ROCK ‘N’ ROLL REVIVAL Todd Rundgren’s Music Camp

 

Or how
I stumbled upon my own inner rock star, courtesy of The Runt.

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN / PHOTOS BY ALISA CHERRY

 

Bad Company once sang a paean to rock and roll fantasies,
but it’s doubtful they ever imagined how those dreams might actually come to
fruition, courtesy of Todd Rundgren’s Musical Revival Camp. The experience,
which took place the third week of July at the lovely Full Moon Resort in New
York’s Catskill Mountains, certainly wasn’t lost on the fans that journeyed to
those lovely environs and spent five days in the presence of a man many
recognize and respect as a true Rock god.

 

I’d have to include myself in that number, and while I made
the effort not to appear star-struck, restraint wasn’t necessarily required.
After all, the 80 or so fans — average age 55 — spent approximately $1,350
and up to travel here from all over the States, and even as far away as
Scotland to be in Todd’s presence and experience the opportunity to have their
lives intersect with his, and to trade quips, share a beverage, and be privy to
some little bit of trivia. Nevertheless, it does come with a caveat. “Todd
is very accessible,” his gregarious wife Michele explained during dinner
on day one. “However, chances are he’s not going to remember meeting you
backstage in 1973.”

 

Okay fair enough. Likewise, we were asked to take heed when
Todd begged us not to stalk him whilst on the premises. Of course, there were
those awkward moments that come when one feels hard-pressed to ensure that
initial bond which will hopefully guarantee you’ll become Todd’s new best
friend. Sad to say, I blundered on my first two attempts. Recalling the time I
saw him touring with Ringo Starr some 13 years prior, I said I saw him pour
something over his head that appeared to be hydrogen peroxide, at least judging
by the bleached blonde tresses that appeared after. Unfortunately, Todd
responded with an expression of total bewilderment. “It’s never been that
simple to get my hair that way,” he insisted, motioning towards his
multi-hued locks. So I tried again later, casually mentioning that our tour
guide in Kauai, the Hawaiian island where he makes his home, had included his
house on our tour. However when given the locale in question, Todd suggested that
the guide had it all wrong.

 

“No credibility there,” I remarked, trying to
distance myself from the erroneous information.

 

If I was trying too hard, it was for good reason. After all,
I was a “newie” to this experience. Those that came to the camp last
year clearly seemed far more casual about what the scenario involved. “Go
with the flow,” suggested our new friend Donnalee, a New Hampshire lass
who immediately took on the role of guide and advisor. Todd, she advised,
favors spontaneity, meaning that nothing is ever etched in stone. He doesn’t
like fans fawning over him, she said, although he is prone to casual
conversation. Mainly though, he’s here to have a good time like the rest of us.
That seemed especially evident during the late night jams, when Todd opted for
a few covers and then ceded the stage to some of the campers who took it upon
themselves to engage in music-making… or something that approximated it.

 

Mostly though, our rewards became about meeting our fellow
campers, all of whom seemed (1) exceedingly friendly (2) equally in awe of
being there, and (3) Todd devotees of 30 to 40 years in duration. We were in
good company, well stoked with anticipation, and ready for the adventure to
begin.

 

#    #   #

 

 

 

Question: What
do risotto, a chicken farmer from South Carolina, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, a walk
in the woods, and Ian Anderson’s bother Robin all have in common?

 

Answer: they
all contributed to day two of Todd’s summer camp.

 

“Welcome to your first hangover!” our host
proclaimed at the start of our first full day onsite. Indeed, there were those
who regretted the fact that they had over indulged at the first opportunity — Pacing, people! — but happily, yours
truly was not among them. Quite the opposite in fact. I remained ready to
tackle the day’s opportunities with due zest and vigor. And that meant
beginning the day with a brisk hike under the careful guidance of Mr. Rundgren
himself. Forty of those who were similarly motivated piled into a pair of buses
and headed a mile up the road to the trail head where we commenced our walk in
the woods.

 

Not surprisingly, the hike turned out to be a bit more brisk
than some of us had reckoned, especially a camper named Deb who opted to walk
it in high heels. Likewise, any chance to bond with Mr. Rundgren along the way
was pretty well dashed, given the need to huff and puff instead. That’s what
living in the moment is all about.

 

Being that the rigors of the trail put us behind schedule, I
had to make a rapid switch from the strenuous to the cerebral as soon as we
arrived back at the camp. I had been tapped to interview Peter Buck as part of
the day’s camp activities, a role I’d assume with the other special guests in
the days that followed. I took it on as one of the responsibilities that comes
with being a professional journalist, or at least being someone who refers to
himself as such. Plus, when the request comes from Todd’s misses, the
delightful Mrs. Rundgren herself (given hubby’s apparent approval), one
certainly makes himself available. 

