By Lee Zimmerman
Bad Company once sang a paean to rock and roll fantasies, but it’s doubtful the band ever imagined how those dreams might actually come to fruition, courtesy of Todd Rundgren's Musical Revival Camp. The experience, which took place the third week of July at the lovely Full Moon Resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains, certainly wasn’t lost on the fans that journeyed to those lovely environs and spent five days in the presence of a man many recognize and respect as a true rock god.
I'd have to include myself in that number, and while I made the effort not to appear star struck, restraint wasn’t necessarily required. After all, the 80 or so fans — average age: 55 — spent approximately $1,350 and up to travel here from all over the U.S. (and even as far away as Scotland) to be in Rundgren’s presence and experience the opportunity to have their lives intersect with his, and to trade quips, share a beverage and be privy to some little bit of trivia. Nevertheless, it does come with a caveat.
"Todd is very accessible," his gregarious wife, Michele, explained during dinner on Day One. "However, chances are he's not going to remember meeting you backstage in 1973."
What my wife Alisa and I were to learn was about bonding of a different sort — mainly with our fellow campers, all of whom seemed to be: 1) Exceedingly friendly; 2) Equally in awe of being there; and 3) Todd devotees of 30 to 40 years in duration. We were in good company, well stoked with anticipation, and ready for the adventure to begin.
"Welcome to your first hangover!" our host proclaimed at the start of our first full day on site. Indeed, there were those who regretted the fact that they had over indulged at the first opportunity — Pacing, people! — but happily, yours truly was not among them. Quite the opposite, in fact. I remained ready to tackle the day's opportunities with due zest and vigor. And that meant beginning the day with a brisk hike under the careful guidance of Mr. Rundgren himself. Forty of those who were similarly motivated piled into a pair of buses and headed a mile up the road to the trail head, where we commenced our walk in the woods.
Being that the rigors of the trail put us behind schedule, I had to make a rapid switch from the strenuous to the cerebral as soon as we arrived back at the camp. I had been tapped to interview guest counselor and former REM guitarist Peter Buck as part of the day’s camp activities, a role I’d assume with the other special guests in the days that followed. I took it on as one of the responsibilities that comes with being a professional journalist, or at least being someone who refers to himself as such. Plus, when the request comes from Todd's missus, the delightful Mrs. Rundgren herself (given hubby's apparent approval), one certainly makes himself available.
The interview with Mr. Buck went well, according to the subject himself, as well as those in attendance and our host himself, who, as his wife assured me, would not have allowed the proceedings to continue unless he felt I was carrying on convincingly. ("There's no need for those Wikipedia type questions," he cautioned me earlier.) Among the things we learned is that Buck seems to have little regret over the demise of REM, and that it's not only way too soon to contemplate a reunion, but that any future collaboration is doubtful, as well. Instead, Buck is focusing on his forthcoming solo debut, which will shift him into the unaccustomed role of singer. The album, he says, will initially be pressed only on vinyl, "a further way of limiting its appeal,” he insists.
I also attempted to get him to talk about his reputedly huge music collection, one said to number some 25,000 discs in all. Unfortunately, he was reticent to go into detailed, dismissing the numbers and its significance to him entirely.
The interview over, we reassembled in the adjacent lunch tent to eat our midday meal as Todd offered the first of his promised cooking lessons. Attired in the obligatory apron, he offered his secrets for preparing risotto. The fact that he had to occasionally blow his nose during his otherwise meticulous preparation seemed to be of little consequence to the onlookers, although a cautionary note was raised when his wife wisely brought him some hand cleaner. "What's the matter? My boogers aren't good enough for you?" Todd groused, feigning indignity.
I chose to spend my afternoon relaxing by the pool, and while the water was a bit too frigid for this Florida boy's liking, the offer of a brew from the South Carolina chicken farmer named Dode helped put everyone in the party spirit. Dode, it seemed, accepted the role of class clown, and being that he was once a part-time assistant/acquaintance for Slash of Guns 'n’ Roses, he was well equipped to accommodate all those in need, be it with a guitar, a brew or a catchy quip. He also served as a kind of good humor man, driving his truck to the scene of the daily pool party and dispensing with a variety of beer-type beverages.
Personally, I did my damnedest to excel at bingo that night, but I failed in repeated attempts at victory. That was regrettable, because the Todd Rundgren T-shirts offered as prizes were powerful motivation.
