jason stives speaks with E-Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren …
A musician never measures his talents by his title but his contribution to the art form he loves. The leader of a band can easily transition to a side man or start out as one, as people like Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Jack Bruce will tell you. A musician can wear many hats and through their immeasurable talent fulfill the same amount of respect as any other big name, even if they stand to the side of the mic instead of in front of it. Nils Lofgren, a guitar virtuoso and a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, wears just as many hats, but at the end of the day is glad to be just contributing to what he loves.
Lofgren has been in the music industry since he was 18, frequently touring as his own act in the early ’70s, as well as touring and collaborating with rocker Neil Young on some of his most acclaimed albums. In the mid ’80s, he became a certified member of E Street, a position he has held since 1984. In between touring and recording his own material as well as with other artists, he is a devoted family man, living in Arizona with his wife of 15 years, Amy, as well as an online guitar teacher, and supporter of all things positive in life.
Pop-Break’s Jason Stives spoke with Lofgren over the phone about being on the road and in the studio, being a step father in such radical times, and his upcoming acoustic duo performance at the famed Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., on May 6.
Pop-Break: So after what seems like a decade of working and touring with Springsteen, numerous solo projects, and lending a hand on other peoples side projects, things seem to be a bit quiet on your front. What have you been up to this past year, and what are you currently working on?
Nils Lofgren: I’m doing really well, actually. I’ve been living in Arizona for 15 years with my West Orange-Jersey girl wife, Amy. This has been my home for that long, but my in-laws still live in Jersey and my family lives in the Maryland/D.C. area, so I have several homes in a way. I met Amy at The Stone Pony about 30 years ago. Long story short: We hung out for the night, I was leaving to go to Boston, but she couldn’t come. I was hoping I was going to see her in a few months time, but it turned into 15 years before we had our second date, reconnected, and fortunately, we have been together since then. So I’m hitting the road again and looking forward to heading back to the Jersey Shore for this gig at the Pony. I kind of feel like I have become an honorary Jerseyan in a way. I’ve been up and down the Turnpike so many times, and in 43 years I have seen that Turnpike a lot. Other than that, I’m looking to put a new album out for a fall release, so I’m using this acoustic duo tour to try new stuff. I also have my online guitar school, and that is going pretty well and people seem to really like it.
PB: How did the idea of the online guitar school come about?
NL: Well, over the years, people have asked if I give guitar lessons, and with being on the road all the time, I was never able to teach guitar to people who really wanted to learn. So this was my way of teaching fans indirectly through a series of videos that, for some, may take an hour and others it can several hours to embrace. Some of my online students, I have been told, can get very frustrated because they want to get that style that they have heard on the records or at live shows. I show them videos of how to play [Bruce Springsteen's] “Badlands,” and when they can’t learn within an hour or two, it becomes a chore for them. But guitar playing is more than a chore — it’s a process that takes dedication, and eventually they will develop their craft and ability. So this acts as a beginner school for people that need a little excitement about wanting to learn how to play the guitar and a bit of encouragement. It’s definitely a great feeling, and the people have done the guitar school really seem to like it.
PB: You were saying about how people get frustrated because they want to be able to play that style that they hear on all these songs. Where do you feel personal style comes from. Is it something learned over the years, or a personal experience that makes one realize where it’s at?
NL: Growing up with music, it comes from different directions and from different things you hear, Initially you start out you hear an Eric Clapton lick and then an Albert King lick to start out. Eventually, you start hearing your own lick, your own personal style and its kind of a melting pot of music that comes out at different times in your career.
I remember when Neil Young did his MTV Unplugged special back in ‘93, he had recorded it with the Harvest Moon band once in New York but then decided to do it again in Los Angeles because he didn’t like how it turned out. So he asked me to come in to kind of double track what he was playing with his band. Here I am practicing these licks for a few weeks, and eventually I was playing them how I wanted to play them but in a way that they would match Neil’s style and what he wanted. So we got to rehearsals and we tried the song and I had been doing all this practice in the week leading up to the LA recording and the Harvest Moon band really was out of practice with the song [laughs], so we didn’t end up playing it. I still played the lick and felt I could play it but not completely execute it but emulate it which is the beauty of rock and roll being able to own a lick which normally doesn’t come to most players.
There are some things I can’t do because of my fingers, but because they are thick sometimes I can do something with just two strings others normally can’t and you just make do with what is made available. Sometimes you have to sit there and decide what you can’t play at that moment, but with a couple weeks practice you can do it. I use to do that a lot with solos for some of Bruce’s songs, especially “Because The Night” and “Youngstown.” So I get an idea, and chip away at it, then a few weeks later I get something for it. Either I get it or I modify it to fit my skills and ability, and that ability stems from learning music from basically 6 years old on in my life and I’m still learning, a thirst for knowledge really.
