Todd Rundgren never was what he would call a natural writer.
“I don’t like to write,” he says. “And I was terrible in school, in part, because I didn’t like to do my homework. I just found it to be onerous.”
To make it through the writing of a memoir, Rundgren says, he knew he’d have to make the process feel a little less like homework.
This is why each chapter of the book he came to write about his life, “The Individualist: Digressions, Dreams & Dissertations,” is a single page containing just three paragraphs.
As he explains it in the memoir, each chapter contains “a recollection of something that I witnessed; a subjective assessment of my state of mind in either experiencing or remembering the episode … and a conclusion, a statement of plain facts or simply soapbox proselytizing.”
It’s a fascinating formula the legend says he based, in part, on how he’d like a book to read.
“I don’t judge a book by its cover,” he says. “I judge it by its thickness. If it’s really thick, I get put off because I realize that you have to do a whole lot of reading to get to the point of anything.”
The way his book is written, Rundgren says, potential readers can open “The Individualist” to any chapter, read a page and know right then and there if they should bother with the book at all.
“If you like that experience,” Rundgren says, “well then, you’ve got a whole book full of that. And if you don’t? Then you know why.”
He laughs, then says, “It was essentially a way for people to be able to sample the book and decide if they really wanted to make a commitment to reading it. Then, once you do commit, it’s not the kind of thing where you have to read all the way through. You can just jump around, and it will adapt to the amount of time you have available.”
There are 183 chapters in “The Individualist.” And when he finished, Rundgren says, “I gave myself a little pat on the back for just simply finishing it. It’s not something I would look forward to doing again, just because I don’t really enjoy the process of writing that much. I like crafting a good sentence, but that’s not enough to fill a page. Part of the problem is that over the years as a lyricist, I’ve tried to compact as much meaning into as few words as possible. And that doesn’t work when you’re writing a book. So I don’t know. If I wrote something else, it might be a book of poetry.”
On touring ‘The Individualist’ in Phoenix
For now, he’s on a combination book and concert tour, which plays the Celebrity Theatre June 26.
He won’t be reading from the book, he says. “But I am relating some tales that are contemporaneous to the book, particularly from that certain era that the audience seems interested in when most of the material that’s familiar to them was written. So there is some talking. There’s video, a lot of archive photographs and a couple kind of travelogue-y presentations. There’s a Q&A. We actually use an iPad we set up in the lobby. People ask questions, and if we get enough sensible questions, I answer them.”
The tour is going well, he says, in part because “there’s a lot of audience interest in not just what I’m saying but the fact that I’m playing material that isn’t usually part of the set.”
On a typical Rundgren tour, he says, “I might play one or two of the more familiar songs, but this particular show is full of all of that familiar material.”
That more familiar material includes such soulful pop gems as “We Gotta Get You a Woman,” “I Saw the Light,” “Hello It’s Me” and “Can We Still Be Friends?” as well as the quirkier, admittedly less soulful “Bang the Drum All Day.”
A more hit-filled performance is fine, Rundgren says, with a laugh, “as long as I don’t make a habit of it.” What bothers him is when it gets to where you’re doing shows essentially on autopilot because you know exactly where each night is headed in advance.
“That’s one reason I left Ringo’s All-Starr Band,” he says. “The same set for five and a half years.”
With a laugh, he says, “I couldn’t handle it anymore. We’re only a couple of months into this particular thing, so it hasn’t gotten to the point of being robotic. It’s still kind of fun. But I can imagine if I was doing this for a whole year, I’d be kind of fed up with it by the time I was finished.”
At one point, Starr agreed to let him change up one of his songs in the set. “And as soon as I’d make a suggestion, he’d say, ‘No, I don’t want to play that.’”
‘Yeah, I’m playing with a Beatle’
Other than that, he loved playing with Starr.
“He’s really kind of egalitarian with the band,” he says. “You would think there would be a two-tiered situation, but everybody stays in the same hotel as he does, given that there’s enough accommodation at that particular hotel. He just wants to be one of the guys in the band. He’s certainly the leader. When it comes to making any kind of critical decision, it’s always up to him. But he likes hanging out with the band – just hanging out, goofing around. He’s a regular guy in a way, which has been kind of something he’s been working at since he left the Beatles.”
