Monday, March 22, 2010

Can We Still Be Friends? : Todd Rundgren Part 1

My obsession with Todd Rundgren is 35 years strong. But I obsess as a fan, not a fanatic. I believe there is a difference. I am not one of those culty followers who accepts every toot, honk and fart the man releases as word. On the contrary, I'm more like the parent who expected his son to become a rich doctor, and with tough love, relentlessly reminded him as he continued to work bitterly for General Mills, that the reason he didn't was his own fault and not the fault of everyone else.

But I have never given up on the man. Many have. Some gave up as far back as 1973, first with the release of his now legendary, but then commercially calamitous "A Wizard/A True Star," and then with each subsequent release of mostly brilliant, though admittedly uneven and occasionally jarring platters of un-"Something/Anythings." S/A of course, is the 1972 double LP masterpiece that seems to be the thorn in Rundgren's side.

Later this year, Todd Rundgren will release "Todd Rundgren's Johnson," a wholly unnecessary collection of Robert Johnson covers. It's not that Todd isn't allowed to pay tribute to the blues man, or that he hasn't got the chops to pull it off. Todd's paid his dues. He can do what he wants...except that I don't believe for a second this is what he "wants." And if you've followed Todd for as long as I have, you know, if he doesn't "want it," you will see it in the performance. You can check out some of the live performances from the forthcoming tribute on You Tube. Here's "Crossroads." See what you think. I was left cold.

For a few days over the next week or two, I will be posting some Todd Rundgren gems, live and rare favorites of mine that may have slipped through the cracks of both the faithful and casual fans. With the help of Frank B. in Cleveland, I was able to plug some holes in my live collection. The choices won't be as random as they may seem. I've thought about the songs quite a bit. I also thought about posting some of the songs and experiments that have baffled me over the years, but then decided against it. I am here to praise Caesar, not bury him.

Today's selections highlight Todd Rundgren, the balladeer, the sensitive soul, the singer. My frustration and disappointment over these forthcoming Robert Johnson covers has led me to this. I really didn't need to be reminded about what I love about the man, but digging into the archives helps quell the frustration.


A song recorded for and released on Utopia's 1981 LP, "Swing To The Right," this performance is from a satellite broadcast from Levon Helm's, then not-as-hip barn, on 4th of July weekend of '81. And if memory serves, "Swing To The Right" was still being held up at Warner Brothers, so this is one of the first tastes of the new material. This entire show rates high for me thanks to the spirited performances and killer set list.


Another Utopia track, this one originally found on the 3-sided, self-titled, Network release of 1982. This performance is from a Thanksgiving concert aired on the USA network and later released on VHS as "An Evening With Utopia." The band had been previewing this material for a few months before the LP was released. I caught this show at Pier 82 in NYC, August of that year, and remembered being particularly moved by this song. I think it still holds up.


I've been to hundreds of Todd and Utopia shows and listened to even more live tapes, and I have never heard Todd Rundgren sing this song. As you may or may not know, this appeared on the very uneven, Passport Records, 1984 Utopia album "Oblivion," with lead vocals by the always dependable Kasim Sulton. (Though I've been listening to "Oblivion" as I write this, and I have to admit, I am really enjoying it.)

This was Todd's 3rd label in as many years, and though the record contained a minor MTV hit in "Crybaby," most of it sounded like individual band member leftovers. ("Winston Smith Takes It On The Jaw," anyone?) There were some winners, specifically another Todd ballad, "If I Didn't Try." But it was "Maybe I Could Change," that really evoked the Todd of old. This performance is dated 12/1/83, which means Todd was possibly premiering it as a new song. Again, I want to thank Frank B. for this. A real treasure.


From 1989's lost masterpiece "Nearly Human," here is "Hawking," a song about Stephen Hawking and a song that never fails to leave me breathless. It's a song that sits among the Top Ten on my personal Todd faves list. This is a rare, solo version from 2003, that is not without its flaws, but Todd delivers in a big way.


Here is a song from 1995's misguided foray into electronica and rap, "The Individualist." This is a solo performance from the "Liars" tour of 2005 and one of the few, more conventional songs from that record. It is hauntingly beautiful and the type of song I wish Todd would revisit more often.

Tell me about your Rundgren faves and I'll try to feature them on future posts.


The Phantom Creep said...

I'm sensing that you like Todd Rundgren.

Troy said...

I'm not nearly the Todd fan that you are, but I like some of the Utopia stuff, particularly the 3 sided S/T album. Great power pop. I also liked Oblivion and the follow up POV. Play This Game and (for some stupid reason) Mimi Gets Mad are my favorites from that one.

