During more than four decades in the rock 'n' roll business, Nils Lofgren has led his own band, Grin, played as a backing musician, had 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 Tuesday night, Dec. 4, at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
We caught up with him by phone, recently, where he talked about everything from his stint with Neil Young to his ongoing series of online guitar lessons, as well as what life is like playing for Springsteen, one of rock 'n' roll's most popular and respected icons.
I have some questions about the old days if you don't mind.
Sure. You better talk about the old days quick before I forget 'em. I'm 61, you know. Last month I completed 44 years on the road.
Wow, that's amazing. You know, I wore out my 8-track tape of Grin's "1+1" when I was in high school. Remember that album?*
Sure, man, barely, but yes. 8-track tape! Wow. That was an era.
Whenever I see you up there playing with Bruce, I think to myself, "C'mon, break into (Grin's) `Moon Tears'!
Wow, that's cool. My manager and I have started talking about doing a box set that would cover my 44-year career in music.
I want to get your early chronology right. Before Grin, you were with Crazy Horse? Or was that at the same time?
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. He got me a cheeseburger and a Coke, and I watched him do four shows over two nights. I told him we were going out to L.A., and he said `Look me up.
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.
So you did a couple songs with them but didn't join permanently.
No, I did the whole album and was part of the band in L.A. We made a great record with Danny. Unfortunately it was the last record Danny was alive for. Then I went back to Grin. But I was really proud of that Crazy Horse record.
It's a classic.
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." We took it on the road in England which was kind of an adventure. We were playing it on the road to people who had never heard the songs before.
Neil likes to do that, doesn't he?
Well, the audiences didn't take kindly to it, he was trying to turn them on to something he was into, and, it's funny, to this day, I go there almost every year and do my acoustic shows. Afterwards, I sign CDs or T-shirts for people. Almost every night, someone in line says they apologize for booing us on the "Tonight's the Night" tour, they didn't realize they were seeing genius. I say, `Well, I don't know if you were seeing genius, but we didn't appreciate the boos!' Look, to be a live musician at heart, which I am, and to be part of something that powerful and visceral and passionate, it was a spectacular chapter for me.
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?
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. I used to go see him play at the Roxy in L.A., the Bottom Line in New York. I'd go back and say hi and wish him well, he was always a very cool guy. When he made `The River" he sat me down and played me the whole double album just after they'd mixed it. To make a long story short, in 1984 e needed a new guitarist because (Springsteen guitarist) 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. It was another historical moment for me, right up there with Neil Young asking me to do "After the Gold Rush' when I was 18.
So Bruce asked me to join the E Street Band 28 years ago, the same year that Patti (Scialfa) joined as a singer, which we needed. 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.
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. I'm proud and grateful how Bruce challenged himself to create another chapter for the band. Bruce created a community that's bigger and just as rich. It's interesting and great to see all these professional musicians discover what a joy it is to work with Bruce, and what a cool guy he is. He has a great sense of humor, and so much common sense about what it is we're doing, and the improv nature of it, the reckless loose ends. He's got great common sense mixed with his talent, and it's a joy to see him and enjoy that.
I've gotta hand it to Bruce for figuring out how to deal with it. Early in the show he'll say, "Look, it's OK to grieve, we're all grieving, but let's respect the people still standing including the audience." We've all lost people.
People ask me, "Didn't you guys ever think of not playing anymore?" I'm assuming everyone thought about that, I know I did, but I was relieved of the burden of being the band leader, so I didn't have to go there. It was too ominous a decision, and it wasn't my job to make it. I didn't envy Bruce. People started asking me, "What about just not playing out of respect for Clarence." I would say, "Look, when you lose your favorite uncle, do you stop having Christmas dinner with your family? Does your family stop seeing each other at Thanksgiving? No. So what the hell are we supposed to do?" I think it's a way to honor Clarence, he's still there with us, we feel his spirit every night, and I'm honored to have stood next to him onstage for 27 years.
Did you find it hard to submerge your identity as a solo performer and just become a member of the band?
No, not at all. I used to talk about it with Bruce decades before I joined the band. 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. In 1999, I learned to play pedal steel guitar, a little bottleneck. I love playing rhythm guitar.
You turn your body into this big shaker and try to crawl inside the high-hat and just get lost in this hypnotic thing that I never get to do as a band leader. 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.
Thanks. 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.
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.
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 would duck into my son Dylan's old room to watch football, I love sports. And the harp's in there, and it's to my right, so I start reaching over and playing it backwards instead of leaning into it with my shoulder, and 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.
It took months?
Well, think about it. Tapping out a rhythm, playing the harp backwards and playing a guitar solo with your teeth. And then Christopher Titus, the comedian, a great friend, early on in recovery from my double hip replacement surgery four years ago, he sent me this cane, this heavy metal cane with a skull on it that he called the "pimp limp cane." So I started using that, too, a la Fred Astaire. Well, obviously I will never be remotely in his league, but it was just a combination of a lot of things.
So I thought, if I'm going to do this live, I can't have my road crew running out and handing me stuff. I gotta find a way to do it all by myself, and it took quite awhile. We put the tap board through foot pedals to give the sound more depth. It was my way of being creative without being stupid. The surgeons told me the trampoline has to stay in the closet. They told me if I used that again I could be a cripple for life. I was in a lot of pain and hobbling before the surgery. I had a great surgeon, Dr. Paul Pellicci out of New York do the surgery right, so I want to take care of them and have them last for life so I can enjoy just walking around pain-free.
