April 11th, 2012 | Published in Featured
By Pete Roche
Nils Lofgren has been running circles around other guitar players for decades.
Now in his sixtieth year, Springsteen’s go-to guitarist shows no signs of slowing down—despite having both hips replaced with titanium prosthetics. Instead of doing flips off drum rostrums, the Chicago native tap dances for fun. A musician to be reckoned with, Lofgren—a jazz enthusiast who plays piano and accordion—even added harp to the growing list of instruments at his command. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
Lofgren’s four-decade career began with a call from Neil Young, who tapped the then-teenager to play on his seminal 1970 LP After the Gold Rush. The ambitious youth then parlayed his Crazy Horse credentials into a record deal for his own band, Grin, on Epic Records subsidiary Spin Dizzy. But it was Lofgren’s 1975 eponymous solo debut that got people’s attention.
Among the impressed was none other than Asbury Park patron saint Bruce Springsteen, who called Lofgren up to pinch-hit for Steven Van Zandt on the high-profile Born in the USA tour. Lofgren’s been an integral member of the legendary E Street band ever since, retaining the stunt guitar slot even after Little Steven returned in 1999. Whether his axe be a Fender Telecaster, a Gibson SG, or Epiphone Les Paul, the prodigiously side-burned sideman always makes his presence known in concert and on disc, having contributed to such classic Springsteen efforts as Tunnel of Love, The Rising, Magic, and Working on a Dream [side note: Bruce first performed the song “Working on a Dream” in Cleveland during an Obama campaign stop in November 2008].
But Lofgren is a competent solo artist in his own right, having released a string of well-received albums both before and during his residency with E Street and Ringo’s All-Starr Band. Indeed, it was Nils’ dedication to his own craft that prevented his participation on sessions for Springsteen’s new album. Still recovering from hip surgery, the Arizona-based Lofgren wrote and recorded Old School at home while Bruce work-shopped Wrecking Ball with the rest of the gang. The timing was great, actually; Nils was able to enjoy a mini-tour behind his solo disc (reviewed here in February 2012) before reteaming for E Street rehearsals after the holidays.
The Boss hits town again on April 17th for what will surely be another marathon performance for the record books (his 1978 Agora show enjoys an almost mythical reputation). No word on whether the Bruce entourage will attend this weekend’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Festivities; E Street has a show booked in Buffalo on Friday, but April 14th is free.
We caught up with Lofgren by phone last week to talk about the making of Old School and ongoing arena tour with Springsteen, et al. The guitarist was resting up in a Philadelphia hotel room but was only too eager to discuss crime and punishment, growing old, losing friends, and celebrating life and music. One word that popped up repeatedly in Nils’ responses was “gratitude.” Having prospered for so many years, bid fond farewell to several cohorts (including Danny Federici and Clarence “Big Man” Clemons), and endured a grueling operation, Lofgren is something of a rock and roll soldier.
TCS: So you’re getting ready for Philly tonight with The Boss!
NILS: Yeah, we’re playing tonight and tomorrow, and of course I love being in great bands—and there’s no greater band than this. I love playing. Plus, it’s also great for me as a solo artist to have a new record out that I can talk about. It’s the next chapter under my belt, from early this year.
TCS: Before we talk Bruce I wanted to touch base about Old School. I know you and Bruce worked apart on your own albums, then reconvened for the new tour. What was it like pouring yourself into one of your best albums and then coming back on with the E Street Band?
NILS: I got off the road after back-to-back albums and tours with Magic and Working on a Dream. It was a great combination of having a nice break from my next batch of solo work, but also being mixed with staying sharp, musically, thanks to the touring. So I got home, and I found a balance—probably the best I’ve ever struck—between going on the road and continuing work with my own shows. I do an acoustic duo show with Greg Varlotta, who is an amazing player. Probably the best shows I’ve ever done, I think. A lot of acoustic-electric, singing in harmony, keyboards, going back to the Grin days and up to the present. And as I did that, I started working…wrote and then recorded Old School during the last year and a half, at home, in my home studio. Left the doors open for my dogs or to let my great wife, Amy, to bother me or—well, interrupt me to take the dog to the vet or make runs, or whatever. Not a bother at all, really. But to have her in and be a part of my family, because I really wasn’t available those two years when I was on the road with E Street. So it was a good combination of those elements, really. It allowed me to stay sharp musically and vocally, and allowed me to do what I think is one of my better records, in a very grassroots setting at home.
