Rundgren’s new memoir a riveting, revelatory exploration
About 20 years ago, Todd Rundgren floated several samples of his then memoir-in-progress on PatroNet, his ahead-of-its-time fan-based subscription service that afforded his followers, among other things, the opportunity to experience various works of his in various states of evolution. In that tantalizing handful of excerpts, readers were given glimpses into Rundgren’s personal psyche, rare, given his enigmatic, sometimes technocratic persona.
But that was two decades ago. In that span, the vaunted rocker-producer-savant (and now Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee) has remained his usual productive blur, playing live in a variety of settings and tour cycles, still generating provocative original material and in general, adding to his richly-deserved legacy as one of music’s most prodigious provocateurs.
So whatever happened to that book?
As Rundgren explained to me in an interview several years ago, it simply “started to feel like homework” and so he put it aside. Thankfully, he eventually decided to finish that homework and submit it, in the form of his expansive, compelling new memoir The Individualist — Digressions, Dreams and Dissertations (240 pages, Cleopatra, release date December 21).
Right out of the gate, Rundgren, as he has often done as an artist, goes against convention by creating his very own narrative formula. Each page features a moment or circumstance in his life, broken down into three-paragraphs. Perhaps the triad system is best explained by the author himself: “So in order to get myself and the reader through this process with a minimum of chaos, the book will take on the form of this page: a recollection of something that I witnessed, a subjective assessment of my state of mind in either experiencing or remembering the episode (or a haphazard combination of both), and as in this paragraph a conclusion, a statement of plain facts or simply soap- box proselytizing. I suggest scanning the book in whatever manner one’s taste and temperament dictate.”
What he saw.
What he felt.
What he learned.
It’s a rigid construct that demands fat-free prose, but Rundgren consistently delivers, often with great force. While the design also prevents him from delving too far into a topic, he never seems to take the easy way out, instead packing each story with enough vivid detail, reflection and analysis to let each page live entirely on its own. In that sense, it’s the perfect book for these truncated times where attention spans have so devolved in the digital age. Short attention spans notwithstanding, it’s a riveting book that is hard to put down.
Each page carries a single-word title, some more suggestive than others. “Linda.” “Xmas.” “Teeth.” “Patti.” “Vacation.” “Bean.” Readers may indeed start out scanning the titles to cherry pick things that interest them more. It’s a fun book due to the “snackable storytelling” and it’s certainly enticing to jump around, but the memoir end-to-end forges a clear a linear path with well-defined narrative arcs.
It begins in post-war Philadelphia right at the dawn of the atomic age. Television, rock and roll and Todd Rundgren are all in their booster-rocket phases. Set against a somewhat bleak suburban backdrop, Rundgren writes lovingly about his grandmother, and frustratingly about his sometimes dysfunctional family dynamics. Obviously smarter than most kids, the restless Rundgren falls in love with fireworks and music early in the game, while battling bullies, hospital visits and the general pressures of the day. A loner until he scores a best boyhood pal, Randy, Rundgren poignantly captures both the oppression he felt and the dreams he carefully cultivated.
He will soon be leaving home, joining his first band and shortly after, it’s time for the Nazz, his first true foray into the colorful, chaotic rock and roll void. From he there he chips away at his own history, documenting his own career, and most of the high profile productions (Grand Funk, the New York Dolls, Meatloaf, XTC etc.) as the headstrong, rainbow-coiffed whiz kid eventually evolves into the legend that he remains today. Sharp-tongued and equally sharp-witted, Rundgren’s unapologetic honesty through all of these phases is refreshingly raw and real, whether describing a crazy nightclub crawl with Brian Wilson or getting stuck in Janis Joplin’s orbit. The cast of characters is long and storied, from Laura Nyro and Linda Eastman (soon to be McCartney) to Francis Ford Coppola and Patti Smith. The reader gets to experience Rundgren’s intrinsic relationship with computers, his coming to grips with manhood, fatherhood and some wrenching real-life soap operas.
Some of the most detailed and profound storytelling however occurs with a suite of more than a dozen stories from Rundgren’s nomadic solo trek to the Middle East, India and other Lonely Planet locales in early 1976. Backpacking by himself, an unrecognized stranger in a strange land, Rundgren’s search for both culture and enlightenment is mesmerizing. Buzzing around on a Moped scooter, sacred site to sacred site, the epiphanies he seeks out and sometimes stumbles upon makes for some of the book’s most magical, exotic storytelling. He sees death firsthand for the first time, but he also experiences a new kind of untethered life. It’s not all he expects, but the lessons learned in the stories titled “Calcutta,” “Patna,” “Gaia,” “Vibhuit,” and “Tehran” among others are transformative gems, equal parts calm and chaos.
As a songwriter, Rundgren’s themes are often metaphorical; with great profundity and sweeping cosmic design. As a memoirist, he incorporates those motifs alongside nitty-gritty, nuts and bolts feelings and observations that seem deeply personal and are certainly revealing. Rundgren, who over the course of his career has remained relatively private when it comes to his personal life has decided here to go deep in a number of areas. The horrific break-in by armed robbers in the fall of 1980, the complicated (and important) relationship with Liv Tyler are just a pair of many otherwise untold matters he tackles head on. This is a daring confessional exercise for an artist that has normally strayed away from this kind of sharing, and it works due to his skill as a writer, the depth of his intellect and his clear commitment to finishing his “homework.” When he writes about his children, fiercely proud and enchanted by them, he is perhaps at his softest, and the writing shines even brighter as a result.
Todd Rundgren’s narrative voice in The Individualist runs the gamut from observational, acerbic, introspective, brash, emotional, elegant, analytical — in short, the collection mirrors much of his best musical output. It also reflects the dichotomies which define him. He’s a scientist and a poet. A balladeer and a technician. A wizard and a wanderer. He can break your heart, but then design and build you a new one.
There are many surprises in this book which I will leave for the reader to discover. Suffice to say though, this is a captivating figure who has blazed a fascinating journey. By confronting major truths in his life, celebrating some of his deepest loves, losses and sharing some of his most inspired and powerful adventures, there is much to be enjoyed by anyone who loves good storytelling. This is not merely a “music memoir.” Hardly. It is an intensely satisfying collection of short non-fiction; as literate as it is entertaining and illuminating.
In the liner notes for 1973’s mind-bending musical opus, “A Wizard, a True Star,” Rundgren scribbled, “I’m not a real star. I’m just a musical representative of certain human tendencies — the quest for knowledge and the quest for love…” Interestingly, this memoir feels like Rundgren’s personal quest for both of those things. Often, he finds them, loses them, finds them again, learns something in the often jagged process and then keeps moving forward, hurtling toward the horizon where new ideas wait, rarely looking over his shoulder except perhaps when he decides to finally finish his “homework,” a.k.a. a methodically dazzling story cycle, The Individualist.
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