TODD RUNDGREN: A WIZARD, A TRUE STAR (1973)
The end of the ’70s found me in the dorms at San Francisco State University. One night my roommate and I were visited by a wasted and ill-tempered neighbor who we’ll call Larry. He had become unruly, so we tricked him into leaving our room and locked him out. Furious, he went to his room, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat, and attempted to beat down our door with it. Thankfully the solid-core door held and campus security showed up before anyone was hurt. Of course Larry was expelled from our dorm. I visited him while he was remorsefully packing up, and he offered to sell me some of his records. One was today’s Rundgren album on vinyl, which I’d always been curious about due to its cool cover, so I gave him $2 for it.
The summer that followed was the last time my family was together for longer than a meal and a snapshot. Save for my teenage kid sister, my siblings and I were all adults by then, and my dad sensed we wouldn’t be up for extended “family time” much longer. He rented a large cabin-cruiser boat and took us all for a scenic, month-long tour of the islands, inlets, and straits between Seattle, WA and Victoria, BC.
I had lots of fun with my family but, like all of us, I needed some alone time. So after docking for the night, when everyone else had settled into their berths, I’d sit out on the boat’s prow and take in the darkened scenery and Northwestern stars. I had a small cassette player and a few tapes, including a dub of the Todd album I’d bought from Larry but had hardly played. I quickly fell in love with A Wizard, A True Star (AWATS): the album’s wild musical odyssey was a good soundtrack for our own nautical meanderings.
By the time of AWATS (1973), his fourth studio album, Todd Rundgren had proven his talents as a songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and all-around sensitive male. He followed up his 1972 breakthrough Something/Anything? and its two hit singles with AWATS, an ambitious prog-pop-soul-rock suite that offered no singles at all.
Each side of this single LP lasts almost half an hour. Side 1 (A Wizard) is a dizzying nonstop psychedelic voyage through Todd’s artistic and libidinal urges; side 2 (A True Star) returns us to the more familiar, ballad-friendly, nice-guy Rundgren, including a four-song medley of ’60s soul covers. Though there were no actual 45s issued from the album, there’s no shortage of memorable Todd classics here, from the anthemic “International Feel” and “Just One Victory” to the aching, vulnerable “I Don’t Want To Tie You Down” and “Sometimes I Don’t Know What To Feel.”
On vinyl, AWATS’ extended length required microgrooving to cram all the music on each side; consequently most LP pressings suffer from thin and/or muddy sound (though a few sound great). With no such constraints on mastering, the 8-track you see here sounds fantastic, the complexities of Todd’s musical landscapes captured perfectly. The tape also replicates the album’s unique song sequence, though three songs had to be split to do so. Alas, the album’s amazing artwork is long gone. Like most early ’70s Warner Bros. 8-track releases, this was issued with a separate “art box” outer sleeve that featured the album’s front cover; few art boxes have survived the decades, including mine. But I’ve included some shots of the acid-trippy illustrations from my LP copy.
For a sample of the album’s depth, check out “Zen Archer,” which I always saw as a sensitive rock star’s lingering guilt at effortlessly wooing so many female fans (or “pretty birds”). Speaking of regret, the album always takes me back to poor Larry leaving the dorms, selling his albums and packing up his belongings—including one very dented aluminum baseball bat.
You can read last week’s installment here: (Eight Times Two) Rufus, ‘Street Player’ (1978) & Chicago, ’13’ (1979)
Join us for more of Andrew Tonkin’s 8-Trackin’ next Thursday!
More Todd Rundgren at Cherry Stereo: Vintage Ads: Todd Rundgren, ‘Can We Still Be Friends’ (1978)