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Utopian Idol

Todd Rundgren has no time for fibbers

By Greg Cahill

It's easy to imagine Al Franken's satirical barb Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them perched on Todd Rundgren's nightstand. After all, deception of every kind is at the center of the songs that fill the pop legend's most recent album, the aptly titled Liars (Sanctuary).

"When I started writing material for this record, I didn't have a whole concept yet," the 56-year-old rocker recently explained to Manhunt.com. "But the first song I did was 'Wondering.' It was my reaction to the 2000 presidential election, and the completely surreal nature of it. It really made me see that we go through life thinking certain things are true, and then reality is thrust upon you and you realize you've been living a lie, a complete lie--that you don't seem to be able to count on anything anymore."

Liars is packed with prevarications: the little white lies we tell our loved ones to avoid hurting their feelings; the half-truths we tell our friends; the big, black lies we tell ourselves. Once Rundgren started thinking about the vein of dishonesty and self-delusion that runs through our lives, he realized he'd tapped into a veritable mother lode of fabrication.

Thus, the album cover sports a portrait of him dressed as the Easter Bunny--after all, we even practice a paucity of truth by perpetuating lame-brained myths for our kids.

Musically, the album--Rundgren's first new studio release in seven years (his 2000 CD One Long Year compiled singles that had been issued on his PatroNet website), and his first straight-ahead pop album after 15 years of experimentation--is a return to form for a maverick who has walked away from a number of trailblazing paths. Liars has even drawn favorable comparisons to 1983's Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect and 1978's Hermit of Mink Hollow, two of Rundgren's best albums. And rightly so.

From the bittersweet blue-eyed soul of "Sweet" to the gothic chant of "Mammon" to the stinging guitar attack of the title track, Liars qualifies as one of the angriest, most engaging protest albums to come along in years. Rundgren even levels his sights on the vacant promises of organized religion ("Afterlife").

Of course, this transformation might mean something to the legions of diehard Rundgren fans who continue to engage in online "Todd is God" debates. But an entire generation (or two) has missed out on one of rock 'n' roll's most innovative geniuses.

A little history may be in order.

Rundgren's first group, the Nazz, emerged in 1967 as a domestic knock-off of the British Invasion bands (their first hit, "Open My Eyes," was a send-up of the Who's "Can't Explain"). Rundgren, who had a knack for expressing his sensitive side, made his solo debut with 1970's pop-ish "We Gotta Get You a Woman." A Wizard, a True Star, from 1973, replicates an entire acid trip and is considered an art-rock triumph.

From there, Rundgren moved on and created a new band, Utopia. He went solo again. The hits piled up: "Hello It's Me," "Can We Still Be Friends," "Real Man," "Bang the Drum All Day." Each commercial success was followed by Rundgren setting off in a new artistic direction: Philly soul, pop, hard rock, a cappella, gospel, ska, electronic music, lounge--the results were uneven, but always produced flashes of brilliance.

In the meantime, he produced a host of Beatle-esque cult hits for the likes of Patti Smith, the Psychedelic Furs and XTC. But it is his fascination with technology--and his willingness to forsake stardom in favor of innovation--that has set him apart. In the mid-'80s, it wasn't uncommon to find Rundgren playing small clubs with nothing but a fledgling Mac Classic (about as powerful as your cell phone), a keyboard and a home movie screen, working his technological magic.

Rundgren, who produced the first two commercially released music videos (one of which was nominated for the first-ever Grammy award for Best Short Form Video), has an impressive list of landmark feats: first interactive live TV concert live (1978); first music video to combine live action and computer graphics (1980); first graphics paint-box software for a computer (1982); the first live national cablecast of a rock concert (1982); and the first interactive CD project (1993).

More recently, he has operated a landmark subscription website, pioneering the distribution of original downloadable songs over the Internet.

"I guess the common element in all of those projects is a certain sense of adventure, part of which is the disinclination to repeat things that I've done before or to do exactly what everyone else is doing, even if it happens to be something that I used to do and has suddenly become popular," Rundgren told me a few years ago. "I guess in that sense I am self-consciously alternative. It's not because of an effort to satisfy an audience need; it's my own need to hear and to experiment with things that are different or new to me, to constantly absorb new influences.

"Sometimes I absorb so many new influences that it seems to obliterate anything that I've done previously, but eventually it all gets merged together in some kind of stew and, ideally, comes out as recognizably me," he said, adding with a laugh, "eventually."

And that's the truth.


Todd Rundgren and the Liars (with guitarist Jesse Gress, keyboardist John Ferenzik, bassist Kasim Sulton of Utopia, and drummer Prairie Prince of the Tubes) perform Tuesday, Sept. 14, at the Mystic Theatre, 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 8pm. $30. 707.765.2121.

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From the September 8-14, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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