Nottoway Plantation. Photos by Morgana King and Mike Hogan.
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 ageing rock stars.
The star in question is Todd Rundgren, who is putting on a small festival in honour 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 analogue 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 $2,397, plus travel costs, 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, Meatloaf’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 catalogue plays endlessly in the background.
Todd Rundgren raps? Todd Rundgren raps.
Ray Bong and I watch as buses full of ToddStockers pull up and empty into Nottoway's ballroom bar. Everyone had been in New Orleans all day at a recital by the Lower Ninth Ward Youth Orchestra, for whom Rundgren’s well-to-do cult had casually raised $10,000 and a truckload of instruments. As they file into the ballroom for an extended late-night open bar, it becomes apparent that Ray is the only true weirdo in a crowd that seems, at first glance, a wee square. Advertisements for ToddStock had encouraged attendees to turn their campsites into art installations, a la Burning Man, but aside from some Hawaiian-themed decorations strewn across tents, not many attendees seem interested in letting their freak flags fly. An ineffable party monster named Dode (“Like dude with an o”) has constructed a makeshift tiki bar with a sweet PA system, and another fellow rented a bouncy castle full of inflatable dragons, but only Ray brought tie-dyed banners and a car battery to power his practice amps and keyboards and toy guitars and a neon sign advertising his name. (He also brought molly and a case of nitrous oxide balloons, left over from Bonnaroo.) I’d been expecting more nutballs like Ray at a festival worshipping the challenging music of Rundgren – as his most recent work demonstrates, Todd's a long, long way from dad rock. But ToddStock, with its crowd of Baby Boomers, empty buffet tins and daily lineups of cover bands, feels at first like a Rundgren-themed cruise, a ship adrift upon an ocean of Todd.
Ray Bong and his friend Ryan, centre, with Todd Rundgren's sons.
I type this from the corner of the ballroom, watching Rundgren himself pick through a Southern breakfast buffet. He is wearing yellow and black Hawaiian shorts, a brown T-shirt and indoor sunglasses reminiscent of Roy Orbison. All around ToddStock I’ve see old photos of Rundgren that make him look, frankly, beautiful – then again, even Keith Richard looks fuckable in the right black-and-white pic. The once-waifish Rundgren now sports a small belly but for a soon-to-be-65-year-old dude, he looks very fit. His full head of stringy black hair is parted by a white-blonde skunk stripe up the middle. Squint and he sorta looks like a skinny Ozzy Osbourne or some lost member of Motley Crue. He’s rather tall, and throughout the week it’s easy to spot the skunk stripe roaming Nottoway's sweet grounds.
Despite his visibility, his fans aren’t accosting him; in fact, few even glance his way. Many of the Utopians, I’m told, have followed Rundgren around the planet for decades and have acclimated to basking in his glow. He is simultaneously everything to them, the star their lives orbit around, and yet also no big deal. I imagine it’s less embarrassing for everyone if his fans obsess over him only when when he’s not around – which they do, endlessly – so Rundgren collects his fruit and biscuits in peace.
He is joined in line by his wife Michele, who, I must say, is fairly hot for an older lady. Michele is a former trapeze artist who sang backup in Rundgren’s band on his Nearly Human tour; the two carried on a relatively long affair before Rundgren broke up with his long-term girlfriend Karen Darvin. (Todd has two sons with Karen and one with Michele, and also served as a father figure to Liv Tyler, who was born Liv Rundgren – at the time, her mother, Bebe Buell, was living with Todd.)
Michele catches me scoping them at the buffet and smiles and waves. “Morning, Michael!” she calls. We met just once last night, and she remembers my name already.
Todd Rundgren in the 80s.
At the first ToddStock, Michele and Todd meticulously planned the week’s events. This time, in the name of birthday relaxation, the Utopians are expected to conjure their own fun. A large tablet in the dining room lists available activities such as a swamp tour, a mini Mardi Gras parade, a “healing circle” and yoga. We head to Nottoway’s gorgeous, never-crowded saltwater pool, where the sound system gives me a crash course in the diversity of Rundgren’s music:
Hey, this sounds like the Shins, what is this?
It’s Todd Rundgren.
Wow, is this Queen?
No, Todd Rundgren.
Is this that new Pheonix song?
Nope, old Rundgren song.
Are you sure this isn’t Hall and Oates?
No dude. Rundgren. Only Rundgren.
What do you talk about when you’re at Todd Rundgren’s birthday party surrounded by Todd Rundgren fans and listening to Todd Rundgren’s entire musical catalogue? Turns out, conversation is heavy on Todd Rundgren. We meet Jim Utopia from Philadelphia, who declined to offer his real name, having previously worked a classified job in government security. We meet a chiropractor and a lactation consultant, both from New York. We meet a loud record company PR girl sporting skunk-stripe Rundgrenesque hair, Angry Birds–branded pajamas and purse, (a nod to the song “Angry Bird” from Rundgren’s new album, State), and three different Rundgren tattoos. We also run into Todd’s middle son Randy, who is tall and thin just like his more muscular, pro-baseball playing older brother Rex. (The third brother, Rebop, is an artist and actor.) Once the pool crowd thins, some Utopians get to grumbling that Rundgren isn’t being social enough. “He only talks to certain people,” says the chiropractor. I don't know what people expect from him but from observing Todd, it seems like while he isn't going to walk up and talk to anyone who doesn't share his last name, he’ll be perfectly affable when approached.
