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Author: Subject: Long May He Run - An Interview with Nils Lofgren

Zen Peach

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  posted on 9/10/2008 at 09:06 AM

By Jeb Wright, 2008

Nils Lofgren first stumbled onto the world stage at the age of 18 when Neil Young asked him to record on his, then new release, After the Gold Rush. Next, Lofgren recorded with Crazy Horse and eventually Bruce Springsteen --- whom he has played with since the Born in the USA tour.

While he has released many solo albums, a hit single has eluded him. He has gained a loyal following but is more of a cult figure than a guitar hero or pop star. Nils walked away from dealing with record companies over fourteen years ago in order to keep his creative freedom --- and sanity. He has replaced the hassles of dealing with a record company by creating his own website, Nils has free music, CDs and DVDs for purchase as well as a new online school for people who want to learn to play guitar.

Read on as Nils admits he met Neil Young by sneaking backstage at a concert and how he passed the audition to be come a member of the E Street Band. We also talk in-depth about his newest release, a CD of Neil Young songs titled The Loner: Nils Sings Neil. On this unique collection of fifteen Neil Young classics, Lofgren pours his heart and soul into the, live in the studio, acoustic performances - played on the guitar that Young gave him as a gift during the After the Gold Rush sessions.

Jeb: You have made a tribute album to your former boss, Neil Young.

Nils: It was a happy accident. I never would have thought of it, but my manager asked me to consider it. Over the Christmas break from the E Street Band, I took time to make a completely live in the studio record of Neil Young songs. I feel good about it. I love Neil and he continues to inspire me. He has done all of these songs [in the past] with big productions and acoustic arrangements. My manager pointed out to me that in the 14 years I have been without a record company the most popular selling items on my website,, have been the live acoustic CD and DVD. With that in mind, he asked me if I would consider doing an acoustic CD of Neil Young songs.

I wasn't sure about it. I assembled about thirty songs on tape and I listened to them for two weeks and sang to my dogs and cats in the morning. I didn't go to the studio and I didn't try to arrange them; I just sang them. After two weeks, it stopped sounding like good karaoke and started sounding more special. When I had ten to twelve that I felt really worked, I decided to do it. I knew there was no chance of this working unless I did it as a completely live performance, with one instrument, and no overdubs. With all these ground rules, I realized that I had enough to do it. I fired up the machine and started recording. I ended up with fifteen total. I would just go out to the studio and pick a song I felt like singing and I would sing it three times and walk away. The next day, I might come back as the producer, and listen to the vocal and decide which one was going to be the take. It was a labor of love, once I got through that initial two weeks of singing the songs.

Jeb: How difficult was it for you to choose the songs?

Nils: I didn't really choose them; they chose me. I played on After the Gold Rush and Tonight's the Night with Neil and David Briggs, who is like my big brother and mentor - I gave him production credits because I tried to do this through David's eyes. I didn't want the project to drag on for months. I was so excited about the project after the two-week period of singing the songs that I wanted to do it immediately. There were a lot of great songs that I would have liked to see on this record but the ground rules were not to belabor over it. The fact that I ended up with fifteen thrilled me.

Jeb: The track list is not just the best of Neil Young. You take the songs and do them your way but you still pay respect to the man. There are songs that I would not have picked for you to do but you pulled them off. One of them is "Harvest Moon."

Nils: I did "Harvest Moon" at a benefit, and I did MTV Unplugged with Neil, and I performed it then. The song was on my list but I decided I would not do it justice. My wife, Amy, encouraged me to do it because she knew how much I loved it. I was wrong. It turned out to be one of the best vocals on the record. When Amy asked me why I was not going to record it, I didn't have a good answer. I went out and took a shot and it turned out beautifully.

Jeb: You also put on "Don't Cry No Tears."

Nils: I performed that song a lot back in 1983 on the Trans tour. I was playing Wurlitzer electric piano, and Neil was playing guitar, and it was really good. I tried it on piano and guitar and it just sounded too pretty to me. I ended up dropping both E strings to give it a darker model presentation and it gave it some of the grit that I felt was missing.

Jeb: Did you do these songs by instinct?