 

 

 

 

The interview with Mr. Buck went well, according to the
subject himself, as well as those in attendance and our host himself who, as
his wife assured me, would not have allowed the proceedings to continue unless
he felt I was carrying on convincingly. (“There’s no need for those
Wikipedia type questions,” he cautioned me earlier.) Among the things we
learned is that Buck seems to have little regret over the demise of REM, and
that it’s not only way too soon to contemplate a reunion, but that any future
collaboration is doubtful as well. Instead, Buck is focusing on his forthcoming
solo debut, which will shift him into the unaccustomed role of singer. The
album, he says, will initially be pressed only on vinyl, “a further way of
limiting its appeal,” he insists.

 

 

 

The interview over, we reassembled in the adjacent lunch
tent to eat our midday meal as Todd offered the first of his promised cooking
lessons. Attired in the obligatory apron, he offered his secrets for preparing
risotto. The fact that he had to occasionally blow his nose during his
otherwise meticulous preparation seemed to be of little consequence to the
onlookers, although a cautionary note was raised when his wife wisely brought
him some hand cleaner. “What’s the matter? My boogers aren’t good enough
for you?” Todd groused, feigning indignity.

 

At lunch, we were informed that a competition would commence
between a pre-designated “White team” and an opposing “Black
team” (the names based on a Todd tune called “Black and White”) and that an
ongoing series of contests and challenges would bring the winner a grand prize
of some unspecified designation. The first of these competitive encounters
became a hula hoop contest, which was won handily by the Black team. However, a
volleyball game restored some parity. Then later, a pound cake eating
competition allowed the Black team to regain the lead. I was part of the White
team, but I must confess that I offered no assistance whatsoever.

 

Instead, I chose to relax by the pool, and while the water
was a bit too frigid for this Florida boy’s liking, the offer of a brew from
the aforementioned South Carolina chicken farmer named Dode helped put everyone
in the party spirit. Dode, it seemed, accepted the role of class clown, and
being that he was once a part-time assistant/acquaintance for Slash of Guns N’
Roses, he was well equipped to accommodate all those in need, be it with a
guitar, a brew or a catchy quip. He also served as a kind of good humor man,
driving his truck to the scene of the daily pool party and dispensing with a
variety of beer-type beverages.

 

Personally, I did my damnedest to excel at bingo that night,
but I failed in repeated attempts at victory. That was regrettable because the
Todd tee-shirts offered as prizes were powerful motivation.

 

The evening jam session and impromptu performances that
commenced that evening in the Roadhouse, our very own private music venue
across the road, proved an ideal way to cap the day on an upbeat note. It was
there I struck up a conversation with the aforementioned Robin Anderson, 16
years Ian’s senior. My point of reference — my icebreaker, so to speak — was
to mention the fact that I had interviewed his brother twice and that he proved
a perfect gentleman both times — cordial, articulate, informative and a great
interview in general. “Please give him my thanks,” I urged. I don’t
know if the message will get through, but my hope is that sibling pride will
compel him to relay it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ultimately, the evening took its course via the various jams
that found the campers displaying their musical virtuosity. I too felt the
compulsion to leap onstage and contribute background vocals, but alas, my shy
streak got the best of me and so I reluctantly retreated, choosing instead to
watch Todd jam with longtime bassist Kasim Sulton, Peter Buck, and, on one
song, upcoming special guest, former Turtle Mark Volman. Later, prior to making
our retreat for the evening, we briefly paused on the Roadhouse’s back porch to
observe Todd holding court and espousing on matters clearly related to politics
and economics. Not wishing to engage in heady discussion in the aftermath of
such euphoria, we wisely decided to call it a night.

 

#        #.    #

 

Breakfast, Wednesday morning. Judging by the number of
campers willing to sacrifice sleep for the day’s first meal, we clearly
witnessed diminished returns. “Welcome to your second morning
hangover,” Todd dutifully proclaimed. Indeed, in glancing around the room,
it did appear to be a morning of shades and sunglasses.

 

Likewise, the number of hikers turned out to be only half as
many as the day before, despite the fact Todd had promised an easier go of it
this time around. Indeed, it proved accommodating enough for me to make it back
to camp with ten minutes to spare prior to my scheduled interview with Mark
Volman. As it turned out, Flo had been holding court on his own for the past
two hours, giving many campers — and a good portion of my potential audience
— enough of a spoiler to circumvent the discussion I had planned. No worries
though; he was enough of a talker to give our Q&A adequate substance, what
with his reminiscences about the Turtles, Flo and Eddie’s subsequent success as
singers for hire with Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen and T. Rex (among others),
his belated college education (he graduated magna cum laude in 1997) and his
current tenure as a professor of music business at Belmont university. Again I
got kudos from the campers but in truth, Mark is the person who made the
interview special.

