Todd Rundgren – Rocking Out to the Personal and the Universal

Todd Rundgren turns 64 today. Here’s a feature/interview of mine from four years ago. — bk.

When the character Forrest Gump compared life to a box of chocolates (“you never know what you’re gonna get”), he could have just as easily drawn a comparison to the music of Todd Rundgren. Throughout his career — beginning in 1967 with proto-powerpop quartet Nazz, through his solo work, albums with Utopia and extensive production duties for others — Rundgren has charted an idiosyncratic path.

To a casual observer, his stylistic changes might seem haphazard. Rundgren attributes his approach to restlessness: “I have never actually seen myself as a stylist, someone trying to develop a personal style and milk that until the public loses interest in it.” He says that his musical approach “is as much about entertaining myself as it is entertaining anyone else.”

His latest album — Arena, released September 30 on HiFi — is his 20th solo album of new material (depending on how you count). And it marks something of a return to form. His last studio release, 2004’s Liars, was a concept album (the songs all “fit into a thematic puzzle,” Todd says, “about dishonesty in modern life”). So, too, he says, is Arena. But is it a topical album specifically about current events? “If you want to talk about leadership by deception and cowardice,” Rundgren laughs, “then a certain 43rd president’s name might pop into your head. But that doesn’t mean that he thought these ideas up. This goes back to the frickin’ Roman Empire: Nero fiddling while Rome burned.” As is his hallmark, Rundgren’s lyrics try to bridge the personal and the universal, angling toward timeless rather than timely. He says that if these songs were “totally specific to one personality, I wouldn’t feel as inclined to write about them. Because ten years from now, people will forget about that person. Our loathing of George W. Bush will eventually dull into a kind of lingering disgust, because we won’t have to deal with him any more.”

Todd Rundgren. Photo (c) Lynn Goldmith Todd observes that the qualities of leadership and heroism “are things that come out of us; they become manifest in various personalities and situations.” Yet he says that he’s most interested in writing about “the part that’s inside us, pre-manifestation. This particular record,” Todd continues, “is about the concepts of courage and cowardice, and how they manifest from the small — like personal doubts, extremely internal things — to interpersonal reactions, and how those characteristics play out between people…all the way up to crises in leadership, to the political milieu that we find ourselves in.”

But as its title suggests, Arena rocks, too. While Rundgren has made significant forays into singer-songwriter territory (The Ballad of Todd Rundgren in 1971), prog-rock (much of Utopia’s early output), bossa nova (1997’s With a Twist…), Broadway (1991’s 2nd Wind) and even hip-hop (1992’s No World Order), Arena leans toward fist-pumping, anthemic rockers with hooks and catchy choruses. Concertgoers should expect a loud, raucous, rocking evening.

All of the songs on Arena were written early this year; when Todd played in Greenville SC a mere six months ago, he didn’t play any of the new songs. (“I hadn’t,” he admits, “even started on the new material then.”) The album was recorded at his home on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, with Todd playing all of the instruments. But on this tour, he performs the whole of Arena (plus other songs from the rockier end of his extensive catalog) with a top-notch band that includes longtime musical associates Prairie Prince (drums) Jesse Gress (guitar, vocals) and Todd’s former Utopia bandmate Kasim Sulton (keyboards, guitar, vocals). Rachel Haden — daughter of famed jazz bassist Charlie Haden — plays bass and sings. But it’s Todd the audience will see out front, singing lead and wailing on guitar. Rundgren’s date at the Orange Peel is his last before he’s off for a month of dates in Europe.

So what unusual direction might Rundgren — now 60 years old — pursue next? If he’s decided, he’s not telling. “I imagine there are a whole lot of things that I could explore. I’m not like Paul McCartney,” he observes, “longing to write my symphony.” Meanwhile, the baker’s dozen of new songs on Arena manage to have it both ways: they rock out in a melodic fashion, yet lyrically they convey what’s on Todd Rundgren’s mind these days. “I didn’t necessarily want to do something political or topical,” he explains. “I wanted to do something about people. Something that is…human.

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