When you work for Bruce Springsteen, it’s hard to know exactly when you might be able to take time off. But longtime E Street Band multi-instrumentalist Nils Lofgren seems to have a pretty good handle on navigating the system at this point. “I stay in touch with Bruce and Patti [Scialfa] and I have great, great respect for them and whatever they need to do,” he says. “So right now, there’s no plans for the band. You know, I do, just as I’ve done for 30 years being in the band, I’ll call up and say, ‘Hey Jon [Landau, Springsteen’s longtime manager], I want to go play in Cleveland, Niagara Falls and Pittsburgh in July — any conflicts?’ He says, ‘I’ll get back to you’ and he gets back and says, ‘Nah, no conflicts.’ It’s low-key like that. So there’s no plans for the band right now and it’s time for me to do my own music and like any fan, I hope down the road or whenever it is that there will be another chapter, but it’s not today and there’s time for me to focus on my own music.”
As his recent Face the Music
box set reveals, there’s no shortage of music to focus on. With 169 tracks (including 40 previously unreleased songs and rarities), Face the Music
offers an incredibly comprehensive look at 45 years worth of work, collecting the initial recordings he made with his band Grin and the extensive amount of solo material that followed. He’ll be in town this week for an evening of songs and stories at the Hard Rock Live and he shared a few tales with us during a recent phone conversation to preview the show.
It’s hard to believe that you haven’t been here for a solo show since 2006 when you played a pair of shows at the Winchester. We’re glad to have you coming back around.
Yeah, it’s been too long and I always love singing in Cleveland and I’ve got a great history there. And you know, you guys had a great basketball run there too — I was pulling for you. It was surprising with the injuries that the team did so well so next year bodes well for the whole city. But hey, I’m excited to get back and sing and play and it’s been too long.
Face the Music, your box set, has been out for about a year now and you’ve done some touring since then. Has the setlist for those shows given you an opportunity to rediscover some of the material from the box set?
There’s some mainstay songs that I’ll usually do almost every night, like “Keith Don’t Go” or “Shine Silently,” but I had kind of forgotten, not only are there 40 bonus track songs that we baked the tapes and found old rarities that were never heard before, including some early Grin stuff, but just to go through 45 years of recording and pick the best of it, there were some songs on the records that I just don’t sing regularly that I now realize would be good songs live. It’s just reminded me of a lot of the work that I’ve done that I kind of forgot about. It was a great labor of love — it was two years of work, and there’s a 138-page story there that Dave Marsh had me write and he edited it, but he insisted I write it. My wife Amy produced the package with all of the art directors and we went through thousands of old photos and 45 sleeves. An old buddy of mine, Steve Smolen, was a collector and fortunately he had all of that stuff, because I’m embarrassed to say, I don’t keep track of my old stuff and I regret it now. But thankfully, we had a great team of people and it was two years of work, but we put together a package that we’re proud of and it was nice to see a lot of that old music that was out of print, resurrected and put in one place.
If you did keep all of that stuff, you probably wouldn’t have room to move in your house.
Well yeah, I’d probably have to give up my house and just be in a sleeping bag in the storage facility. [Laughs] But look, I wish I was better at that, but I’m not and thankfully, you know, Fantasy Records, to their credit, they went and got the rights to every single track I wanted. I kind of figuratively worked on a running order for months and months, you know, the theme was not to get off the couch and move the needle on the record and have everything flow. Some albums, there would be six songs I would wanted and some there’d be two. But I just wanted to be able to listen to the whole thing through and feel good about it. It was a real labor of love and I’m very grateful that Fantasy gave me the freedom to do it the way I wanted to.
In the book for the box set, you write that you wrote your first original rock song on accordion. You had started taking accordion lessons at age five and as you mention, there were a lot of kids in the neighborhood that played accordion. Why was the accordion so seemingly popular in the area where you lived?
