Classic Rock Corner: Nils Lofgren, Sideman, Sideburns and Solo

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Guy Aceto
It's certainly an accomplishment for any rock musician to have a long and fruitful career either solo or with a band. Then it's icing on the cake to be further associated with a genuine icon. But to have two icons in your story? Just an embarrassment of riches.

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In the case with singer/songwriter/guitarist Nils Lofgren, all three roads are converging at once. He's celebrating 25 years since joining Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band as a lead guitarist (their tour in support of Working on a Dream stops in Houston on Wednesday). Lofgren has also enjoyed a long association with Neil Young, first when joining Crazy Horse and then backing him on a series of records and tours - most famously Tonight's the Night.

Finally, a healthy solo career either with bands (Grin) or under his own name have produced records like Cry Tough, I Came to Dance, Crooked Line and Damaged Goods. His latest CD is The Loner: Nils Sings Neil, in which Lofgren covers 15 of Shakey's songs armed with just his voice, a family heirloom piano, and the Martin D-18 acoustic guitar he played on Tonight's the Night which Young gave him as a gift. Oh, and he also maintains an online guitar school on his Web site.

Rocks Off spoke with Lofgren recently one morning (he's an early riser) about the record, the tour, and the state of his new hips, both of which were recently replaced in surgery.

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Jan Lundahl
Rocks Off: I know you just finished rehearsals for the tour. How did the hips hold up?

Nils Lofgren: Pretty good. I had a great surgeon, but I've got another year of physical therapy. They've healed enough to do this crazy tour. I'm a little stiff and sore, but I'm not in pain. I'm careful - I know I shouldn't be jumping off the drum risers and the trampoline has to stay in the closet. I've got to be smart - there's six months of shows ahead!

RO: Maybe you can get Bruce to give you one of those huge throne chairs to rest in like Clarence had on the last tour.

NL: Hey, that's a great idea! I'll put in the request!

RO: The new record and tour with Bruce comes just a year after the last record and tour. One question: Why are you guys so lazy?

NL (laughs): I'm not surprised about it. Bruce is so prolific, to me he's always working on two albums at the same time. We're thrilled because it's such a powerful band. And once you're up and running, I'm like "let's not wait four years to do something else together again."

RO: I've read a recent interview with Little Steven, and he talks about how Bruce embraced his inner '60s, garage-rock guy with Working on a Dream. I wouldn't go that far - it's not exactly the Seeds or the Standells. But what did you want to do with this record that maybe you couldn't with Magic?

NL: Not a lot. I'm kind of the swing guy in the band now. We've got four guitar players. No, wait, Soozie [Tyrell] plays too, so there's five! It was great in 1999 when Steve came back in the band, to have that duet kind of Mick and Keith thing that he and Bruce do.

So I challenged myself to learn some dobro, and bottleneck, lap steel, pedal steel, and banjo. My first instinct is to stay out of the way of the lyric. In the studio Bruce and Steve will put out a lot of great guitar parts before I come in. And [producer] Brendan O'Brien will have some idea of what they want me to contribute, usually some idiosyncratic, oddball sounds. Recording is like a beautiful jigsaw puzzle.

RO: On the last tour, Bruce was throwing out tons of audibles during the show based on request signs that fans would throw on stage. How do you react when he calls out a song you might not know or recall how to play?

NL: As an aficionado of Bruce, a lot of these songs we've played at least at some point. It's a challenge when the throws out the set list completely. What you don't want to do is panic and hit a bad note - you just have to use your instincts. But don't kill the groove. It is also a 10-piece band, so we have hand signals!

RO: On your new [solo] record, I have to admit that I was pretty dubious when I heard the concept. Neil already has so many versions of these songs out there. But what won me over as a listener was the simplicity and sparseness in your versions that make them sound like fresh songs.

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NL: I love Neil. He's such an inspiring artist. The idea was actually my manager's because my most popular releases over the past decade were my live acoustic CD and DVD. But I thought why would I want to do Neil's songs? I got a list of about 30 of them and would just sing them in the morning to my dogs and cats. After two weeks, most were decent karaoke, but some started feeling like my own. Only then did I record - the only rule being they had to be live with no overdubs.

I gave [late longtime Young producer] David Briggs production credit on this because he was my mentor. When we did Tonight's the Night, we were doing live versions of songs we hardly knew, and it was the antithesis of production. David would say that the whole song was about the vocal.

If Neil could deliver the vocal, whatever else we screwed up didn't matter. Ralphie [Molina, Crazy Horse drummer] and I would always ask just to touch up our high harmonies later when we didn't know the words! But that record is so raw - we didn't change a single note. And I felt David on my shoulder during the recording of this one.

RO: Have you had any reaction from Neil yet?

NL: No. After I had about a dozen versions of songs I called Neil and told him what I was doing. And he's always been very supportive. He gave me his blessing and some pointers. I sent him and [wife] Pegi a batch of things as soon as they were mixed, but I don't know if he's heard them yet. But I have to believe that if he ever did, he'd recognize that it was a very emotional and honest attempt to do his songs justice.

RO: Do you have any particular memories or thoughts of Houston over the years?

NL: You know, I'm a big basketball fan, and years ago I hooked up with Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics. I remember spending about a week in Houston when they were playing the Rockets back in '85 or so, and it was cool being on the "evil, rival" team. And wherever we'd go, people would good-naturedly - or not so - give us grief.

So we were in this mall in Houston and I was with Kevin and his wife, and some jock fan was giving him shit and talking trash. And he started getting real vile and personal. Now Kevin is a cool customer and was saying "OK, OK, I get it. You like the Rockets. But cool it out, my wife is with me."

But the guy just wouldn't stop. So Kevin warned him again, and the guy kept it up. So - I'll never forget this - Kevin reaches out with one hand and grabs the buy by the neck and lifts him off the earth. The guy is choking to death with his feet dangling! So Kevin warns him one last time and says "Look, knock it off." And he put him back down. We walked on, but I looked back at the guy and said "Well, he warned you!"

RO: I know you live in Arizona and are a huge Cardinals fan. So this year at the Super Bowl, you probably had the highest up and the lowest down of any single day of your life.

NL: Oh man, that really screwed with me! There we were, getting ready to play halftime at the Super Bowl. And then that 100-yard return! I was completely out of my game, and I didn't want to play music! It was shocking how bummed I got, but I had to get into it. As a Cardinals fan, it was heartbreaking.

RO: Last question. You've probably got the most distinctive sideburns in rock and roll. How do you keep the ends so sharp?

NL: (laughs) Ha! Well, some days are better than others. I try to grow them a bit longer, and one side grows different than the other. I just got tired of the headband thing - although I might bring it back!

For all things Nils, visit www.nilslofgren.com.

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