Interview of Todd Rundgren by Monica Yasher

Posted on 6/23/2010 by Monica Yasher

Today we meet up with Todd Rundgren, who has a new CD being released this summer that showcases Robert Johnson songs.  For now, Todd has labeled the mini version of his songs already released as, "Todd Rundgren's Short Johnson".  Todd's first professional music experiences are blues based, as he performed with the band, Woody's Truck Stop.  Aftter the break up of the band, Todd chose to direct his musical career as a songwriter/performer, having written songs like, "Can We Still Be Friends?", "I Saw the Light", "Hello It's Me", and my favorite, "Bang the Drum All Day".

As a songwriter, one is more in tune with the mechanics of the song.  If one is writing a hit song for the radio, as Todd has done, one is quite aware of specific rules that need to be followed in the songwriting process.  Listeners expect things in a song, a standard format that is repetitive.  The goal in this being to have the users sing along, catch the song in their head, and be listened to and requested or be a branding tool for various markets.  Now the blues doesn't do any of these things.  Your first verse may not be like your second verse, and your second verse may not be like your third verse.  Todd speaks of how he had to untrain himself to tackle this project, which led him back to his initial professional musical days of the blues. 

Todd shares with me his icons.  He speaks of his personal legend, Eric Clapton and how this CD pays tribute to Mr. Clapton moreso than Mr. Johnson, and how intimidating it was to start this project.  He speaks of his gratefulness of The Beatles and how he may never be where he is today as a professional musician without them, which was a thought I never had.  And, though Todd has reached great musical heights, he is very realistic in knowing his strengths and weaknesses with music.

Todd spoke of how musicians can be a combination of entertainers, musicians, and celebrities.  Todd put on a great show that I saw in the Pittsburgh area, so entertainer:  check.  His guitar playing placed him with one of his icons, Ringo Starr in his All Starr Band, so musician:  check.  And as a celebrity, well he didn't act like one at all.  Celebrity:  No.  Famous:  Yes.  We laughed a fair amount and I truly enjoyed speaking with him.  So, two out of three ain't bad!  Probably, three out of three would be bad!  BTW, yesterday was Todd's birthday and anniversary.  So, hit him up on FACEBOOK and offer some well wishes and let him know you can't wait for the CD to come out this summer!  Here's what we talked about.

Monica: Hi Todd! How are you doing today!

Todd: Not so bad!

M: Hey Todd-How does a Pennsylvania person get to live in Hawaii?

T: (He laughed.) It’s a long trek but worth it!

M: Did you learn how to surf?

T: No. Actually, I’m not a very good swimmer, so I enjoy the ocean from the standpoint of being near it. I don’t go in it very much.

M: You seem to like to do a lot of different things. You seem to have been all over music. Electronic music, progressive rock. Do you find it rewarding or frustrating to venture into so many different things?

T: I’ve always maintained a distinction in my own mind between the role of a musician, the role of an entertainer, and the role of a celebrity. They are all distinct things. You could be all three. You could be only one of the three as well. The thing that drove me initially was my appreciation for music. When I first started out the idea of being in a band and making a living at that seemed like a very unlikely career choice, because I grew up in the fifties and early sixties before The Beatles. Very few people made music, You would either have to go music school and learn how to read and play. At least Classical music, at least be able to read music and play standards. So you could get a gig by sitting around a union musician’s office waiting for someone to ask for five pieces for a wedding.

Then The Beatles happened. Anybody who could find three friends who could make a little bit of noise with an instrument could not only make a living at it, you could become world famous. It completely changed the way that I thought about music. The way a lot of people thought about music. The difference for me was that I already felt I had a commitment to music, before I realized that you could become famous and successful at it. The Beatles demonstrated that to a lot of people. So a lot of bands in the mid sixties started to form around that basic concept.

And, I decided I wanted to get into a band with my friends or with anyone that had the equipment and could play. And all through my high school years I was in various sorts of bands. I never saw myself in those days as a front man. I just wanted to be a guitar player and devoted myself to any sort of music that would advance myself as a guitar player. I believe I was a junior in high school when I met a kid in the neighborhood who had developed this appreciation for the blues, and was a very convincing harp player. He was the one that introduced me to the Paul Butterfield Band and Junior Wells, James Cotton and other phenomenal harmonica players. And through them, guitar players like Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolfe and various other musicians. The great advantage I had was at the time they were still alive. You could see them and see them play in a club. I always had a thing about music and all the different forms that it could take. I never felt..

M: There’s a learning curve when you take on something new. It seems you never were frustrated. You just took it on.