My dad is Swedish and my mom’s Italian and there were a lot of Italians in the neighborhood. It was the South Side of Chicago near Midway Airport and I think accordion is a big instrument in the Italian culture, and Swedish too, but our neighborhood was predominantly that and I think that might have been the reason. But this was the mid-’50s, so of course, the rock and roll guitar thing didn’t really take over America’s psyche until the Beatles in the early to mid-’60s, so this was kind of an instrument that was popular in America. I used to watch the Lawrence Welk show and loved Myron Floren and Art Van Damme and a lot of these great old players. But I was lucky to study it for 10 years and have great teachers and that classical backdrop of music and understanding of it was an enormous help when I kind of picked up the blues guitar just as a hobby. Two years later, I was on the road professionally and that never would have happened if it wasn’t for those 10 years of accordion studies.
You struck up an early and important relationship with Neil Young when you were trying to make things happen with Grin. He’s well-known as an intense individual at times, but it seems like the two of you had a good relationship, at least in those early years. Did you ever find yourself on the “wrong side of Neil?”
You know, I don’t think I ever did. Neil kind of gets, I think, an undeserved bad rap like that. He is very intense, but not in a bad way. You know, everybody’s intense when they’re performing their own music. I think people really don’t realize what a great sense of humor [he has] and what a brilliant guy he is, and smart. He can be thoughtful and caring and cynical and sarcastic like all of us. I’ve had some great adventures with him. Putting the Trans tour together, we were at his ranch for over two months and you know, just to live and work with him, it was a real joy and blessing. Once in a while, there would be something going on live that might not be feeling right to him and he’d just be glaring around, but you know, he was professional. He didn’t ever fine people on stage like James Brown or anything like that. I just always just felt like, you know, I looked him in the eye and just stared at him, because he knew. Now look, we met when I was 17 and one thing Neil knows about me is that a) not only do I love his music, but b) he’s a very inspired artist to me and he’s been a huge mentor to me, so I show up prepared. Yes, I made mistakes, but it’s not for lack of caring or preparation.
A famous story, we did MTV Unplugged
in the ‘90s and I wasn’t in that band, but I played some Bridge School Benefits with him [and] the Harvest Moon band — brilliant! We showed up to rehearse for the MTV Unplugged
, which they did in New York and Neil didn’t like it and refused to let them air it. So we were going to try it again in L.A. and he hired me to be along. You know, I talked to him weeks in advance and that’s the great thing about him, he’s all about the music, so we talked through the songs and sets and what he wanted, which I’ve done in the past, [to] kind of like ghost his parts and double them so if he wants to go off and play a lead or if he just wants to stop playing and sing, he knows that I’m there covering the theme. With great appreciation, I just slowly for a few weeks rehearsed and got ready and we showed up in L.A. and the very band that recorded the album forgot their own parts on Harvest Moon
. He got pissed off pretty early on in rehearsals and he and [manager] David Briggs, they said, “You guys don’t even know your own songs — you’ve got to practice — I’m going to get a drink.” So I thought, “Oh, great — I’ll go have a shot with David and Neil,” and he said, “No, Nils — you sit here and sing and rehearse the band.” So he and Briggs went out barhopping and the story is that David said they’d pull up every couple of hours and listen through the wall and decide they weren’t good enough and go off and have another shot.
Meanwhile, I’m sitting there with these guys and I’m like, “Well, if you’re not going to respect Neil Young,” because I showed up, you know, the thing is when you walk into a room with a guy like Neil Young with those songs that he says we’re going to sing and play, not to be corny, but to coin his song, you’re expecting to fly. I mean, you’re really expecting, like, “Man, all I’ve got to do is play my part and this is going to be special,” and then these guys don’t even know their own parts. It was a bummer for me, but I just looked at these guys — and I love all of these players — Ben Keith and I were in many bands with Neil and had a lot of high adventures on the road for months together — I just said, “Look guys, I’m just going to sing every song on the page twice. You guys do what you want.” I just sat there and sang the songs twice and went through it over and over and they played along or not and the next day we got together and it was a little better. But that’s classic, I mean, anybody — me, you, whatever — you show up, you’re going to do a show and your team shows up and somebody doesn’t care or they’re drunk or they’re not into it, they forgot how to do their part, it bums you out. And Neil’s no different — I don’t think he’s any more mercurial or crazy than anybody else. He talks about it brilliantly in his book, Waging Heavy Peace
, which is a fabulous read, about the muse and how sometimes he gets a little carried away listening to his muse and making some radical decisions. But you know, I’m someone who never suffered from a lack of preparation, because I truly have been blessed to not take jobs I don’t truly love the people and the opportunity and of course he’s one of the great ones.
