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Todd Rundgren Talks Psychedelic Drugs, Songwriting, and Meatloaf

Todd Rundgren discusses producing the Meatloaf album Bat Out of Hell, finally learning how to play the drums, and how psychedelic drugs ended his "love and heartbreak" era of songwriting.
Todd Rundgren will play with a superstar lineup at the Broward Center September 25.
Todd Rundgren will play with a superstar lineup at the Broward Center September 25. Photo by Richard Kerris
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Todd Rundgren has a simple philosophy about drugs.

“My essential requirement is that they don’t hamper my ability to produce or work, that I don’t act like a fool in front of other people because of them, and that I don’t become literally addicted to them,” he says.

So when he spent an entire month high from a shoebox full of peyote buttons from a friend, no one was the wiser.

“I went to rehearsals, did gigs, socialized,” he says. “I did everything I would normally do, except I was on mescaline the whole time.”

Good thing, Rundgren says in retrospect, because if it weren’t for that psychedelic dabbling, he might have forever written songs about love and heartbreak.

“I resolved not the use the word 'love' in my songs for the most part,” he says about changing his philosophy on songwriting after smoking the psychedelic drug DMT. “It would come up every once in a while, but I began to realize that, in most popular songwriting, the word 'love' is interchangeable with the word 'sex.' And since I wasn’t writing songs about sex all the time, I decided I wasn’t going to be so cavalier with the word 'love.'”

But before that epiphany, Rundgren, now 71, had already scored big with love and heartbreak hits such as “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light,” and “Can We Still Be Friends” — all inspired, he says, by “the ghost of a former girlfriend.”

Expect to hear those songs and others when Rundgren joins Christopher Cross; Micky Dolenz of the Monkeys; Jason Scheff, formerly of Chicago; and Joey Molland, founding member of Bandfinger, for the tour It Was Fifty Years Ago Today — A Tribute to the Beatles White Album next Wednesday, September 25, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Each artist will play his own greatest hits, along with select songs from the iconic 1968 Beatles album.

Rundgren says the Beatles’ success was revolutionary not only to music fans but also to professional musicians because it changed what he calls the “formula” of a rock band.

“Previous to that, you had to have a handsome frontman, and nobody cared about the band,” he says.

Post-Beatles, fans knew every member of a group, says Rundgren, who has toured several times as part of the embodiment of that notion: Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band.

“That meant that for me and a lot of people I knew, all we had to do was find three or four other guys and form a band just like the Beatles, write our own songs just like the Beatles, and, eventually, be chased down the street by girls, hopefully, just like the Beatles,” he says, laughing.

Rundgren has his own formula as well. In addition to making a name for himself in the early years with the short-lived Nazz, he experienced significant success both with Utopia and as a solo artist. He is also an accomplished producer who has worked with bands such as Hall & Oats, Cheap Trick, Grand Funk Railroad, Badfinger, the New York Dolls, the Tubes, the Psychedelic Furs, and Meatloaf.

“That’s the album that almost didn’t get made,” Rundgren says of Meatloaf’s 1977 LP, Bat Out of Hell. “We knew it was a weird concept to start with, so there’s that. I agreed to do it because, in my own mind, Meatloaf was a spoof of Bruce Springsteen... but just, like, swap in Pavarotti instead.”

Rundgren, who played guitar on and produced the album, says the eventual success of Bat Out of Hell was a surprise to everyone involved. After the first two singles tanked, exposure came courtesy of an emerging, low-budget, 24-hour music channel that was desperately in need of content.

“There weren’t enough videos, so they kept playing ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ once an hour for the first year of MTV,” he says. “Things broke open, and it steamrolled from there.” Bat Out of Hell went on to sell more than 43 million copies and became one of the top-selling albums of all time.

From a commercial standpoint, one of Rundgren’s greatest achievements was 1972’s Something/Anything? — a double album on which he played every instrument on three of the four sides.

“When you come up with a song and you have an arrangement idea that’s very particular to the song, the biggest challenge is trying to convey that idea to the other players and to get them to do it the way you imagine it,” he says.

He toyed with playing every instrument on previous albums but always fell short because he didn’t think his drumming abilities were up to par. It wasn’t until Something/Anything? that he says he felt adept enough to give it a go.

“It was the simplicity of what I did, merged with a kind of an awareness of what all the other players are doing, because they’re all me,” he says of having total control over the outcome of a recording. “It just made it much easier for me to get the goal I was looking for when I didn’t have to explain to people what I was trying to get.”

He says he never set out to do Something/Anything? as a double album — it just sort of morphed into that.

“I kept writing and the songs kept coming out,” he says, adding that after recording three sides of nothing but himself, he decided to shake things up by including other musicians. “I wanted to do just the opposite of an exercise in overdubbing, and so every song on the fourth side is completely live with no overdubs at all. It was just a way to balance out the sort of narcissism of the first three sides with a more collective, musical approach.”

Lauded by critics and fans alike, the album is one of the most enduring works of the '70s, receiving regular radio airplay 45 years later and capturing the attention of fans of all genres. Even Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses has called Something/Anything? his favorite album.

One fan in particular took his love of Rundgren’s music one step further.

Motörhead guitarist Steve Campbell named his son Todd Rundgren Campbell. “The fact that he’s in one of the prototypical metal bands does not stop him from appreciating other kinds of music," Rundgren says, "and I think that’s fairly common amongst musicians.”

Rundgren says he looks forward to making his way back to the Sunshine State, where he used to hang out in the early '00s, when his eldest son was drafted by the Marlins. But until the craziness of the tour begins, he’s just chilling at home in Kauai with his medical marijuana card.

“I’m trying to consciously goof off as much as possible,” he says.

Todd Rundgren. 8 p.m. Wednesday, September 25, at Au-Rene Theater at Broward Center for the Performing Arts; Tickets cost $39.50 to $79.50 via VIP packages are available.
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