Six Questions (And Then Some) For ... Nils Lofgren
Long before Nils Lofgren joined the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, Earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, history-making, etc.-etc., legendary E Street Band, he was Bethesda's boy wonder -- a teenaged prodigy with his own, soon-to-be-acclaimed band, Grin, and a memorable side gig, playing on Neil Young's 1970 album, "After the Gold Rush."
Lofgren recorded and toured with Young on and off in the 1970s and early '80s ("Tonight's the Night," "Trans") -- and now, he's paying tribute to his old friend and mentor with a solo-acoustic covers album, "The Loner: Nils Sings Neil."
I called Lofgren at a hotel in New York, where he was checked in as ... Nils Lofgren. (This, by the way, was before he checked into a New York hospital for bilateral hip replacement surgery; apparently, 40 years of rock-and-roll tours and "thousands of hours playing aggressive basketball" destroyed both of his hips, which, he said, were "bone on bone with no cartilage." He's expected to recover in plenty of time for the E Street Band's halftime show performance at the Super Bowl in Tampa.)
You're not using an alias. What's up with that?
I don't ever use it on my own tours; but they ask us to do it with Bruce, because people call you to take them to him. They're like: "Hey, it's 3 a.m., but it's my birthday. Could you come to the lobby and take me to Bruce?" So we usually use an alias thanks to the popularity of Bruce and the band. When we're in New York, people are scattered in their homes and a couple of us have to stay in hotels. And it's just simpler to use my name when my friends are trying to reach me. But when we're a gang on the road, yeah, we'll use them.
What are some of your retired aliases?
I started becoming the swing man in the band, playing pedal steel, Dobro, bottleneck, lap steel -- all these other instruments. So a couple of tours ago, I decided to give myself kind of a pedal-steel guitar alias and I called myself "Flair Duddy." I practice at home a lot and my wife and son think I'm a fuddy duddy, because I'm an old-school guy. But now that I'm a pedal steel player, it brings a flair to my persona. That was one I really liked. Lefty's an old nickname, too, since I'm left-handed. Once in a while I use the name A. Lefty.
About the slide guitar and pedal steel that you've been playing a lot more since Bruce put the band back together --- is the increased prominence of those instruments a product of your own evolving tastes and preferences? Bruce's? A byproduct of having Little Steven back in the band? Because, you know, everybody needs a guitar part!
It's all of the above. Bruce is a lot like myself: We're all schizophrenic musically. We love jumping around from country, rock, funk, blues, R&B, soul, pop, British invasion -- that's in all of our musical psyches. And when Steve came back in the band, it actually made my job a lot easier. Listen, nobody can sing those rough, high rock duos like Steve and Bruce. The only other two guys that do it that well are Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
I realized that with Patti on rhythm guitar, we had four guitarists. And there are very, very few songs that needed four guitars. So I started challenging myself to learn a little of the pedal steel, Dobro, lap-steel, etc., just to throw some more tools into the toolbox. I think the E Street Band is the greatest toolbox in rock-and-roll, and Bruce is a master carpenter.
The beauty is, we're presenting great songs. So I knew that if I had a few simple, beginner licks that I could play semi-efficiently, Bruce would put it to good use. And he has. It's exciting. "Sacred Weapon," my last studio record before I did the Neil Young songs, was the first time I ever wrote a song on pedal steel, a song called "Trouble." It was also the first time I ever wrote a song on bottleneck Dobro, a song called "In Your Hands." Willie Nelson wound up doing a duet with me on it. It's great to have some new sounds and instruments to work on and keep engaged by.
Well, let's talk about learning new instruments. It was nearly 40 years ago, and you're just a teenager, starting to work with Neil Young. And there you are, in this cramped cellar studio in Topanga Canyon - this guitar whiz who is suddenly playing ... piano! Very Al Kooper of you. What was that like?
