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Todd Rundgren

A Conversation with Todd Rundgren (continued)

PM: Are there any songs from your catalog that are favorites of yours that you feel were overlooked?

TR: Oh, hundreds. [laughs] Not any one in particular. I'm always surprised about the songs that do reach people sometimes. Like I say, "Bang on the Drum" is not really a song that I characterize as stylistically mine. But there's something undeniable in the response to it that's taken it to a whole other dimension. When it gets played at all these sporting events, and everyone knows the song, but nobody knows who they're listening to. A small fraction of the people at any Rams game or Green Bay game, when they play it as a celebration song, a tiny number of those people are probably aware of the fact that they're singing along with me. The rest of the people have no clue, but they know the song.

In that sense, as a musician, there's probably no higher goal to aspire to than to have your music transcend you and penetrate the culture in a way that very few people are able to consciously do. Consciously create something that becomes a cultural icon in one sense or another. So it doesn't bother me that nobody knows that it's me they're singing along with. It pleases me that I'm connected to something that connects me with everyone who just gets off on singing that song. Me and them have something in common. I don't feel so separated from them now. [laughs]

PM: Do you have any dream projects you've always wanted to do?

TR: After I did Up Against It for the Public Theater, which wasn't a commercial success and has never been mounted again, I'd like to see perhaps a new show written and the music be applied to that, and that's certainly possible. Or, have the Joe Orton estate consider remounting it and allow some sort of rewrite or rearrangement of what was originally an unfinished work anyway. In other words, the stage play was originally supposed to be a movie script. It never made it past the first draft. And yet, with this kind of threadbare thing, they were trying to make a whole musical. A lot of the story was nonsensical and hard for people to relate to in terms of what issues it was representing, since it was written in the 60s. But Joseph Papp asked me after that if I would consider writing an opera for the Public Theater. And I was very much excited about the possibility of doing that. Unfortunately, his health deteriorated quickly after that, and he had to leave the helm. The next person coming in was not necessarily beholden to any previous projects. So I never got to do that, and I always thought that would be fun to do.

PM: Other projects?

TR: As time goes on, there are things I thought I wanted to do that now seem just purely like vanity. It's not as if I wouldn't consider doing them, but I couldn't do what, for instance, Paul McCartney does, which is come up with a bunch of little melodies and give them to an arranger to overinflate, and then pretend I'm conducting an orchestra. If I was going to write a symphony, I'd have to write a frickin' symphony. [laughs] And before I would do that, I'd probably take some of the instrumental music I've written and rearrange it perhaps for an orchestra. It does sound vain, but from a musical standpoint, it's where I started. That's the only kind of music I was originally aware of. When I was young, I yearned to do that, and I indulged myself in my early solo albums. I do it whenever I get a chance and it's appropriate, I ape an orchestra. I do it even in my most recent project. The question is, do I have the time and discipline to do something like that properly? I don't really care to attempt it with all the other things I could do. If I was going to come up with twenty minutes of orchestral music, it might take me five or ten years to get it right. [laughs] It's not the kind of thing you want to take on idly.

PM: As a producer, you work with a lot of songwriters. What advice can you offer them?

TR: When I get involved in record production, the first thing that I always make a determination on is whether the material is ready to be taken in the studio. I tell them--because I have to tell myself the same thing all the time, it's like anything else in life--the first 95% of it takes 95% of the effort. And then the last 5% takes another 95% of the effort. [laughs] People are often in a hurry to get done. At least for me, if you want to write songs, they get written when they're ready. You don't just say, "Okay, today I'm going to finish this." For me, it's all about a state of mental equipoise and it's all about the poetry of it. If it doesn't sound like poetry to me, then I'm not done. I still have more work to do.

Songwriters, automobile manufacturers, anybody--it all applies. People get most of it done, and then they're just in a hurry to finish up. The really remarkable aspect of anything is in the detailing. A painting looks like one thing when you're standing far away from it, but when you get up close, you can see the real difference between a master painter and somebody who's just sloshing paint around on the canvas. It's in those little brushstrokes.

My advice for songwriters is to take the time. I have to say that all the time. "Couldn't you have just spent another five minutes on the bridge?" [laughs] In a sense, you could say, it's never done. There's always room for improvement. I'm always looking to change a word here, a word there, a note here, a note there, just to constantly push it towards the best that I can make it.

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