T: Some people have a fascination with music that derives from the feeling that they get from it. People who become musicians are interested in the mechanisms behind it. The mood, the scales, the way you turn the notes into a mood and things like that. There’s the average person’s appreciation of music, and then there’s the appreciation that a musician has for music, in addition to whatever feelings it conveys to them. I guess very early on I was fascinated by how was music transcribed.

When I was very young, I tried to teach myself how to transcribe music with what little I knew about it. In the end I never really developed the skill, for instance, to come up with the melody in my head and write it down on scoring paper. Or, even more difficult for me is looking at a score and being interpreted into notes. Then I ended up doing everything by ear. That also makes you more adept at music than the average person...this ability to take a snapshot in your mind of music, and be able to analyze it at your leisure. I always had that aptitude.  That’s what led me in the direction of music. As I said, most people never really thought that making music is a practical living until The Beatles came along, and demonstrated how successful you could be at it.

M: I don’t think music and the arts are promoted enough even today. You talked about The Beatles and you did play in Ringo’s All Starr Band, did you thank him?

T: Well. When Ringo asks you to play, you realize that if you're of that generation, which is the generation that I came from, you almost owe your living to The Beatles, because they were the ones that went out and demonstrated what kind of success you can have with just a quartet. Yeah. I freely admit that, and I believe that most of the people that I know will admit it as well. They never would have gotten the idea to make music their career if it was not for The Beatles.

M: I agree. You stated that the kind of music you play depends on your mood. So why are you doing a blues album now? What were your thoughts?

T: It is a little bit ironic.

M: You started out with blues...

T: When I first went to high school and to find a gig, unfortunately had to get in a band that was a local act from Philadelphia called, Woody’s Truck Stop. They were a white blues band in the same mold as the Butterfild Band. Same kind of lineup. Two guitar players, keyboard, bass, drums and a harp player. That was my first real gig. It lasted probably about nine months before the rest of the band decided they wanted to go to the country and drop acid and become a Grateful Dead style jam band, and I decided that I wanted to go in a different direction.

I started to incorporate more British influences. The acts that influenced me besides The Beatles were: The Who, The Yardbirds, Cream, Jeff Beck.  Bands that were coming out of this English Blues tradition that has a whole history of it’s own. It is related to what happens here in the US. In England there was a lot of towns in England that are sea faring towns that also became towns of great musical influence, for instance, Liverpool.

The thing about Liverpool is all the British Merchant Marines sailors would go back and forth to the United States and out of those ports of call out of the Southern United States, like for instance, Mobile, Alabama, which is a big shipbuilding community like Liverpool. They would find all of these recordings that were not available in England, and indeed not available in most of the US because they were blues records by black artists and were considered race records. There were a lot of places that would not play this music, and then it would not be stocked in record stores. Ironically all of these blues records are finding their way to the ears of young British musicians. But not to the ears of young American musicians. So we started hearing about all of this music through bands like the Yardbirds and Cream and other blues influenced groups like the Jeff Beck group. They were white like we were.

So we started to play it like they played it, which was a derivative style and not necessarily authentic in the way that black Blues music was. That was the path that we took. It was so much more about guitar playing than about anything else. It become a platform for a lot of us to hone our guitar skills.

To answer you question, I was originally in a blues band but never recorded any blues music while I was in that band. About two years ago I was finishing up a record called “Arena”.  I made a deal with a company who not only distributed records, but also had publishing catalogs, and one of them was the Robert Johnson catalog. They had no masters of Robert Johnson’s songs. Those were owned by somebody else. So, part of the deal they made with me was for my distribution of my record “Arena” was that I would do an album of Robert Johnson covers, so that they would have songs they could use for mechanical licenses and things like that.

So, I agreed to it without thinking about what the challenges were. When I got around to confronting those challenges, it took me quite a long time to figure out how I was going to approach it. I finally figured out that I should just go back to the way that I would have done it in the sixties. Think like a white English guitar player. Figure out a way to structure all of these songs so that I have an excuse to play guitar.

M: Why do you play guitar more so than piano? I see you play.

T: Well, I went through a phase of being a piano player, and I use a lot of keyboards on my own records. I’ve pretty much stopped playing piano live, because I’m not very good at it in a live context. I’m fumble fingered. I tend to concentrate on what I’m singing, and then forget what I’m playing and get lost. I did a double bill tour with Joe Jackson, who is an accomplished piano player, and the comparisons were just too unflattering. So I came to the conclusion that I should stick with the guitar live. Just avoid the embarrassment. (He laughed.)

M: You know that’s probably next, a keyboard hero game on Wii like Guitar Hero.

T: It’s very competitive That‘s how it was in the sixties. Top Gun. Everyone knew that Eric Clapton was the top gun and he kind of got unseated by Jimi Hendrix. That’s kind of the way it went.

