Archive for September, 2010

Wizard Wednesdays: Dancing Barefoot At Lenny Kaye’s

Posted in Uncategorized on September 29, 2010 by pulmyears

It’s Wizard Wednesday once again.

In case you’re just tuning in, in the past few weeks, I had started what a series of Wednesday blog entries featuring selected content from my upcoming history of the productions of Todd Rundgren, entitled A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio, published by Jawbone Press. Order now!

I remind everyone that my book is not just about Todd Rundgren music, but it is more of anecdotal history of most of Todd Rundgren’s classic studio productions, with exclusive first-hand tales of the studio from Todd and most of the principles from: Meat Loaf: Bat Out Of Hell, Sparks: (Halfnelson), Hall & Oates: War Babies, XTC: Skylarking, New York Dolls: New York Dolls + Cause I Sez So, Patti Smith Group: Wave, The Band: Stage Fright, Cheap Trick: Next Position Please, The Tubes: Remote Control + Love Bomb, Bourgeois Tagg: YoYo, The Pursuit Of Happiness: Love Junk + One Sided Story, Steve Hillage: L, Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now and Grand Funk: We’re An American Band + Shinin’ On. And yes, I even talked with all key Utopia members (all lineups), and get Todd’s take on the making of  Badfinger’s Straight Up and his interactions with George Harrison.

On Wizard Wednesdays, I will be leaking, editing and remixing material from both the book and my unused notes. In the first two weeks, I covered Todd’s own Healing and Todd albums, and the week after that I leaked some stuff from the discussion of Todd’s production of  New York Dolls (1973). Last week, I shared some of Todd fan Dave Gregory’s thoughts on the sessions for XTC’s Skylarking (1986).

This week, I wanted to share with you some of my background interviews from the chapter on the making of Wave, by The Patti Smith Group (1979).

You may recall, by clicking here, that I blogged in real time about my interview with Patti herself, and the emotions I felt sitting in a Greenwich Village cafe with her about two years ago. Today I want to tell you about one of the other most thrilling interviews for that chapter, Patti’s long time guitarist, noted producer and rock historian, Lenny Kaye.

An Afternoon At Lenny Kaye’s (abridged but largely unedited excerpts of a much, much longer conversation).

First a bit of background. At the point when Lenny Kaye agreed to talk to me about Todd Rundgren’s production of The Patti Smith Group‘s swansong album Wave, I had already spent a week talking to Todd in Kauai, and had talked on the phone with former PSG member Ivan Kral (co-writer of “Dancing Barefoot”). I had been negotiating for weeks with Patti’s assistant for an interview with Patti, which I was told was coming, but had not, as yet, happened. In the meantime, I had already arranged to be in New York and knew that I had better track down Lenny and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. Daugherty was in Brooklyn, so I had gone over there on the Saturday, after my Patti interview had been postponed. Again.  Sunday, Lenny agreed to have me over to his pied-a-terre in St. Mark’s Place, where I could sit down and get his memories and observations. I was going to record the interview, as I did all the interviews on this project, using my MacBook Pro running Apple GarageBand recording software. I had my whole interview kit in a laptop shoulder bag, which weighed down on me on this particularly warm afternoon as I walked up from Soho to St. Mark’s Place, taking in all the historic sights along the way. Everywhere I looked, my mind darted with rock geek observations. I wondered if Joey Ramone had walked on this particular crack in the pavement, or if David Johansen had lit a cigarette on that corner. Yeah, I know, silly right? But I have to say that without these little passions and enthusiasms, there’s really very little romance in rock journalism. We just learn to keep it to ourselves, most of the time. Anyway, I finally found the address that I had scribbled on a Post-It Note™, and buzzed up. The door clicked and I was walking up the creaky wooden stairwell to Lenny’s place. He was standing in the open door as I rounded the hall, and welcomed me inside. I set up my laptop on the kitchen table and plugged in the little stereo Sony microphone that I use in these situations. The fridge was humming and there was a radio on. But I didn’t want to be a bother. Lenny made us some herbal tea and we dispensed with pleasantries about the weather and Berkeley, where I live. Here are some excerpts from our two-hour conversation, edited portions of which appear in the finished book.

Paul Myers: I think we should start by talking about, before Wave it’s well known that, Todd said he used to come out to Patti’s shows. I gather you would have probably been playing acoustic, or was she only doing performance art back then…

Lenny Kaye: Yea, I don’t remember actually when Todd showed up, but I knew him from around the Max’s circuit, and uh, you know, I knew him from being in The Nazz, Uh, not knew personally, I was aware of the work and uh, you know I mean he was very local in many ways, he would hang out at Max’s, so you would see him and shoot the breeze, and uh I would see him play various places, I remember going to Central Park one day, when he recorded the double album.

PM: The Wollman Rink [in Central Park]?

LK: Yes, exactly, so I saw him there, and you know, a fan, and uh kind of a casual friend, I knew that him and Patti had had rhythms together, and I think that was one of the reasons that we decided to go with him as a producer, because of the personal connection and also I think because Easter, the one before it, in many ways, was a kind of masculine record. Not masculine in a complete gender sense, but it was a very strong focused, no blurry edges kind of album and I think we wanted to move in a little more of a, you know I think of it as feminine, but more of, like a little uh, experimental perhaps, a little stranger, something, I mean I think the difference in the pictures on the covers show it, you know, on Wave, Patti is wearing a dress and she’s very uh, girlish

PM: That would be the posing with the doves…

LK: Exactly, yes, the Robert Mapplethorpe picture. And you, know, we thought, plus Todd was hooked into Woodstock, which was close by Bearsville and also we’d never made a record outside the city, so you know, it seemed like a good move forward.

PM: I guess the isolation too, not just the fact that it’s out of the city but it’s in an isolated environment, and that Todd was hugely comfortable with in terms of being able to whip sounds out right?

LK: Yes, it made it easy to record because Todd worked a lot at Bearsville and lived down the street. We’d had a very public year and I don’t think we thought it was a bad idea to go away for a few weeks and make a record.

PM: Do you  mean it was a public year due to ‘Because The Night’’ being such a big hit?

LK: ‘‘Because the Night’’ was such a big hit, we seemed to tour on a whole new level. We were back after our year of Patti’s rehabilitation so we were in a particularly strong ‘prove it to yourself’ mode, and really feeling our strength as a band. I always think of the third album as the one, if a band reaches it, that you truly come into your own. You know, you’re learning who you are in the first record, and the second record is usually a reaction to the other end of it and you get to the third and you’re confident and you know how make a record and you’ve been through it. Jimmy Iovine who produced Easter really worked very deliberately with us so it was a good experience, and we grew a lot as a band on that thing and then it came time to make the next record. We began somewhere around Thanksgiving of ‘78, if I remember, and spent a good portion of the winter making the record. We recorded most of it in December and early January, and then we mixed and remixed until it came out.

PM: Yea, there were two mixes right? What’s the deal there?

LK: Todd’s very quick in the mix mode, and the band left me up there to oversee the mix and I remember sitting down the first day we worked on “Frederick” and Todd set up everything, took a couple hours, we were patient. Then he did a pass, and, he turned to me and said, ‘What do you think?’ I had my laundry list of well, you know ‘Push this here, push this’ and he said, ‘You wanna mix it again?’ I thought, huh. So maybe I got one more, two more mixes and the rest of the record was mixed over the weekend. I brought it back to the band, and the band, predictably, flipped. You know I’m not sure whether there was, there was just difference in what everyone was expecting to come off the tape and not, so we went into I believe it was called Blank Tapes, or something, on 23rd street. The only song I think we kept from the first series of mixes was ‘Revenge’ because Todd said something happened on the drums that he wasn’t sure he could get again. Of all the mixes, the one, you know when we got the new set of a mixes, they were all great. We always thought the drum in ‘So You Wanna Be A Rock n Roll Star” was a little loud. But then, Keith Moon had just died so we were able to have a good rationale for that.

