A WIZARD A TRUE STAR: Todd Rundgren In The Studio by Paul Myers (Jawbone Press, UK; 2010; 318 pages)
by Jon Kanis
Book review [on page 24] for issue #32 [Fall/Winter 2011] of Ugly Things magazine [filed on July 21, 2011]
Sometimes I just don’t know what to feel about Todd Rundgren; one minute I think he’s an unparalleled genius and the next that he’s some spoiled dilettante with complete contempt for his audience. At least that’s the impression I’ve walked away with on more than one occasion when I have been “lucky” enough to catch the Prince of Upper Darby in concert. Be that as it may, I have no ambivalence regarding Paul Myers’ wonderful new book that focuses exclusively on Rundgren’s production work in the recording studio, the locale where the self-proclaimed “Wizard and True Star” truly shines. Navigating his way through a career of 20+ LPs under his own solo imprint whilst simultaneously negotiating a parallel career with the groups Nazz & Utopia, Rundgren has also managed to apply his awe-inspiring prowess onto the work of a stunning list of collaborators. In fact, in strictly commercial terms you could easily claim that Todd Rundgren has been FAR more successful as an outside producer than as a performing artist – if only for the fact that Rundgren produced two #1 singles for Grand Funk Railroad (“We’re An American Band” and “The Loco-Motion”) and 1977’s surprise mega-hit Bat Out Of Hell by Meatloaf, on the basis of which he should have been able to retire for several lifetimes (he instead poured a lot of his millions into his audio & visual production company).
A large measure of A Wizard A True Star’s success is no doubt indebted to the access that Myers was afforded by Rundgren, most likely on the condition that the focus remained exclusively on the oeuvre without any sensationalistic detours. There isn’t one whiff of anything salubrious, and Myers interviewed all the right principles to give us the skinny on how such seminal LPs as Badfinger’s Straight Up, the New York Dolls eponymous debut and XTC’s Skylarking got made. Equally thrilling is learning how such underrated gems such as Sparks’ Halfnelson, Daryl Hall & John Oates’ War Babies and The Tubes’ Remote Control were put to tape. I did, however, find myself wondering…how did Myers keep a straight face when he interviewed Jim Steinman about Bat Out Of Hell? I hear Steinman’s compositions and insist that the guy is putting me on, but Rundgren apparently got the joke and managed to turn this overblown opus of a teenage wet dream into commercial gold.
Oh, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention how tickled I was to discover how “Dancing Barefoot” [Patti Smith], “Love My Way” [The Psychedelic Furs] and “I Can’t Take It” [Cheap Trick] were all committed to tape as well. And while I’m not much of a gear head I did love learning the tricks of a master. Getting down to the nuts and bolts of all of those outside productions is fantastic, but the real meat of Myers’ book is learning how Rundgren came to produce himself and create such timeless gems as Runt: The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren, Something/Anything?, A Wizard, A True Star, Todd, Initiation and Hermit Of Mink Hollow. After the recent twin follies of The New Cars and recording the shallow-sounding Arena CD on a laptop, here’s hoping that Todd gets the gist of Myers’ tribute to him: when it comes to making music in a brick-and-mortar studio with real live human beings all playing together in the same room, Mr. Rundgren has few peers.