NILS LOFGREN: MUCH MORE THAN A SIDEMAN

May 7, 2009 – 4:13 am

Matthew Lewis talks to Nils Lofgren, who has played with the likes of Neil Young, Ringo Starr and was even part of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band. The man is a mean guitarist whose solo works show that he is much more than a session player.  The article was published in BigO #158 (February 1999).

Nils Lofgren has done excellent solo work for almost a quarter century, but most people know him - if they know him at all - as a sideman.

Talking to Lofgren, it quickly becomes apparent why artists as diverse as Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr respect the diminutive guitarist so much. Lofgren, 47, comes across as sincere and upbeat - the kind of guy you would definitely want to have on your team, if you were putting a band together. Personality aside, the Chicago-born Lofgren, who grew up in the Washington, DC area, also happens to be among the greatest rock guitarists of the last 30 years.

In a recent interview, Lofgren spoke frankly about his lack of commercial success, and why that spurs him to try even harder, rather than wallow in bitterness. “I’ve never really ever gotten that heavy rotation that you need to have a hit record on the radio,” he said. “My music remains fairly obscure, (but) I’m still at it, and the challenge for me is to continue to perform and make records despite the political climate of the business.”

Lofgren, whose father was born in Sweden and whose mother is of Sicilian ancestry, played the accordion as a little boy, but he quickly became smitten by rock ‘n’ roll after hearing the Beatles. He took up the guitar at age 15, and developed his unique style - using a thumb pick instead of a conventional flatpick - by accident, after discovering a thumb pick inside his dad’s battered old guitar case. He became something of a teenage guitar prodigy in the Washington, DC area, and recalls crowding the stage in smoky nightclubs to study the technique of Telecaster master Roy Buchanan, another DC-area great.

By the time he was 25, Lofgren had already played on four of the best albums of the ‘70s: Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush (1970), the self-titled debut by Young’s explosive backup band, Crazy Horse (1971); Young’s painfully intense Tonight’s The Night (1975), sparked by the drug-overdose death of Crazy Horse leader Danny Whitten; and Lofgren’s amazingly assured solo debut, Nils Lofgren (1975). Lofgren teamed up with Canadian-born Young again on the latter’s Trans (1982), and most recently on his MTV Unplugged special in 1993.

Lofgren joined Springsteen’s E Street Band in 1984, and won attention for executing onstage back-flips while the Boss began his intro to Rosalita. (When Bruce decided to stop performing the song in 1985, Lofgren gratefully retired this dangerous stunt.) Later, Lofgren hooked up with two editions of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band.

We caught up with Lofgren last year, just before he headed out on an US tour that extended to England and Europe in October. He spoke from Scottsdale, Arizona - home of his new wife, Amy, who is a professional cook. The day before, Lofgren had released his 13th solo album, Acoustic Live, on The Right Stuff records. The 17-song collection includes six new tunes.

Nils, is it frustrating to be known mainly as a sideman, even though you’ve done great solo work for many years?

Um, I would say the answer to that question is no, but let me clarify. You have to understand I love being in bands, I love playing music… that’s been a real joy and advantage to me, because it’s so good for my spirit to play such great music with other players.

On the other hand, I will say that as a solo artist, or just a writer, I make music to share with people. And yes, I would love to have a hit record, and share my music with more people. And yes, it is disheartening that after 30 years, I’ve never had a giant hit record with the heavy rotation on the radio all over the world, which I think is everyone’s dream. So I would keep the two issues separate.

Do you have any theories on why you have somehow avoided mass commercial success?

The bottom line is I haven’t had heavy rotation on the radio. The companies send the record to the radio station, they listen to it along with the other thousand submissions, then decide that you’re not going to be one of the Top 40. What the reasons are for that, I’m sure range from very pure and musical, to very jaded and political. To analyse it past that is kind of a waste of time for me. The bottom line is, I prefer to not get into that pointing a finger. It sounds funny, but when you point a finger, there’re three pointing back at you.

I prefer to just keep in on me. I haven’t made a record that’s universally appealling enough on all fronts to warrant that kind of attention and I’ll keep trying to do that, while I please myself first. I prefer to challenge myself, keep trying to please myself, and find something the radio loves, and not get into the whole (finger-pointing), because that’s a trap. (At this point, Lofgren mentions that he recently met some talented teenage musicians, very keen to make demos and records, who made some derisive comments about Oasis. “I’m like, Hey man, you don’t have to like Oasis, but there’re 10, 20 million people that bought their record that love it. Respect that, all right? You don’t have to like them, but respect that they’re working hard at music they like, and they’re sharing it with people… There’re too many people sitting around at the bar, from the safety of a bar stool, going, Ah yeah, what’s the use of even recording? It’s such a bad business. I’m better than so and so, and he’s having hits, and I can’t even get a (record) deal, and it’s just all wrong. And that’s the reason not even to try.”)

I just think that analysing why something is not happening is (too negative). I did too much of that as a kid. Yes, it is disheartening, after 30 years I’ve never had a big hit record… (But) I love to perform more than anything. I love to play live, because all that (lack of commercial success) goes away. The audience doesn’t care if you have a record deal or not, they don’t care how many units you didn’t sell, they don’t care how long you’ve been around without a hit, they don’t care if you’re not an MTV marketable darling for their publicity department, they do not care.

