Todd Rundgren Interview for TRE Magazine by Ian Bui

Ian Bui

Prelude: TRE Magazine is a Vietnamese weekly based in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, with multiple versions in several other states and cities. An abridged version of this interview, translated into Vietnamese by me, will appear as Part 2 of a story on Todd Rundgren this week (Part 1, a brief biographical background, has already been published.) Jean Lachowicz of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation and Paul Maloney of Panacea Entertainment arranged the interview.

Ian Bui: Since most of our magazine readers are immigrants and/or refugees from Vietnam, could you tell us what prompted you to organize the Benefit Concerts for Indochinese Refugees in 1979?

Todd Rundgren: I never served in the US military, probably because I wasn’t qualified to, and I probably wouldn’t have made it through basic training anyway. Aside from that, I was on the anti-war side for the most part. But when we heard about the refugee crisis in the late 70’s I thought, as a country, we had a karmic role in that. Even though I never took part in the actual conflict, I thought maybe I could try to make something better out of it, as an American, to show our better side. I don’t usually do this kind of thing; it was just a spontaneous act. At the time it seemed to me to be the only fair thing to do, trying to make up for a situation that we helped create.

IB: Did you come up with the idea yourself or was there somebody or some event that nudged you toward it?

TR: Well I had the idea but I didn’t know how to go about it. So we contacted the Children’s Defense Fund, I believe, at the U.N. and they helped us get the thing organized. They helped promote it as well. I remember doing an interview on TV with Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes, and that helped raise awareness of it. While the concerts made some money for the cause, the idea was to promote the cause itself and hopefully people would contribute to it, to help find a solution.

IB: I’ve read that it was a doubleheader in one day. Do you remember how well attended it was?

TR: From what I remember, it was pretty full and people were really sympathetic. Also, we had a pretty good lineup of entertainers, though not all of them played both shows. Aside from our band Utopia we also had Rick Derringer, Patti Smith, David Johansen right after he’d left the New York Dolls and so he was introducing his new act, etc… But this was almost forty years ago, so forgive me if I can’t recall all the details [laughs].

IB: I came to the U.S. in 1975, and when I heard your album “Initiation” I was really intrigued by the Eastern philosophies in it, as well as the line “Power changing hands in the unseen world, ‘cause in 75 something comes alive…” Could you talk a little bit about that?

TR: Well, that line wasn’t about any specific event, it was mainly a reference to the year the album came out [laughs]. But as far as the Eastern philosophies are concerned, I started studying different belief systems right around the time I was experimenting with psychedelic drugs. That sort of mind expansion made me reconsider the possibilities of the spiritual world. I wasn’t raised in any sort of religious philosophy, but when you grew up you had to go to church. When I joined the Boy Scouts they required that you go to church, so I attended a Presbyterian church in our neighborhood. And at one point I even considered myself “born again”--when I was about sixteen or seventeen, but that was just because of how lonely I was. However, I didn’t really get devoted much to that. I didn’t read the texts, I didn’t study the Bible, I didn’t actually consider what it meant to be a Christian or anything, so I realized at a certain point that I wasn’t—that I didn’t belong to anything! But then I became fascinated with WHY people do believe things, and all the things that people DO believe. So I began to study, later in life, religions of all kinds. At one point I even went on what you might call a vision quest; I bought an around-the-world ticket in the mid 70’s. My first stop was Istanbul, and I learned from Sufis. Then I went to Tehran--that was the year before the Shah was deposed, and I learned from the Muslims there. Then I went to Afghanistan, then Nepal and saw how Buddhists live. I went to India and saw how Indians live. And I went to Thailand, to Bali, to Japan and saw how Shintos live, and so on. I kind of drew ideas from everyone but didn’t necessarily commit myself to anything. So I do have an interest in all these belief systems and the philosophies behind them, but I don’t claim to belong to any of them.

IB: You have a rather large Japanese fan base. Is that a result from that trip?

TR: When I first went to Japan, it was before I even played there. Later, I think it was with Utopia that we had our first show there. And I think that the Japanese took to us, or at least took to me, because in the early parts of the 70’s I liked to dress up in a lot of costumes and sometimes with makeup. The Japanese love that, because it’s like their Kabuki tradition. That is why KISS was such a giant band in Japan, because they wore Kabuki makeup and superhero costumes [laughs]. But after going to Japan so many times--I have friends there, and one of my largest fan clubs, it went beyond the fascination with the costumes and makeup; they like the music and the message. And I pretty much go to Japan every year if I can.

IB: So when you play “Hiroshima” over there, how is it received by the Japanese?

