Nils Lofgren is known as much for his long and collaborative relationships with rock royalty (most famously, Neil Young, Ringo Starr and Bruce Springsteen) as he is for his accomplished solo career and virtuosity on guitar. His personal and reflective new album, ‘Blue With Lou’, checks both boxes as it features 12 new recordings from Lofgren and his band, six of which he co-wrote with the late rock legend Lou Reed.
In this conversation Lofgren discusses the album and the personal nature of it’s songs, the consequential phone call that he received in the middle of the night 40 years ago, how his life changed when Neil Young put him on the spot, his pleasure at watching a Beatle discover the spoils of modern touring, and how the ‘Blue With Lou’ tour will be a family affair.
Robert Ferraro: Nils, the making of this album seems like it was a tight knit affair. You and your wife Amy co-produced it, and it was recorded at your home.
Nils Lofgren: Yeah, we basically moved the band (bassist Kevin McCormack and drummer Andy Newmark) and crew into our home for a few weeks. It was a home invasion. Amy looked after us and fed our hearts and our bellies and just created a great atmosphere on the property for the project. We lived and breathed it together. My engineer moved his equipment into my garage, and we rehearsed without recording a take for maybe seven or eight days. We also didn’t use a click track on anything, and we didn’t have any ISO rooms. We were set up to do live recording as a trio while looking at each other in the room, as I do my best when singing live with a band. We did add some touches on the record, mostly vocal touches with the great Cindy Mizelle and a small, beautiful men’s choir from out here in Scottsdale, Arizona, but we avoided all the guitar overdubbing and synth overdubbing. I wanted to keep this record as simple and earthy and live as I could.
Robert: The songwriting on the record is even more intimate than the recording. In addition to the title track that nods to Lou Reed, there are songs paying tribute to both Tom Petty and your dearly departed dog, and another that draws from your relationship with Amy.
Nils: After my second divorce, I was in a relationship retirement for two years. I didn’t mind being lonely, and I was determined that the peace of mind was worth it. My friends were worried about me, but I said, “You don’t understand man. The peace of mind is worth it!” [laughs] But I first met Amy at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park when we were kids and then I didn’t see her for another 15 years. That second time we met was at a bar in Scottsdale called The Rocking Horse where she walked up to me and said, “Hi, remember me?” That was 23 years ago, and we just recently celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary. Because of our past history, that night in Asbury Park, I didn’t say, “This is a beautiful girl but no big deal, I’m not going to stay in touch.” Instead, I kept calling and enjoying long talks on the phone with her. We were both coming off of painful divorces and she told me that being a mother was always going to be her priority and I was honest and said that I was a traveling musician and I would always be leaving to go play. We were very honest and open about everything. We didn’t have the energy to put on airs or put up a front or a facade until the truth came out later. That theme is what I took into the song ‘Too Blue To Play’. I simply made it more dramatic from the perspective of a special forces Ranger, and it’s one of my favorite songs on the record. It’s my Willie Nelson ballad.
In regard to the Petty song, we had recently treated ourselves to see Tom and the Heartbreakers at Red Rock in Phoenix, and it was just a beautiful show. I actually think the last time they were an opening act was for me, in 1977. [laughs] We did a great tour of the UK together, and they were fabulous on it. I wrote ‘Dear Heartbreaker’ for Tom. I also wrote a song about our dog Groucho, who we lost and loved very dearly. It’s called ‘Remember You’, but even though the verses are about one of our dogs, it’s simply a song about loss that you can apply to anyone. I lost my Mom in October at age 91, and just this past weekend we lost our dog Rain. You always remember, deeply, the people and animals who showed you unconditional love.
Robert: Lou Reed and his memory run through this project of course. Half of the songs on ‘Blue with Lou’ are co-written with him, and the title track is inspired by him.
Nils: Lou and I wrote 13 songs together years ago and along the way we both recorded some of them for our own records. But I always thought in the back of my mind that someday Lou was going to call me about the five or six that were left behind and we would do something with them. Over the years I would go see him play and say hello and he was always very kind. When he passed away it was obviously a big loss, and continues to be. Later I thought, “No one is ever going to hear these songs unless I get them together.” So when I decided that I was going to do a record, I couldn’t imagine not addressing them. It was my job to get them out there.
Robert: You said that you wrote a good portion of the title track during soundchecks for Bruce?
