Awhile back, I argued that Woodstock—at once a place, a culture/nostalgia industry, and a sensibility—exerts a tremendous hold on geographical self-imaginary of the surrounding Hudson River Valley in which it’s located (and where I live).  To pry back the myth of Woodstock a bit, I’ll occasionally share some historical research on Woodstock’s musical geography.  In this post, I’ll start with the milieu of recording studios and music industry associated with Todd Rundgren, who worked and lived part-time to full-time in Woodstock from 1969 to the late 1980s.

It’s conceivable that some readers today are unfamiliar with Todd Rundgren, who doesn’t seem to generate much interest these days beyond music gearheads, 70s diehards, and his rabid devotees.  That’s too bad.  Among other things he blazed the trail for your Princes, your Becks, and all the other iconoclastic solo artists who insisted on playing all their own instruments and recording eccentric, often mindblowing yet emotionally deep albums… and double albums, live albums, video albums, albums that listeners could remix themselves, subscription-based albums…  Perhaps just as important is his work as a record producer for artists such as the New York Dolls, Meat Loaf, Patti Smith, Grand Funk Railroad, XTC, the Psychedelic Furs, Sparks, the Tubes, and Cheap Trick.

Significantly, Rundgren’s greatest artistic and commercial achievements as a recording artist and record producer (through the 1970s and 80s) coincides with his ubiquity all over the Woodstock map.  They also appear after the three events—Bob Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident, the 1968 release of the Band’s debut album Music from Big Pink, and the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival—for which Woodstock remains most associated in pop culture.  So examining the house that Rundgren built (not just a metaphor, as we’ll see) offers a glance at a Woodstock that’s less iconic in rock culture, and maybe a little more local.  Not that it’s necessarily ‘more real’; Rundgren generated his own local mythology during his Woodstock years, much of which still affects the way Woodstock musicians and boosters think of the place.

My research here draws primarily from Paul Myers’ book, A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio (Jawbone, 2010), which focuses specifically on Rundgren’s work as a record producer on other people’s albums as well as his own.  I’ve tried to find out what became of the Woodstock studios and landmarks that Myers examines based on some simple Google and Wikipedia searches, plus what I’ve learned as someone who lives 30 minutes away from Woodstock.  No doubt I’ve gotten a few details wrong.  If anyone out there can share more accurate information or fill in the blanks, please share your knowledge in the comments section below.

Bearsville Studios

A Philadelphia native, Rundgren first came to Woodstock in 1969 to work at Bearsville Studios, the recording facility built and owned by Albert Grossman.  A legendary artist manager in folk and rock music, Grossman is responsible for advancing the careers of Bob Dylan (he’s prominently depicted in the Dylan documentary “Dont Look Back”), Janis Joplin, the Band, Peter John Lee Hooker, and Peter, Paul and Mary, among many others, at key points in their careers.  Notorious for the 25% fee he charged his clients (15% was traditional for managers), he also fiercely defended their careers and promoted their art in an often uncomprehending, out-of-touch music industry, and Bearsville Studios was an important part of his arsenal.  Headquartered in the rustic hamlet of Bearsville (part of the Town of Woodstock), the facility offered Grossman’s clients and other recording artists high-end recording technology and a staff who understood the rock and roll lifestyle, all at an easy two-hour drive from New York City.

Todd Rundgren was hired Bearsville Studios’ staff producer and engineer.  Something I never actually knew before Myers’ book was that following the 1969 break-up his psychedelic garage rock group Nazz, Rundgren didn’t foresee a recording career for himself anymore. “‘When I first became a record producer,’ says Rudngren, I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m done performing'” (pg. 35).  Despite early misgivings from Grossman, Rundgren quickly established himself as Bearsville’s “boy wonder,” as Grossman’s wife Sally called him. “‘To be such a renaissance man as he was at the age of 21,’ [Sally] Grossman said, ‘was very striking.  We were spoiled, of course, but we were so used to brilliant people… but he was like all of them, his talent was already full-blown'” (pg. 40).

