Nils Lofgren of the E Street Band

by Greg Prato

Nils Lofgren has had quite the career. In addition to issuing his own recordings as a solo artist and as a member of Grin, he has backed two bona fide rock n' roll legends on guitar - Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen - appearing on a variety of recordings and sold-out tours. And while he is probably best known for his work with Springsteen and the E Street Band, Lofgren appeared on two albums by Young that are considered amongst the greatest of his entire career: 1970's After the Gold Rush and 1975's Tonight's the Night.

When Lofgren spoke to Songfacts, it was shortly after the release of a new solo live disc, UK2015 Face the Music Tour, as well as a 10-disc box set, Face the Music, which is a personally handpicked retrospective of his last 45 years of recordings, with 40 bonus tracks and rarities (both of which are available through nilslofgren.com). During the conversation, Nils spoke about working with both Neil and Bruce, the stories behind several tracks, and how he once beat Howard Stern at a game of basketball.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did the idea come up to document your recent tour with the UK2015 Face the Music Tour live album?

Nils Lofgren: I'd been playing with Greg Varlotta, and we realized we were coming up on a decade, with kind of an updated show. In January, we were doing a three-week run, and halfway through, my wife Amy - who has seen me a lot and designs all our merchandise - she thought those were some of the best shows she's seen me do, and implored us to record the last half of the January tour.

Also, at the merch table, I come out and sign at the end of the night for an hour plus - it's very grassroots. I meet people who want to stick around, and we ask them to keep the bar open, and the common question was, "Do you have the show I just saw?"

So thanks to Amy, we recorded the last half, and after listening, I was surprised we had such a good collection there. But we did. And she oversaw the artwork with the people who run our website. Found the photos on Twitter, put a great package together, and got it out this trip.

We just returned from a longer trip of about 30 days, and when people asked if we had the show, they saw we had it at the merch table. It was a popular item and I was surprised too, because I realized I hadn't commemorated any live recording of the show I've done with Greg, which has some trumpet and tap dancing and different arrangements by me. And some different songs that aren't out on the live record. So that's how it came about.

Songfacts: Which tracks on the album are you proudest of?

Nils: "Girl in Motion," where I do my own rhythm and play to myself is kind of an improv voice I have of soloing. We've got a really good one of that, that I'm happy with.

"Miss You 'C'," which is an homage to my dear departed friend, Clarence Clemons - a different arrangement, with words that speak to the E Street family and of course, Clarence as well.

"Too Many Miles," which is a blues song I wrote for a soundtrack for Bonnie Bramlett, but we never recorded it. So I've been singing it and I got a lever harp as a Christmas gift a few years ago, so I worked up the first verse on this harp, and it's kind of a dramatic opening - it goes from a gentle harp-blues verse into an electric keyboard finish. It shows the "all over the place shows" I do with gentle stuff, and then some more aggressive rock, which is just natural for me.

We also do "Rusty Gun," an old Grin song. It's an old Wild West song that takes place on the border, and I have Greg doing this mariachi horn in there. That was very cool to me. I do a Danny Whitten song that I played on the original with Crazy Horse, "I Don't Want to Talk About It." We literally just did it one night as a request, and got a good version that I thought we should share. I also have a new version - with a little more guitar playing, that came out great - of "Black Books."

Although best best known as Neil Young's backing band, Crazy Horse has also issued great, rockin' albums on their own. And probably their finest record was their 1971 self-titled debut. Originally featuring singer/guitarist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot, and drummer Ralph Molina, the lineup was expanded for the album, and included pianist Jack Nitzsche, as well as Mr. Lofgren.

Despite the high quality of the music, the album sold poorly upon release, but has gone on to become one of the decade's most underrated rock recordings, as evidenced by such standouts as "Dance, Dance, Dance" (penned by Young), "Look at All the Things," Lofgren's "Beggars Day," "Downtown" (of which a live version would later appear on Young's Tonight's the Night), and especially the ballad "I Don't Want to Talk About It," which would become a massive hit later on when covered by Rod Stewart.

Sadly, this Crazy Horse lineup would only exist for this release, as Whitten would die from an overdose a year later at age 29.
Songfacts: You just mentioned Crazy Horse, and one of my favorite records of your entire career was the Crazy Horse self-titled debut. What do you recall about those sessions?

Nils: It was a magical time for me in a lot of ways. I walked into a dressing room when I was 17, after just hitting the road on Neil Young & Crazy Horse's first tour, at the Cellar Door in Washington, DC. My band, Grin, was headed to LA three weeks later anyway, and Neil had me watch four shows over two nights and hang out with the band at the hotel. We started a friendship.

True to his word, we got to LA and he turned us on to his producer David Briggs, and came to see us at the Topanga Corral. Those two guys - David Briggs and Neil Young - were certainly my two greatest mentors throughout this career of mine. And at 18 years of age, that led to doing the After the Gold Rush album, and by this time, I was good friends with Crazy Horse. The plan all along - even before I met them - was for them to make their own record, because they had a lot of great songs.

