This Is What Being On The Road For 48 Years Has Taught Nils Lofgren

When Bruce Springsteen takes his East Street Band on the road this year, he will have trusted guitarist Nils Lofgren again, by his side. For more than 30 years, Lofgren has handled guitar duties for Springsteen and the greatest Rock N Roll band of all time. Don’t even argue with me on this. They’re out on the road performing their River album, promoting The Ties That Bind, the River Box Set. The River Tour isn’t the only thing that Nils is excited about in 2016. From his beginnings as an accordion playing kid on the Southside of Chicago, Nils parlayed his diverse musical gifts into a long term musical association with Neil Young, starting with the landmark After The Gold Rush album. Nils has also worked with Lou Reed and Ringo Starr and has recorded a wide array of solo albums, all now collected in a 10-disc box set called Face the Music. The set is a much-needed in-depth look at the groundbreaking solo work of one of rock’s most underestimated, creative, and irreplaceable musicians. Summing up his monumental project, the unfailingly modest Lofgren says, “We were just grateful to play our faces off, anywhere and everywhere. To look back 45 years and to hand-pick this music and to hear it all together is pretty stunning.” So please welcome from the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, viagra-taking, love-making, E Street Band, one of the greatest guitarist in the world, Nils Lofgren.
Nils: Wow, that’s a hell of a wind-up. Thank you.
Eric: Well, okay, between you and I, it’s better than how Bruce says it. Right?
Nils: *laughs* Neck and neck.
Eric: So you guys are coming up to Toronto in a couple of weeks, so here’s the thing. I have a meeting at 9 o’clock in the morning the next day. Are you guys going to be done by then? Should I book it off now?
Nils: That remains to be seen. We got a whole 20-song River album to fit in our normal, crazy improv show. So we’ll see.
Eric: You’ve been playing with the East Street Band for 32 years now. Your first show was in St. Paul, Minnesota where the shooting the Dancing in The Dark video with Courtney Cox took place.
Nils: It was and I was freaked out because I’ve been seeing the band since 1970, I’ve been buying tickets to see them play. Of course, I didn’t get the job until 30 – like a month before opening night. Man, it was not enough time to think about that. They were all sweet and kind, gave me their time and advice but it was about 20 shows in before I really felt like I got my sea legs but nevertheless, I’m a performer at heart. I’ve been on the road professionally since ‘68. I figured that if anyone was up for it, it was me. I just studied my face off, banned all music except E Street and Bruce music and got the job done. But yeah, it was St. Paul. I still remember meeting Kevin McHale that night, got to be good buddies with one of my favourite basketball players. I am a basketball fan. He wound up coming to a lot of shows and I wound up getting to go play basketball with Celtics at their practices, which was a dream come true for me.

Eric: Long before the early E Street shows and since then, you’ve had a really good career on your own. You, of course, started in the 70’s band Grin and then on your own in 1975. Your compilation album, that 10-CD box set, Face the Music. How did you end up with 10?
Nils: Well, that’s the funny thing. That 10-disc box set probably represents less than half of my work. Believe it or not, I’ve forgotten how busy I’d been since I was 17-year-old and hit the road. I’m always more focused on today and tomorrow, than yesterday. But, having Concord/Fantasy ask to do a comprehensive box set, with 40 bonus tracks and 48 years on the road, there’s a lot of stuff I wanted to share and never got to. A lot of beautiful demos and things…It was a beautiful stroll down memory lane. My job was to figuratively. I never wanted to get off the couch and move the needle on the record. So some albums would be three songs, some would be six but they went and got the rights to every single track I wanted and let me hand pick them and put them together. Dave Marsh encouraged me to write a 138-page book. Which I did and he edited it. Insisted I write the story. My wife Amy worked with all the art directors and produced the package. Thousands of photos and buddy Steve Smallen had thousands of old 45 sleeves, posters. I mean he had the poster when Grin opened for Jimi Hendrix opened on my 19th birthday. Just hundreds of items like that, that I did not collect. So it was a two-year labour of love and I’m just just very, very proud because all the old music is out of print. To hand-pick the best of and get to share it with this really solid box set really meant a lot.

