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Nils Lofgren – The Onstage Interview
Nils Lofgren has been on the road a long time
It’s been 50 years since 17 year old Nils Lofgren knocked on a backstage door and began a musical association and friendship with Neil Young. It’s been 35 years since he became a member of the E Street Band. His work with his band Grin, his solo work, session work and tours have kept him extremely busy and kept his musical chops razor sharp. Fifty years burning down the road and Nils Lofgren still possesses the fire and the skills to put him on a level all his own.
Nils Lofgren recently finished up a spring tour in support of his newest release, Blue with Lou, his full length album featuring the last of the unrecorded collaborations done with Lou Reed back in the 1970s. While both artists recorded a few of those songs over the years, after Reed’s death in 2013, Nils felt the five that remained needed to be heard. So began the journey which ultimately became both a worthy musical notch in Lofgren’s career as well as a loving tribute to his friend.Onstage caught up with Nils, just back from a month on the road, and went deep with a discussion about Blue with Lou, the past, the future and the hats.
Kath Galasso: You and the band just finished your spring tour. Before it began you said you were looking forward to being on the road with the band that recorded the album with you. Was it all you hoped for?
Nils Lofgren: Yeah, it was that and more. Playing with my brother Tom who goes back to the Grin days. I have three younger brothers who are still my best friends and having Tom out there was just a joy. Cindy Mizelle, who’s quite busy, made time to come sing with us the whole time. That was extraordinary for all of us to have such a powerful singer to sing with. We really had a ball, all of us. It was very loose, everybody jammed a lot. We never played the same song the same way twice. We took having fun seriously not presenting the same show night after night.
Before we get into some questions, I just wanted to say how much respect I have that after fifty years of being on the road, you still take the time after the shows to meet-and-greet the fans, without an additional ticket price which is the trend these days. That you do that, being exhausted after these shows, and I know your schedule was pretty intense, it’s very impressive and I thank you from a fan’s point of view.
Well thanks, I appreciate that. It’s just something we’ve gotten into. My wife designs all the merch and we’re kind of a grass roots organization without a record company and we call it “the show after the show.” At that point you’re so exhausted and exhilarated, it’s not like you’re going to lie down and sleep or rest. It’s also a chance to just let people know we’ve got some new stuff and kind of get an instant review from the people that were in the audience of the how the night went for them. I appreciate that, it is kind of a tradition of ours and I’m glad that we’re still doing it.
Blue with Lou
While you’ve talked about the 4:30 am call from Lou, what struck me was the quote you mentioned where Lou said he was up for 3 days and nights, he hadn’t slept. Was there a moment when you thought, ‘this man hasn’t slept, what are these lyrics going to be like?’
No, no, because back in those days going a night or two without sleep wasn’t that foreign of an idea for me, if you’re wrapped up in music, whether it’s the studio or the road. I just took it as a sign that he was unusually engaged and inspired by the cassette I sent him. I’m just speaking hearsay but, if you read Rolling Stone articles, Keith Richards would brag his record was nine days. I have no idea if there’s any truth to that but just the idea of being inspired and doing a couple all-nighters, I mean he might have passed out for a half hour here and there, I didn’t grill him about specifics, I just took it as an unusual and positive excitement about the music. And in the hands of someone who it was sent to specifically with the hope he might be inspired to write a lyric for a song or two, to have thirteen finished songs was extraordinary.
In today’s world of technology, that event would never happen.
Probably not, there’d be emails and higher quality tapes. It was a very kind of earthy, magical story. From meeting Lou to spending a night with him watching a football game and talking well into the night privately about how we want to go about it. Do we want to get together for 6-8 hours a day and just push and see what comes out, but in truth, Bob Ezrin and I did feel like we had a lot of written songs musically with subpar lyrics. When I asked Lou if he wanted me to just ‘la-di-da’ everything, his said ‘no, no, give me the titles, give me what you’ve got. I understand you don’t like the lyrics.’ And we gave him carte blanche to change the music, to give him as much freedom as possible to react to something if he felt inspired by it and we got lucky. It was just a very magical chapter in my life as a writer.
