By Ray Shasho
Throughout a brilliant musical career, Nils Lofgren has been distinguished by his peers for his proficient guitar styles. Lofgren is a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. On March 18th the band launches the ‘Wrecking Ball’ 2012 tour including a performance at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on March 23rd.
Nils Lofgren’s band Grin proclaimed instant popularity around the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore music scenes in the late 60’s. After visiting with Neil Young in California, an 18 year old Lofgren was invited to play guitar and piano on ‘After the Gold Rush,’ and briefly became a member of Young’s pivotal band Crazy Horse. Lofgren also played on Neil Young’s album, ‘Tonight’s the Night.’ It was Lofgren’s Neil Young & Crazy Horse references that landed a record deal for his band Grin.
Grin spawned the Top 40 hit, “White Lies” but later disbanded by 1974.
After the breakup, Lofgren released his critically acclaimed self titled solo release (also referred as the “Fat Man Album”) featuring renowned drummer Aynsley Dunbar. Lofgren followed his debut album with, ‘Cry Tough’ featuring legendary multi-instrumentalist Al Kooper. Nils Lofgren maintained his status for collaborating with rock and roll’s elite by co-composing several tracks with Lou Reed on his album, ‘Nils’ in 1979.
In 1984, Nils Lofgren joined Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
In addition to working with Springsteen, Lofgren has toured twice with Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band and continues to release solo efforts. His album, ‘Sacred Weapon’ featured guest appearances by David Crosby, Graham Nash and Willie Nelson.
Nils had double hip replacement surgery in 2008. He attributed his injuries to thousands of hours of playing basketball on cement floors at city courts, and doing back flips with his guitar, dive rolls, and leaping off drum risers during performances.
Nils Lofgren’s latest release is titled, ‘Old School.’ The CD includes unforgettable performances by Sam Moore (Sam & Dave), Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company) and Lou Gramm (Foreigner). It’s an extraordinary collection of sentimental verse written by Lofgren. The melancholy, “Irish Angel” was composed by Bruce McCabe and “Let Her Get Away” was co-written with Lofgren’s late D.C. chum Root Boy Slim. Lofgren’s saavy composition, “60 is the new 18” reflects on a long musical career. “Old School is sung with former Foreigner frontman Lou Gramm. Nils pays homage to Ray Charles on the track, “Miss You Ray.” Other notable tracks on the CD include my personal favorite, “Amy Joan Blues” a backwoods bluesy ditty featuring Nils and Paul Rodgers. “Ain’t Too Many of Us Left” features incredible guitar licks by the master (Nils Lofgren) and a rockin’ duet with Sam Moore. “Just Because You Love Me” is a Springsteen induced harmony composed and performed with Lofgren flare. Another favorite, “Dream Big” enters the realm of progressive rock while Lofgren injects incredible jazz & rock fusion guitar licks. Lofgren dedicates the entire album to longtime Springsteen/E Street bandmate and friend Clarence “Big Man” Clemons who passed away in June of 2011.
I had a most enjoyable and rather lengthy chat with fellow D.C. native Nils Lofgren last week about the upcoming ‘Wrecking Ball’ 2012 tour featuring Bruce Springsteen/E Street Band, his latest release ‘Old School,’ and all the legendary artists that helped shape his career.
Here’s my interview with guitar virtuoso/singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/E Street Band member/ NILS LOFGREN.
Ray Shasho: Nils, thank you for being on the call today. Of course, we’re all looking forward to the upcoming Springsteen and E Street Band tour. You guys will be here in Tampa on March 23rd andit’s going to be a great show. Are those bionic hips going to be ready for another tour?
Nils Lofgren: “Yea, knock on wood. I gave them a good work out on the ‘Working on a Dream’ tour and the last two years I’ve been out doing an acoustic duo which is quite aggressive. And of course I’m singing all night which is another more winded thing then singing background. So I’m excited and in good shape. I’m being smart, not playing basketball or jumping off trampolines anymore.”
Ray Shasho: So no more back flips on stage?