Eric: In the liner notes of the box you talk about writing songs with Lou Reed for your Nils’ album in 1979 and he was dictating the lyrics to you.
Nils: It was a beautiful thing. Bob Edison was producing the Nils’ album that had No Mercy and Shine Silently on it, had a lot of songs. Even Bob and I went, these songs, these songs the music’s great, the lyrics are average. What do we do? And Bob said, “what about co writing?” I said, “I don’t know”. Bob said, “Lou, would you consider doing some co writing with Nils? Lou said, “I don’t know. Let’s talk about it.” So I met Lou one night and unbeknownst to me, he was a football fan. It was a Redskins/Cowboys game on a Monday night. He rooted for the Cowboys and I rooted for the Redskins. I don’t even remember who won, which is strange, because I was so preoccupied with the potential for writing with Lou. You see, music comes out of me very naturally, but lyrics take a bit more work and Lou is the exact opposite. So we thought well look if you have all these songs, why don’t you send me a tape and we’ll see how it goes. I sent him a cassette, and we spoke on the phone a lot.

I spent a long night at his apartment and we decided before we got into a loft, with a piano and an acoustic and slog it out for those 7, 8-hour co-writing sessions. He said, “Let’s start with sending the cassette and let me check it out.” So I set him a 13 song cassette. Humming, singing lyrics I wrote that he knew I didn’t like, titles, whatever. Three weeks later, after kind of forgetting about it and carrying on with my own work. He wrote me up at like 4:30 in the morning. He said, “Hey Nils, it’s Lou”. I said, “Hey Lou”. I mean, I was wondering why the hell he was calling me at that hour, but I mean, I was glad to hear from him. But I had no idea why he was calling, literally. I had forgotten completely about it because I was very busy writing, demoing, working to get a record together because we had a recording date coming up. And he said, “Look man, I’ve been up three days and nights straight with this cassette. I love it. I just finished 13 complete sets of lyrics. If you want to get a pen and pencil or paper, I will dictate them to you”. I said, “Let me put on a pot of coffee,” and I did. I sat there for two hours and Lou dictated 13 songs, that were finished, that were now songs I’ve written for Reed.

He spent 3 days and nights pouring over it. I spent months and months and months of work to assemble the music that was on that cassette. Right away, he said, “Look, I would love to use 3 for my Bells album”. I said, “done”. I used 3, I’ve pulled some out since then. There’s two or three on the box set and there’s a brilliant one of my favourites, Life, with Branford Marsalis, just gorgeous. Right now actually, now that tragically we lost Lou, I’ve decided that one of my jobs in the next couple of albums I make is to revisit those co-writes and get them recorded. Just to pay honor to Lou and the work we did together. Brilliant, right? “Get a pen and paper and I will dictate the 13 songs you just wrote with me.”

Eric: I want to ask you about the idea of a hit because you certainly have a lot of amazing records in your catalog, a hero to a lot of guitar players, but you never had the hit. That one song might have eluded you throughout all those years. Do you see a similarity now between today’s veteran artists, that might not have their new music be heard on the radio?
Nils: Personally, I make music to share with people. So the mythical idea that I’m still the teenager at heart that wants to have that heavy rotation hit, where every stations on the planet plays your song 17 times a day until people are sick of it. Then all of a sudden instead of playing 300 people in a bar – which I love and take seriously – it’s 3,000 people in a theater. You bring your own sound, you bring your own lights, you control the environment a little bit more and you feel like you have a little bit of control to make it a better show. But you know, I don’t over think it. Rather than look at record companies, promotion, radio. I rather take the brunt of that and say well look, you’ve made a lot of great music and a lot of people know about it. If you want to reach more people, get better at what you do. So I’m working on being a better writer, singer, player, musician, performer, all of that. In addition, now at 64, with my 48-years on the road to being a better husband, step father, brother, son, just human being, trying…That’s part of the journey; to have something to keep wanting to say and be passionate about but that’s the main thing. I got into that rut where, like in ‘82 where I got dropped from my record companies, no one would give me a record deal. In ‘82–‘83 it was, they said “Hey man you’re great. You’re a dinosaur, it’s over”. And I said, “Damn, what am I going to do with this?” I was pretty down, but I kept singing, I kept playing, I struggled to get a record deal. I said I’m going to have a website, I’m going to share music and I’m not going to ask record companies to help me. For twenty years now, it has served me very well. But if we had a hit record in the ‘69 or ‘70, if I didn’t kill myself, I would have never played with Neil Young, or Bruce, or Ringo.
Eric: Everything would have changed for you.
Nils: I would have just been too busy trying to make a record like my last one because that’s what the companies demanded. Or butting heads with them anyway and trying to find my own way. I don’t over think it. I’m still trying to make better records. Even if it’s that way, a year or two from now I might go to a town in England and they might put in a little bigger theatre. That’s the dream – to keep reaching more people. Keep the people that know about you inspired about what you do musically and for that to happen, I can’t get too hung up on politics. I’ve gotten close and learned my lesson that yeah, you can be disappointed that your song wasn’t on the radio, but it’s not in my best interest to let that keep me from doing the next round of shows I’m doing to be the best I’ve ever done.

