By Brad Lopez
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Why the hell did '70s superstar Todd Rundgren agree to lead a faux reunion of the Cars dubbed the New Cars? According to him, even some of his most fervent followers have been asking similar questions -- although he admits, "I haven't actually indulged myself in reviewing all of the potential comments, maybe because I'm afraid to be depressed." After a laugh, he adds, "My fans don't hold back, and I can be lambasted for any number of things."
Rundgren's certainly given them an easy target. Guitarist Elliot Easton and keyboardist Greg Hawkes are the only two New Cars members from the original Boston quintet. As for the rest of the group, bassist/vocalist Benjamin Orr was unavailable, having died in 2000, while guitarist/vocalist Ric Ocasek and drummer David Robinson wisely chose not to get involved in such an obvious cash-in. That left openings filled by Rundgren and two longtime associates, bassist Kasim Sulton and drummer Prairie Prince. "There hasn't been enough focus on the fact that it's really almost a merger of two bands," Rundgren insists. "It's a rhythm section and a frontman who've been playing together for decades, along with Greg and Elliott, the two people who most characterized the sound of the Cars."
As arguments go, this one isn't especially persuasive, and Rundgren seems to know it. Maybe that's why he's so open about discussing the role of finances in his decision to sign on. Despite a slew of well-known songs, including "Hello It's Me," he says that until recently, the lion's share of his earnings came from production jobs. Unfortunately, studio windfalls have been few and far between lately, and since touring on his own is a break-even proposition at best, he's hooked up with Ringo Starr, Hall & Oates and other road warriors. "I've never lost money going out with them," Rundgren notes. "I'm open to a lot of different situations, as long as they don't compromise me personally, and if they offer me the opportunity to work with other musicians or dabble in other musical realms that have an interest for me. And the New Cars certainly satisfies those criteria."
Mercenary interests aside, Rundgren wants to earn his paycheck, and he takes pride in feedback he's received after early New Cars performances: "Most people have said, 'It doesn't sound like a completely different band -- but I don't remember them sounding this good.'" As he acknowledges, the Cars may have had some memorable tunes, but they weren't firebrands in concert. "They were known for being icy on stage -- so cool they were frozen," he says. "Very staid, not moving, never talking to the audience, never indicating anything."
None of these descriptions fit Rundgren's live persona -- yet another reason that his presence behind the New Cars' wheel is incongruous. Then again, that's nothing new. "My career is one long series of tangents," he maintains, "and it's partly by design. If I do one thing for a while, I'm like, 'Enough. Let's move on.'"
In other words, the New Cars will pass whether they're successful or not. That's good news for disgruntled Rundgren boosters -- but not for his accountant.