Have you heard any feedback from Laurie Anderson on Blue with Lou?
I have not. Amy and I were reminiscing, we go to Telluride a lot to ski, quite a while ago we went for 11 years straight and at one point we were up in Aspen just visiting a friend for the day and we walked into a famous hotel there and in the lobby in full 10-speed bike riding gear and these flame red-orange riding outfits were Lou and Laurie. We stopped briefly in the lobby, they were on the way back in, we were leaving after lunch, just said a brief hello, I introduced them Amy and Dylan, our son. Lou introduced us to Laurie, it was very kind.
I asked Tom Goldfogle, our manager, to send some cds to a contact of hers, to get them to her. So I hope she enjoys them, but until it was actually a record I didn’t want to ‘what if?’ and just wanted to follow my heart on how to turn these into records and release them.
Your version of “City Lights” is vastly different from Lou’s. His take is stark realism while yours is more nostalgic with even a note of optimism. Was there an intention to move toward hope on your part?
Well more than that was the original piano part that I wrote and sang it to was a little more herky-jerky and reminiscent of the music. He chose to narrate the lyric, which was beautiful but he just had an unusual gift for narration that I don’t. I felt the original melody was something I wanted to hear with the lyrics. So in the back of my mind I always thought maybe someday I’d do my own version with the original melody. There’s this herky-jerky feel to the piano part that I wrote that really fit when I wrote it, but I wanted something with more of a groove. It took me weeks, I wouldn’t force it. I’d just try different rhythms, different speeds, different feels, and I just couldn’t find anything that solved it for me.
Then I stumbled on this slightly reggae, little more lilting thing. There is a bit of whimsical hope in this tragic story of kind of bailing out a country emotionally with laughter and then they throw you out anyway because of unwarranted prejudice. Just a small dark spot of human nature that’s rearing its ugly head more than that now. But at the same time, Charlie Chaplin had a gift he bravely explored and shared.
Any thoughts of revisiting the other two songs that Lou had previously recorded?
Not really. When that all went down we had three we really liked for that record, I put two more out that fit the records I made. Damaged Goods we did a version of “Life,” Branford (Marsalis) played on it beautifully and Lou actually came to the studio and heard that final mix and loved it. We had a good conversation about the right-hand rhythm acoustic guitar part on this old L-10, this Gibson guitar from the 20s I used. A very primitive sounding guitar. The others, I don’t know. I thought that what he did with them was great. Perhaps if he had used the original melody in his version of “City Lights” I might not have thought to redo it. But I felt like the melody needed to be part of it and although I liked his narrative, I always felt someday I’ll redo that with the original melody. I didn’t realize how hard it would be to find a groove to sing to.
The Branford Marsalis sax on “City Lights” is total perfection.
Yeah, you know it’s funny I remember when we did “Life” and he played so brilliantly on it. It’s one of my favorite haunting songs I wrote with Lou. We got this great track and I thought I just don’t have the heart to overdub guitar. I would have done it and it would have worked, it would have been musical but it would have been nothing like what Branford did. There is a soul and a whimsy and a tinge of dark hope in it that was so reminiscent of the story about Charlie. Lou actually kept my entire chorus, cause I didn’t even see City Lights (Charlie Chaplin movie) and it didn’t occur to me about the movie. I forget where I was taking the words, but Lou loved the chorus and got the idea to write this much heavier story about the saga of Charlie Chaplin.
“Pretty Soon” is your first video release and it has the line, “Dreaming of your swell smile.” Swell is a word that brings me back to something my dad would have said. It’s reminiscent of a WWII era. Just curious as to how you chose swell instead something like sweet, which is what most writers would pick.
