This story originally appeared in the February 1993 issue of Spin, which was partially written and guest-edited by members of the SNL cast. Read interviews and stories from comedy icons of the era–Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Tim Meadows, Lorne Michaels and others–in our package of highlighted stories from the issue.
The word genius is thrown around ever so loosely nowadays, but in the case of Todd Rundgren, anyone familiar with his work would agree that he fits that category. For almost three decades, Rundgren has been a major originator in the arts, from his early days leading the influential Philly-based band Nazz through his pop hits period (“Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light”), to his pioneering videos in the early ’80s, and, currently, his avant-garde musical and technological explorations. Dana is a longtime fan and friend of Rundgren’s, while Rundgren contributed to the Thelonious Monk and Kurt Weill concept albums I produced. –Hal Willner
Dana Carvey: Todd Flungren?
Todd Rundgren: Certainly.
Carvey: Dana Scarkey with Hal Billner. What do you think of Madonna?
Rundgren: We don’t have to start there, right?
Carvey: No, we don’t have to. That’d be too complicated.
Hal Willner: Try this. In the historical sense, how do you view yourself, as a singer, composer, or guitar player?
Rundgren: I’m a gearhead kind of guy. Most of the stuff I’m working on now has something to do with computers. The music that I’m working on now is interactive music.
Willner: What do you mean by interactive music?
Rundgren: Well, I’ve reinvented myself as an artist – now, there’s a scoop for you. When I got off of Warner Bros. about 18 months ago, I had this whole issue regarding where I was going to position myself for the rest of my recording life, because I’ve been spending a lot more time messing around with computers. When I got into the music business in the late ’60s, it was totally different. People our age always go around saying, “Wasn’t the music better back then?” The whole industry was different then. When I first got into it, when I got out of high school back in 1966, the Beatles were just hitting their peak and people were beginning to realize that there was some degree of legitimacy in the music business. Nobody went out expecting to be a musician for the rest of his or her life. The whole industry expanded so fast, there was this gold rush thing. A pivotal moment was Frampton Comes Alive!, when there was such a thing as a multiplatinum album. Everything had to be multiplatinum.
Carvey: For movies, it was Jaws – basically, the first blockbuster.
Rundgren: The whole blockbuster concept, after which the record companies are no longer independent. They get bought up by larger corporations and get run out of the country. Van Morrison? He’s selling 50,000 albums? Drop him. Doesn’t matter if someone is a musical icon anymore. They get judged solely on the basis of their record sales.
Carvey: And how do you view the situation today?
Rundgren: What happened eventually was that it was shot way out the other end, that music had very little to do with it. Did you see The Player? The whole scene where they’re talking about eliminating the writer and then, ultimately, well, if we could just figure out how to get rid of the director and the actor. The whole music business has been moving that way, and that’s why you have phenomena such as Madonna and Michael Jackson, where the music is the souvenir of the experience. The value in and of itself is like buying a T-shirt. You have to know it so you can discuss with some acuity Madonna’s latest outrage at a cocktail party.
Carvey: Don’t you think that some people are simply professional celebrities?
Rundgren: That’s what I’m saying: They excuse the music business as a by-product of what they’re doing. The fact that Madonna is also a platinum-selling recording artist excuses people from trying to imitate the music that she makes when the music that she makes isn’t the important thing that she’s doing. So I had to get some distance between myself and what the music business had ultimately become. I decided to become an interactive artist because that involves things that I can specialize in, such as computers. At that point I realized the whole way that music of this ilk gets made and marketed is completely different. For one thing, you don’t go to a record label with these kinds of leading-edge formats such as CD-I [Compact Disc Interactive, a video-CD system with a remote-controlled joystick] and fiber-optic, direct-home delivery, and all of the other things that will be happening in five or ten years and say, “Sign me, and then I’ll figure out what to do with the music.” So, I did it the other way around: I’m an interactive artist and when I go to a record company, I license them a port for an interactive format. So the next record will come out not only as a CD, but it will be coming out as various other formats, particularly CD-I, and possibly other devices as well.
Carvey: How conventional is the source material, so to speak, the original CD, in terms of your last few albums?
Rundgren: It’s nothing like the past few albums.
Carvey: A complete departure?
Rundgren: As one might expect, yeah.
Willner: Well, it’s still you as artist, you have control of the options.
Rundgren: An artist can have as much control as he wants, but the difference is it’s a different agenda for the musician that makes his work a little more like painting or sculpture. There’s not a strict format in which the audience comes to the artwork and observes the message in the artwork. A sculptor is never sure exactly what the light is going to be on the object. It may be an ideal light, but it changes as you move around the object. So the way that the message is conveyed in a piece of sculpture is completely different than in music; you don’t put a time limit on how long someone can look at the piece of sculpture, and you don’t normally enforce the angle at which they can look at it or even the environment in which they can look at it. And that essentially gives a bit more of an interpretive option to the audience that a musician normally doesn’t give them. Musicians are extremely anal. Among all artists, musicians are the greatest plagiarists of all, and yet they have a very strict agenda about the way they want people to experience what they’ve stolen. Most musicians get very anal about the sounds and exact details of the performance, often to the extent of completely obscuring their true personalities and creating completely synthetic personalities bu striving for this false perfection. And then, if they had the option, they would walk into everyone’s homes and tune their stereo sets so that it would sound the way that they thought the record should sound.
Willner: What’s your most misunderstood record?
Rundgren: That hasn’t been a problem lately, because I’m not cranking out the hits like I used to. The most publicly misunderstood, of course, is “We Gotta Get You a Woman,” where people underestimate sometimes the ability of a lyric to work in a strictly grammatical sense. There’s a line where it says, “Things about her are special when they may be stupid but they sure are fun.” And women, feminist groups, thought I was talking about women. They said, “Examine it from a strictly grammatical standpoint,” but they is referring to things, not people. But as I recall, there were a couple radio stations that got bomb threats for playing the record.
Carvey: I’ve got to say I agree with those people.
Rundgren: I suppose the other more publicly misunderstood things are records that never went public. “Jesse” [about Republican Senator Jesse Helms] was never released on a record and most people consider it some kind of angry diatribe, but I consider it a very tender, loving moment. It hasn’t made a big difference, I suppose, because I’ve been invited to the inaugural ball. And now I’m wondering if it’s because of that that I’ve been invited to the inaugural ball.
Willner: I guess you voted.
Rundgren: Oh yeah, always vote. Must vote.
Willner: Who in the Clinton camp invited you?
Rundgren: Apparently somebody in the camp. That’s one of the advantages of getting older. My friends are moving into the establishment. I’ve got friends on Saturday Night Live even. One day I might play the show …
Carvey: That’d be incredible.
Rundgren: Before I die.
Carvey: What do you think when your audience doesn’t really know you like I know you, and you come out with a hat on that says “blow me” and then you sing “Only Human” or “Kindness” in black leotards.
Rundgren: What it means essentially is don’t take yourself so fucking seriously. If you do take it seriously or if you do visualize yourself blowing me, then you’ve got a problem. It’s such a great phrase [“blow me”] because it has none of the forbidden words in it, but it has all the forbidden implications. In other words, you can go on television any hour of the day or night and say “blow me.” On the radio or any public forum, you can say “blow me.” Blow is a word you can put in any context you want. So just remember that, when you get especially frustrated.