PM: Do you enjoy the mixes that ended up on the released album?

LK: Actually, listening to it with the hindsight of the years, it’s a very interesting sounding record. The acoustic guitar that open up ‘Dancing Barefoot,’ really interesting tones, Todd had a lot of ideas and they were good ideas. He helped construct the kind of circular bass line in ‘Frederick’ that I played where there’s really not any starting or stopping to it. When it came time for Patti to do the stacked vocals on ‘Frederick’, he put her in the control room and he just said, you know, ‘Sing here, then sing here, sing here,’ you know? He created a vocal harmony section that was, truly amazing, four five parts, double tier he just did it. He just put his head down, and went for it. It was truly amazing to watch. That was, I would say, his hardest piece of work on the record. He really did an amazing job, and listening to [the vocal parts] swirl around, today is quite remarkable to hear how he did it.

PM: What other things stood out as very Todd inspired?

LK: Things like instead of having a guitar solo he had Richard Sohl do a synthesizer solo. Todd kept moving us in directions, and if we didn’t want to go there… to me the central thing about Todd as a producer, I learned the first night we went up there, we had no pre-production. We go we visit him in his house the night before we start setting up and the ferret is running around, and there’s a record playing and I said to him, I said, “oh is that your new record?” He said, “hmm…that’s interesting.” Well it turned out to be The Tubes record [Remote Control] he had just finished.  Then I learned his philosophy which is, and something I’ve repeated many a time to any band I’ve produced with, it’s a great aphorism which is: ‘If you know what you want, I’ll get it for you. If you don’t know what you want, I’ll do it for you.’ And that’s pretty much the job of a producer, and producers like it when artists have ideas. That said, if we had ideas that we wanted to chase on our own, like for instance, we were very firm about recording things live. You know, there are some moments where you want to make a record, but there’s also moments that we wanted to see how it turned out live, things like ‘Radio Ethiopia,’ We had for Wave there were a couple songs like that, uh, primarily ‘Seven Ways of Going.’ What Todd did, he says okay, he didn’t feel like he had to sit there and even direct us. He gave us the keys to the studio, the engineer, you know, block of hash, he said, you know, ‘When you get a take you like call me’ and skated down the hill in the ice. It was very instructive into how to be a producer when you’re needed and when you’re not needed to not get in the way.

PM: A few of the artist’s in this book found Todd’s manner…. let’s just say they didn’t get hugs of affirmation from him…

LK: Todd never had a great deal of patience, you know, because he’s so smart. I think you can see it in his solo work, sometimes with all the minor 7th diminished 12th chords, you ache for a major chord, something that is direct. So sometimes, he can be just a hair smarter than the song requires.

PM: I have to admit, before I started researching this project, I used to believe that your cover of “So You Want To Be A Rock N Roll Star” was… a kind of a reaction to the success of ‘Because the Night’. I thought it had to do with the rock industry, and the whole corporate pop  machine.

LK: Are you kidding? We were really up on the rock thing. We had a top 15 single, for a band as out there as us, we you know, the industry worked for us. We had a hit. You know, we got to play great places at a time, after Patti’s injury, where, in a weird way we weren’t as confrontational. Wave is not a confrontational record, by any means. If anything it’s a healing record. I mean I look at Patti’s long trail from the opening words of Horses, ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,’ to that beautiful walk on the beach with The Pope at the end of Wave, this is conciliation. I always figured that when Patti fell off the stage, [prior to Easter] that was the height of our like, you know, if the universe is expanding and contracting, then that was like the expansion of our angst. After that Easter is a healing record and Wave is certainly, not only a healing record, but a farewell record, because Patti is on her way to Detroit, to ‘the land of love,’no way shape or form.

PM: It’s all in there in the lyric

LK: As they always are, Patti is a forthright writer.

PM: Todd told me that  he’s subtractive when he produces other people, but on  his own records he’s additive because, he’s just adding and adding and adding. But he said that his role as a producer is to try and simplify and get people to just be themselves more. Yet, the conventional wisdom is that he’s like a hands on, megalomaniac producer, who comes in changes you, makes you sound like Todd.

LK: No, he, he’s very wise, He guided me through a really good solo on ‘Rock and Roll Star’ and he came up with the idea of in ‘Revenge’ instead of one of the two guitarists in our band, me or Ivan, taking the solo that we kind of have a little strange guitar duel where one takes the first phrase, the next one takes the second phrase. And I always get a great deal of pleasure out of that. I think the only thing he might have played on the record, and I’m not positive about this, is the bass on ‘Dancing Barefoot’ which he played with us live when we played in New York a couple of times. Todd has a good sense of sound.

PM: How would you sum up Wave and its place in the career arc of The Patti Smith Group?

LK: Wave s a good record. I really think that of our quartet of records in the seventies, they all tell, it tells a very complete tale. It’s almost like Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, you know, you see the same thing from different view points. You know they’re very different from each other, and each of them in their own way seems to have accomplished what we wanted out of them, so I feel very satisfied. Todd had a great spirit of adventure, and uh, you know, the record was definitely made in his reflection. Todd is Todd. Nobody sounds like him, nobody comes up with the whacky ideas that he does… I learned how to produce a record from Todd. I mean, you learn from all your producers. I think when I became a producer, that dictum of Todd’s, you know ‘If you know what you want, I’ll get it for you.’ That requires a lot of creativity. Todd is somewhat visible on Wave, but he could have been a lot more visible.


Wizard Wednesdays: Exclusive Skylarking Bonus Notes with XTC’s Dave Gregory

Posted in Uncategorized on September 22, 2010 by pulmyears

Happy Wizard Wednesday.

In case you’re just tuning in, in the past few weeks, I had started what a series of Wednesday blog entries featuring selected content from my upcoming history of the productions of Todd Rundgren, entitled A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio, published by Jawbone Press. Order now!

I remind everyone that my book is not just about Todd Rundgren music, but about ALL of Todd Rundgren’s classic studio productions, with exclusive first-hand tales of the studio from Todd and most of the principles from: Meat Loaf: Bat Out Of Hell, Sparks: (Halfnelson), Hall & Oates: War Babies, XTC: Skylarking, New York Dolls: New York Dolls + Cause I Sez So, Patti Smith Group: Wave, The Band: Stage Fright, Cheap Trick: Next Position Please, The Tubes: Remote Control + Love Bomb, Bourgeois Tagg: YoYo, The Pursuit Of Happiness: Love Junk + One Sided Story, Steve Hillage: L, Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now and Grand Funk: We’re An American Band + Shinin’ On. And yes, I even talked with all key Utopia members (all lineups), and get Todd’s take on the making of  Badfinger’s Straight Up and and his interactions with George Harrison.

On Wizard Wednesdays, I will be leaking, editing and remixing material from both the book and my unused notes. In the first two weeks, I covered Todd’s own Healing and Todd albums, and last week I leaked some stuff from the discussion of Todd’s production of  New York Dolls (1973). This week I wanted to share some of my full interview with XTC’s Dave Gregory, for the chapter about the making of XTC’s Skylarking.

Dave was amazing. He’s been one of my musical heroes since 1978 or so, but what I didn’t realize is that the man has either an amazing memory or a really detailed diary. He also sent us a series of personal snapshots from the sessions, and we used a couple of these in the book.  I had to do these interviews with him via email and usually that’s a drag, but Dave’s long-form answers (most of which were too long to use in their entirety in the final text), could have been a book on their own.  For instance, a simple question about the band’s arrival at Newark Airport, to drive to Woodstock and begin the album, elicited this response:

PAUL MYERS: Dave, to begin with, why don’t you give me your initial impressions of arriving in America?

