By Ken Sharp
The Individualist bears a title apt for a musical iconoclast who has steered his 50 year career with stubborn independence and uncompromising artistic vision battling the “Blue Meanies” of the music industry.
Todd Rundgren's brilliant autobiography carves an illuminating window into his psyche, chronicling snapshots of his life with disarming candor and incisive reflection. A troubled childhood, musical adventures as a groundbreaking artist and producer, the use of psychedelics as a creative tool, personal relationship struggles that nearly upend him, the meeting of soul mate/wife Michele Rundgren juxtaposed against an ongoing relentless spiritual quest makes Todd’s autobiography compelling reading and a top contender for music book of the past year.
How does being a self-described "The Individualist" paint a picture of you from childhood to the present?
Todd Rundgren: Well, first of all as caveat, I’ve been an individualist all of my life but it actually ends to 20 years ago. (laughs) But that was the most interesting part of my life I guess. After I turned 50 I settled into being a parent and working more steadily on the road so things got less interesting. But I don’t what people’s expectation are when you’re writing an autobiography because I haven’t done it before and I haven’t read a lot of other people’s life stories, I figure you’re gonna get some mixture of actual revelation and then probably a good dollop of manipulation (laughs) because it is your own story and you’re allowed to tell it anyway you want. I just devised this conceit that would guide me through the process of it so it didn’t devolve into a bunch of blathering. Essentially I had to select significant moments in my life and try and separate out the emotional aspect of them and just tell the story. And then essentially my reaction to either remembering the story of whatever it is that I remember emotionally going through it just so those aspects weren’t sort of competing with each other. People often when they’re telling a story are reliving it emotionally and that can sort of color your recollections so I tried to keep things separate so that the actual occurrences had some factual basis to them (laughs) and they weren’t like what I hoped had happened.
But you always felt like an outsider in a way guiding your own life’s journey?
In that sense yeah. I have no objectivity about the way my thought process differs from anybody else’s but it’s just that I see the world often in those sort of terms. I see my emotional reactions to what happens around me as something separate from the actual reality of what’s going on. Often you don’t really process what’s happened until sometime after the fact but I’m constantly trying to figure out what lessons life is trying to teach me while I’m experiencing it.
You described working on the book as “homework,” what were the most difficult passages to write about and were there any reactions about your life that you hit upon while delving deep into your past?
Well, the hardest things to write about are always your own failures, your failures and shortcomings. Everybody has them and nobody wants to talk about them (laughs) so I think again separating the events from the emotions surrounding the events helped me to sort of objectivize that in a way. If I just kind of document my own actions it can almost become apparent what it is that is motivating me. Sometimes I realize accurately what’s going on and why I’m making the decisions I’m making and sometimes I may kid myself about it and only realize in some sort of retrospect. So it’s an attempt to educate myself as well as well the reader in terms of what my true motivations might have been or what I might have done differently without at the same time getting into a regretful situation because you can’t undo the stuff that you’ve done already.
You came from an unhappy childhood like many. Much of your music hinges on profound beauty. Do you think crafting beautiful music, beautiful melodies was way to attain transcendence over darkness of your upbringing?
Well, I sort of wonder. There’s a theory that truly happy people can’t be creative (laughs) because nobody identifies with them. The kind of music that I chose to make was reflective of how I felt. I was always attracted to the more romantic and vulnerable revelatory expressions where people are really trying to be honest with you. It may be only something that you’re only trying to do but at least you’re trying. You may not actually be capable of full honesty with yourself but at least you’re not hiding your emotions or pretending that you’re not feeling something. I’ve always been attracted I guess to artists like that and art that reflects that. In that sense yeah, you could say that unhappy people make the bets art (laughs) because they’re easier to identify with. People who are happy and jolly all the time and nothing ever seems to bother them I have a hard time identifying with.
