Todd Rundgren has gone from one All-Starr situation into another.
After bowing out of Ringo Starr’s traveling band in 2017, Rundgren is set to play three all-star Celebrating David Bowie shows, joining former Bowie guitarist Adrian Belew, Fishbone’s Angelo Moore, Paul Dempsey and others on Oct. 3 in Los Angeles and Oct. 7-8 in Reykjavik, Iceland — the latter locale being part of the reason Rundgren signed on to sing “Life On Mars,” “Changes” and more during the week.
“I like doing these kinds of events where I get to play with other musicians, some of whom I do not know, and that’s part of the fun of it — and the fact we’re going to Iceland, which I’ve never been to before and would like to see,” Rundgren tells Billboard. “It’s kind of a no-brainer in some ways.”
Rundgren saw Bowie and his Spiders From Mars’ first show at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and struck up a friendship with guitarist Mick Ronson after he took up residence in Woodstock, N.Y. “David and I were never pals hanging out and talking or anything like that,” Rundgren recalls, “but I would run into him on occasion at Max’s Kansas City and things like that.” Utopia keyboardist Roger Powell also played with Bowie during the late ’70s with Belew, “so you can see there’s all kinds of little threads that sort of tie it together.”
As pop iconoclasts, Rundgren and Bowie would seem like kindred spirits, but the former feels like a decidedly different kind of artist.
“We shared the fact that you don’t settle down to a single style of music and sort of milk it until your career is over,” Rundgren says. “David had more of that Andy Warhol kind of sensibility, a pop sensibility. He always had a well-cultivated self-image, and I never worked that much on my self-image. He was a character whenever you saw him, and I’m only a persona when I’m on stage — if that.” Nevertheless, Rundgren does remember a particularly memorable, and unintended, connection to Bowie during the early ’70s.
“I got a makeup and costume person, somebody essentially in charge of my image, and I think he felt more in competition with David Bowie than I did,” Rundgren says. “David was doing all kinds of things with make-up and costumes, and I think the guy I hired felt somewhat inspired or competitive about it. So he started doing ever-wilder things on me, culminating in an appearance on The Midnight Special where I had feathers all over my face and my hair was all colored and stuff.”
This year, meanwhile, marks the first since 2012 that Rundgren is not touring with the Starr troupe, a parting that was friendly and, he says, “kind of a relief. I didn’t think I would last that long, anyway, ’cause Ringo keeps the band together for a year or two and breaks it up for a new group of musicians. This one stayed together for a long time, but after six or so years of doing it and play substantially the same set every night I was ready to move on and I think it was probably good for the band as well to get some other players in there so they could work on some other material.” Rundgren did, however, reunite Utopia for a spring tour this year, which was satisfying but unlikely to happen again.
“I think we accomplished what we set out to do,” says Rundgren, adding that the group filmed and recorded its Chicago concert for a future release. “It was a somewhat Herculean effort to get all of the necessary elements together, the partnerships and learning the material. All of it took quite an amount of effort and quite a bit of time. The most important thing was to meet audience expectations because they had been pestering us to do it for so long. But we don’t really have any plans to do it again because we can’t go back to the same wells and get the same kind of advances that we needed to get this show on the road. We would essentially have to start over, except for learning the music.”
Rundgren is hardly wanting for work, however. In addition to playing his own shows Rundgren is building on 2017’s collaborative White Knight project and has worked on tracks with Neil Finn, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and Steve Vai, with Iggy Pop and Rick Astley on the runway. “Those will get released in one form or another in the coming months,” Rundgren promises. He also hopes to publish his memoir, The Individualist, which he’s been working on since the ’90s but “just kept getting distracted. It’s an interesting format in that every chapter is a separate page and every page has three paragraphs, so there’s a bunch of different ways you can read the book,” Rundgren says. “It’s very strictly structured, and I believe easy to consume.” Rundgren, who wrote the book entirely himself, focuses on his life outside the recording studio. And while it’s revealing, it’s not intended to be sensationalistic or tawdry.
“It wouldn’t be interesting unless there was a confessional element about it, but it’s not seamy,” he says. “I don’t get into elaborate descriptions of evenings of debauchery or anything like that. If you’re looking for me to describe somebody else’s body or something, you’re gonna be disappointed. But it is revealing about things that have happened to me and causalities and results of all that.”