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.


  1. Very interesting blog.
    Just like Brian Wilson, TR had something between him and his father.
    I will come back here to see what you would offer.

  2. Hi!
    I have been a life-long fan of TR, and am
    very interested in the "early years" . Would love to hear more about the Bearsville Days that you were part of. Very nice blog, very well written. Please post more soon!


  3. Hey, the blog has moved. New page is

    Come on over and if you like what you see, pls subscribe!

  4. Hi misospecial... I really enjoyed this article about Todd Rundgren. It's always fun for me to read rock criticism from a female perspective... aside from Lisa Robinson and a few others, there are FAR too few female rock writers.

    But I digress. Appreciated your perspective on Todd's nascent nerdiness as a kid... that does explain a lot. Keep up the good writing!
    - Noel

  5. hey noel,

    i've moved the blog (as noted above) to and hope to be posting weekly. please come have a look, and if you are so moved, subscribe.

    hope to see you there, and thanks for your comment.