Month: January 2011

True Star

I first met Paul Myers when I interviewed him for CIUT’s morning show back in 2007. He and I spoke about his incredible book on the life and times of Long John Baldry, an under-appreciated musician who cast a long shadow over popular music.

Myers is a true music afficionado. As well as being a musician and songwriter, he’s a damn great music journalist, and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Guardian, the Georgia Straight, and the Globe and Mail, among others, keeps a very fine blog where he offers a mix of observation, wit, insight, and just plain love for the hybrid beast that is rock and roll.

Paul’s latest work is called A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio (Jawbone Press), and it documents the incredible, incredibly under-appreciated legacy of musician and studio magician Todd Rundgren. The title is based on Rundgren’s much-loved 1973 album of the same name. Now, I admit that I knew precious little about Rundgren when I began this book, but by its end, I was more convinced than ever of his large, vital footprint on popular music. Most people only know his name from the Liv Tyler connection, or from his producing (and playing on) Meat Loaf’s monster hit album, Bat Out Of Hell.

Rundgren is a multi-faceted, multi-talented person who’s difficult to get a handle on. He produced albums by The Pursuit Of Happiness, Steve Hillage, the New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, The Band, Cheap Trick, The Tubes, as well as Hall and Oates’ War Babies and XTC’s Skylarking (which features their mega-hit, “Dear God”). He released a ton of his own material including Something / Anything? , which contained his best-known work like “Hello It’s Me” and the classic-rock-radio staple”I Saw The Light“. He revolutionized studio technologies and instrumentation. He appeared on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s with Prince. His anthemic, catchy “Bang The Drum All Day” is used widely in commercials. People know his work, but they don’t know him.

Myers’ work gets no closer to really knowing him or plumbing the depths, but it does dig (deep) into his methodologies and techniques within a studio context -an approach that illuminates the hard work that goes on in the rock and roll world, past the boring media stories of drugs and debauchery. Mind you, this video, with Rundgren sporting theatrical costuming and makeup, implies a kind of gritty-glam debauchery that has a direct connection to none other than Lady Gaga herself. Rundgren, influential? Durrrr.

Fabulousness aside, it was the chapter detailing the making of Patti Smith’s Wave that I found most enthralling. Featuring interviews with group members Lenny Kaye, Iva Kral, Richard Sohl, Jay Dee Daugherty, plus producer Rundgren, and the lady herself, it’s a fascinating portrait the ties that bind people, creatively, personally and professionally. Myers’ approach is very detailed and thorough here, as through the entire book; his examination of tunes I’ve long loved -like “Frederick” and “Dancing Barefoot” -were fussy, yes, but they were also genuinely thrilling, and shot through with a musician’s instinctual understanding of the finer points of sonic creation. A Wizard, A True Star is a mix of clinician and musician, mixing the creative and the technical into one fascinating, heady mix.

Paul was kind enough to offer up his own insights into his latest work, and its subject.

Describe Todd’s ultimate role in rock and roll in one line.

My whole book kind of makes the case that Todd Rundgren’s best instrument is the recording studio itself. Sure he’s a great vocal arranger and powerful singer, not to mention a flash guitarist and serviceable drummer, but if you look deeply at his entire 40 year career, there’s a very identifiable way in which he sculpts and blends performances (his own and his clients’) together into something that sounds, for better or worse, like a ‘Todd Rundgren Production’. Oops that’s more than one line!

Why do you think Todd isn’t in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?

The Rock And Roll Hall is a very political body, a lot of great rock artists don’t (or didn’t) have the political capital to grease their nomination into Cleveland. And, of course, Todd has a kind of Orson Welles reputation; there’s much respect for his craft but on a personal level he has been known to bend a few noses out of joint over the years. Maybe Jann Wenner, who has a lot of pull on the RRHOF board, doesn’t like him. Who knows? Also, Todd has often exuded a kind of “who cares” attitude about the whole thing, so maybe they’re put off by that and would rather induct ABBA, whom I love, but can’t see as “rock and roll”.

Why did you decide to do a studio-focused book?

Todd has two parallel careers, as an artist and as a producer of other artists, so once I decided that the studio was his milieu, if you will, it seemed like that was the best setting to tell this incredible story of album after album, and I knew I had to get both Todd AND the artists he produced to tell their story incredible stories. I’m reminded of Hollywood producer Robert Evans’s autobiography and film “The Kid Stays In The Picture”, which opens with a great quote: “There are three sides to every story: my side, your side, and the truth.”