Rundgren laughs, then adds, “It’s hard to come back down to earth after you’ve been a Beatle.”
The first time Rundgren shared a stage with Starr was for a Jerry Lewis Telethon in the late ’70s.
“The Jerry Lewis Telethon thought they needed to appeal to a younger audience,” he says. “So they arranged what they called Jerry’s Dance Party and put together an extemporaneous band for that. Ringo was in the band and I was, a couple of members of Utopia and some other somewhat well-known names. We got together, did a quick rehearsal and did a bunch of cover songs.”
If that all seems a bit surreal, it was in fact incredibly surreal.
“It wasn’t actually at Caesars Palace, where he usually does the events,” Rundgren says. “It was in the UNLV Auditorium or something, just a big kind of general-purpose athletics room. So Jerry sent Doug Kershaw and a limo full of showgirls over to hang out. And Doug Kershaw sat in with the band and started playing one of those Cajun classics like ‘Jambalaya’ or something. But he wouldn’t stop playing. He just kept playing and playing and playing. So I was on one drum kit, and Ringo was on another —we had two kits set up — and I kept encouraging him to play faster and faster until Doug Kershaw couldn’t keep up anymore. Yeah, that was fun.”
When Starr assembled his first All-Starr Band in the late ‘80s, he invited Rundgren.
“But I was already committed to something else,” he says. “So I joined the third All-Starr Band in 1993, I believe. Then I was in another one, like, two years later. And then, it was about 2010, I guess, that the latest incarnation was put together. I had played with Ringo probably more than anybody else in the band by then. So it wasn’t as much of a gob-smacking event for me since I had kind of played with him before under a number of circumstances. But still, every once in a while, you realize, ‘Yeah, I’m playing with a Beatle.’”
Rundgren is headed out later this year on a tribute to the Beatles’ “White Album” with Christopher Cross, Micky Dolenz, Joey Molland of Badfinger and Jason Scheff of Chicago. In the meantime, he’s doing his own songs on this combination book and concert tour.
‘The Individualist,’ a personal philosophy
Much like the book, the set list stops in 1998, which Rundgren doesn’t think should bother many fans.
“It’s not as if people are clamoring for the material after 1998,” he says, with a laugh. “A lot of the audience stopped listening sometime in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s as they had kids of their own, and your former disposable income becomes your kids’ allowance, and your kids buy the music they want.”
The book ends on his 50th birthday, the day he got married.
“I started focusing more on raising my kids and stuff like that,” he says. “And so, it’s not as interesting a story after that. Nobody wants to hear about you going to your kids’ baseball games, you know? That’s not as interesting to read about. So it made a convenient sort of bracketing point. And then if I live to be 100, I’ll write about the second boring 50 years.”
As to what inspired him to write a memoir, Rundgren responds with a laugh, “Someone made me an offer.” But also, he figured, “If I didn’t write the book, somebody else would write the book, and I wouldn’t like that.”
His memoir shares a title with an album he released in 1995 as TR-i.
“It represented something of a personal philosophy that inhabits the music as much as anything else or the different decisions I make in my life,” he says. “It’s about how do you cope as an individual with all of the stuff life throws at you. I made a decision very early on in life that I would take full responsibility for the decisions I make and the outcome that resulted.”
Too often, people blame their issues on their upbringing, he says. “And I made a fairly clean break when I left home on my 18th birthday. I decided anything that had happened up to that point was pure history. It was somebody else’s life and that from that moment on, I was going to create my own life and not base it on the experiences that I had already but that I would just start over.”
That may strike you as a big decision for a teenager to make, but Rundgren doesn’t see it that way.
“Well, you know,” he says, with a laugh, “I didn’t have a lot else going for me at the time. I wasn’t good at school. I did know how to play an instrument. And fortunately circumstances allowed me to take advantage of that right off the bat.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 26.
Where: Celebrity Theatre, 440 N. 32nd St., Phoenix.
Details: 602-267-1600, celebritytheatre.com.
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