Monday, May 10, 2010

How'd He Get That Way? On Origins, DIY, the Power of Showtunes

So how did he get that way? Did he spring full-blown from the void, like Athena from Zeus's head? Did his parents recognize nascent genius and nurture the boy's gifts, send him to the best schools, take him to the finest music teachers?

Apparently not.

First of all, it's important to remember that the current high-intensity, heavily involved style of parenting now considered necessary to raise a child was little in evidence in little TR's formative years. Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, published in 1946, two years before TR's birth, was only beginning to make inroads into the custom and practice of parenting that preceded it, in which you did your own homework, your own science projects, and failed your own classes, mostly without the benefit of parental advocacy. Parents didn't give up their previous lives when they had kids, not if they could afford a babysitter, and babysitters were cheap. If they couldn't get a sitter, sometimes you got lucky and they'd take you to their party in your jammies, lay you down on the bed with all the coats, and go into the next room to enjoy themselves like grown-ups. Pull that sort of thing today, in polite circles? I think not.

TR doesn't talk a whole lot about his family. He doesn't say anything particularly damning, but I get the feeling that home was maybe not the coziest place, and that he was an awkward, sensitive kid left to puzzle his way through childhood on his own.

On the other hand, in a couple of important ways the acorn didn't fall far from the tree.

His dad, Harry, built his own hi-fi. Todd was strictly forbidden to touch it. Like a lot of '50s dads, Harry did it himself—it wasn't that unusual. It was a way that '50s dads could unwind and ignore the wife and kids. And then Harry listened to music that a lot of other '50s dads listened to: classical music (TR cites Ravel and Debussy), good Broadway soundtracks, and Gilbert and Sullivan. At least that's what made an impression on little Todd. In the mid-'50s, when the divergent strands of American music that would become rock 'n' roll combusted and American kids glued their ears to transistor radios and listened to AM radio quietly in their beds after lights-out, our boy was memorizing "Never Mind the Why and Wherefore" and trying to figure out how to write music on paper.

So what happens (montage of pages flying off the calendar)? In the early '70s, after he has become a whiz kid producer with a couple of hits of his own, TR decides to build his own studio, a logical enough move for a young man with dual careers as paid producer for other acts and his own records to make. He needed easy access to a studio for his own work, on his own schedule. So he gets a loft space on West 24th Street, and he names the joint Secret Sound. Then he gets a soldering iron and some other tools, and he goes Harry one better: He builds his own mixing board. It takes several months, but he builds it himself.

I think that's extraordinary. If any of you know of other rock stars who built their own studio, with their own two hands—we're not talking about the current state of affairs, where anybody who knows what they're doing can string together a couple of laptops and some software and gear and record a listenable song themselves, we're talking about an old-fashioned control room and big-ass board with lights and faders and big old tapedecks—please let me know. There's something stubborn and American and self-reliant about it. There's the control-freak aspect, of course, and the refusal to accept limitations.

And on the second solo album he records at Secret Sound, Todd, he outdoes his previous outing, on which he had covered "Never Never Land," by doing "The Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song." TR's wife, Michelle, says she once saw Todd do this in concert with Harry in the audience, and he sang along, every word.

TR also performed "Never Mind the Why and Wherefore," from HMS Pinafore, with Michelle and Taj Mahal, in 1989 on the late lamented TV show Night Music. And his knowledge of and affection for G&S were put to good use in his late lamented score for Up Against It, which revels in fancy language and music that's at once silly, sassy, and joyous.

Todd writes in the Up Against It liner notes: "I was asked to provide the score and libretto, the mistaken assumption being that I would create a raft of faux Beatle tunes a la Deface the Music. I never liked Tommy or Jesus Christ Superstar or any of the other examples of theatrical rock music—my influences were Weill and Rodgers and G&S and Bernstein and Sondheim when it came to musicals, and often when it came to so-called rock."

I think this means that he's not a rock act who occasionally indulges in the trappings of theater. He's an artist whose sensibility was formed listening to theater music; rock music, with its musical forms and gestures of presentation, is just one of the ways in which he expresses his theatrical impulses.

So Harry had a big impact on him after all, without looking up or leaving his den....

Then, in that Something/Anything ad so many of us remember, there's Todd, holding that dynamite, saying "Go ahead. Ignore me."

I wonder if Harry heard the explosion.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Vanished World

I made a big point in the first post about how TR's music has been viewed in the context of the record business—pardon me, I guess I mean the music industry—how it has been ghettoized by commercial categorization and expectations. And so it has, but as much as i'd like to put the music industry on a high shelf at the back of a closet and ignore it until the whole mess sorts itself out, I'm going to have to talk about it, because TR's adversarial relationship with the industry has shaped his work in ways that we have to understand if we're going to get at the work itself.

Like Duke Ellington, who got almost testy when his music was referred to as jazz (he preferred calling it "American music" and letting it go at that), TR always chafed at being labeled as a pop or rock 'n' roll musician. And labeling is essential in mass marketing.

Whether you're moving widgets or deodorant, self-help books or designer jeans or music, mass marketing reasonably enough dictates that the enormous expenses of distribution and promotion be offset by huge sales. Once you're in that horse race, the odds are heavily stacked against you for reasons obvious, obscure, obtuse, ever-changing and eternal: You're too far ahead of the times, you're behind the times (or outside them all together); you're unknown or too familiar; they want more of what you did last time, they want something completely different; you're a blonde chanteuse with a whiskey contralto and so is the singer who is the flavor of the week.

