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Rundgren Reconsidered

A look at the tortured artist effect

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Depending on your allegiances, an artist's prolificacy can be seen two ways: either as testament to the unchecked genius flowing through his or her veins -- The music just kept coming...I couldn't get it to stop! -- or an indictment of a performer too unfocused to finish most of what they start.

Trouble is, with a few exceptions, the kinds of artists the press most often dub geniuses are usually the ones putting out albums every month or so. Witness Prince. Guided by Voices. Ryan Adams.

All Johnny-come-latelys, new kids in town. When you want to talk about really prolific solo artists -- not to mention one-man-bands -- you need look no further than one Todd Rundgren.

There's a big push now to put Rundgren in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which has raised the usual water cooler conversations. To some, Rundgren's an unparalleled genius whose talents go unappreciated because the musical world at large doesn't "understand" him. To others, he's something of a 70s version of Billy Corgan, the writer of a few great singles and a whole lot of experimental dreck. So what better way to see what's ahead for TR than to see where he's been?

When the Philadelphia-born musician decided to leave cult favorites The Nazz for a solo career, his star became a full-blown supernova. After his well-received solo debut, 1970's Runt, Rundgren released Something/Anything in '72, followed shortly thereafter by '73's A Wizard, A True Star.

Something/Anything, a two-disc masterpiece Rundgren recorded mostly by himself, includes straightforward singles like "I Saw the Light" and "Hello, It's Me" (the Something, perhaps) alongside more conceptual numbers like "Song of the Viking" and "Wolfman Jack" (the Anything).

A Wizard, A True Star finds Rundgren exulting in both the popular (Todd is Godd!) and critical acclaim he gained from Something/Anything. Flush with confidence, Rundgren decided to fill side one of A Wizard with 12 brief song fragments ("Rock and Roll Pussy" being perhaps the most notable). If that wasn't enough, side two features a 10-minute medley of 60s R&B tracks.

Seeking a change of pace, Rundgren formed Utopia in '74, a band whose idea of a perfect world included touring like mad and making as much music as humanly possible. Basically pop-tilted Prog, Rundgren and Co. released several well-received -- if hit or miss -- records, including Todd Rundgren's Utopia, Oops! Wrong Planet, and Adventures in Utopia.

Rundgren's boundless enthusiasm didn't just stop with playing music, either. In '78, Rundgren performed both the first inter-active television concert and the first live radio concert broadcast nationally by microwave, linking some 40 cities around the country. In 1980, Rundgren directed and produced "Time Heals," which was only the second video ever to be played on MTV and the first music video to utilize both live action and computer graphics. (Incidentally, the first video to be shown on MTV was "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles. Rundgren, never one to get blanket airplay, seems to dispute that fact.) In '81, Rundgren created the first digital paint program for personal computers, which he then licensed to Steve Jobs and Apple. Later that year, Rundgren performed the first live national cablecast of a rock concert, which was shown by the USA Network.

Since then, Rundgren has busied his time with all sorts of projects and, always seeking new ways to explore his creativity, increasingly turned to the studio itself as an instrument.

And it may be for this that his reputation will stand. A huge influence on the world of pop songwriting, Rundgren has lent his talents to a wide array of artists, including Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, the Psychedelic Furs, XTC, Hall & Oates, and dozens more. Toss in a well-received new concept record -- the fib-obsessed Liars -- and a renewed interest in touring, and you have the makings of an artist with real staying power.

And while he might not be the True Star he once was, one gets the feeling he'll be wearing the Wizard hat for some time to come.

Todd Rundgren will be appearing at the Neighborhood Theatre on Thursday, May 13 at 8pm. Tickets are available by calling 704-358-9298.

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