TR: Yea, that was with Utopia. I think the Japanese appreciate it when someone confronts a situation like that. The Japanese have had their own; I guess, “transformation” since World War II and have abandoned the idea of imperial conquest. They’d rather have great ideas and make great products, and appreciate nature and things that are inherently Japanese, instead of making war. And I think the Japanese are much better for it. Unfortunately, there are still countries in the world that measure their influence by the size of their armies, and I think this country is one of them.

IB: Besides Japan, do you have any significant fan bases in other Asian countries?

TR: Not that I know of [laughs]. But on the last tour with Ringo I went to Korea for the first time. There were some fans there, though I don’t know how many. The Koreans were terrific; they were similar in some ways to the Japanese. They’d meet us at the airport and give us gifts and make us feel really welcome. They were a terrific crowd when we played for them. But that’s the only experience I’ve had outside of Japan. I did play in Shanghai once in the 90’s as part of a cultural exchange, but I don’t think anybody in the audience understood what I was doing. There were more people who went to a club to hear a Filipino band play dead ringer versions of Bee Gee songs! [laughs]

IB: That’s hilarious! So what’s it like to play in Ringo’s band?

TR: Well, it’s kind of the best gig you can have. He, after all, is Ringo. He’s a Beatle. He’s all about “Peace & Love”. And he just wants to be a member of the band, in a way. Wherever we travel, we all hang out together. He stays in the same hotel we stay in; we all go out to have dinner together and stuff like that. Ringo is a fun guy, a real joker, sometimes he gets a little out of hand [laughs] but it’s all good fun. He likes to say, “I didn’t live this long to be miserable!” He’s like everybody’s friend so, yeah; it’s a really great gig.

IB: Have you worked with any other Beatle besides Ringo?

TR: Let me think… No, actually. The only thing that came close to that was when I took over production of Badfinger’s album “Straight Up” from George Harrison. So I met George Harrison, but we really didn’t work together on that. He started that project but got distracted by the “Concert for Bangladesh”; he couldn’t finish it so he handed it off to me… I did meet John once in passing, but at the time the only records he was making was with Yoko Ono [laughs]. And no, I have never worked with Paul, not at all.

IB: Let’s switch gear now to the Spirit of Harmony Foundation, which you started a few years ago. How has the organization grown and evolved?

TR: Certainly! We’ve actually had some concrete results. These things are hard to measure because our objective is to get music education back into elementary school and make that a fundamental part of a young person’s education, because it will help them in ways that perhaps have nothing to do with music. As an example, one of our Directors attended a hearing, in Colorado I believe, in which they were discussing creating funding for music programs in public schools. And he was able to convince four of the five-committee members, three of whom were Republicans, to endorse the idea of creating a budget item for music education in schools. So we are making some progress, and I think that’s based on the fact that we don’t simply depend on this “feel good” idea that kids should have music education. There are actual scientific data that map changes in the brain, which happen when you have the benefit of some early music education--that you process sounds a certain way that can benefit you for the rest of your life. We are getting a lot of grassroots support and support from endowments etc. There’s an interesting story, which I just heard yesterday. A woman was creating a living will, and one of her passions was getting music education for young people. She thought about forming her own foundation and that would be the beneficiary of her living will. When she discovered the Spirit of Harmony Foundation she was very happy. She said, "Well, that saved me all the trouble. I won’t have to do that now; I’ll just make you part of my living will instead!" So we are making progress, and the support we’ve been getting is really encouraging as well as effective. I think that if people want to support this cause they will find that not only it’s worthwhile but also the Foundation is making real progress.

IB: So how is the new collaboration with Hungry for Music working out?

TR: Actually that is but one of a number of associations that we’ve managed to forge. We also have a relationship with NAMM, the National Association of Music Merchants. Not only do they have these giant music expositions with all the manufacturers involved to promote the sales of instruments but they support worthy causes as well, and that’s a powerful ally that we have. And then there are programs that are trying to accomplish on local levels the same things we’re trying to accomplish, which is to create awareness of the benefits of early music education, and to actually provide that wherever possible. Sometimes school systems don’t have the resources to do that, so someone has to come along and create an ad hoc solution to the lack of music education. One of the things we do is help connect these programs with the resources that will help them survive.

IB: How well known is Spirit of Harmony to these needy school districts, or how can the Foundation be better publicized?

TR: Our objectives were never just to make people “feel good” about stuff. We feel the need to actually be able to measure our results, or at least base our efforts on measurable results. And so it’s not necessarily our objective to create the highest profile for us, but it IS our objective to create awareness for the need of music education. We don’t get satisfaction out of seeing our names attached to whatever, but we do get satisfaction out of seeing a program get started or seeing a program succeed, or creating a support network around those things--and it doesn’t have to have our name or our brand on it.

IB: In our town there’s a music store that rents out instruments to students, and the owner is a big supporter of the music programs in our schools. They have a lot of used instruments as well. I’d think that if they knew about Hungry for Music or the Spirit of Harmony, perhaps they could plug in and contribute that way?

