Earlier this year, singer-guitarist Todd Rundgren embarked on a 2019 concert/book tour that will bring him to the Ohio Theatre
on Sunday, May 5, and Monday, May 6.
The tour supports Rundgren’s autobiography, The Individualist: digressions, dreams and dissertations
, and the show's setlist will feature songs from the inception of his musical career through 1996. The performances will also include segments during which Rundgren will tell the stories behind the songs.
In this recent phone interview, he talks about his storied career.
Talk about the various challenges you faced in writing this book.
It’s probably easier than if I had taken a more conventional approach. A lot of that is reflective of how I consume media, which is usually not in huge chunks but in smaller pieces. Whenever I see a book, and it’s 300 pages long, I think, “Am I going to like this and how much do I need to read to know if I like it?” I wanted a book where you could open it anywhere and start reading get some idea about the approach and the style and whether the content is interesting to you.
I like the fact that so much of it isn’t about music.
There have already been a few books that cover the musical part. There was no point in me going over that ground again. Paul Myers book about productions is pretty comprehensive and Billy James book covers a lot of stuff as well. It wasn’t necessary for me to go over that again. I wanted to talk about the stuff that I don’t normally talk about or that had never been documented before.
You write that early in your life you played Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town,” but your performance wasn’t very well received. What kept you interested in music despite that lukewarm reception?
That particular episode was me trying to establish some worth in the social pecking order. I was showing people that I could play the guitar and not everyone could do that. That was my attempt at impressing my peers. In that era, I never felt comfortable in that era as a frontman. I imagined myself as a band member perhaps. When I formed my first band, that’s the role I took. It must’ve been Laura Nyro, who convinced me to try to sing and I got into the idea of being able to sing to express yourself. It’s not just the lyrics of a pop song. You’re not just up there rhyming to music. It was very deep self-expression, and that appealed to me and pushed me over the edge to try to become a singer.
Laura Nyro is a great role model. You are friends with Patti Smith too.
Yeah. At the time, Patti didn’t have a band and thought of herself more as a poet and performance artist and not so much as a pop star or anything like that. Her performances were combinations of readings and stories and improvisations and singing along to records on a little 45 rpm. It was just a fascinating thing to watch. When she decided to have a band, that’s when the rest of the world discovered her, but they didn’t discover what made her so great in the first place.
You recollect going to see the movie Forbidden Planet and then buying albums in the bargain bin at the record stores you used to visit. What do you think made you so curious about what you refer to as “the less obvious”?
I think part of it was that my dad didn’t allow contemporary pop music to be played in the house. He exposed me to contemporary classical music. It’s harmonically and rhythmically more sophisticated. I credit Revel with being the first rock ’n’ roll artist because he had a song that had drums going all the way through it, and no one had done that before. That was a significant movement and more of an influence on me than other classical musicians. Those provide the harmonic foundations for everything we do now, and I can understand it.
Did jazz influence you as well?
Yeah, although not early on. It wasn’t until I got into my teens that I got exposed to it much. I was a counselor at a camp. I was only 15. One of the other counselors was a college professor. We became friends and he had an incredible record collection. He’d just start pulling it off the shelves. Some of it was folk music, and a lot of it was jazz. I started paying more attention to it, and I discovered things I like and the more I discovered, the more there was to like. Jazz did become an influence though I never thought about developing the technique to be a jazz player. That’s a whole other calling.
You say you didn’t have a plan B after the Nazz imploded, but you’ve obviously subsequently seen a huge amount of success. To what do you attribute your ability to become successful in the wake of that band’s dissolution?
There was the resolution I made to never go home again. It’s partly that. For a lot of people, their plans don’t work out and they go back home and live in the basement. When I left home, I said I wasn’t coming back, though I eventually did resolve a lot of those issues with my family and could live a somewhat normal life. At the time, I didn’t have a plan b but I still had some skills as a guitar player and I had written three albums worth of material. The second one was supposed to be a double album and even though it was almost an accident or fate that got me into the Albert Grossman organization, I was prepared for it and prepared to do whatever was necessary to succeed at it.
You’ve embraced technological innovation from the beginning. Talk about why you’re so open to it.
Again, part of it is my upbringing. My dad was an engineer. He knew how to do that old-fashioned circuit drawing kind of stuff. He had a workbench with different tools and with a Craftsman set up. He was big with the DIY and very technologically oriented, mostly self-taught. I always had a high comfort level with technology. You see something new and technological, and you think you’ll never figure it out. My reaction is that I want to know how it works. It’s a lack of intimidation more than it is a constant search for new technology. I didn’t take advantage of some things when they became popular. I didn’t get into digital recording at the beginning not only because it was expensive, but it was also a pain in the neck. I just wanted to make music. I would go for the paths of last resistance.
Talk about what the shows here will be like.
It’s kind of a way to do the usual spring tour that I would be doing anyway. Since I don’t have a record out but I have a book out, it’s more about promoting the book and the era that it represents. A lot of it takes place during the time period when my oldest fans discovered the music. It’s a déjà vu for them because I play material that I eschewed playing or morphed into something less recognizable than the original. The first half of the how is all the material that people want to hear the way they want to remember it but at the same time I describe things that went on to my life and there’s video that accompanies the music and sometimes the band becomes the soundtrack to something going on the screen. Then, there’s an intermission and we do a Q&A and we play deep cuts and rarities.
What would getting into the Rock Hall mean to you?
It means nothing to me, but people keep bringing it up. I have never been into it and can’t figure out the point of it. There are still people who should be in there and there are people in there who have nothing whatsoever to do with rock ’n’ roll. Hall of Fame is a sports thing. That’s when you haven’t played for 25 years and then they put you in the Hall of Fame. Musicians don’t have to quit. They can play until they die. What’s the idea of suddenly saying you’ve crossed some threshold and are worthy of their fabulous institution? It’s like, “Wait a minute. I’m still playing here. You’re saying that my best years are behind me? Screw you!”
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