a Rundgren appearance on The Today Show. There was also live footage with various past and present bandmates including Kasim Sulton.
Another clip, an appearance on Conan, referenced Rundgren’s stint with RIngo Starr and his All-Starr Band. Photos and press clips were additionally shown. Rundgren is seeing playing a blonde Fender Telecaster, giving a treatment of the blues classic “Crossroads,” originally incarnated as “Crossroad Blues” by Mississippi blues legend Robert Johnson. Rundgren recently released the album ‘Todd Rundgren’s Johnson,’ a tribute to the late icon.
Even with all that is included in the biographical EPK, Rundgren’s numerous accomplishments have managed to outnumber those seen in the audio-visual bio.
Rundgren, who currently resides in Hawaii, has released multiple versions of some of his songs throughout the years, giving them alternate versions and reincarnations, providing an auditory wheel of karma, where songs of his get new lives.
After the video presentation, Los Angeles Vice President of the Grammy Foundation, Scott Goldman, interviewed Rundgren on the Grammy Museum soundstage. Rundgren often responded with humorous answers, something that was not a surprise to those who have long followed the artist’s work. Rundgren discussed recording studio techniques, including sampling and working on computers. Some of the techniques about which he commented included his explaining the technology that made “my voice digitally encoded into the keyboard.” He also offered recollections that included his studio work on XTC’s ‘Skylarking.’
Rundgren elaborated on how his recording of Robert Johnson classics came about, explaining that the record label that had found the blues player’s last heir, had worked out a deal to totally acquire his historic catalogue. In an effort to capitalize on the blues great’s catalogue, the label agreed to release an album of new Rundgren recordings if he would record an album comprised of renditions of Johnson’s songs, “Todd Rundgren’s Johnson.” An agreement was made to release the two discs. Inevitably, Rundgren also released a scaled down disc entitled ‘Todd Rundgren’s Short Johnson.’ With this agreement, thus ensued the release of more Rundgren ‘Arena’ rock. Rundgren explained to the Grammy Museum audience that the label was working with the sole heir to Johnson’s music, and was trying to place the songs wherever they could. As Rundgren discussed the situation, he noted that he had forgetten who the sole heir was. What Rundgren had forgotten was that it was Johnson’s grandson, Steven Johnson, who serves as Vice-President of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation.
As Rundgren reminisced on his youthful beginnings, playing in a band, he joked, “I never liked the idea of cutting my hair. I thought it was a great opportunity for me to not cut my hair.”
He also told a humoruous story from early in his career about Alan Miller, who was not allowed to attend school because he had long hair. Miller had to communicate with his teachers via “speaker phone.” Rundgren found the situation hysterical. Rundgren would end up playing in a band with him. “This is making so much sense to me now,” quipped Rundgren. Among the “Sweeter Memories” of his life, they played together in the Philadelphia band Woody’s Truck Stop. After finding some direction, the band’s concept was to be like the Chicago-based Butterfield Blues Band, but a Philadelphia version, by having two lead guitars augmenting the sound.
Rundgren said he was a blues fan early on, and added, “We were playing Rolling Stones songs, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. It was a mishmash.” Rundgren would leave the group, however, to form The Nazz, and Woody’s Truck Stop would release their sole album in 1969.
Rundgren cited The Who to be one his major influences at the time, making note of their visual intrigue, and describing the late drummer Keith Moon “like some octopus on meth.” He made equally amusing comments about each of The Who’s members, saying, “The thing that got me about The Who was that each one of them was worth looking at.”
Rundgren pointed out the length of the Beatles hair, while speaking to the Grammy Museum audience, as well. Rundgren’s hair for the evening was in its usual state of late, a style consisting of dark brown hair with wide swatches of bleach blonde. The longtime performer looked far younger than his years. Still joking about the subject, according to Rundgren, there was much to note about the Beatles, “But more importantly, they had long hair. And you didn’t want to be in the Searchers.”
To say that at various times, Rundgren has offered himself as a visual piece of art on stage would be an understatement. Glammed out with feathers, his legendary 1973 performance on ‘Midnight Special’ solidified an image of Rundgren as a noteworthy live performer to the masses. As recently as 2009, Rundgren performed in costumes ranging from fat suits to being dressed to match the replica of his historic Gibson SG guitar known as “The Fool.” While he does not always dress up when performing, when doing so, the visuals emphasized in his shows over the decades have been on Rundgren, himself, rather than focused on a stage set. This is extremely oppositional to most male recording artists, with Rundgren having offered himself on stage as a visual prop, as well as a musician.