Nils: It was all instinct. It was a live performance so there was nothing to produce and nothing to overdub or construct. Another song I recorded was the extremely autobiographical "Don't Be Denied." I fell in love with that on the Tonight's the Night tour. I was not aware of the song and Neil taught it to me and I fell in love with it. The song is so visceral as a young musician trying to make it. On the Trans tour we played "Mr. Soul" and we really slowed it way down and did a much more ominous version; that was the starting place for the version I did on my record. I dropped the low E to D and started it much spookier and slower. A lot of the songs I had been involved with before as a musician so the question was, 'How do I make this work with only one instrument?'

Jeb: When I first looked at the track list I thought, "Oh no, he did 'Like a Hurricane.'"

Nils: I played that song so many times with Neil, with his roaring nine-minute guitar solo and it was really great. I wasn't burdened with production on this one. The rules were that I didn't get a rhythm section, an electric guitar or Neil playing lead. I get an acoustic guitar. I detuned it and made it very intimate. Not having a record company, and not being burdened with their pressures, allowed me to do it the way I felt, and if it had not worked, then I would have left it off.

Jeb: I love After the Gold Rush. It is my favorite record Neil ever made...

Nils: Me too. It is a beautiful record.

Jeb: You opened your album with a cut off that album, "Birds."

Nils: Neil played the piano on the original version. "Birds" is one of two songs that I just break into when I play an acoustic show, the other is "Long May You Run." Sometimes, even during an electric show, I will just sit down at the piano and play "Birds." I wanted to get it onto this record. I came up with a take that I thought had my best vocals. I am sure a lot of Neil Young fans will be wondering what I am doing and why am I doing it. I wanted to start out with "Birds" to show them that I meant business and that I know what I am doing. I want them to know that I am honoring these songs. I think "Birds" really lets people know that I am being serious right out of the gate.

Jeb: Has Neil heard your CD?

Nils: I have no idea. I waited until all the versions were done and I called Neil on the phone and got his blessing. He has always been very encouraging to me. The second the songs were mixed, I sent a copy to him. I have heard from his wife, and his manager, who really liked it. Neil is on a world tour, so for all I know it is sitting on his desk at home waiting for him. If, and when, he hears it, I hope he will acknowledge it as a very honest, and sincere attempt to perform his beautiful music.

Jeb: You could have done a number of different things but you can't fake emotion in music and get away with it for very long. This music must really mean something to you.

Nils: It was an enormously powerful stroll down memory lane. David and Neil remain the two biggest musical influences in my career. It was a time when I jumped into the big unknown and I ended up with these two people encouraging me and asking me to play with them. It was an enormous emotional plus that still helps me. I dedicated the CD to them and I really mean it when I say that they continue to inspire me.

Jeb: Going back, how did you first become involved in Neil Young's world?

Nils: My band Grin was leaving Washington D.C. as a big, local band to go to LA to get a record deal. I snuck backstage at The Cellar Door to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse. I started asking questions and was looking for advice and Neil was kind enough to let me sing four or five songs that I had written. He liked them and he got me a cheeseburger and a Coke. I got to watch four great shows over the next two days. He had me out to the hotel to hang with him and the band and he would call me from the road to offer me encouragement. He said, "When you get to LA, look me up." So I did.

David Briggs moved me into his home and took Grin under his wing. He helped us with the ups and downs we went though in Hollywood and when we got a record deal he produced our record. While all that was occurring, I was asked to participate on the After the Gold Rush record. Soon after that, Crazy Horse made a record without Neil and asked me to join the band for that record. It ended up being the definitive Crazy Horse record because Danny Whitten was alive. Shortly after that, I walked into the Tonight's the Night project, which was all done live in the studio, and we went on the road. As a favor for spending so much time away from my band, my manager got them to let Grin open for Neil on the US leg of the tour. I would play with Grin and then throw on a different shirt and go back on stage with the Tonight's the Night band. It was a very exciting tour for a young musician.

Jeb: How old were you at that time?

Nils: I was 18 when we did the After the Gold Rush record. It was quite an experience for a young musician.

Jeb: Did you realize at that age how monumental that was?

Nils: I was so preoccupied with the challenge of holding my own as a rookie musician amongst some heavyweights that I didn't realize what was going on. They wanted me to play piano on the album and I wasn't a piano player. They felt that my ten years as a classical accordion player meant that I would be able to come up with some simple piano parts; they had more faith in me than I did. I would listen back to the music and I would make comments. I felt that we were doing something fresh and special but I was so wrapped up into what was going on that I never looked at it as doing something historical.

Jeb: Did Neil give you his guitar?

