Rock legend Todd Rundgren on music, his autobiography, being unpredictable

Considering how multifaceted his career has been, it’s no surprise rock legend Todd Rundgren named his current tour “An Unpredictable Evening with Todd Rundgren.”

This, after all, is the same Todd Rundgren who has been equally acclaimed as:

  • A radio-friendly pop artist whose enduring Top 40 hits include “Hello It’s Me,” “Bang the Drum” and “Can We Still Be Friends.”
  • A fearless innovator whose groundbreaking albums “A Wizard, A True Star,” “The Hermit of Mink Hollow” and “Something/Anything?” — all released in the 1970s — sound fresh and vital today.
  • A progressive-rock dynamo, whose band Utopia counted the young Prince among its biggest admirers.
  • An award-winning producer who has overseen standout albums by such diverse artists as The Band, Hall & Oates, Patti Smith, XTC, New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, Cheap Trick, Meat Loaf, Badinger, The Psychedelic Furs, Steve Hillage and more.
  • A high-tech trailblazer whose credits include the first two commercially released music videos (in 1982), the world’s first interactive album on CD-i (in 1993) and — just last year — the first full-length concert shot using multiple 360 cameras.

Given his multifarious track record, one can only guess what his Friday concert at the Music Box might entail, Rundgren included.

“The ‘Unpredictable Tour’ is unpredictable, so I couldn’t tell you what we’re going to do,” he said with a laugh. “We have big list of about 50 songs. The only thing we know is the first song; after that, we don’t know what will happen.”

Those 50 songs span Rundgren’s six-decade career, from his 1960s breakthrough band, Nazz, to his new album, “White Night.” It features songs he co-wrote with such musical pals as Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Joe Walsh of the Eagles and Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates.

“We also do songs by different artists, not just me,” Rundgren said from Chicago, where he was part of the Yestival tour with Yes and Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy.

“And some songs, I guarantee the audience has never heard before. Because we get them from very strange places, like a mail-order service that will set your lyrics to music, if you pay them $200; the ones we do are from the 1950s.”

Is learning to perform a poorly written mail-order song part of the charm of doing so?

“That is part of it,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the naivete behind them. Sometimes it’s the irony that the artist isn’t even aware of.”

If requested by an audience member, might Rundgren and his band include “Loosen Up,” a choice cut from the Nazz’s unheralded third album? It memorably parodied the propulsive 1968 Archie Bell & The Drells’ soul hit, “Tighten Up,” with the sound of the members of the Nazz essentially falling apart on their respective instruments.

“It could be,” he replied. “I hadn’t considered that. But if someone yelled that out, we could try it, but only because it doesn’t require any practice!”

He chuckled.

“I always make the caveat, if I’m in a position to do so, that we do not take requests and — that if you keep yelling out a song title — that lowers the possibility of it being played. But if somebody yelled out the right song at the right time at one of our ‘Unpredictable’ shows, yeah, we night do that.”

Rundgren is also throwing in some unlikely covers from night to night, although which songs on which night remains, well, unpredictable. Options include former “Bonanza” TV star Lorne Greene’s “Endless Prairie,” Rebecca Black’s fingernails-on-blackboard “Friday,” the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Incense and Peppermint” and esteemed soul singer Clarence Carter’s atypically sappy 1970 hit, “Patches.”

“It’s so sappy!” Rundgren said with a laugh. “It’s one of the sappiest songs ever written — and that’s part of the charm of it. When it was on the radio, I thought: ‘Man, this is pitiful!’ But it’s stood the test of time.”

So has Rundgren.

A longtime member of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band, he is hard at work on a musical that — with any luck — could one day end up on Broadway.

“These things take years and years, and we’re not quite to the point where we have a satisfactory story, but we are working on it,” said Rundgren, who seemed intrigued when asked if he would consider collaborating with the La Jolla Playhouse.

“I just got another draft the other day. Everybody is reading over it and seeing how they feel about it. But once you do have the story right, it can take years for it to get in any sort of production. You have to line up financing and talent.”

Rundgren’s musical has been incubating for a number of years, in part because he wants to avoid making a conventional jukebox musical.

“Well, there are a couple of dynamics going on,” he said. “If it was just up to me, I might come up with a certain story. I’ve had a bunch of ideas, but my ideas don’t involve older (songs of mine), and almost everybody else’s idea does. If it were up to me, I’d start from scratch with a whole batch of new material.

“But this musical is intended to incorporate material of mine that exists already. That’s the challenge — to figure out what is the proper setting for material that was not written for the stage.”

In the meanwhile, he is nearly done writing his autobiography, “The Individualist.” True to its title, the book has a unique format.

“It’s written in a style I developed myself,” Rundgren noted. “Every chapter is exactly one page, and every page is three paragraphs. You can read it in couple of ways. The top paragraph gives you the factual account, the middle paragraph will be just my reaction to what happened. And the third is what I learned from it and what conclusions can be drawn.”

The book covers the first half century of Rundgren’s 69 years, but not his most recent two decades. Why not?

“Because, after that, it’s a different story,” he replied. “Things happened to me on my 50th birthday that make a nice bracket for everything that happens after that. And, quite frankly, since then things have been a lot less interesting!”

An Unpredictable Evening with Todd Rundgren

Where: The Music Box, 1337 India St., downtown

When: 9 p.m. Friday

Tickets: $45 (general admission); must be 21 or older to attend

Phone: (619) 795-1337


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