Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Article: The Republic : catching up with Todd Rundgren
the Republic
Catching up with Todd Rundgren
By ROD LOCKWOOD - Toledo Blade March 29, 2011 - 11:53 am

Long ago, Todd Rundgren understood how the music industry works -- if your music sells, you're gold. If it doesn't, step aside for the next pretty face. He's never whined or embarrassed himself with pathetic attempts to maintain commercial relevance in the face of a market that's not so welcoming to his brand of creative expression.

Instead, Rundgren stayed busy.

This is an artist who has recorded some of the most enduringly popular blue-eyed soul ballads of his time -- "Hello, It's Me," "Can We Still Be Friends," "I Saw the Light," "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference" -- while at the same time creating a series of epic synthesizer-heavy prog workouts that spanned entire album sides and were inaccessible to all but the most devoted Todd acolytes.

He produced seminal records by anti-establishment icons like Patti Smith, the New York Dolls and Janis Joplin. He also produced albums for pop stars Shaun Cassidy, Meat Loaf (including the massive hit "Bat Out Of Hell") and the Cars. Rundgren predicted the demise of the music industry a good 20 years before file-sharing came along. He was one of the first people to incorporate computers and video into the music, and basically was an early adapter to virtually every technological breakthrough that has occurred in the business over the past 40 years.

Rundgren has recorded hard rock, big pop hits (most notably "Bang on the Drum All Day," but also "Just One Victory" and "Real Man"), concept albums, bossa nova covers of his own work, soul music, jazz, and classical. His soon-to-be-released "Reproductions" features dance versions of some the songs he produced for other artists.

He's done it all while staying fundamentally cool. His hair is still dyed weird colors, he lives in what appears to be paradise in Hawaii and on one of his most recent tours to promote the "Liars" album he was resplendent in a crimson suit, cutting James Brown moves on the concert stage and ripping away on the guitar.

On the phone to talk about his latest tour, Rundgren was expansive and friendly. As expected, he's thoughtful and given to careful consideration of questions.

For example, here is his take on why musicians are such Todd fans. (Find any musician who came of age and played popular music in the '60s, '70s or '80s at any level. Odds are, he or she will gush over Rundgren.)

"I have not at some point been untrue to my own musical goals. I knew that I had a musical identity regardless of what kind of style of music was happening and I would go in and out of the shadows and make brief appearances in the light of day and then have to go back to toiling in the shadow of (the) Lady Gagas," he said.

"I think the temptation sometimes to pander is so great for musicians because failure represents not just simply that this record didn't do well, but an artist realizes that if you don't at some point gain the attention of the audience, then you will have to find something else to do. You can make music, but it will be in your bedroom, alone."

Youth defines the recording industry, which is why physical products such as records and compact discs have faded while MP3 and digital files are the more prevalent format. Think about it: Generally, how do young people choose to listen to music? Are they plugging a relatively cheap iPod into their ears and creating an individualized listening experience, or are they putting an album on and sitting down in front of speakers and sharing the music with others?

"Pretty much after the CD, that's when (record companies) started to lose control because that's when it all went ephemeral after that," Rundgren said.

"It's more about the way people listen to music. The youngsters, the core of the music audience -- the people who have a disposable income to spend on going to see their bands and buying their bands' music and other merchandise -- the industry has always understood that that's the domain of people 30 and under. Because after that, the greater majority of the audience is getting married and having to settle down and all that disposable income they had becomes their kids' allowance. Then their kids buy the music they want and the older you get, the less music you buy."

Rundgren doesn't have a problem with any of this. He embraces it and noted that being able to sell physical copies of music is a relatively new phenomenon compared to the history of music in general. Humans have been banging on drums all day and performing for each other for millennia. They've only been recording and selling it for about a hundred years.

"There are certainly reasons to complain because we're being made more responsible in a way. In other words, the gravy-train aspect of the music business -- like getting paid a couple hundred thousand dollars to make a crappy record that doesn't sell -- is gone," Rundgren said.

"Now we have to work harder for essentially the same amount of money and how is that different than anybody else these days? So I don't particularly give a lot of credence to the complaining. My answer is that you're still lucky to be doing this rather than something way more boring for a living."

For Rundgren, performance is the essence of being a musician, and he said he will tour and play live until he "has one foot in the grave."

The shows were selected and promoted by the folks who run the "Internet Rundgren Radio Show." The themed concerts started two years ago with the presentation of the album "A Wizard, A True Star" and they polled fans on what complete albums they wanted Rundgren to perform. The most recent result was "Todd." The more obscure "Healing" was added by Rundgren as a gift to his hard-core fans.

Rundgren said fans can expect faithful renditions of the songs.

"I'm not beyond making minor changes to things, but I don't think that's the object. People aren't interested in listening to brand-new versions. They're interested in listening to the originals because for some of them there's an element of reminiscence in there," he said.

"They get transported back to their youth and the kind of music they listened to and the events they would go to when they were younger."

Just don't expect Rundgren to go on a never-ending "Todd" and "Healing" tour.

"For me, life's too short to just keep repeating yourself all the time. A lot of people think, 'OK, I'm out of school now, I don't have to learn anything.' I always thought that when you stop learning things, that's the first sign of death.

"That's when you start dying -- when you stop learning. I've always felt that certainly with the music and every other aspect of my life. I need to absorb other ideas, I need to ruminate on them, I need to create new ideas or I feel like I've given up and the next step is (to) die."

(Contact Rod Lockwood at rlockwood(at)

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