Whether playing solo or as a side man, an expansive new box set offers proof that music remains his mantra.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Nils Lofgren would have likely achieved significant standing in rock circles even if his sole claim to fame had been limited to his participation in Grin and the early incarnation of Crazy Horse. Or, for that matter, had he emerged fully formed and simply pursued the solo career that now finds him in his fifth decade of making music on his own. The fact that he can also claim indelible associations with both Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen only adds further luster to his star-like sheen, an achievement that was recently capped off by his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside other members of the E Street Band.
So too, Lofgren’s career seems to have been blessed from the beginning, when, as a 16 year old wunderkind at the helm of his band Grin, he met Young backstage and was immediately invited to join an early incarnation of Crazy Horse, which not only backed Young on several of his landmark efforts (After The Gold Rush and Tonight’s the Night among them) but also recorded its own eponymous debut in 1971.
After Grin’s unfortunate demise and the death of Crazy Horse’s chief singer and songwriter Danny Whitten due to a drug overdose, Lofgren went solo, producing a string of remarkable radio-ready albums throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, yielding several memorable signature songs (“Back It Up,” “Keith Don’t Go” and “I Came to Dance”) in the process. Despite being abandoned by the major labels, he continues to record under his own auspices, proving that his prolific prowess remains undiminished.
Still, it was his recruitment into the E Street Band in 1984, and his subsequent participation in the Boss’ landmark Born in the USA tour that brought him to the masses and assured him his public persona. Still considered the new kid after 30 years, he’s become a key lynchpin in that band, thanks to his seamless dexterity on a variety of instrumental essentials.
Still, in light of his reputation as a superb sideman, Lofgren’s own remarkable body of work has sometimes eluded the scrutiny it deserves. Thankfully then, Face the Music, a lavish ten disc box set comprising nine CDs, a DVD and a rich and revealing 129-page booklet, brings the spotlight back on the artist himself, detailing the whole of his 45 year career. It’s a remarkable collection and certainly one of the most sumptuous anthologies ever offered. BLURT was fortunate enough to be allowed the opportunity to talk with Lofgren from his home in Arizona, and we listened intently while he generously shared his backstory.
BLURT: This box set is among the most impressive we’ve ever seen.
LOFGREN: It’s kind of a shock that after years of watching my music become extinct and out of print I found a company that was willing to go back and put out the best of it. As a ten disc box set, re-mastered correctly, and assembled chronologically, five decades of music… it’s quite an accomplishment.
Whose idea was this?
The president of Concord and Tom Cartwright, an A&R person I’ve worked with on other projects, came to me, and the conversation was a serious one, even though it was going to be messy because the old record companies had to be approached for the masters. Some of them had lost the paperwork and lost the music, but Concord was really committed to doing it and the project moved on from there. We spent 18 month assembling it and we managed to get all the rights to the music, so that was pretty extraordinary.
Did you actually curate it?
Yes, my wife Amy and I and our assistant Omar got well deserved production credits because we basically turned our house into a production studio. But to Concord’s credit, they offered to give us whatever we needed. We had good debates over which songs should be put on or left off, but at the end of the day, they let me make every decision. So, yes, I am the curator.
This box is of epic proportions to say the least. Was there any attempt to trim the size or the number of discs?
There was some concern, but I went through twenty discs of music. The goal for me was to make a set of songs where there would never be any need to lift the needle. I never listen to my old music at all, so I’m a pretty critical audience. I thought if I could put together a set of songs that I could enjoy, I’d succeed. So as I went through and discarded things, I went to Tom Cartwright, who is my go-to guy, and he told me they were happy to have nine discs as long as they could have two discs of unreleased, unmixed basement tapes and obscure, unusual things – even a karate jingle, just all kinds of stuff. So we’re talking enough material to cover a 45 year career. And they were up for it. They listened to it and thought it was appropriate and nothing gratuitous. We did debate some things, but in general, this is something I can listen to and be proud of and I feel it’s a great representation of my 45 plus years. I’m grateful they went with it and bought the rights to every song I picked. So that was really exceptional to have that kind of support from a record company, especially considering I’m not a hit record artist and I’ve been working alone for twenty years on my website. To get that done was extraordinary.
You say you hadn’t heard most of this stuff in awhile?
