Todd Rundgren: Nothing but the truth

Todd Rundgren's new album, Liars, has received rave reviews. Anthony Quinn talks to a rock veteran who refuses to compromise on his music (and hairstyle)

Most of my heroes are long dead, but one of them, I'm happy to report, is alive and well and right now is ushering me into his Amsterdam hotel room. Todd Rundgren (for it is he) is not a name that wins the recognition it did in his heyday 30 years ago, but for those who still play his records, he remains a man of legend, a wizard, a true star. In the UK he has only had one hit single - "I Saw the Light" reached No 36 in June 1973 - but greatness resides in his music, a brilliant and often bemusing mixture of supermelodic pop, blissful soul balladry, clangorous zonk-rock and wigged-out psychedelia. Oh, and he writes, plays and produces nearly all of it himself.

Most of my heroes are long dead, but one of them, I'm happy to report, is alive and well and right now is ushering me into his Amsterdam hotel room. Todd Rundgren (for it is he) is not a name that wins the recognition it did in his heyday 30 years ago, but for those who still play his records, he remains a man of legend, a wizard, a true star. In the UK he has only had one hit single - "I Saw the Light" reached No 36 in June 1973 - but greatness resides in his music, a brilliant and often bemusing mixture of supermelodic pop, blissful soul balladry, clangorous zonk-rock and wigged-out psychedelia. Oh, and he writes, plays and produces nearly all of it himself.

He turned 56 last month, but his khaki combat pants, T-shirt and long hair (peroxide blond with black streaks) make few concessions to middle age. His stream of talk is frequently punctuated by bursts of laughter and a smile of disarming boyishness: he suddenly looks about 25 again. He's here in Holland to play a big rock festival with his old friend Patti Smith and Cheap Trick, prior to launching his first UK tour in 10 years to promote his new album, Liars.

One doesn't have to be a diehard Rundgren fan to acknowledge that it's his most enjoyable effort for at least 15 years, an estimation reflected in surprisingly rave reviews. "I'm somewhat agog myself," he admits. "It helped that the record company hired a publicist for this one. I have plenty of records out there that people don't know about at all, regardless of the response they might have got." Having hurried down to Tower Records on the day of release, I was alarmed, I confess, by the CD's cover shot of Rundgren in his pyjamas, wearing a furry nose and rabbit ears.

"Alarmed?" he laughs. "Yeah, but it means something to people in the US that it wouldn't elsewhere." He turns out to be impersonating the Easter Bunny, first among the "liars" for which the album is named. "I was going to do Santa Claus at one point. It's the same sort of conundrum, the fact that we presumably try to teach our children honesty, but we also lie to them."

Liars could be called a concept album, its target personal and political dishonesty, though the trancelike beats and infectious melody of its opener, "Truth", set a tone that's more urbane than angry. Freely adapting from soul, R&B, ambient and pomp rock, the album is as confidently eclectic as his celebrated work of the Seventies, while the lyrics suggest more than a little soul-searching on the artist's part. "It's so easy to be smart, but it's a struggle to be wise," he sings on "Stood Up". Has Todd Rundgren struggled to reach his own sort of wisdom? "Well, I hope so, because I believe that things that are worth something require a certain amount of effort; things that aren't worth anything are easily acquired. It isn't like I suddenly decided there was a thing called 'truth' and I should find it. For me, 'Know thyself' is the number-one thing you should be working on - you don't want to be surprised to find what an obnoxious ass you are. Ideally, you try to reduce the degree of fallaciousness in your dealings with people, mostly as an act of self-preservation, in that if you start making things up, you eventually lose track of which lies you've told."

Nonetheless, after 35 years or more in the music business, he must have become used to a "degree of fallaciousness". "Well, it isn't like the Bush White House actively trying to promulgate a false story and having meetings about how to do it. In music, songwriters tend to write about things they think people wanna hear about, so they'll have to strike some middle-of-the-road thing that will probably contain a lot of rote material. So you end up with a singer putting everything behind a song with essentially no message." Has he ever been guilty of not devoting heart and soul to his writing? "Oh it's quite possible, but that couldn't be applied to anything I've done lately. We all do something every once in a while that hasn't got much forethought beyond 'Wouldn't this be fun?' But when it comes to writing there's too much labour involved for me not to have some investment in it."

The young Todd, growing up in the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby, discovered a natural talent for piano and guitar, though the first instrument that attracted him was the flute - "but I could never get past the weird fingering and embouchure." Via his father's home-made hi-fi he absorbed a wide range of influences from Debussy to the show tunes of Rodgers and Hart and Leonard Bernstein. By the age of 20 he was playing in The Nazz, a band that fused elements of The Beatles, The Who and The Beach Boys, though his most signal inspiration was the singer-songwriter Laura Nyro: "To hear someone deliver that material with such personal intensity was a total revelation. The way she played, the superlative musicality, really opened something up to me." He eventually got to meet Nyro, who, struck by their fellow feeling, asked him to become her bandleader: "I seriously considered the offer, but in the end I was afraid to - it felt too big a responsibility."