It was strange. I hit the road at 17, went out to L.A. with my band Grin. Neil Young and [rock producer] David Briggs kind of took us under their wings, and I moved in with David. I saw Neil regularly with David, which was great. When I was 18 years old, Neil called and said he was doing this project, "After the Gold Rush," and wanted me to be in the band, which was an honor.
But then they told me they wanted me to play a lot of piano; I told them i couldn't play piano really. Actually, I didn't say that. I just said I wasn't really a piano player, which was true. I was being honest. But both Neil and David felt like because I had played classical accordion for 10 years -- I'd studied it seriously -- that I shouldn't have any problem working out a few simple piano parts. They had more faith in me than I did. They told me they thought I could handle it. They were right and I was wrong, thank God. [Laughs.]
(Much, much more after the jump.)
Were you worried during the sessions, thinking, like, "Man, this is going to come crashing down"?
I was petrified the whole time. David Briggs was producing Spirit and was good friends with that band. And John Locke [the Spirit keyboard player] had this funky porch with an upright piano on it and just gave me the key. Twenty-four hours a day, when I wasn't doing the sessions with Neil, I'd be up on the porch, sleeping under the upright in a sleeping bag, then waking up and jumping on it, working on Neil's songs to try to keep up.
Even though I was being very creative on an instrument that was unfamiliar to me, playing songs I loved, I think what Neil got was somebody who was really into it musically but was playing very simple, very basic themes as opposed to a virtuoso who might want to overplay or might be bored playing that simply. For me, I was challenged and stretched. Yet, I was playing very simple thematic parts because I was on an instrument that was unfamiliar to me. It all worked out.
You were just a kid, yet you'd just played on an amazing album in "After the Gold Rush." Did at any point you start to worry that it just wasn't going to get any better than that?
Well, I'm still in a band called Grin, and we still haven't gotten our first record out. We have this great producer, David Briggs, who loves us, and we love him. So we're excited about that future that hasn't really begun. Playing piano and acoustic guitar and singing harmonies on a Neil Young record was an incredible opportunity. But at no point in my life did it occur to me to be a session player. I studied music and I read music with accordion and I walked away from that. I don't read guitar music. I just play guitar by ear. I'm kind of like a melodic blues player. If you put a guitar chart in front of me with notes to read and lines to play, I'm going to get fired immediately because I can't do it.
So that wasn't my future. My future was with Grin, singing my songs, playing live in front of an audience. Getting a chance once in a while to work with masters like Neil is a beautiful side trip that really brings a lot to the table when I come back to my own music. I feel fresh and inspired. And you get a little confidence doing a project like that and pulling it off.
Grin did well critically but never broke commercially. What happened?
It's just standard show biz. We made four records, got good reviews, didn't have a hit and that's the bottom line. Unless you get heavy rotation on the radio, then eventually you're going to stop getting record deals. It's a business and they weren't making money. We were making good music, and they even acknowledged it. But they said: "Look, you've made four records and you don't have a hit. We feel like we've promoted it adequately. You're out." That was it.
I'm not pointing fingers at anybody. Since I was the writer, I prefer to point my finger at myself and say: Well, we made good records -- but they weren't good enough. I'm proud of what we did. It was one of the great chapters in my life musically. I didn't want to be a solo artist, but that was the only road left in front of me once Grin was done.
When you started your solo career, you got a really nice review from a writer at Rolling Stone by the name of Jon Landau. Who, of course, is now Bruce's manager. Does Jon constantly remind you that he heard it and got it and knew you had it?
No, no. Listen, Jon and Bruce very sweetly point out that my first solo album was a record they actually played and studied before they made "Born to Run," which completely blew my mind. Bruce and I were on the same circuit, in the same studios. We did an audition with Grin and Steel Mill in 1970 with Bill Graham out in San Francisco, trying to get an opening job. We ran into each other. He and Jon have always been in my corner.
Jon actually did some early interviews with me and helped me promote my stuff. He liked my music, which was very meaningful to me. And Bruce has always given me encouragement. It's always been a very positive thing. I was very grateful when, in '84, they needed a guitar player and I got the first call. After a couple of days of jamming with the band, I got the job offer, which was just an enormous gift that I continue to appreciate.
What was it like, being on stage with Bruce and the E Street Band for the very first time, during the "Born in the USA" tour, when there was nobody bigger in rock-and-roll?
We started the tour in an arena in St. Paul, and I was overwhelmed for about 20 shows, simply because I didn't get the job until a month before opening night. That just wasn't enough time to assimilate; it took 20 shows for me to feel comfortable. The band and Bruce -- everyone was very helpful and open, but there's no shortcuts.
I was actually very comfortable and used to stadiums. In '79, I think, I opened a festival tour for the Who all over Europe. In '83, I did a festival tour with Neil Young for "Trans" -- six weeks in Europe, playing stadiums. The E Street Band didn't start playing stadiums until halfway through the "Born in the USA" project just to meet ticket demand. Bruce was trying to avoid stadiums, but as a nod to his fans, he got to the point where he needed to let people see him. I had quite a bit of experience in that arena before I joined the band.
But listen, I was pretty overwhelmed for the first 20 shows with the E Street Band. I did my best, knowing that eventually I'd get very comfortable because I loved the people and I loved the music. And after those 20 shows, I got to a whole other level of comfort being in that band, and it's just grown since.
Do you remember the longest show you played on that tour? There are debates, still, about the length of those shows.
Back then, the famous four-and-a-half hour shows -- the break was always supposed to be 20 minutes, and it never was. It would wind up being more than that. I know back in the old days, I'd buy a ticket and go and see Bruce at the Roxy in L.A. or the Bottom Line in New York City, and he was playing really long shows without a break. Once you get over three hours, it's great songs by a great band -- it's not anything you set out to do. The nights kind of dictate it.
Bruce tired to do an experiment with condensing everything, covering all the emotional territory he needed to. We came out of the gate on [the "Magic" tour] at 2:15 or 2:20, I think. And it just kept growing and growing naturally, and it got up to three hours-plus again. It's not premeditated; it's just the joy of having all these great songs, and you kind of tailor the show to the audience, and if the audience keeps dragging it out, you go with it.
It's funny, a lot of times, at the end of the night, you realize the audience is as beat up as you are, except they don't have a guitar on 11 and they're not standing next to Bruce, in adrenaline city. Sometimes, in referring to playing one more song, Bruce jokingly tells the audience: "We got it, but I'm not sure you got it." And he's right. The show beats you up. Sometimes, at the end of the night, some people are ready to fall over. I'm sure if I wasn't standing next to Bruce with a guitar on 11, I might be ready to fall over. But in light of that, I'm ready to go, even if I'll be sore at 3 a.m.
You've had some incredible highs on the "Magic" tour and have really been firing on all cylinders. But you also lost Danny Federici, which had to have been heartbreaking.
It's been a brutal chapter, losing Danny. We really thought he was going to make it and come back and play with us. Very sad, very difficult. I couldn't think of a better gift to navigate that grief than having shows to play. That's been a lifesaver for me. Charlie Giordano has done an amazing job; couldn't ask for a more professional, talented musician. But you live long enough, this stuff starts happening. You lose friends, you bury them and there's no shortcuts. You've gotta go through the grief. Having the shows to navigate that chapter has been a huge help to me.
You've had an association with Neil Young for four decades. Why did you decide to do an album of his songs now?
I met him in '68, so this is 40 years. It wasn't my idea; I never would've thought of it. My manager did. The last 14 years I've been without a record company; I have this Web site, nilslofgren.com, where I put out music I'm proud of. And my manager pointed out that the most popular items by far have been a live CD and a live acoustic DVD, and he made the suggestion that I sing my favorite Neil Young songs in an acoustic, stripped-down format.
