Todd Rundgren Teaching At University This Week

Todd Rundgren cues up Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band” on his iPad, and as the song plays, he suddenly yells, “More cowbell!” and pantomimes playing one.

Welcome to class with a rock star as the professor.

Titled “Exploring the Creative Muse: Art, Business, Technology, and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the weeklong, one-credit course is part of the 68-year-old musician, producer and engineer’s 10-day residency at the University of Notre Dame that culminates with Saturday’s concert at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.

Photo: Timothy John Siekiera
Greenwich Odeum, East Greenwich, R.I.

Monday’s class alternated between structured and loose.

Best known for such hits as “Hello, It’s Me,” ‘‘I Saw the Light,” ‘‘Bang the Drum All Day” and as a member of Utopia, Rundgren began by asking the students to report on their homework assignment from Sunday’s class (compare and contrast two songs each from his pop album Something/Anything? and his progressive rock album A Wizard, A True Star).

He affirmed one student’s observations and then described some of the techniques he used to record A Wizard, A True Star.

At times, Notre Dame film, television and theater professor Ted Mandell guided the discussion with questions for him, but Rundgren also frequently took questions from the students and, as with “We’re an American Band,” played samples of songs to illustrate some of his points.

“I get the benefit of their insights and find out what’s important to them,” he said after class about teaching the course and visiting other classes on campus, something he’s done at other universities, including Indiana University Bloomington. “You meet individuals who inspire you. You hear about the fecklessness of youth. and then you see they’re serious and focused on the future, and I’m lucky to get that reassurance.”

The students feel the same way.

“People here are creative, but starting bands is not the focus here,” sophomore Kay Bontempo said Tuesday. “I really appreciate the opportunity to hear from Todd Rundgren. It showed me they care about people like me who want to show up for this kind of class.”

A former wide receiver and current student assistant for Notre Dame’s football team, Corey Robinson also plays guitar and signed up for the class because he wanted to explore creativity and how music is created.

“It’s being able to explore (the questions of), ‘How do you be creative? How do you make time to be creative?’” he said Tuesday. “Because it’s his job, he can immerse himself in it. . For us, we’re students and have all these responsibilities. A lot of times, we get distracted and busy, but we have to understand creativity takes effort. You have to make time for it. You need to seek solitude and immersion.”

Monday’s main topic was collaboration, and Rundgren drew on his experience as the producer of dozens of albums for other artists – Badfinger, New York Dolls, Patti Smith Group, The Tubes, Jill Sobule, among others – to talk about that.

“Some (producers) are Svengalis for their artists” and dictate every detail of an album, Rundgren said. “. My philosophy of production is that whatever is missing, I will find and fill it in, but I prefer it if the band does. . When the producer’s fingerprints become too evident, that’s not supposed to happen.”

He also told behind-the-scenes anecdotes from his work as the producer for such albums as Grand Funk’s We’re an American Band, XTC’s Skylarking, Splender’s Halfway Down the Sky and Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell.

For instance, he agreed to produce 1977’s Bat Out of Hell because he heard it “as a Bruce Springsteen spoof,” although he never told Meat Loaf or songwriter Jim Steinman that. It has since sold more than 30 million copies.

In the case of Grand Funk, he said, he told the band the song “We’re an American Band” needed something in the higher register on the chorus and suggested the “dink-dink-dink” organ part, which insulted the band’s keyboardist. The song went to No. 1.

Rundgren contrasted the team effort of his work with Meat Loaf and Steinman on Bat Out of Hell with the tension between him and XTC’s Andy Partridge, who had a reputation for mixing songs over and over and delaying projects.

For Sean O’Brien, a junior from South Bend majoring in accounting and film, Monday’s discussion about collaboration applied to both of his majors.

“It’s a good guide to how to deal with both extremes,” he said. “With Meat Loaf, they all seemed to be on the same page. With XTC, it’s the guy who doesn’t want to do what you think is right. It was two examples of the extremes you’ll deal with. Even in business, I’ve had things that are fine and the person where it’s their way or the highway.”

Other topics for the weeklong class include creativity, the science of creativity and personal voice, technology, and the business of rock ‘n’ roll.

“I’ve gotten a lot,” senior Ryan Taylor said. “It’s fascinating to listen to him and hear his stories, but last night, the theme of collaboration, it was liberating to hear that in most cases, collaboration is an asymmetrical experience . (meaning that) in a collaboration between two people, it’s very rarely 50-50. There’s usually a motivator and the person who’s able to finish the puzzle or put the icing on that cake.”

In addition to the class and the concert, Rundgren also is visiting area schools; collecting instruments for the charity Hungry for Music, which distributes them to disadvantaged students throughout the country; and promoting his Spirit of Harmony foundation, which advocates for early music education.

He also performed at Friday’s pep rally before Saturday’s Notre Dame-Duke University football game, which he attended.

“It’s a great vibe, and the audience was really receptive,” he said after class about the pep rally. “I thought they might be, ‘He doesn’t have anything to do with football.’ But I think once we did ‘Bang the Drum,’ which is the Green Bay Packers’ theme song, they awoke to the connection.”

He and Robinson finished the performance with “The Notre Dame Victory March” played on ukuleles.

“It was definitely humbling,” Robinson said Tuesday about teaching the song to Rundgren. “It was neat to play the ‘Fight Song’ in front of the crowd.  He didn’t go here, so he doesn’t know what that (song) means to us, so to be able to indoctrinate Todd into that was great.”