“Records to most people just represent twelve songs on a piece of black plastic, but records are really a whole lifestyle. […] My attitude is that I make the music for me, and the people that think like me and want to know what I’m thinking. That’s what it’s for.” – Todd Rundgren, Creem, August 1972
Here I am in our church: the floors are carpeted to absorb the sound of our recitations. Twelve-inch squares of colorful cardboard line the walls like stained glass. The pews are bins of cardboard and black plastic, some of it even smells of incense. A hymn plays on the speaker, deep and droning, like monks saying morning prayers. We bow our heads over the bins, eyes lowered, solemn, circular breathing punctuated by the occasional cough or sneeze. Some of us have heads covered out of respect, or maybe just a bad hair day. We kneel to peek inside the bargain bins. We’re seekers: looking for salvation in used records, this place our temple, where lost souls are drawn, looking for absolution from our wrongdoings, seeking comfort from the grief of heartbreak or the pains of the world, music as healing for $4.99 a pop. We worship at the foot of these icons under “Used Pop/Rock R” – Ramones, the Raspberries, the Roches, Rolling Stones, the Romantics…. This is where I’ll find my chosen god. I begin to speak my mantra in the hopes of finding him there: Todd is god. Todd is god.
Every Todd Rundgren fan I know came to him through a different route; at fan gatherings, each relates his or her own Todd origin story with a personal reverence. I came to Todd through a song on Something/Anything?, but it wasn’t the stellar power-pop of “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” or one of the AM gold hits, “I Saw The Light” or “Hello It’s Me,” though certainly I’d heard them before; it was a pervy romp at the end of side IV called “Slut,” which is most notable for the fact that Edward James Olmos sings backing vocals. The first time I heard “Slut” it wasn’t even Todd’s version: it was Alex Chilton, performing the song with Big Star during their encore at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple in 2009. The next day I visited my favorite used record store on the Upper West Side, a different kind of temple: a crowded little nook manned by an ex-music journalist who loved to regale customers with nuggets of wisdom about ELO and Kate Bush. I found a Todd Rundgren album, Faithful, on a lower shelf—I had to kneel to find it, as if in supplication—not even the one that had “Slut” on it, but I bought it anyway.
This was the moment of my conversion; after listening to Faithful on repeat, then deep-diving into old videos of Todd’s live performances on YouTube, I went back to the record store the next day and, as if in a religious fervor, bought every Todd album that I could find.
I own multiple copies of Todd albums, but just two copies of Something/Anything?. I justify the multiples by calling them “backups”—in case one gets scratched, I say. But there is a deeper greed at work, a need to be physically closer to each of them. I want them to be a permanent part of me. I want to have them tattooed on my skin; I want to ingest them like communion. I want to consume them as they consume me, to feel them like God (or the Devil) inside me, flowing through my veins.
It’s a wonder I don’t own more than two copies: every time I come across the album in record stores I have to hold myself back from buying it. The cover of Something/Anything? is deeply iconic: a strong graphic of bright pink flowers with green leaves and stems on a magenta background with simple white lettering. I used to think these flowers were peonies, but then started to imagine they might be carnations. Pink carnations symbolize gratitude. The name itself—carnation—has the root “carn,” meaning flesh, and I like the idea of this album as a communion of gratitude. According to Christian belief, carnations are said to have appeared on the earth as Jesus carried the cross; Mary shed tears and carnations grew where her tears fell. Peonies symbolize spring and renewed life. There’s another horticultural option: Rose Althea or Rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus. Jesus himself is sometimes referred to as the Rose of Sharon. Hibiscus syriacus is the national flower of South Korea, where its Korean name—“mugunghwa”—means “immortality.”
It’s hard to say for certain which they might be—the crucifixion, the resurrection, the everlasting life?
Any of these I could believe in.
Breath holds a sacred role in many religions: ānāpānasati, the mindfulness of breathing in Buddhist meditation; the practice of Sufi breathing; the Zoroastrians, who believe that life cannot exist without Dum, or spiritual breath; even a priest’s insufflation during a Catholic baptism. Breath is often tied to the soul; breath is life.
The songs on Something/Anything? are primal, so deep within me that they live beneath the realm of words; to listen to them is to breathe. The “sha-la-la-la”s of “It Takes Two To Tango (This Is For The Girls)” are my heartbeat; “Torch Song” is all the tears I’ve ever cried; the trembling guitar in “Black Maria” is every deep sexual urge: My eyes they burn; my insides turn. Even “Breathless”—the upbeat instrumental that leads off Side II, or “The Cerebral Side”—itself is breath.
Sometimes I find myself out in the world, shopping in a grocery store, standing there among shelves of canned beans, stressed and tired after a long day of work but knowing I needed something, if only I could remember what it was. And then “I Saw The Light”—so deeply loved by the programmers of radio stations that cater to the worship of nostalgia—comes on the tinny speaker above the aisle, a heavenly voice from above.
A feeling hit me oh so strong; the answer was plain to see: Breathe.
And I can breathe again.
There’s an iconic scene in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides—a film itself in part about religion, albeit the more repressive side—where the protagonist and his friends (four suburban boys who have been receiving cryptic cries for help penciled on cards and stuck in their bike spokes) realize that they can communicate with the captive Lisbon sisters via telephone and their record collections. When the sisters pick up the phone, the boys put the needle on Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” (Side IV, Track 4). Hello it’s me; I’ve thought about us for a long, long time… The songs are their salvation.
We worship records because they speak for us when we don’t always know what to say, or when we can’t say what we want to. They understand us; they speak to us, too. They’re incredibly personal; we find spirituality in them each in our own way. A song can say everything in your heart; the song seems to come from you and from outside of you all at once. We feel things we can’t always understand. Our eyes they burn, our insides turn. We believe as deeply as is possible with our earthly bodies:
‘Cause I believe it all along
I think I’m gonna love it
I know they won’t believe it
When they finally see the saving grace in me
Records are more than twelve songs on black plastic: they are religious experiences for those of us who feel the need for spirituality in our lives but might not ascribe to any single religion. We are seekers without a roadmap, nothing but a song to guide our hearts. I’ve found solace in Todd albums when I’ve had nowhere else to turn, and so I turn to him again and again. I go back to church, pay my tithing to the man behind the counter for yet another copy of an album I already own so that I might take communion, break bread with Todd and feel these songs in me, their saving grace burning like a holy light. Breath. Soul. Prayer. Salvation.