The Life And Times Of Nils Lofgren
He’s been Springsteen’s sidekick, Neil Young’s confidante and Ringo’s right-hand man. But does Nils Lofgren miss glory on his own terms? Absolutely not.
Nils Lofgren is the sort of musician they don’t really make anymore. An extravagantly gifted guitarist and otherwise jack of all trades, he’s been a loyal lieutenant and sideman to an assortment of rock’s maverick and genius figureheads in a career stretching back almost half a century.
Born in Chicago in 1951 to an Italian mother and Swedish father, Lofgren latched onto music at an early age and never let go. By 1968, he had formed Grin, a proto-power trio built around his weighty riffs and for whom he was also singer and chief songwriter. Soon after this he met Neil Young, sneaking backstage at a local club to seek him out. As a wide-eyed 18-year-old, he added piano parts and his distinctive lilting vocals to Young’s watershed third album, 1970’s After The Gold Rush.
For the next six years Lofgren ran Grin parallel to his work with Young, making four albums with them that picked up positive reviews but sold poorly. By 1975, he’d split Grin and kicked off parallel careers as both a solo artist (he’s released 21 albums to date, most notably 1976’s Cry Tough) and trusty lieutenant to such heavyweights as Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ringo Starr and, most visibly of all, Bruce Springsteen, signing up with the E Street Band for the globe-conquering Born In The USA tour and being a member of that stellar collective for 31 years and counting now.
A 2014 10-disc retrospective of Lofgren’s work with Grin and solo, titled Face The Music, contained glowing testimonials from such admirers as Joe Walsh and Elvis Costello, among others. His most recent recognition was, of course, the Outstanding Contribution award he picked up at the Classic Rock Awards. He refers to his acceptance speech, which ran for almost as long as that box-set, as “me blabbering on and on – I said none of the things I wanted to say and was way too serious,” adding with a chuckle: “My wife still wishes she had taken off a shoe and thrown it at me.”
On this particular morning in early December, Lofgren is at home in Arizona, having just returned from a 33-date tour of the UK and Ireland. He was up at the crack of dawn to walk his four dogs, and is contemplating spending the afternoon holed up in his music room, working on songs for his next record. That room is furnished with vintage guitars, an accordion and an upright piano, the tools of his craft and the means by which he continues to travel his long and winding road.
Can you recall the piece of music that first fired your interest?
If we’re talking about rock’n’roll, then, of course, it would be The Beatles’ I Want To Hold Your Hand. That led on to the Stones, the British invasion bands and then their American counterparts. There was also Motown, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Richard. But way back, from when I was five, my folks went out dancing and they played music in the home; it could have been_ In The Mood_ by Glenn Miller or any one of those classic American songbook swing band things that got me interested. Music was my refuge. Play Jumpin’ Jack Flash or any of those great Beatles songs now and it still does the same thing to my spirit and emotional being as it did forty-five, fifty years ago.