During more than four decades in the rock 'n' roll business Nils Lofgren has led his own band, Grin, played as a backing musician, crafted a highly successful solo career and, oh yeah, learned to tap dance and play the stringed harp simultaneously.
For 28 of those 44 years, he's played guitar in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, one of the most renowned outfits in rock music history. Lofgren will be in his usual position onstage when Springsteen appears in concert Nov. 30 at the Oracle Arena in Oakland.
We caught up with him by phone, recently, as he talked about everything from his stint with Neil Young to his series of online guitar lessons, as well as what life is like playing for Springsteen.
I want to get your early chronology right. Before Grin, you were with Crazy Horse? Or was that at the same time?
N.L.: What happened was, at 17, I hit the road professionally with Grin. We were a local band out of the Washington, D.C., area with a lot of original music.
We went out to L.A. I had a habit of asking my musical heroes for advice, sometimes with good success, sometimes not. Three weeks before we left Neil Young was kind enough, when I snuck backstage at (the Washington, D.C., club) the Cellar Door to see him with Crazy Horse on their first tour, to let me play some songs for him. ... I told him we were going out to L.A., and he said "Look me up." We got out there and, true to his word, he turned us on to his producer, David Briggs, who took us under his wing.
While we were having our ups and downs trying to make a record with David Briggs as producer, a year later, at age 18, I did the "After the Gold Rush" record with Neil. I played guitar, piano and sang. After that -- and before "Tonight's the Night," which was Neil's next project -- Crazy Horse, who I'd gotten to be good friends with, was always slated to make a record with Danny Whitten as their lead singer and writer and without Neil to have their own identity. And they did. For that record ("Crazy Horse," Reprise, 1971), Jack Nitszche joined as producer and I joined as guitarist and singer, and I wrote a couple songs for Danny. Although they were friends and wanted me to quit Grin, I made it clear that that wouldn't happen.
(The album) is a classic.
N.L.: I still listen to it. Of course, then Danny died (at 29, of a drug overdose), which led to what I consider the "wake" album, which was "Tonight's the Night."
You went on to have a very successful solo career after that. How did the affiliation with Bruce and the E Street Band come about?
N.L.: Well, Grin was out of D.C., so I was aware at an early age of Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey, I'd heard a lot about him. Actually, in 1970, his band Steel Mill and my band Grin did an audition night together for Bill Graham at the Fillmore West. I think eventually both of us got opening-act slots from Bill. I was buying tickets to go see Bruce play as early as 1974 and I always was a fan. In L.A., I would bump into him at the Sunset Marquis hotel, we'd take drives together, talk about music. We kind of had the same sensibility about the power of rock 'n' roll music in general, how it was a healing and therapeutic source for the planet. We maintained a friendship. ... In 1984 he needed a new guitarist because Steve Van Zandt went to go start his solo career. When Bruce needed a guitar player, I was grateful for the opportunity. I got a chance to play with the band for a couple of days and it felt good.
... So Bruce asked me to join the E Street Band 28 years ago, the same year that Patti (Scialfa) joined as a singer. ... And, hey, I would never have been this greedy, to be able to join the E Street Band and still be playing with them 28 years later, and arguably be doing some of our best shows.
I saw the first leg at the Sports Arena earlier this year. It was a great show. There's more variation now in what you guys do.
N.L.: Well, the loss of Clarence (Clemons, Springsteen's longtime saxophone player) had an effect. He was a dear friend offstage. I spoke to him almost every day, and of course I stood right next to him onstage for 27 years.There's no "Clarence 2," so we couldn't be the band we were. Same with Danny (Federici, E Street Band keyboard player who died of cancer in 2008) -- Charlie Giordano has been terrific but losses like that change the band. Now we have a five-piece horn section with two sax players taking Clarence's parts, and his nephew, Jake, actually playing his uncle's instrument. It adds a thread to the story that keeps the family aspect going. But it was rough losing Clarence, it still is. I miss him every night, but I know he'd want us to be doing this.
Did you find it hard to submerge your identity as a solo performer and just become a member of the band?
N.L.: No, not at all. ... I was 18 when I did "After the Gold Rush" and I'd already been leading bands and writing songs since I was 15. Cover bands, my own stuff, Grin.
I've been out for the last two years doing my own shows, and there's a lot of nonmusical issues you have to deal with as a band leader. Basically, you sing every vocal, you play every solo. When I'm in other bands, I get to sing harmony with great singers. ... To me, it's all part of a musical journey that I love. After the last two tours and albums we did back to back, I walked into my next solo project, my new record "Old School."
It's a very good record.
N.L.: I was excited about it, and I was sharp and not rusty musically. I made it at home with the doors open, my dogs came to visit me. I tried to ask my fabulous New Jersey wife, Amy, who I met at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, by the way, to interrupt me while I was making it, to let me go to the vet or run an errand. I'm pretty useless, but I can go buy milk, I can take a dog to the vet, and just be a part of my family while I slowly but surely made a record that was an authentic look at the good and bad of turning 60 and being around for awhile.
You mentioned your age, but I just saw your "Dream Big" video: Tap dancing, man.
N.L.: I'm so glad you saw that. I played basketball for years, but I can't do that anymore with these two metal hips. A buddy, Greg Varlotta, has played with me for the last couple years -- he plays keyboard, guitars and sings, and he's a tap dancer. He taps in my show. We use it as percussion. Like Savion Glover, tap dancers are percussionists. So I said to him, "Greg, I've always loved the old tap dancers, Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers, can you give me a few lessons?" He started teaching me and I did it as a hobby. So finally I said, "Hey, let me throw it in the show a little bit here and there."
But you're tapping, and using the cane, and playing a stringed harp -- at the same time.
N.L.: My wife, Amy, gave me the harp. And I said, "What the hell am I going to do with this?" So I started picking out a few riffs. ... I just started picking out that riff to "Dream Big" and I'm shuffling around and I said, "Wait a minute, I'm a beginning tap dancer, what if I shuffle around and tap out a rhythm while I play the harp?" It led to this gigantic performance piece that took months to put together.
When you're playing with the E Street band are their songs that are your favorites to play?
N.L.: I'm such a fan of Bruce's writing, I love all his stuff. Certainly some songs are easier to play and some are much more musically challenging.
Something like "Cadillac Ranch" or "Ramrod," those are just basic blues-based rock pieces where you just get to roar a bit. The pressure's off, you just lean into your guitar and play that rough, great pocket rhythm for the whole song. Then there are more complex things that are wonderful, like "Tunnel Of Love" with its solo and little idiosyncratic parts Bruce put on the record. I play the solo. Wonderful song, but it's challenging. Sometimes I go through two guitars during the same song, different foot pedals and changes, and I love the song but it's hard.
That's the great thing about playing live. Tonight you might have to do a two-minute solo after that song, so be ready. There are times when Bruce just points at you and you gotta be ready to solo.
How did your Guitar School course come about?
N.L.: Well, there are beginning, intermediate and advanced lessons you can download at my website, www.nilslofgren.com. People have been telling me for years that they'd love to play rock guitar, but they're not allowed to because they have no talent and they have no rhythm. When I asked them who told them that, they never know. It's just a perception. My beginner's school is meant for those even without talent or rhythm who want me as an instructor. What I try to do, because it's all gymnastics for the hands and can be frustrating, is to say, "Here's something you can do with one finger that takes no rhythm or talent. I'll back you up." I want to get people to try to feel what it's like to make music, immediately.
Sam Gnerre 310-540-5511, Ext. 6612 email@example.com
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