Not really, You listen to it so much when you make it. I do still perform a number of these songs live a lot and for me, that’s a big charge because live is what I love most about my job. But to go back and listen to all these things, to hear the fresh sounds of the young wide-eyed musicians of Grin, with the help of David Briggs and Neil Young, makes me realize we were very lucky to have such great mentors. Back in the ‘60s, the only real game was to play live, so we did really work hard at it and we translated it into our recordings. Even though we were green, it was just a beautiful journey that really doesn’t happen anymore. If you don’t have hit records, you don’t get to make records any more. I was really stunned when I looked back at the work I’ve done and the collaborations I’ve been fortunate enough to have had along the way. I thought it was kind of a singular tale. Companies don’t tell you, “Well, we really like your record, and we think your music is good, and you’re out playing all the time, and your live shows are good, so yeah, we’re going to make another one.” That sort of dried up in the ‘90s and I saw the writing on the wall and went out on my own. I spent a year and a half trying to get my release from the contracts, but I needed to be a free agent.
Early on, you had some very high profile record label affiliations, what with Sony and A&M. So now you’re releasing your music on your own?
Yes, first on Vision and now Road Records. I realized that’s what I needed to do to keep my freedom. I understood that with so much money at stake, if you weren’t bringing in the money, the record companies would insist on being hands-on and they were going to tell me what to do. I realized it would be work, but I eventually got my freedom and I kept making music. I was proud of the music I’d release, whether it was video, music, CDs, single songs, unusual demos or whatever. I wouldn’t get that freedom with a record company unless I was a Bruce Springsteen or a Sting, and even those artists get some scrutiny. Sting made a lute album, but no doubt his company wished he had made a Police album or a great Sting solo record. But because he was Sting, it still got released. I made Trans with Neil Young and the company suspended him and said it was too “un-Neil Young-like, so we’re going to sue you.” I looked at that situation with artists of that caliber and I realized I better get out of here and get a website and do what I want.
One would think that given the substance evident on this album — as well as your ample associations alongside Neil and Bruce — the majors would be biting at your heels.
That’s not how they read it at all. Concord did come to me like that when they offered to put out a comprehensive box set, but all the other companies, they don’t care that I play with Bruce Springsteen. They don’t care about my overall body of work. They simply look at my track record of making albums that didn’t sell. That’s it. And I don’t begrudge them that. That’s why I went through a very difficult time — a year and a half — to get extricated from my last contract. As frightening as it was to be without a record company, it was a very freeing feeling because all of the bureaucracy, all that musical dance you have to do to follow your heart and to make the company feel like they’ve put in their two cents, it just got to be oppressive. I didn’t have the financial track record and hit records to tell them no thank you, I’m going to do what I want. The only way that was going to happen was with freedom, which is what I got. So again, I don’t begrudge them that. They don’t see me as a good bet at all. So I’ll put out this box set and I’ll be proud of it and promote the hell out of it, and then I’ll write another album and keep on playing and singing.
Is there a possibility that after this box set, Concord might want you to do another album with you?
(in exasperated tone of voice) I don’t know. I can’t speak for them. They’ve been great to work with. This has been a labor of love, an enormous project that may or may not make any money. I’m very proud of it and they did a great job from A to Z. I’d be surprised if they wanted to keep working with me, but that’s not our focus today. That’s down the road. It’s a business, and thanks to people like you spreading the word, if it does well, maybe that would be something to look at.
Let’s talk a little about your work with Bruce. When he decides to go out on tour, do you get enough advance notice that you can adjust your schedule accordingly?
Well, yeah. In general I’m a member of the E Street Band, but I’m looking at a run of dates I’ll do acoustically in England in January. So I’ll ask if it’s a problem, which is something I do just as a courtesy. And if they say no, it’s not a problem, there’s no plans right now, then I’ll go book it. But I always let them know what I’m planning and it’s very organic. They’ll say, “No, that’s great, we don’t have any plans for you.” If they think it might be a problem, they’ll let me know. But at the moment, it appears there will be some down time that will allow me to make another record and tour a bit and kind of recharge my solo career. And there’s no better way to kick it off than with this box set.
You were recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the E Street Band. That must have been a great feeling of accomplishment.