Albums that Rundgren produced at Bearsville Studios includes Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell (1979) and the Patti Smith Group’s Wave (1979).  Distinctively, the facility offered clients on-site residences where they could stay during their recording work.  Alongside adjacent facilities constructed later (including Rundgren’s Utopia Video Studios, described later), the Bearsville Studios property was subsequently reconfigured, subdivided and sold off by Grossman’s widow.  Its theater soundstage is now the home of the Bearsville Theater, one of the Hudson River Valley’s premiere smaller concert venues.


Woodstock Playhouse

Rundgren’s reputation as a studio wunderkind began to circulate after he worked with Grossman’s clients The Band, whose third album Stage Fright (1970) he engineered in the local Woodstock Playhouse theater.  The Band’s original plans for the album sheds an interesting light on how Woodstock community responded to the famous rock festival.

According to [guitarist Robbie] Robertson, The Band had initially intended to record Stage Fright, their third album, in the form of a free concert staged at the Woodstock Playhouse for the local townspeople, whom they felt had been unduly disturbed during the previous summer’s Woodstock Music & Arts Festival in nearby Bethel, New York.  The town still harbored lingering resentment toward the rock musicians and hippies who had disturbed their formerly quiet artists’ enclave, however.  “We’d felt really bad about it,” laughs Robertson, “so, as a gesture, we thought we could just rehearse some new material and put on this private concert for the townspeople.  The town council said ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’  I think they thought that the show would just attract more Volkswagen buses like the year before” (pg. 36).

Rundgren attempted to mix Stage Fright back at Bearsville Studios, but The Band’s dissatisfaction led them to pick British producer Glyn Johns to do the final mix.  Also of note, at this recording session Rundgren met Patti Smith, then a young unknown poet who was visiting the session with songwriter and Dylan associate Bob Neuwirth.  Today, the Woodstock Playhouse still functions as a community theater.


Bearsville Records

After the studio came Grossman’s record label, Bearsville Records, in 1970.  It signed some of his less famous clients (Paul Butterfield, Jesse Winchester) but also other artists not under Grossman’s management (Foghat, the first incarnation of Sparks).  Ultimately, Bearsville’s most famous recording artist was Rundgren himself, whose extracurricular activities recording “little ditties” during the studio downtime of the artists he produced kindled an interest in making albums of his own.   In this way, Grossman’s relationship to Rundgren expanded from employer to artist manager.

“I don’t think Albert kept that kind of distinction between star producer and star artist client,” says Rundgren.  “I was always problematic that way and it probably would have been worse for a different kind of manager than Albert, who was used to dealing with people who could be very self-directed, temperamental, or mercurial, like The Band, Bob Dylan, and Janis Joplin.  And I wasn’t concerned with satisfying record company demands.  My attitude was, just make the record you make and then hope that the label can find a way to promote it.  In fact,” he laughs, “I kind of expected the label to eat the loss!” (pg. 41).

Far from it—with his third record, the double album Something/Anything? (1972), and its breakthrough single, the soft-rock nugget “Hello It’s Me,” Rundgren became a massive selling solo recording artist.  Several years of media celebrity, famous girlfriends, and critical acclaim followed.

Grossman was never the easiest of label bosses to deal with; his indifference to Rundgren’s group Utopia, who recorded some dozen studio albums between 1974 and 1985, was an especially sore spot with Rundren.  By 1975 his day-to-day management was transferred to others in the Grossman Organization, and Rundgren reached the last straw in 1984, during the recording of his 12th solo albumA Capella.  Rundgren recalls:

We were at the end of a contractual period and Albert could never stand the idea of you going forward without him getting a piece of you somehow.  He wasn’t managing me anymore and I was looking to move on from the label, and he just became completely unscrupulous with me.  He held up A Capellaup for about a year until I agreed to give him publishing on my next three records.  In exchange for letting me go do a three-record deal at Warner Bros, Albert retained the publishing on those albums.  At least, this way, it was allowed to come out at all (pg. 249).