Nils Lofgren: “Well, the surgeon promised me that it would be a very dangerous and irresponsible thing to do now. The new metal hips like motion and they don’t like impact. He said you can hop around and have a ball, but if you start jumping off drum risers or trampolines you’re going to destroy your new hips and might be a cripple. It was a pretty rough experience getting them both replaced at the same time and shocked the hell out of me. But I’m walking around pain free and I’ve been touring now for three years without pain, so the last thing I want to do is go back to the pain. It was terrible; both hips were bone on bone for about the last five years and I just couldn’t believe that I did that to myself. They figured out that it had a lot to do with basketball and city courts which I played all the time. And I love the game as with the trampoline, but they both contributed to it.”
Ray Shasho: I’m noticing a lot of performers getting knee replacements at early ages too.
Nils Lofgren: “The first three block walk that I was going to take as therapy… my wife Amy had moved into the hospital with me, and my therapist at HSS in New York, we all took a three block walk with my walker and maybe by then it was two canes, and we went to visit Clarence Clemons after he had his first of two knees replaced. And he was in bed and in traction. He and I stood next to each other for twenty seven years and I watched him go through all those replacement surgeries and comeback from it and stay well enough to do what he did with us. I had great admiration for him and miss him terribly. But it was pretty wild to take my first real walk and then go see him with his new knee.”
Ray Shasho: How long did it take for you to recoup and start walking around normal again?
Nils Lofgren: “The first 6 to 8 weeks were really intense and then I was really kind of fragile and ginger walking around with a cane for a month or two. Then you get back to normal after a year… year and half, it’ll keep getting stronger and a lot of the restrictions get lifted slowly… like three weeks in if you’re real careful you can drive a couple of blocks but you can’t really go on the freeway. They say don’t ever get into an accident or ever fall the first two months. Two hips at the same time are different than one and I had to take it a bit slower and more carefully. But I had a great surgeon, Paul Pellicci out of HSS in New York City, Hospital for Special Surgery, and man, he did a great job…knock on wood, I’m raring to go jumping around in rehearsals, no pain… feeling good, and keeping the trampoline in the closet.”
Ray Shasho: Like you, I grew up around the D.C. music scene; I remember your band Grin being very popular back in those days. And you were friends with some of DC’s great artist including Root Boy Slim.
Nils Lofgren: “I was a good friend of Root Boy’s; we wrote a great song together decades ago, and Roy Buchanan was a friend and mentor… taught me stuff on the guitar and was one of my favorites. I think Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Roy Buchanan were probably my top three influences. But there was a great music scene there. The Cellar Door had wonderful artists all the time, I saw Muddy Waters there, B.B. King many times, Tim Hardin, Neil Young & Crazy Horse… I saw four shows there when I met him. The Apple Pie across the street was a Mecca for jamming, all the musicians gathered there and the club owners let us play whatever we wanted. It was a really cool music scene especially in the late 60’s.”
Ray Shasho: My dad owned retail electronic stores on F Street in D.C. since 1962 and I wrote a book about my experiences of growing up on F Street in Washington D.C… so I feel like I’m talking with one of my old buddies right now.
Nils Lofgren: “Well you are man; I had a wonderful and magical musical adventure in the D.C. area growing up.”
Ray Shasho: You’re living in Arizona these days?
Nils Lofgren: “I’ve been in Scottsdale, Arizona just coming up on seventeen years with my wife Amy who is originally from West Orange, New Jersey. She’s a fabulous professional cook but settled out there over twenty five years ago and met her at the Rocking Horse, a rock club there over seventeen years ago. Kind of a wild story, we had our first get together after a gig of mine at the Stone Pony way back in the early 80’s, and she had a job and I wanted her to get on a tour bus to Boston which left at 6a.m. because I just loved being with her. She didn’t come to Boston; she felt that she had to stay there with her job and I thought… well I’m in a bar in Jersey just about every month, so I’ll see her soon, and I didn’t see her for fifteen years. She walked up at the end of a show in Scottsdale and said, “Do you remember me?” We were both at the end of divorces, so we started dating and we’ve been together ever since.”
Ray Shasho: That’s a great story.
