Rockin'-Not Retiring-In The Recession: Legendary Musician, Todd Rundgren, Stays In The "Arena"
Interview by Jack Criss
Profiles Mississippi Magazine
(The following interview was conducted March 18, just days before Todd Rundgren took to the road again for another leg of a tour supporting his latest CD, "Arena." It is published here only slightly edited.)
JC: The new CD, "Arena", finds you very prescient: the lyrics and message are very relevant, almost in a frightening way. Was that on purpose? Did you see some signs during the recording of the record?
Rundgren: I do try and make the records, especially the ones I've done recently, relevant to some degree to the circumstances I find myself in at the time. So it isn't necessarily always polemical; it's not always me behaving as if I'm some sort of reporter (laughs). But it is a reaction in me-I guess I'm more like Bill O'Reilly (chuckles) than someone who just reads the news. I'm opinionated about the things that happen around me. In this particular instance I had already taken on one kind of personal revelation, which was the degree to which people lie (Ed. Note: TR's CD "Liars" released in April, 2004). (With that CD) I was thinking at the time that only the executive branch was lying, but it turns out we all do it all the time, so it became ripe fodder for me to deal with that theme.
When it came time to do "Arena" it appeared we were entering another era in which everyone was realizing the degree to which they had been deceived over the past eight years. Now we're at the point where we won't be as easily deceived but we might be talked out of what we have to do by people who are just too entrenched or cowardly to buy into any kind of new order.
JC: Speaking as a fan, though, you've never really been overtly polemical in your career outside of the concerts you did for presidential hopeful John Anderson back in 1980. You always seem to address individuals and what they can do to change.
Rundgren: That's a very astute assessment in that a lot of people, when they start evaluating the kind of situation we're currently in, will stop at the societal level or tend to lump people together into larger groups as opposed to going to the individual components of that group. I guess there's a recognition that the mob has a mentality all its own and that if you can figure out how to talk to that thing then you can control it. But underneath that "mob" are individual people who are much more complicated than any single-minded mob agenda. So I figure that if I want to affect change, I don't address the mob, clan or family; I address the individual inasmuch as that's where change comes from for me-I already wrote a song about it. ("Change Myself," 1990) I can't expect change in the world if I'm incapable of change. I figure let's start with me and rather than act as a bludgeon act more insidiously like a virus.
JC: I think that's a much more refreshing, and effective, approach than how some over-politicized musical group like Rage Against The Machine or The Clash come across.
Rundgren: Well, the advantage of the Rage Against The Machine approach is just like the way we've been going through the last eight years-they just happen to be on the other side of the political spectrum. Essentially, though, it's the same thing: it's all about somebody else. It's not about me; it's all about "you" or "you guys" or "the Man"-something like that. I mean, you never hear Rage Against The Machine screaming out, "I've got some personal problems that I need to deal with and I really have no right yelling at other people!" (laughs).
JC: Yes, and by the same token you never hear older Republicans say, "Don't cut my government benefits."
Rundgren: Exactly, but that comes from a survivalist sensibility that's inside everybody and the "I will not be responsible for my behavior if, for instance, someone in my family is threatened." I mean, it's all well and good to keep the social contract as long as the most vital things are being handled and taken care of. So I can be all lovey-dovey and Christian like so many other people but, again, like so many other people, if you or your family is being threatened all "Thou Shalt Not Kill" stuff goes out the window. We can all be high and mighty when everything is safe and secure; it's how we behave when we are threatened that really indicates where we're at in a more accurate way.
JC: And we're going to find out, aren't we?
Rundgren: Well, it's starting to happen now-we're all at each other's throats. The question is: What do you do in a time of panic? Do you just panic along with everybody else or do you try and ride it out? I've always subscribed to the theory that whatever is happening, if you succumb to your fear and confusion, you're never going to make it any better so you might as well, just, Zen-up (laughs) and endure it until it's over!
JC: Given all this, it's easy to be cynical. In your career, though, you came of age in the Sixties, a very idealistic time, and were influenced by idealistic musicians like The Beatles and Dylan. Is there a role for the musician to enact change or are artists like you just tilting at windmills?
