Hello, It's Him

As Todd Rundgren returns to town, one writer looks back at the critical favorite's career

To tell the truth, I was never quite sure whether the title of Todd Rundgren's 1973 album, A Wizard, a True Star, was supposed to be ironic. But it's likely his most fanatic followers—some of whom were known to solemnly intone "Todd is God"—bought into it. I was convinced that Runt, the name under which he performed for his first two solo albums, was meant to be cheeky. And it was pretty clear that the title of 1983's The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect was meant to be satirical and self-deprecating.

It seems as if at every turn of Rundgren's career, the singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer and innovator has done something to surprise and/or confound listeners. He's enjoyed Top 40 hits but he also seems to want to stretch boundaries.

And his fans have followed his activities, straying sometimes, but always fascinated. Many of us were 1970s teenagers who, in true music-geek fashion, would devour every liner note, dig historically into back catalogs, pore over deep cuts and learn personnel changes as if they were baseball box scores.

Rundgren, who wasn't available for an interview when I wrote this story, has forged a career that seems custom-made for this kind of cultish fan.

The Pennsylvania-born Rundgren's first recordings in the late 1960s were with the Anglophile band the Nazz, but soon he fell under the spell of the folk- and soft-rock style, especially the music of Carole King and Laura Nyro. He loves the intricate genius in the music of the Beach Boys and the Beatles, like lots of us, and has recorded detailed homages to them. He's also well known for his love of Motown and Philly soul, and has often performed accordingly.

He has embraced psychedelia, hard rock, proto-metal and, especially with his band Utopia, progressive rock. He has worked with seminal punk-rockers and new-wavers, and inspired a whole generation of power-pop artists. He's also recorded an album of bossa nova versions of his most popular tunes, as well as a tribute to blues giant Robert Johnson.

Rundgren worked with some of the earliest synthesizers and often has moonlighted in the realm of electronic music. His latest album, State (released in April), is a solid example of EDM-influenced rock. He plays almost all of the instruments on the album and flirts with styles such as synth-pop, dubstep, techno and industrial. His eccentric sense of humor is intact, too, on cuts such as "Ping Me," "Angry Bird," "Collide-A-Scope" and "Sir Reality." Almost as if to prove his versatility, an expanded edition of the album includes a second disc containing a 2012 live set in Amsterdam, where Rundgren was backed by the Metropole Orchestra.

He's also been a visionary in the zone where music crosses over to other media. He has developed custom software, established websites and incorporated interactive video into his releases, and composed occasional TV and movie soundtracks. He founded a site called PatroNet, through which consumers could buy music directly from the artists, eliminating the record company. Such an arrangement is common now, but that was in 1996.

When it comes to hits, his songs range from inspiring ("Hello, It's Me," "I Saw the Light," "Can We Still Be Friends?") to novelty ("Bang the Drum All Day"). I love his inspirational numbers, such as "Just One Victory" and "Love Is the Answer," but I'm also a Rundgren fan who likes the artsy stuff from Utopia just as much. To this day, Utopia's albums Ra and Oops! Wrong Planet (which it could be successfully argued are as bloated as they are brilliant) are among my not-so-guilty pleasures. They give me as much joy as Rundgren's more accepted solo masterpieces, such as Something/Anything? or Hermit of Mink Hollow.

In addition to his work as a recording artist and songwriter, Rundgren also has made an indelible mark on popular music by producing albums for many other artists. Around 1970, he became an in-house producer and engineer for Bearsville Studio and its namesake record label, founded by Albert Grossman. And he has continued producing, parallel to his own musical career, during the decades since.

Some listeners may be surprised to learn that Rundgren was behind the board on many memorable albums. Often, he produced albums that have come to be considered the best by that respective artist.

A short list of his production credits includes Grand Funk Railroad's We're an American Band, Badfinger's Straight Up, the New York Dolls' debut album, the Tubes' Remote Control, Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell, XTC's Skylarking, Patti Smith's Wave, the Psychedelic Furs' Forever Now and Daryl Hall and John Oates' obscure but brilliant War Babies, a sci-fi-influenced, hard-rock concept album.

Rundgren also has worked—either as a producer or engineer—with Cheap Trick, the Band, Janis Joplin, Jesse Winchester, James Cotton, Felix Cavaliere, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, the Pursuit of Happiness, Shaun Cassidy, Sparks, Bad Religion, Steve Hillage, Jill Sobule, What Is This? and the Tom Robinson Band.

When it comes to odd detours, not even serious Todd fans could have predicted that he would, in 2005, partner with two members of the Cars (Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes) to form the New Cars, which played a lot of classics by the original new-wave act. The group—which also included longtime Rundgren collaborators bassist Kasim Sulton and drummer Prairie Prince—recorded only one album.

I never even saw Rundgren perform live until last year. I did buy a pair of tickets to his 1980 concert at what was then called the Tucson Community Center, but had to give them up to attend a Boys State meeting. I was envious when the schoolmate to whom I sold the tickets found himself in the ideal position to catch a guitar pick that Rundgren tossed into the audience.

So, it wasn't until an April 2012 concert at the Rialto Theatre that I finally got to see him, and I enjoyed the show thoroughly. My review ran in these pages, and I noted that despite having a terrible head cold and being in temporarily poor voice, Rundgren gave an entertaining and energetic performance. It helped that Sulton and Prince also played.

On the other hand, my best friend since childhood admitted last week that he did not care for that Rundgren concert at all.

My friend—who probably spoke in confidence, so I will not use his name here—has been a professional musician for more than 25 years and is perhaps a more passionate Todd fan than I am. He found fault with Rundgren that night for the quality of his voice, the overall performance, his song choices and even his attire. My friend and I don't always see eye to eye, but most of the time I respect his opinions about music. As they say, opinions are like bellybuttons: Everybody has one.

But, seeing as I liked Todd so much when he was under the weather, I am looking forward to hearing him play this weekend when he's feeling better.

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