DAVE GREGORY: We flew to the States on Virgin Airlines, which was probably the cheapest ticket at the time, landing in Newark NJ on the evening of April 6th 1986. Two crates containing our guitars had been shipped over separately. I packed two flight cases with the following instruments: Martin D.35 acoustic, Wal Pro II and Epiphone Newport basses, Rickenbacker 12-string, Squier Telecaster, Gibson ES-335, Epiphone Riviera, Epiphone Dwight and a 1966 Stratocaster. Later, in San Francisco, I purchased my 1953 Les Paul. All the guitars were used on the record except the Dwight and the Strat. Todd was very keen for us to use his black Ovation 12-string electro-acoustic, which made it on to a number of tracks. [Later, during recording] we had a problem finding a hook for ‘Earn Enough For Us’; we had the sound, with the Rickenbacker through a Tom Scholz RockMan, and I remember all of us sitting in the control room as I tried variations on the basic theme until eventually it fell into place. He suggested re-introducing it over the final stanza, then playing four ‘G5s’ over the end triplets. He then had me double-track it, and he may have beefed it up further with piano later. That was about as involved as he got with the guitars; most of the parts we’d already thrashed out previously. But it did illustrate his strength as a producer; not interfering unless it was necessary, and always having something up his sleeve for when things didn’t work.

XTC: Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory

PAUL MYERS: Dave, I know you were a Todd fan already, did you have any special anticipation as you headed from the airport to Lake Hill and Utopia Sound?

DAVE GREGORY: Having cleared customs and collected our baggage, we assembled in the arrivals area and looked for our contact, but found no-one! Great – this is going to be some adventure – we didn’t even have a contact number. We didn’t have any money either, apart from a bit of cash brought from home, as credit cards and ATMs were not part of the established way of life that they are today. After about 40 minutes, a rather flustered blonde lady came running up to us, full of apologies, explaining the delay was due to the filthy weather and heavy traffic. Her name was Mary Lou Arnold, and had been Todd’s PA for many years; the journey from upstate New York had taken about 4 hours! We piled blearily into the camper van and Mary Lou began the long return journey, all the while the rain beating down relentlessly. We were all very tired but in good spirits, and the conversation flowed quite effortlessly, though quite what our driver’s impressions must have been of these three bucolic English guys and their Rabelaisian humour I can’t imagine.  As we finally left the freeway and ventured on to the dark country by-roads approaching Woodstock, the rain falling with ever-increasing intensity, it felt as if we were part of some opening sequence from an old horror movie – thunder-claps, forked lightning, the lot!

Mary Lou Arnold, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, photo © by Dave Gregory

DAVE GREGORY (Cont.): Todd’s property was located high up in the woods, near the foot of the Catskill Mountains, at the top of Mink Hollow Road in Lake Hill, NY. The whole area had a strong resonance with me, being close to West Saugerties, where The Band had recorded “Music From Big Pink”, and where Bob Dylan had his famous motor cycle accident in 1966. It was quiet – perhaps too quiet – and was set in the most perfect rural idyll imaginable. There were a few houses close to Todd’s, but we never saw the neighbours. The guest house was a timber-framed, white-painted building with sky-blue window frames, built on a bank next to the road. It had a basement, it’s own garden and a balcony at ground level with a big swing-chair – that ‘Big Pink’ vibe, pure rural Americana. We rolled out of the van, grateful to be ‘home’ at last; I threw my suitcase into the first room I found with a bed in it, while Andy and Colin scoured the upstairs for the choicest room. They didn’t find it – I’d lucked out and picked the master bedroom! I established ‘squatters’ rights’ and moved in. It had a huge, comfortable bed with a radio and hi-fi system next to it. On the disc turntable sat a white label test pressing of Todd’s ‘A Capella’ LP. (Now it can be told, gentle reader; I liberated that disc and took it home with me)… The next morning, the rain having cleared, we explored our new surroundings. Behind the guest house was about an acre-and-a-half of land, surrounded by woods. At the far end of the property, at the end of a long drive, stood a large, modern-looking bungalow which was the Rundgren residence. Outside stood a gorgeous red Eldorado Convertible, just waiting for a little tlc to get it running (I don’t think it ever got it). Half-way between the bungalow and the house stood a large, glazed timber shed with a stone chimney stack in one corner; Utopia Sound Studios!

The studio was open so we went inside, where we found a variety of instruments and amps gathering dust, and looking somewhat neglected. A 1968 Vox Super Beatle amplifier – impressive looking, horrible-sounding things we never got in England – stood against a wall on its chrome stand. A grand piano stood in one corner, next to an ornate screen that a fan-dancer might have used; there were some Indian instruments hanging on the chimney breast, including a sitar; and lurking in another corner was the much-vaunted Chamberlin, which we had been promised would be a suitable replacement for our (absent) Mellotron. Opposite the Chamberlin stood a shelf containing boxes of 2” master multi-track tape reels, many of them Todd’s own recordings. I could hardly believe I could actually touch some of this stuff! On the wall behind the wooden stair-case that led to the control room was a blown-up painting of the “wizard” cartoon that adorns the back of the “Runt” LP.

The biggest surprise for me, however, was entering the control room and discovering Eric Clapton’s world-famous Gibson SG guitar, complete with its restored Fool artwork, sitting on a stand. It was still Todd’s main guitar and had taken up permanent residence at his place of work! Since Clapton’s sound  with Cream had been among my biggest influences as a guitar player, to see the actual instrument he’d used right in front of me was a like a bolt from the blue. I decided that I’d finally reached rock heaven – all my musical dreams and aspirations were about to come true.

Later in the conversation, I asked Dave about Todd’s arrival…

DAVE GREGORY: A day or two later Todd arrived and work started immediately. Rehearsals? I don’t remember any rehearsals at Utopia, though we’d done our woodshedding in my living room before leaving. Todd decided quite quickly that we needed more equipment, so a trip to New York City was arranged. The long drive south and back again gave us an opportunity to get to know him a little better, and we looked forward to getting down to some serious work. We came back from the city with a Prophet X synthesizer (like a double-manual Prophet V), a couple of small ukelele-type instruments from Mexico (tiples), and a big assortment of percussion.

Space doesn’t permit me to reprint the whole transcript here, but I’ll share a couple of “how’d-they-do-that?” moments.  First, Dave’s super solo on “That’s Really Super Supergirl”, which he played on Todd’s celebrated “Fool” SG, once owned by Eric Clapton.

DAVE GREGORY: I really, really wanted to play the Clapton SG on something, and Todd agreed to let me use it for this solo. Of course, it sounds more Todd than Eric, but that’s OK! It was strung with acoustic bronze-wound strings, which he allowed me to remove. While changing the strings in my room, I took the opportunity to remove the pick-guard and control rout cover, in order to examine the artwork more closely. I was surprised to discover that the paint had been applied directly on top of the factory cherry lacquer, which was still visible beneath the pick-guard. At some point the guitar must have been dropped vertically, because there was a serious crack in the wood under the controls; it would have been possible to break a corner of the body clean off. It was only the cover plate that was holding it together!

We recorded the solo in the control room, neck pick-up via the Scholz Rock Man and whatever devices Todd used to produce that uniquely Utopian effect. That SG felt very comfortable to play, the neck has a nice profile even with all the paint covering it (Clapton quickly scraped the paint off the neck, but Todd had it restored). Months after the album was finished I was listening at home to Utopia’s “Ra”, when Roger Powell’s ascending trumpet lines in the middle section of ‘Magic Dragon Theatre’ struck a familiar chord. I noticed that subliminally, I’d borrowed the same little 5-note runs for part of my solo! Todd can’t have considered it important enough to mention…

And Dave talked about recording various parts, including his work on “Dear God”, the song that would pay off for  XTC in America.

DAVE GREGORY: There aren’t many guitar solos as such on the album. The rubbery arpeggios in ‘Dear God’ marked the entry of my latest, and most prized, instrument – the ’53 Gold-top Les Paul, purchased in San Francisco the day before we left. I later used it again for the solo on ‘Extrovert’ (last song to be recorded, Todd absent, session engineered by Chris Andersen and George Cowan).

Dave Gregory at Utopia Sound with Gold Top Les Paul. Photo © Dave Gregory (all rights reserved)

DAVE GREGORY (Cont.): The nylon-strung guitar part on ‘Sacrificial Bonfire’ was a bit of a problem at first; I couldn’t play the part strongly enough in finger-style. So Todd wrapped a nylon Dunlop pick in gaffer tape, and said “Try this”…well, it worked! I still have the pick somewhere. I’ve never used it for anything else. Can’t remember whose guitar that was; it might have been Colin’s but I’m not sure. The fuzzy lead lines in ‘Grass’ were the Epiphone Riviera through the ghastly Vox Beatle amp – it was there, so we had to use it. Andy played the main hook on ‘Meeting Place’ on the Epi, in an unusual tuning and capo’d up at fret 3. For some reason the G string was louder than all the others, so Todd un-screwed the pole-piece from the neck pick-up and that solved the problem.

The only shame about doing a book like this is, after the embarrassment of riches that is Dave’s ten-page transcript, I also had to somehow fold in content from my exclusive interviews with Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Prairie Prince and Todd. I’ll leave you with Dave’s summing up, which I believe we kept in the book:

DAVE GREGORY: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Todd Rundgren saved XTC’s career. He did exactly what he’d been hired to do, against all the odds: get us a hit in America. ‘Dear God’ – which Andy had removed from the album in order to accommodate ‘Another Satellite’ – had turned up on a promo EP released to DJs by Geffen Records, and had become a turntable hit. Suddenly, there was a surge of interest in XTC – where’s the album with this song on it?? Geffen, quite naturally, panicked and re-pressed up a new master with ‘Mermaid Smiled’ removed and ‘Dear God’ inserted in its place. Then it was decided to release ‘Dear God’ as a single and a video was made, which not only enjoyed heavy rotation on MTV but was also nominated for a Grammy Award (I think it was a Grammy? Or was it an MTV Award?). Very embarrassing for all the decision-makers concerned, proving once and for all that the artist is not always the best judge of their own work.

Wizard Wednesdays: New York Dolls (1973)

Posted in Uncategorized on September 15, 2010 by pulmyears

In case you’re just tuning in, last week, I started what I proposed as a series of Wednesday blog entries featuring selected content from my upcoming history of the productions of Todd Rundgren, A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio, published next month by Jawbone Press. Order now!

I remind everyone that my book is about ALL of Todd Rundgren’s classic studio productions, not just his own music, and features exclusive first-hand tales of the studio from Todd and most of the principles from the albums, including: Meat Loaf: Bat Out Of Hell, Sparks: (Halfnelson), Hall & Oates: War Babies, XTC: Skylarking, New York Dolls (New York Dolls + Cause I Sez So), Patti Smith Group: Wave, The Band: Stage Fright, Cheap Trick: Next Position Please, The Tubes: Remote Control + Love Bomb, Bourgeois Tagg: YoYo, The Pursuit Of Happiness: Love Junk + One Sided Story, Steve Hillage: L, Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now and Grand Funk: We’re An American Band + Shinin’ On. And yes, I discuss Badfinger’s Straight Up and give a shout out to Ass.

On Wizard Wednesdays, I will be leaking, editing and remixing material from both the book and my unused notes. In the previous two weeks, in honour of Rundgren’s Healing/Todd full album theatrical tour out East, I gave you a little bit of the story behind those albums.  The following bears very little resemblance to the chapter in my book. This is a unique “remix” concerning one of Rundgren’s most notorious early albums for The New York Dolls.

New York Dolls – New York Dolls (1973)

“The New York Dolls,” wrote young Steven Morrissey, future singer for The Smiths in his 1981 book, The New York Dolls, “were the first real sign that the Sixties were over. Their unmatched vulgarity dichotomized feelings of extravagant devotion or vile detestation. It was impossible to look upon the Dolls as adequately midstream, just as it was impossible to ignore them.”

On the other hand, Morrissey’s book also includes as telling indictment, in a letter dated October 7th, 1975, from Donna L. Halper, then East Coat A&R director at the Phonogram / Mercury Records label from which the Dolls had recently been dropped.

“The New York Dolls contract,” Halper had written, “expired on the 8th of August, 1975. We had a two LP deal with them and it was decided at that time not to renew their contract. The reality is that neither of their LP’s sold very well. Not only that, but they were costing us huge amounts of because of their tendency to destroy hotel property. I truly believe that the company tried to be fair and patient with the Dolls but as talented as they were they were a continued source of aggravation for us.”

The industry may not have known what to make of them, but the effect that the New York Dolls had on a generation Morrissey’s age was nothing short of revolutionary. And while Morrissey had praised their “grotesque collaboration of court shoes, bouffant hair, black lipstick, nail polish, exaggerated posturing” in his book, he was equally candid about his opinion that the band’s campy, pre-glam image had distracted from any serious discussion of their music which, he wrote, “drew energy from desperation.”

“To stay loose and be crazy,’” Morrissey concluded, “was the Dolls’ doctrine, and eventually, that they looked like haggard hookers from a 50’s B-movie became immaterial. Nothing could detract from that music.”

The band’s Todd Rundgren-produced, self-titled album from 1973 struck such a chord with young Morrissey that he was not only moved to form the legendary Smiths, with Johnny Marr, but he would eventually pay the New York band back in a way that made it possible for the surviving band members to reunite with each other, in 2004, and with Rundgren in 2009.

They had debuted inauspiciously enough, at a homeless benefit at New York’s Endicott Hotel on December 24th 1971. After a year of various personnel changes and attitude adjustments and they had initially coalesced around singer David Johansen, lead guitarist Johnny Thunders, bass player Arthur “Killer” Kane, drummer Billy Murcia, and rhythm guitarist Rick Rivets. In early 1972, Murcia’s childhood friend, Sylvain Sylvain, replaced Rivets on guitar and they were more or less settled.

They hit tragedy early on, in London, when Billy Murcia suffocated in a bathtub after a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol. Shaken, but driven to succeed, the band had replaced Murcia with Jerry Nolan by years end, as managers Marty Thau, Steve Leber and David Krebs continued, in vain, to secure a recording contract for New York’s hottest cult band.

“The way we felt about it,” says Sylvain, “was that we had to make ourselves feel famous, before we could actually become famous. We wondered, ‘How the hell did they do it?’ So while we were being influenced by the drag queens and stuff, we weren’t strictly copycats at all. It was all done with love. Things just happened to have that theatrical sort of influence… this was like the end of the sixties. Everything had already been tried in the sixties and then we’d see movies like Performance with Mick Jagger and of course all those guys in the Rolling Stones and other bands we’d see, Marc Bolan in T. Rex, they were all playing around with makeup. The first time I saw Rod Stewart, he had so much makeup on that he looked like he could been in Twisted Sister especially with those skinny purple pants and all that stretch lame. So The Dolls, all of us, came from all of that. Arthur called his bass ‘Excalibur’ after King Arthur. It was crazy. And everybody in the group had something that they specifically brought into the Dolls. My big influence was the rag business that I was born into.”

By 1972, Todd Rundgren had become one of the leading lights of the New York music scene. He had entered the pop consciousness in the group Nazz, and when that band dissolved, Rundgren moved on to studio work, as an engineer on The Band’s Stage Fright, and later as a producer of Badfinger’s highly successful Straight Up album. As a self-sustaining solo artist, Rundgren had put himself on the map with three critically acclaimed solo albums, of which his most recent, Something/Anything? had cemented his reputation as rock’s most interesting studio wizard. His social life was shared, and at times directed, by his girlfriend at the time, a model named Bebe Buell and the two made a pretty couple at their regular haunts like Steve Paul’s The Scene and Max’s Kansas City.