And you're right about when Todd doesn't feel it, he totally phones it in. I only saw Utopia live once, on the Oblivion tour, and it was one of the worst shows I've ever seen. It was obvious that he didnt give a sh*t. To make matters worse, they turned all the lights on the crowd for the whole show. Not just a bringing-up-the house-lights-kind of thing, but rather they were shining the stage-level spotlights directly at our faces, like when an approaching car has its high beams on. It't the only time I left a concert with my eyes hurting instead of my ears. So I decided to stick with the studio recordings instead of any further live performances.

Anonymous said...

I love Todd, please make this a weekly feature.

William Stuffinhautson

DeepKarma said...

Thanks for the TR nuggets. Good stuff all. I agree with you that Nearly Human is a stone-cold classic. As a matter of fact, your post sent me right to the CD vault where it no doubt will serve as the soundtrack for my week.

FD13NYC said...

I like Todd too. But please don't make it a weekly feature. So much other stuff out there to discover.

Noam Sane said...

I think the Johnson thing will be short-lived (thankfully). That version of Crossroads owes more to Clapton than Johnson.

My understanding is he's going to tour this spring, at least for a half-dozen dates, playing the Todd and Healing albums in their entirety - some sort of fans-voted-for-it-on-his-website thing.

Of the many Todd shows I've seen, the best was when he was touring behind Only Human - a tremendous album, and Hawking is a high point, man o man that sax solo just blows my head off every time - and he doubled up with the Tubes, who had just released Love Bomb, another favorite of mine. Truly a night in heaven.

Anywho, I'd vote for "Boat On The Charles," from Runt, and "Past" from Liars for ballads.

"Black Maria" is the rocker, esp. the live Back to the Bars version. And I'll throw in The Nazz's "Under The Ice".


So many to choose from...looking forward to this, Sal!

steve simels said...

The Nazz: Under the Fucking Ice indeed.

God, that's an amazing song. Thom Mooney -- one of the great unsung rock drummers ever...

Anonymous said...

Devil's Bite.
Has he ever done it live?


Sal Nunziato said...


Only as part of a medley with Heavy Metal Kids. I have an ok sounding version from C.W.Post college, circa 1973.

Leslie said...

Off topic - There's a C.W. Post college? In NY? I've seen his grave. Ok, carry on...

cmealha said...

I love Todd and he's one of my favorites of all time. I've been really tough on him of late and with good reason much of it his own fault. However after listening to the BBC retrospective on his career I realized that he has done more than enough in his lifetime and that I needed to lay off. That being said this is a nice slice of what makes him so good. Phenomenally constructed songs, sung with a emotion that never fails to get to me. The one song that hardly ever gets a mention and is at the top of my Todd list is "Fade Away". A truly magnificent song from one of his best albums.
I say the more Todd the better. At least as much as you've devoted to Bruce.

P.S. FDNYC13, You look awful ;o)

Sal Nunziato said...

I had been planning, much to FD13NYC's chagrin, a mix of never-performed-live Todd songs, which would include "Fade Away." I agree with you, CMEALHA, a killer song, that somehow never made the live set list.

cmealha said...

P.P.S. Listen to this as proof of this man's greatness

Sal Nunziato said...

That gets me every time. Nice pull.

Dave said...

Thanks for all this. I'm afraid I'm one of those fair-weather T.R. fans -- I did, with some exceptions, bail out after "Wizard."

My favorite song of his might be an eccentric choice: "Baby Let's Swing/The Last Thing You Said/Don't Tie My Hands." Do you know the story of how and why these three songs were put together?

Dave said...

Speaking of Laura Nyro, "Hawking" always sounded to me like a song she could have written and played piano on.

Sal Nunziato said...


Very early pressings of "Runt" had a slightly different tracklist and the only way to tell was to count the bands on each side of the vinyl. The more common pressing had 6 on one side and 4 on the another. The rare pressings had 5 and 7. The jackets were the identical.

The rare pressings feature "Baby Let's Swing" as a full song with additional verses, and NOT part of a medley, as well an early version of "Hope I'm Around," which ended up on the following LP, "Ballad Of Todd Rundgren," and "Say No More," which never appeared anywhere else.

Also, some of the other tracks are alternate mixes.

While this doesn't really explain the reason for the medley, I thought it may interest you for other reasons.

Anonymous said...

I for one think that mondays should be devoted to Todd every week.
I can only imagine the goodies you must have in your vault for us fans.

Greg Tormo

cmealha said...

I'm with Greg. Todd is godd Mondays! All in favor raise your hands!

eclis said...

Hi brother
I love Rundgren´s songs too.I`m a brazilian musician/composer.I´d like to send you a cd of mine .
Write me if you can.
Hugs from Brasil

Mark said...

Sal My new BruthaFromAnothaMutha,

I beg to differ on "Hawking"! it IS WITHOUT flaws. Been following TR since 1973 (and always looking for more live tapes) and that piano version brought me to tears. Is there a white guy with more soul on this continent? You and I both know.. thanks