M: Do you really think Clapton was number one? Don’t you think BB King? If you want to be the best in guitar you have to pick who you think the best is and emulate it. So who was the best to you that you wanted to model after?

TL Originally it was Eric Clapton. But as a kid it was Duane Eddie and things like that. The guitar instrumentals of the fifties. For a while there were very few guitar players to emulate or model yourself after. Then when The Beatles came out, everyone wanted to play like George Harrison. But George Harrison was not an improviser. He would work out these very meticulous, very musical guitar parts. They were like transcriptions. It was a good way to develop technique, but not a way to free yourself for the improvisational aspects that blues kind of demands.

The blues, unlike jazz...the improvisational aspects of the blues is not like the improvisational aspects of jazz. Jazz is trying to take something that is very structured and elaborate on it and find different ways to listen to it. Blues is improvisational, because blues players never remember what they played the last time! They never memorize anything!

The thing I learned from Robert Johnson is, his takes never played the same thing. They don’t go to any trouble to try to get something down to a particular way. They play it once. And, they kind of play it remembering part of what they played. They are just trying to think up the rest of it. They never had the discipline to remember something literally or they may be a little drunk. It’s a difficult thing when you are used to playing the same thing all the time to teach yourself to be forgetful. It’s something that comes naturally to someone born of the blues. Something that the rest of us may never learn how to do. We may never learn how to be forgetful or learn not to care about a particular melody line or something.

M: You know I have to agree with you. When you think about the open jams and you are up there with a bunch of people you never met and you’re not sure how things are going to come out, you can just divert to the feeling of the music.

T: That’s essentially it. Jazz is the void of emotion. Equally intense in terms of emotion. What a Jazz player is trying to accomplish is nothing like a Blues player is trying to accomplish. A jazz player is purposefully trying to break rules, and a blues player never knew what the rules were in the first place.

M: They are playing for feeling and it turns out well. Honestly, it does! It just works.

T: It’s a tough idiom to understand once you develop a certain level of sophistication and understanding about music. It’s really difficult to go back and develop that naivety, and in that sense, I don’t even try. I take that secondary more derivative approach, which is I’m a guitar player and I hear the music as an opportunity for me to get liberated.  As a guitar player, that’s my approach to it.

M: I did catch your show in Greensburg, PA. It was a really great show. There was a great song that you did. Something about Jalapeño Peppers?

T: What’s that? (He laughed.)

M: I don’t know. I just knew that I had to learn it.

T: You’re talking about "Hot Tamales"?

M: Yes, that would be a great song for a female!

T: He makes food references and other references all the time because of all the sexual innuendos. That’s true blues. Come on in my kitchen. There’s a whole lot of them. It’s funny kind of music, because it’s idiomatic. There are cultural references that have gone out of fashion. And, if you sang literally what the lyrics are to a Robert Johnson song, people would just be scratching their heads thinking, “What the hell does that mean?”

M: know what it means!

T: Half the time you have to do that anyways. I had no idea what a nation’s sack was.

M: What is it?

T: It’s a little kind of voodoo bag that a woman makes to keep her man faithful. It has little things in it that she gives him to maintain his favor. Obviously, there is no such thing anymore. It was one of the lyrics I couldn’t figure out a substitute for. I did it literally. There are other kinds of weird combinations that you had to try to straighten out a little bit for a contemporary ear.

M: Sounds like you had fun doing this.

T: I did. Once I finally got over the stigma of the fact that one of my personal heroes, Eric Clapton, had already devoted a significant part of his lifetime to tributing the music of Robert Johnson...that was the thing holding me back the most from getting the project on. I finally said, "The hell with it, and I have to start this", and not be so self conscious about the fact that I am not tributing Robert Johnson directly. I’m tributing Eric Clapton more so than Robert Johnson. I’m tributing my guitar influences.

M: I find that when I talk to a lot of blues guitarists, that they keep going back to where they find a root. I find it interesting that you said that you wanted to go back to where you started, and take a listen to where your roots are. You didn’t take a look at how it evolved through these years. I find that interesting.

T: There is argument about authenticity in the day. Can a white man sing the blues? Can a white man play the blues? Is it even feasible? There would be purist of all stripes of all colors that would maintain both sides of that issue. Certain people can get by with not being born black, but do it with such commitment and sincerity. And, that was Eric Clapton. Nobody would argue with Eric Clapton’s right to play the blues. No one is going to say that Eric Clapton can’t play the blues because he is white. He became an influence of guitar players of all colors, even other black guitar players. For a very long time, when a lot of us white guys were discovering the blues and putting our own spin on it, there were still those that thought it should be played a certain way. Or you had to do a funny thing to your voice and sing gruff to sound more bluesy. The whole point, as you pointed out, is if the music doesn‘t transport you, then it doesn‘t matter who you are or what color you are. You, as a musician, must be transported by what you are playing.

