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On the cover of a video documenting Todd Rundgren's latest recording session is a photo of his hands, each waving a symphony conductor's baton. It is an appropriate symbol for a man who for twenty years has been his own maestro, conducting one of rock music's most varied careers with a verve that has made him the closest thing in rock to Toscanini.
"When you get avuncular and your hair gets gray enough, then I guess `maestro' is a pretty comfortable term," Rundgren says with a laugh.
In town April 3 for a show in support of his latest album 2nd Wind, Rundgren swears that all his different masks--producer, songwriter, cult hero, perfectionist--blend into one.
"It's the kind of question I hate," says the man who just hates interviews in general. "It's like `What's your favorite color?' There isn't a part of what I do that I like the most. For me it's seamless. I need to express myself and I try to learn from everything I do."
A self-styled rock curmudgeon, Rundgren has cut a wide and mysterious musical swath. His career has always been on his terms. His sometimes-bizarre expressions have been to please himself first and everyone else who might be listening later. This kind of musical independence exacts a price, and for Rundgren that price has been a wavering popularity. In recent years he hasn't sold many records.
This Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, native was a vocalist and a songwriter with his first band the Nazz, a group devoted to an English mod look and a Beatlesque sound. In the mid-Seventies Rundgren courted mainstream acceptance with FM fodder like "Can We Still Be Friends?" and "Hello, It's Me." Swinging in more eclectic directions, he went on to write and record overwrought symphonic rock suites with his band Utopia. In recent years, his lifelong fascination with studio technology has translated into an obsession with computers. Rundgren has been instrumental in developing computer graphics software that carries typically nonsensical, Rundgrenesque titles like "Grokgazer" and "Flowfazer."
But perhaps his greatest but least- noted talent has been as a producer and technovirtuoso. Since 1969 Rundgren has produced nearly fifty albums. In 1973, his best year, he made classic albums--the debut New York Dolls record and Grand Funk's We're an American Band. "In Grand Funk's case, it wasn't that I was a genius or anything. Their other records just sounded really bad," he says, warming to the topic. "They had a manager who insisted on being their producer and it was a problem. There wasn't anything wrong with their singing or playing, they had just made a few bad alliances.
"Producing also comes down to focusing on a few details. Grand Funk had a bass player who wasn't clean. Because he was sloppy, out came this big sound that overwhelmed everything else. My job was to get the bass under control."
That kind of studio savvy is a big part of why 2nd Wind is a typically quirky Rundgren disc. Converting the stage of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco into a recording studio, he recorded 2nd Wind in front of a live audience on five consecutive nights. The resulting album has the spontaneity and performance edge of a live record, but the precision of a studio session. Not sure yet whether he'd do it again, Rundgren is happy with the results. And he is the only judge who matters.
"In many ways, I don't really feel connected with the record business. I mean, those who are intimate with the recording industry, they put out a record, and if it's not a hit in a short period of time, then it's considered a failure. I like to think of myself as someone like . . . Van Cliburn. Someone who can put out a record and it has no bearing on his standing."
One nasty new tune has had a major impact on Rundgren's social standing. Scrawled out in fifteen minutes before he played at a benefit for a friend with AIDS, "Jesse" is a vicious attack on what he considers a triumvirate of ignorance: Senator Jesse Helms, Tipper Gore, and Pope John Paul II.
What has conservatives like L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center upset is the prominence of the verb "fuck" in connection with His Holiness. (There have been very few complaints about forcing the sexual act on Gore or Helms.) Once a raging scandal in music business tabloids, the controversy has died down since "Jesse" didn't make it onto 2nd Wind.
"I didn't write it to be on this album. And the bottom line is, it didn't fit musically with what was there," says Rundgren. "The other thing is that after all the controversy, I knew that this one tune would overshadow everything else on the record."
The music on 2nd Wind sounds very much like what's been happening on the pop side of Rundgren's career since the Nazz. Polished and bright, these tunes are an amalgam of Philly-sound white soul, lofty orchestral bits and romantic pop melodies. As it has been throughout his career, his woefully underestimated voice is the glue that holds it all together.