Rundgren: We tend to think that pop music is inherently trivial, but what passes for popular music at any particular era is usually serving some particular purpose. For those of us in the Sixties-and that fact that the music industry matured during a World War-a lot of the music was looked at as escapist: during the war (it was) to make you forgot about those conflicts as much as possible. By the time we got to the Sixties we were in total escapist mode: we'd been threatened by nuclear annihilation our entire lives and we're thinking, God, can we just get a mental break here? I think a lot of the music of the Sixties, though, started to really address the root of our anxiety. Out of that came the whole peace movement and all the music that went with it that was supposed to mean something, something to take to heart. Music has always had that component, you know, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie loved to sing pretty songs about flowers and stuff but found their conscience wouldn't allow them to only sing about that (laughs) so they had to sing about the strife their fellow man was going through.
JC: But, as you have decried in your song "Soul Brother," so much of the music today is very plastic-there are few artists who are singing songs with messages. Where are the Pete Seegers? They're veterans like you and your peers who are still putting out good and relevant material but I don't see many musicians out there with much talent, frankly.
Rundgren: Well, it doesn't necessarily even have to be "message music," because the central mean nowadays for discovering new artists is all about American Idol, not the A&R department's romantic search for new talent (laughs). American Idol is the likely place for the next commercial artists to come out and the audience that show draws just reaffirms how hungry people are for that kind of music you describe, the empty calorie stuff. I don't think there's ever been a night on American Idol where all the contestants had to sing protest songs! And I don't know if that night will ever come (laughs).
In any case, you have to say, for almost any kind of so-called "art," that it will tend to seek the level of the audience. There was a time when even the average person might have an appreciation for what is called fine art. Before television was the one and only media outlet, people would go to museums and look at paintings. I recall that that world of fine art always seemed a more political and social place than the field of pop art. Of course, pop art is relevant depending on the context. I get the feeling, though, that our current scene is a reaction to the so-called Global War on Terror-that, when people hear music, they just want to completely forget about terrorism.
JC: Let's talk about your discography. You've said in the past that you make your records for yourself and your own enjoyment. That begs the question: do you ever go back and listen to any particular record or song of yours? Is there one that really stands out?
Rundgren: I don't often go back and listen to my records from years ago. I do, however, listen to my most recent recordings fairly intensely and copiously for a couple of reasons. One is that I'm going to have to go out and play it live so I need to ingrain it to a certain degree. Another is that part of my music evolution is not to repeat things that I've done before regardless of the level of success that it achieved. That's not contrarian, that's just me. I'm like a shark-I have to keep moving musically or else I atrophy. I don't dwell on what I've done in the past enough to develop that level of affection.
The other problem is that I have trouble with absolutes. You know, name your favorite this or that. Those would be absolutes and I personally live in a world of constant relativity. Change is inherent and stability is really an illusion-it's just that change is happening so slowly you don't notice it so you think there's stability. I'm pretty much unafraid of change as a basic principle. I realize there are changes that are unpleasant and that you regret or would rather not have to go through, but such is life. These are the rules of the game. And constant change is one of the rules.
JC: That would seem to be a very Buddhist approach or theory.
Rundgren: Well I don't practice any formal sort of religion but, in that sense, I'm very comfortable with a lot of Buddhist philosophy mostly because it doesn't dwell on questions about the personality of the creator as so many religions do. Original sin to me was Man's self awareness and as soon as he became aware of himself he did so as relative to all other things and it wasn't good enough for man to just be one of those things-he had to be the most important thing and that's why the personality of God was invented. So when people ask me if I'm an atheist I say no, I just don't think we can understand the nature of what's at the bottom of all existence. It doesn't hurt us to think about it but when you become absolutely sure that you know, you're about as far away as you can possibly get.
JC: Tell us a bit about the recent tour.
Rundgren: Musically we're moving in a more moderate direction and I'm fine with that. We want to convey high energy and get the crowd exhilarated but, at this particular point, it's not like we're going to say vote against this or vote for that-everybody's tired of voting. Now we have a whole other range of things we need to work on-we're toiling in the fields, poring over the numbers (laughs), you know. In some ways it appears on the surface to be less heroic but, actually, it's the steadfastness of it that does make it heroic: The fact that the storms are blowing all around you and yet you still...deliver the mail!
JC: Well whatever you do, take care of your vocal cords: those new songs require a lot of power!
Rundgren: As a matter of fact, my voice is holding up better than any other part of my body at this point!