They’re like, ‘We’re here, we want you to be good, we’re pulling for you.’ All you have to do is really deliver. Then, that moment gives you an immediate response, it’s positive, and that is literally the life blood of where I get the strength and the encouragement, and that’s a constant reminder to me that I do want to continue to stay excited and inspired, and find ways to keep making records and performing. And I get that energy off the audience and nowhere else.

What has been your best-selling album so far?

I don’t have a clue. To me, until I’m doing the heavy rotation, take-over-the-world thing, it’s all kind of a moot point. I play in bars, I always have, little theatres. I really don’t know the numbers. Maybe Cry Tough (1976), or maybe the Nils album (1979), with No Mercy on it. I know that did really well in Germany, comparatively.

You played on one of my favourite records, that first (1971) album by Crazy Horse.

That’s one of my favourites too. I had just been working a lot with Neil (Young) and, of course, befriended Crazy Horse and Danny Whitten. They asked me to join the band. When I kind of made it clear I didn’t want to quit my band, Grin… They were hoping maybe after the record I’d have a change of heart and quit my band, but I did not. I got to make that great record and, of course, I wrote a couple of songs for Danny for the record, and also got to do the original duet on I Don’t Want To Talk About It, sitting across from Danny, with Ry Cooder playing pedal steel between us, and that was a real big thrill.

Even though I’m a huge Neil Young fan, I think that that Crazy Horse album is just about as good as anything Neil ever did.

Neil would be the first to tell you that Danny was a very inspiring character. We all learnt a lot from Danny. He was a real formidable songwriter and singer.

Why did Neil Young first hire you as a piano player, of all things?

Well, that’s a good question, and I never asked Neil. I can only imagine that he wanted… Neil was a friend, he was very encouraging, he was never intimidating to me, so I was in a safe environment. Basically, Neil made it very clear, my best was good enough…

In retrospect I think maybe what Neil wanted, and what he got, was an 18-year-old kid who absolutely loved his music, I mean a total fan, who felt it, felt the music, as a musician. He also got a piano player that, at my most creative, was playing very, very simple rhythms and melodies…

That’s the only thing I can think of, because in retrospect, if he’d hired a Nicky Hopkins or a Dr John, or a virtuoso session player from LA, if he wanted a record that simple, he would have had to coach them down, so much that it might not have been comfortable for Neil to do the coaching, or for them to play that simple. I don’t know. But what he got from me, I just have to assume is kind of roughly what he wanted.

I really like your piano playing on Albuquerque, a very haunting, atmospheric track from Neil’s Tonight’s The Night album.

I think just melodically, from hearing me play and sing and write, Neil realised I had this real melancholy sense to my melodies, which kind of falls into the haunting area too. That’s just by nature, from the accordion too. There’s all these old country Swedish songs, and especially the old Italian songs… Come Back To Sorrento has the very minor, modal haunting feel to it, very melancholy. I just, as a person, have taken to that since I was a little boy. Tonight’s The Night, that’s another one, I just loved making that record.

We pulled up a remote truck to SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals in Hollywood), and recorded basically live as we were learning the music. He wanted to make a record with no frills, no production per se.

Not only live, but live before you even know the songs. Neil would show us the harmony part, and then we’d tape the song - and this is after we’d just heard the song. We’re like, Neil, we’re not singing that well, let us do it again. But if you listen to it, even though it’s rough, it’s so emotionally committed, and that’s what Neil asked us to do.

You seem to have popped into Neil’s career at some interesting points. Is there any pattern?

I would say none whatsoever. Neil is a real emotional, spontaneous kind of spiritual performer. I don’t believe there’s a rhyme or reason to it. I think whenever he needs to work out something and he feels I might be of use, he’ll give me a call. I’ll always say yes and find a way to show up.

When we did the MTV Unplugged, which is the last project I did with Neil, he’d tell me, he made a beautiful record (Harvest Moon), and I love the record, he’d done a version of the show in New York City, and he just didn’t like the way it felt, and he wanted to try it again… I feel things very similarly to Neil. Without it being like copying or anything, I can play his parts that he writes, with pretty much the same feeling and intensity, once I get the hang of it.

You have a unique perspective on Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. Can you compare and contrast them as bandleaders, and as people?

My feelings on that are that the differences are so small that I would have to really dig to find them… I love them as people, and I love their music… When I work with Neil or Bruce or Ringo, I’ve been able to get lost in the music, and get that same emotional healing or hit that I need in the music…

With Neil and Bruce as songwriters, I consider them tied at No. 1, with a very short list. Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Jagger-Richards, Peter Gabriel and Sting are right up there, but they’re in a very rare air… Maybe Neil likes things a little bit looser in a live setting, Bruce would have things a little more planned out, but still with big areas for improvisation, to keep it loose and fresh. They’re very similar as far as their commitment and their emotional approach to what they do.

Was it a challenge to join the E-Street Band after Steve Van Zandt had been such a fixture?