A tattoo of Rundgren as a tiki figure.
Around happy hour time we can hear Rundgren himself shouting, “Let the games begin!” from a deck chair, ensconced among his worshippers out on the volleyball court. One fan is charged with bringing him beers while other Utopians play volleyball against the younger Rundgrens, who’d all had the advantage of growing up in Hawaii. Todd gets really into the game from his perch, and even shouts at his cult to leave him alone and let him referee.
At dinner Ray Bong is contemplative. “I scheduled an appointment with Michele,” he tells me. “Todd is going to come down to my camp tomorrow at 4PM.” Just then an all-female flash mob appears and belts out a version of Rundgren’s truly killer guitar-pop anthem, “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”. Todd jumps up on a chair and waves his hands, conducting the mob.
I end up eating next to Rex Rundgren and tell him about Ray’s scheme to convince his dad to play Bonnaroo. “You think he’s relevant enough?” Rex asks. An honest question. I tell him it only matters that his dad is psychedelic enough for the drugged-out festival – and anyway, if Paul McCartney and Tom Petty can headline there, why not Todd?
After dark, everyone gathers in front of the mansion to watch fireworks shot from the levee in Todd’s honour – he used to make fireworks as a child and is still drawn to them. Before the display begins, Rebop takes the microphone and presents his dad with a birthday present: a vapouriser he’d paid to have engraved with the words We Have Family Values – the engraver screwed up, however, so it read We Have Family Valves instead. The Utopians roar with laughter, then Todd pushes down the handle on a Wile E Coyote–style detonator that starts the raddest fireworks I may have ever seen. The detonations are drowned out by speakers blasting a mash-up of Rundgren’s proggier tracks.
A performance from Rundgren's most recent tour.
At the breakfast buffet, Rundgren has exchanged his brown shirt for a green one but still wears the same Hawaiian surf shorts. On the ballroom’s small stage a guitarist with a grey soul patch strums the chords to “Hello It’s Me” with his eyes closed – he doesn’t seem to notice that Rundgren is standing ten feet from him. I’m mortified on the guitarist’s behalf, as I imagine the only thing Rundgren wants to hear less than “Hello It’s Me” is “Hello It’s Me” played by a cover band.
All day long, Ray Bong refuses to leave his command centre – Michele said that Rundgren would stop by at 4, but he doesn’t want to miss him in case he comes by early. Around 3.20, just after my wife finishes a ToddStock flag in the arts and crafts tent, she runs to me with her camera and shows me a photo of Rundgren sitting in a folding chair at Ray Bong’s camp, watching Ray play his bloopy “music”. We run across the grounds in 100-degree heat to observe.
Ray Bong plays for Rundgren.
Ray’s “act” revolves around a small black analogue box called a “coron”, which generates a tone when jostled or tapped that can then be manipulated with its knobs. No one else I’ve met has ever seen or heard of the coron, perhaps because Ray buys every single one that he can find on the internet, just so no one else can have one. The coron is Ray’s thing. In the spirit of the festivities, however, he gifts one to Rundgren, who joins him in a squiggly jam session, thus fulfilling one of Ray’s wildest dreams. Before he leaves, Rundgren agrees he’ll “look into” Bonnaroo, which he’s never heard of. Todd sure knows how to grow a cult – he listens to his true fans, and tries to make them happy.
Though I’m not yet a super fan, I can’t help but feel honoured when he agrees to go fishing with me as part of our official interview. (I am the only "embedded" member of the press at the event.) I present him with a thick rod made for catching shark that’s pink with Mardi Gras–coloured LED lights that flash when you reel – not unlike an outfit Rundgren might wear onstage. I teach him to cast before telling him that while I personally enjoy the education imparted by the constant stream of Rundgren songs playing at all hours of the day and night in every corner of the Nottoway’s grounds, I worry that it must be grating for him. “Yeah, I have to kind of tune it out,” he says. Despite the intense afternoon heat, Rundgren chuckles a lot throughout our 25 sweaty minutes. He’s a very gracious man.
My interview with Todd.
My wife drinks too much free booze at happy hour and passes out in the tent, so I sit in a corner alone at dinner. When Rundgren enters the dining room the buffet line is too long. Because he won’t cut in line and because I’m the only one not wearing a shirt bearing his face, he comes right to my table and sits beside me. We discuss Ray Bong’s love of nitrous oxide; the night before Ray’s camp had polished off that entire case of canisters. My videographer Mike, a lifelong Rundgren fan who’s wearing a “Got Todd?” T-shirt, joins us just as Todd is telling me that, just like with music, he enjoys a challenge when cooking. He claims he loves to make roux. Mike says he doesn’t have the patience. “You’re a pussy,” Todd tells him, and Mike is in heaven.
