Posted May 2019
To the casual rock music listener, the name, Nils Lofgren, may not ring a bell. However, you can be assured that you’ve heard him if not as a solo artist, you most definitely have as guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, or time in Neil Young’s Crazy Horse (“then” (in the seventies) and now), in Ringo’s All Starr Band, or as the front man for one of his bands, Grin.
So, yeah, you’ve heard at least some of Nils’ work.
It is because of the release of his latest album, Blue With Lou (featuring several songs he co-wrote with the late Lou Reed) that I reached out for my third interview (our first interview with him, here) with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee by phone at his home in beautiful Scottsdale, Arizona. I hadn’t spoken with him since I interviewed him about his “Face The Music” release almost five years ago (here).
After some small talk, Nils cut to the chase to tell me about Blue With Lou.
“I’m still in Scottsdale (Arizona). I’m getting ready for my tour in May. Amy and I are having an invasion of band and crew to put a show together, as we did with the album. So, we’re getting prepared for that and a whirlwind rehearsal with a great show we want to put together quickly and hit the road with the band that made the record. My brother, Tommy, is along, to play keyboards, guitar, and sing, so we’re excited about it. I’m excited to tour with the band that made the record – a new record that I feel great about; that I worked long and hard to do it live in the studio; at least, the bass, drums, and my parts. It’s a lot more fun to add touches around it.
“We tried to keep it as simple as we could; hang onto the kind of organic nature of it when the three of us tracked the record. We banned the click tracks so it was like the old days. We didn’t have baffle rooms and isolation booths with windows. We were in the same little room, looking at each other. We learned about twenty songs before we even rolled tape for about a week. It’s kinda neat ‘cause, that way, if were into something, we’d play it. If we were boggin’ down, we would go to another song that we had already torn up for a week or so. We had a lot of songs ready to go. We experimented with arrangements. We just tried to keep it as live as possible, which is when I am at my best. I struggle a bit with the patience for over-dubbing – especially my own parts.”
“I’ve worked with great producers and done stuff live. Crafted records. It’s all part of the creative options. But, for me, especially as I get older, I’m more and more in my element playing live with people. My favorite thing to do in my job is to perform. I don’t like leaving home. My dogs and my wife are just wonderful. Amy does all my merchandise, the artwork, and helps me out on a lot of creative issues.
“Having a home I love, and wife, and dogs, when I actually get out on the road, it makes me more engaged by the show, because it’s the only reason I left home. Walking out to sing and play – last September was fifty years on the road – so it’s something that I’ve got a greater gratitude and focus on, actually, at this point, because, now, I really don’t enjoy leaving home, anymore. Ha! Ha!
“I’m excited to have a band of a great group of friends that made a record. My dear brother, Tommy, who I don’t get to play with enough. It’s going to be exciting to get some new music out. Six songs co-written with Lou Reed is something I knew those songs had to be shared on this record, too. Just a lot of elements that I set out to try to accomplish. Very important were the Lou songs and being able to play and sing everything live and really know the songs well; not having to write a line or two and, then, a bridge. ‘I’ll figure out the melody there later. I like the chords.’ I’ve done all of that. Now, especially as I get older, I know I’m much better off creating something as live as possible. With good friends and great players, I was able to accomplish that, thankfully.”
When I asked Nils what the catalyst of the new CD was and what drove him to record it, he shared:
“It had been a long time since I made a studio record and I don’t have a record company, per se. We have Cattle Track Road Records – our own label here and a great part of old Arizona. There’s Cattle Track Road art galleries and dear artists and friends there. So, we took the name, Cattle Track Road Records.
“But I was coming up with some ideas. Certainly, years ago, Lou and I wrote thirteen songs together. Eight of them have been released. Three by him. I put out three, originally, and a couple of that. And I always thought – regarding the ones left behind – Lou might call and say, ‘Hey, let’s take a look at those.’ And, then, of course, tragically, we lost Lou Reed, who was an incredible rock and roller, lyricist, poet, artist. I knew at that point – in the back of my mind – that the next record that I made, it would really be appropriate to get the notebooks out and get those songs in shape to record. That was part of it, too.
“But I started writing. I keep riffs on tape. I write music pretty easily. Lyrics come a little slower, but I had a lot of ideas. So, I started beginning writing in earnest with a handful of riffs and ideas that were kinda just being logged through the years.
“Then, I got to the point where, ‘Okay, I have more than enough for a record of songs I like. I’ve got the five Lou songs that nobody ever heard, and I wanted to re-do ‘City Lights’. That was a song that – when I sent Lou this tape, cassette, of thirteen songs, that was one that he said, “Look, I love your chorus. I’m going to keep it and write a song about Charlie Chaplin. It’s a beautiful chorus.’ Lou’s version on The Bells, he chose to narrate the song, which is beautiful, and the music was reflective of my melody. But I always wanted to do my own version and sing the melody of the song that I liked.