PB: With being on the road a lot, night in and night out, you tend to play certain songs regularly. Do you try to do something different each night with a particular solo, or do you keep it in the same domain but just a bit different?
NL: It varies depending on the situation. In my own shows I improv a lot, so I’m free to do what I want. Now in other instances, like when we started doing “Youngstown” in the E Street Band’s repertoire, Bruce kind of gave me a solo, because with Bruce everything is a surprise, and initially there would be a nice buzz solo just short and sweet. After 20 to 30 shows, you find yourself playing an almost two-minute solo at his request and you have to be on guard. I just get an affirmative nod from him and I know to just go. One night in D.C., which is basically my hometown, I wanted to get something good going on. So I jammed on “Youngstown” a bit before we went out, and I wasn’t finding anything that particular evening. Yet sometimes you find that uniqueness after playing it take after take. So I assembled a thematic movement of the song but in a way that I could improv in the middle. The themes of the song would remain consistent, but it was great to know I could jam inside the solo because you can’t expect to have a whole band go along with it in rehearsal so that you can try it out. I don’t have that clout because it’s not my band [laughs], but it still makes it important.
Same thing with performing “Because The Night.” It’s funny: During one night of The Rising tour, Bruce would play the solo, and then one night, and thank God I was looking as not to embarrass myself, he basically pointed to me with an affirmative nod to play the solo. So the same technique applies, I felt like I needed to give more, like we deserved more as a band to give something, but sadly he never gave me that cue again on the tour. So is life on the road [laughs], but then eventually I did it at one of the Christmas benefit shows in Asbury Park and then again on some of the most recent tours I’ve been given the mutual nod to go ahead on the solo.
PB: I know from watching you play in the past and seeing footage of you from years back you are notorious from doing cartwheels and things on trampolines. Where exactly did that style of stage performance come from, and with you having had a double hip surgery a few years back, would you ever take a gander at doing something like that again on stage?
NL: It’s quite a story actually. Way back in the late ’60s, when I hit the road with my band, Grin, we played with a lot of great bands with great stage acts, in particular The J. Geils Band. I was initially a bit shy and didn’t really jump around. While I was trying to figure out what to do with myself on stage that didn’t seem forced or fake, I went back to my old gymnastics teacher in Washington D.C. and told him I wanted to a do a back flip while holding the guitar. It requires a lot of concentration on the back area, and, of course, while holding something like a guitar, it can distract from where all the force is going. So I had to learn how to do the stunt without thinking heavily into the back. Eventually, I did a lot after the music got hotter, because it moved me and I started doing it for decades.
There is actually a great story on my website about the dive roll I did at Giants Stadium a few years back. I use to do it when we did “Rosalita” live, and then when that went away from the set I started doing this dive roll when Bruce would introduce me.
The funny thing about doing the dive roll a few years back was at the time both my hips were shot, I hadn’t had the surgery, and the roll requires more emphasis on the back and neck then the hips. Once I got my hips done right before we toured for Working On A Dream, the surgeon looked at me and I told him what I do. He said if I do the dive roll or even the trampoline stunts and mess it up one time, it can really do damage even with these new hips. So regrettably, I’m back on stage jumping around, but sadly the trampoline is back in the closet and I don’t do the dive roll on recommendation by my doctor. But now that I am back touring on my own, I’m more physically active and I would rather not screw up all that energy and ability by attempting something like the dive roll again. It’s not like my guitar playing, I play harder then ever so I just try to be smart about it and I hope to keep doing it for a long time.
PB: You were saying earlier about the significance of Asbury Park on a personal level. Everyone knows the connection it has for Bruce. But coming back to Asbury Park, what kind of meaning does a show like that have for you, doing a club gig compared to a Giant Stadiums or a show in Barcelona?
NL: Well to me, it’s all an opportunity to be grateful to the people you play to. Whether its Giants Stadium with The E Street Band or at The Stone Pony in a few weeks as an acoustic duo, each experience is made to be special to those who come out. I’m really excited about it, and it’s a great challenge because I love live performance over studio performance any day of the week. Playing live is where I thrive, whereas in a studio, I don’t have the patience. And it’s not just with Bruce, it’s been performing stadiums with Neil Young or theaters with Ringo Starr — I love it all. It’s just another rock bar, but one with a lot of history and one that has played a big part in my career, the numerous times I have been going up and down the turnpike. Its still a bit challenging because it’s a dark room, it,s noisy, people are talking and drinking which you expect because you want them to have a good time, but I’m also doing it acoustic, so emotionally it’s a challenge of intimacy, but it’s still a bar deal and you got to work with it. Thankfully, I’m used to it after all these years, and it just serves as a great challenge as a live performer. It’s just a chance to do something special for people who take the time to come out and see you.