Unexpectedly, Grossman died of a heart attack on a Concorde jet in 1986.  He was buried behind Bearsville Theater.  His label had folded two years prior, in 1984; today, its catalogue is distributed by Rhino Records.


Utopia Sound

Interestingly, Rundgren never recorded his own albums primarily at Bearsville Studios, despite his familiarity with the facility.  He made his first three albums in Los Angeles; the first three sides of Something/Anything? were recorded in his Nichols Canyon house, as captured in the gatefold sleeve photo, while the ensembles captured on side four (e.g., “Hello It’s Me”) were ecorded at NYC’s Record Plant.  Next, Rundgren set up his own studio out of keyboardist Moogy Klingmann’s Manhattan loft on 24th & 8th: Secret Sound, where Rundgren recorded his psychedelic double-albums A Wizard A True Star (1973) and Todd (1974) and the first Utopia record (1974).  Myers indicates that the most Rundgren ever recorded at Bearsville Studios was for parts of his sixth solo album, Initiation (1975), including the 36-minute prog/fusion epic “A Treatise On Cosmic Fire” (all crammed on one side of an LP!).

Over the following ten years, Rundgren shifted much of his recording activity (solo and with Utopia) and production work, as well as his personal life, into a house and studio on Mink Hollow Road in the Lake Hill section of Woodstock.

Heading into the summer of 1975, Rundgren’s growing disdain for the social demands of New York City life had resulted in he and [then girlfriend Bebe] Buell leaving their three-story Manhattan brownstone for a woodland sanctuary in upstate New York.  After his relationship with Albert Grossman had cooled somewhat, Rundgren’s day-to-day management was now being handled by Susan Lee at the Grossman Organization, who advised him that it would be wise to reinvest a portion of his prodigious production income into real estate.  And what better place to build his next home and studio, Rundgren thought, than the Woodstock area, where it had all began?

“It was funny,” says Rundgren, “at one point, I had so much money that I pretty much had to buy a house.  It was stupid to have all this money and not invest it in something.  So that’s when I bought the house on Mink Hollow Road in Lake Hill, New York.”

Recalling the history of the Mink Hollow Road location, high up in the woods, near the foot of the Catskill Mountains, [Utopia keyboardist] Roger Powell says, “The property had originally been purchased by this architect, who was going to build a big house on it.  But the first thing he did was build this little wooden A-frame house, so that he had a place to live while he was building a fancier house, a little further up the hill.  When Todd bought the property, he moved into the fancier house and eventually converted the smaller wood house into his studio” (pp. 131-2).

In 1976, Rundgren bought the neighboring house turned it into a guest residence.  Following the model of Bearsville Studios, he could now offer Utopia Sound clients housing as well as recording with unrestricted studio hours, rolling the final costs into a larger production advance for himself.  “[D]epending on how efficiently the recording process went”—and Rundgren was famous for demanding extensive rehearsals and composition before his clients entered the studios—most recording artists could save money while Rundgren got the convenience of working out of his home.

Utopia Sound became the base of recording and rehearsals for Todd’s solo albums and the albums of by the band of the same name.  (Utopia is a recurring brand for Rundgren, as we’ll see.)  Albums he produced there included the Psychedelic Furs’Forever Now (1982), Cheap Trick’s Next Position Please (1983), and XTC’sSkylarking (1986, a famously troubled session). On the liner notes for Forever Now, the Furs thanked “the man on the stairs”—a reference to the location of Utopia Sound’s control room in an upstairs loft, which required Rundgren to descend a ladder staircase to talk to the musicians.