“On the first song after Lou and I did the first six, he put out three on The Bells. I put out three on Nils. There was a song called, Lights. This beautiful, haunting lyric that we wrote to some music I had. It was my title and my lyrics, and my lyrics were pretty awful. So, he wrote this brilliant song and Branford Marsalis came and played some very haunting, cool saxophone throughout. Very soulful.
“When I did my version of City Lights, I asked Branford to just kinda come full circle. I said, ‘Look, I got this Lou Reed song I’d love for you to play on if you would.’ He played brilliantly. I asked him to kinda jump in at the top and riff anywhere and everywhere he could and color the whole thing. I didn’t feel like adding more.
“I also, for years, I loved the sound of the small, male choir you hear on the Elvis records; Ricky Nelson records.”
I knew that asking this might be a little touchy, but I wanted to get Lofgren’s thoughts on Lou Reed since it’s been going on six years his passing and if this project was emotional for him in any way.
“It was, of course, very emotional. I always thought Lou – especially after he got a new liver and survived that – that he would be with us a long time. But I was always a fan – especially of his lyrics. Still one of my favorite rock tracks is ‘Sweet Jane’. There’s so many great things he’s done. So, yeah, to write thirteen songs with him and have him use some and like the ones I did, it was very special for me. I knew after he passed, I had to get these songs on the next record. During the process, I read his biography by Anthony DeCurtis - very great biography - to keep him in the project, keep him alive through the book while I was writing, arranging, recording.
“I’m proud to be able to share the songs we wrote that no one ever heard. My version of ‘City Lights’. I’ve got the other half of the album are songs of mine that I feel great about. I think it’s some of my better writing; to have an earthy record recorded and ready to hit the road with the band in May is an exciting thing.
Since there are the “Lou” songs and Nils’ “solo” songs, I asked which song from each group would he point to as a calling card for the entire disc.
“Oh, man! That’s a pretty heavy question! Ha! Ha! Well, look, I’m very mostly proud and attached to all these songs. Just because of the nature of the lyric, there’s a song called ‘Give’ that I think is kind of representative of the record in the sense that it’s a classic lyric by Lou. Give everything you got. There’s a six- or seven-minute jam that we kept on the record live as it went down. It reminded me of the old days of Cream and the Hendrix Experience where there were power trios and long jams, which people don’t put on records any more. So, that’s sort of a calling card, if I had to pick one from the Lou batch of songs that represent the record well. There’s a lot of guitar – not just flashy lead, but just riffing and power trio kind of stuff. Not a lot of overdubs.
“As far as one of my songs, it’s a rough one. I feel really good about ‘em. There’s a song, ‘Rock Or Not’ that I feel great about. It’s kind of a protest song. My wife, Amy, is a big part of the resistance and speaking truth to power and madness regularly. Really sticking up for what’s right on Twitter and social media. That’s a real rocker. It’s also representative of the band effort that all of this is where Andy Newmark and Kevin McCormick had demos in advance. They came in with great ideas. Andy had this James Brown meets The Who drum part he was diggin’. It’s also kind of a protest about, hey, are we gonna rock or not? We’ve got a lot of problems. It’s time to step up and stop talking about it and fix things.
“So, those are the two I’d pick from the Lou batch and mine. But I feel great about every one of ‘em!”
One of the “Nils Songs” is called “Remember You”. The press release said it was about his and Amy’s dog, Groucho, who they lost a little over a year ago. I asked if that was the same dog that was in the photos used in my first interview with him (here).
“Yeah, vaguely, I remember the picture. I’m not positive, Randy. But Groucho we lost a couple of Christmases’ ago. Then, just this weekend, we lost Rain, who was in the picture. They were our first two dogs and we’re devastated now that Rain’s gone. It brings so much light and love into our home. We were up in Sedona. We had taken a trip up there. We were in this hotel in the middle of these Indian burial grounds. There were a lot of haunted spirits around. It wasn’t that relaxing, actually. There is a lot of energy and pain in there. There was a side room when I couldn’t sleep and I would go in there and quietly write the song, ‘Remember You’. It was inspired by Groucho and, of course, there’s a verse in there about our dear Rain, who we lost. She’s also taking a ride with me in my old ’51 pickup, playing a Tom Petty song at the start.
“Yeah, just the love – unconditional love – and light they bring into your life every day - I was still missing Groucho and, then, Rain passed this week. Again, we’re devastated. There’s a verse in there, too, about when Rain was younger, we were in the desert and she came limping to Amy with a bad thorn in her paw. We couldn’t get it out and she was really in pain. Finally, Amy laid her down and put her paw in her mouth and grabbed it (the thorn) and just pulled it out with her teeth. Rain, from that day on, just followed Amy around. They had a special bond. We all loved her and there’s a verse in there about that, too.
“But it’s inspired by Groucho and all our animals. But life, in general. My mom passed at 91 last October. When you’re lucky to have beautiful souls and people in your life, it’s even harder to say good-bye. You’ve got the memories and the dignity, hopefully, of how you treated each other, and the love and respect you showed. But, still, it’s a real hole in your life and your heart when they pass. So, that’s one of my favorites and I wanted those last to songs – the song about Tom Petty. I didn’t plan to write that song. It just came out. Then, the ‘Remember You’ that I wrote up in Sedona. I knew they had to get on the record. I was just so upset about Groucho’s passing. It just gave me a chance to express it in a positive way and honor his memory. And, now, Rain’s gone, too, and we’re just reeling. But, fifteen years is a good run with our dog. It’s never enough. Amy saved Rain and Rain saved us. Our two dogs left with us – of course, they’re hurting, too. Dogs are on a higher plain than us but, still, we’re staying close with each other and looking after each other. That’s where that song came from.”
Shifting gears, I asked Lofgren if he felt the music business was broken and, if he was elevated to the non-existed role of Music Czar, what would he do to fix it.
“Ha! Ha! Randy! You’re killing me, man! The whole what-if/imagining thing is not my forte. I haven’t had a record deal in twenty-five years. I have a website. I do what I’m proud of and put it out. So, honestly, I don’t pay much attention to the record business. I don’t really feel qualified to – I don’t really if the word is ‘fix it’. I mean, you always have this corporate entity that the bottomline is money. That’s one of the reasons why I left my last record deal in the nineties and went with the website just so I would have freedom. I’m not making the companies money. I don’t have hit records. They’re annoyed by that. I don’t want to work with people that are annoyed by me. There’s no good deals out there, anyway. There’s plenty of bad deals.
“I’m not an expert on the music business, one, so I can’t tell you how I would fix it. I don’t want to be the czar of business – any business. Music is like my sacred weapon. It saved my life. It continues to. It’s a sacred weapon for billions of people on the planet. Most people, actually, are tuned into music. But I will say that, thanks to technology - there’s a lot of downside to it - but you can make records without losing your home. You can be creative and find ways to share things on the internet without signing a bad record deal. And that’s kind of a brave, new world. It’s been around, now, and a lot of younger people are taking advantage of it and finding ways to share music, create music, and get it out there without having to go after the traditional music business record deal which, to me, has been fraught with way too much bureaucracy and the focus on we gotta make money. I don’t begrudge that but any time you get in a situation where the bottom-line has to be money and you’re trying to mix creativity with it, some people do get it done. There’s great artists that sell millions and millions of albums and it all works for them and the company. But, for me, that’s not conducive to being creative for me.
“First of all, I’d have to be an expert on it to tell you how to fix it and I’m no expert. So, I can’t really go there with you. I apologize.”
As for what’s on Nils’ radar for the next couple of years, he said:
“Right now, my focus is getting a great show together and touring through May; promoting my new album, which is out April 26th. You can pre-order it at NilsLofgren.com. I’m very excited to have new music to share. That’s really my foreseeable future. Trying to spend time with my wife, Amy, and our dogs, Dale and Peter; trying to get used to life without Rain and Groucho, now, and take care of ourselves and just move forward. Hope the planet turns around and starts letting common sense and truth and dignity rule the decision making – which is not the case, right now, and do our little part in it. Try to be good citizens of the planet and love our family and our animals. Live each day as best we can.
“Musically, that’s my big thing is making a great tour; putting it together and trying to make whoever shows up happy when they leave and try to leave them with some musical inspiration that might linger in their lives and souls, which music, at its best, does.”
Because of the loss of friends such as Clarence Clemmons, Lou Reed as well as his and Amy’s fur babies, I re-asked a question that I asked at the end of our first interview together: Once you’ve stepped off the tour bus of life up at that great gig in the sky, how do you want to be remembered and what do you hope your legacy will be?
" allowtransparency="no">“Ah, man! That’s another rough one. I’m not ready to answer that. I do know that I’m trying every day to become a better person; a better musician; a more kind and compassionate person. Amy has been an enormous help with that because, of course, show business and the music industry itself kind of begs the narcissism. The healthy aspect of it can turn bad quickly and I really try to monitor that. Fame can become a mental illness quickly. Fortunately, I don’t have the kind of fame where people are camping out, following me around. I don’t even know what that is. I would certainly never want it.
“Nevertheless, just as a person, I’m trying to create and write my legacy. I hope I have a good piece of time ahead to be even a better person. Learn how to be more kind and compassionate to anything and everything around me, and all life. That’s about the best that I can say. Randy, I’m not ready to write my epitaph. I can’t go there. Ha! Ha! I hope I got a good piece of time left. I’ll be a bit more excited about what I’ve accomplished in the next ten years than the past sixty-seven years or whatever. But, anyway, that’s the best I can give you right now.”