I wasn't sure how I felt about it because Neil's produced all these songs brilliantly already. But we assembled about 30 songs. And I just started listening to Neil's music, different versions of his songs while driving around town. And every morning for a few hours, I sang the songs to my dogs and cats. For two weeks, I stayed out of the studio. Just sang. And after two weeks, I noticed that some of the songs started moving from good karaoke into feeling like they had something special going on with me as a performer.
I also realized that this project would have no value or interest to me unless it was completely a live recording with no production, no overdubbing. Just a very heartfelt live performance, much like the "Tonight's the Night" record. "After the Gold Rush" was tracked live, too. So with that in mind, after two weeks, I moved into the studio, set it up and started recording. I produced it with David Briggs on my shoulder -- his spirit anyway. I tried to do very emotional performances live. And sure enough, I came up with 15 songs that felt right. Felt like an unusual mission was accomplished, and it was time to mix them and share them.
What was more difficult: Figuring out which songs from that really deep Neil Young catalog you were going to record, or keeping your dogs quiet during those recording sessions at home?
It's funny, the guitar songs were done out in my garage studio, so we kept the dogs in the house. The piano songs were recorded on this piano with a great history -- it was my wife's father's piano, and she never knew her dad, which is a tragic story. The piano had a lot of voodoo and magic in it. And we couldn't move it. It's a five-foot Hardman grand in the living room, so we had to record those songs there. We set up a little studio and somehow, my wife kept all the animals and family and friends away. She also was the one responsible for me singing "Harvest Moon," which I thought I couldn't do. And she got me to do a different version of "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." She was a good sounding board on the project.
It just worked out. It was a beautiful, emotional stroll down memory lane. I was very surprised it came out well enough to share. ... I just hope if and when Neil hears it, he'll recognize it as an honest, very sincere, passionate and respectful attempt to recreate what I think are brilliant songs in a live, acoustic setting.
You played an old Martin D-18 throughout "The Loner" -- a gift from Neil himself. Tell me about that instrument.
During the "Gold Rush" sessions, I was mostly doing piano and singing. There were a few songs where Neil said, "I need you to play some acoustic guitar here." I was like, "Well, I don't own one." He said, "Here's an old D-18 of mine you can borrow." David Briggs said it was a great guitar that Neil had been writing on. I know he used it on "Tell Me Why" and, I think, "Till the Morning Comes." At the end of the sessions, Neil gave it to me as a gift. I still gotta ask Neil a little more about the history of the instrument. But it remains my most treasured guitar. It was the most obvious and only choice to sing Neil Young songs on.
Since you were there for the sessions, I'm hoping you can give me some insight into a lyric from that album. "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s" -- any idea what that means, exactly?
You know, I don't. But one of the great things about writing a song is that everyone gets to let the lyrics have a special meaning for themselves. To me -- and not speaking for Neil, because I can't -- when I hear that lyric, I just feel like already we're noticing that mankind, in all our brilliance, we're coming up with technology that's destroying the planet. Even though we're all kind of aware that in the end, Mother Nature will probably take us out. If we want to blow up the entire planet and wipe out mankind, which we have the potential to do, chances are that Earth's going to be past us.
We might just be an aberration. Which is sad because we have the ability to do beautiful things. In my short lifetime, I've noticed the governments and the caretakers of the Earth doing a horrible job. Maybe that's what Neil had in mind. You're never going to run Mother Nature out of town. You're just going to [tick] her off and she'll come back and bite you on your ass, which has happened in huge ways and will continue to until we get it together.
Aug. 25 is Nils Lofgren Day in Montgomery County. How do you celebrate?
Sadly, I've had to stop drinking. Otherwise, I'd just go bar-hopping and show people my plaque like an idiot and try to get free drinks. Actually, that took me by surprise. I have the plaque now above one of the toilets in my house, so people can read it when they're [using the toilet].
Finally, if the Washington Wizards ever win an NBA championship, will you do an updated version of "Bullets Fever" to reflect the name change?
I thought it was silly to change their name. I loved the Bullets. Writing a song for them, that was a beautiful time. Hopefully, the Wizards will get it together.
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