Nils Lofgren: “Yea, it was a hell of a wait; I told her that she could have saved me a lot of aggravation if she had just come to Boston. But I was probably too crazy for her at that point, so it all worked man. I’m blessed with a great wife, we’ve got six dogs, my mom and brothers are still around in the D.C. area and I just played the Birchmere with my brother, and I’m very grateful to go back there and play…it’s a special gig.”
Ray Shasho: I remember Grin playing at Painters Mill in Baltimore.
Nils Lofgren: “Oh yea, Painters Mill… when we went on they had that stage that turned (a revolving stage).About half way through my show, I noticed these bouncers giving me dirty looks. I looked down and saw these guys pushing the stage around giving me dirty looks because the motor broke. I’m wondering what the hell is going on? I got word from the promoter that the thing broke and I’m having my guys turn it. Meanwhile, I’m surrounded by these bouncers giving me dirty looks. I told him, come on man we don’t need to spin it around. He said, oh no-no that’s part of what the people pay for. That’s my Painters Mill story …but I saw great bands and I got to play there with the Pretenders on their first U.S. tour and saw a lot of great music there.”
Ray Shasho: You were pretty young when you were in Grin and met so many influential artists early on in your career.
Nils Lofgren: “I hit the road when I was seventeen; we went out to LA to look for a record deal. When I made the decision to turn professional it was really not a popular decision, nobody did that in my community in the mid 60’s. I really felt that I didn’t know what I was doing, although I felt like I needed to do it. So I sneaked backstage whenever I could. I mean mythical bands like Jeff Beck’s band, I’d sneak backstage … Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart would let me hang out with them and I’d follow them around the east coast. They’d let me come up to their hotel room and chit chat and just be a fly on the wall… and were very supportive. A couple of years later Grin opened up for the Faces. (At that point Wood & Stewart had just joined the Faces)”
“I was blessed to meet a lot of good people and get a lot of good advice, and of course a critical meeting was walking in on Neil Young & Crazy Horse and Neil gave me his guitar and let me sing for him, spent two days with him. Grin was leaving for LA in about three weeks and he said look me up, and I did. True to his word, he helped us out and carried us out to David Briggs who mentored us and produced us. While we were doing our business thing looking for a break and a deal, a year later when I was eighteen, Neil asked me to play on the, ‘After the Gold Rush’ project which was just an amazing experience.”
Ray Shasho: In 1974 after Grin disbanded your debut solo LP called the ‘Fat Man Album’ was released. The album was critically acclaimed and they’re still talking about it in D.C. and Baltimore. And the great Aynsley Dunbar played drums on the album.
Nils Lofgren: “David Briggs who produced it had this great idea … I wrote for months and came up with this big batch of songs and then he brought in Wornell, (Wornell Jones) and he and I just jammed together whether it was acoustic guitar or piano and bass, and really got to own the songs, improv and have fun… got to really know them. Then to keep it real and fresh they brought in Aynsley with no tapes and no idea what he was going to play other than rock and roll. So he learned the songs quickly instead of hours and hours of… how does the bridge go, can we play it again? Me and Wornell had all the color instruments down, and as a trio we were able to very quickly get powerful takes because it was all fresh to us. Wornell and I were really into it but had never played with a drummer, and Aynsley had never even heard the songs. So it was a good layout the way David put it together.”
Ray Shasho: You also collaborated with Lou Reed?
Nils Lofgren: “When I made the ‘Nils’ record, Bob Ezrin the producer took me down to Lou’s studio, he was making a record and they had worked together before. He said ask Lou if he’d consider doing some co-writing. Lou and I out of respect for Bob got together and talked about it and came up with a plan. I had all this unfinished music and some had lyrics, titles and themes. Lou thought his forte was lyrics, mine was music… and for starters he said, “Why don’t you just send me the songs.” The idea was to change anything and everything. A month went by and I thought he wasn’t interested and then he woke me up one morning … I was in Maryland and he called from New York and it was like 4a.m. Lou said, “Hey I’ve been up for three days and nights, I loved your tapes here are thirteen sets of lyrics, why don’t you get a pen and paper I’ll dictate them. It was so cool man, I put on a pot of coffee, it was pitch black outside and I’m on the phone with Lou Reed dictating thirteen finished songs. When I hung up… I had just co-written thirteen songs with Lou Reed. So that was pretty wild. I used three of them and he used three of them and I’ve since used a couple more on my record. There was a beautiful song called, “Life” it was on the ‘Damaged Goods’ album, “Driftin’ Man” was on the ‘Break Away Angel’ album. There are five or six other gems sitting in the basement that I’ve got to get out and share with people in the future.”
