A legendary solo artist and sideman keeps making beautiful music no matter where he straps on his guitar.
By Steve Houk
So just for a minute, imagine you’re Nils Lofgren. Pretty darn cool thing to imagine, actually.
But imagine sitting there, carefully mapping out your next few months, planning shows to follow the release of your new live record, you have it all set. And then the phone rings. You hear that familiar, growly voice on the other end, saying something like, “Hey Nils man, what’s up, how’s it hangin’, ya ready to hit the ROAD?”
And just like that, all of your carefully laid-out plans, your own solo career, even your life, are put on the shelf so you can go out again on tour with your buddy Bruce Springsteen and conquer the world. Even though it may put your own priorities on hold for a while, you can bet that neither Nils or anyone else in the E Street Band minds one bit. But even though it’s always hanging in the air as a possibility, it’s still a bit jarring when you think your life will go one way, and then, with one phone call, all bets are off.
“I’m good, still in kind of the twilight zone,” Lofgren told me recently as Springsteen’s River Redux tour kicked into high gear. “I had this whole year planned, doing my little acoustic shows, and here I am on the E Street run, and very happy about it. A very different year than I thought it would be, and grateful for it. Anytime Bruce wants to have a chapter with the E Street Band, it’s critical to make that happen, and a beautiful opportunity. Not just for us, but for millions of people that get a hit out of it.”
Even with the huge thrill of being a lead guitarist for Springsteen for 30 some odd years, Nils Lofgren is talented and gifted and revered enough that he can jump on the E Street Express for a year or two, wailing and spinning in front of millions worldwide, then come back to earth and jump right back into his own successful solo career, one that has spanned a decade longer than his time with Bruce. And he has certainly kept busy on his own, having recently released a stellar live record UK 2015 Face The Music, only a year after putting out a massive 10 disc/169 track career retrospective, Face The Music, that spans his entire 45 year career.
Lofgren, who just turned 65, is excited about this latest live record and about what the next chapter of his solo career will bear, all after he says goodbye to Bruce…at least until the next call.
“I had just started writing again, then tabled that for a little bit, heh,” the enthusiastic and amicable Lofgren said. “But when I get home, hopefully I’ll get a record written, and you know, just start another chapter for my solo thing. I managed to get this great new live CD done last year thanks to my wife Amy, she said look, these are the best shows you’ve done, and she’s watched me for 20 years. Happy ’bout that. And I’m still kinda blown away that Fantasy did a 10 disc box set, and let me handpick the best of 50 years of work.”
Anyone who has followed Lofgren’s illustrious career knows that one of his strengths is the live performance, whether it was during his days with Neil Young and Crazy Horse, with Springsteen, or solo. He is a master showman and mesmerizing player, and relishes engaging with his audience. And even this deep into his long run, he still takes the live experience very seriously.
“I’m always improving with the energy of the crowd,” Lofgren said. “Main thing I notice at a show is there’s an inevitable comfortability and confidence, mixed with some humility and excitement. For example, there’s like 600 people in the middle of nowhere in some little town in England that are sitting there, that went through the trouble of being there, that are expecting great things from me. And if I just prepare properly, usually it always works out. It’s just more a function of knowing how to take the energy of the audience and make the most of it night to night. It’s a home away from home for me, and it’s just a place I thrive in and feel really natural in. It’s kind of a magical thing for me, I do love to perform more than anything else.”
Lofgren is known for his exceptional talent and musicianship, whether it’s as solo artist or side man. Despite torn up shoulders and two replaced hips, he can bring a vitality and dynamic to his work that many players half his age wish they could muster. So where does all of this deep talent and keen instinct come from?
“Honestly, the way I hear notes, the main reason I was able to practice and have it lead to a music career? That gift is not of my own making. Because my parent’s DNA, and some higher power, I got a gift that I didn’t ask for, and I’m just trying to make the most of it. But I have worked at it ever since I was 5 and playing the accordion, which was part of learning and integrating music into my DNA.”
Lofgren’s longstanding relationship with Springsteen goes back even farther than when he started actually playing with the Boss onstage in 1984. “I bought a ticket to see (Springsteen) play in the early 70’s, and in the early 80’s I was at the River show in LA. So I was at the Sunset Marquis and I happen to bump into Bruce one morning, he was off to the final mix of the (River) album, and he invited me along. I got to sit and hear it all working out. I still remember being impressed that past his songwriting and playing, that they got the sizzle and electricity of a live show into the grooves more I thought than any record had done previously. And to be playing it now, and have all these shows in front of us, I mean, come on, amazing.”
A huge part of the magic of his E Street Band experience was standing onstage right next to beloved saxophonist Clarence Clemons for so many years. He and the Big Man developed a camraderie as tight as anyone in the band ever has, and Clemons’ death five years ago this month still deeply affects Lofgren to his core, even prompting him to write a beautiful ode to Clemons, “I Miss You C,” a few years back.
“We were very dear friends, stood next to him for 27 years,” Lofgren reminisced poignantly. “He was the one who liked to talk the most. I love all the guys, but C and I, we’d chat all the time, off the road, and just really liked to, ya know, gab with each other. Very dear friends. On my 60th birthday, we buried him. I can still feel him and hear him, and used to sit in the dark while Bruce would do something alone on stage for countless hours, and just have so many thousands of memories that are still very vivid. I still feel like he’s with us as a band and certainly as an individual, and I am grateful for the time I had. Although of course being greedy and selfish, I would have liked another thirty years with him, but that wasn’t to be. So I’m grateful with what I had. And keepin’ it alive through that song.”
When Clemons passed, the future of the E Street Band was up in the air. Could Springsteen really take the stage without his foil, his pal, his sidekick at his side? Lofgren says not only was Springsteen able to carry on without Clemons, but he remains very impressed at how Bruce and his band have even thrived, all with an amazingly serendipitous replacement.
“I will say hats off to Bruce, because, you know, I mean, it was so traumatic, he had a much longer deeper history with Clarence than me. And if he had said, look guys, my heart is not in playing without Clarence, I would have respected that. The fact that he took a long time to decide, and decided let’s try to recreate the band to honor him. There’s no Clarence II, Jake his nephew is doing a fabulous job. And he’s playing Clarence’s instruments, which only Clarence would let Jake do, no one else. There’s a respect and homage there that could probably only happen with someone in the family. It’s just beautiful that it worked out.”
And what about the seeing a new player, albeit still a Clemons, playing that incomparable sax solo in “Jungleland” and on other songs that were the domain of the Big Man?
“As traumatic as it is, the best way to heal is to play those songs and honor those parts (Clarence) wrote with Bruce, and share them with people night after night. I mean that song, so many times I would just sit there in the dark watching Clarence play this brilliant piece, and then step up and do my part. Still just a great honor to play all those pieces, but that was certainly one of Clarence’s signatures.”
For Nils Lofgren, music is clearly sacred, it’s what he lives for. Whether it’s with Springsteen in front of 90,000 in a stadium, or 500 in an intimate club, Lofgren knows the magic of music is really inside each and every one of us.
“I wrote an album a few records ago called Sacred Weapon, and certainly music is just that, for billions. And the beauty is you don’t need to play, you don’t have to have musical talent. You can bang on the drum or you can just listen, but it soothes the soul, it’s the universal language. Like I said, music’s a sacred weapon, man, it’s a magical thing.”