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Rock/Pop

Hello, it's Todd

The producer and rock star talks his Wizard, the New York Dolls and evils of Microsoft

Rundgren: "The mainstream of music is as crappy as it's ever been."
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Published 7/1/2009

We came up our own theme for Cityfest this year — namely, second acts or second chances. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said there are no second acts in American lives … but Fitzgerald was a bad drunk and never met Kwame Kilpatrick. So what the hell did he know? Actually, the theme came up due to a whole day's worth of Cityfest artists — De La Soul, among them — getting a second chance to play this year after being rained out during a torrential downpour in 2008. So we got several local artists on the bill this year to list some of their favorite "seconds" or things having to do with "twos" following this feature. Yeah, it's kinda corny — but, hey, it works.

The ageless and timeless Todd Rundgren is one of the biggest names playing the festival this summer. And 2009 is definitely a time of "second chances" for him, what with the artist reconstructing his classic A Wizard, A True Star album for live presentations during the next several months, as well as recently producing the second album for the reconstructed New York Dolls. Rundgren, of course, produced the protopunk icons' debut LP in 1973 — just another notch in a storied production career that includes work behind the boards for such acts as Patti Smith, XTC, Meat Loaf, the Tubes, Cheap Trick, the Band, Bad Religion and Michigan's own Grand Funk Railroad, among others.

Always a true musical and technological innovator (and a one-man recording powerhouse when Prince was still in diapers), Rundgren recently took time out of his busy schedule to share with MT what he's been up to. Put this guy in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now!


Metro Times: I'm very curious about the upcoming live performances of your A Wizard, A True Star album in Akron and the UK later this year. Is the intent to play the album as originally recorded or will there be some new arrangements? How different is it doing it with a band as opposed to as a solo venture? 

Todd Rundgren: The idea to re-create A Wizard, A True Star came out of England, where I am enjoying something of renaissance among young electronica musicians. When word got out that I was considering this, someone in the U.S. decided to test the local waters and discovered interest was high enough here that we could make this a reality.

While I haven't locked my approach down yet, I think it's likely that the running order may be different than the original. A Wizard, A True Star was made when all long-players had to be split into sides, and I think the concept may actually be improved a bit with a little reordering.

I've picked the band and instrumentation with an ear toward recreating most of the signature sounds. I think audience expectation will be that we stay pretty true to the original, but everyone realizes that there are certain challenges that may require creative solutions. We certainly can't travel with a pack of dogs just for one little interlude!

MT: Are you planning a live album or document of the event?

Rundgren: We do plan on capturing the event for posterity, likely in hi-def video. We finish up touring [his latest] Arena [album] on July 4 — two days after the Detroit show — and from there, we'll begin the preparations for A Wizard, A True Star in Akron.

MT: Are there any other albums you'd like to revisit in this way?  Any that you're particularly proud or fond of in retrospect?

Rundgren: A Wizard, A True Star Live has been driven by events and personalities outside of my control — it's not the kind of idea I would have come up with on my own. I'm not a nostalgic musician and I always have a greater interest in exploring new projects rather than pandering to the "good old days."

MT: Have you ever considered doing something along the lines of Neil Young's Archives project with unreleased material and demos from your vaults?

Rundgren: Well, while we do have an archive of recordings and video of live performances dating back to the '70s, most of it has already been licensed to music distributors for plundering. I don't have a trove of unreleased studio material. I rarely complete things that don't get released.

MT: You reunited with the New York Dolls this year to produce their excellent new album, 'Cause I Sez So. How was it working with David [Johansen] and Syl [Sylvain] again after all these years? Did you use any of the same techniques for the new album that you did the first time out? 

Rundgren: Well, David and Syl were the original workhorses of the Dolls. The other guys were more interested in experimenting with their body chemistry than knuckling down for serious work. That attitude probably permeated the first record and may be why it's considered such an important document of the times. But the results of this dichotomy are obvious today: Syl and David are still making music and the others are pushing up daisies. It was always obvious to me how much more important David's contribution was than Johnny Thunders' was, even though the latter is more often associated with "the sound."

Fortunately for me, the re-created band had already released an album, so we were free to move ahead instead of bearing the burden of history. The new record was a lot more fun for me [than the original 1973 debut LP], since I didn't have to deal with a zoo of journalists and groupies, let alone drug-addled and snotty guitarists this time.

MT: Are there any other artists — such as Patti Smith, etc. — you'd like to revisit working with again?

Rundgren: Well, as for the future of such reunions, I never drive these things. Whether or not I have any past experience of the artist, my approach will be the same: Show me the songs. The material always dictates when it's time to make a record.

MT: You were one of the pioneers of using the Internet for networking with your fans and bypassing the record labels, etc. Are you gratified that you were one of the leaders in this trend?  Do you think this method has now peaked? Or do you foresee any new interesting directions it could take? And are there any plans to revive your PatroNet site, which hasn't been accepting subscribers for a while now?

Rundgren: You know the old saw about pioneers and arrows. I discovered the Internet at a time when it was still the domain of universities and research facilities. Now it's a realm of pop-up windows, e-mail scams and psychotic invective!

PatroNet was intended to be a world apart from what the Internet has become, where creative people can get support from and commune with their most avid supporters. Maybe the most important aspect about it is the ability to create an atmosphere where the most common pollutants of the Internet can't find their way in, while still using the ubiquitous connectivity that it now represents.

But something like PatroNet is not easy to maintain when you have gigantic and mischievous corporations like Microsoft undercutting your every move by releasing junk software like Vista, which breaks all previous conventions. Just trying to keep up with those boneheads required more technical support than we could muster. That doesn't mean we might not tempt fate and try again at some point, though.

MT: Are there any new or current producers or artists that you're particularly impressed with or interested in?

Rundgren: Likely there would be if I could find them! I don't do as much musical mining as I probably should. But the mainstream of music is as crappy as it's ever been.

Todd Rundgren plays at 9 p.m. Friday, July 3, on the New Center Council Main Stage in the Fisher Building parking lot as part of Comerica Cityfest.


Thanks to Lee Lodyga and Marc Nathan.

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