Something Else! Interview: Nils Lofgren, of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band

Nils Lofgren, the longtime member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, has emerged with a fiery, emotionally frank solo release – his first original project in six years.

Lofgren pushes back (and hard) on Old School, against modernity’s self-centered hypocrisy, our own reckless disregard for things we should hold more dearly, even the physical infirmities associated with middle age. The album, available for download now at nilslofgren.com, is also Lofgren’s initial project since the twin deaths of fellow E Street Band members Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, devastating losses that imbue the album with darker undercurrents.

“It was worth the wait,” Lofgren told us, in the latest SER Sitdown. “All of a sudden, I had 12 songs. I’m proud of them. They are all over the place — as am I, as a person making my way. As grateful as I am for the journey, I also have a lot of eye-opening causes for concern. I had to make a record to express that.”

Lofgren talked to us about his terrific new album, signature moments alongside Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr and Neil Young — with whom Lofgren began recording while still a teen — and the lasting importance of songs. Not licks, Lofgren reminds, but songs …

Nick DeRiso: There’s a cathartic nature to your new solo recording. What that the mindset going in – to get some things off your chest?
Nils Lofgren: I just turned 60 this year, and that’s kind of hard to spin. So, I wanted it to be authentic. I just kept writing and writing until I came up with a batch of songs that I felt emotionally close to and passionate about. It is all over the place. I am very hopeful by nature, but I am not ignorant or stupid – and I watch TV. My planet is going to hell. So I have some grave concerns, as I try to hold on to some hope. The bottom line is, at the coffee shop, there is evil standing next to angels. I’m in that world; we all are. I tried to do something authentic to reflect that. I mainly challenged myself to acknowledge all of the things going on inside of me, good and bad. As I proceed – grateful and cautious – into my 60th year, I’ve got a great family, a lovely wife and a beautiful home with six dogs. At the same time, I am watching TV going: ‘What the hell is happening to my planet, and what can I do about it?’ Something simple. I just got back from three weeks of touring, where it’s 400 people in a club. I hope for that two and half hours we are all out of trouble and I am giving them some kind of musical enjoyment – and hopefully some kind of hope and inspiration to take out of the building. Hopefully, it might linger in their lives. That’s all I can come up with today. I keep my eyes open and my heart open, to find ways to be part of the solution, even in a small way – instead of being part of the problem, because we’ve got plenty of those.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren's 'Old School' is a well-conceived journey — not just through grief, and through anger, but also toward acceptance.]

DeRiso: Part of your early fame related to these amazing onstage gymnastics. You even named a mid-1980s album Flip. I can’t help but wonder if there has been a physical toll.
Lofgren: My love all these years has been playing basketball. I played all the time on the street courts, mostly in L.A. When I was on the road, I would seek out basketball games and, yeah, they were always on city courts – which are awful surfaces. To my horror, between back flips and jumping off trampolines, and city basketball, a few years ago I had to have both hips replaced at the same time. It was very scary. And that was a big part of it, getting beat up as a performer, having too much fun. But I did the last tour with the E Street Band with new hips, and I’ve been out on the road for the last year and half while I made this record, three weeks here and three weeks there, and it’s been really good for my musical soul and spirit to have these new hips working. Of course, the surgeon said: ‘Put the trampoline in the closet. Don’t be jumping off drum risers, or else you are going to destroy your new hips.’ And I don’t want to do that. It was a very scary thing. I had a great surgeon in New York, and my wife Amy moved into the hospital with me. It was big deal. But I’m good. In fact, I’m tap dancing as a hobby. I’m even tap dancing in my show. My wife gave me a harp, and I’m working that in as well. I’m just trying to learn and grow. For me, just to be a little smarter and staying engaged in it – staying passionate about performing and making music – that’s the first step. I’m thrilled I’ve got a new record I’m proud of.

DeRiso: Was the transition into a long-time working group like the Bruce Springsteen‘s E Street Band difficult, or did joining just as the massive Born in the USA tour got under way allow you mesh more fluidly?
Lofgren: None of us knew how massive it was going to be, until half way in. Bruce had to break his own rule and get out of sports arenas to start playing stadiums – something he was hopeful never to do. But I learned at an early age that I loved playing in great bands, to actually embrace not being the leader sometimes. I don’t have to be the boss every day of my life. I find it refreshing not to be the leader and have a different musical responsibility – just to take on great songs with great people. I love the E Street Band, and I love the music. I think the main thing that I bring to these bands is that I am a singer-songwriter. I’m listening to the singer; I’m listening to the lyrics. Although I am grateful to have a reputation as a musician – in particular, as a guitarist, I think by nature I tend to stay out of the way of the lyric and the singer rather than figuring out where I can fit in my licks. That’s the main ingredient that we all bring to Bruce’s band: We are playing the songs; we are not just looking to fit in licks.

DeRiso: Your debut recording has been called one of 1975’s best recordings by Rolling Stone magazine. Mostly, it seems, because you took a more song-based approach, when many were expecting a lot of guitar pyrotechnics. Was there a conscious effort to show people what you could do as a writer?
Lofgren: I started in ’68, did a lot of demos and writing. Having a song was always first and foremost the necessity for every band I was in. Again, I’m grateful for a reputation as a guitarist, but that’s not what I set out to be. I set out as a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. I’ve played accordion since I was five, and studied classical music for 10 years. Later on I picked up a little piano. But I’ve always been songwriter first. Grin (an early Lofgren-led group signed to CBS records in 1971) had four albums, and I wrote all the songs. It was all about songs. My first solo record was no different. I wrote 20 or 30 songs, and we planned to craft a session where I would sing live in the studio for the most part. We kept it very simple, and that highlighted a group of good songs.

