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.


  1. I sure hope my book, with tons of Todd's first person explanations of his modus operandi, will help with this. As you know, our Todd is strong willed, but willing to "fail" in the pursuit of not giving up control. Utopia was an attempt at honest collaboration, but he was first in a group of equals. Kas could probably explain it better than any of us. Or Roger.
    Not to give away too much, but during our hours interviews at his Hawaiian Xanadu, Todd did admit that much of his music was based on the fact that his parents took away his sled named "rosebud." Oooh, should have said 'Spoiler Alert' Oh and that last bit is a joke.

  2. I should also add that Todd was more than generous and patient with my questions. And I left feeling even more respect for him as an artist. He's one of the true visionaries of popular recording, the link between Les Paul, Brian Wilson and Prince...