You go into a lot of detail in the studio in terms of production and instrumentation; for instance, when I read the chapter on Patti Smith’s ‘Wave’, I came away with a whole new appreciation of her work and the dynamic within her band. How does this kind of detail help the average music fan get to know Todd’s art?
I make no secret that I am a musician who has also produced recordings, but I am married to a woman who is not a musician but who loves a good story. So I write a little bit for her, as a test “layman”. I tend to split the difference, conversationally, when I tell music stories to her and that’s what I wanted to do here. I don’t make movies, but I love hearing how “green screen” and CG effects are done. My goal is to give the layman just enough information to understand the significance of what is being discussing. Having said that, one of my favourite passages is where Todd describes the effect on Grand Funk (Railroad) singer Don Brewer’s voice on “We’re An American Band”, the Cooper Time Cube. It’s a delay effect that I’d never heard of before, and Todd had to Google it during the interview to see if he even had the name right.

You explore the role Todd played in music / studio technology; how much do you see his influence in things like Autotune, and even something like GarageBand?

I say in the book that over the last decade Todd became less involved with bands, probably due to the fact that the technology for self-recording (some of which he either designed or requested) is so advanced that it has reduced the ‘perceived value’ of a producer. I say ‘perceived’ because I think, just as a bunch of great actors can read surely read a bunch of great lines from a great script without a director, in the end a good director is always welcome. I don’t think Todd had much to do with Autotune, but definitely the spirit of Todd’s original experiments with multi-tracking lives in digital recording software of today. A band like Pomplamoose, who openly film themselves overdubbing all the instruments might appeal to Todd, I’ll have to ask him.

What do you think Todd’s legacy will be 100 years from now?

I would hope that Todd’s legacy will fall into the pantheon of similarly adventurous recording pioneers such as Les Paul, Brian Wilson and the later artists such as Trent Reznor and Prince (both of whom have cited Todd as an early influence). Musically, I think his piano based ballads on Something/Anything? and Hermit Of Mink Hollow will be re-appreciated by the coming crop of bedroom musicians.

Artsy

I feel like a kind of “us versus them” war is happening in Toronto right now -between people who lives in different regions, who engage in different social activities, who are interested in different things. Can’t we all just get along?

Look! Hear! is a monthly cultural event that happens in the city; its last one, November 30th, was held in the historic Distillery District. The next one happens tomorrow night, in the very-same, neato spot. In the words of the people organizing Look! Hear!, it aims to promote “some of the most exciting and up and coming artists and musicians Toronto has to offer, in the unique and raw space that is the Stirling Room Catacombs.” It closes with a live art auction at midnight.

Art? Catacombs? Auction? Cool! Or at least I think so; unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend November 30th but I definitely plan on following this group. I learned about it through artist Chris Pemberton, whom I interviewed as one of the co-founders of the immensely popular Art Battle. Chris is a great artist in his own right, as the photos here attest; they’re from his super summer exhibition at the Gladstone Hotel.

Now, there are a lot of people in the city who are taking the “us vs them” approach, specifically within the political sphere as a direct result of November’s mayoral race. Chris feels like one of those people who’s trying to break that barrier; would one group of people make it to the Gladstone Hotel, or Look! Hear! if they knew about it? Does that make the groups of people who do go to such venues and events x or y (or *gasp* z)? Should any of that matter when it comes to art? Questions worth debating at any time, in any place. My exchange with Chris demonstrates the heart of connection that lies within the kind of art I like best.

How does your work fit in with the other arts happening at Look! Hear! ?

Look Hear is a special event. Elements such as visual and sound arts are combined to bring an awareness to the space for the evening. I’ve done my best to offer paintings that represent my vision and passion, and let the curator design the rest. Should it fit? Most of the time, yes. Sometimes, if done with care, disjunction is beautiful too.

What does this kind of one-night event give you, as a working artist, in both the short and long-terms?

In the short term it gives the opportunity to share my ideas with a focused community. A special event like Look! Hear! brings people together to be a part of one night, and the enthusiasm becomes a tangible part of experience and the experience of my art. In the long term, it’s an opportunity to connect with the ideas of other people, and to inform my future work or creative process, which is my living process also.

Why do you think it’s a vital event for local artists in the city?

Every artistic element at Look! Hear! is being offered as a best effort in a beautiful venue, produced by a great team. It’s the type of event that supports and creates as it becomes real. I’ve worked with (producer/curator) Morgan Booth on other projects; she has a knack for success and is delightful to work with. I believe Morgan got the artists she wanted, Sarah Eagen and Andrew Dunn Clarke have really impressed me, it’s exciting to show work together.

How does it work with your role as a co-founder of Art Battle?

I’ve really felt a sense of community involvement since we started Art Battle. We’ve met so many passionate and innovative people, it’s inspiring me to maintain my own voice. There’s a lot of work in between shows, whether that’s an Art Battle or an exhibit, it’s important to maintain confidence and creativity. Working and communicating with people who share the same efforts and excitement is how it works. It’s a great fit.

Your exhibit at the Gladstone had a lot of blues and oranges, & was very textural -how long did it take you to find your ‘voice’ artistically? How much is that an ongoing process?