TCS: There are a few obvious threads running through the songs. You bash the legal system a bit on the title track, get a little wistful on two or three numbers like “Miss You, Ray,” “Irish Angel,” and “When You Were Mine.” But then there’s a handful of standard rockers. “60 Is the New 18” is one of my faves. Sort of an anti-midlife crisis song.
NILS: Well, the album was written as I was coming up on my sixtieth birthday, which is a number that you can’t really spin anymore. And as a professional musician, too—last September marked forty-three years on the road. So there were a lot of things happening, including the inevitable perspective you get…. And I wasn’t really surprised about how grateful I was about my journey, because there’s a lot of…most of my peers are either dead, or crazy! So being able to play and feel I’m still getting better at it, I survived a double hip replacement three years ago because of too many back-flips off of trampolines and jumping off drum risers and playing basketball on city courts—which was my love, as far as sports go. And I just realized that no matter how young at heart I am, I’m gonna turn sixty—if I’m lucky—and a lot goes along with that. And I just wanted it to be an authentic and honest representation of not just the good and the gratitude, but also the fears and anxieties that I was a little surprised by that come along with being around for a while. And I felt like as long as I was authentic about that, then it had the potential to be one of my better records. And I stayed true to that.
TCS: I think the sincerity shows. And some of the anger is softened with humor. Like in “Old School” you suggest some of the politicians be discarded along with the criminals they’re protecting. “Give ‘em life sentences and cyanide pills.”
NILS: Actually, I stole a few lines in that song from my wife, Amy! “Grow a spine…get a set!” I’d been kind of cursing and yelling at the TV. Because, you know, we’re scared. I’ve got a stepson—Dylan’s twenty-one now, so he’s not a little boy anymore…but there are predators everywhere. And we have just always been horrified by the rights we afford them. My wife, Amy, she’s a mother…we’ve just always been shocked. To me, there have always been certain things where, if you do them, you shouldn’t get second chances. I don’t personally believe in the death penalty, but I’ve always espoused the Escape from New York idea myself—you ever see that movie?
TCS: The John Carpenter movie with Kurt Russell. “Snake” Plissken. Sure!
NILS: Yeah, see, to me that made sense. If there are people who are going after your children, and want to rape or kill them, they simply shouldn’t be given second chances. And how you accomplish that, it’s not my job. But we keep letting predators like that have second chances, and that’s abysmal, and a shame on humanity. And the particular character in the song has had a personal incident with a daughter and now just wants to take the predator out—which I can relate to. But it starts out just poking a little fun at parents—more parents than kids—because the dialogue over the last twenty years has sort of been parents complaining about their children being spoiled, and I’m like, “Well, who’s spoiling them?” We are. Well, they’re kids, you know (laughs)? You’re the adult. But that’s to kind of ease in the more serious matter, which at the end of the day…and I’ve got to hand it to Amy; she’s come up with some great lines while yelling at the TV with me, and I’m just shaking my head at these rights we give people who go after our children. Because at some point they should lose their rights.
TCS: No “three strikes, you’re out” for violent offenses or kiddy crime.
NILS: Well, there’s certain lines you cross, and how you accomplish all that…it’s all a tragedy. One of my fantasies—and it’s fairly naïve, I guess—about the broken political system is, if you feel like you wanna come next door and rape my son or daughter, is go to one of these twenty-four hour therapy help places. We’re not gonna give you money, but we can advise you on how not to do that and get you some help. And go get help! But once you do that, you shouldn’t get a second chance. And that’s just common sense, and I don’t know any parents who would disagree with that. Which is why I like Escape from New York…no cameras or video telling us about their poor lot in life. There’s a lot of people who’ve had it bad and not gone there. I was blessed with a fabulous family; my three brothers are alive and are great men. My mom’s around. I lost my dad, who was my hero, thirteen years ago. And I still got in trouble as a kid, but not that kind of trouble. And I don’t know any parents who would think that, once you go after children, you should get a second chance.