Nils: Yeah, I go to the shows early sometimes and I’ll be on stage playing while waiting for the band or Bruce. I had this riff for a while, and a couple of weeks went by where I kept working on it and thought that it might be a song. One day I just started singing the words, “Blue with Lou” and it fit. I didn’t know it was going to be a title yet, but I knew it was going to be a song. As I was resurrecting the material that I wrote with Lou, I knew I wanted to make a nod to him and all of a sudden I had a title, a riff, and a little sing-along that worked. I knew it had to be a song on the record.
Robert: When people hear that you and Lou collaborated on this, it might conjure up images of the two of you with a couple of guitars in a room trying to make moving pieces fit. The way you actually did work together on these songs is much more interesting.
Nils: At one point (in 1978) I had a lot of songs like ‘No Mercy’ and a couple of other things that I felt good about, but both I and my producer, Bob Ezrin, agreed that the lyrics we had were weak. I shored some up and we felt like those might be great but then there were some where Bob said, “You know, we have all this music and we are in agreement that the lyrics are subpar – would you consider co-writing?” I told him that it depended on the circumstance, and he said, “How about Lou Reed?” I told him I loved Lou Reed and the next thing I knew we were saying hello to him and Bob was proferring the idea.
I was surprised that Lou was pretty open to it. He said, “Why don’t you meet me at my apartment next week and we’ll talk it through?” Unbeknownst to me he was a massive football fan and my Washington Redskins were playing his Dallas Cowboys that day, so it was fun. We watched the game and drank some whiskey and talked about writing. I let him know that I write music all the time, even with titles, but sometimes with sub par lyrics. He said that he was the opposite. He could write words all the time and he felt good about them but found himself working harder on the music side of things. So, at the end of the night we agreed that I would mail him a cassette of all this music I had, and we’d go from there. I did, and about 3 and a half weeks went by before my phone rang at 4:30 one morning out of the blue. The voice on the line said, “Nils, it’s Lou and I have to tell you that I love this cassette that you sent me.” I said, “Wow, that’s great news,” but I was still wondering why he had to call me at 4:30 in the morning to tell me that. [laughs] He shocked me when he said, “Look, I’ve been up for 3 days and nights and all I’ve been doing is working on this tape. I just completed 13 sets of lyrics that are done, I feel great about them, and if you’re up for it I can dictate them to you right now.”
Robert: And you said, ‘no thanks’ and went back to bed. [both laugh]
Nils: I kind of freaked out. I got up and put on a pot of coffee and grabbed a pad and pencil, but Lou was not in a rush, and he would stop and repeat what I said back to him. I hand-wrote everything down very carefully over 2 hours or so, while Lou dictated the lyrics to me for what are now a total of 13 finished songs that we co-wrote together.
Robert: Do you still own the original papers you scribbled the lyrics on?
Nils: The actual papers that I wrote them on I do not have, unfortunately. I do have my original notebooks though. What I did was, immediately after my conversation with Lou, without going to sleep, I transcribed them in very legible handwriting into my notebooks. I still have those. But the actual original scribble papers I don’t have, and I regret it. I no longer have the original cassette either, which I also regret. But you know, back in those days – and even now – I didn’t collect my stuff. I see it all as a journey that I’m on and I’m not reverential about the museum quality of my career.
Robert: When you were putting the songs together, did you ever find yourself having to cut or alter the lyrics of a legendary Rock ‘n Roll poet?
Nils: Very rarely. Maybe once in awhile, usually just for cadence while singing. I might repeat a line or something if it fit better, or change a syllable if it sang better. Arrangement things. I didn’t really do much beyond that. These are Lou Reed’s lyrics and I stayed very true to the original lyrics and concept on everything.
Robert: Most rock musicians spend much of their careers trying not to sound like the influences they’ve borrowed from. I feel like this phenomena has always escaped you. One can barely hear a trace of the artists you grew up adoring in the way that you sing, write, or play guitar. Is there something in your personal or musical background that lends itself to originality?
