Over the course of his decades-spanning career, Rundgren’s next move has never been easy to pin down. One moment he’s singing Laura Nyro-style torch songs, the next he’s engaging in flights of prog-fancy with Utopia. Just when you think you’ve got him figured out, he shifts and slips through your fingers like grains of sand.
The one thing that’s never changed is Rundgren’s dedication to his muse. It’s taken him to some very interesting and at times challenging places. He is a creature of the past, present and future. Rundgren has a healthy respect for the past, not too many rockers would cover Gilbert & Sullivan. Rundgren did that on his 1974 album, Todd, with a recording of “Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song” from the opera, Iolanthe.
And while commercial success hasn’t always followed every Rundgren project, his music industry savvy as well as his legendary work as a producer certainly keep him in the conversation about great musical polymaths like Stevie Wonder, Prince and Paul McCartney.
His work as a producer is a large part of what has given him that kind of artistic freedom. Producing albums that sell like Bat Out of Hell tend you give you that.
The Indiana/Rundgren connection began with Roadmaster, a band from Indianapolis that had a few songs produced by Rundgren. The group later broke up and became John Mellencamp’s backing band. You have to dig deep for that type of rock music factoid, but that type of obscurity is background radiation for the true Rundgren devotee.
When I brought up Roadmaster during an interview with Rundgren in late April, there was a real fondness in his voice.
“Oh yes, Asher Benrubi, The Mighty Adam T. Smasher. I was on tour in Cincinnati and I think some of the guys in the band came to see me play. I met them and hung out with them for a while and I think they sent me a demo. And I thought: ‘These guys, they rock pretty good.’ou know, let’s do some serious demos and see if they can get a record deal out of it. And I’m not sure if we were successful or not. They did get one record out of it and then everybody broke up and joined John Mellencamp’s band,” said Rundgren.
More recently, Rundgren’s Indiana ties run through two towns: Greencastle and Bloomington, home to two acclaimed universities. Rundgren has fulfilled prestigious functions at both. He gave the 2009 Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture at Depauw University and it was this honor that led to his time in the fall of 2010 as the Wells Visiting Scholar at Indiana University. That developed out of his relationship with Professor Glenn Gass. Gass was on sabbatical in Kauai, Hawaii when their paths crossed.
“I got to know him in Hawaii, we have a house there,” Gass says. “We live on the same road as he does. He’s at the high end, oceanfront and we’re in the mountains, but it’s still the same road. Our sons, Mathew and Julian, became friends with his niece and nephew who lived right over by us. So they started going over to Todd’s house to play and hang out. And then we started getting invited. You know, it’s the old thing, get to know people through your kids. It was a nice way to get to know him. I was hoping to get to meet him and the more I tried to meet him as a rock teacher the further I got from meeting him. You know, because people go to Kauai to get away from all that. But once we were sort of family, that all changed.”
Gass developed a course for Rundgren to teach with sociology professor, Bernice Pescosolido, focused on Rundgren’s music and experiences in the recording industry as well as the effects of Rundgren’s music on society and culture.
Professor J. Timothy Londergan, Director of the Wells Scholar Program at the time, felt Rundgren was an excellent candidate for the position.
“This was exactly the kind of course we had envisioned. It was a course taught by some of our most distinguished faculty. It featured an outstanding individual whose presence was an essential feature of the course," said Londergan
Rundgren enjoyed his time on campus and spending time with so many intelligent people.
“I remember I was giving a lecture in one of the classes and I was essentially relating a dim view of contemporary music and one of the students piped up ‘Well maybe there’s something there and maybe you should examine it closer’ which I did and I discovered that if you get into it, there were some really interesting things happening from a production standpoint. And that was relevant to me because I’m supposed to be a producer. So that was somebody much younger than me telling me to wise up and with good reason. I actually learned a lot,” said Rundgren.
Londergan remembered that moment, and the aftermath.
“About a year later, Todd Rundgren released an album of covers of recent music. In the liner notes, he specifically mentioned that the students in our class had provoked him to listen to this music, and had convinced him that it was important,” said Londergan.
Decades into his career, Rundgren still finds music a rewarding pursuit.
“Music is one of these things, as a product, that has to be constantly redesigned and revived. If you look at the history of the music all the kind of evolutionary phases that it’s gone through. Sometimes, and in my particular case when I was growing up, it was associated with societal upheaval and things like that. Experiencing music as a real sort of power to not only communicate ideas but to drive movements, to unify cultures and things like that. It’s pretty much one of the most effective ways to communicate. And it changes in form all the time. So what’s not to be fascinated by?,” said Rundgren.
If you go:
Friday, May 13
Palladium at the Centre for the Performing Arts, 1 Center Green
7:30 p.m., prices vary, all-ages