Nils Lofgren on Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and His Stellar Solo Career

Nils Lofgren. Additional photos and videos below.EXPAND
Nils Lofgren. Additional photos and videos below.
Photo by Eric Marcel

Once upon a time, guitarist Nils Lofgren was the "new guy" in Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band — but no longer.

It's now been more than three decades since Lofgren stepped in for longtime E-Streeter Steven Van Zandt — Little Stevie split in 1984 — and he's been a mainstay alongside Van Zandt since Springsteen reformed the group in 1999. They'll both be on hand Thursday, March 31, when Springsteen headlines the Pepsi Center as part of a tour in which the crew will play the classic 1980 album The River in its entirety.

Lofgren, though, is much more than a Springsteen sideman. He may be best known for his work with rock giants such as Neil Young, Lou Reed and plenty of others, but he's done stellar work on his own, beginning when he was the teenage frontman of the underrated group Grin, which dates to the late 1960s, and continuing through solo work that has been consistently smart and robust.

His self-titled 1975 debut still sounds great, as does the following year's Cry Tough — and more recent efforts like 2011's Old School is a solid effort that's beyond too many veteran ax-slingers.

More recent Lofgren releases include Face the Music, a massive box set of material from throughout his career released, and the new UK2015 Face the Music Live, in which he and multi-instrumentalist Greg Varlotta offer an on-stage overview. Among the cuts on the latter are "Like Rain," which Lofgren penned when he was seventeen, and "I Don't Want to Talk About It," a collaboration with Danny Whitten, whose overdose death was among the inspirations for Young's 1975 album Tonight's the Night.

Yep, Lofgren played on that classic LP, and Young's After the Gold Rush, too.

The following conversation kicks off with Lofgren highlighting the live album and the box set; he even drops in a mention of his website, where the latter can be purchased. But he also shares anecdotes aplenty about his time with rock luminaries and the recording of compositions such as "Keith, Don't Go," a plea for Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards not to abuse himself into an early death that dates back to mid-1970s.

Remarkably enough, Keith is still with us — and so is Nils Lofgren.

Nils Lofgren on Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and His Stellar Solo CareerEXPAND
Photo by Eric Marcel

Westword: It was great to hear songs from throughout your career on the new album.

Nils Lofgren: It all goes back to a year or so ago. Inexplicably, with this being my 48th year on the road, I've always failed to get the old companies to release my out-of-print music. But I talked with Fantasy/Concord; they approached me a few years ago, and it led to a ten disc, 189-track box set. They let me pick the best of 48 years. There are forty bonus tracks, a 138-page book that Dave Marsh insisted that I write and he would edit it with me. It's a beautiful thing for a company to champion me like that, taking the best of five decades of work and getting it put together in a beautiful package. My wife Amy produced it with me and worked with art directors all over the country. I don't have much good taste outside of music, unfortunately, but we got a lot of help. A buddy, Steve Smolen, had all the old 45s and tickets and posters, things I never collected, and we spent two years putting it together. It was quite an undertaking, because a lot of the old music is out of print, the contracts were missing, there were publishing issues. It was an extraordinary effort by a lot of good people, and they deferred to me to pick every track and the best of — although I got a lot of great suggestions from a lot of great people and had some good-natured debates, I'm very proud of it. You can get it at NilsLofgren.com.

But as I went on the road the last year and a half after the E-Street tour ended at the end of High Hopes and Wrecking Ball, I had hundreds of songs that I'd freshly looked at that I kind of had forgotten about, being so focused on today and tomorrow. But my wife, Amy, last January on the road in England, she said, "These are the best shows I've seen you and Greg do in the ten years we've been working together. You should record them." And she worked on the packaging, got the photos straight and the whole deal. And I'm glad to have a new live record out commemorating what I've been doing the last ten years.

You wrote one of the songs on the new album, "Like Rain," when you were seventeen years old. I can't imagine there are a lot of artists out there who would feel anything other than horror at playing a song they wrote at age seventeen — but it sounds great. Did it surprise you that it's held up that well, too?

One of the nice things is, this isn't everything I've done. This is the best of it. You know, I didn't want to get off the couch and move the needle. But this was literally thousands of hours of listening and trial and effort to really put something together that I could listen to front to back and not feel like I had to get up and skip it.

Certainly, "Like Rain," is one of my better songs, and I feel I was lucky to tap into a fairly mature subject at a young age. I was in my mom and dad's old home and my brother, Tommy, and I shared a room. And one day I was up there and wrote this song, and I'm still singing it and proud of it.

There are a lot of songs I wrote in every era that I don't sing regularly. But that's the nature of being creative. And getting to handpick the best of what I've done was a great journey, and to have Concord and Fantasy champion it really meant a lot.

Your live album is an overview of your career, too. You were out playing with your band, Grin, at a really young age, and you got the chance to meet Neil Young. How did that happen?

