Nils Lofgren Talks Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young While Touting Massive Box Set

Nils Lofgren
WireImage / M. Sullivan

"I love being in bands," Nils Lofgren told a sold out crowd at the Grammy Museum Aug. 5, midway through stories about his experiences in Grin and groups that backed Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr.

Most importantly, it's the live show aspect of being in a band.

"I engaged with the opportunity to play for people, possessed by the idea that you can't put it off until tomorrow - you have to get on that stage now. People keep you in the moment."

As much as Lofgren enthusiastically talked about being a high school dropout learning about music in the clubs of Washington, D.C. recording After the Gold Rush with Young and joining the E Street Band 30 years ago, the guitarist's mission was to spread the word about a 10-disc career overview of his work titled Face the Music.

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The set includes 169 songs, 40 of which were never released, and took 18 months to assemble. Concord's Fantasy imprint released the album, which features a photograph of Lofgren when he was 16 and in a power trio called the Shot, the day of the Grammy Museum event.

For a year and a half, Lofgren and his wife worked on the project, rummaging through decades-old cassettes, soliciting friends for testimonials and tapes and writing his own life story. One of his favorite discoveries was a tape he thought was lost forever: a studio version of his 1973 classic "Keith Don't Go" with Neil Young playing harmonica. The 16-track masters were discovered in the Virginia studio where it was recorded.

It was, says the 63-year-old Lofgren, the first time he has sat down and listened to his older work.

"Soon as its right as it can be, it's done," he told moderator Scott Goldman of the Grammy Foundation about songwriting and recording. "It's time to move on. Sing your heart out, record it, move on."

As a high school dropout in Bethesda, Md. -- armed with a guitar and a decade of classical accordion lessons -- Lofgren naively figured the best way to learn about the business was to sneak into venues, go backstage and ask performers about their lives. He watched Muddy Waters play cards for a half-hour prior to a show; he wound up being Tim Hardin's chauffeur. Young, however, took the greatest interest in Lofgren's songwriting, which led to him moving to Los Angeles and working on After the Gold Rush in 1970.

While he did not consider himself a proficient pianist, he was able to employ his accordion training. "Southern Man" was being worked on as a slow, half-time tune. During a lunch break, Lofgren tried an upbeat polka feel with the drummer and when Young returned they found a happy medium for the version that was recorded.

Years later, Lofgren had a completely different experience recording "Tonight's the Night," written after the deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry.

Lofgren says Young wanted "Tonight's the Night" to be "completely live with no fixes... (Young says) 'I'm done with the produced stuff. I just want to play and be emotional'. We'd meet at six, shoot pool and drink tequila and at midnight he'd start showing us some songs and we'd play four or five songs. He didn't want you finding a part. As dark as it was, it was strangely very powerful and healing."

Lofgren, who recorded four albums with Grin in the early to mid-'70s before embarking on a solo career that continues to this day, went into detail on an odd songwriting collaboration that came out of the blue in the elate '70s with Lou Reed.

Lofgren had a collection of 13 songs with titles and la-la-la's instead of words. "Surprisingly, Lou said he had not done it but he would give it a try. I sent him a cassette with 13 songs. A few weeks went by -- I figured he decided to pass - and at 4 a.m. the phone rings. Lou says 'I've been up for three days straight and I just finished all 13 sets of lyrics. If you want I'll dictate them to you now.' "

Nils' response? "Can I put on a pot of coffee?"

"I sat there for the next few days putting the finishing touches on the songs - I used three; he used three on 'Bells.'"

One of the songs from that exercise, "Life," was among the tunes he played during the 100-minute interview. He has a handful of shows coming up after not playing his own material over the last three-plus years which have ben spent touring with Springsteen. Being a member of the E Street Band brings its own challenges, ones he is more than happy to embrace as Springsteen does everything in his power to make each night unique.

"The last three years Bruce has been a mad man with audibles," he said using a football reference for changing a play at the last second. "The last tour we played 240 different songs. Forty nights in a row, he plays a solo on 'Because the Night' and on the 41st night, just as he starts to push down on the foot pedal, he stops and points to me (to take the solo). That's the beauty of the improv thing. It's something nobody will see again except the people here tonight."

Set List

Intro to "Waiting on a Sunny Day"/"Life"
"Girl in Motion"
"The Sun Hasn't Set"
"Little On Up"
"Keith Don't Go"


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