Danny Whitten was a great talent, and Jack Nitzsche joined the band to make the first record and play keyboards and produce it. They asked me to join the band as a guitarist/writer/singer. I contributed a couple songs, including one I wrote for Danny, "Beggars Day," and Ry Cooder came in and played some bottleneck. So out of the blue, to make this great album with Danny Whitten, featuring Danny Whitten's songs and voice as the head of Crazy Horse, it was a beautiful ride and I was honored to take part in it. It was a real flurry of things right after that.

Shortly after, it led to the Tonight's the Night album, where now we're lamenting Danny's death, and Bruce Berry, and many of our early rock heroes who started dying. That was kind of a "wake album" for that.

Meanwhile, through all this, I'm on the road with my band, Grin, making our own records with David Briggs. So it's just a wild flurry of wonderful projects and an emotional time with a lot of ups and downs.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the Crazy Horse tune, "Beggars Day"?

Nils: There was just a darkness as a kid - and we still do it to our kids today - like, "Hey, you're 15 now, start thinking about what college you're going to, and SAT scores, and what you're going to do with the rest of your life." It's just an enormous pressure and a very irresponsible thing to put on young people, because every four months they're a stranger to themselves due to hormones. And we're still doing it - it's kind of a crazy thing.

But between that and being on the road at 17 and just besides all the joy and light I continue to find in music as a professional, early on in show business, I wound up having to acknowledge quite a bit of darkness and a low road and low side to the music business.

Danny was struggling with alcohol and drugs that were getting him down quite a bit even though he was singing and playing great - it was just kind of a yin and yang. There is so much crazy out there, and sometimes you're just compelled to a bit of darkness, and then you've got to manage it and keep it from taking you out. But don't pretend it doesn't exist. It's an overview of those types of feelings.

Songfacts: You also mentioned the Tonight's the Night album, and one of my favorite guitar solos you've done is on the song "Speakin' Out."

Nils: Fast forward from After the Gold Rush, and now I was playing a lot more piano and electric guitar more than acoustic, which I played on the Gold Rush project. I was thrilled to be working with that group and have Ben Keith on pedal steel, who became a dear friend. We did the Tonight's the Night tour of the UK and the States, and early in the '80s, we did the Trans album and tour together. So it was a great group, like another part of my musical history, that whole assembly of people and crew that I wove back and forth from Grin.

I remember in the studio, we were doing this theme album of "live in the studio," and Neil didn't even want us to know the songs too well, so we didn't have parts. Neil and Dave would warn us: "We're going to show you three or four songs. We don't want you to know them too well, just stay down in it. Because when Neil gets the right vocal, you're done. No one can make a single fix. It's a theme record. It's the antithesis of all production."

So we did it. I was playing electric at this point, and we just vaguely discussed "Speakin' Out." Neil would call out solos and then that great line, where he says "Take it Nils," it was all live in the studio and stream of consciousness.

They didn't let us rehearse too much, and we didn't really have parts. It was a very freeform, just "trust your instincts and go" kind of thing. It was just a great, rough record to make, and still one of the great live records in the studio ever, because in addition to it being live, we were playing songs we barely knew. There was a tension there you don't normally find, even in a live recording.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind your solo tune, "Keith Don't Go"?

Nils: It was on that same Tonight's the Night tour in '73. I had this dark piece of music with no lyric, and we were in England with Neil Young playing this radical record no one had ever heard. Met a lot of musicians, and a common thread of topic for me was The Rolling Stones, because The Beatles and Stones got me off of classical accordion and into rock n' roll, and really opened the floodgates to everything - Stax, Motown, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Richard, Jerry Lee... the whole thing.

So all of a sudden, with The Stones on my mind, I decided to write a "thank you note" to the great Keith Richards, and put a little ominous spin on it, like the music's a bit dark. Like, "Hey, you've got all these gifts. And not just selfishly for us fans, but for you too - take care of yourself and stick around, because it's rough out there." This was right after we started losing a lot of people, which was just the prelude to the Tonight's the Night record. So it was on that tour that I wrote that song, and it still is a great "thank you note" to the great Keith, for all his inspiration.

Songfacts: What do you recall about the recording of your guitar solo for Bruce's "Tunnel of Love"?

Nils: I was on the road, in and out of Jersey. Bruce called and said he was working on a solo record, and he said he had this title track. He'd been messing with the solo, but he thought I could take a shot at it. So we went to a little barn on his guest house where he had a makeshift studio. I was shocked at the song: It was so different sounding and radical and beautiful, and just out of the box - in my eyes - from what Bruce normally did. So I started playing solos. I threw a couple of foot pedals on the ground, since he said on the phone he was looking for something a little unusual.

I asked him what key we were in and he said C, so I just started picking out some hammered notes - something I usually don't do in my style - to take what I do and put a little different slant on it, because the song is a little out of the normal box. We just kept plugging in foot pedals and choruses and flangers and messing around with the sound, and we got a couple of different takes that felt great under his instruction. Then I went to writing one of my one-note-with-a-rhythm, bouncing harmonic thing under the singing, and came up with a solo that he wanted to use, which I was honored by and still love playing that live.