In the late '60s, when baby boomers ruled the charts, the landscape for popular music was unimaginably fertile. Marketing was relatively unsophisticated—A&R people relied on their ears, as did radio programmers and disc jockeys. While there were some specialty markets, it was possible to listen to a big radio station and hear a variety of music, unlike the narrowly targeted stations of today. The successful TV variety shows offered everything from the Bolshoi Ballet to the Beatles, with Chinese plate spinners in between. The Saturday morning cartoon shows were actual shows, not half-hour commercials: Their content was not based on the toys or games their sponsors were selling.

Of course record labels were looking for the next big thing, but there was so much money around and there were so many kids affluent enough to buy a lot of different stuff that the market could support diversified lineups of artists. It also helped that records were relatively cheap—at $2 for recent stuff in the cut-out bins and $4 or
$5 for new releases, a curious listener could afford to experiment, and so could the labels.

And there were a lot more labels. While marketing has grown ever more niche-oriented, ever narrower, so have possible markets. There were more than two or three viable major labels, just as there were more than two or three major book publishers. Different companies actually had different qualities; to a degree unknown today they reflected the quirks and preferences of the men who ran them (at that time these were often the same guys who had founded them).

Bearsville Records certainly fit this description. While many people thought Todd owned the label, its CEO was Albert Grossman, the Ben Franklin look-alike who had made a name (and a lot of money) managing Dylan, Janis Joplin, and even Jimi Hendrix (although if I remember correctly, Hendrix had signed contracts with a lot of people), among others. Albert offered Todd a way out of the creative morass that had engulfed Nazz, his first band to garner mainstream attention in the national market, and an opportunity to learn engineering and production.

It is worth noting that following the disappointments of his first go-round in the big-time, that TR thought production was the road for him. A producer is not subject to the same restrictions as an artist under contract to a label. As long as people want his services, he can work. A producer has considerably more control over his work than an artist does. While his sound may go out of style, if his skills are good he should be able to find some kind of paying work, even if it isn't as glamorous as producing major acts.

TR says that at that time he had no ambition to become a performer himself. There's no reason not to believe him, but there was some point when his ambitions shifted and expanded. That is, he was still happy to be a producer—Albert said he would make him the highest-paid producer in the world, and while I don't know whether he succeeded, he did get top dollar for TR's services. But never being one to think small, TR decided he would become not just a performer, but would be unlike anyone who had come before him. He would use his profile as an artist to promote his ideas about the world, about life, and he would do it on his own terms. As Charles Foster Kane would say of himself, "Those are the only terms anyone knows—his own."

And that's when the trouble started.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Being Todd Rundgren: Reconsidering the Enfant Terrible

The manner in which Americans "consume" music has a lot to do with leaving it on their coffee tables, or using it as wallpaper for their lifestyles, like the score of a movie—it's consumed that way without any regard for how and why it's made. —Frank Zappa

Let's talk about Todd Rundgren. The way the story is usually told, you can substitute Orson Welles for Todd Rundgren (the party of the first part, hereafter referred to as TR): Wunderkind makes a masterpiece at 25, commits career suicide (repeatedly) through hubris, alienates the public, then produces work of diminishing relevance with occasional flashes of brilliance missed by most of the world.

There are several books on Welles that advance this version, and a number of magazine stories and reviews written through the years that reinforce the same narrative as applied to TR.
Wha' happened? they all wonder. The guy was a genius, a writer/actor/director (or songwriter/composer/singer/guitarist/producer/engineer/session player) who had the world eating out of his hand. And he threw it all away. We love to love our geniuses. And we love to see them fail, to see the freakishly gifted cut down to size by life. What was his problem? What tiny demons threw him off-course, compelled him to spit on success, to fail to live up to the expectations of the marketplace?

Apparently it's a comforting narrative and there's some truth in it, as far as it goes. But it doesn't go very far, and it doesn't shed any light on the work itself. It cheats the work for the legend. Welles himself sometimes told this version of his story, and TR has sometimes participated in this calcified critique of his career.

It's time to step back and look again. The context of the wunderkind/masterpiece/hubris/failure story is defined by the entertainment industry, by the terms of the business. Success is defined by profits and by how much of the public likes the work, as well as by critics who have fixed opinions on who an artist is and what their work should be.

I want to get at TR's work, all of it, in its baffling variety. Let's assume TR's highest goal was never to become a superstar, that, as he has always maintained (in interviews and in the music itself), what he needed and demanded was artistic freedom. That he was less interested in Maseratis and mansions than in following his muse.

This blog will consider the radical performance art of TR. Looking at the work as art eliminates issues created by genre confusion and the wisdom (or lack thereof) of his marketing decisions. Thirty years after its release, Deface the Music deserves to be discussed on its musical merits rather than getting diverted by frustration or disappointment. (It's 1980—why is he making a Beatles record? Is this a tribute or a joke at the Beatles' expense? Who does he think he is?) TR seems to stir up negative responses frequently, partly because he creates a sense of intimacy with listeners with one kind of work and, when he inevitably moves along to his next new thang, a lot of people feel abandoned. There are other reasons, too. We'll get to that.

I'm going to look at the conflict of art and commerce, at the perils of genus, at the astonishing singular career of Todd Rundgren. I'm going to challenge conventional wisdom and play devil's advocate. This blog will grow as my ideas develop.

This is going to be fun.