As anniversaries and May dates go, this one is special. It was fifty years ago this month that a then seventeen year old named Nils Lofgren walked into the Cellar Door in Washington, DC upon a band called Neil Young and Crazy Horse. The Maryland native approached the singer who handed him his guitar and asked him to play. Lofgren played five or six songs from his band Grin. Young, impressed, told him to look him up and a few weeks later in Los Angeles, the two met again and Young made some introductions that helped put his career in motion.
“That’s a good piece of time, half a century,” Nils Lofgren said to me over the phone on a recent Saturday morning. Lofgren was in somewhat of amazement reflecting on the thought but had a more immediate task at hand. He was at home in Scottsdale outside Phoenix rehearsing for a tour. It’s first time in 15 years he’s brought his own band on the road.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever taken a band out that made the record since Grin,” he adds for emphasis.
Scottsdale is the same locale where he recorded his new album Blue With Lou, the album named for one of the thirteen songs he wrote some forty years ago with the late Lou Reed, five of which had never been heard until this year.
Lofgren did it old school, playing live with his band in a home studio and self-releasing the finished product. “I wasn’t in an isolation booth,” he says proudly. “We let the instruments leak into one another.” Lofgren and his wife co-produced Amy the album. They added vocals by Cindy Mizelle to buttress the album’s authority and a local choir to fill out the soulfulness of the album’s potential hit single “Talk Through The Tears.” All in all, the new songs are a refreshing reminder of Lofgren’s lifelong craft as a a gifted melodist and creative guitarist.
Although Blue With Lou marks eight years since he released a new album, it’s not like Lofgren hasn’t been busy.
During the past years he put together Face The Music, a ten cd box set retrospective of his entire career since he first recorded with Grin back in the early Seventies. There were also multiple tours with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and a return to Neil Young and Crazy Horse with whom Lofgren reunited last year and played a few shows in February. (A new Crazy Horse album comes out this Fall.) At the end of The River tour with Springsteen in Australia, Lofgren challenged himself to write a new album.
“Once we lost Lou, I knew we couldn’t leave the ones left behind, It was my job to get them on this record.” The guitarist adds that he discovered a riff to the title track while warming up before a sound check during The River tour.
When we spoke I the wondered if he felt like it was back to the future or if he was in a time warp going back in time with Lou Reed and reuniting with Young. Lofgren says it’s all of the above and speaks of it in the broader context of life.
“Just the last decade has seen so many awful losses,” says Lofgren who lost his mother and two beloved dogs. “Suddenly as you get older it happens more and more. Even though it’s part of life I don’t have a handle on it. It leaves you off center.”
Lofgren was onstage in Philadelphia with Bruce Springsteen when they opened with “Purple Rain” immediately after the news of Prince’s passing. For his new album Lofgren wrote a tribute to his friend Tom Petty called “Dear Heartbreaker.”
“You don’t let the grief take you out,” the guitarist philosophized. “You hook into their spirits and carry on much like I do with musicians like Prince and Tom Petty and all of the greats that we’ve lost. Just because I don’t have a handle on it doesn’t mean it’s going to go away. It’s a part of life.”
There’s a general optimism about the new songs. But the album’s centerpiece is an edgy anthem for the times. “Rock or Not” is Lofgren’s call to arms that has Byrds-like guitar accents but quickly gets gets foreboding and anxious. It draws inspiration from his wife whom he calls a fierce part of the resistance.
“The whole planet and human race itself has been darkened,” Lofgren observes of the current political climate. “It’s coming to a head. Throughout human history there’s been darkness and it manifests itself with our leaders. We’ve often seen fame become a mental illness and take people out. I hope we’re at the beginning of a sea change in humanity.”
It’s easy to play “Rock or Not” back to back with “Beggars Day,” a song wrote when Lofgren was in Crazy Horse and later dedicated to the band’s late guitarist Danny Whitten who died of a drug overdose. The deaths of Whitten and band roadie Bruce Berry inspired Young’s black album, Tonight’s The Night.
“Back then we had a Sixties thing,” he reminisces. “Everyone was kind of getting high and making music. There was all this turmoil in politics and the civil rights movement. There was a hippy dippy love of life and music and all of a sudden people were dying. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and on and on. All of a sudden a Danny went to the top of the list. Shortly after that it led to what we called the wake album, Tonight’s the Night.”
Lofgren, now 67, has had his own makeover with his hips replaced. HE no longer does acrobatic backflips. The photographs of his hands in the album artwork mark the years. They were shot by photographer Cristina Arrigoni who recently published a book of portraits of musicians called The Sounds of Hands.
His old Crazy Horse bandmate Frank Sampedro recently announced his retirement. Perhaps he hadn’t listened to Lofgren’s tongue in cheek homage to aging, “Sixty is The New 18.” In the context of Lofgren’s vast work, it seems almost antithetical to consider retirement.
“I am spending more time at home than I used to,” Lofgren adds, “but I don’t need to go to a bar and jam with people every night so they can look at me play the blues. I love hanging out at home with nothing to do but I learned long ago that I need to get out and sing and play.. And we do have these musical projects that happen.”
Lofgren got the call from Neil Young to rejoin Crazy Horse for a series of shows last year. He left the confines of the desert to step into the polar vortex and join Young this past February for several shows in Winnipeg.
I mentioned to Nils that I had seen him in Central Park in New York City when he was opening for Rick Derringer and touring in support of his second album Cry Tough. Lofgren sai that was memorable as it was the day he met drummer Andy Newmark who flew in from England that day. Newmark went on to co-produce Lofgren’s I Came To Dance. He anchors the core band on Blue With Lou. “Here we are getting ready to hit the road again,” Lofgren marvels of the long partnership.
Back in that era, Lofgren was on tour with Neil Young in England. There were rumors of his lifelong hero Keith Richards being sick. Lofgren was struck with an idea for a song called “Keith Don’t Go” dedicated to the legendary Rolling Stone. “I was still very young and immature. I still am immature but just not young anymore. I thought ‘Well he just made Exile on Main Street.’ how sick could he really be? With all the darkness going around, I wrote a fairly dramatic song to him. ‘Thanks for your gift. We need this. Please stick around.’’’
Lofgren was once told that he played over one hundred and forty-seven different songs on a Bruce Springsteen tour. When asked about moments that standout, he admits it’s a blur. However one night a fan put up a sign for a song request “You Never Can Tell.”
“Oh shit,” Lofgren remembers thinking. “I don’t know that.” He pow wowed with Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt. Someone said it was a Chuck Berry song. Lofgren realized he had twenty seconds to figure it out and averted panic by telling himself, “‘I got Bruce, I got Steve, I can play slide and just push the note until it feels right.'” Lofgren playyed bottleneck and stood in wonder when the five-man horn section played something in real-time that Springsteen hummed to them.
All in all, he calls it the height of improvisation and the beauty of a band which didnt want to play it safe.
Lofgren also had a magic moment playing with Neil Young over the last year. One night Young said, “Guys I don’t feel like writing a set list. Let’s just go out there and play whatever comes.”
Savoring the moment, Lofgren was struck with a thought. “Man that’s living as a performer.”