A wizard, a true star, Rundgren was dressed down for the event at the Grammy Museum, wearing light brown sneakers, a green jacket, blue pants, and a red shirt. The evening’s event was sponsored by American Express.
On stage, Rundgren mused about the effects that “image” had on his bands’ careers. When talking about The Nazz, he discussed the irony by noting, “We were discovered in the most non-musical way in the world.” He recalled how The Nazz “plundered players from other bands.” He disclosed, “We knew how to dress,” adding, “We went to the Town Hall to see The Who, who were opening up for the Mamas and Papas.” The Grammy Museum members and non-members present, quickly grasped the irony of one of the world’s loudest bands in the world, equipped with the power of Moon’s drumming and Townshend’s frenzied calisthenics on guitar, sharing the stage with the folky pop quartet.
Rundgren joked about the aftermath. “There’s Roger Daltrey in the bar, and he’s probably trying to chat some chicks up, and we show up,” he jested. He said his band members approached Daltrey, telling him, “We’re in the music business,” as if Daltrey would have been impressed. As fate would have it, Rundgren noted, the Mamas and the Papas’ publicist took an interest in Rundgren’s band, and shopped their demos to several record companies. Rundgren commented on the publicist’s extensive connections in the business. “We were sent to New York,” continued Rundgren. “We did live showcases in New York City, and eventually, we got signed.” Rundgren, who knew the value of a press list, said, “He even knew the editor of Tiger Beat. He joked, “He made us a national act before we wever put out a record.” He laughed, saying that rock fans had never heard any of their music, “but they knew all our likes and dislikes,” referring to the lack of intelligent rock journalism that was coming out about the group.
Rundgren said, “Within 18 months of being in the band, I was out of the band. We had all of the hype, but none of the musical satisfaction.” He recalled, “It was like (we were) the Beatles, but we didn’t have a record out.”
The singer songwriter also acknowledged, “I have really mixed feelings about the musicians union.” He talked about his early experience going to England, saying of the British tabloids, “Before you know what’s happening to you, they know what’s happening.” He continued, “We were blacklisted by the British musicians union.” Despite the musically frustrating situation he experienced in England, Rundgren stated, “We had a blast, but we made no music.” Having lived much of his life as a rock and roll fashion icon, he joked, “In London, we just shopped.”
Disgruntled by various business matters involved, Rundgren said, “I like making music. I wanted to be a record producer.” He noted his discovery of phasing techniques, such as those used on “Open my Eyes.” He said, “I had to teach a lot of engineers how to do that.” He also expressed his disdain experienced, due to the fact he felt that most producers “were just there to make sure we stayed in budget.” He contended, “Most producers were pretty much clock watchers,” making sure bands did not go over budget in the studio. He said they would just sit around in the studio. Said Rundgren, “By the time we got to the second Nazz record, I said, ‘I’ll produce that,” sarcastically adding, “I can read the trades.” It made no sense to pay someone else to produce when Rundgren wanted to make music in the studio, and he was driven by that desire.
The Nazz would break up soon afterwards.
Rundgren also opened up about working with Jesse Winchester, whose eponymous album was produced by Robbie Robertson of The Band, and was engineered by Rundgren. He talked about Ronnie Hawkins, and recordiing at the original Woodstock Theater, which at the time was in its original form. Rundgren conceded, “The sessions, to this day, were some of the strangest sessions I’ve ever done.” He noted that it was difficult to get all five of the band’s players in the same room. Discussing Garth Hudson, who Rundgren called “a genius,” he noted “he has narcolepsy.” Rundgren said, “It’s no secret.” Rundgren recalled, “He would fall asleep right in the middle of a session.” Rundgren joked that some musicians, including Levon Helm, “would fall asleep for other reasons.” He recalled, “I was making fun of them all, and they hated me.” Mused Rundgren, “Troubled artists are my specialty.”