The evening jam session and impromptu performances that commenced that evening in the Roadhouse, our very own private music venue across the road, proved an ideal way to cap the day on an upbeat note. It was there I struck up a conversation with Robin Anderson, 16 years Ian Anderson's senior. My point of reference — my icebreaker, so to speak — was to mention the fact that I had interviewed his brother twice and that he proved a perfect gentleman both times: cordial, articulate, informative and a great interview in general. "Please give him my thanks," I urged. I don't know if the message will get through, but my hope is that sibling pride will compel him to relay it.
Ultimately, the evening took its course via the various jams that found the campers displaying their musical virtuosity. I, too, felt the compulsion to leap onstage and contribute background vocals, but alas, my shy streak got the best of me, so I reluctantly retreated, choosing instead to watch Todd jam with longtime bassist Kasim Sulton, Peter Buck, and, on one song, upcoming special guest, former Turtle Mark Volman. Later, prior to making our retreat for the evening, we briefly paused on the Roadhouse's back porch to observe Todd holding court and espousing on matters clearly related to politics and economics. Not wishing to engage in heady discussion in the aftermath of such euphoria, we wisely decided to call it a night.
Breakfast, Wednesday morning. Judging by the number of campers willing to sacrifice sleep for the day's first meal, we clearly witnessed diminished returns. "Welcome to your second morning hangover," Todd dutifully proclaimed. Indeed, in glancing around the room, it did appear to be a morning of sunglasses.
Likewise, the number of hikers turned out to be only half as many as the day before, despite the fact Todd had promised an easier go of it this time around. Indeed, it proved accommodating enough for me to make it back to camp with 10 minutes to spare prior to my scheduled interview with Mark Volman. As it turned out, Flo had been holding court on his own for the past two hours, giving many campers — and a good portion of my potential audience — enough of a spoiler to circumvent the discussion I had planned. No worries though; he was enough of a talker to give our Q&A adequate substance, what with his reminiscences about the Turtles; Flo and Eddie's subsequent success as singers for hire with Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen and T. Rex (among others); his belated college education (he graduated magna cum laude in 1997); and his current tenure as a professor of music business at Belmont University. While I got kudos from the campers, in truth, Mark is the person who made the interview special.
Chat session over, we made our way next door to the dining tent, where Todd was prepping his next cooking demonstration, which was all about sirloin steak burgers. My tasting was enough to convince me that I needed seconds, but what really had me pumped up was meeting Paul Fishkin — Todd's early mentor, trusted advisor and friend, and later, a legendary promotion exec for Todd's first major record label, Bearsville Records, prior to becoming manager and beau of Stevie Nicks. We spent the next two hours chatting in preparation for the next day’s Q&A, but judging by his obvious ability to share insights and anecdotes, I had no doubt he'd be in the same league as Mr. Volman in terms of imparting his gift for gab.
Still, I had another agenda on my mind. After witnessing my fellow campers demonstrating their daring by taking the microphone at the Roadhouse, I determined I’d overcome my reticence and fulfill my inner rock star fantasy. Consequently, I elected to stop by the afternoon band rehearsal and volunteer my read on "My Generation." Not that I thought I could ever best Roger Daltrey on The Who's signature song, mind you, but being that I was of that generation, at least in terms of sheer attitude, I figured I might be able to carry it off. Kasim, the camp's official musical counselor, led me through a run-through, and with that, I was off, giving what I ascertained to be a near perfect performance. I belted, crooned and stuttered my way through, practicing some tentative stage moves in the process. After taking the additional precaution of plying myself with alcoholic beverages, I figured that I was ready.
Naturally, things don't always go as planned, especially when one is a showbiz novice. I started off strong, prefacing my performance with a dedication to the audience before launching into the song at full steam. Sadly, I missed a cue midway through the song and then stumbled towards the end when my backing band inadvertently excised the final verse. The crowd offered a polite response but I felt somehow inadequate. Later, watching my performance on my wife’s iPad, my worst suspicions were confirmed. I looked more than a bit askew up on stage, twitching around while singing an anthem I assumed as my own. And yet, I had attained my moment in the spotlight, with none other than a truly certifiable rock star in Kasim Sulton backing me up. It was a noble experiment at very least.
