Couldn’t He Just Tell-All? Todd Rundgren Reveals Enough in Candid, Funny New Memoir

"I'm not interested in describing other people's genitalia," he says — but that left plenty of room for the Hall of Fame nominee to discuss friends (Patti Smith), foes (Bebe Buell, XTC's Andy Partridge) and family.

Todd Rundgren
Lynn Goldsmith

Todd Rundgren has spoken up about his feelings on not having made the transition this year from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee to actual inductee. “I’m heartbroken,” he says. “For LL Cool J. Five times a bridesmaid…”

That’s an indication of how seriously he took the Hall of Fame’s much-belated flirtation with inducting him, a reaction that will come as a surprise to no one with a memory long enough to remember that this is a man who titled an album “The Ever-Popular Tortured Artist Effect.” But if bona fide heartbreak is not something he’s likely to wear on his sleeve, Rundgren has a serious enough side that presents itself in thoughtful spades in his new memoir, “The Individualist: Digressions, Dreams & Dissertations,” which comes out Dec. 21.

The book has 181 chapters, but don’t let that daunt you: Each of those 181 chapters is only a single, typography-dense page long, consisting of three orderly paragraphs that explore a biographical anecdote and offer some kind of usually waggish moral to the story at the close. It’s the ultimate OCD and/or short-attention span approach to memoir writing, yet the unusual structure works surprisingly well. As autobiographies go, this one is like an album of brisk hit singles — a double-double-double-double-double  album of hit singles, that is — that creates the illusion of easy ephemerality while actually accumulating some depth.

Among the topics broached: How he attended an evangelical church as a child just because there was a Theremin player on the pastoral staff. (“When he asked for surrenderees to Christ, I took him up on it, thinking I’d become a member of some society of Theremin players in the process.”) His first hit band in the ‘60s, the Nazz. (“All of my previous experience as a troubled loner would not help me with the diplomatic and psychological nightmare of post-adolescent personality management.“) A flirtation with Linda Eastman. (“Was I jealous of Paul for snagging a girl who had just weeks before spent an inordinate amount of time with me? Actually I was envious of Linda who now got to hang with the Beatles.”) His on-and-off BFF-ship with Patti Smith. (“It didn’t take long for L.A. to have an effect on me and I think Patti saw it… I kind of treated my best friend like shit and didn’t have the balls or brains to see what my new lifestyle had done to me.”)

Also: Rundgren as a loner kid with sudden access to 1960s promiscuity. (“The faux British style I had assiduously cultivated was paying off in spades in the hinter­lands. Crotchwise, my pistil is suddenly pollinating at a previously unimagined rate.”) The decade that followed. (“Any objective historian would have to admit that the ‘70s kicked every other 20th century decade’s ass. It had everything: war, sex, drugs, prog rock and disco, stacks of Marshalls and Max’s Kansas City.”) Substance abuse. (“Drugs are like a box of chocolates. Maybe the problem is when you decide that all you want is peanut clusters and throw the rest of the box away. Your life then revolves around pea­nut clusters.”) His first major engineering experience, with the Band. (“Somehow this naive klatsch of Canadians managed to reinvent themselves as Levon’s neighbors, misdefining the American South as a place where slavery was an anecdote.”) And former paramour Bebe Buell. (“One morning you wake up and realize you’ve been sleeping with a Kaiju, a Godzilla-like creature that destroys things out of blundering ignorance with no particular goal in mind. Then the Kaiju rolls over and smiles at you and says it loves you and you tell yourself you can tame it.”)

Coming a few months after the book release will be what Rundgren is billing as a combined book/music tour, where he will play a two-night double-header for fans in each city and hit bookstores on the afternoons in-between. (Dates for the tour, including shows May 9-10 at L.A.’s Wiltern, can be found here.)

Rundgren spoke with Variety in early December about “The Individualist,” the upcoming tour and the Hall of Fame nomination. Excerpts follow.


VARIETY: Every time you’ve toured in recent years, there’s been a different format from one to the next. You’ve had all-hits tours, no-hits/new-album tours, “unpredictable evening” tours, a Utopia tour and, now, this book-based  tour.  Hardcore fans love the variety, but more fair-weather followers are not always prepared for what they’ll get when they buy a ticket.

RUNDGREN: Well, we’re hoping to weed them out in the long run. [Laughs.] Yeah, there’s still some small slice of the audience who for some reason thinks the last record I made was “Something/Anything?” and that all I’ve done is work that record for the past 40 years or so, 40 or 50 years. And it’s as much of a surprise to me as it is to them, you know, when they show up expecting certain a thing to happen and then it doesn’t happen, and they become somehow indignant about and say, “I’ll never buy another ticket for his show again.” I’m making the assumption that eventually all those people will have come to that realization — or, they will have gotten too old to even care. [Laughs.] And so I won’t be dealing with that issue.

