The Untold Truth Of Todd Rundgren

At the dawn of the 1970s, Todd Rundgren was establishing himself as a talented pop songwriter. After a short stint with his late-'60s psychedelic band Nazz, Rundgren began to taste commercial success with his early solo albums, including his hit 1972 album "Something/Anything?" Although his solo work saw airplay and comparisons to talented songwriters like Carole King, something was brewing inside Rundgren: a thirst to turn against pop songs that saw mainstream success and toward unorthodox sounds that would surprise the masses.

As the years went on, Rundgren became a sonic innovator as a solo artist, a member of progressive rock band Utopia, and a pioneer of the power pop genre. He produced a handful of major albums of the '70s, including Badfinger's "Straight Up," Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell," and The New York Dolls' self-titled debut. But despite his prolific output, the man behind the music remains, in many ways, a mystery. Here's what you may not know about Todd Rundgren, his innovations, his influences, and his impact.

Todd Rundgren was influenced by singer-songwriter Laura Nyro — and vice versa

In March 1968, singer-songwriter Laura Nyro released her sophomore album, "Eli and the Thirteenth Confession." The record had a significant impact on Todd Rundgren, who was entering the music scene at that time with his band, Nazz. He was struck by "her own very original and very jazz-influenced way of seeing things," as he said during an interview for Pure Music. "Beyond the elements of her composition, I always thought it was the way she played her own material that really sold it," he continued. "Nobody ever did a cover version of a Laura Nyro song that was as good as her original version."

Rundgren recalled meeting Nyro shortly after the release of the "Eli" album. "We got along, and we were kind of friendly, and actually, after I met her the first time, she asked me if I wanted to be her band leader," Rundgren told Pure Music. "But The Nazz had just signed a record contract and I couldn't skip out on the band, even though it was incredibly tempting."

Still, Rundgren ended up working with Nyro 15 years later, on her eighth studio album, "Mother's Spiritual." She enlisted his help in recording the songs, but he didn't have the patience to mix them. "The pace at which she worked was so slow that I couldn't stick for the duration," he recalled later. "But I did get to work with her and knew her for a good period of her professional life."

Todd Rundgren's biggest hit was about a short-lived high school relationship

During his senior year at Upper Darby High School, Todd Rundgren experienced his first taste of heartbreak. "She probably liked me because I was the only guy in school with long hair," Rundgren told The Wall Street Journal of the relationship. "We became close and hugged and kissed a lot at parties." But it was his long hair that brought their romance to a halt — his girlfriend's parents saw it, decided he was bad news, and ordered her to end it. "Just like that, she stopped talking to me and wouldn't take my calls," Rundgren recalled. "I adored her and was heartbroken, almost suicidal."

The following year, in 1967, he wrote his first song, "Hello, It's Me," about the experience. According to The Wall Street Journal, Rundgren first recorded the song as a slow ballad with his band Nazz in 1968. Then, in 1971, he recorded a more upbeat version of the song for his solo album "Something/Anything?" In 1973, the song became Rundgren's biggest solo hit, charting for 20 weeks.

He later recalled how, 30 years after the heartbreak, his ex-girlfriend called him, but he kept his tone "businesslike." "Our lives had gone in two different directions and we really had nothing to say to each other," he said. "I think I also wanted to hold onto the image I had of her in high school. I never told her she was the inspiration for the song."

Comparisons to Carole King led Todd Rundgren to abandon the pursuit of commercial success

Todd Rundgren recorded his album "Something/Anything?" in 1971, just months after Carole King released her best-selling album "Tapestry." "People started referring to me as the male Carole King, and I was a Carole King fan but it bothered me, being compared to somebody else," Rundgren recalled during his 2017 commencement address for the Berklee College of Music. "You don't want to be compared to other people, you want other people being compared to you."

In a way, the comparisons turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as they pushed Rundgren in a more original direction with his music. "I was writing like a hypocrite," he said, "and so I made this crazy record called 'A Wizard, A True Star,' on which I threw out all the rules of record-making and decided that I would try to imprint, as much as possible, the chaos in my head right onto a record without trying to clean it up for everyone else's benefit. The result was, as I mentioned, a complete loss of about half of my audience at that time."

While the change in direction was not successful from a commercial or critical standpoint, Rundgren saw it as a personal victory: "I have a special pride for what essentially was my act of tyranny after having achieved commercial success, and this became the model for my life after that."

Psychedelic drugs played a major role in the formation of Todd Rundgren's unorthodox sound

In addition to comparisons to other artists, a key factor in Todd Rundgren's change of sonic direction was his discovery of hallucinogenic drugs. "I've taken a whole lot of psychedelics in my life," he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2017. "I do it whenever I feel like I'm at some sort of plateau or my progress seems to have slowed and I need to shake myself up or see things in a different way. It was never about how high I could get. It was about getting to a place where I could open my mind."

