|Tom Hull's Old Rock Critic Writings|
Todd Rundgren Keeps the Faith
Consider Todd Rundgren, a skinny white kid from Philadelphia who at all of 18 years wrote and played guitar for the legendary Nazz; who at 20 had a hit single, "We Got to Get You a Woman," and a heavy rep as a studio wizard; who at 22 wrote, sang, played, produced, and annotated a double album, Something/Anything?, by all accounts a masterpiece; who at 24 discovered mysticism, vegetarianism, and a synthesizer band named Utopia, and promptly pissed it all away with a couple of bizarre, all but unlistenable albums.
So now Rundgren's a ripe old 26. People who once loved him have thrown up their arms in bewilderment, his record company is on his back for hits, and Rundgren makes a modest effort to atone for his sins: Faithful, with a blank, off-white cover, a side of replicated oldies that everybody loves and a side of originals that for the first time in years actually look, smell, and taste like songs! So everybody's, well, if not quit ehappy -- them moldies are not a little disquieting -- at least relieved.
Well, I was a bit skeptical. The oldies side seemed straightforward enough. Rundgren's hotshot studio rep had been slipping of late, as he chose to release his new material in the guise of "live" albums (which one hardly expects to be much good anyway); Faithful suggests the image of a washed-up, alcoholic gunslinger setting uncommon demands upon himself to prove that yes he can still hack it. Which I suppose he can, but so what? It was the new-stuff side that was giving me fits, and the numerous reviews, none of which convined, just made things worse.
Two things, basically, have driven me on here, have made me listen to Faithful a few dozen times and sift through the mass of Rundgren's recorded opus (12 albums containing more than 10 hours of music). For one thing, I find Rundgren's work both immediately pleasurable and aesthetically fascinating, and I've learned from that work: about history, about hearing, about myself and what might be. For the other, when so many writers are so unconvincing, I smell a rat. If criticism is to do any good, if it is to be true to itself, even the most commonplace assumptions have to be rigorously interrogated. And when Rundgren undergoes such scrutiny, some interesting points arise.
But first we need to examine some of the preponderant misconceptions about Rundgren, which are perhaps best represented in the response to Faithful, an album as devoid of overt meaning as a Rorschach test, one that allows reviewers their full range of fancy in filling in the blanks. The best example, the most consistent in its wrongheadedness, is John Milward, in Rolling Stone:
It's 1967 and both Hendrix and the Yardbirds are busy evolving the electric guitar, the Beatles and the Beach Boys are revolutionizing the aesthetics of the studio and Dylan is burning in creative fever with a rock band and sad-eyed ladies. Todd Rundgren is a kid with his first band, the Nazz, and he's listening hard.The songs in question date from 1966 to 1968, and if we check up on what Rundgren was actually doing then we see that he wasn't listening hard nearly so much as he was playing hard. The documentation is easily available in the "overture" to "Baby Needs a New Pair of Snakeskin Boots," the fourth-side operetta on Something/Anything? which slaps together some old tapes of a couple of 1966 Rundgren bands, Money and Woody's Truck Stop. Harder to find is the first (1968) Nazz album, which, again, rocks hard, showing little affinity with Milward's influences. Moreover, the two exceptional nonrockers, "Hello It's Me" and "If That's the Way You Feel," both feature intricate melodies and highly sophisticated lyrics, remarkable maturity for an author at most 18 years old.
The point is significant: Rundgren was very ambitious as a teenager. He wasn't the sort of person likely to hold heroes in much if any esteem, and he still isn't: when Rundgren does a version of Jeff Lynne's late Move classic, "Do Ya," he comments, "The Move once did a live version of `Open My Eyes,' Touché!" The Move was a high-technology hard rock group along similar lines to the Nazz, and Rundgren has an especially fine grip on "Do Ya," performing the song with zeal even though he has acknowledged it grudgingly. Even the soul medley on A Wizard, A True Star seems more motivated by that album's familiar break from the frantic experimentation that runs rampant. The songs are important contextual pieces for Rundgren, but they are not commemoratives; in fact, Rundgren's compulsive strategies would make any commemorative seem thoroughly absurd. His guideword plainly is don't look back.
