New Again: Todd Rundgren

By and
Photography SCAVULLO

Published February 18, 2014

’70s rock and roll sensation Todd Rundgren, a prolifically diverse artist known for his sometimes multicolored and always long hair, is releasing a new album this summer. Titled Runddans, the record is a collaboration between Rundgren, Norwegian producer Hans-Peter Lindstrøm, and Emil Nikolaisen, the frontman of the Oslo-based alternative rock band Serena-Maneesh. We’re not quite sure how the album will turn out—while Rundgren leans towards psychedelic pop-rock, Lindstrøm’s interests lie more in disco and electronica, and Nikolaisen’s (self-proclaimed) sound is “rock-‘n’-roll chamber of magic.” We imagine, however the album will continue to do what Todd Rungren does best: push musical boundaries, confuse critics, and make a strong impression.

In September of 1973, coming off the release of his career-defining albums Something/Anything? and A Wizard, a True Star, Interview sat down with the then up-and-coming artist in his West Village brownstone. His hair was orange and green, he was coming to terms with his newfound stardom, and he expressed a wish be become involved in “everything.” This upcoming album certainly seems to fit under that category.

Todd Rundgren

He’s tall and lank and dresses to kill and thrill, and his once brown hair is now shades of green and orange and in personal brief encounters at Max’s Kansas City’s back room or at the best rock and roll parties, Todd Rundgren joyously walks around like some kid out way past curfew.

At a recent party for Van Morrison, Glen Frey of the Eagles saw Todd and thought he was a “56 Dodge.”

But there is more to Todd Rundgren than meets the eye and even perhaps the ears of many record listeners.

According to Todd, music per se is not his work, which is certainly a surprise to those of us who have followed Todd’s development from age 18 to a current 24 years as producer, engineer, or arranger for such disparate talents as Jesse Winchester, The Band, Ian and Sylvia’s Great Speckled Bird, Badfinger, James Cotton, Paul Butterfield, and most recently, producer for Grand Funk Railroad and the New York Dolls, not to mention Todd’s own records as Nazz, Runt, or Todd Rundgren.

“The idea of making music my work wasn’t ever really a conscious decision and it isn’t my life’s work now. I had to move generally in a certain direction and my facility at that point happened to be music,” says Todd, beginning to get into Interview‘s interview.

It’s 2 a.m. in the morning and Todd has just arrived at his new brownstone on Horatio Street deep in the heart of the West Village. With him, of course, is his ever-present adoring and beautiful girlfriend Bebe [Buell]. And their pet dog. They’ve just moved in and there’s no furniture anywhere so the three of us sit on the bed. “I’m always on the road,” is the way Todd “apologizes” for the naked décor. “We don’t even have a stereo here yet!”

Todd curls up on the bed and continues. “It wasn’t until years later that I realized what I was doing didn’t particularly involve music. It just happened I was doing it in music, but the music wasn’t the important part. I’m just into a media thing. I equate every thing that comes into me into a media formula.

“Media is people trying to affect other people, which is what people do constantly. Very rarely are people satisfied not to affect anybody. The greatest power you can have is the power of media and the ability to use it in the way you want. Ostensibly, the reason people run for public service is because they feel they have the capability to do public service, although that’s not necessarily true today.

“Personally, when I see this stiff in the White House do the things he does, my frustration is that I’d be willing to do that job in a way related to all people, and not just a small circle of friends. I’d be able to bring a whole different attitude to politics, if that was what I wanted to get involved with, and one day I eventually will be involved in it.

“Television is another incredible instrument, but it’s a mess. Any clod can get on it. I think I have a facility to deal with people that some people feel are difficult to deal with. It’s dealing with a group of people through your so-called public image and the records you put out. People write me letters and say I should answer them. But I don’t like to answer letters. I don’t write letters. I’ve never written my mother one.”

But Bebe claims to have received one letter from Todd in England. “Letters to me are too finite. I make records. The music seems to give the works added longevity. The music seems to make the words pertinent every time you hear it. That’s why I can’t get into poetry. The works just seem to be a finite thing and saying them over again just seems to make them less valuable every time. Music seems to make it more valuable.”

What about his hair? It’s the question everyone seems to ask Todd, the way other people are asked how they are. Todd will grin, give a sincere, if brief answer, and only after the questioner has gone off into the crowd will Todd, bemused, say aloud, “Everyone asks me how I got this hair. I bleached it. How do they think I got it?”

But “why?” “It’s part of my total concept behind rock and roll, which goes beyond just bleaching my hair. When the Beatles first came out, you had to go to a certain amount of trouble to have long hair. You just couldn’t have it immediately. Anything you can just go out and get—like platform shoes—is not going to inspire people as much as something they have to go through a little bit of hell to have. They all have long hair, but if a kid goes into his house with orange and green hair, his mother is going to scream at him. I don’t see why human beings, given the imagination and the capabilities they have, must limit themselves to stop at a certain point.”

Todd’s imagination goes on much more than any daily minimal requirement. A short lived, but ambitious tour several months ago was cancelled after just two weeks on the road. The show itself had all the right “spiritual” ideas, but not the best “material” concerns says Todd. A more thought out, better planned version will begin in October.