According to Paul Myers' 2010 biography "A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio," Rundgren's first hallucinogenic experience was with DMT, or dimethyltryptamine, which he thought "tasted like melted plastic bags." Even so, the experience led him to other psychedelics. "I soon became fascinated with the whole idea of psychedelic drugs, and started doing mescaline, psilocybin, mushrooms, and things like that. I never took acid, to my knowledge, but I imagine it would have been similar to some of the other experiences I'd had."

Rundgren applied these experiences during the making of "A Wizard, A True Star." "I became more aware," he told Myers, "of what music and sound were like in my internal environment, and how different that was from the music I had been making. My new challenge was to try to map, as directly as I could, the various kinds of chaotic musical element in my head."

Todd Rundgren played Eric Clapton's iconic 'Fool' guitar in the 1970s

Eric Clapton's Psychedelic SG guitar, also known as the "Fool" guitar, has a special place in rock 'n' roll history. Clapton played the guitar in Cream, including on the albums "Disraeli Gears" and "Wheels of Fire, Goodbye." What truly embedded the axe in the eyes of rock 'n' roll fans was the paint job, which was the handiwork of Dutch design collective and onetime band the Fool. The resulting design depicted a winged sprite on a cloud, among stars and flames and alongside a grassy, mountainous landscape.

According to Gibson, Todd Rundgren first admired Clapton's guitar on March 25, 1967, while Cream was playing at the RKO Theater. Shortly thereafter, Clapton left the guitar with George Harrison, who loaned it to fellow musician Jackie Lomax in 1968. In 1972, after bumping into Rundgren in Woodstock, Lomax sold the guitar — now a little worse for wear — to Rundgren for just $500, with the condition that Lomax had the option to buy it back. He never returned for the guitar. Rundgren repaired it, and continued to play it as his primary guitar until the late '70s.

Then, in the 1980s, a Japanese fan gave Rundgren a handmade replica, which Rundgren told Vintage Guitar was "a bit better-sounding than the original." Rundgren sold the original guitar at a Sotheby's auction for $150,000 in 2000. Years later, the Fool was re-sold for half a million dollars.

Todd Rundgren had a public beef with John Lennon

In a 1974 interview with Melody Maker magazine, Todd Rundgren made a stab at the rarely-stabbed John Lennon. "John Lennon ain't no revolutionary," Rundgren said (via Far Out magazine). "He's a f**king idiot, man. Shouting about revolution and acting like an ass." In response, Lennon wrote an open letter to Rundgren, titled "AN OPENED LETTUCE TO SODD RUNTLESTUNTLE," in which he made multiple lighthearted jabs at Rundgren. He concluded the letter with, "However much you hurt me darling; I'll always love you" (via Far Out).

Rundgren was asked about the so-called feud during a 2013 interview for The Guardian. "That was more of a stunt, really, cooked up by the paper so they could splatter the acrimony across their pages like blood!" he said. "Ultimately, though, John and I realized we were being used and I got a phone call from him one day and we just said: 'Let's drop this now.'"

The Lennon-Rundgren dispute was dug up once more after Lennon was shot by Mark David Chapman, an obsessive Rundgren fan who was wearing a Rundgren t-shirt when he was arrested. "If you're going to get seriously down with the muck of the human experience," Rundgren told The Guardian, "you're going to have to deal with other people and all the weirdness that comes with them."

Liv Tyler grew up thinking Todd Rundgren was her father

Despite bearing a striking resemblance to her biological father, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, actor Liv Tyler thought Todd Rundgren was her father until she was 11 years old. "Todd basically decided when I was born that I needed a father so he signed my birth certificate," Liv told Wonderland. "He knew that there was a chance that I might not be his ... I'm so grateful to him, I have so much love for him. You know, when he holds me it feels like Daddy. And he's very protective and strong."

Rundgren had decided that assuming the role of Liv's father was the responsible thing to do. "I could have called up Steven and said, 'Hey, you're involved in this,'" Rundgren said in a 2018 interview with Variety. "But from my knowledge of the people involved, I for some reason concluded that the only choice I had was to get involved." 

Even beyond his split from Liv's mother, Bebe Buell, and Liv's discovery of the truth, Rundgren remained a father figure for Liv. "I'm so grateful to Todd for choosing to be a father figure to me," Liv told The Guardian in 2017. "It's a big thing for a man to say, 'I know this kid might not be mine, but I still want to be her father.' Although he and my mom weren't together, he was always a very stable, loving force in my life."

Todd Rundgren has a reputation as an 'aloof' producer

Despite his producing talents, Todd Rundgren has a track record for being a little difficult in the studio. In "A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio," Paul Myers wrote that the word that "most frequently came to the lips of [Rundgren's] clients and associates... was 'genius.' The second most frequent, however, was 'sarcastic,' with 'aloof' running close behind."