Nils: I grew up as a classical accordion player and that’s always been a big part of it. The other part is with The Beatles and Stones and the British Invasion that I fell in love with, and then later with Motown and Stax and the blues greats – they were a big inspirational aspect. For thematic playing there was George (Harrison) and Keith (Richards) and Pete Townsend and for some of the lead stuff there was Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. So at some early point things start coming out like a hodgepodge of everybody you’re inspired by. But if you’re lucky, you’ll find your own voice in there, and even though those people remain a big inspiration, thankfully I was able to take that inspiration and play what I was hearing. It’s a sound that is my own, but of course it comes from all the greats.
Robert: You’ve made some really strong records over the years, but I think you’re more widely known for your playing on stage. Which is excusable, because it took nearly 20 years after you joined the E Street Band for you to properly record an album with them.
Nils: I used to joke about it with Bruce. We did a couple of things here or there, including a song that was contributed to a Woody Guthrie project, but I remember saying to him, “Bruce, do you realize I’ve been in the band almost 20 years and we haven’t really done a record together?” [laughs] He said, “That’s gonna happen,” and sure enough we did a great Reunion tour in ’99 and 2000 and that eventually led to ‘The Rising’, which was so special. The next thing you know we did a few them, with ‘Magic’ and ‘Working on a Dream’. It was a long wait, but it was well worth it.
Robert: Like Bruce, Neil Young is a friend and collaborator who has had a great effect on you. There is a fairly well known story of you, as a teenager, working your way into a meeting with Neil after one of his shows so that you can ask him for advice. Did he actually give you advice, and what was it?
Nils: I was seventeen years old and had just left school and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was trying to be a professional musician and had written some songs, but I was very nervous about, “How do you do this? How does this business work?” I was asking for advice whenever I could get it. When I met him, Neil actually handed me his guitar and said, “Sing one of your songs.” So I did, and then he said, “That’s a good song,” and asked me to play him another. I was playing him songs that were already written for my band ‘Grin’s’ first record. Neil said they were really good and invited me to hang out with him for a couple of days, and from there Neil and his producer David Briggs basically turned out to be my two greatest mentors. Neil would call me from the road and counsel me. He’d say, “Just hang in there. You’re really good but you’re just starting out so try to slow down a bit.” He also said, “Don’t sign anything,” in terms of a record deal. That turned out to be great advice. [laughs] Eventually David Briggs helped us record an album which would lead to us being signed by Clive Davis.
Robert: The singer-songwriter Glen Hansard tells a similar story to yours, about being handed a guitar by his hero Van Morrison and being told, “Play me a song.” Hansard’s telling of it portrays a bit of nervousness involved. Weren’t you nervous?
Nils: I was definitely nervous, but I was far more desperate and worried than I was nervous. I was like, “Look, I dropped out of high school and nobody in my day does that except for juvenile delinquents who have knocked up their girlfriends and are pumping gas somewhere.” I felt their story was largely written for the foreseeable future. I was a young musician with a band committed to making a living and we were barely scraping by. We had no record deal prospects. We had just failed a couple auditions in New York City, and were soon headed to LA with no contacts. A lot of people would let me go backstage and ask a question or two but nobody handed me a guitar and asked me to sing them some of my songs. The opportunity and my desire helped me walk through the nerves I had.
Robert: You played with Ringo Starr in his original All Starr Band, which had a legendary lineup that included Joe Walsh, Levon Helm, Billy Preston, Clarence Clemons and other rock luminaries (Dr. John, The Band’s Rick Danko, drumming great Jim Keltner). You were the best of the best and stars in your own right, so was the vibe along the lines of, “We’re seasoned pros. None of this phases us?” Or did you ever look back during a show and say, “Holy shit, that’s a Beatle back there”?
Nils: All of it. [laughs] All of that happened. I still remember being at Ringo’s birthday party after playing Wembley with Bruce on the Born in the USA tour, and there was a jam session in the recording studio. The Beatles catalog, to me, is the greatest body of music in recorded history. They were the main reason why I moved away from classical accordion and fell in love with Rock and Roll. Well, I got to jam with Ringo that night and we sat up late talking and drinking a little bit and I was very honest with him about how much they -and he- meant to me. He gave me his number and asked me to stay in touch, so I would call every 3 or 4 weeks. Then, when I was over in England to play, which was nearly every year back then, he would come to see me play. We developed a friendship and in ‘89 he called and said, “I’m putting together an all-star band of my favorite players and friends and I want you there.” I couldn’t believe it. What an honor to help him play, because at that time his mindset was, “Yeah, I have money but money doesn’t mean everything. I’m a drummer. I need to find a way to play because (not being able to do so) it’s making me ill.” And then he told me the concept where we’d go round robin and everybody would do two or three songs of their own and then he would come up and sing some of his hits but mostly play drums. His rules or instructions were, “I want you to wear what you want, sing what you want, and play what you want. I want you to be you all the time. Just be free.”
