“There’s just kind of a homegrown recklessness that you can find in front of an audience that I can’t seem to find in a studio or anywhere else.”
When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band hit the stage, kicking off one of their legendary marathon gigs with all the Jersey swagger they’re known for, it’s easy to forget the formidable talents of the individual members; especially when the sum effect carries so much rock ’n’ roll punch. Currently on The River tour with his boss, known to the rest of us as The Boss, I recently spoke with longtime E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren about his storied solo career, his latest live release, and his youthful propensity for playing guitar onstage while…flipping on a trampoline?
“Yeah, I used to have a little mini-trampoline, and I’d do a backflip while I played guitar,” he says. “My guitar playing went to hell, but I still had it in my hands, making a racket. It was a good stunt, man. People loved it.” Inquiring minds can catch a 14-second clip of Lofgren flipping in front of Springsteen on the Born in the USA tour, but these days, he’s leaving the theatrics to a younger generation. ”Thanks to playing basketball all over the world and various stuff like that on stage, I had to have both hips replaced. So, no more basketball or trampoline.”
So while Lofgren won’t be testing his titanium hips by entering gymnastics competitions anytime soon, he just released a new live CD, UK2015 Face the Music Live (Cattle Track Road) which captures the magic he made last year touring the United Kingdom with his longtime collaborator, multi-instrumentalist Greg Varlotta. As it turns out, the idea to release a live record was the brainchild of his wife Amy.
“We were on the road last January in England, where I’ve tried to go every year since ’73,” he explains, “and she thought it was the best show she’d ever seen me and Greg do. I’ve played with Greg Varlotta for 10 years, and I was really too inside the work to have the kind of overview that she did. But we recorded the last six or eight shows and she was right: It led to a beautiful record that I hadn’t thought of making, or wasn’t planning on at all.” For the Chicago native, real satisfaction still comes from playing live. “There’s just kind of a homegrown recklessness that you can find in front of an audience that I can’t seem to find in a studio or anywhere else.”
The resulting 15 tracks on UK2015 Face the Music Live span Lofgren’s long career, from his early days fronting Grin, to covers of Danny Whitten’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” and Carole King’s “Goin’ Back”. More than a greatest hits collection, the album is more of a heartfelt autobiography, as illustrated by the track “The Sun Hasn’t Set” from his first solo record. “Of course my band Grin made four albums, but we broke up because we couldn’t keep getting record deals, and we didn’t have any commercial success,” he recalls. After playing a farewell concert at Kennedy Center, the first band to do so, “A&M finally decided to let me carry on as a solo artist, which was a bit of a fish-out-of-water thing for me, but I wanted to keep moving forward.”
As Lofgren plunged into a long series of writing sessions, his experience in the record industry helped him write “The Sun Hasn’t Set.” “It’s just a universal theme you’ve heard a lot in songs. You’re gonna get knocked down, so it’s about getting up and moving on. I ended up writing that on piano at my manager’s home in Malibu, in a cabana on the beach.” His writing was no doubt assisted by some extra mojo, courtesy of a gift from a fellow songwriter. “I spent months and months writing on an acoustic guitar, a D18 that Neil Young gave me on the After the Gold Rush sessions, and a funky old upright that I had.”
Another highlight off the new record is the heartbreaking track from his days fronting Grin, called “Lost a Number.” “You know, I was very young and was writing as a teenager. Of course, as an early writer, a lot of it was just about young love, relationships, and heartbreak,” he recalls. “After a while, I remember feeling like, if I’m going to write another love story, let me give it something unusual.” He ended up writing a song with a fairly diabolical twist “where this guy falls in love with this girl; she seems to like him. And then he loses her number, but finds out where she lives and he just breaks the door down, and she’s gone.