Eric: As you get older do you prepare for the road differently than in the past? Have you changed your lifestyle in the last bunch of years?
Nils: It’s more a function of finding a balance. I try to stay home a bit and help Amy with our four dogs and our house, it’s a lot of work for her alone. This is my 48th year on the road, I’ve beaten myself up quite a bit. I’ve got two metal hips, I’ve got torn shoulders, pains…
Eric: All that on-stage trampoline jumping?
Nils: Ha! Well you know, I was in agony with bone on bone hips for years and the surgeon replaced both hips many years ago. He looked at the trampoline and he looked at the dive rolls, and said, “You know what, if you do that you could be messed up for life”. So the trampoline is in the closet, I’ve knocked off the dive rolls because it scared the hell out of me. I’m dancing around, jumping around- pain free- having a ball but now part of preparation is going to the gym, even when you’re tired. You don’t have to beat yourself up with some three-hour workout but you chip away at injuries and try and get them in good shape. The goal is to go out and be uninhibited enough to be free, shut your mind down and let the musical instincts take over. You get this wash of insane energy from the audience. I don’t care if it’s 300 people in a nightclub or 20,000 people in a sports arena. You get this wash of energy and let it inspire, in my view, a gift I didn’t ask for. I mean, I worked hard at putting notes together that I hear. How I hear notes is not of my making. That’s a gift, not of my making. Between my folks’ DNA and some kind of higher power, whatever you want to call it. I’m not a fan of organized religion but I do believe in some kind of higher power. God’s fine with me and it’s a big mystery. I don’t know the rules; all I know is it’s out there. He gave me a gift, that I didn’t ask for, that I have put some elbow grease into but the goal is to do enough preparation with homework and music. Getting your body ready, mind and spirit to kind of just hook into that energy and let it flow through you. With gifts that I didn’t create but I have. So that’s still the way I look at it, so yes. Now, preparation is different; there’s a lot more physical therapy, just preparation from music to shut the mind down and really react and trust my instincts. We all have this endless list of a hundred things to do everyday and I’ve gotten better prioritizing what’s really critical for the show that night. On an off day, I might go run some errands, buy some stuff for the fridge or my health, or whatever. On a show day, it’s all about what do I need to do to get done to get ready for the show tonight because that’s really the only reason I’m away from home. Being away from home now, there’s a homesickness that my wife Amy calls a champagne problem and it’s true. A lot of people don’t have a home they miss. Nevertheless, it’s given me a deeper focus and gratitude for the show itself and help me actually have better discipline and prepare for it.

Eric: I’ve seen the band just under 20 or so times. When Bruce pulls signs out from the audience of songs to perform, do you ever have a moment of “I don’t know that one” or “I’ve got to take a couple of seconds and figure that one out?”
Nils: Yes, but sometime there’s no couple of seconds, I’m not going to figure it out. But what I do, I have a good horse sense now, after 48 years on the road. For instance, it might be an old E Street Band song I never learned or it might be some song I’m really not familiar with. One night a couple of years ago they pull out a song “You Never Can Tell.” I’m like, “what’s that?” I go over and I see Steve (Van Zandt) talking to Bruce and say “What the hell is this?” He said, “It’s an old Chuck Berry song.” Okay, bang. Chuck Berry, the base and the blues. I got that. Then I realize Steve and Bruce are talking about it and they kind of know it, then Bruce picks a key. He sings up, he sings down, you hear it through the mic. So now I’m realizing Bruce and Steve kind of know it, we’ve got four guitar players or 5 with Tom Morello. You don’t need 5 guitar players hitting the down beat so rather than be panicked and worry about making mistakes in the song, I realize those guys kind of got it covered so I’m going to pick up a bottleneck blues slide. I’m going to play some great slide licks inside what has to be a blues, bass song because it’s Chuck Berry. It’s that kind of reasoning where you come to a bridge of an old E Street song you forgot you just do chuck, chuck-a-chuck percussion and sing. A lot of times you can the bridge and not know the chorus. So instead of panicking and being a deer in the headlights you contribute but you use common sense. I’m just going to chuck along here. Do that Hendrix chuck on the muted strings so when we get back to the verse I do remember; I’ll get back to the chords. You find a way, knowing that you’re going to play this song in 28 seconds, to figure out how I can contribute and not be in panic mode.
Eric: And that’s what 48 years on the road teaches you.
Nils: 48 years, man.