TCS: A couple of the tracks, like “Old School,” kind of rail against the bureaucracy that affords predators a modicum of protection. So that’s an angrier song. But then there are other songs where you’re kind of speaking from…not necessarily a vulnerable point of view, but one acknowledging how long you’ve been around doing this…
NILS: Then of course while I was in the hospital…it felt like a truck ran me over. I had both hips replaced at the same time by Dr. Paul Pellici at HSS Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Amy moved into the hospital and was nursing me with the therapist. But the phone rang a couple days in—I was out of it, extremely doped-up—and it was Neil Young. She put the phone to my head, and he gave me a pep talk. And I’ll never forget, at the end of it he said, “You got to heal up and get well, because there ain’t too many of us left! We need you around.” So that’s the second verse of the song, and who better than the great Sam Moore—who’s been a neighbor in Phoenix for the last seventeen years—to sing it. He came into the studio and we got to stand face-to-face and sing together, which was a great experience for me. An honor.
TCS: I caught Sam in concert a couple years back, when he played House of Blues Cleveland after the 2009 inductions. Just great.
NILS: Beautiful, yeah. Sam’s just such a sweet soul. One of our greatest singers ever. And it was a great honor to have him. And of course Lou Gramm and Paul Rodgers are old friends I called to ask, “Would you guys consider listening to a track, and if you like it would you be able to sing a duet harmony with me?” They both heard the tracks, said yes, and did an extraordinary job. It really meant so much to me. I was so grateful.
TCS: Old School isn’t all hard rock, though. You balance it out with a couple nice ballads, like Bruce McCabe’s “Irish Angel.” And then there’s “Amy Joan Blues…”
NILS: “Amy Joan Blues,” yes—it’s a real bottleneck kind of swamp blues thing. And again, that’s one of like ten live vocals in the studio. I didn’t even start recording until I could sing and play the songs. There was no, “Oh I’ve got a great song—I just need to write the bridge. We’ll do that after we get the basic track.” And I’ve done music like that, but for this record I wanted to not only be able to sing and play everything, but having done it—usually in the morning I practice singing to my dogs—to the point where I was improvising melodies. Kind of like a simulation of…the great fantasy is that you’re going to write an album and play it in front of people for eighty shows, and then you’re gonna record it. And it almost never happens that way because it’s just not practical. So this is my version of that. Let’s get so comfortable with these songs that you can perform them live in the studio to get something emotional. Because I’m not a fan of studio recording, in the respect that I don’t have the natural patience for doing things over and over. I love the live venue, which is where I thrive—and where you only get one chance. But I wanted to make a good record, and long ago I came to terms with my lack of patience and tried to trick myself. And this was the best trick of all, being able to sing and play the songs without a lyric sheet. Every song was written, I knew the words and was improvising melodies. Because I knew the songs; it was all something I owned and could do that with it.
TCS: Right, you risk losing some of that organic feeling and end up with a sterile-sounding record. Performance-wise, you might not have missed a note, but the human element gets lost.
NILS: Well, for me…I know musicians who could work on a guitar part with ten amps and twenty different guitars for a week and be into it. God bless ‘em, but I cannot do that! I’m not that person. I mean, I’d do it if I have to (laughs), but for my own project I didn’t want to go there. And I have to say, once you get a live vocal, there can’t be anything wrong with any line in the song. It’s just a core performance that works emotionally. And then it’s a lot more fun to experiment with putting touches around that, because you really do feel like you already got the meat of the song on tape.
TCS: Apart from growing older and wiser, there’s thematic stuff on Old School about loss and grief. Could you talk a bit about “Miss You, Ray?”
NILS: Yeah, I wrote “Miss You Ray” a few months before we lost Clarence. It’s about loss. And Ray Charles was one of my heroes. I listen to him all the time, and it just hit me really hard, so I used that as a metaphor for, again, coming up on sixty years old it’s like, “Man, I’m starting to bury a lot of family and friends!” It’s really painful, and the grief starts to demoralize me and take me out, so I better devote more energy to the people who are still around. And I hope that in most cases, people who suffer terrible loss do have some friends and family left. But the loss can blind you to seeing that. So the song was like a pep talk to myself and others, of the yin and yang of being around and getting old. That’s part of it. And then of course three months later we lost Clarence, and that was just a horrible loss, and remains so. But I started singing in my shows over the last six months “I Miss You, C.” I just changed up the words to apply to Clarence, who was an even dearer friend offstage than on. We spoke every week, would go for a chit-chat. We stayed in touch. Heck, after that Neil Young phone call, a couple days later…after you get both hips done you learn to start walking again with two orderlies helping you, and you have two canes, then go to one cane….I think about four days in, on my first three-block walk, Amy and Steve—a great therapist of mine—we walked three blocks up the road to visit Clarence, who’d just had his knee replaced. So that was my first walk, to go visit Clarence in New York City. We were both in the hospital at the same time getting new body parts! Then we both got to go out and do the Working on a Dream tour. Look, I had twenty-seven years standing next to Clarence, and a deeper friendship offstage, which will always mean a lot to me and will cherish. But nevertheless, and as is appropriate with human greed, I wanted him around a lot longer.