The challenge was musical to me, because I got the job less than five weeks before opening night. I’d been seeing the E-Street Band throughout their whole career, I got to be friends with Bruce through the ‘70s. I knew him as a person, and felt real comfortable with him as a friend. The challenge was only to play catchup… Bruce started me off with a song list of about 50 songs, and this was before we even hit the road…

I basically put a ban on all (non-Bruce) music, I had a boom box next to my bed, I went to sleep listening to Bruce, I woke up and hit the “Play” button. I holed up in a little room in his home during rehearsals, and never came out, except he’d drag me out to go get lunch occasionally. We’d go jogging in the morning, and that was it. I’d just rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. This wasn’t anything anyone asked me to do. This was how I approached it. Because even with that kind of approach, day and night, it took 20 shows to get to where I wanted to be.

One of your best-known songs is Keith Don’t Go. Did Keith Richards ever respond to it?

It never came up. I know that he’s heard it through the grapevine, but I would certainly never ask Keith. I’ve met him a few times, he’s been very gracious and kind, he knows I’m as big a fan as there is. I’ve never had a chance to really sit down and have a long talk with him. Of course, I would never bring that up. It’s never come up. We’ve never been in an environment to do any serious chatting…

One thing I have not done, that I’d love to do sometime, would be to just jam with Keith. Not do some official gig thing. Just in a living room or bar, or a basement rehearsal studio, and just pick up a guitar and play with Keith Richards, because I think he’s as great a guitarist as there is.

What’s your all-time favourite record?

I don’t have one. Let me mention a few. If I had to pick one, that might take me a month, and that would really be a painful adventure. Certainly - oh man, I’d certainly have to go with one of the Beatles records, like Revolver or Rubber Soul. To be cold-blooded about it, if I had to take one record, I’d take the most expensive Motown collection I could, because that is a huge body of work that inspired me growing up, the old Supremes stuff, Marvin Gaye, just the best Motown record I could find.

Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland. Little Wing I think is the greatest three minutes of guitar ever played. That’s not on Electric Ladyland, but if I had to take away a whole album, I guess I’d pick Electric Ladyland, because that has the No. 1 side in history, which was Dylan’s song, All Along the Watchtower, Voodoo Chile (Slight Return), House Burning, that was all on one side of the record, which I thought was spectacular.

I’d have to grab something by the Stones. Jeez, they made so many. They did a lot of great stuff in the later years, but High Tide and Green Grass, again, a greatest hits of the Stones. Then, I’d probably try to grab a greatest hits, if there was such a thing, of Peter Gabriel and Sting, and then Dylan. Maybe a best-of blues collection by Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. That might be the five or six records I’d take away.

What was the first record you ever bought?

I have a vague memory as an accordion player, way before rock ‘n’ roll got me, of going to the store and buying the 45 of Red Roses For A Blue Lady, by Wayne Newton. And also The Lonely Bull by Herb Alpert. Those I loved - The Lonely Bull in particular, I just thought that was fabulous, with that melancholy melody, and cool production.

Nils, it’s been an honour to talk to you, thanks for all the good music, and please keep it up.

  1. 4 Responses to “NILS LOFGREN: MUCH MORE THAN A SIDEMAN”

  2. Nils best album was his two record live album. I saw him in Boston in 1982 at the Paradise Theatre in Boston. The show was broadcast on WBCN 104.1 FM It would be nice if that recording could surface someone must have recorded it. The show lasted 4 hrs.

    By Bootleg - Steve Yeaton on May 7, 2009

  3. Nils’ first solo album is the greatest single album in the history of rock music. Just a tad better than Bruce on Born to Run. It’s incredible. What an amazing writer, performer on both Grin and his solo stuff. “Back it Up, The Sun Hasn’t Set on this boy yet, Rock and Roll Crook. It’s fabulous.

    By hfs radio fan on May 8, 2009

  4. Thanks for the great interview with Nils.

    I have been a fan since he played on Neil’s After The Gold Rush. But the revelation came when his first solo album came into Kelly’s Stereo Mart in Vancouver. I was working there and a we had a demo copy of that record which I loved and eventually took home. For some weird reason we couldn’t get any sales copies in the store even though they sent us a second demo! I told that story to Nils when I met him years later in the very same building which had been converted into a multi faceted music center featuring Tom Lee Music. Nils was in to meet and greet. As he signed my records, he said very graciously that it was all “water under the bridge.” That night, he blew me away as he played at The 86th Street club and I was right in front of the stage watching every little magic trick. I subsequently got to see him with Bruce and with Ringo. With Ringo he stole the whole show playing Shine Silently. That’s some major feat when you are sharing the stage with people like Joe Walsh, Billy Preston, Clarence Clemmons, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Jim Keltner, Dr. John and a Beatle were sharing the stage.

    By Jim Chisholm on May 11, 2009

  5. Go Nils! All you Nils/Neil heads should check out “The Loner” wherein Nils bares his acoustic soul interpreting Neil Young classics including ‘Winterlong’, ‘Like A Hurricane’, ‘Mr. Soul’ and twelve more unexpected treats.

    By pistachiomannequintessence on May 21, 2009

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