DeRiso: Describe the experience of collaborating with Neil Young as a teenager on seminal recordings like After the Gold Rush, and Tonight’s the Night.
Lofgren: That was obviously a gift from musical heaven. I was blessed at 17 to have the band Grin, and we were about to go to L.A. from Washington D.C. I would sneak backstage all the time to ask advice from my musical heroes. Neil’s first Crazy Horse tour came through town to the Cellar Door, and I go back to a little dressing room and ask for some advice regarding a career I had just begun that I knew nothing about. He was kind enough to hand me a guitar and let me sing. Then he said: ‘Sing another.’ I must have sung four or five songs, and he liked them. The next thing I knew, I spent the weekend hanging out with him. He said: ‘Look me up when you get to L.A.,’ and I did. While we were on our rocky up-and-down journey as a young band in the music business, we were playing as a house band and Neil would come and jam with us. I got to see Neil pretty regularly. So at 18 years of age, when he asked me to do After the Gold Rush, as intimidating as it was, I recognized it as a very blessed opportunity – and fortunately, it was with somebody that I knew a bit. As overwhelming as it might have been, I had a comfort level. That made it possible for me to hang in there and get the job done. It was a great adventure.

DeRiso: You returned to Young’s music with the terrific 2008 acoustic project The Loner. What drew you back to that time in your life?
Lofgren: He remains as great a songwriter as we have. I think him and Dylan and Bruce are the three greatest. My manager had pointed out that the two biggest items remain my acoustic live record and DVD at my web site, nilslofgren.com. He suggested I do an acoustic album of Neil Young songs. I didn’t like the idea initially, mainly because Neil has done all of those songs perfectly. But then I starting thinking, out of respect for Neil’s songwriting – and me being someone who understands and really feels Neil’s music – I thought, why not explore this? I put 30 songs together and I spent two solid weeks singing Neil Young songs to my dogs. I went through all 30. I didn’t arrange anything; I didn’t plan to make a record. I didn’t go out to the studio and record a note. I just sang. They all sounded like karaoke for two weeks. After that, some of them stopped sounded like karaoke – and I thought all of sudden, as a singer, I was bringing something to it. I still had no stomach for producing a record, but I thought if they are all live with an instrument – no overdubbing, no production, just a live performance – then it might have a charm to it. At that point, I went out and performed the songs pretty quickly, because it was all live. I actually used the guitar that Neil gave me on the After the Gold Rush sessions. I didn’t have an acoustic and he lent it to me, then he gave it to me after the session. Obviously, that was the only guitar appropriate for that record. With everything being live and no production, it turned out to have a vibe to it that I thought was worth sharing.

DeRiso: You were a member of Ringo Starr’s first All-Starr tour, and then returned a few years later for another stint. How did you get to know him?
Lofgren: Look, I was a classical accordion player, playing a Beatles medley in my 9th grade variety show! I fell in love with music through the Beatles. I actually didn’t pick up guitar until I was 15, and my brother Tommy started showing me chords. I owe my whole experience to the Beatles: They opened up that whole road – the Stones, Stax-Volt, Motown, the old blues, R&B, all of it. After a Wembley Stadium show with the E Street Band in ’85, we went to a birthday party at Ringo’s house and there was a jam session. I spent all night waiting to play with Ringo, and I finally got to. We started chatting late at night and he gave me his number and said stay in touch – and I did. I would call him every few weeks. When I was in England every year touring, he’d come see me play. To my great honor, in ’89 when he was putting the All-Starr band together, he gave me a call and asked me if I would be in the band. It was a huge, huge payback opportunity to help him go out and have fun – because he was a guy from the band that turned me on to popular music for the rest of my life. I am forever grateful.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Can't get enough Bruce Springsteen? We're going song by song -- every one of them -- from throughout the Boss' entire career in our weekly feature 'Sparks Fly on E Street.']

DeRiso: More recently, the E Street Band has suffered a pair of devastating losses with the passing of two original members. What do you see as the future of the group? It’s difficult for many fans to imagine carrying on, for instance, without the boisterous presence of Clarence Clemons.
Lofgren: I stood next to Clarence for 27 years – and I had a much more powerful friendship with him off stage. We spoke every week. He was a dear, dear friend and I’m certainly heartbroken and grieving. I know it’s not disrespectful to contemplate the future but – look, right now, I have been a band leader out on the road for a year and a half, and I’m happy to do that. When I am in bands – Ringo’s band or Neil Young’s band or Bruce’s band – I’m not the bandleader. So I’m kind of giving myself permission right now to let that be an inappropriate and impossible topic for me. It’s not my choice. It’s not my call. It’s a very complex, ominous thing to even contemplate. I’m really just not going there. I don’t know what the future holds. Certainly, I would respect whatever Bruce decides to do, completely. But there is no Clarence II. It doesn’t exist. I miss him terribly. But I believe he’s up there, looking down, wanting me to keep on playing and singing – so, at the moment, that’s what I am doing.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.