On the occasion of Todd Rundgren’s second appearance on his old friend Daryl Hall’s syndicated Live From Daryl’s House program, the visionary rock producer, musician and fellow Philly native flew Hall over to Todd’s house, a custom designed pagoda-like structure on the scenic Hawaiian island of Kaua’i.
Besides affording the series some TV friendly footage of gorgeous vistas and lush tropical ambience, LFDH viewers also got to see another side of Rundgren, a sarong wearing, barefoot denizen of the 808 state, roasting a pig in the ground while strumming a ukulele as his wife, singer Michele Rundgren, banged on the drum, presumably all day.
But as his remarkably loyal fans will tell you, going Hawaiian is just another unpredictable turn in the road for Todd Rundgren. The mercurial artist has changed his sound, style, and location numerous times over his 40-plus years in the music business from his earliest days as a member of Philadelphia proto-power pop darlings, Nazz, throughout various incarnations as the singer-songwriter Runt, the trippy Wizard (and True Star), the studio bound Hermit of Mink Hollow to his present status as an unofficial ambassador of Mahalo, and a new business venture run by his wife, an authentic Hawaiian tiki bar called Tiki Iniki.
In 1996, the Rundgrens moved their family from Sausalito, California, to Princeville, Kaua’i after the mid-90s tech bubble began to alter the cultural face of the Bay Area. “Marin County was being overrun with investment bankers,” says Todd Rundgren, “and all the artists were getting pushed out. We’d been in Sausalito for 10 years and it just seemed time to move on.”
Rundgren had always had eye his on Kaua’i ever the since hiding out there to avoid a troublesome girlfriend in his twenties. He says a friend had recommended Kaua’i, which was “a lesser-known getaway in the ’70s.”
A decade later, when he and Michele began dating, the two enjoyed many a romantic getaway to the island, making regular pilgrimages to the Coco Palms Resort. It was here, says Todd, that they first became immersed in Hawai’ana and Tiki history. “There were the torch lightings and cocktail mixers every night,” Todd recalls fondly, “the corny floor show, and a seedy little zoo at the back of the plantation.”
After Hurricane Iniki ravaged Kaua’i in 1992, completely destroying their beloved Coco Palms, the Rundgrens felt like something special was lost. A notion to replace the Palms began concurrent with a plan to move their entire family to the island. “We bought property after Iniki in ’92,” says Todd. “I figured we’d never find better bargains. As it turned out we didn’t get a bargain, but we did find the spot we wanted to live on. It actually took a couple years to secure that spot. Then, after we moved, it took over 10 years to start construction on the house. It’s still a work in progress.”
Even before they had even dug out the foundations for their dream home, the Rundgren family would regularly camp out on their little parcel of paradise, soaking up the aloha spirit in the soil. By the time Rundgren toured his With A Twist album, in 1997, a mobile Tiki bar was a featured part of his stage set.
“That was a blast,” says Michele Rundgren. “We dragged that set all the way to Burning Man in 2001, where we put up a huge Tiki bar installation, offering Mai Tais, beer, drinks with parasols, and Tiki torches. It was great, packed every night; a billion gallons of Mai Tais were consumed.”
Michele cites a magical event in June of 2008, when she and Todd invited his fans to camp out on their property for Todd’s 60th birthday weekend. The fans enjoyed a Hawaiian luau, and reveled in copious offerings of Tiki culture; handmade lei’s, coquina necklaces, sarongs, and flowers in their hair. She says that the moment confirmed that she and Todd would have to step up and build some kind of permanent Tiki Bar. And when she finally heard, two years ago, about 1700 square feet of fully zoned retail space, she made a move and began looking for backers.
But in what is becoming an all too typical crowd-sourcing scenario, they found the capital for Tiki Iniki by going to Todd’s loyal fan base.
“This venture was mostly financed by Todd’s fans and friends,” says Michele. “His fans have been there for Todd. He gives them something that they’ve cherished [his music] and in return they’ve helped pay our mortgage and put our kids through school. And now they continue to fund Tiki bars, tours, and albums!”
While there’s certainly an element of fun and retro kitsch to the motif, both Todd and Michele Rundgren say they remain mindful of a more historically authentic representation of Hawaiian culture.
“Exploitation,” says Todd, “was rampant before statehood, and various factions actively tried to eradicate the roots of Hawaiian culture in the process of converting the natives to European religious beliefs. Some of the results can never be undone. We try to honor what is left.”
“We donated to the Sovereignty movement even before we moved here,” adds Michele. “The culture is so beautiful and it fits the land. I sit in my office here and I look at tons of mountains. We look out of our living room and we see Crater Hill, which is a bird sanctuary, and we can see rivers and oceans. If I drive to the grocery store, I pass albizia trees that are snowing white flowers on top of the car. It’s impossible not to see the beauty, everyday. In July, when the Poinciana tree blooms, it’s spectacular. Most of the island really does stop for sunset because it’s usually so beautiful.”
To keep it authentic, Michele Rundgren chose to pay tribute to the great Tiki bars of the past, including the late great Coco Palms. This meant going to the source and contacting the Tiki world’s top designers, menu planners and mixologists. The result, says Michele, is an aesthetic hybrid of Pee Wee Herman playfulness and Trader Vic’s swinger chic. The couple recently plucked a few souvenirs from the ruins of the Coco Palms and a collector has donated other items from the old hotel to incorporate into Tiki Iniki.
“Tiki Iniki is really our vision of how we felt when came to Hawaii,” she adds, “and what the pioneers of Tiki–Don The Beachcomber, Trader Vic’s, and the Coco Palms–started. We paid homage to Coco Palms, which really did embody old Hawaii to us.”
Michele did her homework, attending the annual Tiki Oasis festival and regularly scouring the Tiki bible, Tiki Magazine. From those studies, and networking with other bar owners, she assembled her elite Tiki team.
“They’re just a wild, weird bunch of amazing people who appreciate everything that has to do with nostalgia,” says Rundgren. “Bamboo Ben is a third-generation Tiki builder,” says Michele, “and is the premiere Tiki guy in the world. His father helped build and design Adventureland and worked on the Enchanted Tiki Room. Ben took all of my ideas, scratched them on a napkin and said, ‘Oh my god, that’s exactly it!’ He’s like a set decorator; he just takes your ideas and blows them out a thousand times. We have Holden Westland from Tiki Farm, who is designing and making our Tiki mugs, and Doug Horne and Derek Yaniger who design all our menus and signage. And we even have Tiki carvers like Buzzy, and Bill Collins who have carved Tiki stools for the bar and the chef’s table.”
But a good looking Tiki bar isn’t worth its torches unless the food and drinks are equally authentic, and Rundgren believes she has a winning edge in their menu planner, award-winning mixologist Julie Reiner.
“Julie is actually Hawaiian born and raised,” says Rundgren, “but then she moved to New York and kicked butt opening Lani Kai and the Clover Club, which has been in the top ten bars in the U.S. She consulted for us and helped design 17 signature drinks, and also gave us the actual recipes from the original Don The Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s.”
While so far the only reference to Todd Rundgren’s musical career on evidence is a menu item called Bang The Drum Rum (“I had to have one goofy thing,” laughs Michele), a limited space for live music means that some of Kaua’i’s more notable musical residents, such as Graham Nash, Mike Campbell, or Walter Becker, are welcome to bring their ukuleles down for a Tiki jam session.
But for now, Todd Rundgren isn’t saying whether he’ll be strumming “Aloha It’s Me” at Tiki Iniki any time soon, adding, “I just wish I could get a gig here! I don’t play enough Hawaiian music, I guess.”