Look again at that list of "influences." What possible reason could there be for doing Dylan? Rundgren's home turf is Philadelphia, where music is slick and black. He plays guitar and he wants to rock, to feel the power (funny that Faithful is the first Todd Rundgren studio opus not bearing some special plea to turn it up). And what of Hendrix? Charisma, perhaps, but that's one quality impossible to replicate. The Beach Boys, of course (would "There Are No Words" have been possible without Smiley Smile?), and the Beatles (but mind you, that's Robert Antoni doing the vocals for the Nazz, not Rundgren), but so many writers seem to think every white harmony was trademarked by the Beach Boys, and every pop melody sprung from the Beatles, that one should be careful here. It is impossible to live, work, or do anything without paying some attention to the history unfolding around oneself; it hardly does much good to catalogue these necessary references according to some writer's tastes (his or her own unconsidered references). And in the case of an individual like Rundgren, who uses history so methodically, the confusion is doubly misleading. To note what should have been obvious all along, Rundgren is no Eric Carmen; the only occasion I can find where Rundgren ever came even close to wantonly affecting someone else's style is the Percy Sledge routine on "Once Burned."
Which poses the question: if Rundgren is not our pop synthesist, sopping up influences to cleverly deploy, then what is his original matter, his unique style? Unless you limit him to a narrow string of "Nice to Me" ballads, a few light "I Saw the Light" pop artifacts -- as our writers seem inclined to do (hence we'll call such material Rundgren's "typical work") -- it's obvious he doesn't really have one, or just one. Extremes like "Birthday Carol," "Heavy Metal Kids," "Zen Archer," "Drunken Blue Rooster," "The Wheel," "Born to Synthesize" don't fit into such conceptions, so the tendency is to dismiss them, or to demean them.
The answer to my question is really simple: it's the process, the strategy. Rundgren's conception of himself as a Freedom Fighter, one who has no choice. Rundgren harks to the old ideal of calling; he is compulsive, resolute, extremely hard-working. He explores every channel open to him, glances anxiously at unfolding history, and acts, reacts, as best circumstances and abilities allow. He slips on occasion: Todd Rundgren's Utopia is badly realized if not a complete faux pas; Initiation seems perilously self-obsessed. Rundgren does not necessarily choose the directions I might favor -- I work out of far different roots and break history at a different angle -- but the rigor I find admirable and the results, interesting.
The problem here is that while they praise Rundgren as a "pop renaissance man," Milward and just about everyone else dwell on the "pop" rather than the "renaissance man," steadfastly ignoring the wealth of material Rundgren has achieved in favor of that narrow string of "typical work." Or, like Jon Pareles in Crawdaddy, they have struggled at fancy explanations of why Rundgren's atypical work doesn't live up to their predilections.
The significant point about the rash of Rundgren reviews is not that they're wrong: it's that they're all wrong. There are two possible reasons for this: first, there may be something in Rundgren's atypical work that, subrationally perhaps, disturbs them; and second, there's something about Rundgren's typical work that attracts them, so powerfully in fact that they insist on judging the whole opus according to that attraction. These possibilities are related. I have a theory about the latter; the former you might be interested in investigating for yourself.
The obvious tone of Milward's quote is nostalgic, heroic even. Pareles, decrying Rundgren's technocratic cynicism, turns self-righteous, erupting: "Is it all product to him? . . . Is he trying to tell us he's a greater artist than those he copied? I resent him messing with my past . . ." Rundgren has chosen his songs with a vengeance; even the Dylan and Hendrix material, so far removed from Rundgren's typical work, coalesce as one legacy in the minds of our writers. No discrepancies are noted. They are all on Milward's list of the year's most important songs; to Pareles they're all just "my past." Which just goes to show that our writers are dedicated pop fans, a species better known as Suckers.
It works like this: Great pop music revolves around what I like to call "arbitrary moments." The music biz speaks of "hooks," but I'm after something more basic; if you view a song as a series of words, notes, and nuances, certain of these take on an identity extraneous to the series as a whole, and as a result of this independence affect the listener's reaction, all on a very subrational level. Theoretically every music has such (oft complex) series, and every listener has a determined set of equally arbitrary reactions. (Consciousness, of course, just makes everything more complicated; someone could pull a Sigmund Freud here, charting all these possibilities and, moreover, the music business would probably be eager to foot the bill, but that's getting off the track.) Anyhow, pop fans are particularly susceptible to these moments; they react to them immediately (thoughtlessly), dwell on them hedonistically, cultivate them religiously. They are hooked on these moments and, being suckers at heart, will fall for damn near any sentimental crap that delivers their cheap thrills. (Pareles' review was a joint affair, praising Andy Pratt as well.)
