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.
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?
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.
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.
Before we move on, let me touch on a couple of things you mentioned. You talked about Tonight's the Night and its darkness. To me, it may be the rawest, most naked album ever made by a major artist. I'm curious about your memories of that experience and also your cover of Danny Whitten's "I Don't Want to Talk About It" on the live album.
When we did the Crazy Horse album, which is the only definitive one, because Danny was alive, that was our signature song. And Danny knew it. We all knew it. And we saved it for last to record. We all agreed with Danny that it needed a second verse, and he said, "I'll write it." But months later, after rehearsals and recording, it was the last unrecorded song. So we ganged up on him in the studio and said, "Danny, we're not putting the album out without 'I Don't Want to Talk About It,' so write the damn verse.'"
Danny was getting a little ill with alcohol and drugs. Still playing and singing his ass off, and I'd tune his guitars. He was still kind of present, kind of there as a musician and friend. But he got cranky and never wanted to get around to it, because he was always under the weather a bit. But the band, they grew up together, and they were ganging up on him and I was chiming in, trying to be encouraging. And he said, "You write it." And while everybody was beating up on him, saying, "We're not leaving today until you write and record this song," I went out on my own with the D18 Neil Young had given me, that I used on the After the Gold Rush record — a beautiful D18 that he'd written on, a kind of magical instrument — I wrote a couple of lines. I came in and interrupted the argument and said, "Danny, listen to this." And I sang these two lines: "If I stand all alone, will the shadow hide the color of my heart? Blue for the tears, black for the nights we're apart." And then I went back to his lines: "And the stars in the sky don't mean nothin', they're a mirror." And Danny said, "I'll sing that." We ran him out, we sat down, Ry Cooder was between us with a bottleneck acoustic, Danny and I played our parts and played live, Ralphie and I ran out while Danny sang a couple of harmony tracks and we were done. So it was a beautiful thing.
Of course, we tragically lost Danny. And I felt like the Tonight's the Night record was kind of a wake album for Danny and Bruce Berry, a roadie I knew well; he worked with Stephen Stills when I did. And not only Danny and Bruce Berry, but for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. There were so many tragic deaths. It was a very dark time. And I'm not speaking for Neil Young, who I love and admire. But I thought it was kind of a wake album. And David said, "Look, this is going to be a dark live record. It's going to be the antithesis of production. There will be no production. You're going to learn songs, but not too well. You're going to play them in mini-sets, but you're not to learn them to well. Because we don't want what musicians do" — which is they play a song eight or ten times and come up with a part that works. "Here's the verse part, and here's the chorus part, and when the verse comes around, I play that part." It's natural, but Neil didn't want that.
We played pool and drank and commiserated from dinner until midnight. We didn't get trashed, but we got a buzz and just kind of commiserated about the loss of our friends and the state of affairs and what was then a dark music business where everyone was dying. We'd sit around on the couch — we'd rented this rehearsal hall in Hollywood — and Neil would show us three or four songs. We'd make our little mental notes, get used to them, ask questions. And then we'd go to the other end with our instruments, [Crazy Horse drummer] Ralphie [Molina] and I would sing live, and we'd record them as a mini-set. And this was the theme for a few weeks.
They stayed down in it, and they warned us — because when Neil gets the vocal he likes, you were done and no one would change a single note regardless of how much you liked or disliked the notes you played. That was the project — stay in it. And it was really emotional and powerful, and you're right — it's probably one of the darkest, most raw records any major artist ever made. And then we took it on the road to England, which was another crazy story.
Moving on to your relationship with Bruce Springsteen, I read that [rock critic turned Springsteen manager] Jon Landau gave a deservedly rave review to your first solo album. Was there a connection from that review and Bruce in some way, even if it might have happened years later?
Everyone's interconnected through the art of music and the sacred weapon music is for all of us. Bruce and I did an audition night together in 1970 with Steel Mill [an early Springsteen band] and Grin at the Fillmore West. I always followed his career, I bought tickets to see him play in '74 and '75, and then again in the early '80s, well before I joined the band. He took me to hear The River album in L.A. We were staying at the same hotel. He'd just finished mixing it, and I loved it; I felt they got the sizzle of the live performance in the recording on top of the great songs.
Jon and I were dear old friends and I was thrilled he loved my first solo record, and Bruce and Jon have kindly said in public that that's one of the albums they've used as a template for record-making, as they analyze records they liked and came up with their own design for what was a genius album, Born to Run. But musicians always gravitate toward each other globally, and I was grateful for the connection and friendship through the years. And when Bruce needed a guitar player, I got the job.
Then, of course, Steve came back in '99, which was a great gift that made us that much better. And here we are, sixteen years later, still playing. It's beautiful stuff and I'm very honored to be coming up on 32 years in the band.
[Here's Nils Lofgren singing lead on Springsteen's "Because the Night," with Bruce and company backing him up, circa 2003.]
You didn't play on the original recordings of The River. Was it difficult to find your place in the music? Or has it been a natural, organic process, much as it was when you stayed in the band even after Steve returned?
For me, it's all natural and organic. When I joined the band, I started with Steve's parts and harmonies and honored them and only put my own take into it if it kept the core of what he did. And when Steve came back, it was simple. He'd been there from the start. I'd look at what he and Bruce had going on, and I played the third idea.
Anytime you play me a good rock and roll song, I'll hear twenty ideas on instruments. So I see what the first two ideas are that are being covered by the principals, and I pick up the third or fourth, and add what I think is right. And usually it's right. Sometimes Bruce will have an idea for me. Obviously, if Steve and Bruce are singing together, and they have this great, rough rock duet, and there's some complex guitar line they've put on the record, they're not going to play that line and sing — so I know to cover it. It's just very organic and natural and I always defer to them, because they were the principals way back in the beginning.
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If Bruce's fans haven't heard the box set or the live album, they may not know the depth of your personal musical history. Are you hoping they'll check those out and find out there's more to you than just being part of the E-Street Band?
Of course. I'm honored to be in these bands, but one of my favorite things when I've done my club gigs the last year and a half, and the last thirty years, is when someone comes up and says, "I just came because you played with Bruce and Neil, but I didn't know you wrote and sang. I want to buy your CD" at the merch table afterward. So that's always heartening if someone comes to see me play and likes my songs and singing.
Nils Lofgren performs with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on Thursday, March 31, at the Pepsi Center.