Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band were in Australia on the final leg of their River tour in early 2017 when guitarist Nils Lofgren found himself messing around with a new bluesy riff on his Jazzmaster guitar during a pre-show soundcheck. “I knew I wanted to do something with it,” he says. “I was onstage waiting for Bruce and the band to show up when I just started singing the words ‘blue with Lou.’ I realized I could turn it into a song paying homage to Lou Reed.”
The song became the title track to Lofgren’s new LP Blue With Lou (out April 26th) which contains five songs he wrote with Lou Reed in the late Seventies but have never been released before in any capacity. One of them is “Attitude City,” premiering at Rolling Stone. “I never had the chance to grill Lou specifically about that one,” says Lofgren. “But to me it’s about how the rich and powerful are taking over the planet and deciding there’s not room to care about anybody else. Power and money have become a mental illness. It has bled into our politics and I’m saying all that in this song.”
The seeds for Blue With Lou were planted in late 1978 when Lofgren teamed up with producer Bob Ezrin to cut his solo LP Nils. Lofgren wrote a handful of songs with guitarist Dick Wagner (including the classic “Shine Silently”), but he still felt like he needed help with many of the lyrics. At Ezrin’s encouragement, he met up with Reed to see if he’d be interested in taking on the challenge. They first got together at Reed’s apartment and quickly bonded over football. “He was a big NFL fan, which really surprised me,” says Lofgren. “I grew up in the DC area and was a big Redskins fan. For some strange reason, he loved the Dallas Cowboys, the Number One nemesis of the Redskins. We wound up watching them play each other on a Monday Night Football game that night.”
Reed and Lofgren wound up talking long after the Redskins won 9-5 in a nailbiter. “I said to him, ‘I have all this music that I felt strongly about, but I didn’t like the lyrics,'” says Lofgren. “Lou said, ‘I’m the exact opposite. I write lyrics all the time that I think are good, but the music takes a bit more elbow grease.'”
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Lofgren wound up giving him a tape of 13 songs in various stages of gestation. Weeks passed where he didn’t hear a word from him until one night the phone rang at 4:30 am. “It was pitch dark,” says Lofgren. “And the voice said, ‘Nils, this is Lou Reed. I’ve been up for three days and nights straight. I love your tape. I’ve just completed 13 sets of lyrics I feel great about. If you like, I’ll dictate them to you.'”
“The voice said, ‘Nils, this is Lou Reed. I’ve been up for three days and nights straight. I love your tape.'”
Lofgren jumped out of bed, put a pot of coffee on the stove and began furiously transcribing down the lyrics to every one of his songs. “It was a bizarre, beautiful thing,” he says. “I spent a good two hours plus going line-by-line and word-by-word. When it was done, I was looking at 13 original songs we’d just co-written together. I was thrilled.”
At the time, Reed was midway through recording his solo albums Bells and he asked if he could use three of the songs (“City Lights,” “Stupid Man,” and “With You”) for it. Lofgren gladly agreed, and in return he used three other songs (“A Fool Like Me,” “I Found Her,” and “I’ll Cry Tomorrow”) for Nils. In 1995, Lofgren dug into the vault and used their collaborative song “Life” on his album Damaged Goods and in 2002 he went back again and picked out “Drifin’ Man” for Breakaway Angel.
That still left five songs that never saw the light of day. When Reed died in 2013, Lofgren began thinking that it might be time to let the world hear them. “I always thought in the back of my mind that Lou was going to call one day and be like, ‘Let’s look at those other songs that we wrote together,'” says Lofgren. “When we lost him, I realized that nobody was going to get to hear them until I got it together and did them myself.”
And once the E Street Band’s long River tour wrapped up in February 2017, he finally had time to put his plan into action with help from bassist Kevin McCormick, drummer Andy Newmark and vocalist Cindy Mizelle, the latter having toured with the E Street Band from 2009 through 2014. They recorded the album live at his home studio in Phoenix, Arizona with Lofgren and his wife Amy serving as co-producers. The band lived at their home during the sessions and spent their days tracking live, keeping overdubs to an absolute minimum, and eating meals prepared by Amy, who has a background as a professional chef.
About half of the album is devoted to the five unreleased Lofgren/ Reed tunes (“Attitude City,” “Give,” “Talk Thru the Tears,” “Don’t Let Your Guard Down,” and “Cut Him Up”) along with a new version of “City Lights.” There are also six Lofgren originals, including a tribute to his late dog Groucho (“Remember You”) and “Dear Heartbreaker,” a sad tune about Tom Petty. “Amy and I were huge fans,” he says. “I didn’t intend to write a song about him. It just came out during the process of putting this record together and I wanted to share it.”
In May, Lofgren will take the studio band – along with his brother and former Grin bandmate Tom Lofgren – on the road across America to promote the album. “It’s been 15 years since I went out with a band,” he says. “And I can’t even remember the last time I toured with the same band I just made a record with. Also, my brother is a joy to work with. We don’t get to play together much and we’re excited to share this music.”
The setlist will focus on songs from Blue With Lou along with selections from his long solo career and his days in Grin. The clubs they’re hitting are a fraction of the size of the arenas and stadiums that Lofgren plays on his E Street Band tours, but he likes it that way. “When you’re in those big stadiums it’s just a big spectacle,” he says. “The first row might be 50 yards away. In the clubs, you walk out and 300 or so people are almost on top of you. They’re on your sides. They’re all over. The only place to go for safety is to get in the music and get out of your own mind. You have to let your musical spirit just go. It’s an emotional hit like nothing else.”