Fifty years into your career, you’re touring much more frequently than you ever did.

I’ve made it no secret that building audience is a critical thing for me. This is reality in the post-record label world. I mean, there are still record labels, but that whole collapse that happened at the end of the ‘90s and into the 2Ks made everyone conscious that the value of playing live doesn’t go away. That your hit records, your charting singles, may stop coming, but if you want to continue to be a musician, then you have to continue to play live. So I’ve been doing more and more of that all the time, to the point that anywhere from eight to ten months of the year, I’m out playing somewhere.

How did you end up feeling about the Utopia tour that happened earlier this year? You had been reluctant to do one for decades, and you made it fairly clear it was a one-time thing, even though a lot of your fans would like to see it happen again.

I think we did well. The biggest challenge was satisfying fans’ expectations, because they had invested so much time pestering us into reforming. I only wanted to do it in a way that, if we weren’t playing exactly as tight as we were when the band ended, that we were at least able to recover a good part of that — and that we would be able to cover the entire gamut of what the band had done, from the very early prog-rock days to the alt-pop end of the band. That was no small challenge. It required a lot of rehearsal, a lot of production, a lot of pre-production as well, and a lot of relationships, in order to properly promote it and pay for it. And it’s not the kind of thing that you can easily do (again). I mean, we can’t reform again and say “Hey, it’s the first time it’s 35 years that we’re on stage together!” It doesn’t have that same level of excitement. Aside from that, if we were to continue to play, it would be like we’re a regular band trying to make it again. There’s too much work involved in that. … We did manage to capture it, so for anyone who didn’t get it, we’ve got a video coming out at some point. Although I’m not sure how videos get released anymore.

Have you figured out how to make this 2018 tour tie in with the book? Does it involved telling stories, but having a band with you to play the songs as they come up?

Yeah, there’s a band. Trying to strike the right balance trying to develop some musical momentum and slowing down to on the book and/or and or potential audience interactions — that’s the balance that I’m toying with right now… There’ll be a video aspect to the show. I know that the material will be essentially reflective of certain episodes that are in the book. Full details of the presentation, I haven’t exactly mapped out yet. But we’ve got until April. [Chuckles.]

You’re doing two nights in every city, with a tandem ticket that gets everyone in for both nights. It was explained that part of this is allowing for signing appearances on the second day in town, and maybe an abundance of repertoire across two nights?

Yeah, there’ll be signing events in stores and local media appearances and that sort of thing. It’s a combination of musical tour and book promo tour and somehow trying to integrate the book and the music into something that doesn’t seem too incongruous, while satisfying the desire that a lot of fans have of hearing all that more familiar material all in one place.

It came as a big surprise that you were writing a memoir. You mention getting into the writing of it as you were turning 50, and then the book suddenly does end with you at that age. Did you wrote it two decades ago and then set it aside and decide not to publish at the time?

No, I started it when I was around 50, in the ‘90s, and at first, I seemed to be getting into a rhythm with it. But the more I did it the more it started to seem like homework to me. I’d also set myself a concept that made it more challenging than to just simply like reel off whatever I remembered. I had to do it as sort of a series of little stories and stuff. And so it took me essentially 20 years [laughs], and a lot of that time, I didn’t write at all. But I got to the point where I realized that I have to do this or somebody else will do it. I’m getting to the point where I could at some point not be able to do it myself, and then someone else would do it and I wouldn’t be happy with the result. So I knuckled down. There’s a structure to it that made it a little bit more challenging. I had some personal rules that I imposed on myself about telling my story, not somebody else’s. I also tried to have each of these anecdotes be something of a complete vignette. One thing I really don’t like is when someone starts a story and they don’t have an ending for it. It’s kind of like that Chris Farley character: “Remember when you were in the Beatles? That was cool.”

You’ve had a lot of interesting experiences as a producer, some of which you dwell on in the book, like XTC or a thwarted experience with Laura Nyro, and some of which you don’t, like “Bat Out of Hell.” Did you feel like the Meat Loaf stuff was too well trod and you wanted to focus on other things?

Well, I realized that Paul Myers had already done the definitive book about the productions (“A Wizard, a True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio,” published in 2010), so I didn’t want to keep going over that ground again. There were certain specific episodes that we didn’t cover in Paul’s book because it wasn’t meant to be a dishy book or prurient or anything like that, just mostly about how the records came about. But I wanted to write about the things that had the greatest impact on me. And working with XTC, it was a moment of… I don’t want to say soul-searching, but after the heavy personal investment I had made in the record and the awful attitude that Andy (Partridge) took home with him it made me a little bit unsure of what had actually transpired. And it wasn’t until the record actually got into the public ear that we found out how good it was.