Songfacts: I think Bruce never seems to get the credit for his guitar soloing, such as his solo in "Adam Raised a Cain."

Nils: Well, some people focus on the shiny solos. To me, even though they're noted for it, people like Bruce and then also Neil Young, you get inside what they're doing, and some of the rhythms, they're just such great ideas. I think he's a very underrated guitarist. One of the fabulous things that most people don't get to hear is on one of Patti's albums [2007's Play It as it Lays], where we did a song called "Play Around," and I'm doing this little funk-Motown-melodic thing, but underneath, there is this bubbling low string - a couple of strings - a very low and bubbling kind of rhythm sound, almost like a scratch track. That's Bruce playing I think his Tele. No one would have even noticed it unless you pulled it out of the song and the rhythm went away. Him playing this thing on top of Steve Jordan's hypnotic drum track is just to me one of the great guitar parts that no one would recognize as that. But yes, very underrated guitarist, for sure.

Songfacts: What are some of the most underrated Bruce tracks?

Nils: Oh man, you're probably talking to the wrong guy! I mean, the last tour, we played 250 different songs. I probably studied 400 songs. I love them all. Even if you put a list of 400 songs in front of me, for me to pick something underrated, that's just not a question I can deal with - I love them all. And because of his notoriety and the detail the fans get into, I'm not sure there is such a thing.

Songfacts: How difficult is it to learn so many songs and remember all the parts?

Nils: There are some songs that I'll go through three guitar changes during it, and there's an opus like "Outlaw Pete." Other things are just beer-barrel, roadhouse rock, like "Ramrod." And everything in between.

"Tunnel of Love" is quite a complex piece from everybody. And you've got the whole spectrum of it. It's just a function of how we love the music and feel it. So, sometimes a song will be, That's a blues and you're done. Other times, to me, it will be something that will take hours of analyzing, learning, and deciding, What are the most important parts to present live?

Because in the studio, you can overdub eight tracks of guitar. Live, we've got four people, so sometimes I'll try to cover a couple of parts on my own, because of course, Bruce is singing, so I can just focus on some intricate background part that's on the record. Of course when he's singing, he's going to be playing rhythm. And it's just common sense and very organic. I'll look at the guitars that Bruce and Steve [Van Zandt] have on, and take the third idea I hear and go with that.

Songfacts: Which Bruce tune contains your best playing on it?

Nils: I think "Youngstown" and "Because the Night" have turned into very extended solos that I put some time into crafting themes that I can move through and improv around, but would always build. There was always time and love and work put into those solos.

Songfacts: Which Bruce songs contain your favorite lyrics?

Nils: Again, there's just too many to mention. Certainly, in my own shows, I sing "If I Should Fall Behind," which is just an amazing song. But I think as great he is as a musician and recording artist, if I had to put something at the top of the list of all his skills - which are formidable - I'd put lyrics. And there's just too many to mention. Just gorgeous, incredible writing.

One of the ones that freaked me out was more in recent times when I did a part on the Jackson Browne track we cut for his covers album [the 2014 tribute album, Looking into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne]. Patti was overseeing and arranging the songs, and picked "Linda Paloma." Before they let me go, they said, "Hey, Bruce is working on some other songs. Why don't I just hit you with some tracks, and you throw down some guitar?"

From "The Wall":

Cigarettes and a bottle of beer
This poem that I wrote for you
This black stone and these hard tears
Are all I got left now of you
It was kind of this flurry of, "Here's a song, we want you to play here." You get a handle on it and you start playing what you feel, and put on a couple of tracks. Bang - next song is up. It was kind of like that with a few songs. Then there was this incredibly haunted song, "The Wall," that we wound up playing. I did some of my volume fade-in type very distant parts in the background - just ethereal color - and we wound up playing it live quite a bit. That's just another lyric that pops to mind that is extraordinary.

Songfacts: Not a lot of people know that you once beat Howard Stern at a game of basketball.

Nils: I'd come from Kevin McHale's home when he was playing with the Celtics. We'd become friends and I went to games and he'd come to the shows. And Howard - who is a friend from Washington, DC, where he first started on radio and I did his show in DC - was now in New York, and asked me what I was up to and where I'd come from. And I spoke about Kevin's house and playing with the Celtics in practice. And Howard said, "How tall are you?" I said, "I'm 5'3"." "Well, I'm 6'5". So even though I don't know much about it, it's an impossibility - you could never beat me in a game of basketball."

We got into an argument about it, and I said, "There's no reason why you shouldn't win a game of basketball against a person that's over a foot shorter, but it's not a lock." We argued about it and decided to have a grudge match at Nassau Coliseum - with the Columbia University marching band. It became a great hour TV show with a lot of the normal shtick. And I did beat him, 34-4! So for putting up with all the shtick and insults, it was a nice ending as far as the game went.

December 17, 2015
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