Todd Rundgren has worn many musical hats, from principal songwriter and guitarist for 1960s Anglophile band Nazz, the pop meister who wrote the 1972 hit “Hello, It’s Me” and co-wrote the 1983 anti-work anthem “Bang the Drum All Day” to a member of the prog-rock ensemble Utopia, lead singer of The New Cars after Ric Ocasek decided not to join a reunion of The Cars, producer of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, The New York Dolls’ debut album and albums by many other artists, including Patti Smith, Grand Funk Railroad and XTC.
A standout album in Rundgren’s varied career is 1973’s prog-psych wild ride A Wizard, A True Star (AWATS).
I can’t top future rock-poet Smith’s review in Creem Magazine when the album first came out, which described AWATS as “rock and roll for the skull. A very noble concept. Past present and tomorrow in one glance. Understanding through musical sensation. Todd Rundgren is preparing us for a generation of frenzied children who will dream in animation.” Or Rundgren’s 1973 Melody Maker interview, which described AWATS as “some sort of psychic collage of erupting brain patterns.”
Rundgren will perform AWATS on Saturday at the Majestic Ventura Theater in a show that promises to be one of the year’s highlights. The following is a partial transcript of a phone conversation I had recently with Rundgren while he was at his home in Hawaii.
Jeff Moehlis: Why AWATS, and why now?
Todd Rundgren: About a year ago, I was touring in Great Britain, and my promoter there proposed the idea of doing a one-off special event, which would be A Wizard, A True Star as the whole record. The reason he thought that would be a good idea is because there was a young generation of turn-tablists and mixologist-type artists who had discovered the record and were mentioning it in interviews and sampling it for their own records. So he thought that an event like that would be a great way to introduce me to a younger audience.
When word got back to the mainland that I was considering such a thing, a group of U.S. fans got together and decided they wanted it to happen here first. So they promoted the shows themselves. As a matter of fact, it started with one night in Akron, Ohio, with the potential of adding a second one, and then it stretched into seven dates in five cities.
The record was never performed in its entirety in the ‘70s. A lot of the record was a product of studio experimentation, and we weren’t able to haul all of that stuff that we had in the studio out on the road. The onward progress of technology has made it possible for us to reproduce pretty much anything that is on the record. If we can’t find the synthesizers or whatever to make the sounds, we can literally sample them off the masters.
JM: Can we expect to see costumes at the show?
TR: There will be lights and smoke and all the stuff you would expect to find at a ‘70s-style arena-style show. But in addition, I have had a history of flamboyant costumery back in the day, so we’re making that a featured aspect. Building a giant hydraulic set, or something like that ... we’re not playing places large enough to justify that sort of investment. So the costumes actually turned out to be something that was both apropos and practical.
JM: How would you place AWATS in comparison with your other albums? When you look back on it, what is special about it, or what is different?
TR: Well, it triggered The Great Migration, as it were. I had a lot of commercial success with the previous album, with Something/Anything? I wasn’t being necessarily contrarian, trying to do something different, it’s just that I didn’t have a goal to be commercially successful. I was making a fine living as a producer. So I did my own records, in part, for my own amusement, and just to sort of document my own musical evolution. I was going to evolve to some place anyway. It wasn’t always going to be Something/Anything? record after record.
The shift was so radical that it caused a whole schism in my audience. But the audience [at Saturday’s show] will mostly be filled with people who are completely aware of the fact that I’ve gone through all these changes, they weathered the storm that AWATS represented, and have actually developed a preference for that kind of off-the-wall approach, that almost anti-commercial approach that a lot of my records represent.
JM: Is it fun for you to perform AWATS?
TR: Well, as I say, we only have done seven shows altogether. So it hasn’t gotten to the point where we’ve gotten tired of it. To the contrary, we’re still kind of learning it in a way [laughs]. We’re still lucky to get through a show without some musical disaster occurring.
JM: Or there could be a wardrobe malfunction.
TR: Oh, yeah, we’ve had those [laughs]. That’s usually one of the more entertaining aspects of the show, if you understand what’s going on. Yeah, we have wardrobe malfunctions. We have all manner of challenges. But it just seems to be something that the audience wants to enjoy so badly that it’s hard to spoil it. It’s hard for it to go so horribly wrong that people aren’t still having a good time.
Tickets for Rundgren’s performace of A Wizard, A True Star at the Majestic Ventura Theater are available from Ticketmaster.com or awatslive.com. VIP tickets closer to the stage are $75, and general admission tickets are $55.