Todd Rundgren Discusses Stardom, "Exhibitionism," and Four Decades of Rock
Carl Lender via Wikimedia Commons
When Todd Rundgren dubbed an early album A Wizard, a True Star, it might have seemed somewhat presumptuous at the time, given that his recording career was practically in its infancy. Four decades later, that title has come to sum up one of the most remarkably prolific careers in rock's vast lexicon. In fact, there's little Rundgren hasn't done, whether as a performer, producer, engineer, or video pioneer.
Indeed, since making his bow with his first band, Woody's Truck Stop, in his native Philadelphia and then creeping into the national spotlight with the Nazz, Rundgren has freely delved into a dizzying array of musical pursuits — from pop to prog, rock to retro, and almost everything in between. He scored hits on his own and produced them for others: Badfinger, Meat Loaf, and Patti Smith, to name only a few. He also helmed the experimental outfit Utopia while occasionally taking the opposite tack as part of Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band.
"The more music you write, the more likely you are to repeat yourself, and that's the actuality for most artists," Rundgren insists. "But I didn't approach music as a performer, which is what lots of other people do. They figure out afterwards what kind of music they want to make."
Still, at age 65, he remains as ambitious as ever. After a wildly diverse spate of recent releases, with last year's State, he revisited the synthesized setups and exotic experimentation that defined his work with Utopia, as well as selected solo efforts such as Individualist and Nearly Human. Yet, after establishing himself with the signature soft-rock style represented in early staples like "Hello It's Me," "I Saw the Light," and "Can We Still Be Friends," he could have just as easily forsaken any attempts at experimentation and reaped the rewards that pop superstardom offered.
"I wanted to do a bit of both and to satisfy myself," Rundgren reflects. "When I got comfortable enough with my so-called solo career, I was immediately wanting to put a band together so I could do the kind of music that bands do, that thing where the responsibility is spread around more, and I could simplify my role, in a sense. I'd have that opportunity to perform and develop as a performer in the context where I wouldn't be judged alone for what I'd be doing."
That philosophy has led to the live performances for which Rundgren is well known — energetic, occasionally outlandish, and frequently explosive. "I found it was kind of easy for me to develop musical ideas and get them recorded and very difficult for me to take them out on the road and do them in front of people. That was the challenge of my career, because it didn't come naturally to me — that sort of exhibitionism that comes with performance. If you wanted to do that, you couldn't just stand up there and sound like the Who. You had to be flailing and on the verge of falling over the edge of the stage — daring behavior to essentially elevate the live experience beyond simply re-creation of the music."
Inevitably, Rundgren admits, there are those who come to hear certain songs, and if he doesn't do them, some might be disappointed. "I realize that I can't [satisfy everyone], and if I try to, it probably doesn't satisfy anyone fully," he says. "But I think, also, I've conditioned at least the hard core of my audience not to have particular expectations when they first see a tour. It doesn't mean I'm not going to change everything we do, but the nature of the show is not necessarily guaranteed, and the only thing I guarantee is that we will put our best effort into it."
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