Monday, November 22, 2010

Rundgren’s stint as Wells professor a boffo performance
Rundgren’s stint as Wells professor a boffo performance
By Mike Leonard 331-4368 |
November 21, 2010

Three images from rock star Todd Rundgren’s stint as a Wells Professor at Indiana University last month remain etched in my mind.

One is Rundgren conducting the Marching Hundred at the IU-Northwestern football game in a far-too-brief rendition of “Bang the Drum All Day,” a crowd favorite at arenas across the country. The good-humored Rundgren donned a drum major style of hat, and had just started to go manic, when play on the football field resumed and the song had to be cut short.

The second is a beautiful sight, really — Rundgren at center stage at magnificent Auer Hall, his arms taut and his palms open, as he put his whole body into singing the beautiful “Pretending to Care” while Christopher Young accompanied him on the spectacular “Maidee” organ.

The third image still makes me laugh. It was during a last-night-in-town jam session at the Stone Age Institute northwest of Bloomington. I’ll explain it in the words of local musician Tim O’Malley: “I never thought I’d see the day I’d be jamming out on ‘Statesboro Blues’ with Todd Rundgren using a petrified whale penis bone as a slide on my guitar neck.”

Yes, really.

The jam session that night included a variety of players ranging from guitarists O’Malley, Dave Baas, Dave England, Rundgren and the institute’s co-founder Nick Toth, to rock and roll music professors Glenn Gass and Andy Hollinden, to the aforementioned Young, who proved he can play any organ with great facility. And, no, I didn’t intend to put “whale penis bone” and “organ” in successive paragraphs — it just happened.

Singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer also performed earlier in the evening, but she didn’t have anything to do with the more raucous activity described here.

Don’t get the wrong idea. Rundgren’s visit wasn’t all fun and games, and he performed admirably as a Wells professor, according to physics professor and director of the Wells Scholars Program, Tim Londergan.

“We were really very, very pleased with Todd, and it was really great,” Londergan said. “Glenn had told me that he was unusually articulate and thoughtful about his career and his experience in the music business, and he proved to be very much so.

“Here’s a guy who took off at age 18, left home as soon as he graduated from high school, and went on to have an amazing career. He’s a very smart guy,” Londergan said.

Gass nominated Rundgren to be a Wells professor after taking a sabbatical for a year in Hawaii and getting to know the musician and producer as a neighbor. Every year, Londergan gets hundreds of nominations, the list gets pared down to 50 and a committee selects the winner.

“He’s not the only one who has not had an academic pedigree,” Londergan said. “We try very hard to make sure whoever we select gives our students a legitimate educational experience.”

Rundgren had a handful of pop hits as a performer and broke new ground through the marriage of music and technology, most notably in his band Utopia. He was clearly THE top musical producer in the 1970s, putting his stamp on music from artists including The Band, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Meat Loaf, Hall & Oates, Cheap Trick and Badfinger.

In his recital at Auer Hall, he probably surprised a few people when he talked about his musical and theater influences growing up: Gilbert and Sullivan, Stephen Sondheim, Bertolt Brecht and his favorite composer, Maurice Ravel.

Londergan laughed when he recalled that many of the Wells scholars had never heard of Rundgren, and after being advised to “Ask your parents,” they rushed in to say their parents said, “Take the class!”

“Glenn (Gass) will tell anyone who will listen that this is a guy who for various reasons hasn’t gotten the credit and the sort of lasting reputation he deserves,” Londergan said. “The student response was very, very positive. They all said they learned a lot about a lot — things they didn’t know they’d find fascinating, like when they all went out to Echo Park Studios and Todd showed them what you can do in a recording studio.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Rundgren on a couple of occasions, including that final night at the Stone Age Institute, and he told he that he had a ball in Bloomington. He said he’d never spent so much time on a college campus and certainly never felt a part of the college scene. Until now. And he said probably nothing was more impressive than interacting with the Wells scholars. “They’re just so damn smart and articulate!” I remember him saying.

They had similar things to say about the 62-year-old music impresario, whose vitae now includes Wells professor, Indiana University.
Todd Rundgren performs Oct. 31 in Auer Hall on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington. Mike Leonard | Herald-Times

Copyright: 2010

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