TCS: How did you juggle writing and recording Old School in between Bruce’s last project and the new one, Wrecking Ball?
NILS: Funny thing, I had most of the songs written in various shapes and was working on the performance. But I hadn’t started recording. I was a little hesitant, because it’s not my favorite thing to do (laughs). Because at home, I’ll go in one day and I’ll be the amateur engineer and the roadie. And I might work all day long to get a “scene” set up. That’s my day to be the engineer, the roadie, and the tech. And I’ll walk away. Then the next day I get to be just the guitar player. Or just the piano player, or just the singer. Then I take until I got what I felt were a few emotional performances on tape as the task that day. Then the next day I just get to be the producer, and just sit there with my producer hat on and listen, and not be burdened with roadie-ing or engineering or playing. Just be the producer. I had to give myself permission to not wear too many hats at the same time, because I’ve worn them—but I knew it just really wasn’t going to work. Because—for me, I’m talking—if you wear too many the same day, you get demoralized and lose your focus. So I applied all the tricks I learned over the years into really making and enjoying making a record. But with regard to losing Clarence, I’m still singing “I Miss You, C” in my shows. But at the same time, you’ve got to focus on what’s in front of you and what’s around you, and find gratitude for it. And this record was a great journey for that. And again, asking friends like Lou Gramm, Paul Rodgers, and Sam Moore to come in and help out—that meant a lot to me also.
TCS: You did a little bit of touring behind Old School, so how was it shifting gears to hook up again with Bruce and The E-Street Band and rehearse the Wrecking Ball material? You’ve been with them for years and played some of these songs hundreds of times, but do you ever forget stuff, or need a bit of time to reacquaint yourself with the parts?
NILS: Yeah, and you’ve got to realize, speaking for myself, I still don’t feel I have all the songs down. Because this is the first tour we’ve done where we’ve got three and a half albums of music. We’ve got the Darkness package with twenty-three unreleased tracks, we’ve got the new album Wrecking Ball—which is beautiful. Then there are a couple hundred old things that I’m a little rusty on. I mean, look, if Bruce calls “Ramrod” as an audible, I’m fine! But if he calls for one of the more intricate, complex songs—and some of the new songs are complex—you just can’t own three hundred songs like that. I can’t. So it’s a work in progress, and it’s a beautiful band to be in because it’s always changing. The sets change. Every sound check there are different ideas for that night that you might not see. There are always audibles; he never follows a set list. And I get to apply—I’m working on forty-four years now—I get to apply all that experience. And the greatest asset is loving the music, and loving being in a great live band. That helps all of us kind of roll with the program and be able to improv, and play songs we never played before and figure out how to make it work. It’s really a truly great band. And I love being in bands. I’ve had a chance to be in quite a few great bands.
TCS: We’re looking forward to seeing you again in Cleveland on April 17th. It’s a big week for us, what with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony this weekend. The buzz will still be going when you and Bruce hit town.
NILS: Yeah, I love Cleveland. I’m hoping Amy will come and meet me there. It’s just a great town to play rock in, and I’ve been going there for over forty-three years playing shows, and I love the audiences.
TCS: Before you go, could you talk a little about this video going around of you tap-dancing and playing the harp? I know your hip surgery has put the kibosh on your back-flips and “rocklete” gymnastics, but tap-dancing is still quite a feat for someone with two metal replacement hips, no?
NILS: That’s the “Dream Big” video. The song is from Old School and the video is from the tour. It’s on my website at www.nilslofgren.com . I also offer online guitar lessons there if anyone is interested! But anyway, a few years ago I got this harp. Amy got me a harp. And with a harp, you either learn to play it or you just hang clothes on it, so I learned to play it backwards, standing it up while watching football games. And I learned tap dancing as a hobby, too. So I learned to tap dance using some foot pedals. So playing guitar with my teeth and tapping and playing harp all together and off-and-on…. Yeah, it’s a pretty interesting video if you want to check it out!