“Bebe brought Todd by to see us play at Max’s or the Mercer Arts Center,” says Sylvain, “but it wasn’t like he was there with a mind to produce the band, it was just the kind of thing that happened. Just like everybody else who was probably brought there by their lovers. We were turning on all the chicks, so they were all bringing their guys. It was that thing, like ‘Hey you know that guy really turns me on,’ you know? Maybe this is the reason why they have sex that night.”

Rundgren, whose own tastes at the time leaned more towards the progressive rock stylings of Frank Zappa, Yes and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, found the Dolls act “funny.”

“There was definitely a sense of humour about it,” Rundgren recalls, “and part of it was also that there was kind of a limit to how seriously you were supposed to take yourself, and I guess that was what kept you from playing too good. It was provocative, but only in the sense that The Rolling Stones were provocative when they would get dressed up in drag. In fact, that was their model, the Rolling Stones in that drag era – ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadows’ and stuff like that.  Johnny Thunders was not much of a guitar player but he had that attitude, and the way he looked became highly influential later on. Musically, it was that whole kind of snarling thing. The irony is there that were so many other bands in New York, at the time, who were so much more ‘raw,’ in other words, sloppy and unable to play their instruments. By contrast, the New York Dolls actually came off as competent.”

Rundgren was also attracted to the “charisma” of front man David Johansen.

“There were other lead singers around at the time,” he recalls, ” but they were either hideous on one level or another or unable to carry a tune. There were so few rules at that point. A lot of it was the legacy of the Velvet Underground, you know? A lot of the New York bands in the scene, at that time, were hoping to be the next Velvet Underground in a way and to sing about drag queens and heroin and that sort of stuff. But whereas the Velvet Underground had real musicians like John Cale in the group, the Dolls had not put together a band to expand any musical horizons. That’s really not what they were going for.”

In March of 1973, Mercury Records finally signed The New York Dolls to a two-album deal. The band members, barely out of the teens, were now signed to a major label. The Dolls, their managers, and their new label threw several names of likely producers up the flagpole, as it were, to see which one would fly.

“When you’re going to make a record,” says David Johansen, “everybody’s talking about producers and stuff like that, especially like management and stuff like that. When someone, maybe it was Marty Thau or Syl, not sure, suggested Todd Rundgren, we just thought, ‘Todd? Of course!’ He was right under our noses.”

Todd Rundgren was, at the time, the highest paid record producer in the world in the wake of his contract with Capitol act Grand Funk Railroad, whose single “We’re An American Band,” would become one of the biggest records of the year.

“We all knew Todd from Max’s and The Scene,” says Johansen, “and we liked him and dug the Nazz and stuff like that. I dug what he did with Grand Funk Railroad a lot, but to me it didn’t really have anything to do with how anything sounded or how records should sound, or anything like that, know what I’m saying? To me, it was more like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna make a record and it’s gonna be a new thing, so I wasn’t really basing it on anything that Todd had done before. I just knew Todd was cool and he was a producer.”

“It didn’t really happen as magically as everybody would like to believe it happened,” adds Syl Sylvain. “It was really more, ‘Hey, who’s around and who’s available,’ as it always is. And then it was ‘Who will take the money that we have to offer and who could give us the time to get it out as soon as possible.’ It wasn’t a long list, and Todd was a New York guy we knew and who seemed like he could handle that.”

Bud Scoppa was the publicity manager for Mercury Records at the time and attended some sessions at the Record Plant. Bud recalled an amusing moment for the book, which transpired between Rundgren and “Killer” Kane.

“We were in the control room with Todd,” Scoppa recalls, “and the band started a take. Something wasn’t sounding right, so Todd got on the talkback mic right away and said ‘Hold it, hold it!’ Then he goes out into the room and walks up to Arthur Kane’s bass cabinet and plugs in the cord. He said, ‘Yeah, that’s all you needed. Okay let’s try it again!’ It was sort of an encapsulation, I thought, of his attitude toward the band. Todd was such a musician and they were just getting by on attitude and energy. But as disdainful as he appeared to be at some points, he got the job done really well.”

Syl told me a similar story, only this time between Rundgren and  Jerry Nolan.

“Todd was basically hands off,” says Sylvain, “but, you know, he would comment if he thought he needed to, but he’d only try to improve it and try to bring you out, to be better and maybe you know if you were really out of tune and couldn’t even figure it out or something. I do remember there was a few times even with Jerry, where he just couldn’t keep the beat, and Todd would be out there with him in the isolation booth with a drumstick and like hitting the beats on a cowbell for Jerry in his cans, his headphones. Todd was sort of a live click track, keeping the steady tempo for Jerry to follow.”

“As far as I’m concerned,” David Johansen added, “one of Todd greatest strengths as a producer is… he could take this, like, mishigas of us playing and then he could go off and listen to each instrument and just EQ them in such a way that they all sound really enriched, I think.”

“A lot of producers would try to make you seem perfect,” adds Sylvain, “instead of presenting you the way you are. Todd never did that, in fact he made it sound exactly like a band on a stage. He put Johnny Thunders on the right side and Sylvain Sylvain on the left side. You know, the kids have talked about that for years and Todd was a genius at getting our sound up on the record.”

New York Dolls was released in August of 1973, and NME reviewer Nick Kent praised the album in the August 25, 1973 issue.

“The New York Dolls are trash, they play rock ‘n’ roll like sluts and they’ve just released a record that can proudly stand beside Iggy & The Stooges’ stupendous Raw Power as the only album so far to fully define just exactly where 1970’s rock should be coming from… this is exactly the brand of music I’ve been crying out to hear amidst the junk-pile of flatulent technique and lifeless professionalism that has hung like an albatross around the neck of high-energy rock… the Dolls’ appearance is as exciting as seeing a beat-up purple Chevy flashing through Death Valley.”

Kent wasn’t done, however, going on to describe the band’s songs as “musical street fights” and “a bastardized brand of hell-cat cacophony teetering on pure anarchy…held together by the kind of attitude that has always stood as the quintessential factor of the rock n’ roll statement i.e. total lack of self-consciousness and a commitment to full-tilt energy workouts no matter what level of proficiency you’re working at… Todd Rundgren has worked miracles cooling out his often impetuous whiz-kid overkill to present a vivid document of the New York Dolls on vinyl.”

Wizard Wednesdays: A Look At Todd Rundgren’s Todd album (1974)

Posted in Uncategorized on September 8, 2010 by pulmyears

Happy Wizard Wednesday.

In case you’re just tuning in, last week, I started what I proposed as a series of Wednesday blog entries featuring selected content from my upcoming history of the productions of Todd Rundgren, A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio, published next month by Jawbone Press. Order now!

Now, do keep in mind, my book is about ALL of Todd Rundgren’s productions, not just his own music, and features exclusive first-hand tales from the studio from Todd and most of the principles from the albums, including: Meat Loaf: Bat Out Of Hell, Sparks: (Halfnelson), Hall & Oates: War Babies, XTC: Skylarking, New York Dolls (debut and Cause I Sez So), Patti Smith Group: Wave, The Band: Stage Fright, Cheap Trick: Next Position Please, The Tubes: Remote Control + Love Bomb, Bourgeois Tagg: YoYo, The Pursuit Of Happiness: Love Junk + One Sided Story, Steve Hillage: L, Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now and Grand Funk: We’re An American Band + Shinin’ On. And yes, I discuss Badfinger too.

