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A Restless Rocker Reflects: Todd Rundgren at DePauw

DePauw University’s Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture series has hosted luminaries from Margaret Thatcher to Benazir Bhutto to Elie Wiesel.

The headliner of the Spring 2009 Ubben lecture was a bit different.

To say that Todd Rundgren is a legendary rock star might work as shorthand, but that’s really just a placeholder.

A multi-instrumentalist who first experienced success as a high schooler in the late 60s with his post-psychedelic band, The Nazz, Rundgren went on to score a string of hit singles, and became the most highly-paid producer of his day, making records for Meatloaf, Patti Smith, Grand Funk Railroad and XTC.

An early computer aficionado, Rundgren has also been a pioneer in the development and application of audio and video software.

Indiana University Jacobs School of Music professor and rock and roll historian Glenn Gass attended Rundgren’s April 8 Ubben lecture on “Music, Technology and Risk-Taking.”

Comparing Rundgren to Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, Gass stated, “He was the go-to guy of the Seventies. I think there’s a sense that he could have been as big as he wanted to be.”

But continually drawing from that seemingly bottomless well of pop perfection that produced such hits as “Hello It’s Me”, “I Saw the Light” and “Can We Still Be Friends” was clearly not what Rundgren wanted to do.

“By the time I got to Something/Anything,” he explained to the audience, “I was getting formulaic. ‘I Saw the Light’ I wrote into 15 minutes. I was trying not to fall into that Elton John thing. I want my material to at least mean something to me.”

Searching for meaning after tossing off a string of radio staples resulted in the experimental album, A Wizard a True Star, a move that was interpreted, Rundgren joked, as “a blatant act of career suicide.”

A Wizard a True Star couldn’t have been less accessible. Rundgren attempted to effect a paradigm shift not only in the structure of the song, but the concept of the album.

Rundgren shifts from album to album, and even from song to song within a single album have charted a mercurial path from progressive, experimental rock to blue-eyed soul to cabaret to bossa nova and techno.

Rundgren is currently playing clubs around the country to promote his latest album, Arena, a project that reflects the rocker’s musical restlessness.

Some things never change, though. Even this tour, fans are clamoring for that “Bang on the Drum” song.

“Yeah, the audience likes it,” Rundgren admitted, “but I’d rather they played it.”

View WGRE’s coverage of the Ubben lecture. The student-run radio station’s website includes photos, audio and video of Rundgren’s visit.

Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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