“I just thought it’d be such a wild thing that every single room had a giant picture of her eyes staring at him.” Any idea what happened to these fictional, would-be lovers? “I’m not sure what happened. Not optimistic that anything came out of it except for heartbreak. It’s up to the listener to decide. It’s a different kind of finality. Look, maybe 20 years later in their 40s, they bumped into each other after three divorces each and got back together. Who knows?”
A more recent track celebrates the life of his E Street bandmate, the late, great Clarence Clemons. I ask Lofgren if it was a difficult song to write. “Well, it’s a strange thing. I wrote a song called “Miss You Ray” about Ray Charles, on my Old School record. It was about Ray Charles’ loss as a metaphor, where it blinds you with grief to what’s left. You can’t see anything good. I’ve made that mistake many times when I’ve lost family members or dear friends.” Lofgren was in the process of recording the song when he received the news that Clemons had passed. “Me and [my wife] Amy get to Florida, and on my 60th birthday, we bury him.”
Because it was his birthday, his wife insisted they go out to dinner, despite Lofgren obviously not feeling anywhere near a celebratory mood. “I just kinda got dragged along, and there were about 30 people there, band, crew, and friends. Clarence had a wide net of friends all over the globe.” What could have been a rather somber gathering, morphed into “one of those five-hour commiserative meals where we laughed and cried, and told stories, and hugged. It was very healing and powerful, and it reminded me of my old song that I had forgotten and the message.
“So, since that night, I’ve changed the lyrics to ‘Miss You C,’ which are new, and they spoke more to the personalities in the East Street world that we’ve lost through the years. I’ve been singing it that way since, and will continue to.” Though the larger-than-life sax man is gone, the memory of their friendship continues to be a source of inspiration for the guitarist. “Clarence was a dear friend. I miss him every day, but I do feel he’s here with me, and I’m glad I had him for the 27 years standing next to him. I was really close to him offstage. too. We spent a lot of time chit-chatting on the phone.
“Huge loss, irreplaceable, but he’s with us as we carry on here with the E Street Band. “
Though the live album contains the best of Lofgren’s songwriting over the years, it also spotlights his playing, and the reason so many hail him as a musician’s musician. “I realized I have a lot of songs; I fingerpick, sing, and play, and I’ll sit down at the piano. But my lead guitar goes away basically. So I thought if I got a loop station, I could just simply loop the rhythm I was playing. Some people build it into an orchestra and are brilliant at it, but I just learned enough to loop a rhythm and play lead to myself.” As illustrated in the track “Girl in Motion”, the process opened him up to exploring more possibilities with his lead guitar work, essentially making them compositions unto themselves.
He explains that “What happened was that half a minute turned into one minute, into two minutes, into three, then one melody would lead into another idea. Since I’m kind of the bandleader, I can let it go as long as I like, and when I feel like it’s time to wrap it up, I hit the loop, sing and play the song out, and conclude it. But it’s just a tool that allows me to play lead guitar once in a while, which is a good voice I have.”
When I ask him how the music industry has changed the way he tours and releases music, he replies, “Well, I’m not a good person to ask. I parted ways 20 years ago with the record industry. I had a deal in the mid-’90s that was very oppressive creatively for me, I spent a year and a half with lawyers trying to get out of it, which was very unpleasant.” It’s not all bad, though. Once he got his freedom from that contract, he essentially became a free agent. “So if there’s music I want to share, bang, it’s out there. You can buy it, we ship it all over the world to you, video, whatever. I’m not beholden to a company, and I don’t have to play psychiatrist, or twist anyone’s arms.
“And let’s be frank,” he continues. “No one’s really interested in giving a 64-year-old rocker that never had a hit record a good record deal. So this is a much better place for me to be. Just kind of out there on my own doing my grassroots music as I see fit, and sharing what I’m proud of. “
As the talk veers back to his continued work with the E Street Band, I ask what it was like when he received the call from Springsteen to come play. “Well, I was shocked that Stevie [Van Zandt] left to go solo, because I had been buying tickets to see the band for a long time.” After being invited by his friend Springsteen to come up and jam with the band for two days, “he asked me to join the band, and it was four weeks before opening night. So, you know, it was scary for the first 20 shows, getting my sea legs.”