You revel in your memory of seeing The Who and Cream at a Murray The K package show in 1967 at the RKO Theater in New York City. How did seeing The Who impact upon you as an artist and in terms of putting on a show?
Well, at the time we didn’t have MTV so we didn’t see the bands perform that much if they hadn’t come on tour in the States. There weren’t a lot of videos and there weren’t a lot of video outlets for showing you what was going on in England in particular. So to actually see The Who in the flesh was amazing, even though I had read about their antics, but to actually see a band like The Who in the flesh for the first time was really revelatory. It wasn’t just the fact that they smashed their instruments up (laughs) it was that they had elevated the presentation to something else. You were used to The Beatles tapping their feet and smiling but that was about it. That was as much show business that they put on.
Do you think seeing The Who and being impressed with their visual presentation impacted on the manner in which you conceived your live presentation, especially with Utopia’s Ra tour?
It certainly was an element but there were other acts who were trying to be equally outrageous in terms of their presentation like The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown with his flaming headdress and flying in on a wire. Half the time he’d crash into an amplifier and that would be the end of the show (laughs). But yeah, that idea of upping the ante, I think British musicians had more of theatrical music hall background. It came a lot more naturally to British musical acts to add theatrics into what they were doing. I remember seeing Genesis early on when Peter Gabriel was still in the band and he essentially had a little podium and he would sink down behind the podium and put on a different costume or hat or put makeup on, something like that and pop up and do a song and then disappear behind the podium again and come out in another guise after that (laughs). And as simple as it was it was more than any American acts were doing. The most theatrical thing that any American act did was Jim Morrison falling dead during “The Universal Soldier” (laughs) and just lying there on the stage for five minutes.
You've always been a major fan of Eric Clapton as a guitar player. You didn't write about this in the book but what was the experience like when you jammed with him onstage at Madison Square Garden in July 13, 1974 on "Little Queenie" playing his "Blackie" Fender Strat to boot.
Well, it was terrific high to start with but as soon as I got out there I broke a string before the song had barely begun. Eric gave me his guitar to play; that was the amazing thing about it. He was generous enough and unconcerned about how many notes he was gonna play or anything like that (laughs). He just reflexively handed me his instrument and that was a real high. I’ve always known him to be a really nice guy and remarkably so considering what a career he’s had. And yeah, that was another great moment for a big fan boy. (laughs)
You’re notorious for never doing the same thing again with your career. In the book you state, “I always gravitate for the less obvious,” can you trace the genesis of your refusal to conform to convention?
Well, I was fortunate in that I got into record production very early on; as a matter of a fact before I had a career of my own. I did quite well at it so that freed me from the economic burdens that a lot of musicians go through. I guess most people want to find something that is sort of dependable and identifiable that they can sort of brand and will satisfy audience expectations. Then you sort of build a career around that. But every time I would make a record it was a new liberating experience because I was making it for myself. I wasn’t making in in accordance with what somebody else’s criterion. I did that plenty enough when I would produce other people so every record for me was an opportunity to experiment and I didn’t have to worry about my economic well- being. After a while I felt that was almost a responsibility I had ‘cause not everyone was in my position; not everyone had the luxury of making a living at something else or something closely related and having to survive solely on your own output.
In your book you share that you're "hard to be impressed" by anyone but one of those people was the popular radio personality Wolfman Jack. Who else in your life actually impressed you as a person?
I met George Martin at one point and realized in meeting him that there was no direct connection between us but the fact that he redefined in everybody’s mind what a producer was made it possible for me to become successful as a record producer. I believe I met him at a party celebrating Grand Funk‘s “We’re An American Band’” going platinum or something. So George impressed me and always has. He’s very gentlemanly and obviously quite musically knowledgeable. What he did for The Beatles was impressive, from first of all recognizing the potential in the band and then granting them the freedom to go where they needed to go in terms of their evolving musical life. So I was always impressed with him and getting to meet him briefly was a terrific experience. As mentioned, I’m an insular person so I don’t go out of my way often to meet people and I don’t hang so much in the social milieus where you would meet a lot of people. Since I moved to Kauai if I’m not on the road working I’m just at home holed up. (laughs) I don’t even go out of the house when I’m at home. One other person came to mind and I didn’t get to meet him but Burt Bacharach came to my show the other night in San Luis Obispo (California) and he apparently stayed for almost the whole thing, that was great but I was just sorry that I didn’t get to meet him because he’s one of my all-time musical heroes.
