John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“Hello It’s Me”

Todd Rundgren may or may not be a pop “genius,” but this song works on every level.

By - Nov 6th, 2014 04:08 pm
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Todd Rundgren. Photo from facebook.

Todd Rundgren. Photo from facebook.

Being a guitar instructor is great. Sometimes I have to teach people songs by artists I detest, but that’s good for me in a character-building way. (Believe it or not, I am unfinished in that department.) On the other hand, teaching songs I like allows me to learn them as I ponder some of the giants of popular culture. (Hardly any student brings in songs by obscure artists they want to study.) It’s humbling there are so many people doing work I can only aspire to, but I guess a lesson in humility is a good thing. I get plenty of those, and perhaps none bigger lately than the one I got from Todd Rundgren.

What was he, 12 years old when he had his first hit? It was was called “We Got To Get You A Woman.”Hardly an appropriate title for a pre-teener, but he and his group The Nazz, aced their entrance exam into the college of rock. Soon, Rundgren was proving his world-class status as a melodist, lyricist, instrumentalist and producer. Also, he was sickeningly cute. Grr. His biggest hit was undeniably a great one. It was the song I struggled to teach my student, friend and IRS litigator, Mark Miller, at his request: Hello It’s Me.

Let’s start with the chord progression. Even if you haven’t studied the song, you’ll notice that chords seem to drift in a sort of descending pattern slowly floating toward the ground like the leaves this time of year. All this downward motion is somehow accomplished without seeming maudlin. It’s clever beyond belief and like most great songs, it has a melody that lives up to the promise. I have long been under the impression that he played everything on this track but my friend Wiki says not so. This doesn’t subtract from the brilliance of the production, which is just a shade less grand than your average Phil Spector epic.

Todd used jazz chords — Wiki also informed me the sequence was a lift from Jimmy Smith’s rendition of Johnny Comes Marching Home. (I chased this one down on Youtube and it has only the slightest relation to the song we are contemplating. I’ll take Rundgren’s word that this song was an influence, but it’s quite a stretch.) Anyway, back to the chords — the ones he employs to such grand effect are called major and minor sevenths. These are the mushy chords you often here in soft rock, but they don’t always sound like Bread at their most cloying.They can be deployed in other ways and smart composers can fill them with complexity. Laura Nyro, one the greats from the 1960s, used them — you can hear her strong influence of Rundgren.

The thing about these chords is that they have four notes, where simple major and minor chords have three. I can say with a lot of confidence that this added note takes these major and minor sevenths across a threshold of sorts. The added note a makes these chords a little more adult and nuanced; they live in a grey gray area where things aren’t so cut and dried. A major or minor seventh  can be wistful or ironic, breezy or melancholy. This is why they are so much a part of jazz and standards — they provide a way to move beyond the primary colors.

So the long, unwinding major and minor sevenths and the beautiful melody are two thirds of the reason this song works so well. The other: Rundgren’s lyrics are  deceptively disarming in their simplicity.

Hello It’s Me

Hello It’s me,
I’ve thought about us for a long, long time
Maybe I think too much but something’s wrong
There’s something here that doesn’t last too long
Maybe I shouldn’t think of you as mine

Seeing you
or seeing anything as much as I do you
I take for granted that you’re always there
I take for granted that you just don’t care
Sometimes, I can’t help seeing all the way through

It’s important to me that you know you are free
‘Cause I never want to make you change for me

Think of me,
you know that I’d be with you if I could
I’ll come around to see you once in a while
Or if I ever need a reason to smile
And spend the night if you think I should

Think of me
Think of me
Think of me

© EMI MUSIC PUBLISHING RUNDGREN, TODD HARRY

Nice, personal and up close, the lyrics don’t get in the way and certainly don’t call attention to themselves. Sung by one of the more soulful and expressive voices in pop, they’re just as good as they need to be. Rundgren is called a genius, a word that probably shouldn’t be tossed around lightly, especially in the world of rock and pop. If he is, it isn’t because of the complexity of his work. Sure, there is a level of difficulty — learning this song so I could teach it took a while, but I got it eventually. All the while I happily struggled to tease out the changes, I kept thinking what a wondrous and emotionally true piece of work it was.

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