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Happy eclectic
Todd Rundgren surfs the zeitgeist

So far, Todd Rundgren has lived up to only half the title of one of his most celebrated albums, 1973’s A Wizard/A True Star (Bearsville/Rhino). Thanks to the eclectic nature of his albums and his outside productions, true stardom has never caught up with this long-time cult figure.

But those changes are the essence of Rundgren’s wizardry. In the ’90s alone, he got into big-band soul (on the 1992 Warner release Second Wind), hip-hop (on Rhino’s 1994 No World Order), cocktail-styled remakes of his own oldies (1997’s With a Twist, Guardian), and even some of the power pop that started his career nearly four decades ago (though spotty, his 2000 Artemis album One Long Year includes the timely shoulda-been hit "I Hate My Frickin’ ISP"). What’s more, he played alongside Jack Bruce and John Entwistle on the Beatles-themed "Walk Down Abbey Road" tour and produced Bad Religion’s New America (Atlantic, 2000) — one of the few punk albums he’s been involved with.

Although even diehard fans didn’t embrace all of the above projects — the rap phase in particular threw some for a loop — they were at least gratified that their hero never got too conventional. But they should feel at home when he hits the Somerville Theatre next Thursday. This appearance will be similar to the many solo tours that he’s done over the years, with Rundgren playing guitar and piano, employing some computers and back-up tapes, and focusing on the more accessible side of his catalogue.

"I’ve been trying to reconsolidate my audience, and to play places I don’t normally get to," he says from a tour bus in Omaha. "From an audience standpoint, the advantage of these solo shows is that I’m not promoting a new record, so they’re more likely to hear the old standards." The solo album he’s now writing will also mark a return to familiar territory. "It will be a modern-sounding record, with the more introverted lyrical approach that I tend to keep going back to. Songs about what you believe, and how you live your life accordingly. So the lyrics will be more personal, instead of being about what a bad rapper I am."

Rundgren’s two rap albums (the second, 1995’s The Individualist, on Digital, brought more pop into the mix) were actually better than their reputation, and they reflected his conversion as a hip-hop fan. "When somebody does something I think is significant, I can’t help but be influenced by it, and I’m always looking for the ideas of others to inform what I do. In terms of quality, there’s a difference between being pretty good at something and being the best your generation has to offer. For instance, I don’t think we’ll be talking about Eminem in 10 years. But when I heard Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, I thought, ‘This is it, the Sgt. Pepper of black music.’ "

The Bad Religion album likewise polarized that group’s fans, but it consolidated their move to a more polished approach before founder Brett Gurewitz rejoined. And it seems surprising that Rundgren took that long to get back to punk, since he was at the boards for the New York Dolls’ 1974 debut. "You could say that, but I’ve worked with a lot of bands who at least thought they were part of the punk movement, like the Psychedelic Furs — that was probably the cusp of punk and ’80s new wave. And the Canadian group the Pursuit of Happiness, though they’re usually called a power-pop band. I know that Bad Religion took their performance quite seriously, so it wasn’t a case of getting drunk and playing sloppy. And they were able to survive; they didn’t explode like a lot of punk bands."

So what’s influencing Rundgren these days? Of all things, TV commercials. Like most rock idealists, he has strong feelings about the use of pop music to sell products. But unlike many of his peers, he’s all in favor of it. He doesn’t even mind that "Bang the Drum All Day," one of his handful of outright novelty songs, has become enough of a fixture at sports events to replace "Hello It’s Me" as his best-known song.

"The radio isn’t good for anything anymore; you can’t hear music on MTV, but the most creative application of music is on commercials. It’s great that you can hear so much, from the total techno end of things to ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ [the Meat Loaf chestnut that Rundgren produced]. In my case, a song like ‘Bang the Drum’ has been licensed to death because it creates a certain feeling. There might have been a time when I would have been bothered by that, but you have to appreciate it when music transcends its original context, even though it may be the merest sort of window dressing. And most people who’d hear it, in a movie or at a sports event, wouldn’t even know the song was my fault."

Todd Rundgren plays the Somerville Theatre next Thursday, July 31; call (617) 931-2000.

Issue Date: July 25 - August 1, 2003
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