There are many passages in your book about your travels around the world. How did that experience out of your comfort zone impact on you as a person, artist and affect your worldview?
Well, it’s different world now than it was then. A lot of the places that I went then you can’t go to any more like Iran and Afghanistan or you shouldn’t go there. (laughs) But at the time I had a lot of questions about the veracity of various claims of mysticisms in Asia and other places in the Middle East. I was interested to experience it first-hand. That’s just kind of the way I react to things. People like to talk about things that they have not fully experienced as if they had and I like to be able to speak with some authority (laughs) if the topic comes up. But more importantly than that I have a certain confidence about things that other people may not. It’s like almost no one I know had gone and existed by themselves in the Muslim world ergo they have no idea what Muslims are really like. So it’s helped me keep a cool head when people get crazy (laughs) about these things. People get crazy about Muslims nowadays but I have had first-hand experience. I know there’s people’s motivations; you’re brought up in a certain religious traditions but most people don’t take that seriously because they’ve never fully considered anything else (laughs) So people within those things aren’t naturally good or bad or anything else; they’re just all varieties of good and bad and all varieties of wise and ignorant in the things that they profess to believe in and I had a chance to confirm that.
In the book, you write about being on your travels and you’re in Kathmandu and you heard a fully formed song idea and having no access to an instrument you had to visually conjure the keyboard and the chord voicings. Do you recall what song it was and did you nail its essence once you were back home?
Yeah, I think it was a song called “Lost Horizon.” I was in Kathmandu (Nepal) and it was having that effect on me; the air was very thin and clear. As far as capturing the song itself, I think I did a pretty good job of it. It wasn’t the entirety of the song but once I had the kernel of it I could flesh it out later.
With Utopia, particularly the latter day band, while you were leading the charge, a democracy seemed to exist within the band with other members also stepping to the fore as writers for the collective good of the unit. What made that lineup work so well for many years both as a live act and in the studio?
Yeah, there was a good sort of variety of approaches we had too; not everyone had the same strengths and not everyone had the same preferences in terms of music when they would write for themselves. So it was combination of things that tempered it out and ultimately defined the sound of the band which was like alt-pop. We could play that progressive rock because that’s where we came from but in the end we became more and more song oriented. Prog-rock was no longer a viable genre (laughs) by the time we got to the early '80s so we adept with changing times and the fact that everyone had slightly different tastes and different levels of experience actually was an asset for the band.
In your career, you’ve written your share of mind-blowing chord changes. Knowing you might give a different answers tomorrow, what song would you pick that is blessed with some of your personal favorite chord changes?
Well, I don’t have the same kind of objectivity about it that someone who was not involved in the writing would have but I would think that a song like “Can We Still Be Friends?” has something about it because so many other artists tried to cover it. Robert Palmer did it, Rod Stewart did it and Colin Blunstone did it and God knows who else did it but there must be something about it that other artists hear that attract them to it. It must be something about the chord changes because the words are not ridiculously intellectual or anything. (laughs) But at the same time the structure isn’t conventional and the changes aren’t conventional. There’s a musician called Peter Schickele, he goes by the name of P.D. Q. Bach and one of the things that he would do is take typical musical structures that induce you to think they’re going a certain place and then he’d purposefully go some other way with it. That always amused me a lot and in some ways informs the way that I write songs. I don’t like them to have necessarily a conventional structure or even resolve in the way that songs usually do that make you sort of feel this is the end of one section and the beginning of another section.