Rundgren also went into detail about working with Badfinger, stating that British engineer Geoff Emerick had been in the studio for a year with the group. “No one at Apple (Records) was satisfied with the album,” said Rundgren. It would be Beatles guitarist George Harrison that would decide to let Rundgren take over. The multi-instrumentalist remembered that Harrison was tied up with the upcoming concert for Bangladesh. As far as the ongoing situation with the Badfinger album, Rundgren remembered, “He pretty much told me he was done with it.” Rundgren continued relating the ensuing events that followed. “We recorded some new songs, like “Take it All.” Rundgren amused the audience by relating conversations he had with Harrision, while impersonating the late Beatles’ British accent.
Among humorous comments from Rundgren were his stories about Phil Spector, who is currently serving time in prison for the murder of Lana Clarkson. Said Rundgren, “I really love Phil, but I suppose I haven’t visited him,” which elicted a large volume of laughter from those present.
The “Hello It’s Me” singer described a wild night, recording a session with Specgtor. “Jack Nizsche was the arranger. We never got to hear the song. I was one of five guitar players.” There was also a set of keyboard players. Rundgren described the elaborate set-up of musicians, and said he observed things as “Spector diddled around in the studio.” He added that Spector never ill-treated him. Rundgren acknowledged, “We never knew what the song was about. We never heard what the song was about.” Still a mystery to Rundgren, “You’ll never get to hear the song. But I got to send a night with Phil Spector,” he appreciatively recalled.
Rundgren went into depth describing what he felt were the responsibilities of engineers versus producers. In what may have been surprising to most of those who were at Rundgren’s presentation, he stated, “I was never interested in knowing any more technology than I needed to know to achieve certain things (soundwise).”
Rundgren’s “Nearly Human” was among the many topics discussed at length with Goldman.
As far as all-out, over-the-top-efforts recording albums these days, the longtime studio wizard acknowledged, “People don’t listen to albums any more. They just download singles, so what’s the point?”
The event succeeded in offering insights into his songwriting process. Rundgren’s music has always come across as heartfelt, and why that is became more and more obvious throughout the evening, while listening to Rundgren speak about his outlook. “You’re not going for getting it correct. You’re in it for getting it inspired.”
He also discussed his iconic work with Jim Steinman and the concept of Meat Loaf, which resulted in one of the biggest selling albums of all time. Rundgren commented on Steinman’s sense of humor, while exposing his own. He recalled that at the time he was first working with him, “All the press was fawning over Bruce Springsteen.” He said, “I saw Meat Loaf as a spoof on Springsteen…But here’s this big fat guy, sweating his ass off. But you get Steinman’s lyrics that can’t be taken seriously.”
Rundgren intricately discussed the dynamics of shopping Meat Loaf’s first album to record companies, and Meat Loaf’s frustration with his label. It was a fascinating and surprising story. Despite all the frustrations, Rundgren happily proclaimed, “$750,000.00, my first royalty check from Meat Loaf.”
Rundgren talked about the “mechanical” sound of music in the early ’80’s during the new wave age, and he gave a hilarious imitation of Gary Neuman’s vocals heard in the song “Cars.”
Discussing “New World Order,” Rundgren said, “I never realized how recyclable music was.” After seeing th e success of MC Hammer’s rendition of Rick James’ “Superfreak,” which became “You Can’t Touch This,” Rundgren realized that when it came to music purchasers, “They don’t insist on just one original version of an album (or song).” He then gave a short discourse on the implications of the success of mixtapes. Rundgren also commented on the fact that people were “using it (music)” in new ways, such as listening to it when working out. People were no longer just sitting next to their stereos listening to music. “That was when “The New World Order’ concept came about,” he explained.
Rundgren also went into great detail describing his ironically failed efforts to get record companies involved in making music available on demand through a music server. “They all said no. All of them.” Rundgren said the record labels refused to allow their music to be made available on demand through a server because they felt it would encourage “piracy.” Ironically, Rundgren noted, “Three years later, Napster is eating their lunch.”
Rundgren praised YouTube as “an important aspect of new artist development.”
Rundgren told joltleft.com that he will be releasing an album of dance songs in September, and that he used Auto Tune in the process. “It’s easier than recording reproductions” of vocals.” Rundgren said the album will consist of dance versions of songs he has produced. He expects it to be released in September.
During his brief performance, songs Rundgren performed on acoustic guitar were “Love Of The Common Man” and “I Don’t Want To Tie You Down.” He played “Bang On The Drum All Day,” adding a break from the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” while accompanying himself on a ukelele. Rundgren noted, “As Eddie Vedder has demonstrated, it is the hippest instrument today.”
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