And Andy Partridge threatened to split your head open with an axe?

Yeah, that actually happened. [Laughs.] But that was Andy. He could turn on Andy’s kind of charm, in his passive-aggressive way. But then every once in a while, some seething rage in him would just spill out. And that was a moment.

You write that a lot of your early romantic lyrics were inspired by one relationship years many years earlier — “the lyrical aspect of ‘Something/Anything?’ was mostly fueled by that brief rela­tionship I had in my senior year” —which we now find out was a girlfriend you never even crossed home plate with, as it were.

Nope, never got to third, as I recall. [Laughs.]

But that rejection was helpful for your creativity for years and albums to come?

Well, yeah, most songwriters are looking for some sort of insecurity or some other thing to inspire them. I mean, essentially, it’s the blues, right? You’re either writing the blues or you’re writing a dance song. You’re writing the twist or the mashed potato or something like that, or you’re writing the blues — my baby done me wrong, or I love my baby, or some other thing about a relationship that you’re having.

But then you later made it clear that you got bored being locked into the “Something/Anything?” singer/songwriter template where you’d been inspired by Laura Nyro. Then you were starting Utopia and the influence was Mahavishnu Orchestra, not Laura Nyro. That’s not either the twist or the blues, exactly.

No, not exactly. Although it’s a lot of the blues in there. I don’t know whether it’s a conscious thing, that my influences are eclectic and not all from the most obvious sources. But I’ve always felt that it’s important as a musician to keep your influences varietal, because it gives you more opportunity to hide them amongst some weeds, as it were. Because music is the most plagiaristic art form there is, and that’s because we can’t help it. We’ve got so little to work with! The Western whole-tone scale has like 12 notes in it, actually. Only eight or less of them ever get used in a particular scale. I mean, that’s the chromatic scale. But eventually, just by the sheer mathematics of it, you wind up repeating other melodies. You can’t help it. So you’ve got to somehow disguise what you’re doing by mixing in the other influences, in a way. It’s kind of like cooking. You know, how does one chef distinguish his macaroni and cheese from anybody else’s? It’s in the secret ingredients.

One fun thing in the book is learning more about your so-called glam period in the mid-‘70s. You reveal that this came down mostly to one over-eager makeup artist. (“He made me up like an emaciated Gary GlitterWhile I was a willing mannequin the result did sometimes leave a trail of confusion, like when everyone thought I had come out of the closet on ‘The Midnight Special’ because Nicky pasted feathers all over my face and flipped my hair like Mary Tyler Moore.”)

Yeah. [Laughing] You makes your bed and you sleeps in it. But if I had just gone on there and not done anything arresting like that, who knows what the outcome would have been? It did make me big in Japan, because they like their Kabuki makeup and stuff there. That’s why KISS is gigantic in Japan.

You move back and forth on the book pretty easily between personal and professional and creative matters. In the afterword, you write that you dealt with “how much detail do I want to struggle to remember for the prurient curiosity of an audience that I’ve gone to great lengths to assure I do not take requests?” Did it end up being easier than you expected to lay it all out there?

Well, laid out in a certain way with a method to the madness. I’m not interested in doing things like describing other people’s genitalia. Because what is the point of that? That’s just for somebody’s voyeuristic interest. I haven’t detailed every person that I ever slept with. That’s not necessary in order to tell my story. In some cases, that’s substantially all there was, so there’s no story to tell. Some things just never existed for me to tell. I never had that drug overdose and ambulance trip to the emergency room. My life is probably more remarkable for the horrible things that haven’t occurred. There’s a certain almost normalcy in most of it that you wouldn’t expect from a rock star, and a lot of that is because my aspirations are not simply musical, and not simply built around the success that I realized through making music. I realize that music is essentially a product of the work I do on myself.

I was surprised by how frankly you deal with Bebe Buell, and the lack of emotional engagement you had in that relationship. (“Bebe had been gone for weeks tagging Aerosmith around Europe so that unfortunate episode in my life seemed to have been rested. Then I got the call. Pregnant again, she said. Not Steven, she said. Timetable says it’s me. Please can she come ‘home,’ she says. F— f— f— f— f—.”) And then an estrangement from Liv (Tyler) after her paternity was finally revealed, before a touching reunion toward the end of the book. “Closure is penicillin for the soul,” you write. Was that as easy to deal with as anything else?

