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Todd Man Out

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That's seldom been a problem for Rundgren: His mind cranks out fresh concepts like Oscar Mayer makes franks. Not all of his brainstorms deserve plaudits, and it can be credibly argued that the music he's made throughout the Nineties has been far less interesting than the innovative ways in which he's presented it. But even those who dismiss his current songwriting efforts should be pleased by his refusal to jump on the nostalgia bandwagon with, among others, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle. "I prefer to focus on material that I haven't played before," he says in describing his latest tour. "And while there'll also be some of my so-called standards, I don't commit to what I'll play on any particular night--and I obviously never commit to performing a certain musical albatross that's hung around my neck all these years." When asked if said albatross could be "Hello, It's Me," Rundgren's 1973 solo smash, he laughs. "Could it be? What else could it be?"

It's unfortunate that so many observers reduce Rundgren's history to a single ballad--one that, quite frankly, isn't among his better pieces. After all, his transformation into what he kiddingly describes as "a cyber-troubador" is only the most recent of his many incarnations. Born in Philadelphia, Rundgren first came to the public's attention as part of the Nazz, a group with Beatles-esque pop instincts and some pretty good songs, including "Open My Eyes." ("Hello, It's Me" dates from the Nazz era.) When the group busted up, Rundgren landed at the Bearsville label, where he became the house producer and engineer. Between sessions with other artists, he assembled Runt, his 1970 solo debut. The platter was tuneful and fairly unpretentious (especially in comparison with much that would follow), as was his next effort, 1971's The Ballad of Todd Rundgren. But the package that established Rundgren as a pop wunderkind was 1972's Something/Anything, a double album that he pretty much put together by his lonesome; three of its four sides feature no one other than him. Given the wildly eclectic nature of its material, this epic should have fallen flatter than Kate Moss's chest, but somehow Rundgren pulled it off. There aren't many two-record sets that work from top to bottom: Something/Anything is one that does.

In the years since then, Rundgren has done his best to surpass his magnum opus, and while he's never quite managed to do so, he should be commended for refusing to play it safe. In the mid-Seventies he formed a band, Utopia, that paid homage to the synthesizer; too bad albums such as the 1977 clunker RA provided such a cogent argument for the outlawing of art rock. (The best Utopia platter remains 1980's Deface the Music, a Beatles tribute/parody so precise it makes the Rutles seem like pikers by comparison.) Rundgren's solo recordings, meanwhile, became so insular and idiosyncratic that all but the most committed fans moved on to other things. Still, his finer accomplishments--such as 1978's Hermit of Mink Hollow and 1983's The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect (featuring the ballpark favorite "Bang the Drum All Day")--reminded those who were still paying attention that Rundgren, undisciplined and mercurial though he was, could make wonderfully entertaining music when he put his mind to it.

Problem was, Rundgren's mind was generally busy thinking about other things--like change. Following Utopia's 1986 dissolution, he made a slew of albums (1989's Nearly Human and 1991's 2nd Wind among them) that had little in common other than Rundgren's name on their covers. Consumers soon began to turn away from his work in droves, but rather than retrenching, Rundgren threw himself headlong into the world of computers, quite accidentally reviving his career in the process. He sees the increased attention his latest albums have received as an argument against turning back the clock. "I don't feel any temptation to do that, because I don't think it would increase the size of my audience," he says. "Actually, only my recent forays into contemporary music have even stemmed the bleeding and introduced a less conservative audience to what I've been doing. Even though what most people want to talk to me about is the ways that I create music or the new ways that I envision it being experienced, it's only because of those areas that anyone under the age of thirty knows about my music."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts