In the time-flies department, this June marks the 30th anniversary of Nils Lofgren’s debut as a member of the E Street Band. “I was a deer in the headlights,” Lofgren recalls of the first arena show with the band, in St. Paul. “That first night was crazy. We were also shooting the ‘Dancing in the Dark’ video with Courteney Cox. I was on the front line with Bruce, and I learned early on he likes to improv a lot — call you over and have you sing over there instead. The main thing I learned is you have to watch him.”
Of the many shows that followed in the marathon Born in the U.S.A. tour, Lofgren adds, “It took me about 20 shows to get to the level of comfortability, not for lack of help from Bruce and the band. My main chore was integrating 60 or 80 songs into my psyche. I gave myself permission to turn off my guitar and play air guitar if I blanked on a bridge. But you’ve got two of the greatest keyboard players in the world and you’ve got Bruce, so the song’s gonna roar on.”
Long before those early E Street shows — and continuing in the years since — Lofgren also had a thriving career of his own, first with the beloved D.C.-area Seventies band Grin and then on his own starting in 1975. He’s released a few compilations in the past, but nothing approaches Face the Music, a 10-disc retrospective arriving May 27th. The most extensive look at Lofgren’s career to date, the box — nine discs of music and a concert DVD — includes a demo recorded when he was 16, unreleased solo and Grin material, and cuts from every one of Lofgren’s albums, including cult classics like Nils Lofgren, Cry Tough, the Pete Townshend-praised Crooked Line, and Grin’s 1+1, all the way up to his latest solo release, 2011’s Old School.
For all his skills as a singer, switchblade-riff guitarist and writer of both rockers and ballads, Lofgren never scored a hit album or single. As Face the Music demonstrates, that lack of commercial success didn’t impact on his stature in the business. Various tracks include cameos by Springsteen, Neil Young (who has recruited Lofgren for numerous projects over the years, starting with After the Gold Rush), Willie Nelson and even Rick James. An exhaustive booklet features testimonials from a wide range of fans, including Springsteen, Young, Bono, Sting, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Eddie Vedder.
Thanks to hip replacement surgery in 2008, Lofgren, 62, can no longer bounce around on his onstage trampoline or play hard basketball like he once did. “I’m trying to be more mindful of my body after being abusive of it for years,” he says. Before going off to rehearse with the E Street Band for its upcoming six-week tour — and prepare for his upcoming induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — Lofgren talked with Rolling Stone about the box set and some of the adventures he’s had in his 40-plus-year career as a solo act and sideman.
How did you end up with a 10-disc set? You’ll make Neil jealous.
Fifteen months ago, the Concord Muisc Group approached me. They said, “We think we can do a 10-disc package. There’s enough music there.” And I said, “All right, man.” I handpicked every song and went through decades of basement tapes. The gem we found — and thank God we found it — is Grin doing “Keith Don’t Go” with Neil [Young] playing piano and singing. It was a vivid memory: Neil was passing through town on tour and [producer David] Briggs got him down there. Neil was up for singing and playing piano, and it’s rare he does a piano session. I thought the tape was lost. We found the 16-track in the basement of the house in Maryland where I grew up.
Yes, most of us know that song from your first solo album after Grin. What lead you to write a song about Keith’s problems as far back as ’73?
I wrote it on the Tonight’s the Night tour with Neil in England in 1973. All these great musicians were showing up, and at every gig I’d meet 10 of Keith Richards’ best friends, who were worried about his heath and predicting doom and gloom. I was naïve and thought, “Geez, the guy just made Exile on Main St.” I wasn’t worried about Keith, but every day I was bombarded with this. So I wrote a thank-you note to him. I already had this dark, sinister music.
You’ve had some wild adventures with Neil, like Tonight’s the Night and Trans.
Tonight’s the Night was the roughest record ever made, all live in the studio. That was the plan. No fixes no matter what. Neil didn’t want us learning the song and working on parts too much. It was the antithesis of production. Briggs would say, “When Neil gets the vocal, that’s it — we’re not going to over-rehearse.” We’d drink tequila, have a couple of puffs, play pool and commiserate about our dead friends Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, and then record through the night.
On the Trans album, Neil invented all these machines to help handicapped kids and gave all the machines names and personalities, and I’m going, “This guy is brilliant.” Then one day I show up and I hear all this hubbub with Elliot Roberts. I hear that David Geffen is suing Neil because he’s too “un-Neil Young-like.” I’m thinking, “How can this happen?” But that’s the bureaucracy of the business. On the Trans tour in Europe, I like to brag that we were so crazy as a collective band that we were too much for Neil Young and at the end of six weeks, he fired us! [Laughs] To be so crazy to freak out Neil Young, that’s crazy. We were all pretty buzzed. One day Neil says, “I need you to do me a favor. After rehearsal, go to Bruce [Palmer’s] house and sit there and play the songs for a few hours with him.” So we played “Cowgirl in the Sand” over and over. It was an exercise in helping Bruce with muscle memory. There are outtakes from the Berlin video I hope see the light of day, like a really slow and deep version of “Mr. Soul” with vocoders. I’d walk out there and get down on my knees with my guitar and Neil would whack the strings for a great moment of distortion. Really reckless and passionate.
Of the testimonials in the package, which ones surprised you the most?