It’s definitely an ongoing process, but if you are true to yourself and what you want to express, the work will always be true, although the voice changes tone over time. My paintings are the paintings that I want to live with -that is my guide.

How do you think events like Look! Hear! & Art Battle foster the culture of a city?

The culture of Toronto will be as rich as we make it. Events like Look Hear and Art Battle bring attention, experience and inspiration to the arts community and beyond. I believe culture is in constant motion, some things take longer to change, some times things shift quickly. The arts often tells us where we have been, sometimes tells us where we are, and occasionally where we are going. I hope that excitement and the connection of good people is where we are going. That’s the culture I want to be a part of.

“It’s Changed My Life”

A lot of people whose work I adore passed away last year.

People I’ll very much miss speaking with, listening to, and/or drawing inspiration from include Lhasa de Sela (my blog here), Peter Christopherson, Ari Up, Louis Bourgeois (more on her in a future post), Sylvia Sleigh, Mira Godard, Elaine Kaufman, David French (my blog here), Graham Harley, and Gina Wilkinson. Jazz giants Abbey Lincoln, Lena Horne, and Billy Taylor, as well as photographer Herman Leonard, also passed away in 2010.

Abbey Lincoln’s voice was the second female jazz voice I ever heard, the first being Ella Fitzgerald. Her mix of sexy and mournful, expressive and restrained, operatic and plaintive, all wrapped up in a deep caramel tone, stopped me in my tracks at seventeen. When everyone else was moshing to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, I was lying on the floor of my bedroom sighing to Abbey and her masterful recording of ‘Bird Alone’.

Lincoln wasn’t solely a singer; she acted in film and TV, and was especially active in the civil rights movement. Equally, Lena Horne, who passed away in 2010, was well-known as a singer, actor, and civil rights crusader. She blazed a trail for people women like Halle Berry; Horne was smart, tough, and ridiculously talented. Her voice always had a sexy smirk that makes listening to her recordings joyful and dramatic- but behind the smirk was (and lives) a resolution and confidence as strong as steel. Horne was a siren, in every sense, and she knew it.

Every bit as joyful is the work of jazz pianist and educator Billy Taylor. He was a vital figure who felt compelled to make jazz more than a brew of pretty sounds -who, in fact, viewed jazz as America’s cultural legacy and gift to the world. I took for granted just how influential he was, how vital a figure in broadcasting and education -and just how many recordings he’d actually written and been on. His Jazzmobile idea was genius, and one could argue it has a corollary in the work John Legend is doing with Show Me. In fact, Legend calls education “the civil rights issue of our time.” His work with The Roots (“Wake Up!“) suddenly begins to make a lot of sense on both sonic and social levels.

I came across this fantastic clip of Taylor chatting with Charlie Rose; his comments around the role of music in his life are illuminating, and, like his work, continue to inspire.

“Quiet” is probably too mild a term to use when describing my public adoration of jazz and its role in my life; looking through old posts and other work, the silence is positively deafening. Why? There’s a perception that enjoyment of jazz implies an intellectualism I feel totally bereft of. I don’t get out to see a heck of a lot of live jazz -though it’s my favorite music live -and I know very few people with whom I can share my love. As a child piano player in the Royal Conservatory System, the thought of improvising scared me to bits, even as it thrilled and fascinated. Kind of like the way I feel about painting now.

The passings of Taylor and Lincoln last year were wake-up calls to announce, and express, my love to the world -love of jazz, love of noise, love of motion, love of integrating all my artistic passions. The outcome? Unclear. The process? Delicious.

Photo (top) by Herman Leonard.

Spreadin’ The News

Taking a break from writing, broadcasting, and interviewing has been healthy.

Even with all the stress the holiday season brings, it’s still been good to get a proper break from the normal routine. It resets the brain cells. A lot of changes feel like they’re afoot, and through this break I’ve been able to embrace and explore them, amidst the hub-bub of shopping, wrapping, cooking, baking, drinking, socializing, and… sleeping. The changes aren’t part of a 2011/new-year-resolution thing, but are, truly, a sweeping, every-aspect-of-life thing. It could mean a shift in career objectives; it most certainly means a change in locale.

If you’re been following me on either Facebook or Twitter (or both), you’ll know I’m moving to New York City in the spring. It’s slightly hard to get my head around it, because I’m so happy with my life here in Toronto, but at the same time, a change is very overdue, and I’m definitely the go-big-or-go-home type. You can’t get much bigger than New York. It was with bemused affection that I watched lastnight’s Times Square spectacle; when Sinatra’s version of the immortal theme song of the city came on, I actually got a lump in my throat (and it wasn’t the mix of foie gras and champagne, honest). There’s something about change that’s both inspiring and frightening; it’s built that way for a reason, I reckon. I’m off to the Big Apple in a couple weeks for a reconaissance mission. Expect interesting writings, observations, photos. And may your new year be happy, bright, prosperous, and full of … change, in the best way.

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