Back in the 1970s, Todd Rundgren didn't hesitate to weave an aura around the fact that he was one of rock's first do-it-yourselfers.
He dubbed himself "Wizard" in one album title and "Hermit" in another. Fans could picture Rundgren as a skinny, long-faced studio gnome, an eccentrically humorous guru of recording technology, huddled alone in high-tech solitude as he spun out crafty pop unaided by other human hands. Rundgren created almost all of his landmark 1972 album, "Something/Anything," working by himself in a studio rigged up in his living room.
Lately, though, Rundgren has taken off the mask of a technological Lone Ranger. Last year, the "Nearly Human" album consisted of live-in-the-studio performances by Rundgren and a large backing ensemble of singers and players. Now, the erstwhile hermit is about to step out of the studio entirely. Next month, Rundgren and his 11-member band are scheduled to record an album of new songs in a series of five theater shows in San Francisco. The idea is to get a strong performance of each song, without overdubbing. If there are any flubs, Rundgren will call another take and start over from the beginning.
The need to minimize flubs is what brings Rundgren and band to the Coach House for a series of shows beginning Saturday night. The aim is to perfect the new songs in time for those San Francisco recording dates.
Speaking recently from his home in Marin County, where he was busy writing his new material on deadline, Rundgren said that his own contrarian impulses play a large part in his recent emphasis on real-time performances. Being a techno-wizard may have been a novelty in the early 1970s, but now digital technology has become the dominant force in pop record making. With so many sounds available from samplers and synthesizers, interaction between flesh-and-blood musicians is being supplanted more and more by computer-generated "performance."
"Once everybody starts doing a certain thing, I feel inclined to do things the other way," Rundgren said. "I started to miss the performance element, the awareness that there were people playing to each other. I wanted to recapture it. My records are a forum for the things I want to hear, but don't hear elsewhere."
Ever since the late 1960s, when he led the Nazz, a Philadelphia-based psychedelic rock band, Rundgren has shown a knack for the sort of catchy tunefulness that is the raw material of most pop hits. But Rundgren's music only occasionally has intersected with a mass audience. Over a 22-year career dating back to the Nazz, he has placed six singles and four albums (including recordings by his now-defunct rock band, Utopia), in the Billboard Top 40.
Rundgren, who celebrated his 42nd birthday Friday, says he is content with his cult status. His creative juices aren't stimulated by the idea of concocting a new pop hit.
"There is absolutely no juice, none of that juice, particularly considering the criteria for a hit single nowadays," Rundgren said, interrupting his urbane conversation with a chuckle. "I feel no loss at not being in the same (category) as Milli Vanilli. Pop music is at a creative nadir nowadays, and it doesn't concern me that I'm not successful. I don't want to devalue some legitimate artists who by some quirk have gotten a good piece of music up in the lofty reaches of the pop charts, but there's something devaluing about being up there with Paula Abdul and Madonna."
Rundgren says the lofty reaches he wants to explore with his music don't involve anything as tangible as a high chart position. Instead, he probes for meaning in the mystical, searching current running through many of his recent songs. "Hawking," from the "Nearly Human" album, is a particularly inspired example. The song is a meditation on human frailty and aspiration, based on the example of Stephen Hawking, the best-selling British author and astrophysicist who reaches out to chart the universe with a mind trapped in a paralyzed body.
"The inspiration (for "Hawking") was not anecdotal--one person with a disease--so much as the concept of what bravery is and what humanity is," Rundgren said. "So many people waste themselves. They just kind of fall into an average consumerist existence, and life is an endless round of the latest TV show and the latest movie. They forget the greater questions of what existence is about, why these things are here for our benefit."
In searching through those big questions, Rundgren often resorts to soul-styled vocals. With his flexible but thin-bodied voice, Rundgren isn't the likeliest soul singer in the world, and his vocal reach sometimes exceeds his grasp as he tries to trace the soul tradition's demanding, gospel-derived swoops, stretches and spirals of voice.
"It is a musical style appropriate to a lot of ideas I want to convey," Rundgren said of his decision to scale soul's peaks when he could comfortably master the easier grades of conventional rock singing. "It's designed to emotionally sensitize an audience. I'm not especially trying to be comfortable. Every so often you have to sing a comfortable song, so you can rest. For me, the value in the performance is to sort of empty yourself and to not feel that you've held back."
"My favorite singer of all time is Marvin Gaye," Rundgren said, continuing his explanation of why he likes to overreach his technical limits. "Sometimes on record his voice cracks or he goes for notes he doesn't hit. If there's an element of what seems like physical strain in it, sometimes that's desirable to convey the urgency of what goes on. That's what makes him for me the best of the Motown singers. I always hated Diana Ross. To me, Diana Ross was the essence of lazy. I don't get off on the people who are comfortable and safe. I get off on the ones who are striving, and you can sense the urgency of what they are doing."
Rundgren says his own artistic striving is aimed these days at preserving the sort of nonconformist ethic of the 1960s that helped spur his own career.
"When Reagan got elected, it really woke me up. I thought, 'God, the yahoos are out of the box now.' It's the responsibility of artists or people of any avocation to preserve that alternative society, where money is of secondary importance, and day-to-day appreciation of the gift of life is of prime concern."
All this sounds like awfully lofty talk from a rocker who, in his younger days, seemed to delight in cracking smirking jokes in songs like the singles bar epic, "Slut," the scatological school-days reminiscence, "Piss Aaron," and the absurdist rocker, "Just Another Onionhead."
Rundgren said his snide side may have been submerged lately, but it isn't missing. Last year he wrote some humorous songs for "Up Against It!" a musical adaptation of a film script that British playwright Joe Orton originally wrote for the Beatles in 1967. The production had an off-Broadway run in New York. That has led Rundgren to begin work on another musical--the script as well as the songs.
"I'm hoping that will be a bigger part of my musical life," said Rundgren, who joins the Kinks' Ray Davies in the ranks of rockers who have written a full production's worth of songs for the musical theater (Rundgren said he wasn't interested in seeing Davies' musical adaptation of Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days," because he thinks the rock Hall of Famer has fallen into "lazy" songwriting habits).
Rundgren said that he is thinking of working humor back into his rock songs as well.
"One concept in the back of my mind is to do an album that's meant to be funny. I will tend toward the ridiculous, probably. My sense of humor depends on a certain amount of things being bizarre."
Todd Rundgren plays tonight at 9 p.m. and Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tonight's show is sold out. Tickets: $25. Information: (714) 496-8930.