Q&A: Nils Lofgren

Millions of Bruce Springsteen fans around the world have become acquainted with the versatile guitar and vocal stylings of Nils Lofgren because he's been an integral part of the E Street Band for 28 years. But the Boss is far from the first major music star that recognized Lofgren's talent and tapped him for support on their projects.

Millions of Bruce Springsteen fans around the world have become acquainted with the versatile guitar and vocal stylings of Nils Lofgren because he's been an integral part of the E Street Band for 28 years. But the Boss is far from the first major music star that recognized Lofgren's talent and tapped him for support on their projects.

Just a year after going pro, Lofgren joined Neil Young's band at age 18, contributing piano, guitar and vocals on the acclaimed platinum album "After The Gold Rush." He continued his recording career with the band Grin in 1971, a band that later notched the Top 40 hit "White Lies."

While he maintained a role with Grin through 1974, Lofgren was drafted into Crazy Horse in 1972, participating along with Danny Whitten on the group's debut album. In '73 he was back with Young contributing on"Tonight's the Night" and supporting the subsequent world tour.

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In 1975, Lofgren cut his first solo self-titled album for A&M Records, featuring the the songs "Back It Up" and "Keith Don't Go. He returned to work with Young again on the 1983 "Trans," and appeared on the tour video "Berlin."

By 1984 Lofgren was inducted into Springsteen's touring band, where he performed alongside The Boss for more than 150 shows on the "Born in the USA" Tour. During a 1989 break from the E-Street Band, Lofgren joined Ringo Starr's All-Star Band for the first of two tours he would do supporting the former Beatle.

Young called on Lofgren again in 1993 to lend guitar work to his MTV "Unplugged" special. And following his work on Springsteen's "The Rising," 2004, Lofgren switched gears to play on "23rd Street Lullaby" with Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa. He also appears on Scialfa's 2007 release "Play It As It Lays."

Lofgren's 2011 solo offering, "Old School," is an effort that's been had been in the works since the culmination of Springsteen's "Working on a Dream" Tour. Lofgren's "Old School" material runs the gamut in terms of subject matter, from desperation, self-doubt, true love and departed friends, to a heartfelt tribute to the late Ray Charles.

While fellow E-Streeter Clarence Clemons was still alive during the recording of "Old School," the Big Man's passing inspired Lofgren to dedicate the effort to his memory. This latest project also gave Lofgren an opportunity to call on the talents of several high profile friends including former Foreigner frontman Lou Gramm who sings on the title track.

The song "Amy Joan Blues" features legendary vocalist Paul Rodgers while the cut "Ain't Too Many Of Us Left," features Rock Hall of Fame inductee Sam Moore from the '60s-era duo Sam & Dave.

While Lofgren was positioned to discuss everything "Old School" during a recent interview with SoundSpike, he also revealed some deeply personal glimpses into his special relationship with his longtime friend, confidant and neighbor, Clarence Clemons.

SoundSpike: So just as you are gearing up to promote your own new release in five years, darn the luck, you get a call that you're heading back on the road with Bruce.

Nils Lofgren: (laughing) It's true. You know, getting a record made -- especially one you're so proud of -- is hard work and a big challenge. So I'm happy to have that behind me now. And having this beautiful band I'm in kind of softens the blow of being away from home. My wife, who I miss dearly every day I'm away, says its a "champagne problem," and my five dogs give me dirty looks when I pull out my suitcase. But they are all so happy to see me when I get back home. There's no better reason to be out on the road than playing in a great band, and for somebody who is a songwriter and who makes records, there is no better feeling than to have this one under my belt.

But since you've been with Bruce for almost 30 years, it's hard to separate where Nils Lofgren the solo artist ends and Nils Lofgren the E-Street wingman begins?

Well, I hit the road when I was 17, and I'm working on my 44th year. Right out of the gate at 18, I did the "After the Goldrush" album and realized while I'm happy to be a bandleader -- it's really fun to not have to be the boss.

Speaking of "the boss," it appears the new horn section is already hitting stride with the rest of the E-Street Band on this tour. But I can't imaging how it must be for you to be out there, turning to your right and not seeing Clarence Clemons.

