Todd Rundgren has made and maintained a career– to say nothing of a long-devoted fan base, no-matter what — based on shock and awe. Whether it is his wont for moving quickly through musical genres (when harmony-drenched blue eyed soul smash singles would have sufficed), or pushing political and religious stances, the Upper Darby-born Rundgren’s principle element is surprise (and fear, ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical …).
Writing and releasing an autobiographical book, The Individualist: Digressions, Dreams & Dissertations, is yet another revelation as Rundgren has been fairly tight-lipped about his personal life, until now. If you expect gossip, stay clear. If you’re looking for frank, adventurous self-centric writing in bites sized doses, welcome.
To go with a new book, Rundgren is doing double-duty in each city he visits, with portions of his show dedicated to live music, and other portions dedicated to reading from The Individualist, a page related A/V show, and a Q&A segment. Rundgren appears at The Fillmore, May 1 and 2.
TK: We have spoken many times in the past. I can’t pretend to KNOW you. We won’t have Thanksgiving together. That said, I never thought of you as a guy who would spill his guts in an autobiography — not that this is a kiss-and-tell memoir. Why now, and why do it in 181 tiny tiny chapters.
Todd Rundgren: Well, compressed chapters. Very dense. I actually started writing the book 20 years ago. At first, it was in fits-and-starts. It felt like homework to me. A very elaborate assignment. That’s why I would never have been able to get an advanced degree in college: I wouldn’t be able to write the thesis. It took me a terrifically long time until, very recently, when I decided the bite the bullet and really bear down. If I didn’t do it, someone else would write the story of my life.
TK: You’re not a man to keep quiet or hold your opinions to your vest — lyrically. Was that the same for the book? What was your self-editing process or guideline?
TR: I decided to write the sort-of book that I’d like to read. That affected the form. I didn’t necessarily want to slog through an entire five chapters to get to something interesting. I’d like to crack the book open from the beginning — at any point, really — and dive into something I could get something out of.
TK: That was the root of the whole one page chapter thing then.
TR: Yes. The other issues that I have with these kinds of books is that people tend to mash all these things together: the factual, the subjective, the emotional. It’s as if someone got drunk, and just started talking. You don’t know what they’re getting at or going for in the end. That’s why I decided on separating those things out, so at least there would be some clarity about what it is I remember and assume as fact. What my frame of mind was at the time that things may have happened may have affected how that event unfolded, and then drawn any conclusions from. In other words, is one paragraph an excuse for why I wrote the rest of the page? I had to decide, ‘is there a point to this particular tale that I’m trying to tell?’ If there’s no point, then it didn’t fit into my editorial process.
TK: That’s a lot to reconnoiter. All true, though.
TR: Another thing I hate is when someone is telling you a story, where — if they have no ending to — they just drift. Like Chris Farley on SNL when he’s interviewing Paul McCartney and he asked “Remember when you were in The Beatles? Yeah, that was cool.” [laughs]
TK: No follow up.
TR: Right. I just wanted to have points that were relevant and things that had an ending. There’s a lot of ways that you could approach that. I guess one way would be is non-editorial and just start writing — always the first thing you remember — until you decide to stop.
TK: Was there a model for this? Another book or film, perhaps, that told a life’s story in a similar, clever sense?
TR: There was an inspiration for this, but it was not a biography. There’s a book, Ponder on This, in the Tibetan, that is excerpts from many books, broken down in categories of things of human concern. “Fear.” “Money.” “Love.” “Materialism.” From there, each paragraph pulls from a vast number of writings. You want to ponder on something? You go to the table of contents. “Now, there’s something I’ve always wanted to ponder on,” says you, and you read on. You find some very concise thoughts on that particular subject. That’s one of my favorite books because you don’t need to read it from the beginning. The chapters only ran as long as they needed to in order to be germane.
TK: Do you remember the first chapter you wrote?
TR: Yes. The first chapter. It was the set-up for everything else I’d get into. It’s the only chapter that is not in sequence. It was written as an experiment to see if the form I was going to use worked. Once I was satisfied that it accomplished its purpose, then that became a template for the rest of the book.
TK: You don’t shy from discussing your personal relationships — a huge surprise, as it seems out of character. Going into the book, was that tough? You don’t seem to be an in-depth PERSONAL interview.
TR: You’re correct in that regard. I have never discussed personal tragedies, and if you look at the book, you’ll find that I never had any. I didn’t wind up at the emergency room with an overdose. I never got arrested for beating anybody up. A lot of the shit that happened to other people never happened to me. That’s because I decided that it wasn’t GOING TO happen to me. So what else do you talk about? I haven’t been battling depression my entire life. There’s all these things I don’t have, so when I sat down to write, it wasn’t ever a question of me being uncomfortable. It was always more of a question as to how I was going to write about it. What is the real story, or the most important parts of that episode, beyond the gory details. There are people who have been very important in my life, some of whom don’t get mentioned at all in the book. Because by that same rule, there’s no third paragraph. The guy who does my merchandise has been in place for 40 years, and he gets one mention — playing volleyball. I would imagine that there are two sorts-of people who’ll get pissed reading the book: those I talk about and don’t like what I say about them, and those people I never mention who believe they should be.
TK: Anyone either way — mentioned or not mentioned — say anything?
TR: Yes, I’ve had one episode so far. It was someone I mentioned but didn’t talk enough about them. I didn’t go into enough detail about our relationship. Again, there was no third paragraph. No ending or episode that would make sense to anyone else beyond us.
TK: Was there a moment in the book that was most challenging; a story toughest to tell or that got your gat in its recollection?
TR: Yeah. The hardest thing was talking about Liv [Tyler, his step-daughter]. Fortunately, there is a happy ending there. Just talking about the way everything came about, what happened during the relationship. It was always the one subject in my life that I was most sensitive about; my relationship with Bebe [Buell], and such. For years, I was very upset about the fact that she essentially forgot that I was her father. Things turned out to be a lot of fun for her. I got completely side-lined for a while, and I got bent out of shape about it. That doesn’t bother me now, but yes, it was tough to write about something that had been bothersome for so long.
TK: And you do do a beautiful job of writing about that situation. No fat. Bravo. Did you find this all rewarding in a way that songwriting isn’t? Or doesn’t?
TR: Only occasionally. I never shook the burdensomeness of having to write it. I always thought that maybe it would have just been easier to tell this story to somebody else and let them write it. But, it wouldn’t have been my voice. That wound up as very important no matter how uncomfortable I was doing the documentary personally. At least it reflects directly the way I think and the way I walk. That was key in the book being successful for me.
TK: So if the book is something you’d want to read, how are the two nights in every city something you’d want to go to? It’s not as if you tour the same stuff two times in a row when you come through town?
TR: That’s correct. And this will be a different kind of tour. In some parts, it will be close to the unpredictable set list shows that I do. I’m a bit more interactive with the audience: Q&A, video that moves the story along and such. And musically each set will be different for the benefit of those who insist on being there both nights.
TK: As you are from Upper Darby and lived in downtown Philly, you know scads of old head fans and friends of yours will be in the audience. Are you looking forward to interacting with them? Are you anticipating them probing you in a way you might not expect — pardon the invasiveness of the question?
TR: Most definitely. I would love to have and see the old heads from when I lived in Philadelphia. I lived down there in 1967, and dare say that most of the people I knew then from there have passed on. So, yes, those who do remember those days, please step up.
Todd Rundgren plays The Fillmore Philly on May 1 and May 2; tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.
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