A Conversation with Todd Rundgren (continued)
PM: I'd like to mention some of your songs to get your thoughts about what inspired them and how they came about... "Love of the Common Man."
TR: From a lyrical standpoint, it's fairly mysterious. From a musical standpoint it may have some influence from folk-rock. It's got shades of the Buffalo Springfield and other sorts of things, and possibly early Eagles and Jackson Browne. But from a lyrical standpoint, it's part of a whole class of songs that I write, which are about filial love. That's what that song, and songs like "Love Is The Answer" and "Compassion" are supposed to be about. I'm not a Christian, but it's called Christian love, [laughs] the love that people are supposed to naturally feel because we are all of the same species. That may be mythical, but it's still a subject.
PM: "Just One Victory" is in the same category.
TR: That's sort of the same thing, but also some of the songs are meant not necessarily to exhort. In a way, the song sounds like it's an exhortation to a specific thing, but it isn't. It's supposed to be more uplifting or inspirational and you apply to it the obstacle that you're trying to overcome and the goal that you're trying to reach.
TR: As I said, I'm not a Christian and I am not a materialist. Unfortunately, I'm in a country full of Christian materialists. I still have the sensibility that makes a lot of people think that I am born again or something like that. In fact, a lot of my songs are covered by Christian artists in the mistaken assumption that if I say "he," "it" or something like that, that I'm referring to their God or their prophet. But my religious beliefs, in some ways, are much more simple and they're much more strict, at least from my standpoint. One is, in my religion, you don't take the name of the Lord Thy God in vain, which is you never, ever align yourself with the so-called Almighty. Because you have no fucking comprehension of what that is, and how dare you assume to know [laughs] what the Almighty, whatever the hell that is, is thinking. And so whenever people say, "God wants this" or "God tells us to do this," that to me is profane.
So in that sense, I'm only asking people to do what people are capable of doing. And in any one of those songs I mentioned, I have derived it out of the good book. My basic philosophy is very simple. We can solve our problems. Why? Because we created them. Stop bringing God into it. [laughs] We've got plenty enough knowledge and plenty enough resources that we can create any sort of paradise that people think they can imagine. We just don't. And that's what I'm writing about.
PM: "Bag Lady."
TR: There are certainly eras in which I'm not looking to do much more than write a song that's clear and concise and simply and directly performed. On an album like Hermit of Mink Hollow, my objectives weren't much beyond that. I was writing songs that were intended to be performed on the piano, and that didn't require a huge amount of extra embellishment beyond the bass and drums. Most of the arrangement was done with voices. Of course, there were guitars and other things, but most of the embellishment was with vocal arrangements. In a case like that, the songwriting process can appear to be fairly conventional. But I would say that I probably still did not have the lyrics completed until I had the track completed and that would be true of most of the songs on that record.
PM: That song has a beautifully poetic lyric.
TR: It's important to me that my lyrics have a certain poetry to them, and the only way I can make that happen is if I have a full understanding of what it is I'm trying to express. This is why I don't sit down right away and start jabbering out lyrics as soon as I've got a glimmer of an idea about what the song is. That's only the start of it for me if I think I know what the song is about. Once I think I know what the song is about, I have to exhaust my own though processes on the topic because the first person that I have to provide for in a musical sense is me. I have to be able to listen to the stuff afterwards and not say to myself, "What the hell were you thinking?" [laughs] Because I've listened to records that I've done, especially early on, when I didn't take the process as seriously, and I say, "What the hell were you thinking writing words like that? You couldn't have spent an extra five minutes and completed that thought properly?"
Now I put off the finalization of the lyrics until right before I sing. That's the only way I can come up with my sort of poetry. I'll have fragments of lyrics laying around all through the process. One liners, as it were. But they can grow into more elaborate ideas. Usually, if I bother to write something down, I consider it a breakthrough. I've somehow reached a moment of clarity in a topic. In particular, if it's something that people have written about before, why should I write the same thing? I have to come up with some new insight on the subject, or what's the point of me beating a horse that somebody's already beaten to death.
PM: "Bang the Drum All Day."
TR: Then there are the few songs that come about because of this general immersion thing. When I start immersing myself in a soup of musical and conceptual ideas, I will begin to actually dream fully completed songs. They may be completely unrelated to everything else I'm doing. It isn't necessarily during the recording process. "Bang on the Drum" was something that just popped into my head one night, and I think this was after I'd developed a discipline to work out the changes in my head. Not as if there was much to work out, it was so stupidly simple. I don't know that the song in my head was called "Bang On The Drum All Day," but the musical part of it was fairly complete. The title lyric must've been in there too. Songs like that, I can't deny them. In other words, I have to finish them, and I have to put them on the record, even if they don't sound like they belong to me. If a song comes to you completely realized, then that's really your muse at work.
If it comes to you completely realized and you don't know what it's about, and you have to figure it out, you think, "Where did it come from?" Well it came from inside me somewhere. So there must be something in me, yet another thing that I have to uncover and examine in order to fully understand myself. For me, that's what I have to get out of the music. A greater understanding of myself. Why I do the things I do. Why I think the way I think.
PM: "Life Goes On."
It was obviously an homage to "Eleanor Rigby." In that sense, the subject
matter might be considered almost the same. We're not only parodying the
music, we're parodying the lyrical idea. All the lonely people, et cetera.
[laughs] In that sense, I'm not sure that there's anything but a different
kind of poetry in the song. You might say that it doesn't mean anything
more or less than "Eleanor Rigby" does.