Nils: I played guitar on "Tell Me Why" but I didn't own an acoustic. Neil lent me this funky old D18. If you open the original album then there is a picture of Neil sitting on a couch and by him, leaning against the wall, is the guitar I used. At the end of the sessions he gave it to me as a gift. It remains my most treasured guitar and it was the only choice for this live recording of his music. The cover of my CD shows the actual D18. I was blown away when it happened and it is a very treasured and historic guitar. David told me that Neil had been writing songs on this guitar and that it had magic in it. To this day I keep trying to ask Neil about the history of the guitar, but whenever he starts to tell me, he gets called to sound check. It remains a mystery.

Jeb: How did working with Neil shape your solo career?

Nils: The main thing I took away from that was confidence. I have been making records and I have been on the road for forty years and I have never had a hit record. There is a stigma attached to that and you get down on yourself. I have not had a record deal for fourteen years. People of that caliber not only include me, but they allow me to participate and make an honest, hard effort, and that shows that you belong in that setting. That gives you an immeasurable amount of confidence to navigate through all of the other crap in the record industry. It is not all crap because you make music to share. I set out to have hit records, not for the money, but to reach people. I am quite thrilled to play in a bar and have two hundred people show up and I take it just as seriously.

If Grin had started having hit records when I was a teenager, then I would have never played with Neil Young, Ringo Starr or Bruce Springsteen. Playing with people like that have been life altering and life affirming musical ventures that have molded me as a musician and a person.

Jeb: It seems like your musical relationships are with the top of the top. I wondered if it was frustrating that you can have hits with them but that you can't cross over to having solo hits?

Nils: I am honored to sit in with them. I don't equate my solo career and playing as a member of the E Street Band at all. I am thrilled when I get to play a bar gig and someone comes because I play guitar for Bruce. They show up not even knowing anything else about me. They come and see me and pick up my acoustic live CD and go away happy. I love that. I love to play in great bands and I have been lucky to do that. It is nice not to have to be the leader. There is a lot of non-musical stuff that goes along with being the leader, and I am happy to do all of that stuff. I have got up thousands of times with strangers and led a band - I know how to do that. But I like to not be the boss sometimes and it does allow me to have a break and to be able to go back to my music recharged.

Jeb: Does your 'day job' allow you to be more creative?

Nils: The bottom line is that I parted ways with the music industry fourteen years ago. I like and I started a new school for beginning guitarists. I have freedom now that I realized that I would not have because I didn't have hit records. I realized I needed to stay away from that environment. Very few people, other than people like Bruce and Neil have that kind of freedom. Any record company executive would rather have a huge, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band record to promote than a record like Nebraska. Nebraska is a masterpiece. No one can begrudge a record executive for wanting to have a huge album to promote but Bruce is one of the few artists that can have the freedom to do both kinds of records. Now, I have not had the commercial success that Bruce has, but I realized that I needed to have the same kind of freedom, and the only way I could do that was to stay away from record companies.

Jeb: You walked into some pretty big shoes to fill when you joined the E Street band.

Nils: It was heavy. I walked into a room at Bruce's house and the entire band was sitting at a table and there was an empty chair at the end. It was a rough, formidable job but I knew, because of my experience with Neil Young, and my love of the music, that I could do it. I bought tickets to see the E Street Band all through the seventies. I have seen them at the Bottom Line, The Roxy, the Sports Arena - I knew what they were about and I knew they were near to my heart and my musical soul. I knew that somebody was going to have to go through this, so why not me? I loved the music and I could play guitar and I loved jumping to all the different genres. Never the less, I knew it was going to be a tough job to assimilate into because of the history. Now, twenty-four years later, I am still the new kid on the block, but I am not a rookie anymore. I fit right in and I am an intricate part of it. Nobody could just walk into that situation and fit right in. It took me about twenty shows on the road until I felt like I was on top of it.

Jeb: Your first tour was Born in the USA.

Nils: I only got the gig four weeks before opening night. It was crazy. Bruce knew there was going to be growing pains but everyone had a great, professional attitude about it. They all knew there were no shortcuts. I had faith that at some point it was going to be right for everybody. After twenty shows it was.

Jeb: That tour took Bruce to a new level of success.

Nils: It got him to the global, iconic arena. It was the first tour that moved him into stadiums. He didn't really want to do that but he had so many new fans that he really had no choice.

Jeb: Did you have to audition?