Here’s where a lot of the words came from. The character that I would up writing about, which can live in all of us and can rear its head occasionally. I know I’m kind of a simpleton sometimes where “It’s A Wonderful Life” is still my favorite movie. I’ll get choked up and misty eyed at “Leave It To Beaver” episodes. My father was a WWII pilot and I grew up in this family where there was a lot of hope and innocence but not at the expense of reality. I still suffer from that where sometimes I get very childlike in inappropriate situations, and a lot of times my wife Amy, who is extremely observant and of course is a mother, and that in general hones your observation skills and reality skills. She’ll remind me ‘hey, this little childlike innocence you’re displaying here is not appropriate’ and I’ll go “oh shit, you’re right.” But the character is a lot like me and has taken that innocence to a fault.
I envision somebody maybe in that kind of era, it’s kind of a timeless problem where you grow in adulthood. Childlike is something if you’re going skiing or sledding then that’s a good thing. Childish can get you killed as an adult. Have a half a bottle of booze and drive down the road cause we’re so happy, that’s childish. And as an adult that can kill you. The separation between childlike and childish gets a lot more dramatic and dangerous when you’re an adult. In the case of this character, he’s very wide-eyed and innocent. I envision someone, maybe in that era, but any era will do. Just someone that’s just a little too innocent for their own good. They can’t believe their fortune in having a girl that loves them and rather than realizing ‘ hey she loves me cause I’m me’, he decides he’s going to do something radical like enlist and he has no idea what war really is. He’s got this mythical view of the spoils of war, I’ll do this and I’ll be a hero. I’ll get a nice suit, the town will be proud. Just a very immature concept and misguided attempt to please his girl. And she’s, all along, like ‘you don’t need to. I love you, you’re good.’ But he makes a mistake anyway.
At the end of the story he finds himself in really deep trouble in a war zone and realizes she was right all along and makes the decision to get back to her. The story is open-ended. He’s started the journey back and becomes woke, ‘don’t ask me how I’m doing this, I’m getting back to you.’ My version is he makes it back. That’s not in the song. I think he goes through some really rough hell. In my mind it has a happy ending but it’s open ended. The eye of the beholder in the song, like ‘wow he gets woke way too late, how does this get resolved?’ Some people might go ‘hey in my life it didn’t get resolved and I’m in the midst of that now and it doesn’t look like it’s gonna get resolved.’ What are the consequences, which can be very severe when you make a mistake in judgement like that…as an adult, even a young adult. So that was kind of the character and we can all, not so much be guilty of it, but find ourselves accessing that worldly view that’s so innocent. It’s a swell smile. It’s youth, it’s hopefulness and that was some of that naiveté I wanted to put in the lyrics. That’s where the idea of a swell smile came from.
It’s interesting that you say you left it open-ended because I was trying to figure out what your interpretation of it was and wondered ‘well did he get wounded?’ and is that why he’s saying don’t ask me how, and that’s how he was getting back home.
Yeah and I don’t want to tell you he did or didn’t. I say in the song, ‘I’m on a plane home dear heart, don’t ask me how’. Is he MIA, has he deserted and stowed away on a plane back to the States and eventually wants to find his girl and face the music, or maybe did he get wounded and there’s an easier way out of it once he gets back to her to deal with the mistake he made going. Even though it’s maybe a mistake. Pretty soon is now, I don’t need you to leave to impress me, I just want you to be with me and he doesn’t get it and makes an awful mistake and he’s trying to correct it at the end. I hope he does, whatever price he has to pay at least he will get to a point where he realizes at all costs he has to get back to the love of his life.
The album also has a few songs, “Pretty Soon” being one of them, where you have a men’s chorus effect, you said it was to have something like The Jordanaires. It also has a marching beat which brings to mind those old armed forces songs. Then there’s the stark difference between those songs and the ones where you have Cindy doing the background vocals, was that a deliberate decision of different styles?
