Rolling Stone #271: Todd Rundgren

Todd Rundgren’s Fragile Utopia

“I had a nightmare last night,” says Todd Rundgren, on the crest of his first hit album (Hermit of Mink Hollow) and single (“Can We Still Be Friends”) in five years. “My record company was having a tenth-anniversary party for me. I walked into the building where we were having the party, and there was a jukebox playing my new single — a cut off the live album (a not-yet-released LP recorded at the Roxy and Bottom Line nightclubs), “Everybody’s saying it’s Rundgren Comes Alive! And it suddenly dawns on me: I hadn’t even had a chance to listen to and mix the tapes.

“It was all these business people and, whether I wanted it or not, they were gonna make me” — he spreads his arms triumphantly into the air — “a SUC-CESS.” Rundgren, the wizard songwriter / producer / guitarist, shakes his head. If they knew me well enough, they may not want that to happen.”

Todd rakes a hand through his long (and no longer red-and-green-flecked) hair and impassively observes the activity swirling around him in his two-room Hollywood hotel suite: a manager getting new chart listings, a costume designer working on the clothing for tonight’s two sets at the Roxy and a publicist setting up a photo session.

After a ten-year career (as leader of the stylish heavy-metal group Nazz; as a balladeering solo artist; and most lately, as a member of the synthesizer-dominated Utopia), Rundgren is finally enjoying his long-denied breakthrough. His new album is his most accessible in years, and during two weeks of shows on both coasts, Rundgren played his most-requested ballads and pop classics — many of which he had never performed before.

“It’s fun in a way,” Rundgren admits, tugging at his own promo T-shirt. “It’s fun because I know it’ll be over soon. It’s hard in another way. The lifestyle that you have to adapt to is totally … almost like being a heroin addict.”

In the five years since his last hit single, “Hello, It’s Me,” Rundgren seems at times to have studied his best financial and commercial move … just to make the opposite one. “the reason I got through those changes,” he says, “is my creative drive. As soon as something becomes automatic, like the pop formula of Something/Anything?, don’t consider it creative anymore. You’ve heard of crossover artists — I like to think of myself as a double-crossover artist.”

Encouraged by his creative drive, Rundgren has outfitted his farm / studio in upstate New York with a quarter-million dollars in video equipment and may soon be leaping into that medium with his own TV pilot. He is also set to score the upcoming film Simon, a story about life through the eyes of an acid casualty.

“The reasons I got in the record business are no longer valid,” he says. “I used to think records had this social importance, that people would someday be able to have a picture of the world through those records. Records have become too homogenized. If entertainment is the art of the Seventies … at least more people will be attuned to video.”

Pop music, says Rundgren, has been too emotionally draining. “When I made those early records, I was very insecure and unstable. If you’re concerned with pop success, you’re always worried with keeping on the charts. You never quite get there. I would take it too hard.

“It was a good idea for me to do the solo thing again … to gauge people’s attitudes,” he says, “to bring everything into a different perspective. As much as I enjoy doing this, it’s not what I want to do. I don’t want to go on a Todd Rundgren tour. As much as these people are my friends, the responsibility of a band of hired musicians” — he pauses a long while — “is really depressing.”

As for Utopia, when attendance dropped off last year for the group’s ambitious, pyramid-centered stage performances, “the whole economics collapsed and we put everything on ice for a while. Utopia is feasible in one way — but then we’d become Van Halen.” (There are plans for a short club tour with Utopia this August.)

The six Utopia albums sold to a dedicated cult audience of about 150,000. “They all seemed to get to a certain point in sales and then stop,” says Bearsville Records President Paul Fishkin, Rundgren’s closest working associate for ten years. “People buy these records because it’s Todd. They accept the unusual form most of his albums take because they accept him. But most consumers, according to research, want consistency of sound. All the advertising and pushing can’t change that. I try and explain this to him, but he rejects it completely.”

By last winter, though, things had reached a low emotional and financial ebb for Rundgren. He decided to record an album with more singing and shorter songs. The LP, Hermit of Mink Hollow, was quickly accepted as Rundgren’s most passionate and human work in some time. And “Can We Still Be Friends” is the long-overdue followup to “Hello It’s Me.”

“Todd wants success more than anything,” says Fishkin. “But he wants it on his own terms … and those terms keep changing.”

But Rundgren claims he has all the success he wants. “I can lead a normal life … produce Meat Loaf if I want to. But I don’t feel the need to dissipate myself and live the good-time Charlie lifestyle. I’m lucky … if I get bored I can come out here and create a lot of noise. I’m sort of like a piece of flotsam floating in the sea of public acclaim. I just sort of go under for a while, then bob up again.”

When it was decided several months ago to do a compilation album, Fishkin suggested that Todd rerecord his standards live in the studio. Rundgren enthusiastically countered with the idea of recording the Roxy and Bottom Line concerts. The rough mixes are already yielding high expectations from Rundgren’s record company.

“Everyone hopes it’ll be huge,” says Todd. “And if that happens” — he smiles, ever the spoiler — “big trouble. I have some idea of what I would do with that kind of clout, but I have no idea what the response would be. Most people think they would have to follow up with something that could maintain the excitement. To me, that’s the prime opportunity for me to reorient people to a whole new idea. You see, I guess I’m like those old-fashioned artists, da Vinci and Rembrandt. You don’t get discovered until you’re dead.”

Courtesy of Rolling Stone #271 – Cameron Crowe –  August 10, 1978