The Heartbreak Behind Todd Rundgren’s ‘Hello It’s Me’
Todd Rundgren is probably not alone in being spurred on by heartbreak to write his first-ever song. He may be standing among fewer artists via the fact that he recorded it twice, and perhaps fewer still via the fact that he later the chance to tell the person in question that it was about her – and didn’t.
Still, as a way of dealing with emotional pain and developing musical ability, “Hello It’s Me” worked out rather well: It's become a radio staple, been featured in a series of movie projects, and has now appeared during a key sequence in the opening episode of Sex and the City sequel And Just Like That.
Rundgren’s first professional band, Nazz, were in the process of moving from covers to original songs when he decided to try his hand at writing in 1967, at the age of 19. He found musical inspiration in a jazz version of the Civil War staple “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” as played by jazz keyboardist Jimmy Smith.
“After I came up with an interpretation of the chords, I realized they could be the basis of an original song,” Rundgren told the Wall Street Journal in 2018. “Over the coming days, I developed a melody. Burt Bacharach was a big influence, especially his music for Dionne Warwick. The song ‘Walk on By’ still knocks me out.”
When it came to the lyrics, he landed on the idea of writing about Linda, a high school crush and first girlfriend who’d shot him down on her father’s instructions. “She probably liked me because I was the only guy in school with long hair,” Rundgren recalled. “We became close and hugged and kissed a lot at parties.
“One day in May ’66, a friend dropped us off and I walked Linda to her front door,” Rundgren added. “Her father, who was outside, hated me on sight. He turned the garden hose on me. Long hair on a guy was a political statement back then and a red flag for parents. A day or two later, Linda told me she was forbidden to see me anymore. Just like that, she stopped talking to me and wouldn’t take my calls. I adored her and was heartbroken, almost suicidal.”
Listen to Nazz's Original Version of ‘Hello It’s Me’
After months of agony he realized he’d just have to get over it and move on with his life – which possibly contributed to the idea of writing “Hello It’s Me” not from the perspective of the lover who’d been dropped, but from the one doing the dropping.
“This gave me a little power and allowed me to imagine how I might have done things differently over the phone,” he reflected. “I opened with, 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. To ease the blow, I wrote a bridge about why the breakup was good for her: It’s important to me / That you know you are free / ‘Cause I never want to make you change for me.’ I guess in some ways it’s how I would have wanted to be let down.”
Nazz recorded their version of “Hello It’s Me” in 1968, with lead vocals by the band’s Robert "Stewkey" Antoni – but Rundgren was never entirely happy with it, feeling that it didn’t match the Bacharach and Beatles feel he’d aimed for.
“I envisioned the song as a ballad, but it became a dirge,” Rundgren said, though this version had its small successes. “I played the vibes on the recording, not the guitar. A guitar felt inappropriate, and I wasn’t a ballad player,” Rundgren said. “Vibes also gave the song a cooler, more atmospheric feel.”
He left the band the following year to pursue his own path, and by 1971 Rundgren was contending with the fact that his pending solo debut Something/Anything? had accidentally grown to nearly a double-LP. “I needed songs for the fourth side, so I decided to update ‘Hello It’s Me,’” he told the Wall Street Journal. “By then, I envisioned the song faster and more sophisticated than the Nazz original. Carole King’s Tapestry had just come out and its bouncy, melancholy sound was an influence.”
Listen to Todd Rundgren's Solo Update of ‘Hello It’s Me’
Rundgren's new version was laid down in live fashion, with the assembled musicians playing together, rather than recording track by track. “I figured I had written and played enough of [the album] all myself,” Rundgren told Mix magazine in 2019. “What could I do that was different? I resolved that I would do everything live in the studio with no overdubs.
“I had something stewing in my head,” Rundgren added. He “taught them the changes, found the feel I liked. If somebody played something I didn’t like, I’d say, ‘No, don’t play that. Change it to something else.’ I wanted it to be less dirgey than the original and have a little more energy to it. Music had evolved a little, so I wanted something that sounded a bit more contemporary, as opposed to the original stripped-down band.”
In keeping with the first-take vibe of the session, Rundgren included some false starts on the album version of “Hello It’s Me.” “People had a hard time hearing where they were supposed to come in,” Rundgren told Mix. “The only person who was supposed to come in on four was the bass, and everyone else was supposed to come in on one, but everyone kept coming in on four. So if you listen to the album version, you can hear all these false starts.”
The updated version gave him a Top 10 hit, becoming one of the Top 100 best-selling singles of 1973. “Hello It’s Me” retains a place at many live shows, appearing as the third song in the set list of his 2021 U.S. tour.
“I didn’t think it would be a hit,” Rundgren admitted in the Mix interview. “I didn’t think any of that live stuff was appropriate for a single. I always thought it was too raw or too rough, but apparently somebody heard it and thought it was a single.”
By that time, he’d missed the opportunity to reconnect with Linda, after she called his hotel room before an Oklahoma show around the turn of the century. “There was a long pause on my end,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “When we finally began to talk, she told me she lived in the area, that she was married and had kids. My voice didn’t warm up, and I avoided talking about the old days.
“I told Linda I’d put her on the guest list for seats. She thanked me and we said goodbye,” Rundgren said. “I added her name but I didn’t include a pass for backstage access. Our lives had gone in two different directions and we really had nothing to say to each other. I think I also wanted to hold onto the image I had of her in high school. I never told her she was the inspiration for the song.”
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