Robert: I’m sure you have some Ringo stories that people haven’t heard. Can we have one?
Nils: Sure. When Ringo was telling us that we could go anywhere and just be free I asked if he would mind if I came up to his drum riser and just hung out from time to time, and he said “No, come up anytime.” So I was up there one night and he was saying, “Oh, man, I can’t believe how good this sounds!” He was so excited. Well, the Beatles never had monitors. They played a lot of times without ever even hearing each other. So we had a brief break and I happened to be up on the riser hanging out when an audio tech came up to Ringo and said, “Mr. Starr, is there anything we can change for you in the mix on your monitors?” Ringo looked at him, totally serious, and with his famous accent said, “What’s a monitor?”, and to see this kid explain to Ringo Starr that there were two stereo PA speakers under his seat blasting at him the entire night, and to have Ringo look down and say, “Oh, my God! That’s why it sounds so great tonight. I can hear the band!” was just great.
Robert: You’ll be going out on tour with the band to support this album shortly. A half a century of playing and two titanium hips later, is it still as much fun?
Nils: It’s still a blast. I really don’t like leaving home anymore but what I found is that it actually makes me more grateful and engaged during the show because the show is the only reason I’m away. When I’m out there now, I’m a little extra intense about the opportunity. I try to create something special through music each night, and share some inspiration and positivity that will hopefully linger with the audience after I leave the stage. It’s great to have a new album and I haven’t played with a band of my own in over 15 years. I also can’t remember the last time I was able to take the actual band that made the record out on the road with me, so I’m very honored to have this chapter coming up, starting in May.
Robert: In regard to the replacement hips, you’ve always played with such joy. Looking back, would you have changed any of your on stage behavior in regard to the flips and the jumps, if you knew it would lead to the physical problems that you’ve experienced?
Nils: Oh boy, that’s a tough one. I came up with the backflip off the trampoline because I used to be a gymnast, and it was a great fit for the show. I was just having fun. My doctor said the hips probably had as much to do with the fact that I played basketball pick up games my whole life, as it did the flips. I love basketball and I would play probably 15 to 20 hours in a week. So would I have stopped playing basketball and stopped being free as a performer if I knew better? Probably not. I would probably just employ wishful thinking and say, “It won’t happen to me. I’ll go do it anyway.” But my hips were bone on bone for a few years before I had them both replaced 10 years ago. I had a great doctor who did a fabulous job and I’m obviously more careful now. I showed my surgeon what I do up on stage and he said that the pirouettes and spins I do on ‘Because the Night’ and other big solos are okay. They look dramatic but they are still low impact. But the whole jumping off of drum risers and trampolines? He said I have to stop that. [laughs] I tap dance on stage a bit now – I took it up as a hobby about a decade ago. So I’m still jumping around and free on stage when I perform.
Robert: Finally, you will have your brother Tom with you on rhythm guitar this tour, for the first time in more than a little bit.
Nils: It’s been a long time. I have three great brothers and we’re all best friends and we get along great. Every time I play The Birchmere in DC, all three of them get up and play with me, and Tommy was there most recently. He’s one of my all-time favorite people to play with, and a year-and-a-half ago I warned him. I said, “Tommy, if there’s any chance you can do it, I’d love to get you out on the road,” and he said he would do everything to make it happen, since his job takes him in and out of town a lot. Tommy joined Grin early on, and has done hundreds upon hundreds if not thousands of my shows with me, and he’s played on my records. I’ve missed playing with him, and it’s very cool that he is going to be able to make the whole run this time. It’s all very exciting for me.
Buy Nils’ new album here: Blue With Lou
Purchase tickets for Nils’ new tour here: Nils Lofgren Tour
Visit Nils’ website here: NilsLofgren.com
Follow Nils on Twitter: @nilslofgren
Robert Ferraro engages in conversations with pop culture figures. Recent guests include Melissa Etheridge and Paul Stanley, Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart, comedian Gary Gulman and model Bobbie Brown.
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