That was a beautiful night, but it was kind of bittersweet. We had hoped they would have figured it out before Clarence and Danny died… and they should have. Nevertheless, it was great to take my wife to New York and see a lot of great friends and hang out and play some great music with a great band and get acknowledged like that… and just be able to speak to Clarence from the podium and put my two cents in. Of course, I spoke for two minutes and ten seconds and they chopped two minutes out of it for TV. But I get it. I’m part of a big band getting inducted and musicians tend to ramble on, and it is a TV show. It was all great and we had a lot of fun. And that sums it up — beautiful but bittersweet because they should have done it while Clarence and Danny were alive, and we all agree with that.
It was interesting that Bruce revealed that Miami Steve had pressed him to insist that the E Street Band be included when he was inducted a few years back. Apparently they had some disagreement over that.
I thought that it was very beautiful that Bruce shared that very personal story and seemed to regret not taking it to heart at the time. Nobody is more aware of how hurt Danny and Clarence were than Bruce himself. Yeah, it was rough stuff. I’ve been in the band 30 years, and like Bruce said, when you’re in a band, sometimes you hurt one another in small or big ways. You’re a family, so you carry on, dysfunctional or not.
It’s funny that after 30 years, you’re still considered the new guy.
I am the new guy. But hey, after 30 years, I’m certainly not a rookie and I certainly feel at home. I’m glad there are guys that have more history than me. None of us have all the answers and we’re regularly helping each other with takes on different songs, arrangements and that sort of thing. It really is challenging but it’s also lots of fun and it calls on all our expertise, not only as musicians but also as far as how to be in a band, how to be on the road. There’s a lot of things to navigate past the music and we’ve all gotten pretty good at it.
Does Bruce encourage that sort of spontaneity and input, especially as it applies to the new material?
It’s unspoken. A lot of times we’ll be on stage and he’ll walk to the microphone and start singing something we’ve never heard. We listen for 30 seconds and then pick it up and start playing. In ’99, when Steve came back, I challenged myself to be a swing man, because you don’t need four guitarists up there. I learned a little pedal steel, dobro, lap steel, bottleneck and banjo to fill out the tool chest. So I have a lot of sounds at my disposal. I’ll go, okay, maybe I’ll just go over to the dobro for this one. Maybe I’ll pick up the lap steel and do a screaming lead rather than just play guitar. Once in awhile we’ll start playing and Bruce will point to me and the pedal steel. It’s very organic like that, and we all come up with ideas because we love and understand the music, which is even more of a qualification than our musicianship.
Is that how it works in the studio as well? How does he demo the material for you?
There’s a million ways to do it and by now we’ve heard them all, even though we’re always looking for different ways. There’s not really a set method. Generally you work it up and as soon as you have a glimpse of a song, you try to cut something so it’s still fresh. And then you start to put it together like a jigsaw puzzle. Let me add this guitar part, or let me add some color. If one of us doesn’t have an idea, Bruce may have an idea as we track it. In a studio, it could be something as simple as, why don’t you move over to acoustic guitar? It’s very organic.
Like any band leader, the less he has to coach his players, the better. By not coaching them before he opens the chute, you get more surprises. People that love the songs are adding their own touches. Sometimes Bruce will come in with a decent demo and if he’s got a dobro part sketched out, I’m the guy who plays dobro, so I know that’s my part. You take a sketch and just refine it a little. It’s very simple in that regard. The height of that is when he walks to the microphone, starts singing something we’ve never heard and we just start playing and it works. And that’s the beauty of the band. Of course, if he needs to give us direction, that’s fine. But with the great bands, like this one and like Crazy Horse, it’s based more on everybody’s instincts and respect for that body of work rather than some coach who tells everybody what to do.
That first Crazy Horse you did was one of the great lost treasures.
It was a great line-up, with Danny Whitten, Jack Nitzsche… Ry Cooder played on several tracks as well. To go from After the Gold Rush to that was just incredible. And of course by then, I was buddies with everyone in Crazy Horse. They asked me to join the band and help make the album, which I did. And with Jack Nitzsche as the keyboard player, it was amazing.
So what brought that to an end?
