Todd Rundgren and Ethel Workshop, 11/3/2012

My boy suffered his first loss recently,  a friend who simply didn’t wake up one morning.  That’s the way to do it, but not a week shy of your sixteenth birthday.

The two of them were members of the school’s concert band, which is what ties all of this together.  The kid was supposed to be with us today to listen to the great Todd Rundgren discuss arranging strings for rock music.   Instead, this evening my son will be playing an original composition at the boy’s memorial.  So it goes, sayeth the mighty Vonnegut.

Overall my children have been awfully lucky in this regard.  Starting in the fourth grade I knew or knew of at least one kid per year who died.  Best I can remember this trend continued until age nineteen, with all but one of those deaths vehicle related.  All of those kids, breaking out of their bodies and flying away like a bat out of hell.

My best Todd Rundgren-related buddy was almost a senior year fatality.  In the narrative section of Why It Matters I call him Jarod, and he fell victim to a trip wire stretched across a wooded trail.  The property owner’s notion was to knock those damned kids off their motor sickles, but instead the steel cable bounced off of my buddy’s front tire and smacked him in the throat.  Both his esophagus and trachea were cut in half.

Miraculously he survived, and we went on to be close friends, roommates, and mutual Todd Rundgren admirers.  We tore around Upstate South Carolina in his bright orange Camaro just like any good pair of redneck buddies, but with Healing in the tape deck rather than Night Ranger.  The humor of this strange juxtaposition was not lost on us.

Todd Rundgren as a recording artist isn’t really a Camaro tunes kind of guy.  That isn’t to say that one can’t pillage the Rundgren discography for a road playlist — some Nazz stuff, a little Utopia, the completely fucked out “Bang the Drum All Day….”

But Rundgren as a producer, that guy had his hands in some of the greatest liquor, lust, and primer gray Camaros albums ever made: Grand Funk Railroad’s We’re An American Band, Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell, which I boosted a line from a few paragraphs back.  He also produced another favorite of my buddy’s and mine: XTC’s Skylarking.

That’s probably enough of that.  If you want the full Rundgren discography the intergooglewebtubes will get you taken care of.  The point is that I have a longstanding relationship with Todd Rundgren’s music that inexplicably coincides with teenage tragedy, and that synchronicity is reinforced again this afternoon in UC Davis’s Vanderhoef Studio Theater.  Todd, my son and I, and maybe twenty teenagers are gathered — everybody but the poor kid who didn’t wake up.  When we signed in the staff offered condolences.  This is the only mention all day of the ghost in the room.

We’re joined by Ethel, which is not a person but a string quartet that happens to be playing tonight along with special guest Todd Rundgren in the Mondavi Center’s main theater.  They’re a great bunch of people, intent on making the workshop fun and accessible for their teenaged audience.

The parents in attendance are relegated to a row of folding chairs several feet removed from the small group of kids near the band.  They are sworn to silence, and a greased up Mediterranean in a gimp mask patrols the DMZ, doling out 100,000 volts from the tip of his cattle prod when one father tries to interject.

Ethel starts with “Eleanor Rigby,” which sounds brilliant.  They discuss how strings work in this particular song, and how they stand on their own.  Rundgren disappears down a bunny hole about George Martin and how he transformed the role of a producer from “the accountant in the room making sure the band didn’t spend too much money” to an essential figure in the creative process.

This sets the tone for the next hour — Rundgren talks about the business of making music and the Ethels bring things back around to the music itself.  They play an arrangement of  “Flamingo” from Rundgren’s A Wizard, A True Star, and he talks about that album.  He notes that pretty much every rock song is about relationships and follows prescribed verse/verse/chorus structure, so Wizard was his effort to break out of that box and integrate all of his musical influences.

When Ethel plays “Flamingo” on their three violins and one cello one can clearly hear the classical influence that is obscured by the limitations of 1973 synthesizer technology.  “That’s more like I heard it in my head,” Rundgren says.

He laughs at how the first thing those early adopters (like him) of electronic keyboards did was to make the thing sound like something else.  “The first thing you do is try to make it sound like a clarinet or something,” he says.  This leads to a digression about the arcane rules of the musician’s union and how their accounting constraints made recording difficult.  For example, asking a violinist to play two separate parts doubled the musician’s rate.  It wasn’t a question of time expended but rather two unique parts resulting in two paychecks.  Obviously this rule was put into place to prevent producers from abusing musicians, but it is the sort of regulation that frustrates the creative process.

The highlight of the afternoon comes when Ethel asks the string players in the audience to break out their fiddles.  Five minutes of brief instruction and the kids are up and running, playing an outstanding rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” with a professional string quartet.

Time to go.  I don’t know whether the boy learned anything, but for ninety minutes he’s been listening to, thinking about, and enjoying music rather than dwelling on lost friends.  So have I.  I guess that’s why it matters.

3 replies »

  1. This post works on so many levels for me, I don’t know where to start. I’m sorry to hear about your son’s friend. I was also appalled by the story of your friend who was garroted, but survived. On the upside, it was fabulous to read about Todd Rundgren giving a music masterclass and I could hear Kashmir played by Ethel. I hope those kids know how lucky they are.


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