For Nils Lofgren, this has been a year of milestones. Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of course, acknowledged his three decades of service with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It’s also been almost 45 years since Lofgren’s first album with Neil Young, four decades since the demise of his best-known early solo band, Grin — and we’re nearing the 40-year anniversary of his well-received solo debut, as well.
Sensing that it was time to Face the Music, Lofgren spent the time leading up to 2014 studiously compiling a so-named nine-CD, one-DVD box set that seeks to frame a career that’s simultaneously been such a consistently intriguing part of rock’s landscape since the late 1960s while also being one of its most consistently overlooked.
Face the Music, due today from the Concord Music Group, features personally curated tracks from Grin’s four-album run between 1970-73, long-out of print Lofgren solo albums for A&M, CBS, MCA and Rykodisc from between 1975-92, and another 10 more recent offerings from his own Cattle Track Road imprint. His widely respected self-titled debut was followed by a pair of Top 40 albums in the late-1970s, Cry Tough (with Aynsley Dunbar, Jim Gordon, Al Kooper and members of Crazy Horse) and I Came To Dance. Other minor hits included 1979’s Nils (which featured songs with Lou Reed, the late Dick Wagner and Bob Ezrin), and 1985’s Flip.
Along the way, Lofgren re-discovered a treasured item featuring his early mentor Young and one of his own very earliest personal compositions — just two of this set’s 40 previously unreleased rarities. In an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown, Lofgren took us inside that journey, offering new insights into one of the more personal box sets in memory …
NICK DERISO: Give us an overview of the box set, and the care that’s gone into this project.
NILS LOFGREN: I’ve spent decades calling the old companies, and asking if I could pay this exorbitant fee — like 5 bucks a disc — to release my old music. Since I owed them money, I thought this would be a great way to pay them back, and share some of my old music that’s out of a print on my web site. And they always said no. It’s not a unique story for artists with no hit records, though it’s a frustrating one. But then Fantasy-Concord Records approached me, and I’ve turned my home upside down.
NICK DERISO: Do you think you were album to finally put a frame around it?
NILS LOFGREN: Early on, we kind of all agreed that there was no reason to do this, if we can’t do it completely, and thoroughly. And we did. We spent months and months finding outtakes, obscure tracks, incomplete things that no one had ever heard, then restored them. I went back and handpicked 189 tracks, with 20 on a DVD. I felt like if we couldn’t get the rights to all of them, we might want to do this. I’m sure the company went through hell trying to procure the rights to every track, which we did. Then we started mastering five decades of different sounds together in this set. I’m very proud of it. All in all, I just couldn’t be happier about it. I’m still kind of shocked and delirious that it’s actually going to see the light of day.
NICK DERISO: Then there was an original song that you found, which goes back to when you were — I guess — 16 years old?
NILS LOFGREN: It blew my mind. Back then, I was barely starting to sing. There were a lot of tracks to consider that I just couldn’t stand. That was the theme. I wanted to be able to listen to all 13 hours of music, back to back, without figuratively picking up the needle and skipping two tracks. That was a big challenge, but I did it. I spent months and months, playing with songs and dismissing songs, arguing with people who felt that something should have been on there that I just didn’t enjoy listening to. I’ve got to hand it to everyone. They deferred to me for all of the final decisions. And now I have what I think is a spectacular box set representing my 45 years-plus of work.
NICK DERISO: Some of these boxes aren’t that personal. It sounds like you took a very deep interest in every detail.
NILS LOFGREN: A lot of them are involving artists that are deceased. Early on, we realized that not only did they have someone who was living, but I got rid of my old manager — who had done a terrible job for many, many years — so I was kind of own my own, managing myself. It was a very grass-roots thing. And at the end of the day, there were so many, just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of details, from the art to photos to rights to fonts. It was just a very deep group effort by a lot of talented people. But the overriding fact was, and I’ve got to hand it to the company, they wanted me to be happy with every decision. We batted around songs. You have to rearrange the order based on keys and feel, and make it flow — album to album, decade to decade. They gave me carte blanche to do that. It was just inappropriate not to put in the work, with that kind of freedom from a company that wanted to do a complete 45-year retrospective. So, hats off to them, and to my family at home that was turned upside down while we got this done. Now, it’s going to see the light of day, I’m proud of it.”