It was 1969. One warm summer night I found myself parked on a quiet street not far from my Atlantic City home. The girl’s name was Dorothy. We could never seem to find a place to be alone, so the car was our refuge. The radio was playing softly. You know how certain songs just catch your ear the first time you hear them? That night, the song was the original version of “Hello It’s Me” by Nazz. No, not that uptempo swinging remake that was a hit for Todd Rundgren a few years later, but the slow, gorgeous original. If you haven’t heard it, make it a point to do so soon. At any rate the single didn’t do much. It started life as the B-side to “Open My Eyes,” was flipped over by a DJ in Boston, and eventually made it to #66 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. If Atlantic City hadn’t been in the Philadelphia radio market, and the Nazz hadn’t been a Philadelphia band, I might never have heard the song. When Todd rerecorded the song for his 1972 masterpiece Something/Anything?, the single made it all the way to #5.
It wasn’t until some time later in those pre-Internet days that I learned that Todd Rundgren was the force behind Nazz, and by the time I found out, he had already left the band. When his first solo album, Runt, came out in 1970, I was hooked. I can recall leaving my NJ home to venture to the wilds of Forest Hills in Queens because Todd was performing at Forest Hills High School. It was a disaster. Todd tried to do it all himself, just as he had on the album, and the technology simply wasn’t up to the task. That might have been enough to cause me to give up on him, but I admired the courage that it took for him to try. And what is Todd Rundgren if not a courageous artist? His whole career has been characterized by that fearlessness.
So time passed as time does. Todd released one great solo album after another, culminating in the brilliant 1973 work A Wizard, A True Star. A little while later he entered his Utopia phase, which, to be honest, was not my favorite Rundgren era. I was still a fan, though. I just wanted him to come back to earth. But Todd never has been known for staying in one place too long. When he announced a series of shows in smaller venues in the late ’70s, I immediately got tickets for a show at New York City’s fabled Bottom Line. Televisions were placed around the club to add a visual element, and it was one of the most memorable shows I’ve ever been to. Rundgren did songs from every part of his career that night, and yes, I even liked the Utopia tunes.
In December 1978, Bearsville Records compiled performances from that tour. They took tracks from the Bottom Line, the Roxy in L.A., and the Agora in Cleveland, and created the live double album Back to the Bars. On side one, Todd is backed by Kasim Sulton, John Wilcox, and Roger Powell, better known as Utopia. The balance of the album finds him playing with a variety of musicians, including appearances by notables like Rick Derringer, Spencer Davis, Stevie Nicks, and Philadelphia homeboys Daryl Hall and John Oates.
What sets Todd Rundgren apart from a lot of other musicians is that he’s equally adept with a ballad or a hard-charging rock song. Although I was crazy about Rundgren the balladeer, I always knew that what he really enjoyed was rocking hard. He remains one of the most consistently underrated rock guitarists in history. It’s probably because, like Prince, he does so many things so well that people tend to overlook the guitar playing. Just listen to him tear it up on side four’s “Black Maria,” which originally appeared on Something/Anything? But of course his tender side is well represented here too, especially on tracks like “A Dream Goes On Forever” and “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference.”
For me, Back to the Bars is a souvenir of one of the greatest evenings of live music that I’ve ever experienced. If you weren’t fortunate enough to be there, let it serve as a living testament to the greatness of a restless artist who is always looking forward to the next plateau.