 

 

 

 

Chat session over, we made our way next door to the dining
tent where Todd was prepping his next cooking demonstration, which was all
about sirloin steak burgers. My tasting was enough to convince that I needed
seconds, but what really had me pumped up was 
meeting Paul Fishkin, Todd’s early mentor, trusted advisor and friend,
and later, a legendary promotion exec for Todd’s first major record label,
Bearsville Records, prior to becoming 
manager and beau of Stevie Nicks. We spent the next two hours chatting
in preparation for the next day’s Q&A, but judging by his obvious ability
to share insights and anecdotes, I had no doubts whatsoever that he’d be in the
same league as Mr. Volman in terms of imparting his gift for gab.

 

Still, I had another agenda on my mind. After witnessing my
fellow campers demonstrating their daring by taking the microphone at the
Roadhouse, I determined I’d overcome my reticence and fulfill my inner rock
star fantasy. Consequently, I elected to stop by the afternoon band rehearsal
and volunteer my read on “My Generation.” Not that I thought I could
ever best Roger Daltrey on the Who’s signature song mind you, but being that I
was of that generation, at least in terms of sheer attitude, I figured I might
be able to carry it off. Kasim, the camp’s official musical counselor, led me
through a run-through, and with that, I was off, giving what I ascertained to
be a near perfect performance. I belted, crooned and stuttered my way through,
practicing some tentative stage moves in the process. After taking the
additional precaution of plying myself with alcoholic beverages, I figured that
I was ready.

 

Naturally, things don’t always go as planned, especially
when one is a showbiz novice. I started off strong, prefacing my performance
with a dedication to the audience before launching into the song at full steam.
Sadly, I missed a cue midway through the song and then stumbled towards the end
when my backing band inadvertently excised the final verse. The crowd offered a
polite response but I felt somehow inadequate. Later, watching my performance
on my wife’s I-Pad, my worst suspicions were confirmed. I looked more than a
bit askew up on stage, twitching around while singing an anthem I assumed as my
own. And yet, I had attained my moment in the spotlight, with none other than a
truly certifiable rock star in Kasim Sulton backing me up. It was a noble
experiment at very least. [Don’t worry,
Lee – you’re still the frontman for the official BLURT house band. – Ed.
]

 

Fortunately, the music only improved from that point on,
although Todd’s brewing cold relegated him to the role of backing musician for
the campers taking their turns onstage. Everyone fared better later on, once we
convened around a late night bonfire. The songs came spontaneously, with Todd
and Dode on acoustic guitars and several others — yours truly among them —
contributing percussion and back-up vocals. It was another fantasy fulfilled;
in this environment, I found myself playing cowbell and jamming with none other
than Todd himself.

 

Todd and Michele retired early, no doubt in deference to his
frayed health, while the rest of us lingered until well past 3 AM. And in so
doing, they took advantage of the only visible perk that offered concession to
his star presence — a golf cart which whisked them away back to their own retreat.

 

#          #          #

 

Predictions of rain waylaid plans for further hikes and most
other outdoor activities planned for Thursday, the final full day of camp. It
would be a bittersweet afternoon anyway, knowing that our stay was coming to a
close. With the day’s plans in flux due to the dictates of mother nature, there
seemed some uncertainty as to what was officially planned. “Make up your
own activities!” Todd blurted in mock exasperation.

 

Nevertheless, my agenda for the day was fairly well set. For
starters, I had another public Q&A planned with Paul Fishkin, who declared
himself Todd’s pal since 1966, when he discovered the fledgling guitarist
playing with a local Philly band named Woody’s Truck Stop. “It was so
obvious that he was different from the rest of the band,” Fishkin
recalled. “He didn’t do drugs like the rest of the band and he way beyond
them musically. It was obvious even then that he had something special.”

 

For the record, Fishkin would later be inscribed in
Rundgren’s  repertoire by becoming the
subject of two early Todd tunes — “Hang On Paul” by the Nazz, and
later, one of Todd’s first solo songs, “We Got To Get You a Woman”
(he’s the “Leroy Boy” referred to in the song’s first verse).