Well… It would have been a much more simple story, for instance, if Bebe had fessed up and told Steven (Tyler), “Hey, this is your kid here.” As that would have been the end of my relationship with Bebe, and it would have been probably not so memorable. I mean, a lot of people have had relationships that were based more on celebrity and sex and a lot less on mutual respect [laughs], and on the other things that are the foundations for a long-term relationship. It was an act of hers, but it was more like an act of mine, of something that I did willingly, that spun that story out as long as it was. I could have taken a harder line. I could have called up Steven and said, “Hey, you’re involved in this.” But from my knowledge of the people involved, I for some reason concluded that the only choice I had was to get involved.

Near the end of the book, you and Michelle are having a pretty severe falling out and separation after years of being together. And then the book ends with your marriage — not all that many dozens of pages after you’re writing about Meat Loaf getting married at your house and how you personally would never, ever do that.

I know. And at the time, I had not planned on it. You know, I would never attend people’s weddings. I would go to the receptions or the parties, but I would never attend the actual weddings, because I knew that they were standing up there promising to do something that they kind of had their fingers crossed about. Because I knew hardly anyone who was still in their first marriage. I knew a few people whose marriages lasted as much as five years. And even today almost everyone I know that’s of a generation of mine or younger has failed at their first attempt at marriage. So I thought that that whole exercise of getting up in front of people and making this “till death do us part” declaration was an exercise in a certain kind of hypocrisy. The fact that you got up there and swore that in front of everyone essentially ensured the failure of your marriage, and so I just determined never to do that. I was going to make sure that my family, whatever its nature, was there as a force of will — that it was a constant daily recommitment. And it also removed the possibility of divorce. You can never say, “Damn it. I’m calling a divorce lawyer.” ”Oops, sorry. We’re not married, you can’t!”

So after that much determined philosophical resistance, your wedding is a twist ending.

Well, there were a couple of reasons. One was actually a perverse reason. It was my 50th birthday and I had done pretty much everything in the world, and I said, “Well, what can I do that I’ve never done before, that will really shock my friends?” I decided: Get married! The only question is, can I make it live up to my expectations? And I think I had to make that declaration in order for other people to believe that (it was real).

Choosing to end the book there, 20 years ago, was that because the marriage made for good ending, or because 50 years old made for a good ending?

Well, 50 years old makes a good ending. Getting married makes a good ending. But the reality is, my life has been a lot more boring after that. You get into the day-to-day raising kids and getting them through school and getting them to adulthood. My kids became more the focus of my life. I moved to Hawaii and started living this sort of pastoral existence, and I don’t run into celebrities or anything anymore, unless they happen to be out here on the island. The whole nature of record production has changed. I’m not doing as much record production as I used to, so interesting tales that go along with those projects don’t exist anymore. I still travel the world, but not as a vagabond; I travel the world as a professional, at this point. So it’s a completely different story and one that on the whole is not as interesting and wouldn’t have stood up to the same rigorous form that I had applied to the first 50 years. If there’s another story to be written, it’s a different kind and probably in a different form.

Never having been someone famous for parading his personal life, do you have any feelings of trepidation at all about putting this out?

Well, I’ll just go back to being the way I am. I don’t Twitter. I don’t Facebook. I have no pity or sympathy at all for Mark Zuckerberg, because he should have seen this shit coming. But I realize that some people will likely find disappointment in it — that I will have destroyed some image they had of me through actually writing about what I really think and really experienced. So there won’t be as much trauma for me as there might be for some readers who had some other image, and now suddenly they’re going to get the real one, or at least the one that I think is real.

On the subject of your Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination, you’ve been asked so many times over the years how you felt about not being in, and you seemed indifferent. Now with you being nominated, the fans, at least, are somewhat mollified that there is not a complete institutional bias against you for some reason. Is it still something you don’t care about?

I have no idea how these things work, and as long as you don’t have any idea how they work exactly, it’s hard to get invested in ‘em. I just don’t want to pollute the process. I mean, it’s very gratifying that the fans have had a chance to make their statement — the reality being that their statement doesn’t really mean much in the long run, but still, they’re the ones who really have been driving this and have cared about it. I’ve never watched the show. I’ve never seen the jam. I of course see articles about it and I hear about it afterwards. But I don’t lose any sleep over it. There are things about the process that bother me. Pitting musicians against each other in a competition to see who gets in, that bothers me. I don’t like competing with other musicians. I don’t understand why they don’t just name five people and put ‘em in there. But it is what it is. And I will abide with the results of the jury.

So, if elected, you will serve?

Well, I didn’t say that. [Laughs.]