His parallel career as production whizz took off when Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan's manager, signed him up with a promise to make him "the highest-paid producer in the world", which he duly became. While producing The Band, Grand Funk Railroad and Badfinger, inter alia, he knocked out his first solo album, Runt (1970), from which came the Top 20 hit "We Gotta Get You a Woman" and early notice of his knack for gorgeous sing-along pop.

That knack was developed in his next, The Ballad of Todd Rungren, and then transformed on his double masterpiece Something/Anything?, a near-sublime concoction of Brian Wilson melodics and muscular rock chording. Highlights include "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference", "Saving Grace", "Marlene" and the beautiful, yearning "Hello It's Me", later to be used by Sofia Coppola in her debut movie, The Virgin Suicides ("something of a windfall for me", he says). Part of the music's enhanced vitality was triggered by his whole-hearted immersion in drugs, specifically pot and the speed-like ritalin. "It caused me to crank out songs at an incredible pace. 'I Saw the Light' took me all of 20 minutes. You can see why, too, the rhymes are just moon/June/spoon kind of stuff." It's still great, though. "Yeah, but... it's great if you don't try to top it. If you end up repeating the formula, everything becomes a little less magical. So by the end of Something/Anything?, I decided to do something different."

Did he ever. Recorded in late 1972, A Wizard, A True Star not only marked a quantum jump in his career, it reconfigured the pop landscape. From the sonorous blast-off of "International Feel" right through to the anthemic "Just One Victory", the music keeps vectoring off in bizarre, kaleidoscopic directions, leaving the listener the task of simply hanging on. "With drugs I could suddenly abstract my thought processes in a certain way, and I wanted to see if I could put them on a record. A lot of people recognised it as the dynamics of a psychedelic trip - it was almost like painting with your head." Barney Hoskyns, in a fine profile of TR for Mojo, called it "the most awesomely ambitious rock record ever made", though Todd recalls a very different response to it at the time. "The plain truth is that A Wizard, a True Star was generally regarded as professional suicide. It's only retrospect that puts the record in the exalted position it now has."

It certainly marked a turning-point. With the position of master of the pop universe his for the taking, he instead launched his prog-rock outfit Utopia, produced Meatloaf's Bat out of Hell and pursued an eccentric and increasingly patchy solo career. Perverse and prodigal of his genius, he became a man out of time. The annus mirabilis of punk - 1977 - was probably not the best moment to go on tour with a stage set built around a 25ft pyramid and a giant gold sphinx that shot laser beams from its forehead.

The records kept appearing fitfully through the Eighties and Nineties along with experiments in technology and interactive live shows. In his pop memoir Lost in Music, Giles Smith, a Todd fan, observed: "Buying a Todd Rundgren record unheard is about as big a risk as you can take in a record shop. It could be good, or it could be the worst thing you've ever acquired." His 1984 album The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect is truly the piece of Rundgren that passeth all understanding. Would it be fair to say that he didn't exercise a great measure of quality control? "Well, the quality of what got released was exactly as I intended - and what I intended was to do something nobody else was doing. From that point of view my lack of commercial success was inevitable." So: better to have been a cult pioneer than a rich nonentity who sold out. "It's better to know and fulfil your purpose in life," he says, "whatever that may be. It's somebody else's assumption that I was supposed to be a big pop star. I don't think I've ever done anything to sabotage my career. We did the shows, we made the records, and at one point in the Seventies we were huge."

Nowadays, when he isn't touring, he lives in Hawaii. His contentment apparently derives not so much from his music as from his experience of fatherhood. He's still close to Liv Tyler, whom he raised during the years when her real father, Steve Tyler of Aerosmith, was occupied in drug hell. Rundgren is also extraordinarily proud of his three sons, Rex, 23, Randy, 18, and Rebop, 12. The older two have both recently signed to play professional baseball.

"I've got the thing I wanted most of all, which is a successful family. It comes from a complete reaction to what an awful dad mine was. I mean, he was an adequate provider and gave me my work ethic, but his own dad disappeared when he was eight, and he had no siblings. So when it came time to being a dad himself, he had no clue what the heck was going on. He just yelled at us." But man, pace Philip Larkin, doesn't always hand on misery to man. "I remember thinking at the time, 'When I have kids, they're never gonna feel like I feel now.' It doesn't mean you'll be naturally good at it. It takes a lot of work."

So, to the many talents of Todd Rundgren - songwriter, showman, production maestro, pop visionary, multimedia magus, soul survivor - we can add "responsible dad".

Todd Rundgren and The Liars play the Symphony Hall, Birmingham, tonight; Royal Festival Hall, London ( www.rfh.org.uk) tomorrow; Carling Academy, Glasgow ( www.carlinglive.com) Saturday; Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, Sunday The album 'Liars' is out now on Sanctuary. Rundgren's DVD box set is out now on BMG

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