Elaborating, Lofgren says, “I mean, look, I’ll sing ‘Cougar’ all night, anywhere, anytime, and love it, but nobody sings like Stevie Van Zandt. To have Stevie back in ’99 was great, with his guitar playing, just his vibe and his energy, because he produced all those records with Bruce and the band. It just was a homecoming that was needed, and took the band to an even greater height and I was thrilled to see it.” With the band on the road with The River tour, featuring both Springsteen and Van Zandt’s vocals, “it’s the height of their co-singing together and work together, and it really shows in this show. I just sit there grinning and I love listening to them sing. You know, I’ve got a gentler voice, and Stevie’s got that rough R&B thing Bruce has. He can sing really high, and the combination is just lethal, man. They just kill it every night. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
Van Zandt’s return to the E Street Band in the late ’90 s also provided an unexpected opportunity for the guitarist. “With Stevie back, and now with Patti [Scialfa, Springsteen’s wife], we have four guitar players. So it was fun, because I was able to challenge myself to take lessons. I learned a little dobro, pedal steel, bottleneck, lap steel, banjo, just to throw a few extra sounds in our toolbox. It’s good for The E Street Band, because Bruce is a very authentic writer, and rather than simulate pedal steel on a guitar, I could sit down and play a few licks. I’ll never be anything but a good beginner, but having Stevie back opened the door for that, for me to be a better swing man. It’s only been good to have him back. It’s been a blessing, and still is. “
Inching closer to the time when the publicist will move him on to his next interview, I had to ask about the fairly recent and untimely deaths of Lou Reed and David Bowie. About Reed, he says, “Lou and I wrote 13 songs together in ’79 or ’80; he used three of them on The Bells, and I used some on the Nils album. The others were songs I thought would be better for Lou to sing. One of my plans on the next solo record is to resurrect some of those co-writes and get them out there to share.”
Though Lofgren never worked with Bowie himself, he did run into the iconic singer several years ago at the Power Station in New York City, and the brief experience left a lasting and positive impression. “He was very lovely and gave me a few minutes of his time. He was a very kind soul. Big fan of his music; still am. Another horrible loss; love and prayers out to his family.”
Finally, as our talk comes to an end, I ask Lofgren what he has in store for the rest of the year. “My plan, after this E Street run is done, is to get back out there all over the country, and start doing the solo shows all over again.” At the end of the day, Lofgren’s a seasoned survivor, because he knows it still comes down to giving everything he’s got, every chance he’s got. “And if 12 people show, you try and do the best show of your life for them.” | Jim Ousley
You can catch Nils Lofgren with the rest of the E Street Band backing The Boss at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis on March 6, and at Denver’s Pepsi Center on March 31. Full tour dates are below.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band | 2016 U.S. Spring Tour
02.27 | Blue Cross Arena, Rochester NY
02.29 | Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul MN
03.03 | BMO Harris Bradley Center, Milwaukee
03.06 | Chaifetz Arena, St. Louis
03.10 | Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix
03.13 | Oracle Arena, Oakland
03.15 | Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, Los Angeles
03.17 | Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, Los Angeles
03.19 | Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, Los Angeles
03.22 | Media Center, Portland
03.24 | KeyArena at Seattle Center, Seattle
03.28 | Madison Square Garden Arena, New York
03.31 | Pepsi Center, Denver
04.03 | Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City
04.05 | American Airlines Center, Dallas
04.07 | Sprint Center, Kansas City
04.10 | Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, NC
04.12 | Schottenstein Center, Columbus OH
04.14 | The Palace of Auburn Hills, Auburn Hills MI
04.18 | Bryce Jordan Arena, University Park PA
04.20 | Royal Farms Arena, Baltimore
04.23 | Barclays Center, Brooklyn
04.25 | Barclays Center, Brooklyn