In a 2010 episode of Rundgren Radio, Waymon Boone recalled briefly working with Rundgren on the debut album of his alt-rock band, Splender. "We definitely had a very hard, angry, negative experience of making the record," Boone recalled, adding that the band fired Rundgren after three weeks. "[While recording], we'd see his feet up, we'd see him typing onto his computer, and we'd see him flipping through a magazine on his other side ... And then there would just be silence ... And we were just crapping our pants ... And he was always so rude to [his fans]."

In an interview with the Star Tribune, 12 Rods member Ev Olcott described a similar experience. "All he would do was press the 'record' button and go back to doing crossword puzzles," he said. His brother and bandmate, Ryan Olcott, added: "Some of those songs are good, but Todd Rundgren did the absolute worst job possible with that record."

Todd Rundgren had a hand in launching Sparks' career

Todd Rundgren produced the 1971 debut album of pop-rock duo Sparks, and the band's members, brothers Ron and Russell Mael, have since credited Rundgren with launching their career. "The record was a curiosity but had no real commercial success," Rundgren told biographer Paul Myers later. "It would take them a few years, and probably a few tours, to start connecting with a broader audience."

Talking to Myers for the Rundgren biography "A Wizard, A True Star," Russell sang Rundgren's praises. "It may sound corny, but if it hadn't been for Todd, there might not have been a Sparks, so we owe him the whole thing," he said. "It's actually kind of sad and strange that our paths haven't crossed at all in 40 years. There are a few people in our past that you would really like to say nasty things about, but we don't have anything nasty to say about Todd."

Fifty years after their initial collaboration, Rundgren reunited with Sparks for their 2021 single "Your Fandango." "It's been a truly heartwarming experience to once again be working with Todd, our first-ever producer, after a brief 50-year hiatus," Sparks said (via NME).

Todd Rundgren is responsible for some major innovations in music production and distribution

Todd Rundgren was a trailblazer with his use of — and in some cases, invention of — new technologies. The late '70s to early '80s were a particularly innovative time for Rundgren. According to Sound on Sound, Rundgren organized and performed the first ever interactive concert broadcast through television, which involved audiences choosing the songs they wanted to hear. The following year, he opened his multi-million-dollar Utopia Video Studios.

In 1980, Rundgren created the world's first color graphics tablet, the Utopia Graphics Tablet, which was licensed to Apple. Also in 1980, he created the first music video to combine computer graphics with live action, which was the eighth video ever broadcast on MTV, per TR Connection. His many notable innovations also include the world's first interactive CD, "New World Order."

"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 Bohemian. "It's my own need to hear and to experiment with things that are different or new to me; to constantly absorb new influences."

Todd Rundgren got married for the first time on his 50th birthday

Todd Rundgren married dancer and backup singer Michele Grey in 1998, on his 50th birthday. Prior to that, he had been decidedly anti-marriage. "I would go to the receptions or the parties, but I would never attend the actual weddings, because I knew that they were standing up there promising to do something that they kind of had their fingers crossed about," Rundgren explained in a 2018 interview for Variety. "I thought that that whole exercise of getting up in front of people and making this "till death do us part" declaration was an exercise in a certain kind of hypocrisy. The fact that you got up there and swore that in front of everyone essentially ensured the failure of your marriage, and so I just determined never to do that."

Rundgren's eventual marriage was born partly out of his contrarianism. "It was my 50th birthday and I had done pretty much everything in the world," he told Variety, "and I said, 'Well, what can I do that I've never done before, that will really shock my friends?' I decided: Get married!"

Although the union was an act of rebellion, Rundgren admits he's had a tamer existence ever since. "The reality is, my life has been a lot more boring," he said. " My kids became more the focus of my life. I moved to Hawaii and started living this sort of pastoral existence, and I don't run into celebrities or anything anymore, unless they happen to be out here on the island."

Todd Rundgren was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2021

In 2021, after being nominated for the third straight year, Todd Rundgren was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside the likes of Jay-Z, Foo Fighters, and Carole King. It's likely that Rundgren wasn't totally bowled over by the overdue honor, as he has been vocal about his indifference to it in the past.

"This is an institution that arose within my lifetime," he said of the Hall of Fame in a 2016 interview for Charleston City Paper. "If I told you about how they actually determine who gets into the Hall of Fame, you'd think that I was b*llsh*tting you, because I've been told what's involved ... It's very weird ... It's just as corrupt as anything else, and that's why I don't care."

He echoed these sentiments to Billboard following his 2021 nomination. "It's no secret that I don't care about it," he said. "It doesn't matter how many times they nominate me. It's not gonna make me care."