Ray Shasho: Not many artists can say that they’ve collaborated with Lou Reed.
Nils Lofgren: “No… it was Bob Ezrin’s idea and Lou was really cool. It’s funny because when we met at his apartment, I’m a Washington Redskins fan and a pretty rabid football fan. Lou is a giant football fan and loves the Dallas Cowboys, and there was a Redskins Vs Cowboys rivalry on TV that night. So we both had some drinks and it was a great thing to watch a three hour game and as a backup to the game have a casual chit chat about writing together while we were both really engaged in the game. I don’t remember who won but it was fun.”
Ray Shasho: You’ve got a lot happening on your website. Since the debacle of the music business, most classic rock artists sell their music on their official websites along with other cool services offered to their fans.
Nils Lofgren: “I’ve got a guitar school there for beginners and intermediate players on my website. I’ve got a lot of free music downloads, I’ve got this wild project, ‘Blind Date Jam’ where musicians walk into a room and go to town jamming with no rehearsal or preproduction and walk away and see what comes of it. It’s just fun… I have the freedom to do whatever ideas I’m proud of and share it with the audience.”
Ray Shasho: Let’s talk about your latest release, “Old School.” One of my favorite tunes on the album is, “Amy Joan Blues.”
Nils Lofgren: “I was doing this bottleneck blues thing; I never played that instrument for the last ten years with Bruce as a swing man in the E Street Band.”
“But that was just a bottleneck blues I was working on and the next thing I knew I had a good track live and I thought …why don’t I see if Paul Rodgers will sing some harmony on it. He can sing the hell out of anything and it was a great honor to have him on the album.”
Ray Shasho: Lou Gramm also performs on your album, he was such a great voice with Foreigner and an extremely underrated singer.
Nils Lofgren: “He remains one of the great singers in rock history. Back in the mid 80’s, I worked on his first two solo records, and he’s just a real sweet soulful guy, and really kind and musically given, and I had a ball working with him. We stayed friends through the years and I asked him to help me out and he stepped up and knocked it out of the park for me.”
Ray Shasho: Besides Lou Gramm and Paul Rodgers, R&B legend Sam Moore contributed on, “Ain’t Too Many Of Us Left.”
Nils Lofgren: “When I had my hips replaced and feeling like a truck had hit me, feeling really beat up in the hospital, just about two days in… my wife took a call and it was Neil Young. Friends were calling me and wishing me well and she put the phone to my head and he was giving me a pep talk about getting well which I was very grateful for and he said, “Heal up and get well because thereain’t too many of us left.” I thought, man that’s going to be a good song some day and this is the album to do it. And of course that’s the great Sam Moore who is a fellow resident of Scottsdale, and I’ve been doing charity events and bumping into Sam for fifteen years and of course he’s been out playing with the E Street Band occasionally and a good friend of Bruce’s and we backed him up at the hall of fame show. I was thrilled when I said can you listen to the track and tell me what you think. He came into the studio and we did it live looking at each other. It was very special.”
Ray Shasho: ‘Old School’ is a very special album isn’t it?
Nils Lofgren: “Yea, this is one of the greatest records that I’ve made; to me it’s my favorite, only in the sense that I’ve past 43 years on the road, coming up on 60 years of age, and I wanted the record to be authentic. There’s a lot of good and bad about being around for awhile, I’ve been very blessed and have a lot of things to be grateful for, also have some fears and anxieties. I wanted the record to be an authentic reflection of all those things I was feeling. I wrote a song about one of my heroes Ray Charles, who we had to lose a few years ago; of course months after I wrote it, Clarence goes and passes away on us.”
Ray Shasho: Nils, have you done a full- fledged blues album, I’d love to see that happen.