I remember when you used the trampoline onstage. I saw you use it at the Santa Monica Civic in 1977. Van Halen was the opening act.
I was a gymnast in junior high, so I had my old gymnastics teacher show me how to do a back flip off the trampoline while I played the guitar, which is a whole other stunt because you can't use your upper body because you're holding your guitar. It became a big hit on the road.
Yes, like your signature moment almost.
Yeah, welcome to show biz.
When you're playing with the E Street band, are their songs that are your favorites to play?
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.
You don't always know that's coming?
No, you've gotta pay attention all the time. Take "Prove It All Night," that's a song where I used to just play along on acoustic rhythm but that's changed now because now sometimes Bruce has me play a solo. Near the end of the song there's a little break and I run to get my electric guitar. He may play the solo, or Steve might, but if he points at me to play it, I'm ready just in case.
As audience members, we never notice that. It all looks so seamless.
When people ask me to come hang out on tour, I say, "No, I can't, I've got homework." "What do you mean, homework, you just walk out there and start playing. That ain't working. You just play the guitar like on the MTV." We do work hard, and sometimes we call it a job. But it's such a beautiful, honorable thing. I'm honored to have been given the talent. I didn't create it. My parents loved to dance and they loved music and played it in the house. They bought me accordion lessons and I played it for 10 years. They were so supportive. I just happened to play "Louie Louie" a little different than the other guys, and I'm very grateful.
How did your Guitar School course come about?
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. If the practice is frustrating you too much, I counsel people, "Don't even practice. Just do the one-finger stuff and feel what it's like to make music with me. Get hooked on that feeling. If someday you feel like 10 minutes of frustration and trying to learn something, fine, but it's not a race." The first lesson is an hour long, that might last you a year, or, if you practice a lot, maybe a month, then get the next one. The purpose of the school is to try to get people to feel what it's like to make music right away.
That sounds like a great approach. Formal lessons can be so intimidating.
It's frustrating! It frustrated me and I'd played accordion for 10 years.
I was a lunatic, so my hands would hurt and ache and get raw, but I would keep practicing. Most people won't do that. I see them lose interest and stop playing and the guitar just sits in their living room until I show up.
So I say, "No, here's something to do with one finger, just do that. Even if you practice for 20 minutes and you're frustrated, don't walk away from it. Go to the one-finger part and remember, `Yeah, I'm making music."' It's very healing and therapeutic if it's not just frustration. Hey, we've all got that in our lives. The world's crazy so I'm trying to make the gift of music out of the gate for people and remind them to err on the side of that, and then cautiously integrate the practice into it.
What kind of music do you listen to recreationally, not work-related?
My wife dragged me into the technology world with an iPhone, and I got a lot of music. I was surprised about the music thing - it's become invaluable making my latest solo record. Also, on the road, I could find all this music, even my own, that was extinct or out of print. Songs that I could never find in a music store. I listen to everything: British Invasion, Stax/Volt, Motown, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, old country, Hank Williams and everything in between. Old show tunes, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, I'm all over the place. It's like magic. Music is still the same song I've been listening to for 45 years. It still works.
You mentioned old country, which I've started to really appreciate.
I'm from the era of Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson, who I did a duet with on my "Sacred Weapon" album. My manager got him to sing on a song called "In Your Hands," my first bottleneck dobro song that I ever wrote. I wrote it a few Christmases ago for my wife, Amy. Willie sang a duet with me. It was an honor to work with him.
Also, Hank Williams in particular is a big influence. Early on with Grin our drummer, Bob Berberich, who was a great singer, was always singing Robert Johnson and Hank Williams. There's good music here and there, but a lot of country now is just pop-rock. It's not doing it for me. The old stuff is a part of the hodgepodge of music that I enjoy.
We play a lot of Beatles and Stones in the E Street Band dressing room, Steve has the "Underground Garage" show so he knows all that stuff. So when we're done with our homework, we play lots of great things, heavy on Beatles and Stones.
That explosion of music in the 1960s was so great. I got to see Muddy Waters live two times. I snuck backstage where the musicians were all playing cards, throwing cards down on the table, yelling "Hit me!" really loud. I snuck in the corner and watched them for about 10 minutes. Then he looked around, and there I was. He just stared at me. I said, "Mr. Waters, I bought a ticket to your show. Can I just stand her and watch you play cards?" He looked at me kinda funny, said, "Sure, kid," then went back to the game and forgot all about me.
It was very powerful stuff in those days, seeing bands like The Who. One night (in Washington, D.C.) we saw the Who at Constitution Hall, then ran over to see Jimi Hendrix at the Ambassador Theater, and (The Who's) Pete Townshend was in the audience! Talk about a double bill!
But hey, I've been blessed. 44 years as a musician, and I'm playing in one of the great bands of all time. I've never seen Bruce in better shape musically or physically. I'm very grateful to be out there with him and the band.
Sam Gnerre 310-540-5511, Ext. 6612 firstname.lastname@example.org
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Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4.
Where: Honda Center, 2695 E. Katella, Anaheim.
Tickets: Sold out.
Information: For more information on Nils Lofgren's solo work and his "Guitar School" lessons, visit www.nilslofgren.com.