I had no idea Elvis Costello was familiar with Grin that early on, from the very first record. I remember seeing him with the Attractions in Santa Monica and I thought, “Wow, a great band” — punk or whatever they called it. So that was surprising. Jackson Browne, too — another surprise about how familiar he was with my music in light of the fact that a lot of it is out of print. It was touching. A couple of years ago I was doing an acoustic show at a little seaside resort in England and in blows Roger Daltrey. He watched the whole show and posted something great about it online. He mentioned songs and details and lyrics in that post. It blew my mind.
Given you never had a real hit, that must be gratifying.
It’s extremely gratifying. It’s been a great reminder that it’s not about making records that were hits.
Was it hard to sift through all this material and come across almost-hits like “Shine Silently,” “Back it Up” and “I Came to Dance”?
It’s all water under the bridge. “Painful” is too harsh a word, but “disappointing” may be better. When we did the Nils album, we thought that was going to do well. [Producer] Bob Ezrin, who I love, said, “‘Shine Silently’ is a hit! ‘No Mercy’ follow-up!’ It’s a lock!” No, it wasn’t. We were wrong. But thanks to mentoring by Neil and Briggs, I was told you have to start with being authentic and passionate. Those are things you should always maintain at all costs. Be true to yourself. That softened the blow of the disappointments of the lack of commercial success. During the Amnesty International tour with Bruce, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Tracy Chapman, one night at the bar Sting walks up and says, in his inimitable way, “I’m going to say this once—’No Mercy’ is a great song.”
How did you endure all those solo-career disappointments, one after another?
When things got rocky, I had this great sense that if you remain honorable in some fashion, things will work out. It’s like one door closes and another door opens. It’s the hallway that’s hell.
One of those times must have been after you released a very strong album in 1983, Wonderland, that didn’t do well — but right after, you were invited to join the E Street Band.
That was a rough period. The record was put out with no promotion, and then I couldn’t get a record deal for the first time in my life, and that freaked me out. I’d made my best record, and I was told I was a dinosaur. And Bruce, God bless him, invited him up for a weekend. I was down in the dumps, and we went and jammed with bands in bars. We listened to Born in the U.S.A. over and over — they’d just finished it. We were watching MTV and they announced Steve was leaving the band and Bruce got pissed off and said, “That’s not true.” This was months before, but it was the rumor mill. I said, “Man, if you ever want a guitar player, I’d love to audition.” He looked at me funny and said, “Really?”
In the liner notes of the box, you talk about writing songs with Lou Reed for your Nils albums in 1979 — and having him dictate the lyrics to you?
That was the wildest thing. Lou didn’t co-write, so we were thrilled that he was open to do it. We met at his house and were drinking pretty heavily and watching football — he was a big Dallas fan. For starters, I said, “Why don’t I send you a cassette of ideas?” A month went by and I hadn’t heard from him. Then out of the blue, he called and woke me up in the middle of the night in my house in Maryland and said, “I’ve been up for three days and nights — I’ve done 13 songs down. Get something to write with and I’ll dictate the lyrics.” I was sound asleep, but I put on a pot of coffee and sat there and he dictated. By the time the sun had come up, I hung up the phone and said, “I just wrote 13 songs with Lou Reed.” He used three of them on The Bells, and I used some on Nils. Now that Lou’s passed — an awful loss — I have to go back and resurrect some of the ones left behind. There are probably four left, finished songs set to my music. Originally when I looked at them, I thought, “Maybe these are lyrics only Lou Reed can deliver.” They’re really out there. But what the hell — my poor friend is gone.
The box set also includes a photo of you onstage with the Pretenders — you sat in with them a bunch, right?
After all the great music of the Sixties, you wondered, “Geez, man, is music ever gonna be that powerful again?” And all of a sudden there was the Police and the Pretenders — they were those bands. Oh, my God. I went to see the Pretenders on their first US tour. I just bought a ticket and sat in my seat. When it was over I’m walking down the steps, and I hear an English voice say, “You’re Nils, aren’t you?” It was their tour manager, who said [guitarist] Jimmy Honeyman-Scott was a big fan of mine and wanted to say hi. We started hanging out and jamming and talking music, and Jimmy was very familiar with my work. I played with them at their big New York show. Jimmy and I were walking around the balcony looking at all the reserved tables — “Reserved for Bette Midler,” things like that. It was fun. At one point there was some talk of maybe getting someone else in the band. It’s not like they were soliciting it. It was just a beautiful conversation I had with Jimmy. We went our ways and then I got that horrible call [that Honeyman-Scott had died of an overdose].
Before his death, would you have considered joining them?
Sure. I would have loved to consider that if it happened.
On Bruce’s recent Australian tour, you all did some crazy covers. When would you hear about them?
A lot of times you’d hear the morning of, so you’d do a very heavy YouTube/iTunes search. We spent a couple of days at soundcheck saying “Friday on My Mind” is one of the most complex, musically sophisticated rock songs ever recorded. Nobody covers it, because it’s too much work. And Bruce goes, “Nobody covers that? Well …” [laughs] And the next thing you know, you get the call and it’s, “Oh, man” — you know the song but not how to play it. That was a big education.
And you covered “Highway to Hell,” which brings you full circle when you opened for the Who and AC/DC on a European festival tour in the Seventies.
We always seemed to stay in English hotels with pool tables, and sometimes I’d go down to the lobby for a drink at 2 or 3 in the morning, and Bon Scott was always there, in his bell-bottom blue jeans and no shirt, playing pool with a bottle of whiskey. I’ve been blessed and lucky with the ride I’ve had.