The Mink Hollow residence was a site of personal trauma and emotional development for Rundgren.  The title of his eighth solo album, 1978’s Hermit of Mink Hollow (which saw a return to singer-songwriter form with the single “Can We Still Be Friends?”) suggests his lifestyle after Bebe Buell left him with a child in toe (baby Liv Tyler) that Rundgren was attached to, despite the fact that he wasn’t the father.  His next girlfriend moved into Mink Hollow and, in 1980, was pregnant with their first child when four armed thieves committed a home invasion.  “It was a horrifying violation and it started to make us feel kinda creepy about living up there.  We never had a similar episode, but apparently there had been a wave of related criminal events in the Woodstock area, so were [sic] just ‘lucky,’ I guess, to be part of that particular spree” (pg. 208).

By the late 1980s, Rundgren moved to the Bay Area, where he increasingly became involved with Silicon Valley’s hacker/entrepreneurial community.  By 1996, he stopped working at Utopia Sound altogether; having shifted almost entirely to recording his own music on a laptop computer, he no longer felt it necessary to have a personal studio at his disposal.  I’m not sure who owns the property today, butevidently it’s no longer a recording studio.


Utopia Video Studios

As early as 1974, Rundgren was excited by the artistic promise of music video and eager to try his hand at video production work; predictably, he sought to develop a video production facility that would give him greater control and unrestricted studio time.  By 1977, Rundgren began diverting the considerable income he had earned from producing hit albums for Meat Loaf and Grand Funk Railroad into this new venture.  Initially he worked on setting up a facility within Bearsville Studios, sometimes while producing artists at the same time, as Jay Dee Daugherty of the Patti Smith Group recalls:

On some tracks, we would just start recording and he’d wave through the glass and leave to work in his video studio for a while.  Then, he’d pop back in, later, to see how it was going and, at crucial moments, he’d shepherd us through the process.  It was an interesting combination of “hands on” and “hands off” and everybody was really comfortable with that” (pg. 191).

Eventually, Rundgren relocated the project to an adjacent 2,500 square foot facility, Utopia Video Studios, which opened in 1979.  He shot a number of videos here including 1981’s “Time Heals,” the second video MTV ever showed, right after the Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star.”  However, the scale and expenses of the facility and its staff soon became too burdensome; at its height employing a staff of 10-20 personnel, it cost $40,000 to 50,000 just to keep open.  Discovering that he was taking work on that he wasn’t excited about just to keep the facility afloat, he finally gave up on Utopia Video Studios in 1983.

Presently, the facility is in operation as Utopia Soundstage.  Since 1999, Woodstock’s independent radio station, WDST, has shared the building as a base for its on-air studio and offices.


Woodstock village

Myers doesn’t report much about how often and where Rundgren would drive into the village from his Mink Hollow residence.  What’s clear, however, is that his recording clients invariably made their way down and their presence known.  The Psychedelic Furs’ Tim Butler recalls their local haunts:

we used to go down into the town of Woodstock and sort of carouse around, getting drunk and stuff.  You’d drive into town and there’d be all sorts of head shops and bead stores, even though the actual Woodstock festival had been miles down the road, in Bethel.  We used to drink down at the Tinker Street Café, and I seem to remember they had a guitar up on a shelf that was meant to be Bob Dylan’s (pg. 221).

Cheap Trick remembers their Woodstock experience:

“Oh yeah, adds, [Bun E.] Carlos, “We were up on Cripple Creek there, in the Catskills, in that crappy little dumpy old farmhouse then we’d go up the hill and record at Todd’s tiny A-frame studio.”

Sometimes, [Rick] Nielsen admits, cabin fever would set in.  The band spent a few evenings in the town of Woodstock, “getting into trouble and hanging out with all the locals” at the Little Bear or the Big Bear (pg. 234).

These passages are hardly conclusive evidence, but they suggest that the attitude of “the locals” to rockstars and Woodstock’s musical legacy had turned around considerably since the days when the town council passed on The Band’s offer of a private concert.  Of course, in the intervening 15 years it’s likely that there was considerable turnover in the local population.  The plethora of local recording studiosthat appeared in the wake of Bearsville Studios and Utopia Sound underscores how Rundgren’s years were key ones for the development of Woodstock as place, industry, and cultural sensibility.