I don't mean to be harsh about this, and I can well appreciate a hedonistic approach to music. The problem arises when one insists on one's irrational reactions as a basis for critical judgment. This can both condemn a strange work and sanction one that kowtows to one's particular prejudices. Rundgren gets it from both barrels, as Milward deems the original-stuff side of Faithful "a more ambitious tribute to his influences and his strongest collection of pop tunes since his classic Something/Anythng?" Pareles chimes in, "The best Rundgren originals sine `Just One Victory'." The others have said the same thing.
This makes me wonder, what's so hot about this side? And here my best answer is that these guys are just hard up. What we have is a side of consummate blandness which with many relistenings becomes a side of intricate blandness. There is much craft evident -- certainly Rundgren could have fashioned a record this crummy with half, a fourth, even a tenth the work -- and even a handful of paltry treasures for the more ardent listeners to discover, but the sucker point is the form. Rundgren's architectonic leaves complete reign to the listener's imagination, denying no inclination; it is an album that proves just how arbitrary those arbitrary moments really are: the listeners finally have to bring their own.
Which may ultimately be an unfair judgment; Rundgren has surprised me more than once. And I could freely admit that "Black and White" is easily Rundgren's best original since "The Wheel," but that's on the immediately preceding album, not much praise. But what I do find enticing about Faithful is its underlying hostility; it is not unlike a guerrilla action -- his more soberly considered works having fallen on deaf ears -- and I find more than a little justice to it. If you have been listening to some of the more recent songs, like "The Death of Rock and Roll" and "Fair Warning," you may have noted that Rundgren's given up much hope. And without hope, you might as well try something daring.
Milward makes two claims that are pretty well grounded: Todd Rundgren is a product of the '60s (e.g., the 1966 to 1968 period); and Todd Rundgren is a pop renaissance man. Side one of Faithful, with its precious zombies, may well stand as Rundgren's rebuke to the former claim. We live irrevocably in the '70s, and we'd better own up to that fact. Side two, wherein Rundgren steadfastly refuses any fulfillment of the pop anticipation he so wryly crafts, seems to announce that he has little intention of dignifying Milward's left-handed praise. Even the title might stand for more than the obvious: my own best guess for what "faithful" means here is faith in one's inescapable imperatives. That much, at least, is consistent in all Rundgren has done.
There's a great deal of merit in Rundgren's work. He's a fine melodist, a consummate craftsman; he even tosses in an occasional lyric you can hang your hat on. But most of all Todd Rundgren is a builder; he takes the materials of history and stretches them, molding them anew. He has provided pleasure, but beyond that he offers challenges to hearing.
Which is the payoff beyond mere aesthetics. Hearing is a sense, one of the ways we apprehend the world. But no matter who we are, no matter where we are, that world has already made a big impression on us, leaving us with all sorts of unconsidered tastes and prejudices. People like Rundgren challenge these prejudices, and that's why they're invaluable. But what the producers (some people like to speak here of "artists," as if they're some special class) do is never enough; without the efforts of each and every individual who has to make some sense of the world and of his or her own life, no work has value. Taking command of our lives is what a great deal of recent politics has been about. Todd Rundgren won't necessarily help us in that, but understanding the worl dwill,a nd Rundgren's never let that world go too far astray. Which makes him a better case than most.
Postscript 1977: Further Notes
The text to this article was originally published in The Village Voice, Oct. 18, 1976, as "Todd Rundgren Keeps the Faith (His Way)." For Terminal Zone a number of footnotes have been added to further develop or comment on various issues. (Due to the length of the footnotes, and their secondary or supplementary nature, they are being published at the end of the article.) The piece was originally conceived of as a record review of Faithful, a Rundgren solo album released in early summer, 1976; however it soon appeared that no topical review could deal satisfactorily with the album. As a product, Faithful proved to be virtually worthless, yet the awkward and haphazard efforts critics made in trying to come to terms with it proved fascinating. As a critic who banks heavily on the phenomenology of subjective constitution, it was obvious that the release of Faithful was only the very first stage of that album's realization; the album's very failure as product offered a foil for scientific investigation, illuminating as few objects can some fundamental aspects of aesthetics, the very processes by which we know and judge aesthetic material. Secondly, it offered an intriguing historical problem, leading me to reevaluate the whole of Rundgren's opus, with spoecial attention paid not only to what he has done in his later work, but what could he have possibly been trying to do.
This piece was originally published in a "Rock & Roll Quarterly" special section in the Village Voice. It was republished in Terminal Zone (1977) with the introduction and additional notes. It was retyped from Terminal Zone -- I'm not sure whether there were any changes from the Voice version, other than the supplementary material. There are notes and fragments, including a record list, in Red Notebook #2. I haven't anchored the footnotes yet -- not sure whether they detract from the flow of the article.