On Wizard Wednesdays, I will be leaking, editing and remixing material from both the book and my unused notes. Maybe next week I’ll do one of the other bands.  Last week, in honour of Rundgren’s Healing/Todd shows in Akron, Ohio, I gave you a little bit of the story behind Healing.  So, logically, to close that up, I have decided to follow up with a little about the double album known as  Todd

Todd (1974)

Having aborted the ill-fated Utopia Mark I at the beginning of May 1973, Todd Rundgren had reverted to his increasingly lucrative alternative career as a record producer. By July, he was back in New York City, continuing his research with psychedelics and imagining his next solo album. Working well into August, Rundgren padded around Secret Sound, laying down the initial tracks that would become the Todd album. While his earlier psychedelic explorations had taken him all over the map on  A Wizard, A True Star (1973), he had by now developed something approaching a personal cosmology. For Rundgren, hallucinogenics were not about mere escapism; he needed his trips to be taking him somewhere.

“Sure, it’s great just to see the pretty colors and stuff like that,” says Rundgren, “but the reason why these explorations have a kind of sacramental significance in all these cultures is because you’re supposed to frickin’ learn something from it, you know? When these South-American tribes use these exotic roots…they don’t think of these as party drugs; they’re religious sacraments and are supposed to make a contribution to your spiritual life.”
Rundgren had never been especially religious, nor was he much of a reader, yet for the first time in his life he was devouring every spiritual or religious text he could find in the bookstores of Lower Manhattan. “I started accumulating all of these books, from Madame Blavatsky to Rudolf Steiner, from Krishnamurti to everything else. It became a sort of hobby; when I would go out on the road there would be a little occult bookstore in every town, and I would go in and find these old one-of-a-kind dusty volumes. Of course each of these books is fervent that you should believe absolutely everything it says, regardless of the fact that it may contradict whatever you find in the next book.”

Working alone, with more synthesizers than ever as well as his usual guitar, pianos, and whatever else he had at hand (including spoons), Rundgren began making short and personal instrumental pieces, like ‘The Spark of Life,’ ‘Drunken Blue Rooster,’ ‘Sidewalk Café,’ ‘In And Out The Chakras We Go (Formerly Shaft Goes To Outer Space)’ and ‘How About A Little Fanfare?’ As he had done with Wizard, Rundgren used these electronically enhanced pieces to form musical transitions between his more traditional songs.

‘Fanfare,’ for instance, segued neatly into ‘I Think You Know,’ the first vocal song on the record.
Todd,” offers Rundgren, “is naturally more orderly, but it also dealt with alternative concepts such as empathy to the point of telepathy. So, on ‘I Think You Know,’ it’s also saying, ‘I think at the same moment that you know,’ which is the formula for telepathy.”

Rundgren’s Gilbert & Sullivan roots were showing in ‘Elpee’s Worth of Tunes,’ a comic slice of musical theatre with lyrics that bemoan the futility of trying to make a living and “change the world” in the petty-crime scene that is the music business. Increasingly, Rundgren was finding that light comedy was a handy way to couch serious themes. “In a sense it’s all sort of funny to me and, as a result, it comes out as a serious record with a few comedy moments. I give you a little breather, and then it’s back to the heavy stuff again. The ultimate punchline would be, you know, to stand in front of your Creator, at the end, and ask, ‘What was this, just a fucking joke?’ and he says, ‘Yes.’”

‘A Dream Goes On Forever,’ a holdover from the songs written for Wizard, was a wistful ballad with a flanged clavinet, beat-box rhythm and synthesizer flourishes. While many Rundgren fans welcomed it as a return to the sweeter sounds of Something/Anything?, the man himself is less fond of the “sappy little song,” saying it was the sort he could write, in those days, in his sleep. “I recognized that people like those sorts of tunes, and I have a facility for writing them. People relate to them, but, as with other songs on Todd, like ‘Useless Begging’ and ‘Izzat Love,’ I usually have to break it to them that, while the songs are sincere in that the emotion in them may be inspired by real events, they’re not about a specific thing or person.”

Two full-band tracks, ‘The Last Ride’ and ‘Don’t You Ever Learn,’ showcase Rundgren’s dexterity, mixing Philadelphia soul with progressive rock, washed in a reverb-heavy mix suggestive of late-period Marvin Gaye. Rundgren recalls consciously exploring “cavernous spaces,” courtesy of a new toy, a brand new reverb unit. “By then, I was getting more comfortable with my studio,” he admits. “I seem to recall we had a new console and we were getting other bits of equipment in there all the time. I was, both unconsciously and deliberately, messing around with tape delays a little bit more, using all these new tools to create a sense of locality in the sound. Something that would sound cool on headphones – although it wasn’t done with that kind of ‘stereo demo record’ sensibility!”

In addition to having Klingman on piano and Ralph Schuckett on organ, Rundgren was joined on ‘The Last Ride’ by bassist ‘Buffalo’ Bill Gelber, who had previously played on Wizard’s ‘Just One Victory,’ and drummer Wells Kelly, from the group Orleans. Over the course of the two-month recording window, drummer Kevin Ellman would impress Rundgren with his drum chops on subsequent sessions for ‘Everybody’s Going To Heaven / King Kong Reggae,’ and ‘Heavy Metal Kids.’ While session bassist John Miller was also remarkable on these sessions, Rundgren says he noticed a special chemistry between Ellman and bass player John Siegler when they had tracked ‘Number 1 Lowest Common Denominator.’

“These guys were bringing an almost ‘fusion jazz’ sensibility that was not entirely familiar to me,” says Rundgren. “Now everyone wanted to play aggressive combinations of rhythm & blues, rock, funk, and jazz, all mushed together. John Siegler was on this cutting-edge Larry Graham kind of jazz funk thing, and he contributed some very curious bass lines and stuff that I wouldn’t have thought to do. He played well with Kevin, and it takes a rhythm section that pretty much knows where they’re at, so that everyone else, regardless how far off the map they stray, can take some assurance that somebody knows what they’re doing.”

The culmination of this was in a live recording session at an afternoon concert held on August 25 1973 at Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park. For the special 1pm matinee, Rundgren set out to capture a few songs on tape, particularly the anthemic ‘Sons Of 1984′ To capture a sing-along section in ‘Sons of 1984,’ Rundgren and his crew had strung up some microphones in the Central Park trees. “The plan,” says Rundgren, “was to overdub other audiences in different cities, singing the same section.”

“He overdubbed another crowd from a show in San Francisco,” John Siegler recalls. “Todd was always thinking conceptually, you know? He just said, ‘We’ll just put two cities together and split it down the middle [of the stereo spectrum].’”

“You are the chosen ones,” sang Rundgren on ‘Sons Of 1984,’ and he had finally chosen Schuckett, Klingman, Siegler, and Ellman to be the core of the new Utopia. Meanwhile, his now-completed Todd album had swollen to a double-album’s worth of tunes. Artistically, this was nothing new – Something/Anything? had been a commercially viable double set – but in late 1973, a global oil crisis had caused the record industry to think twice about how much (oil-based) vinyl it was using.

Bearsville and its parent company Warner Bros eventually consented to a two-disc package, albeit with two platters stuffed tightly into one cardboard sleeve, but pushed the release date to late February 1974. In January of 1974, as he awaited a March tour with Utopia, Rundgren got a call from Grand Funk. He had produced their million-selling We’re An American Band the previous year, and they were now eager to have Rundgren once again guide them to chart gold. He did, with a cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “The Loco-Motion”:

As Grand Funk’s album, Shinin’ On, hit the racks in March, Rundgren and the new Utopia were already on tour supporting Todd.

Former XTC guitarist Dave Gregory recalls listening in awe in 1974 as the BBC’s Bob Harris played ‘The Last Ride’ on his Sounds Of The Seventies radio program. Shortly afterwards, Gregory discovered the Todd album in full and became a fan. “I loved the maverick spirit of the guy,” says Gregory. “He was talented enough to stick a finger up to the industry and say ‘This is my record – take it or leave it.’”

