"...it's like Will Rogers, Jean Shepherd and some grumpy Jewish man all rolled into one."

Monday, April 14, 2014

Todd Rundgren-And-Bear-It

Back from a week's vacation in NC and SC wherein we visited with some very close friends whose names escape me at the moment. That's because we also saw three Todd Rundgren shows over a four-day span.

Many of you are now asking, "Todd WHO?" Really, have you never heard of the Internet? It's a system by which questions no longer need be asked in order to be answered. I highly recommend it.

But getting back to Our Hero (as many of us Todd fans refer to him) -- he's perhaps the archetypal "cult figure" in rock music. A brief brush with Top 40 stardom fairly early in his career, followed by a deliberate decision not to repeat himself, and yet he's remained an innovative and influential musician with a moderate but solid fan base for over forty years. I came in just after his first wave of notoriety with a band called the Nazz but slightly before his biggest selling album, Something/Anything. I'd love to say I saw him back in 1968 at a club in Cleveland with sticky floors along with only fourteen other folks... But the when and where aren't as important to me as the why. And I can't really explain why I have such a great love for his music; I just... do. I don't like all of it, but love most of it, enough that I'm still excited to purchase new releases when they come out every few years, just to hear what he's up to. I've seen him in concert maybe 20 times over the last 35 years, in various configurations from large bands to solo-with-pre-recorded-backing-tracks. Many fans have seem him hundreds of times. I can't claim that level of devotion, but I'm joyfully listening to him on iTunes as I type this.

Don't we all have something we're passionate about to the point of near-obsession? It may be a musician, an actor, a series of books, a TV show (my other obsession is The Dick Van Dyke Show, and my Two Degrees of Dick Van Dyke connection is that I once met someone who guest-starred on the program. He played a character named "Randy Twizzle", who sang a song about a dance called the "Twizzle", which was a pale imitation of the "Twist". In all the years since I met that actor, a very talented and exceedingly handsome man named Jerry Lanning, I have yet to find ONE OTHER PERSON who remembers that particular episode of the series), or quilting, or recognizing every model of Studebaker ever built... but there's something you could prattle on endlessly about, isn't there? If only you could get someone to listen to you.

We have friends who are musicians and once performed on a bill with Todd (Richard X. and Nancy Heyman - check RXH out here). They invited us backstage after the show and while waiting to catch up with them to head out for dinner, who was standing across the way but Todd himself. My wife spotted him and said, "Let's go say 'Hi!'" We ambled over and quite rudely interrupted a conversation he was having with Steve Forbert (another fine musician, best known for his hit "Romeo's Tune", and some of you out there may be as obsessed with Steve's music and longevity as I am with TR's). My wife smiled and shook hands and said how much we'd enjoyed the show and we're friends of the Heymans and how about those Mets? She then pointed to me and said, "My husband is the real fan...", whereupon Todd sorta turned my way and offered a hand, which I gladly shook with excessive vigor while saying, "Phlub m'nug shpritzl dornk." I literally could not form a single coherent word, much less an entire sentence. I've met and been intimidated by a few other reasonably famous folks -- let's see, the entire list in roughly chronological order is:

  • Brooks Robinson: I was 9 years old, a rabid Baltimore Orioles fan, and he placed a hand on my shoulder. I told my mom I would never shower again since he'd touched me and I kept that pledge for nearly two weeks.
  • Dr. Ruth Westheimer: I was working in a mall in White Plains, NY when Dr. Ruth walked up to me to ask directions to a community room where she was giving a talk. After she asked me which way to go, I wittily quipped, "You're Dr. Ruth!" She already seemed aware of that.
  • Austin Pendleton: We attended a preview of a play he'd directed in Chicago, after which there was a Q&A and after that he stayed on the stage and continued to chat with audience members. He was warm and gracious and I kept waiting for him to stutter like his lawyer character in My Cousin Vinny.
  • Tom Perrotta: One of my favorite authors, who gave a talk at the offices of the Boston Globe and also kindly answered questions from the audience. I tried to tie all of my obsessions together by including a Todd reference into the conversation (one of his books begins with a quote from a Todd lyric) and also handing him one of Richard X. Heyman's CDs. "What a guy!" I'm sure he thought to himself during the ride home. "Another Todd fan AND he gave me a most excellent CD as a gift! Maybe I'll be lucky enough to run into him again at the next Obscure Influences Conference."
One of the biggest Todd highlights came just a few years ago when Carol, Josh and I all attended a TR concert where he played a couple of his older albums in their entirety. Hearing the albums performed from start to finish took me back to when I'd first put needle to vinyl to hear them umpteen years ago. Sharing the experience with my wife and son left me overwhelmed at the end of the night -- we're not the kind of family that shares a lot of common interests; we don't go on ski vacations, haven't kayaked together down the Susquehanna, and it's increasingly rare these days that we're all in the same place at the same time. But on this one night we shared our passion for this musician and, by extension, our love for one another.

But if I'd seen Brooks Robinson outside the theater on the way in, I would have ditched them in a heartbeat.


  1. Carol B. - AKA wifeApril 15, 2014 at 6:15 PM

    I thoroughly enjoyed all 3 concerts. Just wish Todd had read my card and maybe played one of the songs I referenced in my note. Example - I wrote, "You all know, Love is the Answer" - song title incorporated. No such luck. Maybe next time....

  2. And just for the record, Betsy and I both know exactly which Dick Van Dyke episode you referred to! Betsy is a serious Dick Van Dyke fan as well, and I've often wondered if she started dating me simply because I was tall and slender...