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Back in the mid-'60s, being a rock musician wasn't a career in middle America. It was a hobby for me. We loved the Beatles and the Stones and Hendrix, but nobody thought you could do that.

I was in bands in high school. I was a classical accordion player from ages five to fourteen, I picked up the guitar as a hobby, my brother Tommy gave me some lessons and we just played Beatles and Stones songs for fun. It was the time of the British Invasion, and through that I discovered Stax, Volt, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Richard, the whole lot.

But when I was sixteen, I saw the Who and the Jimi Hendrix Experience on the same night at two different venues, and I was kind of possessed by an uncomfortable notion — that I should try to be a rock musician. 

Fast-forward a year later. I'm seventeen, I have my band, Grin, I have original songs I've written. We were trying to find a record deal, but we struck out in New York. We're getting good live, but nobody really knows us outside of the D.C. area — and I realize I know nothing about the music business. So I'd sneak backstage and ask advice anywhere and everywhere I could, more out of fear than courage. I was nervous, because I knew nothing about the business.

But Neil Young, at the Cellar Door in D.C., was kind enough to spend two days and nights with me, let me watch four shows. We became friends, he looked at my songs, he let me play them on his Martin before his show the first night. And we had already decided to go to L.A. He said, "Look me up when you get there," and we did, and true to his word, he took us under his wing, turned us onto [producer] David Briggs, who moved me into his home in Topanga Canyon, We became the house band, and Neil would jam with us. Initially, he said, "You guys are really good, but you've got to get a better bass player," and we did.

There were a couple of rocky years of up and downs while we were finding our way with David Briggs, who produced four Grin albums. But when I was eighteen, living in Topanga, Neil asked me to play on the After the Gold Rush album. I got to play the piano, play the guitar and sing, which for an eighteen-year-old was a huge opportunity.

Did you realize how huge an opportunity it was at that time? Or were you so young that you didn't really comprehend it until later?

I didn't project it as some landmark record. I just knew that David Briggs and Neil were like older brothers to me. I was amazed and grateful they were in my corner and tried to help where they could. Of course, David was a hands-on producer, and my landlord — my best friend, who moved me into his home. And he really helped us cut our teeth and avoid a lot of mistakes we'd already made some of as a young band trying to find a deal.

The two of them were invaluable. We lost David in the '90s, but certainly they were my two of my greatest mentors of many over the last fifty years, and I'm forever grateful. And of course, as Grin was making records, Danny Whitten of Crazy Horse, we became dear friends through Neil, and we made the first Crazy Horse album to give them an identity. It featured Danny Whitten, but Ry Cooder guested on great bottleneck acoustic and electric, and Jack Nitsche joined the band as a keyboard player and our producer. That was a great chapter, and that led to the Tonight's the Night album and tour with Neil, and in the '80s, we did the Trans album and tour, and in the '90s, we did MTV Unplugged. So it started a long, beautiful history and led to many other chapters.

On the box set, we have six or seven old Grin songs that no one ever heard. We found them and baked the tapes and finished them up. And there are a lot of rarities and unreleased demos and basement tracks. On the Tonight's the Night tour in '73 with Neil, after we recorded that album, an all-live album in the studio, very dark and rough, I wrote "Keith, Don't Go," which is a kind of thank-you note to the great Keith Richards, with ominous overtones in the music, saying, "Hey, stick around. We need you."

And he did. I don't think anybody would have figured he'd still be around in 2016, but he is....

I don't think that had anything to do with me [laughs], but I know I spoke for millions of fans who loved Keith and still do and are grateful he's still here and sharing his gifts. Meanwhile, shortly after we got back to the States, Grin opened for the Tonight's the Night band, and shortly after that, we were in a recording session in Virginia with Grin and David Briggs, and Neil was passing through town and David got Neil down to play piano and sing on "Keith, Don't Go," which was a never-heard version we fortunately found and finished off in the same studio where we recorded it with Bob Dawson, our engineer — and Neil approved us using it. There are just a lot of great bonus tracks and rarities that I never thought would see the light of day. So of course, through this box set and the live album, I was deep into getting my own career fired up. I'm very proud of it.

Nils Lofgren on Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and His Stellar Solo CareerEXPAND
Photo by Eric Marcel

I've been kind of a free agent, doing things in grassroots form. But every once in a while, I get these great blessings to go out with other people. I did a couple of Ringo Starr All-Star Bands and many chapters with Neil Young, a couple of great bands with Patti Scialfa, and of course, the E-Street Band. I'm coming up on my 32nd year this May and probably well over a thousand shows at this point. And unexpectedly, we have this beautiful chapter playing The River, and I know we're headed to Denver, which is a fabulous rock town. The audiences there have always been spectacular, so I'm excited about that.

Continue for more of our interview with Nils Lofgren, featuring more photos and videos.


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