There are a couple of things at play there. I listen to an enormous amount of older music and newer music, but I love the gentleness and peace that you’ll get in the Elvis Presley records, Ricky Nelson records, Ray Charles famous album Modern Country Sounds where he had a massive, kind of Mitch Miller choir of men and women. The more sedate small men’s choir that Ricky Nelson used a lot and they’re on so many old records. There was kind of an innocence and peace there that really was a sound I loved. And of course working with Cindy on the Wrecking Ball Tour singing very tender, beautiful things with her or then you see her doing “Shackled And Drawn” with Bruce just ripping it up as an R&B singer.
One of the things I knew when we tracked the record, we had to rehearse enough for it to be live because I’ve just lost the patience for overdubbing. I’ll do it but on my own record it would just to me, be a lesser record. So we invested a lot of time in rehearsing so I could play and sing live. As far as touches on the record, I really heard Cindy’s voice and this men’s choir as two paintbrushes to paint the record with as opposed to me adding synths, adding guitars. I’ve done that so much, sometimes to good effect, but generally the way I look at it is it becomes more pop and polished and I don’t want that. I want to hang on to the original vibe, and touch as little as possible. Having that men’s choir and Cindy gave me these beautiful colors that I could use to paint the whole record. They’re very different but at the same time they’re the same in the sense it’s a vocal not another guitar or synthesizer. That I wanted to avoid at all costs.
Let’s talk about the Blue with Lou design package. I delight in the fact that you can go old school and read the lyrics as you listen to each song with fresh ears. I’m also a sucker for black and white photography of musicians’ hands. How did the art direction come about?
Mainly I defer to Amy on all our art and merchandise packaging. Of course we look at it together but I trust her instincts. We’re big fans of Cristina Arrigoni’s photography, we’ve known her for a while. When I was playing New York City on my acoustic show last September, she was in town and wanted to shoot the show. We talked about instead of the normal three songs, I said ‘are you up for shooting the whole show and really getting a lot of ammunition?’ Me and Amy, in the back of our minds thought we could do something like that in a live setting. I’m such a bad poser, I’m a terrible subject for photo shoots. Live is where I thrive.
So we thought if Cristine shot a whole show, and sure enough she sent us what she liked and there was a lot of good stuff there. Now the black & white and the starkness, Amy picked the cover photo and oversaw Linda and Dick Bangham, who did a great job organizing the whole package. But Amy oversaw all that. You have that starkness, and there’s a couple of pictures, I don’t even know how Cristine did it…just one finger pulling a string on my lever harp which I play in the show. Those are all live, all the black & white.
Then to juxtapose that starkness which weaves through the record too, with some of my more innocence and color, if you will. Dylan, my son, took a lot of pictures. We have this colorful property, the desert is a lot more colorful than people think. Just to get some of that earthiness of the project itself as a backdrop to the lyrics, I just walked around and took pictures of flowers and walls. Amy spent half a year hand painting a hundred yard, ten foot wall pink. Just to get some of the color and hope that weaves through the songs in there, with the black & white starkness of some of the more somber lyrics and points of view.
Looking Back and Looking Ahead
Getting back with Neil for the Crazy Horse shows last year and recording a bit this year. Like riding a bike, does it still feel natural?
Yeah it is natural. Neil started writing some great songs. He’s on the road now until the end of July with shows. We started recording a record, we might continue to record later in the year. He might want to do some shows in the fall. And again that’s all a grand idea that I hope keeps heading towards more work. It was fifty years ago last month, I walked in on him at The Cellar Door in Washington DC, and now to have another chapter of recording and work with Ralphie, Billy, always Neil. I did After the Gold Rush then we did the first Crazy Horse album with Jack Nitzsche in the band and Danny Witten, our great singer and dear friend. That led to Tonight’s The Night which we recorded and toured with. Did the MTV unplugged, the last couple of Bridge benefits. So it’s been a reoccurring history of great musical liaisons starting fifty years ago when I walked in on him. The fact that there’s a new record in the works is a beautiful thing. Now how long it will take to record, finish and get out and play, that’s up to Neil.
So it looks like next year might be a little busy with the E Streeters.
