As a blogger, I am irresistibly drawn to things that are (a) earnest, (b) quixotic and (c) timely. Tonight’s source material clears all three hurdles with ease.
Just yesterday, President Obama flew to Los Angeles to attend a star-studded campaign benefit concert featuring performances by Stevie Wonder, Bon Jovi and Katy Perry.
(I certainly hope they did not perform in that order.)
As Election Day draws closer, it’s no surprise that rock and pop stars are putting their time, talent and cash behind the incumbent President.
And, while showbiz types seem to lean left, it wouldn’t surprise me to see conservative performers step forth in support of Mitt Romney.
But it would be something else again to see a prominent musician campaign for a third-party candidate with no chance of winning.
Not just for a single concert, but consistently and repeatedly, just for the principle of the thing.
That’s what was happening in America 32 years ago this month, when a plucky, independent-minded underdog politician found his match in a plucky, independent-minded underdog rock star.
Rundgren was not the only musician to champion Anderson’s unlikely third-party Presidential run in 1980.
A Billboard magazine article from August of that year mentions that James Taylor played three New England concerts for Anderson; Herbie Mann headlined a Washington, D.C., fundraiser; and Devo and Tom Rush were also thinking about lending their talents to the campaign.
(I am sure Anderson greatly appreciated the thought of Devo bringing its spastic anti-funk aboard his campaign caravan.)
Rundgren, unlike the others, didn’t limit himself to a few scattered shows. He played an entire concert tour to benefit John Anderson — a sort of rock’n’roll Pickett’s Charge against the twin powers of the Republican and Democratic parties.
Ticket stubs and posters exist for Anderson benefit concerts throughout the month of October, some of which paired Rundgren with former Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter. The two singer-songwriters shared a band, trading off their own songs as well as covers like “Cathy’s Clown,” “Needles and Pins” and “Eight Days A Week.”
A recording of one such show — generally believed to be Oct. 20, 1980, in Akron, but sometimes circulated as Cleveland — makes the rounds online, and it sounds just about as awesome as you’d think. (Not that I advocate obtaining or listening to officially unreleased material in any way, shape or form, of course.)
According to a blurb in People magazine (!), Rundgren threw his support behind the U.S. Rep. from Illinois after studying his platform and agreeing with much of it.
Anderson, in return, apparently told Rundgren he was concerned about the effects of high-decibel rock music on his children’s hearing. Or he did if one believes the political reporting in People magazine, anyway. Despite that fundamental disagreement, the shows went on.
What makes Rundgren’s autumnal crusade so appealing — to me, anyway — is that Anderson’s campaign peaked in September.
According to Wiki’s retelling of the 1980 campaign, Anderson’s last chance to gain ground came at a Sept. 21 debate in Baltimore. Anderson was credited with a slight victory over Ronald Reagan (Jimmy Carter sat out the debate) but failed to score the major blow he needed. And from there, his numbers slipped steadily.
So, by the time Rundgren and friends were playing the Youngstown Agora and the Ocean State Performing Arts Center in support of Anderson, the campaign was already beyond hope.
Having committed to the benefit shows, Rundgren and Hunter couldn’t really pull out, of course.
They seem to have played like they meant it, even though the cause was lost. The recording of the Akron show certainly doesn’t find them half-assing it in any way, shape or form.
One wonders, in retrospect, how many of the people who went to those shows gave a damn about John Anderson, and how many were there just to see two maverick singer-songwriters strike sparks off each other.
In the end, Anderson and running mate Patrick Lucey won just 6.6 percent of the popular vote and no electoral votes. Exactly 5,719,850 Americans cast ballots for him.
Still, the John Anderson benefit tour stands, I think, as a high point in the ongoing intersection of rock music and politics. (And yes, as a Rundgren fan, I am screamingly biased; but hear me out.)
Rundgren backed the independent candidate strongly enough that he was willing to spend a month of less-than-glamorous road life — riding on buses, sleeping in Holiday Inns, and like that — to lend his support.
Single-show, star-studded benefit concerts packed with VIP attendees are one thing, but a string of one-nighters playing to the punters in Buffalo and Providence requires a different kind of commitment.
Was it quixotic from start to finish? Yeah. Was it totally the sort of thing one would expect from Todd Rundgren? Yup. Does that make it any less cool? Not to my mind.
Personally, I’d like to see another credible independent Presidential candidate in my lifetime.
Even if that happened in 2016, it would probably be too late to expect Rundgren to do any more campaigning.
But perhaps some other contrarian performer would step up and mount a tour for the ages … a tour people would remember long after the last well-heeled major-party fundraising show is forgotten.