Books Of The Weekend: On The Road With Tommy And Bobby.

Posted in Uncategorized on September 7, 2010 by pulmyears

This past Labour Day (Labor Day) weekend, I finally got to absorb two fascinating rock memoirs.

Both were written in the first person and both revealed a wealth of knowledge about influential songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s. Most in the rock intelligentsia would concur on one, but I might have to convince them of the other. We were driving up to Lake Alpine for the weekend to stay in a tent and generally stay “off the grid”, so I wanted to take a book with me to read during the hours of doing nothing. For this, I chose the Tommy James memoir, Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells, written by James himself (with Martin Fitzpatrick). But it’s a long-ish drive to Lake Alpine from Berkeley, so I went to the library and signed out the CD Audiobook of Bob Dylan Chronicles, Vol. 1, read (remarkably) by Sean Penn.

First, the Dylan. There is no music on the Audiobook, so it’s a little jarring at first, but Sean Penn (a method actor, at heart) so wonderfully inhabits the voice of Dylan’s first-person narrative that, after a few miles, I didn’t mind. The first thing that caught me off guard, and really this is my fault, was that Dylan doesn’t necessarily cover everything (this is Volume One) and not in chronological order either. We time trip, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, through many of the key events in the life of the former Robert Allen Zimmerman, many details of which you probably already knew. He was born on May 24, 1941, in  Duluth, Minnesota, Iron Country, and soon moved to Hibbing where he outgrew the town shortly after hearing Woody Guthrie, Stephen Foster, Hank Williams and the oft-forgotten, New Lost City Ramblers. What makes it fascinating, besides the epoch shifting events of his life, is his knack for odd details and unexpected namechecks – Kurt Weill, Paula Abdul, Ice T – that remind you that Mr. Dylan has lived and continues to live in the same world as you and I.

He wasn’t off in a monastery, perfecting the “protest song”, in fact he eschews the term protest singer right from the opening. What you get is a relentlessly curious songwriter, who devours the music of his immediate past (and earlier) and self-consciously pushes himself to come up with something beyond the sum of his influences. You hear about a man named Jon Pancake who jabs the neophyte Dylan in the chest and admonishes him for merely imitating his idol, Woody Guthrie. We learn about the psychic influence of Dave Van Ronk, a peer in the Village whose intellectual dismissals of various music kept Dylan in line, at first. There’s Fred Neil, there’s Joan Baez, there’s Suze Rotolo (“the most erotic girl I’d ever seen”).

You see how Bob HATED being trapped in the role of  folk icon and spokesman of his generation, and how he purposely tried to throw metaphorical tacks in the road of those who would try to follow him too closely.

Obfuscation was part of his strategy, ironically, because the more confusing he seemed, the more mythical he became. I also loved the way he peppers his descriptions with almost Damon Runyon gangster talk, like “Hoity toity” or “sure as shootin'”. He lays it all out, and Penn makes it real.  We found ourselves getting back in the car, after we’d arrived at the campground, to drive to a nearby town and hear some more stories about Dylan and “Danny” recording Oh Mercy in New Orleans in the late 1980s. After hurting his hand, Dylan started coming up with lyrics to “Political World” and things kind of snowballed from there, and soon he’d written “What Good Am I?”, and “Dignity”, after hearing of the death of the NBA legend Pete Maravich.

The environment of New Orleans, and the steady hand of Daniel Lanois, pushed Dylan into about two dozen songs, including “What Was It You Wanted?”,  “Everything Is Broken”, “Disease of Conceit”, and after a weird weekend motorcycle ride out of town with Mrs. Dylan, where he meets a strange man named Sun Pi at a General Store, he wrote the two last songs, “Shooting Star” and “Man in the Long Black Coat”.  While that album gets a lot of attention, there is also a lot of praise for the man who got Dylan to Columbia, the legendary John Hammond. And there’s tons more. The book is a little raw and rough and worn down the edges, like the lived in voice of Bob himself. All in all, just a revelatory read for me (and for Liza) who had frankly resisted reading most of the Dylanography by other writers, with the possible exception of Sid Griffin’s Million Dollar Bash.

Then there’s Tommy James’s tale of million sellers and made men, Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells. While I have been resisting his book,  for the silly reason that I hated the busy cover layout and the tabloidy title, I’m glad I finally devoured this over the weekend. The subtitle promises “one helluva ride” and, for once, I have to agree. We open on young Tommy Jackson, back in his smalltown home of  Niles, Michigan, and his early bands, The Echoes and Tom and the Tornadoes, before arriving at The Shondells. I loved hearing about the battles of the bands, and the highly competitive atmosphere that lead to Jackson (James) snapping up the song “Hanky Panky” in 1964 and getting a regional hit out of  it, but that fell by the wayside rather quickly because The Shondells had no national distribution. The band broke up, for awhile.But a couple of years later, the song was tearing up the radio in Pittsburgh, where he soon went on a promotional trip and was treated like a king. This is where the mob comes in. After a bidding war, well let’s say ten companies initially expressed interest and every one of them mysteriously backed off after a call from mob connected Morris Levy, who wanted (and would sign) Tommy and the Shondells to his Roulette Records, rechristening him Tommy James in the deal. The deal was great if you like getting lots of airplay, sales and attention but weren’t too fussy about little things like royalties and getting paid. Levy and his thugs knew how to grease the wheels of the music industry (they were key figures in the Alan Freed “payola” scandals of a previous era) and Tommy James made great records, like “I Think We’re Alone Now”, “Mirage”, “Mony Mony”, “Crimson And Clover”, “Sweet Cherry Wine”, “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and later, “Draggin’ The Line.”

The man can rightly be credited (along with his co-horts Richie Cordell and Bo Gentry) with having pioneered “Bubblegum” pop and “Psychedelic” pop. Through it all, mob hits, extortion, pill addiction, divorces – triumphs and tragedies – Tommy  James tells it truthfully, taking the blame for what he messed up, laying the blame for what he didn’t, and taking the appropriate credit (and sharing it) for what all went so right. A rare treat.

Both books, Dylan’s and James’s, take you on long, often lonely journeys and both make you want to crank up the tunes when the words have stopped. That’s my kind of music book.

The World Needs A Healer…

Posted in Uncategorized on September 1, 2010 by pulmyears

Happy Todd Rundgren Appreciation Day

This month Todd Rundgren goes to Ohio to perform two of his classic albums, Todd (1974) and Healing (1981), in their entirety for the first time ever. Additionally, other Rundgren products are flooding out, such as the For Lack Of Honest Work set, his blues album Todd Rundgren’s Johnson, and Ed Vigdor’s Toddstock documentary. Yes, it’s all a bit of a Todd fest out there, culminating in the October 1st publication of my own book,  A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio (Jawbone Press).