In this night and age of outlandish physical presentations a la David Bowie and Alice Cooper, Todd feels that “for Bowie, the songs are a background for a theatrical presentation rather than a musical one. I was affected more by Bowie’s first tour than his second one. There was a unity of purpose. Prior to that, I was doing a vaudeville troupe thing where I went out with a mime troupe. I decided that if you’re going out to live, you should try to make an impression… particularly me, because I have no particular live style yet because I rarely play live.

“I decided to take the theatrical to almost ridiculous extremes. Alice and David really break the illusion at a certain point. It seems to leave the realm of strict theater. Once I go on stage, the atmosphere is totally theatrical. The greater the illusion, the greater the intensity of the excitement it creates.”

A Wizard, a True Star is the title of Todd’s most recent effort, and it was a very special and challenging record for Todd, and his fans too. “I’ve always tried to make an album that would frustrate critics to the point that they couldn’t review it.” A Wizard, a True Star was almost that album. Not a commercial success, and a critical puzzlement, Todd used the words “a true star” in the title because “I’m looking for the true fans.

“This album really puts people to the test as to whether they are really following what I’m into or not. A lot of people were into my music because they were very self-satisfied by what the music represented to them. It was like Unguentine to them and satisfied a certain need, but I don’t think it brought them anything more than that. Some people get indignant over the new album because I didn’t do pretty little melodies or harmonies. I wanted to see how many people could take something different. Kids can be just like old people in not wanting to change anything. They want to keep things the same way, and that’s the worst thing that can happen to people.”

What does the word “star” mean to Todd? “The opposite of fan, since one doesn’t exist without the other. One decides who is who. There being a choice, I’d prefer to be a star. I always try to improve the mistakes I made before and try to do it better until it’s the best, and the best is up and the superstar is up, so I’m going up, and whatever is up and whatever the people up there are called, I’m going up. I just can’t help it.”

But Todd is also aware of the traps and false comforts of “stardom.” “I’m always prepared for any kind of weirdness that may arise from it. The most important thing to me is to be happy and have a good time. Many find out that when they become a star the miserable things become more miserable. They have to pretend to not be miserable and over-compensate for their problems. They go crazy.”

With a candor quite poignant, Todd continues, “I’ve never been able it give up certain things that you have to give up to become a star, such as eliminating the more frayed aspects of my personality and becoming a unified thing and representing one thing as much as David or Alice represent one thing. I’ve never been able to play it straight. I always end up acting like a kid, of blowing it and giggling. I don’t take it seriously enough to act like I’m supposed to act. If I had an audience with the Queen, I’d giggle through the whole thing.”

On almost any given night, Todd and Bebe can be found in the back room of Max’s Kansas City where night people stare and star watch. Heads turn when Todd walks in. “Max’s is like the high school cafeteria. I’m objective about attention drawn to me. I know when people are looking at me or want to or are talking behind my back. When I’m consciously eliciting it, I get satisfaction out of it because I like to up the energy level in the room if I can sometimes. Sometimes I ignore it. I got so used to being stared at in high school with long hair that I conditioned myself to stop reacting. When I’m paying attention, it’s not a surprise to me, and if you’re going to Max’s back room, it’s the name of the game.”

Currently Todd is in the odd position of having “Hello It’s Me” just released as a single in America and “I Saw The Light” as a recent chart hit in England. Both songs are from his Something/Anything album, which is nearly two years old. What’s Todd’s reaction to this time delay? “I don’t want to hear about it. When they told me they were going to release “Hello It’s Me” I told them I didn’t want to hear it. If I get a gold record, they can slip it under my door. I don’t know what to do.”

Unlike his earlier albums, which were recorded in record-breaking time, Todd has been at work on Todd for the last several months. “I think it will be more accessible. The last album established a new language for me. Now that I’ve established the language, I will begin to discuss important matters,” Todd laughs.

The new album will, he hopes, further break down the separation of ballads and rock numbers. One of the things that seems to bother Todd most is a certain fear of being loved or admired only as a writer of “pretty” songs. If he kept writing those, he’d be a teen idol for sure. Perhaps as a reaction against this possibility, Todd included on his A Wizard, a True Star album some rock numbers that were quite strident and cacophonous. “I think the new album contains a sound that is unique, and that others won’t be able to copy. My only obligation now is to try to create it live,” and Todd will go on a short tour of major cities in October. This time, much more attention is being paid to picking the people who will go out with Todd.

Todd’s services as a producer are constantly in demand. He’s considered by many to be the best producer in America—a wizard, if you will. “I enjoy producing others albums sometimes. It depends on the response we get once we get started. I have to like the group or see possibilities for them. I can usually recognize the essence of their style and the framework they can work in.”

At this moment Grand Funk Railroad is enjoying a huge success with their just released We’re An American Band album and single that Todd produced. “That was easy. That was great. I wish I could do that all the time. My attitude about Grand Funk before going into the studio was kind of neutral. Good or bad, I felt that they had never been recorded properly.

As for The Dolls album, Todd laughs, “That wasn’t really a desire of mine to do. It was a real hometown boys scene. It was much more effort than Grand Funk.”

In the future, Todd wants to be involved in “everything.” “I want to be known as a professional weirdo. There aren’t many Salvador Dalis or Buckminster Fullers left. If I become popular enough, I can establish the next step for records. People can read this and say I’m full of shit, but if I actually do it, I’m not full of shit, and everyone will be happy and that’s what is important.”

THIS ARTICLE INTIALLY APPEARED IN THE SEPTEMBER 1973 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW. 

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