Fortunately, the music only improved from that point on, although Todd's brewing cold relegated him to the role of backing musician for the campers taking their turns onstage. Everyone fared better later on, once we convened around a late night bonfire. The songs came spontaneously, with Todd and Dode on acoustic guitars and several others — yours truly among them — contributing percussion and backup vocals. It was another fantasy fulfilled. In this environment, I found myself playing cowbell and jamming with none other than Todd himself.
Todd and Michele retired early, no doubt in deference to his frayed health. They took advantage of the only visible perk that offered concession to his star presence — a golf cart, which whisked them away back to their own retreat. The rest of us lingered until well past 3 a.m.
Predictions of rain waylaid plans for further hikes and most other outdoor activities planned for Thursday, the final full day of camp. It would be a bittersweet afternoon anyway, knowing that our stay was coming to a close. With the day's plans in flux due to the dictates of Mother Nature, there seemed some uncertainty as to what was officially planned. "Make up your own activities!" Todd blurted in mock exasperation.
Nevertheless, my agenda for the day was fairly well set. For starters, I had another public Q&A planned with Paul Fishkin, who declared himself Todd's pal since 1966, when he discovered the fledgling guitarist playing with a local Philly band named Woody's Truck Stop. "It was so obvious that he was different from the rest of the band," Fishkin recalled. "He didn't do drugs like the rest of the band, and he way beyond them musically. It was obvious even then that he had something special."
For the record, Fishkin would later be inscribed in Rundgren's repertoire by becoming the subject of two early Todd tunes — "Hang On Paul" by the Nazz, and later, one of Todd’s first solo songs, "We Got To Get You a Woman" (he's the "Leroy Boy" referred to in the song's first verse).
Todd, meanwhile, opted to eschew a full cooking lesson in favor of an alcoholic concoction, one certain to make happy campers even happier. He dubbed it a "s'more-tini," a beverage that combined the traditional bonfire favorite, the s’more, with a cocktail guaranteed appeal to the sweet tooth as well as the need for inebriation.
My final interview — this with our host himself later that evening — raised my Q&A presentation to its ultimate challenge. Admittedly, I felt a bit intimidated, given that I was aware that Todd was a bit wary of the whole procedure.
"I've been answering questions all week," he insisted when I asked him about it earlier. Nevertheless, he played the good sport and indulged me and the eager multitudes as well.
"You know what not to ask," he cautioned as we got under way. I wasn't quite sure what I was supposed to know, but figured that if I avoided the so-called Wikipedia-type questions, I'd fare OK. I queried him about his approach to production ("I don't look for artists to produce. Usually that comes from the record company..."), asked about specific projects — Meatloaf, Grand Funk and XTC (of which he noted, "Just getting through it made it a success... The best part of that session was when it was over..."), and invited him to offer an unusual anecdote related to his years on the road. That turned out to be the time the boys in the band surprised their three female backing singers by greeting them in the nude when the women emerged from the back of the bus. By the time the crowd chimed in with inquiries of their own, I felt vindicated in the role bestowed upon me.
Not surprisingly, the last night at the Roadhouse would become a Kumbaya moment, beginning with Dode's poignant tribute to Todd and the camp, which he nervously performed solo on piano while bringing many to tears ("You've enjoyed the time of your life/How do you explain to your kids and your wife/Your parents, your brother, your sisters and friends/You need to spend more time with Todd Rundgren again... "). Subsequently, one camper after another took to the stage to offer individual renditions of Todd's more touching songs. The man himself took it all in from the audience, feeling pride no doubt in the keen loyalty he had inspired. Although an evening at camp couldn't go by without at least one curious incident or two — in this case, watching as one of the campers trimmed Todd’s eyebrows and sideburns — it was bittersweet. A single thought lingered over all.
Tomorrow meant goodbye.
Friday morning, and there were no more diminishing returns at breakfast. Everyone gathered dutifully to bid their farewells, offering final photos, e-mail exchanges and a last embrace.
An extraordinary week of fellowship and rock-star indulgence had come to an end all too quickly, our consolation being that the memories would last a lifetime. For me, it would offer additional solace, knowing that I had met and mingled with some of the nicest, kindest, most enthusiastic individuals I've ever ahead the pleasure of partying with.
They say that youth is all too often wasted on the young. It's worth noting, however, that it's never — ever — wasted on the young at heart.