As many readers already know, I talked at length with Todd about all of his productions – including those for other artists, for Utopia and for himself as a solo act. I also talked to pretty much every artist he worked with, from Robbie Robertson, The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Sparks and Cheap Trick, to XTC, The Pursuit of Happiness and the New York Dolls (again!). On Wizard Wednesdays, all this month, I will be tearing out bits of my text and reworking them into shorter, exclusive-to-my-blog posts. A few of these will have material that ended up cut out of the final book, while in other places I have removed large bits of narrative that would make less sense out of context. In honour of the Healing shows this week in Akron, I want to talk about the events leading up to that album’s release in February of 1981. We’ll start by going back to 1979…

The World Needs A Healer…

1979 had already been a busy year for Todd Rundgren as a producer.  He had albums by The Patti Smith Group, Rick Derringer, The Tubes and Tom Robinson Band behind him and had began to sink most of his winnings from Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell into a state-of-the-art video studio. As he soldiered (and soldered) on, ordering more and more cutting edge gear for Utopia Video Studios, his costs soared above the $2 million mark, and he was spending between $40,000 to $50,000 a month on staff and maintenance for what he now joking refers to as,“that money-hole thing.” Increasingly, it seemed that the cost of running the video place was forcing him out into the recording studio where he could make more money to shovel back into the video furnace. Then, as now, the shrinking economy was also a factor, and Utopia had scaled back on costly touring, opting instead to do week-long residencies in various cities in lieu of gas-guzzling travels. Bass player and singer Kasim Sulton was also “chomping at the bit to do a solo record,” and had written Utopia’s biggest hit to date, “Set Me Free” as a thinly-veiled escape note to manager Albert Grossman, who stood in his way. Keyboardist Roger Powell had already released his long promised solo album, Air Pocket, and toured with David Bowie, appearing on Bowie’s Stage and Lodger albums. According to Willie Wilcox, extracurricular activity was key to keeping the band intact, lest they sit on their hands waiting for Rundgren to call them. Rundgren hired Utopia to back Shaun Cassidy on his Wasp sessions, a de facto Utopia album with lead vocals by the teen idol, who covered Ian Hunter’s “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,”  Talking Heads’ “The Book I Read”, The Who’s  “So Sad About Us,” and did a disco-fied version of Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.”

Meanwhile, Utopia recorded the Beatlesque pastiche project, Deface The Music. The Fab Four seemed a logical choice to Rundgren fans who had been following the ongoing “feud” between Todd and John Lennon ever since  Rundgren had publicly called out Lennon as a limousine radical in “Rock N Roll Pussy,” from A Wizard A True Star. Lennon, writing as “Dr. Winston O’Boogie,” had responded with his infamous “Opened Letter To Sodd Runtlestuntle” published in the Melody Maker,  September 1974. Although, after mildly excoriating Rundgren, Lennon did add that he had actually enjoyed “I Saw The Light,” which he compared cheekily to the Beatles’ own “There’s A Place.”

While Deface The Music sat in the can, awaiting an October release by Bearsville Records, Rundgren returned to his Hermit ways, holing up in Utopia Sound for days at a time to record his next solo album, Healing, assisted now and again by Mike Young and his pregnant partner Karen “Bean” Darvin, as the couple prepared for the birth of their first son, Rex.

Healing,” says Rundgren today, “was an experiment, essentially. It wasn’t meant to be one continuous piece, but two different things that were more or less about the same subject from two different angles. The first side was supposed to be like this little parable. Somebody discovers he has healing powers and what the result of that is. It doesn’t go into any sort of detail about the nature of those powers or how they’re administered so it might just as well have been through some sort of musical mechanism as anything else. The second side was supposed to be a possible soundtrack to that story as well as an experiment in actually trying to come up with some music that has, at least, a psychically salubrious effect, in that it won’t necessarily make cripple people walk (laughs).”

Rundgren notes that the concept of “sound healing” has roots to the time of Plato.

“There are all sorts of other mystical disciplines,” Rundgren continues, “where certain tones are attached to certain chakras and that sort of business. I just don’t know if anyone had specifically done this sort of ‘pop music’ experiment before.”

Rundgren explains that his central idea behind the music for Healing was that the most distressful things are, essentially, all in our minds. If one can evolve their thinking, he asserts, they can heal themselves.  “It isn’t the fact that you can’t walk,” he adds , “it’s how bitter you are about the fact that you can’t walk. There’s also that thing where people say that people who are blind from birth are almost luckier because they don’t know what it’s like to have ever seen. But when somebody goes blind, there’s any number of ways to deal with it. You could just say, ‘Life is not worth living if I can’t see.’ Or maybe you say, ‘I’m going to develop, or utilize, my other senses to make up for the loss.’ And then there’s denial, where you just act like it never happened (laughs).”

“It was all based on this ‘ohm drone’ thing, like in meditations. Most people don’t really notice the sound of their own nervous system unless they get a fever or something. But if you listen, you can suddenly hear this high-pitched ringing in your ears. Just like a microphone, or any other kind of sensory apparatus, our nervous system has a ‘noise floor,’ or a point at which stimulus falls so low that the only thing coming out of it is base line noise. It’s easier to hear if you get into an isolation tank or something like that, but there is always input constantly stimulating your ears. It’s the nature of the brain not to be blank, so if there is no noise, your brain will start creating it out of the noise coming out of your senses.”

Rundgren also claims to have heard from therapists  over the years who  took his sonic experiment quite seriously, and got positive results.

“The scientific part of me wonders whether it’s actually the music or the placebo effect. I suppose the only way to know for sure would be to spring it on somebody who doesn’t know what it is and see if it helps them or not. If it were just a temporary, anesthetic effect then I think it would be considered a failure. Numbing is not healing.”

When Healing was originally released on vinyl, in February of 1981, the package included a bonus 7-inch, 45 rpm, single stuffed into its sleeve, featuring ‘Time Heals,’ backed with ‘Tiny Demons.’

“The single was Albert’s idea,” Rundgren admits, “I think he recognized that, within the larger context of the Healing album, there was not a single per se. Though I think he also realized that it might have sounded a little weird if we had tried to shove one into the [album] running order, somehow.”

Rundgren’s video clip for ‘Time Heals,’ which he directed himself in the Utopia Video Studio, featured him dancing and superimposed against melting clocks, disembodied Rickenbacker guitars and bowler-hatted Magritte gents. Released just in time for the summer 1981 launch of the MTV Network, “Time Heals” became only the second video ever aired on the network, right after The Buggles clip for “Video Killed The Radio Star.”

“Second,” says Rundgren, rolling his eyes in mock horror, “second again! All I remember about that video was there was a lot of blue screen, and all these Dali images and other surrealist things. Up until that point, we used to do a lot of storyboarding but, for that one, we did a lot of improvised set-up shots.”

The final troubling incident of 1980 was the assassination of John Lennon, on December 8, at the Dakota Apartment complex on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. For the world at large, it was a day of infamy, but for Utopia, it provided an awkward backdrop for their just released Deface The Music.

“Our record had just come out in October,” says  Sulton, “and it was already getting panned in the press because we’d disrupted some sacrosanct, unwritten law that you never, ever try to copy the Beatles. But then, after Lennon was assassinated in December, the last thing that people wanted to hear was a jokey Beatle parody record.”

The critical savaging, however, paled in comparison to the knowledge, which would emerge over the coming year, that Lennon’s killer had been equally obsessive about the music of Todd Rundgren, and had allegedly flipped a coin to decide which of his idols to murder first.

According to author Jack Jones, whose book, Let Me Take You Down, chronicles the killer’s pathetic final days leading up to the Lennon murder, Rundgren’s music had become the central soundtrack to the assassin’s identity. In the book, the gunman confesses that he had memorized every word, sound and moment from Rundgren’s entire discography, and had told his wife that it was Rundgren, not Lennon, who had been exerted the greatest influence on his worldview.

“Right between the chambers of your heart,” the killer told Jones, “[that’s] how Rundgren’s music is to me.”

After slaying Lennon, the shooter was photographed in handcuffs wearing a Hermit Of Mink Hollow promotional T-shirt, and a subsequent search of his room at the Broadway Sheraton Hotel had turned up a copy of The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren, left behind “as a statement.”

Healing, then was more than a cathartic record for Todd Rundgren. While it was a way of externalizing his emotional roller coaster of a year, it was also something that he hoped others might draw comfort from. Today, he admits that it was one of the most satisfying albums he had ever made. Clearly, the inscription/mission statement from Healing couldn’t have been timelier: “It’s time to make the world a little wiser. There are enough destroyers and criticizers. The world needs a healer.”

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