Following dinner, Rundgren premieres a movie documenting his 2009 performance of the album A Wizard, a True Star in its entirety. The film brims with prog-rock guitar licks, wild costumes, passion and sweat, like some cross between Meatloaf and Prince. Afterwards a fan presents Rundgren with a clear Lucite guitar that glows with green light from the inside: perhaps a reference to the lyrics about a “glass guitar” on Utopia’s Ra album. A band made up of Utopians then launches into a set of covers, plus an original tune titled, “Thank You Mrs. Rundgren”, a piano ballad dedicated to Todd’s mom.
Todd Rundgren at dinner on the last day of ToddStock.
In the morning, professional roadies appear in the mansion’s huge white tent, usually used for weddings, and begin setting up the computers and lasers and electronic drum kit for Rundgren’s performance, the climax of the whole week. Rundgren’s band today consists of drummer Prairie Prince (most famously of Journey and the Tubes) and guitarist Jesse Gress. The two have accompanied Rundgren on seven albums spanning several genres. Todd will stand at the centre of the stage, of course, on a platform circled with lights and equipped with a giant touch-screen computer rigged with a hovering magnifying glass, Roland trigger pads and an iPad. As recently as the 90s Rundgren had to build these command centres for himself; now you can just buy all this stuff at Office Depot.
Todd is going to be playing mainly from State, a techno record of sorts inspired by his recent work with youngsters Tame Impala and Lindstrom, the Swedish DJ. There have been reports of Rundgren fans walking out of recent concerts, unwilling to follow Todd on his journey into the world of electronica. But the ToddStockers feel him so deeply they enjoy his every musical move, no matter how obtuse. Todd’s cult may look no different than, say, a flock of Jimmy Buffet’s Parrotheads, but their taste in music is far superior, maybe because their leader keeps challenging them with new sounds.
Todd's birthday cake.
At dinner an oversized birthday-cake version of Rundgren’s signature green guitar sits on the dining room’s piano, surrounded by free Rundgren-themed toothbrushes made by a Utopian dentist. The week’s final buffet is Hawaiian-themed: a pig roast, tuna poki salad, coconut fish, smoked ribs, pot stickers and egg rolls. Michele and Todd enter the ballroom wearing kimonos made by a fan as an anniversary present. Hiding behind the large welding goggles that have become a hallmark of his State tour, Todd rises and addresses the crowd, He thanks them, poking gentle fun at them, and adds, “I probably won’t be able to talk to you all again after dinner.” Meaning, Leave me alone from here on, I have work to do.
As Todd wraps up, a member of the fan band begins singing Rundgren’s “Fade Away”. Someone across the room joins in. When it becomes apparent the cult has orchestrated a magical, movie-musical moment, Todd himself sings a solo verse before the whole dining room joins in.
Todd performing for the ToddStock crowd.
Finally, the band takes the computerised stage, Rundgren in a black-and-white cubist shirt and welding goggles, Prairie Prince and Jesse Gress in psychedelic jumpsuits and big headphones. Today ToddStock has opened itself to the press and others who hadn’t been around all week, which means the crowd has swelled to maybe 200.
Rundgren opens with State’s first song, “Imagination”, and eventually works through almost the entire album. He almost never picks up his guitar, and when he does, he sometimes puts it down before striking a note. His microphone rises from behind him, arching over his head to hang before his mouth so as not to obscure the thoughtful dances he’s worked out for every song.
The music is hardly classic rock – there’s barely any noise a Baby Boomer would recognise – but Rundgren is teaching a master class in rock star: You may not understand this music, my people, but you cannot deny my power. Whatever his cult thinks of the album, they all bob their heads and bounce and cheer and clap (white people love to clap) as he does things only he can do.
Todd's son Rebop dancing at his father's concert.
Rundgren plays several electronic songs he composed back before laptops: “No World Order”, “The Future”, “The Truth”. He raps a little, and unleashes killer techno versions of Utopia’s “Secret Society” and the Tubes’ “Prime Time,” then ends with four-on-the-floor fuck-you versions of his classic songs “I Saw the Light,” “Can’t We Still Be Friends,” and, of course, “Hello It’s Me.” The newly 65-year-old man takes a bow and leaves the stage, drenched in sweat after getting down for an hour straight. Ray Bong’s laughing gas-influenced intuition is right, this show would fit right in at Bonnaroo.
The press stay mainly outside the tent for this, while every one of the 160 Utopians stand rapt before the stage for every throb of Rundgren’s bass drum. Though I can’t say they know exactly what to do with the rave Todd is throwing for them, it doesn’t matter – they love him, they love what he does for them, they’ll follow him no matter where he goes or what he does. Can you imagine a better birthday present?
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.