Nils: We were friends over the years. We bumped into each other in hotels and shows; we were on the same circuit. To make a long story short, when he needed a guitarist, I got the first call. I went up and jammed with the band for two days. He didn't feel the need to go any further on his list and he offered me the job. I have been very blessed and I am grateful that it felt right to him and that I got the job.

Jeb: Both Young and Springsteen are master lyricists. Have you been able to compare and contrast the two?

Nils: The similarities are much greater than the differences. Other than the sound of their voices, they are both great guitarists and they love to play. They have very similar paths. What separates them from anybody is their gift for lyrics. It is a short list of people who have hundreds of songs of that caliber. You have Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, the Beatles and maybe the Beach Boys - and Neil and Bruce.

Jeb: What is difference in playing live with Neil and playing live with Bruce? Neil seems as if he may be looser than Bruce.

Nils: Tonight's the Night was the loosest tour in history - I have never been in the Grateful Dead so that might qualify. It was a concept record that we took on the road and played - we didn't even play his hits. It was a dark and ominous thing. With Bruce, we are doing improv shows; the set list has become useless. He is grabbing signs out of the audience and just holding them up. It is very similar in the sense of what they are looking for from me and that is to improv. I am free to trust my instincts and throw myself into it. My hands are not tied at all. I am musically free and that is the similarity to working with both of them. I love the live audience where you only get one chance and have to trust your instincts.

Jeb: Springsteen is known as the 'everyman' rock star. After all the money he has made, how can he still relate to the average person?

Nils: It is a personal choice. I have watched Ringo Starr be the most down to earth person I have ever seen. Neil and Bruce are the same way. They get in the car and go to town or go to the movies. They insist on leading a normal life - as much as they can. It is a gift they continue to give themselves at all costs. It serves their spirit and soul to be that way. I have no idea what it would be like to be that famous. Everyone handles it how they want, but those guys make a point of reveling in their freedom and insisting on it.

Jeb: You seem to be very involved in your website.

Nils: I have started my guitar school that has downloads for people who want to learn how to play for fun. It is a new business for me. Dick and Linda Bingham run the website for me as I am very computer challenged - I can barely answer emails. I send in a note every few weeks and let everyone know what I am up to. I read all stuff in the chat room and I try to respond. There is free music and there is music that you can purchase. It would have been great to have a giant hit record with a giant record company but it didn't happen. The website is the daylight that I need to run to.

Jeb: Will you be able to do a live performance of these Neil Young songs?

Nils: I will finish the Springsteen tour and then I will go home for a while. I have been doing a lot of acoustic duo shows. I have an entire two and half hour live acoustic DVD on my website called Live Acoustic Nils Lofgren and Friends that you can purchase. I will do some more acoustic shows and these songs will be integrated into my shows. I don't see doing all fifteen of them but I can see a handful of them being played.

Jeb: Do you have any original music coming out?

Nils: I am concentrating on Bruce's tour at the moment. I have some ideas that will inevitably end up as a new solo record but that is another big project down the road. I have given myself the gift of being in this band and concentrating on this music.

Jeb: Last One: Will we see Nils does Springsteen next?

Nils: I don't think you will. I have done a couple of versions of Springsteen songs for charity records already. I have played some songs in my acoustic shows and "Because the Night" is on my live DVD. I have done half of a Bruce Springsteen record already. They are out there and available but you just have to search for it on
several releases.


Zen Peach

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  posted on 9/10/2008 at 09:53 AM
great read..thanks..i love Nils




True Peach

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  posted on 9/10/2008 at 10:29 AM




Zen Peach

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  posted on 9/10/2008 at 11:08 AM
Thanks for sharing the article, Isaac! Nils is great - in all his incarnations (NY, BS, Ringo, solo work...). An accoustic with Neil...


"Come on down to the Mermaid Cafe and I will buy you a bottle of wine, and we'll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down..."


Zen Peach

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  posted on 9/10/2008 at 11:35 AM
I saw Nils with his Brother and their band at West Virginia Wesleyan when I was an undergrad in 1976, They kicked butt. This was Right after "I came to Dance" came out as a single.

Have to get this record.

among the other big gigs Nils did was to audition for the spot in the Rolling Stones when Mick Taylor quit.
I guess it was to tough to beat out Ronnie Woods (who just had "It's only rock n roll" dedicated to him)
I think they just auditioned Nils to keep Woody from getting too big of a ego.

thanks for the read.


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