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

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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.

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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts