Four Days at Todd Rundgren’s Birthday Party (VICE. July 2013)


The post before this one is a Q&A I did with Todd Rundgren about his week-long 65th birthday party. The following is about that party. 

DAY 1

By the time we get to White Castle, Louisiana—more than an hour’s drive outside of New Orleans, past swamps and daiquiri shops and meat pie vendors—it’s nighttime, and halos of light encircle Nottoway, a massive, picturesque former plantation that now serves as a tourist attraction. Its verdant grounds—which contain a lavish saltwater pool, a volleyball court, and a café—can be rented out for weddings, corporate events, and, apparently, weeklong birthday parties for aging rock stars.

The star in question is Todd Rundgren, who is putting on a small festival in honor of his 65th birthday and he and his wife Michele’s 15th anniversary called ToddStock 2. You probably don’t name your birthday parties like that, but you also probably do not have fans willing to pay $799, plus travel costs, to camp in their own tents just to bask in your presence. For the price of admission you get two buffet meals and one open-bar happy hour per day. Renting air conditioning for your tent costs $200 extra. Rundgren threw ToddStock 1 five years ago at his home in Kauai, Hawaii, and it was free for anyone who made the trek out to the island. Three hundred obsessives showed up to the original ToddStock, and this year’s event, in June, attracted 160. The ToddStockers all being well-off white folks, fancy cottages on Nottoway’s grounds sold out within hours of the announcement, as did the nearby Best Western. These are more than fans. Call them apostles, or members of a friendly, well-adjusted cult.

We set up our tent in the dark then wander through the small campsite, searching for Ray Bong, a psychedelic guru and the most passionate Rundgren fan I know. We find him easily by following the bleeps, bloops, and beats of his ancient analog techno instruments. Ray is 58 and has loved Rundgren since he was 14, back when his parents wouldn’t let him attend the El Paso Nazz gig where Rundgren famously fell off the stage and broke his foot. Despite boasting meticulously tie-dyed hair year-round, wearing sleeveless T-shirts almost exclusively, playing abstract music, and huffing copious amounts of nitrous oxide, Ray has a day job as a successful engineer and so could afford to buy ToddStock tickets for himself, his wife Liz, and his musical collaborator Ryan—that’s $2,400, plus $200 for in-tent AC units. Ray came here straight from Tennessee, where he spent four days camping and doing drugs at the Bonnaroo music and arts festival. As a result, he now smells like a first mate’s deck shoes and is unable to utter a sentence that doesn’t mention Bonnaroo—his goal this week, he tells me, is not just to let Rundgren know of his profound influence on Ray’s music, but to convince his hero to play Bonnaroo 2014.  

Everything I know about our host (which isn’t much) I know from Ray. Rundgren was born near Philadelphia, home to Gamble and Huff and Hall and Oates, and spent his late teens in psychedelic rock group the Nazz, with whom he wrote 1968’s “Open My Eyes.” He went solo and scored immediate hits with beautiful straightforward soft-rock tunes like “Hello It’s Me,” his most famous song. A wicked guitarist, he helped usher in the prog rock era with his band Utopia (Rundgren’s ToddStock cult often refer to themselves as Utopians), and in the early 90s he built his own computers and wrote programming code to record electronic music like the apocalyptic, interactive rap album No World Order. Because making challenging music is not always lucrative, Rundgren has cultivated a side career producing hundreds of records for celebrated acts ranging from Janis Joplin to XTC—he recorded, among other albums, Mealoaf’s Bat Out of Hell and the New York Dolls’ 1973 debut. Unwilling to become a nostalgia act to pay his bills (he rarely agrees to play anything but the latest of his two dozen albums), Rundgren has lately rented himself out to the Cars spin-off band the New Cars and currently plays in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band.

I only just got hip to Rundgren, as he’s a little before my time. I’m 39, but that’s young by ToddStock standards—people my age tend to dismiss Rundgren as “classic rock,” and people much younger than me are probably barely aware of him. But Ray and the other, older Utopians see Rundgren as a timeless, ever-transitioning artist akin to David Bowie or Prince, a pioneer in rock and electronica. There’s almost nothing that Rundgren didn’t do first—at least that’s what you learn sitting among his biggest fans for four days straight, while Rundgren’s extensive catalog plays endlessly in the background READ THE REST OF THE STORY HERE at Vice Magazine…

Or else just watch this video of Todd and I fishing on the Mississippi River…

 

 

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