The World Needs A Healer…
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.”