Nils Lofgren: “I have not; it’s funny you say that, I’m starting to think for my next record I may get some great players in and maybe do more of a live blues type thing with very little to nonproduction in a live setting and that’s actually an idea that I’ve been playing with. That record is far away right now but that idea is very valid.”
“I did music for the All-Madden Team (‘Tuff Stuff The Best Of The All-Madden Team Band’) real raw rock and roll with Mark Wenner the great harpist of The Nighthawks, and Ron Holloway on screaming sax, Al Smith another great sax player …yea it’s a cool record, they’ve used it for years but of course you never hear it because they’re talking over it, and I asked John if I could put it out as an instrumental piece and he even put some football expressions in some of the songs.”
Ray Shasho: Talk about the Wack Brothers.
Nils Lofgren: “Well I made these two great albums with Patti Scialfa over the last two years, and the core session band was Steve Jordan producing with Patti and drumming. We’d have Willie Weeks on bass and sometimes Bruce on Bass. Bruce and I would be the swing guys on keyboards or guitars and sometimes we’d have Chris Carter on keyboards, and just this great core of musicians, we’re in Patti’s and Bruce’s home studio so it’s in a very relaxed setting, so we’re just having fun and exploring if you will. One day I remember I got this wild idea on a guitar…this funk thing and I was going off and the notes were crazy and I really got deep into it but it was feeling good and we finally stopped jamming, we weren’t even rolling tape, just practicing, and we were kind of laughing because it was out there, so I think Bruce just looked at me and said, “Man that’s kind of Wacked” and I said yea it kind of was. But later that day everyone else came up with something wacked. So as we hunt for gold we keep getting kind of wacked on our journey… so why don’t we just call ourselves The Wack Brothers.”
Ray Shasho: What’s your favorite Springsteen song to play on stage?
Nils Lofgren: “Aw man there’s way too many. I don’t have one song, there’s so many great songs to play but I’ve always loved playing, “Downbound Train,” “I’m On Fire,” I love playing, “Dancing In The Dark” …that’s a lot of fun too. But some of the old songs just the rip roaring rockers like “Ramrod,” the dinosaur rock stomp groove that could go on for days. There are hundreds of them but those are the few that come to mind.”
Ray Shasho: Do you or Bruce get pumped up before for a show in any special way…preshow rituals?
Nils Lofgren: “Everyone has got their own method for preparing; I like to go over early and have a few hours before the band shows up and put my hands on all these oddball instruments I’m playing. Just kind of digest the set we’re doing and maybe do some guess work about what Bruce might be coming in and out with… even he doesn’t know until its mid show. Just kind of getting my head in the game, I’m also 60 with two metal hips, I’ve got to spend some time kind of stretching and heating up a little bit because I’m on the front lines running around quite a bit, and I want to be able to keep being able to do that. So, eat something but not too much, be smart about all of it and get ready for a powerful show.
Ray Shasho: Were there Silvio Dante (Sopranos) character bantering amongst the band members?
Nils Lofgren: “Well of course. We’re really proud of him and big fans of Silvio and that show. But that’s who Steve is basically as a character, just a rock and roll pirate off the set of the Sopranos… great personality and really passionate. He and Bruce got that rock and roll thing going on, rough duet voices… kind of like Mick and Keith, and there’s really no one else doing that. We just got a great band, lots of different characters, and a lot of different tools that everybody brings to the show. It’s just beautiful that everybody is together making music.”
Ray Shasho: Nils, thank you so much for talking with me today and for all the great music throughout the years. You are truly a gifted performer.
Nils Lofgren: Thanks so much, I’m thrilled to be able to spread the word and you take care of yourself.
Ray Shasho:We’ll see you at the show in Tampa.
Nils Lofgren along with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will be playing at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Saturday, March 23rd. Visit www.tampabaytimesforum.com for ticket information or call 813-301-2500.
Nils Lofgren official website www.nilslofgren.com
Nils Lofgren offers guitar lessons at www.nilslofgren.com/Lessons07.html
Bruce Springsteen official website www.brucespringsteen.net
Very special thanks to the Albright Entertainment Group www.rockstarpr.com
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