You certainly walk into every situation with Neil knowing that it’s going to be interesting in a new and different way. It must have been really interesting preparing for the Trans tour.
Actually, it was one of the great, famous organizations of a tour, because what we were doing was mixing old school with new school. Neil had bought two of the first Synclaviers, fully loaded, one of the highest grade synthesizers in the world. He became really good at it and he made this Trans album, which was a brilliant record about machines with souls and hearts and personalities and voices that are helping children deal with severe, awful, handicaps. I thought it was genius. And then a sidebar to our putting the show together, he and David Geffen sued each other — David wouldn’t release it because it was too un-Neil Young like, which was baffling to me.
Meanwhile, we take this band to Hawaii and we record a whole album in Hawaii and he put some of those songs into the Trans album and it becomes kind of a little bit more Neil Young-like, if you will, to David Geffen, enough to where instead of not having the record out, Neil chose to make a record where the key songs he felt were still being shared and this vision of these fabulous machines that are helping children so much, that they take on lives and souls and names and voices. I mean, to me, that’s genius. But we had another [album] of the more standard stuff, “Little Thing Called Love,” “If You Got Love,” “Like An Inca,” and you know, more classic Neil Young, and the record came out [with some of that material added in].
We rehearsed for two and a half months, Bruce Palmer, the original bass player for Buffalo Springfield came and he was having trouble remembering the songs, so Neil sent him away and brought in Bob Mosley from the Moby Grape, who was fabulous, I mean, one of my biggest, favorite bands — my band Crystal Mesh opened for the Moby Grape in ‘67 at the Ambassador Theater [in Washington, D.C.]. Bob was great, but he was kind of just off on his own a little bit and Neil just decided, I remember that he got me and Ralph Molina, the drummer, together and he said, “Look guys, you’re not going to believe it, but I’m going to bring Bruce Palmer back,” and we’re like, “You’ve gotta be kidding me — he can’t remember the songs!” [Laughs]
Neil was like, “Well, he’s got such a great feel though that I’d rather have the peaks and valleys.” The theme of that band initially to Neil was to have his favorite players over decades of work and we all loved Bob Mosley, but he had no history with Neil — it wasn’t anything personal against Bob — he sang and played his ass off and still does. So Bruce Palmer came back and Neil said, “Look, I want you to get together with Bruce at the end of rehearsals and just go to his little home on the property and just play the songs.”
And you know, osmosis, it was kind of the thing where Bruce was struggling with memorizing them, so we just played “Down By The River” five times and then we played “Cowgirl In The Sand” five times and I just did that kind of thing with him with a little Pignose [amp] and there’s Bruce Palmer with a little Pignose amp playing and I kind of helped him just assimilate the songs by osmosis rather than memory. We went and did this great crazy tour, six weeks in Europe and just had many, many incredible memories with Neil, but that’s the main thing is when you work with guys like that or Bruce or Ringo Starr, I mean, you know that the bottom line is music and if you have a question or a need, that helps you facilitate doing the job musically, the answer is always yes.
I remember at the set of MTV Unplugged
, after that kind of harrowing rehearsal time, we show up and you know, the producers are moving you here and there and they’re worried about sightlines and how it’s going to look on camera and I’m kind of like trying to figure out and trying to be polite, because I’m just a team player. Neil happened to be walking by once and he wasn’t in the greatest mood anyway, because of the rehearsals and he overheard me talking with a producer about where I’m going to be and I wasn’t really happy with it. He overheard it and he stopped right between us and he looked at me — he just pointed at me with that glare and he said, “Nils, where do you want to sit to do your job?”
