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Book Review: A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio by Paul Myers

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As both a solo act and as the de-facto leader of rock band Utopia, Todd Rundgren has had a successful career as a performing musician. But he’s equally well known for his work ‘behind the glass,’ giving shape to sound and extracting the best from the artists he works with.

Named for one of his first solo recordings, A Wizard, A True Star focuses primarily on Rundgren’s work as a producer of such disparate acts as Hall And Oates, Patti Smith, The New York Dolls, and the team behind one of the most successful albums of all time – songwriter Jim Steinman and unlikely rock star Meat Loaf. It’s definitely not a biography – author Paul Myers includes just enough background material to paint an outline of the man, but we learn little about his inner thoughts and feelings. Instead, Myers takes an episodic, project-by-project look at Rundgren’s work, combining technical detail (though thankfully not too much of that) with typical tales of in-the-studio escapades. It’s not without flaws, but the book, as a whole, provides some interesting glimpses into the way music is – or rather, was – made during rock’s ‘golden years,’ while remaining a pleasurable read.

Born in Philadelphia in 1948, Rundgren’s earliest musical influences included Ravel, Holst, and the operettas of Gilbert And Sullivan. Hardly typical fare for burgeoning rock stars, but then Rundgren has never quite fit into any conventional molds. Although he’s had a few hits over the years, his own music, while technically accomplished and harmonically sophisticated, has always been a bit too edgy for mass consumption, a bit too clever, one might argue, for his own commercial good. And as a producer, he’s always worked by his own rules, not always to the record company’s liking – there have been spectacular successes (Bat Out Of Hell, Steinman and Meat Loaf’s over-the-top trailer-trash opera), and some genuine duds (Hall And Oates’ War Babies).

Technology has changed the way music gets made, of course – long gone are the days when rock stars could indulge in months of studio tinkering at a major label’s expense – and the demand for Rundgren’s services as producer tapered off during the ’90s. Always a technology nut (he claims that, had he not been a musician, he’d likely have been a computer programmer), the final chapter of the book deals with Rundgren’s forays into computerized recording technology that, truth be told, is probably already obsolete (Myers painstakingly lists many of the programs Rundgren employs).  He continues to perform and record, but his star has faded, and the book ends with Rundgren largely alone in his studios in Hawaii. His last recording, a supposedly heartfelt tribute to seminal bluesman Robert Johnson that finds Rundgren returning to his blues guitarist roots, was rather flippantly titled Todd Rundgren’s Johnson – a title that seems to sum up his less-than-serious attitude towards his own musical output.

Myers does a fine job tracing the arc of Rundgren’s performing career as well as his work in the studio, benefitting from unfettered access to Rundgren himself and extensive interviews with members of Utopia, as well as many of the artists he’s produced over the years. (In addition to the aforementioned, his clients have included the likes of XTC, The Psychedelic Furs, Cheap Trick, and Grand Funk). Curiously, though, Myers is at his best when simply detailing events as they happened. Quotes, while usually the best source of insight, aren’t always integrated seamlessly, leading to occasional choppy sections. And in an attempt to keep things snappy, Myers employs a few too many exclamation points at the end of declarative sentences, the tone seemingly at odds with Rundgren’s personality – a somewhat prickly guy by most accounts, famously prone to sarcasm, he just doesn’t seem like the type to deliver ‘patter’ quite as jauntily as it’s occasionally rendered here.

But that’s quibbling, really, and apart from a few glaring technical errors (one more proofing before publication would surely have caught several misprints), this is a fine and revealing portrait with an appropriate balance between the man, his music, and his prodigious talents as both player and producer.

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