I was so devastated and still am at Clarence's passing that it was an inappropriate subject for me to talk about. It was a place where I didn't even go -- "what if-ing" the band's future. I hate to use the word luxury, but it was an emotional gift that I didn't have to burden myself with those thoughts because I'm not the band leader. A few years ago I lost a dear friend, Wade Matthews, who I worked with for quite a while, so I know what it's like to be a bandleader and having to suddenly deal with someone who is gone. Clarence is a huge part of this body of work -- not just musically but spiritually -- going back 40 years. And I know he's happy we're out playing and I feel his spirit is with us every night. I certainly miss standing next to him, but we can't bring him back. So now for me to have five horns including a couple of saxes sharing the responsibility -- well, it takes a village, right? And I'm proud of Bruce for recognizing the world can still use him and his songs and his band out there playing and singing for people.

From a performance and a performer's perspective, what does a horn section bring to the ensemble experience?

I was always to Bruce's right and Clarence was always to my right. And now the horn section is behind Charlie [Giordano, keyboards] on a riser, and when you have a great horn section there's a sound there that's really powerful. But don't forget, we had a horn section on the "Tunnel of Love" tour, which really added a lot. You know, Bruce writes so authentically in the R&B genre and of course rock, that it lends itself to having a really great horn section. On "Kitty's Back," all five of them take a solo -- so with such good players and Bruce, who's a masterful leader, he knows when to call out for horn parts that embellish the material. To be honest, when Bruce first decided to go back out, I was hoping there wouldn't be anybody standing next to me playing a saxophone. But after a few shows, it's fun to turn around and see that horn section up there on the riser. And as painful as it is for me, Bruce and some of the other guys in the band -- the emotions got to be tenfold because of their history together.

Did you ever get to see Clarence during those long periods in-between E Street tours?

I did benefit from a wonderful offstage friendship with Clarence. We both liked to gab, so we'd talk on the phone at least once a week -- often a lot more. I don't know that I ever told anybody this, but three years ago when I had both my hips replaced, it was a big deal. But after four or five days I got to take my first extended walk around the neighborhood with my two canes, my wife and my physical therapist, and we headed up the road to visit Clarence, who had just gotten his first knee replaced. So we probably looked like a couple of old geezers up there on the porch. And we would visit and talk about all kinds of stuff, and before too long we got the call that we were going out on the "Working on A Dream" tour together. But I'll treasure those quiet times I had with Clarence. And being human and a greedy man, I wish I had 20 more years to spend with Clarence, standing next to him on stage, but I have to focus on the years I had with him, be grateful for it, and take his spirit with us like we do now every night. That spirit still helps infuse the music, and it will continue to be a help and benefit. I'm sure Clarence would be up there moaning if we were just sitting around wallowing in our losses and not doing anything about it.

So your new project seems to have a few amazing moments of hopefulness mixed with a thorough dose of hard-ass reality checks including the title track, "60 is the New 18," and "Ain't Too many of Us Left." Did you mean for these to defend or defy growing older?

It's a funny thing. I was coming up on my 60th birthday when I wrote this record, and I never had patience in the studio. Live is where I thrive as a musician, and making records requires a level of patience I just don't have. But when I was making this record, it became an authentic reflection on growing older. When you're 18, you think somebody who is 60 is resigned to the recliner watching TV in your slippers with the kids running you soup and whiskey. But it couldn't be further from the truth. At the same time I was looking around and seeing a lot of people struggling, losing their jobs and their homes -- a lot of fears and anxieties you hope would be gone by the time you're 60. Thanks to music, I've still got a teenage heart. I still hold on to some of that idealism. So this album was meant to be a reflection of both -- the young and the old, and a message to not be afraid of getting older, but instead embracing the good things we have around us.

You also include a little love letter to Ray Charles on "Old School."

Three months before we lost Clarence, I was recording the song "Miss You Ray," which was about the loss of Ray Charles as a metaphor on life and loss. And the idea was if you stay around long enough, you have to face saying goodbye to more friends and family. It's rough, but for those who are left, you can't let the grief keep you from thinking about them or acknowledging them. It was kind of a pep talk to anybody of any age saying, hey, whatever you're suffering through, take a look around and don't sacrifice the joys and opportunities you may have with the ones who are still around in your life. Certainly there are times when you're grief-stricken and that's all you're going to do today. But that day can easily turn into a week, a month, a year, or the rest of your life.

 

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