The Utopian

40 years ago, I was a freshman college student at the University of Oklahoma. I had yet to buy my first Nikon camera. I lived in Adams Center, the older of the “tower” dorms at OU. My roommate was Jeff, who had switched rooms, without being invited or even asking, with the kid I was assigned to live with at the beginning of the semester.

My friends and I had some distorted priorities. We were way too invested in audiophilia, the devotion to “hi-fi” stereo and all it entailed. We spend way too much money on cassette tapes – sidebar about that here (link).  We stayed up way too late at night. We skipped way too many classes.

But today I am talking about Jeff’s raison d’etre, the band Utopia.

By start of 1982, he had a tinted banner at the top of the windshield of his beloved (more so than any human) Pontiac Trans Am that said “Utopian.”

His parents correctly called him out about this, but he, and we, were loathe to listen. We knew it all, we thought, and parents are just old people who just wanted us to be “normal.”

He and several other friends also had rebel flag front license plates (though I did not). In the 2020s, most of us recognize what this actually represents and how offensive it was, but to Jeff and his ilk, it represented freedom and rebellion, not racism.

I never enjoyed much of Utopia, formed by Todd Rundgren in 1973. Whole albums of theirs seemed unlistenable to me, though I was able to cull out a few songs I kind of liked: Love Is the Answer [immediately covered by England Dan and John Ford Coley], The Road to Utopia, Set Me Free, Overture: Mountain Top and Sunrise/Communion With The Sun, and Singring and the Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairy Tale).

Overall, however, Utopia suffered from what too many bands do: it wasn’t very musical. Most of their tunes scratch by semi-tunelessly, striking no pleasure centers in the brain or conjuring empathy.

And although Todd Rundgren couldn’t sing, I liked much of his solo work: Hello It’s Me, I Saw the Light (a song that, for me, is about Abby), Can We Still Be Friends, and practically all of his albums Healing and Hermit of Mink Hollow.

When Jeff and I were roommates in 1981, we quickly learned to hate each other’s musical tastes. His Utopia decidedly clashed with my Pink Floyd, James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg, Phil Keaggy, and so on.

The question for me, though, has always been: why was Jeff so mentally and emotionally obsessed with Utopia? Jeff owned close to 100 record albums when we were roommates, but I can’t seem to remember any other band he liked. It makes him seem shallow and single-minded, like Rush Guy (link).

By January 1982, Jeff flunked out of college and moved back to Lawton. He killed himself in May. You can read about that year and Jeff’s suicide in an entry I called That Dark Season Underground (link).

Allen, Jeff and I pose for a photo on the night the three of us had a barbecue at my parents house in Lawton, Oklahoma, in August 1981, as a college going-away party. The thing that intrigues me the most about this photo isn't the pose (although it is noteworthy that Jeff took those kinds of chances all the time), but that I have no recollection of owning a "Boomer Sooner" belt buckle.
Allen, Jeff and I pose for a photo on the night the three of us had a barbecue at my parents house in Lawton, Oklahoma, in August 1981, as a college going-away party. The thing that intrigues me the most about this photo isn’t the pose (although it is noteworthy that Jeff took those kinds of chances all the time), but that I have no recollection of owning a “Boomer Sooner” belt buckle.

1 Comment

  1. It’s hard to say why certain bands (or certain types of anything) inspire such blind devotion in people, sometimes for years/decades. Jeff’s obsession (I dislike this word, but let’s use it for now) with Utopia (a band I’ve never, ever had even the slightest scintilla of an interest in listening to) seems to mirror my own with U2, which I have to say, I am beginning to come down from, if I haven’t already. For years, I probably felt the same way about U2 that Jeff did about Utopia, and though I might fault him for his obsession (Utopia? really?) I can’t say that I was wrong about U2, still one of the greatest bands of all time. (Sell as many copies of The Joshua Tree as they did and I might take your opinion seriously.) If I no longer listen to a band, can it be said that I no longer listen to a band? I have experienced the freedom of plunging into other musical voices and found just as much there to enjoy. So much to the extent that, I’m not sure when I’ll return to the U2 fold. They certainly have nothing new to say (though the same could easily be said of Nirvana, for obvious reasons). At any rate, I appreciate your remark about music that inspires “pleasure centers of the brain” AND (my emphasis) “empathy,” which I think all of our favorite music does. We just aren’t able to articulate why. But those two descriptors of yours, I think, totally nail it. Music MUST be pleasurable to listen to, say, the way Adam Clayton plays bass or the way Larry Mullen Jr. adds a snare-drum sound to every U2 song. It’s a cool combo and it doesn’t get old. But Kurt Cobain’s snarling rage of pain also seems to strike some hidden pleasure center. Same with the heroin-written lyrics of Stone Temple Pilots. Or, the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane (which I’m also digging right now). Pleasure centers and empathy. These are the reasons we like certain kinds of music, yes.

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