 

 

 

 

Todd, meanwhile, opted to eschew a full cooking lesson in
favor of an alcoholic concoction, one certain to make happy campers even
happier. He dubbed it a “s’more-tini,” a beverage that combined the
traditional bonfire favorite, the s’more, with a cocktail guaranteed appeal to
the sweet tooth as well as the need for inebriation. In tandem with Michele.
Rundgren’s rum demonstration, the booze quotient was boosted even further.

 

Speaking of which, my final interview — this with our host
himself later that evening, raised my Q&A presentation to its ultimate
challenge. Admittedly, I felt a bit intimidated given that I was aware that
Todd was a bit wary of the whole procedure. “I’ve been answering questions
all week,” he insisted when I asked him about it earlier. Nevertheless, he
played the good sport and indulged me and the eager multitudes as well.

 

“You know what not to ask,” he cautioned as we got
underway. I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to know, but figured that if
I avoided the so-called Wikipedia-type questions, I’d fare okay. I queried him
about his approach to production (“I don’t look for artists to produce.
Usually that comes from the record company…”), asked about specific
projects — Meatloaf, Grand Funk and XTC (of which he noted, “Just getting
through it made it a success… The best part of that session was when it was
over…”), and invited him to offer an unusual anecdote related to his
years on the road. That turned out to be the time the boys in the band
surprised their three female backing singers by greeting them in the nude when
the women emerged from the back of the bus. By the time the crowd chimed in
with inquiries of their own, I felt wholly vindicated in the role bestowed upon
me.

 

Meanwhile, the competition between the Backs and the Whites
continued to intensify, exacerbated by a swimming competition, in which Kirk,
championing the White team, dove into the pool naked — for value shock value
and to cut down on water resistance, or so he claimed — thereby boosting the
White team’s advantage. Matters would later come to a head during our
after-dinner bingo game (which Franklin, a member of Todd’s team, presided over
nightly with his usual comedic, kinetic intensity). It began when a Black team
player was called out for falsely declaring bingo. After Todd cited a rule that
stated ten points were to be forfeited to the Whites as a result, several Black
team members expressed their dissatisfaction by marching out of the room with
fists raised in protest. After Mrs. Rundgren herself voiced her support for the
rebellion, the tension was further acerbated. “This may be the worst
altercation of our entire marriage,” she declared defiantly.

 

Fortunately, this breach in the festive vibe was only
temporary. Not surprisingly, the last night at the Roadhouse would become a
Kumbaya moment, beginning with Dode’s poignant tribute to Todd and the camp,
which he nervously performed solo on piano while bringing many to tears
(“You’ve enjoyed the time of your life/How do you explain to your kids and
your wife/Your parents, your brother, your sisters and friends/You need to
spend more time with Todd Rundgren again… “), and subsequently as one
camper after another took to the stage to offer individual renditions of Todd’s
more touching songs. The man himself took it all in from the audience, feeling
pride no doubt in the keen loyalty he had inspired. Although an evening at camp
couldn’t go by without at least one curious incident or two — in this case,
watching as one of the campers trimming Todd’s eyebrows and sideburns — it was
bittersweet. A single thought lingered over all.

 

Tomorrow meant goodbye.

 

 

 

 

#.     #.     #

 

Friday morning and there were no more diminishing returns at
breakfast. Everyone gathered dutifully to bid their farewells, offering final
photos, email exchanges and a last embrace. Animosity over between Blacks and
Whites — the former ultimately won the competition, their prize being several
vodka-imbued watermelons which they graciously shared with their former foes —
we all gathered in front of the lodge, took the obligatory group photos and
slowly went our own ways.

 

An extraordinary week of fellowship and rock star indulgence
had come to an end all too quickly, our consolation being that the memories
would last a lifetime. For me, it would offer additional solace, knowing that I
had met and mingled with some of the nicest, kindest, most enthusiastic
individuals I’ve ever ahead the pleasure of partying with. Thank you Todd,
Michele, Kasim, Mr. Buck, Mr, Volman, Mr. Fishkin, Franklin, the wonderful Full
Moon staff, campers Donnalee, Dode, Dorren, Marilyn, Kathleen, Nancy, Sarajane,
Sam, Kristi, Don, Bruce, Jim, Jeffrey, Joel, Jill, Jens, Wendy, Ruth, Susan,
Suzi, Ed, Becky, Christopher, Amy, Cathy Lee, Kirk, Lesley, Lois, Laura, Vicki,
Violet, Nancy, Tom, Bill, Dennis, Peter, Johnny, Nora, Robin, Johnny, and all
the others too numerous to mention. No words can describe the fun we shared.

 

They say that youth is all too often wasted on the young.
It’s worth noting, however, that it’s never — ever — wasted on the young at
heart.

 

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