Monday, March 28, 2011

A Todd Rundgren Two-Fer

In 1976, Todd Rundgren released an album called Faithful, side one of which was filled with covers of songs that he enjoyed in his youth, performed, naturally enough, as faithfully as possible to the original. They were, however, songs of unnatural complexity and distinction, such as the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9”. To Todd’s credit, they sound amazingly close to the originals, and I used to delight in fooling people by playing them his version of “Good Vibrations” and betting them that it wasn’t the Beach Boys.

In 2011, Todd has embraced an even greater challenge: covering himself as faithfully as possible. In keeping with a recent trend that has seen Lou Reed bring Berlin to the stage, Van Morrison resurrect Astral Weeks, and Steely Dan alternate among three consecutive albums in its catalog (The Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho), Todd is performing not one but two of his classic albums: 1974’s Todd and 1981’s Healing. These are very different albums representing different periods in his career and in the state of music in general. Both can be lumped in with his more progressive works, though there are ample examples of pop, soul, heavy metal, and other styles throughout.

In the case of Healing, he had originally played all the parts himself. For this show, he put together a crack band of musicians with varying degrees of history with Todd. On guitar and keyboards was Jesse Gress; on bass, keyboards, and background vocals was Kasim Sultan, who played with Todd in Utopia; on drums was Prairie Prince from the Tubes, who has played with Todd for years; on keyboards was Greg Hawkes from the Cars (and the New Cars, featuring Todd) and Bobby Strickland, who also played soprano, alto, and baritone saxes, and recorders. In each city of the tour, he has recruited a local choir to perform as well. In Boston, where I caught the show on March 27, it was a Berklee College of Music group called Overjoyed.

If you knew the albums, you knew the show. The only surprise came in the visual aspects – and in the fact that this complex music was recreated exquisitely well. Visually, the band were in the height of 70s glam fashion during the Todd material, with lights and lasers recreating the era of arena rock excess. During the somewhat more spiritual Healing material, I noticed that the band were all barefoot. Unfortunately, Todd’s presentation was so faithful that during the Healing set, Prairie Prince used electronic drums extensively, an artifact from the era best left in the past.

It was a magnificent evening, all the more amazing to me because I actually have had zero interest in anything the man has done since 1989’s Nearly Human. I had long written him off as someone who lost his way, who abandoned music for computers and various side projects that drew him away from his strength, a devotion to music of uncompromising power and originality. But last night, even as the music was from decades gone by, he was fully engaged and energized in his performance.

And his audience, as always, was with him all the way. Few artists have such a loyal and devoted following as does Todd (even though I wasn’t going along with his more recent stuff, I could never turn my back from his work from the early 70s to the late 80s). This was demonstrated by the fact that the anthemic final song of the night, Todd’s "Sons of 1984", ended with a refrain that the crowd picked up seamlessly as the curtain closed on the band. For minutes after the lights went up, the faithful continued to croon, “Worlds of tomorrow/Life without sorrow/Take it because it’s yours/Sons of 1984.”

That song, of course, was written in 1974. Performed now in 2011, it seemed to take on a different meaning. That utopian promise in some ways seems further away than ever before, but this world is ours, this music is ours, and it’s up to us to make our lives what we want them to be. I had never doubted that Todd had been delivering such a message in many of his works for many years, but last night’s concert provided a guided tour not only to his past but to mine as well, and everyone in the theater. It’s not too late. Orwell’s 1984 never happened. It’s still possible. You just have to remain faithful.

Friday, March 11, 2011

My Three Drum Teachers

It was 1978. I was 15 years old and in a boring eighth-grade typing class, so I began one day to write song lyrics. I found it both easy and fun to come up with melodies in my head and words that told of a love I had yet to experience. After a while, I had a number of these lyrics and I decided to share them one day with my friend Marc, who had an organ at home he could play a little. He was enthusiastic about them and we started to try to write songs together: me singing my lyrics and he picking out the notes I was wanting to sing them in.

Soon, we began to fantasize about having a band and we shared our fantasy with our friends Andy and Larry. It seemed like a good idea. There was only one problem: only Marc owned an instrument, and only Marc and Andy had really taken music lessons in their lives. Then one Hanukkah, my mother came home from work and asked me if I wanted to take drum lessons. I’m almost positive mine was the only mother on earth who actually initiated a drum conversation with her son.

