Song Of The Day 2/19/2017: Todd Rundgren – “I Saw the Light”

The Final 39


The last story had a small detail that I’m sure slipped past you, because it also slipped past me: my dad calling from “his office in Sacramento.” He got into a real estate appraiser partnership after a few years of going solo. This was a advantageous because they were able to pool their resources and offer clients ethically sound service with years of certified experience.

It also meant his converted-gazebo office was up for grabs.

I don’t remember the exact time I moved in—really, sorry for not having all the dates for these events—but it had to be before the emancipation. Maybe before high school.

It was a teenager’s dream scenario: a separate entrance. My room was now about 30 feet from the main house with a door that locked, no neighboring rooms so I had some leeway to make noise. I kept my dad’s gigantic desk. There was enough space for the stereo, the piano and the waterbed. Yes, I had a waterbed. I wish I’d had some leisure suits and a mirrored ceiling to go along with it. Wait  minute, mirrors wouldn’t have worked on the gazebo ceiling, because it was sloped.

Although I got a lot of work done in the gazebo—not homework, but work I felt was for the betterment of society through music and late night television—I often wonder what kind of retrograde tendencies the isolation might have fostered. Certainly my introversion was going to get a free ride in this bungalow. I still consider myself an introvert, in the sense of Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume. It was also inevitable that I’d be playing fast and loose with the morality clause, although not as much as others in my overall peer group.

But who am I kidding? This was a dream room. Except for the waterbed, which screwed with my back, the gazebo was everything I needed.

I let a pregnant feral cat in the gazebo. She set up shop in a crawl space under the waterbed and gave birth there. That was exactly the kind of crazy scenario I expected.

My First Outrageous Ticketmaster Service Charges

A lot of friends visited the gazebo. My friend Karen lived two doors down. She came by a lot. We had the same developing tastes in music. A lot of Casa Roble was still stuck in Journey-Jovi-Skynyrd ‘Ville, but we were into the new wave stuff. We had a great modern rock radio station in Sacramento called KPOP, which I’ve written about before. When we had a jones for superstar acts in torn fishnets and discarded Leo Sayer beanies like, say, Haysi Fantayzee, KPOP was there to indulge us. Late at night, sometimes my clock radio would pick up this far-off station—maybe KDVS in Davis—that played drone music. It was like NASA to me at that age. I was starting to look in hidden corners.

It was around this time I went to my first concert. Well, my first of what you’d consider an actual concert. My family had driven to Harrah’s in either Reno or Tahoe several times to see acts other people in the family liked. The first show I ever saw was either Kay Starr or Helen Reddy at Harrah’s, but that was clearly for other members of the family. The first show I ever saw with a musician I actually liked (though I’ve since developed a liking for Starr and early Reddy) would have been Boz Scaggs. Again, that was at Harrah’s. It’s mainly an expensive dive with a shoe policy. I can’t count those as concerts.

No, the first concert where I bought tickets of my own accord, got driven to a safe spot with a couple of friends, bought a T-shirt, encountered a haze of mary jane and screamed my head off was The Police at Cal Expo in Sacramento. Santana opened. Sting was still the rock Sting, not the jazz-lite adult contemporary Sting that was waiting in the wings. Santana was still a long way off from the superstar Supernatural dalliance with Rob Thomas, and were still living off the fumes of “Black Magic Woman” and whatever cabbage songs like “Winning” were bringing them.

The shows I went to at Cal Expo, and the subsequent Cal Expo Amphitheater, could not have been more ’80s if you’d wrapped a headband around the stadium and draped the seats in Benetton colors. We’re talking Hall & Oates—who I have never forsaken—with Marshall Crenshaw opening, and Phil Collins. Phil was still acceptable then. I mean, yeah, No Jacket Required was bobbing forth its sweaty, mechanized forehead, but the very nice Face Value was still close enough in the rear-view mirror that he was still worth the trip.

Although I’ve been to some incredible shows, my relationship with music was and still is more personal. I mean, the shared experience thing is nice, and a small show in an intimate setting is always something I’ll be interested in. I still like performing. But back then I was more into the craft of putting a record together, and I still preferred to absorb stuff in near-isolation. Nowadays technology has made that almost mandatory.

Something With a Side of Anything

Sometime during this era I bought what quickly became and still is my favorite album of all time: Something/Anything? by Todd Rundgren.

It has a lot in common with three other albums in my top five albums of all time, a list that’s not changed since 2000:
1. Something/Anything? by Todd Rundgren
2. Get Happy!! by Elvis Costello & the Attractions
3. 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields
4. Innervisions by Stevie Wonder
5. London Calling by the Clash
Like London Calling, S/A is a double-album. Like Get Happy!!, it’s got a lot of songs stuffed into it. And like 69 Love Songs its approach runs across all genres (or at least the simulation of all genres—69 Love Songs goes through several styles, but it’s still very clearly a Magnetic Fields album).

Something/Anything?, for a person of my psychological and creative outlook, is the most perfectly conceived and presented album anybody ever came up with. Coming right at the time when rock was starting to get cozy with pretension, Todd put out a double-album that simulated a major statement like Tommy, except the approach was all comedic.

Three of S/A’s four sides have Todd doing everything. All the instruments, all the singing, all the songwriting, all the production. I think he had an engineer in the room but that was it. He simulated female background singers by changing the tape speed. I don’t know how common that was back then, but it’s pretty common now. I just learned that before S/A he’d never played the drums, or the bass for that matter. Each track on these sides started out with him laying down a drum track, humming the song to himself in order to keep time. Good Lord. Nowadays everyone needs a click track and a guide vocal before they even pick up a stick.

The fourth side is Todd playing with whoever happened to be hanging around the studio at the time. When the suite was finished he decided to draft it into a rock opera, “that thing being very popular these days.” This is exactly opposite the way you make a rock opera, but I much prefer it to the normal way.

The lyric sheet was a masterpiece on its own. Not content just to throw the words to the songs on there, Todd wrote a running, lovably self-deprecating commentary for every song.

The songs themselves were like blueprints for almost every relevant pop style of its time. I know that’s a recipe for pretension, but I love casual ambition like that. I love records that try to be entire catalogs in themselves. Even if they don’t work, I love the madness of the scope. It makes me feel rewarded for my short attention span.

What were we talking about?

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