PB: As a musician you have been thrown under different monikers from sideman to band member to your own solo work. As a musician, does any kind of name like that feel any different to you then just saying I’m a musician?
NL: It depends on the outlook, and I learned at an early age thankfully. I was 18 when I recorded After The Gold Rush with Neil, and I realize that it’s nice not to be the boss everyday, I’m good at being in a band and for me it’s very refreshing because as a band leader you sing every line and play every solo so you can’t go on playing rhythm guitar for 20 minutes.
If I’m in a band, there is nothing small or less focused about my contribution. Some may see that as just being a sideman not playing much but that’s their opinion. Personally, any band I have ever been in I have been blessed to work with people I love and doing the music I love. So I don’t care if I have a tambourine, I’ll play it with as much interest, and sometimes these certain moments come up where you take the lead.
Last year when we finished touring, on one of the stops we were coming up on the death of our dear friend Terry McGovern, who Bruce had written the track “Terry’s Song” for Magic. So his anniversary was approaching and he thought about playing it, and I realized Terry was so special to me, I asked if I could sing Bruce’s harmony part on the son,g and he said sure. So I went off to make sure I knew the part and sitting on stage with this extremely emotional song about a dear friend of mine who I had lost, for me that was just as focused as playing to 72,000 people in Barcelona, with the crowd going mad with energy and excitement. It was just as challenging and powerful, but for someone watching in the audience they might’ve felt I could do it in my sleep. But the point is, if I’m up there with the people I love, I don’t care if I just do a little harmony or play a tambourine. I’m contributing and I will be there all the way to do it. I feel very blessed to have that focus regardless of what I’m doing.
PB: Much like how you felt playing “Terry’s Song” live, I assume through the years the strength of a performance can be greatly attributed to the emotions you are feeling. No doubt over the years that has happened many times. For example, a few years back when you lost former E Street Band keyboardist Danny Federici to cancer, how did the shows that followed his passing play out? Was there a certain intensity and bond from doing those songs that you tried to get out to show a real kinship during that loss?
NL: Of course, and that was a terrible loss. To navigate around that is very emotional and a bit disconcerting, but that is the beauty and power of a band. What Bruce did was powerful with that first show after. We had a tribute video to Danny then we came out and I believe we did “Backstreets” with no organ playing as an homage to Danny and also as a way to say, “Look at how big this loss is both personally and music.” Then we carried on the show with Charlie and did phenomenal in such a difficult situation. But that was no different then when I was touring with Neil Young on the Tonight’s The Night album in ‘74 and we had lost two dear friends of ours. It was almost a wake on tour and was very powerful, but you have to do what you have to do. We carried on and I was grateful to have the people around me with me during that.
PB: Now you have been in the business for more than 40 years, and have had your share of influences, whether it was getting into the business or as you went through the music business. Who would you say your biggest influence has been as far as shaping your life and your music over the years?
NL: You know all the people I have mentioned, like Jeff Beck and Hendrix, are a great influence musically, but they are more musical heroes than influences. On the personal side, my father, who I lost 13 years ago, was really the last big male influence in my life. I look to musicians for inspiration in their songs but my dad was my life influence, and thankfully I had him around for many decades and I benefited from that. But the world is a mess and I still see people doing something wonderful and beautiful in selfless acts. It’s kind of two separate worlds of influence and just bumping into strangers with a great personal story can be enough influence on someone’s day.
I’m thankful I have some great friends and family, I still have my mother and three great brothers, who I always look at as a guiding influence as parents. I’ve been a stepdad twice and I look to my wife Amy, who has been a single mom for so long, which is rough, but it’s very inspiring and heroic to see what she has done for my stepsons. I now understand a lot of parenting issues, even though I’m not a birth parent, but I still feel it’s heroic and extraordinary. So I try to be a cheerleader, if you will, of support while my wife still takes the tough journey as a Mother. With the planet as crazy as it is right now, that’s a lot to say.
We are in a crazy time and I pray for miracles, but I’m just doing my little bit by keeping 500 people distracted with, hopefully, some inspiring music to them, and that’s the most I hope I can get out of a night as these people head home back to their lives. So with that in mind, that’s something I hope to convey to the people who come out to see me play.