And I said, “Well, I want to sit right in front of you, staring at your head and your hands,” and he said, “That’s where he’s sitting — put him right in front of me!” And he stormed off. [Laughs] You know, not stormed off in a bad way, but he was like, “What the hell are you guys doing, man? We’re making music!” He was like, yeah, we’re going to film it, but we’re going to film us making great music. We’re not doing some friggin’ art show for the cameras. That’s the beautiful thing when you work with people like that. In 1999 when Steven Van Zandt came back in the [E Street B]and, who it was so great to have back in the band, you know, I realize you don’t need four guitar players, so I challenged myself to learn a little dobro and lap steel and pedal steel, which was very complicated for me. I was surprised how hard it was to learn — and you know, six-string banjo — some oddball sounds. So I’ve got this pedal steel now, it’s off by Danny’s organ riser and I come in one day and I’ve got all of my pedals under the stage and now there’s this iron grate separating me from my pedals, because it’s the staging — there’s all of these departments and this giant presentation.
There’s no panic — you go to George Travis, the head of the whole thing, he takes me to the guys that are building the stage and he says, “Look you guys, Nils needs to reach out while he’s playing pedal steel once in a while and hit these foot pedals and you’ve got a grate in the way now — can you cut a hole in it just big enough and we can sit [them] there.” They map out a hole that still keeps the vibe and the look from the lighting director, because the lighting director doesn’t know about my issues. The guys that are building this, it’s like a construction site, you know, you build a home and you realize, “Oh, the kitchen’s in the wrong place.” [Laughs] So anyway, they cut a hole in it and I experimented and it’s like “Yeah, man, that’s good.” That’s the nice thing is that when you’re working with people like that, there’s never an emotionally debilitating fight to just get what you need to do your job as a musician. The answer is always yes if it involves doing the music correctly and that’s one of the things I embrace and love in being in a great band and not having to be the bandleader, is that I get to play rhythm guitar, I get to sing harmonies with great singers — I get to do all of these great things that in general, a bandleader doesn’t get to do. So I love it both.
Collaborating with Lou Reed sounds like it was an interesting experience. What did you like about what Lou brought to your songs?
Well, one of the beautiful things about Lou was that I was a big fan of his and it became very personal and productive instantly. He said, “Look, let’s discuss if this will work and how it will work and come to my Greenwich Village apartment,” which I did. He loves football and I didn’t know that — American Football — we watched the Dallas Cowboys/Washington Redskins game and he rooted for the Cowboys and I rooted for the Redskins, but it was good-natured. We had a few drinks, watched the game and just casually discussed, you know, are we going to woodshed this and get into a loft and slog it out eight hours a day? I don’t know, I mean, I’ve never really co-written before. Then we started talking and I said, “Well, you know, music comes very naturally to me and I’ve got like 13 songs that are really kind of written, but we don’t like the lyrics.” He was like, “Well, you know, I write words day and night and they’re pretty good and music, I struggle with. Before we just start slogging it out in a loft, why don’t you send me a tape and we’ll see how it goes from there.”
I sent him 13 songs on a cassette and this was like, I don’t know, ‘79 or ‘80, and a few weeks went by and I was just working with Bob Ezrin, writing and doing pre-production meetings and working on a batch of songs. We had all of these songs that we knew the lyrics weren’t good enough, but we liked the music. With Lou, it was like, [you can] change anything and everything, but [it’s] mainly the lyrics we don’t like. If you want to change the music, that’s fine — if you’re into it, we want you to participate on it, even if it’s one song. We don’t care — we just liked the concept and it was Bob Ezrin’s idea and Lou was game. It was great, because he woke me up at 4:30 or 5 am one morning after weeks went by and I forgot about it — I just figured he was busy, and he said, “Hey Nils, it’s Lou Reed — I’ve been up for three days and nights straight and I absolutely love this cassette. I love it so much that I just finished 13 complete sets of lyrics. They’re done. Get a pencil, I’ll dictate them to you.” Sure enough, no email or none of that, I put on a pot of coffee and sat there for two hours on the phone and Lou Reed dictated 13 finished songs I had just written with him. It was hilarious and beautiful. Of course, I was just in heaven, spending the next few days with a funky upright [piano] I had in my house, and a guitar, putting the lyrics into the music.