Ian Bui with Todd and Michele Rundgren backstage at the Houston ChivalRock gig.

TR: Yeah, and that’s exactly the kind of relationships we’re looking for because our belief is that the solutions are local. Non-profits can be one of two things; they can be either an endowment organization or an advocacy organization. We’ve chosen to be an advocacy organization. We don’t make a lot of direct contributions to a program because some of these programs can be pretty large—the ones that make up for lack of music education in schools, like a program in Philadelphia that has a yearly budget of two million dollars. You could spend all year raising that kind of money. Our focus is to find local support for these programs, to get the people who will feel the greatest effect of the program to lend the greatest support to them. And we will facilitate that in any way we can. From our standpoint, we could spend all our time raising money. But we’d rather have local people support it so that they remain connected, so that the relationship gets established which goes on and on to keep that support flowing.

IB: So that’s what saying that the Foundation is in the “relationship business” means?

TR: Yes, exactly. We’re trying to get people connected to each other. Like you say, if the guy at that music store believes it’s important for kids to have instruments to play, we want to support him. We want to figure out how he can continue to do what he does, and if he needs support, that support should be local as well. It should come from people in the local community.

IB: Have you been able to enlist help from other musicians?

TR: The Board of Directors is mostly musicians. So it’s not people simply with good intentions. We all are testimonies to what music can do for somebody. Our lives have either been completely founded in or furthered by the fact that we have learned to play music, and learned to play with others as well.

IB: In an interview at the first “Toddstock”, on Kauai, you said that some of the musicians you really admire are people like B.B. King, Tony Bennett—artists who essentially “play ‘til they drop”. Looks like you’re doing the same thing yourself, and on this latest tour you seem to be going as strong as ever. Is there a secret to your longevity? Is it exercise, dieting?

TR: I have to admit I’ve been eating better lately, and that simply involves cutting out the carbs—a lot less bread, rice, potato and that sort of stuff. It’s helped me get my weight back to where it should be, and that is a surprisingly effective way to make yourself feel better. But beyond that, I don’t particularly have a secret. I don’t exercise much when I’m not on the road. When I am on the road, and when I get on stage I’m kinda 100% there, you know [laughs] So I get two hours of aerobic a night. And it’s the fact that I’ve been touring 6, 8, 10 months out of the year that probably has kept me fit. It’s my opportunity to integrate an exercise regime with what I like to do, which is to play music.

IB: So how does your body feel now compared to say, “Toddstock” nine years ago?

TR: Well, you can’t deny getting older. Your joints get creaky and sore sometimes. Your memory is not exactly as acute as it used to be. Your eyesight gets a little blurrier. But, overall … I feel great. Overall, I’m able to do pretty much all the things that I want to do. And perhaps if challenged, I probably could do some things that I didn’t think I could do.

IB: Do you have any plans for the big Seven-Oh next year?

TR: We have some plans, which we are trying to refine now. Some people want to recreate the original “Toddstock”. The problem with that is, Kauai is geographically far away for a lot of people. So what we’re thinking of doing is having events in different territories to make it easier for people from various parts of the world to attend. So we might do one in the Pacific Rim. Maybe one on the continental United States. Maybe one in South America, and maybe one in Europe. It won’t be a single event, but a series of events.

IB: South America! Do you have a large fan base down there?

TR: I have a larger one than I used to have, but the only way I ever got there was playing with Ringo [laughs]. But I’m pretty sure that if we did have an event down there we should have at least a couple hundred people show up. The original “Toddstock” only had two or three hundred people anyway, but they came from all over the planet. This should make it a little easier for people to participate.

IB: Sounds awesome! We’re out of time so I must stop here. Thanks so much for taking the time, and I hope to see you at the House of Blues in Houston this weekend.

TR: Terrific! See you soon.

Postlude: After the Houston show, I met Todd and Michele backstage and presented the White Knight with a small token of appreciation--a lapel pin with the flags of the United States and South Vietnam, to thank him for what he did for refugees back in the 70’s. Todd gave a hearty laugh and declared: “I’m turning Vietnamese!”

Ian Bui was born in Saigon in the 1960's, Ian and his family were airlifted by helicopters from the U.S. Embassy on the last day of the war. Ian studied the violin at the National Conservatory of Music in Vietnam for several years before becoming a refugee. He got his degree in Computer Science from LSU and worked for many years in the Telecom industry. He also writes a column for the largest Viet-language magazine in the Dallas-Fort Worth area on such topics as American music, sports and community affairs. A strong advocate of early music education, Ian's children are musically trained and his daughter--Ariel Bui, is today a singer-songwriter in Nashville who has recently released her own LP record.  

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