M: I find it amazing that you touched on a question that I was going to ask. You said there are great musicians, entertainers, and celebrities. What is most important to you in your musical career?

T:  There are people that are incredible musicians that are incredibly boring to watch. For whatever reason, they may be feeling the hell out of it, but just don’t convey that in any sense. This is part of the original argument of white vs. blacks. It was originally to entertain each other. To feel no shame in expressing yourself.

For white people, it was kind of the other way around. You don’t want to give yourself away. Be reserved to people.  Don’t guess what’s going on inside of you. To get yourself to essentially to change your nature and be able to express yourself in the same way as someone who was brought up to express themselves, is not an easy thing. It doesn’t necessarily compromise what you feel about what you are playing.

I, essentially in becoming a performer, I got famous not by being a blues performer, but as someone who wrote their own music and the band emulated The Who, which was somewhat of a carnival. The great thing about The Who, was that everyone in the band was worth looking at, because the lead singer is swinging his microphone all around. Pete is jumping all over the place, and Keith is going freakin’ crazy and there was a Frankenstein character just staring and his fingers are going all over the place. They were just a great band to watch. This was how you got your money's worth. We developed our show on this. That never left me. That’s something that would come naturally to someone born into the blues. To demonstrate your feelings would come naturally. For a white guy, I had to see a bunch of other white guys like The Who flailing around, for me to figure out how to express myself.

M: Your stage performance was great in Greensburg.

T: In a sense you are trying to do more than just move your fingers. You are trying to put your entire being to reach maximum impact before trying to reach the entire audience. That was the whole…things have changed a little bit...when people think of live performance and production, they hire a choreographer and dancers instead of developing their individual performance. And, such, maybe the competition isn’t what it used to be. It used to be the kind of show you put on that was your competitive edge. Now, records sales make up for that I suppose.

M: Do you miss those big productions? You used to have the backup singers, and costumes...

T: I really enjoy when I can afford to do that. There are different kinds of shows. That’s where the bar is. The more of a spectacle you can put on for people, creates memories for your audience. They will remember those shows. Even if they never see you again, you left them with something really worth remembering. The reality is you can’t always afford to do that. I’m lucky if I can take a lighting guy on the road now a days!  (He laughed.)

M: Your lighting was beautiful. That stage was beautiful.

T: It’s definitely worth it. It’s nice to have someone who makes the lights go on and off at the right time. It’s tough when you are standing there when all the lights are on.

M: Like a deer in the headlights?

T: That’s part of the impact of the show I think (We are both laughing.).When the lights work it makes the whole thing seem like you care more!  (It's a shame you can't hear him say this!) 

M: It was beautiful.

T: Terrific!

We talked about a few more things, since he is a fellow Pennsylvania guy.  Oh, one more thing, Happy Birthday Todd!

If you enjoyed reading this interview, you may enjoy reading about another Ringo Starr All Starr, Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals!

Copyright © 2010 Copyright Monica L. Yasher. All Rights Reserved.
Photograph Copyright © 2010 Maureen Ceidro. All Rights Reserved.

American Blues News Staff

What makes American Blues News unique is our coverage across America. Here is our lineup:

Mon: Memphis Correspondent - Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms
Nighthawk is our resident globetrotter and man behind the scenes, as he tours with the Reba Russell Band.

Tues: New York Correspondent - J. Blake
Blake is the American Blues News review and interview guru. You may catch him out and about in NY playing the blues.

Wed: National Correspondent - Monica Yasher
Monica is our executive director and artist interview specialist. You can catch Monica singing the blues around Pittsburgh or working on some country music songs in Nashville.

Thurs: Washington, DC Correspondent - Virginiabluesman
Geraldo offers inteviews and reviews. You may have seen him at an Ana Popovic concert or conversed with him on her websites, as he offers administrative support with her music.

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Jim Stick in Colorado
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Maureen Elizabeth, our resident art correspondent, will be focusing on blues art as she explores the creation of CD covers, or speaking with artists who also have a love of creating pictorial art in addition to their music! She may also feature some of her good friends in the Pittsburgh area. In her love of art, you may find Maureen's photography accompanying writer's articles on our pages. Maureen is also our marketing director.

Pittsburgh correspondent and photographer, CR Bennett, will share the Pittsburgh scene with all of you. You may also see CR's pictures accompanying other writer's articles.

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Another big area to cover, the West Coast with Casey Reagan, Casey will feature many artists and events on this ocean's shores.

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