Yeah, and again that’s a great thing that Bruce said he plans to record sometime and get the band playing. To me that’s a nod that there’s probably going to be another chapter. The time frame I think is, and understand it’s just my perspective, I’m not speaking for fans, but until you can buy a ticket, there’s no tour. Neil and Bruce are such creative geniuses that a good idea one day may morph into another good idea the next day and take different paths along the way. So to me, when we’re in the studio recording new music like I have with Neil and Crazy Horse, that’s a positive sign that we’re headed towards an album, but there’s no release date, it’s not complete. But it’s a great start. Shows to me are just ideas until you can buy a ticket cause I’ve seen ideas of shows come and go my whole life, not just with Neil and Bruce but in general. So it’s all a hopeful message for the future for people in the band and fans.
You were part of the E Street Band for years yet never recorded a studio album with them. Then we have the nightmare of 9/11 and The Rising is born from its ashes. Would you have preferred that not be your introduction to recording with the band or was it more the importance of that album?
The importance is of the quality of the music, the writing, and the subject matter. That’s the importance, not that that’s the first album I was on. My fifty years have had a lot of ups and downs, I started playing the accordion when I was five or six. Music has been my sacred weapon my whole life. I think it’s a sacred weapon for the entire planet now more than ever. It’s a universal language. I used to joke at sound checks on the Born in the USA tour that we did Woody Guthrie songs as a sound check for an album. We’d do a charity thing that would be quick for some other record, so it wasn’t the first time that we recorded something. As a new member Bruce took me to New York City during Born in the USA rehearsals to double his harmony part on “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart,” just to get me involved. So yeah, that was my first recording right after I joined the band.
However it was kind of a laugh as I used to joke with him as we’d be riding around Jersey and say ‘Man, I’ve been in the band 18 years and I haven’t gotten to make a record,’ and he’d laugh and say ‘well that’ll happen.’ The fact that it happened on The Rising is a beautiful coincidence but that’s all it is. It was just one of his more powerful records. He’s just a great authentic writer, and to take on the whole 9/11 thing in such an eloquent and soulful way was just amazing. And it wouldn’t have been less amazing if I had recorded a few records before. It just was a beautiful thing and a coincidence that happened to be the first full album that we recorded together as a band.
I have to know about the hats, how you decide what hat to wear, and do you have a vault like Stevie Nicks has for her shawls?
Don’t have a hat vault, we have a closet with a lot of hats in it. Most of my hats Amy found on the road. I’ve got 3 or 4 that are great hats for the stage. My #1 stage hat that that I used on the last couple of Springsteen tours, a black hat looks a little like a top hat with a dark scarf around the rim, that one…funny, Amy and I went to a kind of a secret wedding celebration for Neil Young and Daryl Hannah and just before we left for California, Neil called and said,’ hey that gray hat that you’ve been using at the shows, could I borrow it for the wedding?’ They were going to come out and dance to this New Orleans dance, everyone in different characters and Neil wanted to borrow that hat. And he was wearing it, and as Amy and I watched him and Daryl and their procession dancing up the aisle, it reminded me of a Mardi Gras/New Orleans type celebration, it was so beautiful to see Neil and Daryl so happy and in the moment. Amy elbowed me in the side and leaned over and said, ‘Nils, you know that’s his hat now.’ And I went ‘no, no, no, that’s my favorite stage hat. No, no, no, it’s on loan, it’s on loan.’ And Amy looked at me and I knew it was not an argument I wanted to try to win. So after the dance I went and said ‘Look Neil, that’s your hat now, Amy insisted it’s yours and I can’t argue with that, so keep it.’ He was happy about it cause it was a special hat. It meant a lot to me and I was happy to loan it to a dear friend, and my wife took it a step higher, had a higher thought, took the higher ground. My first reaction was no, it’s mine, and my second reaction, after I thought it through for 10 seconds, was my wife’s right, that’s Neil’s hat now.
Interview by Kath Galasso @KatsTheory