It turned out that my mother, who worked in a photo lab, had a colleague named Greg Welch, who was a drummer. Greg wanted to raise a little extra cash to fund the recording of a demo tape with his wife, Susan, who was a singer. I guess it was actually his idea.

You’d think I’d be jumping for joy at the prospect of learning how to play drums. But in actuality, given that I was writing lyrics and singing them to an audience of one, I had sort of envisioned myself as being the lead singer (which, of course, is purely laughable in retrospect because while I’m better than bad at singing, I’m still far from good, and have always suffered from stage fright; whatever else I may have thought I could do, being a frontman of a rock group was never going to be it). I went to discuss it with Marc and he was very clear about the issue: “Don’t be stupid, we need a drummer.”

So it was decided that I would be a drummer. And if I was going to be a singing drummer, I’d have plenty of company: Ringo Starr, Dennis Wilson, Micky Dolenz, Levon Helm, Jim Capaldi, Phil Collins, Don Henley, Karen Carpenter, the list goes on. So my parents bought me an incredibly old, crappy set that had been sitting in the attic of friends of theirs since their son went to college a few years before. I remember it was made by U.S. Mercury and was red sparkle. As old and crappy as it was – four pieces with Zildjian hi-hats and a cracked ride cymbal – the red sparkle excited me. I could instantly picture myself wailing a drum solo with lights and lasers flashing all around me.

So there it was, sitting in my bedroom: a drum set. A real live drum set. Now I just needed to learn how to play it. Enter Greg. He came the first day, early in 1979, showed me how to set them up properly, tightened and tuned the drum heads, then sat down and played some rhythms to show me what real drumming looks like up close. Then he asked me whether I wanted to learn jazz or rock drumming. I said rock but in retrospect I’m sure I would have learned more if I’d said jazz. However, he was able to quickly show me how to play the basic 4/4 beat and a number of variations. So while I hadn’t yet mastered any sense of coordination, I was able to at least make some manner of organized noise.

Ultimately, Greg only gave me six lessons before becoming too busy to continue. Though he never taught me rudiments, he gave me the tools I needed to get started as a rock drumming god and I’m grateful for his instruction. I still have a copy of his demo tape, which I still think is marvelous, and he is a Facebook friend.

All I needed now was a new teacher. Ask me to this day my level of percussion education and I’ll tell you I was largely self-taught. And that’s true. After all, I’ve drummed now for 32 years and had only six lessons. But if I didn’t technically have another teacher besides Greg, I did have a couple of other guides and role models: Stephen Jo Bladd of the J. Geils Band and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd.

See, after Greg what I would do is put on records I liked, don a pair of headphones, and attempt to drum along with them. In many cases, it resulted in pathetic flailing on my part. But that was partly because I was trying to copy extraordinary drummers like Keith Moon of the Who, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, Bill Bruford of Yes, Bill Ward of Black Sabbath, and Steve Gadd, whose solo on Steely Dan’s “Aja” from the recently released album of the same name both confused and astounded me.

My father wasn’t much help. He said I should buy a Buddy Rich album. So I did. And nearly gave up the drums right then and there. I had to have realistic expectations for myself. I was never going to be that good. I just wanted to be good enough for a garage band.

But there were two albums from that time period that were not only great records, they also featured good solid drumming that was not particularly complex and with what little I knew and some dedicated practice I could begin to approximate what the drummers were doing and then master it. Those albums were Sanctuary by Geils and The Wall by Floyd. I played those suckers several times a day, along with other Geils and Floyd albums. Bladd and Mason are never flashy but they are remarkably solid and consistent. They also throw in a few fillips when you’re not expecting them, which is testament to their talent. They tend not to get mentioned when the great rock drummers are discussed, but they were essential to me gaining confidence that I could actually play this instrument competently.

As for the band, Andy eventually got a bass and an amp, which meant by default that Larry would have to be the guitarist. But he wouldn’t get a guitar and as easy as that the fantasy of the band evaporated. I continued writing songs on my own, and still do to this day, but never actually played with other musicians until I got to college, and never really had a band until I turned 40. And even then, it was only to play dinners at our temple and be the pit band for Purim spiels that I wrote and directed.

I don’t really consider myself a drummer, more like a guy who plays drums, but I do enjoy it and even if I don’t get a chance to really bang out on a stage, I have continuously improved in my ability over the years. But without Greg, Stephen Jo, and Nick, I would still be thinking about that frontman gig I mercifully never got.