What happened was that I had my band Grin, and we were playing and working and recording, and Crazy Horse wanted me to quit Grin and join them. So I made it clear I wouldn’t do that, but that I would make a record with them. And they finally acquiesced to that and hoped I’d change my mind. But what happened was that when Crazy Horse was done, soon after that, we lost Danny and he was the main singer. Crazy Horse went on to make other records, but for me, it would never be what it was meant to be without Danny. A year or two later, I made Tonight’s The Night with Ralph and Billy. It wasn’t called Crazy Horse – it was just the Tonight’s the Night band. So they asked me a couple more times to join, but I told them that with all due respect, without Danny, my heart just wasn’t in it. He was the lead singer and writer, so without him it just wasn’t the same.
Grin (pictured, above) was such an outstanding band. What led to its demise?
We made our albums with David Briggs who took us under his wing, and I met David thanks to Neil Young at Washington’s Cellar Door. Then Neil told me to look him up in L.A. and when I got there he was still the same cool, supportive guy who wanted to help. We did four albums and got great reviews. Back then, the label provided money for tour support. It was like, if you go out and play we’ll support you. And of course, we loved to play, so we ran up a lot of bills which were charged against us and which we never paid back. But we got some help to go all over the world and play. And after four albums, we didn’t make any money, so they said, guys, you’re making good albums but you’re not making us any money so we’re going to have to drop you.
That was just the first big wake-up call of welcome to show business. But they let me carry on as a solo artist, and yet even that took awhile so I was in limbo for quite a bit and very depressed about my band breaking up. We did a farewell concert at the Kennedy Center because we wanted to go out with some class, which we did. We were the first rock band to play there. And then I carried on as a solo artist. Yet, it’s so great with the box set that I could go back and pick my favorite Grin songs and re-sequence them in an entirely new running order so they flow. For Concord to get the rights to every one and Billy Wolf to master them so beautifully, was the best stroll down memory lane I could have taken.
What is your relationship these days with Neil Young now? You did a tribute album to him not that long ago, but have them been any opportunities to reconnect with him?
I check in regularly and always try to see him playing when I can. I remember the day I went to this heavy lawyer’s meeting about this ex-manager I was trying to get out of my hair because in my eyes, he was being a jerk, and I was doing some errands and running around acting like an adult, like “Look at me, Mr. Adult… trying to do all these things — appointments, lawyers, doctors, all these stuff that’s part of being an adult.” I mean, I’m 63, but the kid in me doesn’t want to do any of that stuff and that’s the challenge. So I’m driving down the freeway and the phone rings and it’s some weird number. So I think, okay, what’s the next problem I have to put out. And that’s how I answered the phone. Okay, what’s the problem? Tell me what I have to do and I’ll put it on my to-do list. And it’s Neil Young. And he says, “We’re up here with Crazy Horse and we’re doing the Music Cares thing. Bruce is being honored and he’s asked me to do “Born in the USA” and we need you to come up here and play the keyboard part.” I’m like what?, but all of a sudden I go from thinking there’s another fire to put out to “when do you want to do this?” And he says, “now!” So I go from being the cynic and putting out fires to being a kid in the candy store. I get this beautiful call and I show up in San Francisco the next morning and play keyboards on “Born in the USA.” So I got to do that and it was a beautiful adventure. Then when Neil did his film project Greendale, I got a call to be in that band, but I had to say no because I was committed to a run of E Street shows. So I was both flattered and frustrated, but hopefully that will happen again because Neil knows I love playing with him.
To have played with both Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen is incredibly impressive, and yet you’re clearly more than a mere a sideman. How do you view your standing, especially in light of this remarkable box set?
I’m a band oriented person. I learned that at a very young age – eighteen years old — while leading my band Grin, writing their songs, being the co-lead singer, being very comfortable in that role. I used to jam all the time and I still do. I’m very comfortable as a band leader, but when you get to play with great people and to play great music, that’s just as exciting for me. So when I get the chance to do a Ringo Starr All Starr tour, I’ll do it as well. It actually enhances my own work because when I get back to my own music, I’m excited about it.
It’s all part of the same journey, whether I’m in a band or leading a band. It’s all music that I love. There’s a whole different take on it when you’re not the leader, but it’s still fun. When I do my own shows, I play all the solos and I’m singing all the songs, but I still love singing harmony and working with other people and great bands. So for me who loves music and the people, it’s actually very complementary to my own music.
Top photo credit: Joseph Quever. Below: tracklisting for the Lofgren box plus the trailer video.