The Infinite Jukebox: Todd Rundgren’s ‘I Saw the Light’

Like Love’s ‘Alone Again, Or’, Todd Rundgren’s record company had so much faith in ‘I saw the Light’ that they swore to keep reissuing it each year until it was a hit in Britain. They did it once, without success, and then never again. The record had its biggest success when it first came out in 1972, reaching no 35 in an era of Top Thirties.
Up to this point, Rundgren’s career seems to have been pretty obscure. He’d been a member of the late Sixties band, The Nazz, and recorded two solo albums that didn’t seem to have had any attention at all. But then, in 1972, he released his third album, Something/Anything?, a double album on which he wrote, sang and played everything. Suddenly everybody was talking about him, and everybody was talking about ‘I saw the Light’ as a perfect pop single, with base and body and an irresistible melody.
I had a bit of a habit in the early Seventies of being out of step with Radio 1 over singles that all the disc jockeys espoused and promoted, and more often than not they failed to be hits. Some of that may have been psychological: in a couple of cases, I came to love them just as much as Radio 1 much later on.
But that wasn’t the case with Todd Rundgren. I didn’t go overboard about it, and even now there’s a tiny bit of clunkiness to it that I put down to be that it’s not a band playing but one man patiently building up instrument by instrument. But I liked it, then, and when it was released the following year I welcomed it, and it’s an old, comfortable favourite still.
‘I saw the Light’ is a love song, that tells a brief story. Late at night, Rundgren (whose voice is not strong but which is perfectly deployed here), feeling something wasn’t right, sees the only other person in sight. They walk along, though he’s feeling something wrong about the whole thing, then a feeling hit him strongly, about her. And with a joyous, almost awed ring, Rundgren finds his explanation, because he saw the light in her eyes.
Isn’t that a wonderful line? Who could resist the light in the eyes of a love? To look and see the glow inside. Here is a romantic moment that roots itself in reality. Allied to the inference of another pair of Strangers in the Night, the song’s buoyancy and warmth stirs up the heart with envy.
But this is no McCartney-esque paean to love as something wonderful, without depth or flaw. Todd’s resisting, enjoying a fling and trying to run away when he finds himself getting to be more serious than a man who ‘couldn’t never love no-one’ can allow himself to be. In fact, he’s getting very confused and mixing metaphors all over the place because the little bell that began to ring in his head comes in through his eyes, when she gazed up at him, and he saw the light in her eyes.
Poor, loving girl. Rundgren wrings his emotion through a slide-guitar solo before coming back to her, penitent. He loves her best, he doesn’t say that in jest, she’s different from all the rest. Yes, he ran out before but he won’t do it any more: can’t she see the light in his eyes?
Love strikes, and love overwhelms the cynic who pretends he’s unable to love but has to admit that she means more to him than everyone and he’s no longer afraid of his feelings. A pithy love story, simple and pure, and at every step a musical joy as Rundgren invests all of himself – literally – in making this the most fun experience you can have with your clothes on. Even the slight clunkiness of the over-vigorous drumming doesn’t matter in the end, the slightly static nature of the lone musician running around keeping up with himself all the time makes no difference. The song cuts it both ways.
Once again, the Great British Record Buying Public let us all down. Imagine hearing this all day on the radio instead of ‘Blue is the Colour’, ‘Mother of Mine’ or ‘Back Off Boogaloo’ and think how much better a place 1972 could have been and if you can keep from shuddering, you have a stronger stomach than me, mate.
As the years have gone by and I passed from falling in love hopelessly to falling in love with someone who loved me back, I grew to love Rundgren’s song all the more. I have seen the light in someone’s eye that was intended for me and I know what an unimaginable blessing it is. It was missing in 1972, but it was worth the wait, and the light in my eyes could have outshone the sun.


2 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: Todd Rundgren’s ‘I Saw the Light’

  1. I adored The Nazz on LP, although I never saw them perform. Because of that, I bought Todd’s 1st 2 albums and (aside from The Nazz) they remain my favorite work of his. I liked a lot of Something/Anything?, but some of his songs were starting to get too precious. I finally did see Todd live at the Wolman Skating Rink show that comprises part of his Todd live album. In fact, if you take a good magnifying glass you can see me in the audience shot on the back cover, about 15 rows back. I had no patience with Utopia and lost interest in him after that. Really, his most dramatic affect on my musical taste is that I bought the first Sparks album (called Half Nelson at the time, but reissued as Sparks) solely because Todd produced it. Sparks has been one of my all time favorite bands ever since, and their newest music still holds up. I might have run into their music anyway, but I always give a little nod of thanks to Todd when I listen to a Sparks album. (In the same way, I bought the first Roxy Music album because Peter Sinfield of King Crimson produced it.)

    1. I did, at one point, borrow a Todd LP off a friend andtape it, but ultimately it didn’t thrill me enough. There were other singles in the Seventies I liked, but the only one I thought was in the same class as ‘I saw the Light’ was ‘Real Man’, which got a lot of airpay from our local Commercial Radio station. Must listen to that again soon. Still, ‘I saw the Light’… nearly fifty years old and still as fresh as paint.

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