Even Lou said, “Look, there’s a few of these songs I’d like to use on my next record and I was fine with that, of course! We used a few and one of the great ones on the box set is a song called “Life” that Branford Marsalis played this incredible saxophone on, with one of Lou’s great lyrics and then “Driftin’ Man” [is another one]. It’s just a beautiful thing to get all of these songs out again, you know, “A Fool Like Me” — and there’s about four or five [unfinished Reed songs] in the basement and sadly we lost Lou a year or so ago and I was thinking they were the kind of songs that only he could deliver, but now I feel like kind of one of my jobs in the next couple of albums I make is to dig those last four or five songs we wrote together out and find a way to present them for everybody.
Have you started writing towards another solo record?
I have not. You know, it’s been a little frustrating, I got off the road a year ago in May with the E Street Band after 26 months and you know, I was exhilarated, but I was pretty beat to hell and had some severe shoulder tears in both shoulders and some other little health things I’ve been wrestling with. So I’ve really been kind of just spending the last year re-adjusting to doing my own shows. It’s a different headspace and I mean, it’s fun, it just takes work and you know, all that goes with it.
All of the sudden you’re the band leader and the equipment — I’ve got equipment scattered all over the country, like, where the hell was that synthesizer? What did we do with this? Where’s that amp, where are these foot pedals? Just kind of putting my own shows back together and really focusing on getting my health to where I can do the shows I like to do. So now my theory is after I come to Cleveland then Niagara Falls and Pittsburgh as a solo artist and do some shows — they’re very intimate shows — I tell a lot of great stories onstage too. It’s kind of low-key but intense in its own way. Then I’m hoping to start writing this summer. My health issues, look, I’m 64 — we’ve all got shit to deal with, so I’ll just keep dealing with that, but I’ve got a handle on ‘em and hopefully I’ll start writing this summer and as I continue to play through the year, I’m hoping that by next year I’ll be recording my next solo record.
When I talked to you last year, you were going to be doing a couple of shows in Las Vegas and I think that was a duo thing.
This time I’m on my own. I’ve got my electrics and acoustics and my pianos and keyboards and I’ll be jumping back and forth between, you know, mostly acoustic-based [instruments], but still I’ll have a track or two where I’ll turn up to 11 on the Strat and kick out the jam and I’ll go to the piano of course, which I’ve got a lot of history on the keyboards. So it will be a very intimate solo show this time around and this fall I’ll be back playing with Greg [Varlotta] and the acoustic duos out here in Arizona and then we go to England at the end of October. But these next shows coming up in July, it will just be a very intimate night with me, my guitars, key-piano, and I’m still dragging [things out]. I start the show — I’m hoping to anyway, with a harp. My wife Amy gave me a harp for Christmas a few years ago, which is a crazy Celtic harp — you know, not the harmonica. I worked out a piece that I open the show with that I’m still going to try to do on my own. It’s like an exercise machine, you get a harp, what do you do with it? You hang clothes on it or you learn to play something! So I learned one or two riffs and I turned it into a piece that I open the show with.
So it will be a very intimate night with just me, probably an hour and a half plus, and afterwards usually too, I’ll come out and sign t-shirts and CDs and anyone who wants to stick around and have a drink, I’ll look ‘em in the eye, shake their hand and thank them for showing up, if they want to stick around. I’m bringing the box set of course, and some great merchandise. Amy designs the t-shirts and she won’t be with me this trip, but she’s out there a lot sometimes, which it’s great to have her on the road. So you know, it will be a short run, this trip in July, me on my own and I’ll get back to playing the duo show the rest of the year. But I’m very excited to get to Cleveland. I haven’t played there in a long time and it’s just fabulous town and even way back in the late ‘60s with my band Grin, you know, we were coming through there and I just have great, great memories and hope to make a new one very soon at the show at the Hard Rock.
Nils Lofgren, 8 p.m. Friday, July 10, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $25-$45, hrrocksinonorthfieldpark.com.