The Story and Meaning Behind “Can We Still Be Friends,” a Todd Rundgren Classic from His ‘Hermit’ Era

Todd Rundgren is one of the rare artists who has proven himself in just about every musical capacity over the course of his career: artist, bandleader, songwriter, performer, and producer, just to name a few of his talents. Add mastery of the concise yet deeply affecting pop song, as evidenced by his poignant 1978 hit single “Can We Still Be Friends.”

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What is the song about? Where was Rundgren at in his life and career when he wrote it? And how did it reflect the technique he adopted for his 1978 album Hermit of Mink Hollow? Let’s delve deep into “Can We Still Be Friends.”

Prolific and Terrific

Few artists kept up a schedule anywhere near as busy as Todd Rundgren throughout the ‘70s. In addition to releasing material under his own name, he also started up the band Utopia. That unit recorded three albums in only two years in 1976 and 1977 (one of which, Disco Jets, went unreleased for a quarter-century).

That doesn’t account for all the work Rundgren put in as an in-demand producer. By 1978, he had already been at the helm for landmark albums from artists like Badfinger, the New York Dolls, and Meat Loaf, among many others. With that kind of track record, it wasn’t like people weren’t going to stop ringing the phone for him to take on more of those duties.

Still, Rundgren had somewhat done all this at the expense of sustaining the momentum of his solo recording career. The fans who fawned over his 1972 double album Something/Anything? were likely wondering if and when they’d again get anything similar to that power-pop masterpiece.

Hermit Rock

Rundgren tucked himself away at his home studio in upstate New York studio to record the album that would become Hermit of Mink Hollow. The LP was a complete do-it-yourself effort from Rundgren, as he played all the instruments as well as produced it himself.

You can hear the fruits of his multi-instrumental labors on “Can We Still Be Friends,” the song he chose to be the first single off the album. Like many of the songs on Hermit of Mink Hollow, it’s built around Rundgren’s piano. But the musical embellishments he adds make it so much more, such as the synth-and-backing vocals breakdown in the middle of the song.

Rundgren had recently separated from girlfriend Bebe Buell when the album was made, but he has denied this or any of the other songs on Hermit of Mink Hollow were directly inspired by the breakup. In any case, the song touched a nerve, both in Rundgren’s version and the many covers of the song done over the years. (In particular, Robert Palmer’s take on it has become a staple of Yacht Rock playlists.)

What is the Meaning of “Can We Still Be Friends”?

If all you knew was the title, you might expect “Can We Still Be Friends” to be a somewhat idealized look at the end of a relationship. But instead, it’s the story of one person realizing it’s time to end it and using the title phrase to start the process. He is sanguine and thoughtful about it: We had something to learn / Now it’s time for the wheel to turn.

The song succeeds because it acknowledges how heartbreaking it is when a relationship doesn’t meet its potential: It’s a strange sad affair / Sometimes seems like we just don’t care. But he can see clearly that there’s no longer any way forward: We awoke from our dream / Sometimes things aren’t what they seem.

In the final verse, the narrator envisions the relationship turning up again as a fleeting memory, something akin to a sweet sad old song. Thanks to Todd Rundgren’s multifaceted skill set, “Can We Still Be Friends” has become, with the passage of time, just such a song.

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Photo by Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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