Fans of E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren will be pleased to hear that the guitar slinger has just released a new solo album, "Break Away Angel." However, they may be dismayed to learn that, due to

Fans of E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren will be pleased to hear that the guitar slinger has just released a new solo album, "Break Away Angel." However, they may be dismayed to learn that, due to record company disinterest, it is available only via his official Web site and at his concerts. It's an ignominious position for a man who is one of the more notable musical talents of his generation.

"Break Away Angel" is a collection of Lofgren originals, plus one cover (the Everly Brothers' "All I Have to Do Is Dream") and a track co-written with Lou Reed. It sees him, even at the age of 50, trying to broaden his music, with half the tracks featuring orchestral harpist Christine Vivona. "The harp was used like a rhythm guitar, occasionally like a thematic instrument, and I'd play lead, just so we could have a fresher, different sound," he says.

The new album features a cover illustration of a war-ravaged angel by British satirical artist Ralph Steadman. "After he listened to the music, he called back and he said that he had this piece of art called 'Break Away Angel' that he'd never used that he really loved and was hoping to find a home for at some point," Lofgren says. "When I saw it, it blew my mind 'cos it's so symbolic of the record. It's just kind of me. Where I'm at."

Where he's at is the position of a music industry outcast, despite the loyal live following he retains. "I've turned full corner," he says. "It was a great run but the record companies are not looking for 50-year-old men who never had a hit record to champion."

Still, rock's perennial nice guy is not embittered by his position. "It's all part of what's been a fabulous career with a lot of ups and downs," he reasons. "Now a lot of the downs are just funny stories."

Lofgren was born in 1951 in Chicago, and his background is the mix of Italian and Swedish his name implies. He studied accordion from the age of six but, turned on to rock'n'roll by the Beatles, took up the guitar at the age of 15. "[It] really didn't occur to me to be a professional musician but I saw Jimi Hendrix when I was 17 and that really changed me forever," he recalls.

However, along with the exhilaration of putting together and playing with his three-piece band Grin came a quiet sense of urgency: "When I dropped out of high school when I was 17, I was really panic-stricken because nobody left school except criminals, basically," he explains. This urgency manifested itself most dramatically when a big name played locally. "Even though I can be fairly shy, I busted in on Neil Young and Crazy Horse in the dressing room and started asking a lot of questions."

It paid off. Lofgren ended up playing keyboards and acoustic guitar on Young's 1970 album "After the Gold Rush" when he was just 18. Grin, meanwhile, was taken under the wing of Young producer David Briggs and secured a record deal with Spindizzy. Four worthy albums followed, the second of which -- "1+1" - is considered by many to be a lost rock classic. However, critical plaudits failed to translate into sales and the band decided to walk before they were made to run. "I was very upset about the idea of continuing as a solo artist but it seemed like the only way to keep making music and recording," Lofgren admits.

His eponymous 1975 solo debut featured such worthy songs was "Keith Don't Go," a plea to the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards not to destroy himself through heroin the way Lofgren's Crazy Horse colleague Danny Whitten had. Lofgren has since met Richards several times. "Keith always is very friendly and gracious and kind," he says. "Just a really sweet man." However, the two have never discussed Lofgren's musical tribute. "I know he knows about it," Lofgren adds. "I would never bring it up."

When guitarist Mick Taylor quit the Stones at the end of 1974, Lofgren expressed interest in being his replacement. "I'm talking to Keith," he remembers, "and he's like, 'We're gonna have a lot of guitarists come in and play with the whole band and you're welcome to come'. It was just a very kind, sweet way, rather than just blowing me off. I was welcome to audition along with many others when that process actually occurred, which it never did. Ronnie [Wood] took the job."

While Lofgren experienced mixed commercial fortune with his solo records, his virtuoso guitar talent ensured a propensity to land on his feet. In 1984 he secured a job which at that time was arguably as prestigious as the Stones gig would have been back in '74: guitarist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.

At this point, Lofgren says he has no preference about being a frontman or a sidekick. "I'm grateful I'm not someone who has to play their own music at all times or they feel out of control," he says. "I find a great peace and a different kind of challenge and reward in working with other people."

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