If you had to pick one figure from ’70s rock to base a “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game around, Todd Rundgren would be a great choice. The Philadelphia-born singer, songwriter, and studio wizard has displayed an almost innate ability to show up in every corner of the rock zeitgeist since dropping his acclaimed solo album Something/Anything? in 1972. As a producer, he’s hopped behind the board for acts as varied as Meat Loaf, Grand Funk Railroad, The New York Dolls, Badfinger, XTC, and Patti Smith. And as a veteran touring artist and performer, he’s played with everyone from Stevie Nicks to The Cars. If you need someone to tell you what ’70s psych-rock, New York punk, prog rock, or the New Wave scenes were like, Rundgren has had a courtside seat for each of those moments in history.
Considering Rundgren’s status as a Zelig of rock, the publication of his memoir, The Individualist: Digressions, Dreams and Dissertations, comes as a welcome addition to music history. Writing with a conversational and witty tone, Rundgren digresses and waxes nostalgic over nearly half a century’s worth of personal and professional history. The Individualist employs an interesting structure: Each chapter is only a page long, and the flow of time in the book is nonlinear as Rundgren hopscotches from his childhood, to his time in the band Utopia, to his rise to fame in the ’70s and beyond.
If Rundgren’s book feels like a stream-of-consciousness journey through someone’s memory, that’s the point. According to the singer-songwriter, most of the book was written straight from memory.
“I’d start writing out these one-word or one-sentence topics that each chapter would be about and went from there,” he says over the phone. Rundgren settled on the one-page format in part as a way to keep too many remember-when tangents from piling on.
“The one-page format let me connect topics in a way that wouldn’t let them sprawl out or be too dependent on having to read other chapters to get it,” he says. “It was kind of an exercise in concision: trying to pare everything down to the most essential details.”
The Individualist is full of hilarious and weird asides, like Rundgren’s dead-on observation that The New York Dolls’ David Johansen is basically Louis Prima in drag, or him musing that Brian Wilson was the original punk after watching the troubled Beach Boys singer wail and howl on the mic. Rundgren’s book manages to pull off the neat trick of being an exercise in near-constant name-dropping without coming off as narcissistic or groupie-ish.
Some of the most interesting portions of the book revolve around his time in the late ’60s psych-rock band Nazz. Rundgren talks about how he and his bandmates were recruited by manager John Kurland based purely on their looks. Kurland, originally a publicist, comes off as a weirdly prophetic figure. It’s hard not to think of social media when reading Rundgren explaining his former manager’s “Theory of Reverse Success” — become famous for nothing and then do something that justifies that fame. But not all of Kurland’s predictions were spot-on.
“He kept saying, ‘Don’t play — the demand will go up,’” Rundgren says about his time in Nazz. “In some ways, that caused the collapse of the band. We weren’t playing, we weren’t finding out how good we were, we weren’t improving at all in front of an audience.”
That willingness to grow and learn in public makes Rundgren an unlikely booster of punk music. On paper, he couldn’t be less punk. All his biggest hits are ’70s soft rock. He’s a skilled multi-instrumentalist. Some of his best albums like A Wizard, A True Star are basically prog-rock epics. And his mastery of the studio puts him more in line with the Brian Wilsons of the world than with The Rat Scabies. But despite his technical wizardry and old-school rock royalty connections, Rundgren was supportive of the nascent punk scene and still talks fondly about it.
“It’s kind of a phase that every musician goes through, learning how to play in public and developing that sophistication,” Rundgren says. “And it was a reaction to other things that were happening in music at the time that felt anemic because of the encroachments of disco.”
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Even though Rundgren has borne witness to so much of rock history, he doesn’t fall into the trap of discounting modern music in his book. He remains open and enthusiastic to the potentials of the form in the 21st century. And it seems like rock music as a whole is still pretty enthusiastic about him. His spacey, psychedelic studio-magic-on-a-shoestring aesthetic paved the way for modern acts like Tame Impala and Ariel Pink.
“Back then, it didn’t necessarily matter how good you were, it was whether you played the game properly, had the right breaks so you could get exposed to the right people,” Rundgren says. “But nowadays, there is no gatekeeper. If you have a certain amount of resourcefulness, all you need is a laptop and a little bit of equipment. The ground rules have changed.”
And while a large cast of friends, lovers, coworkers, and collaborators appear throughout The Individualist, Rundgren admits that some of the most important people in his life got left on the book’s cutting-room floor.
“A number of my friends got a bit annoyed that I didn’t have a chapter dedicated to them,” Rundgren says with a wry chuckle. “But that’s cause I couldn’t encapsulate decades worth of friendship into one anecdote.”