Ever since I first heard Cry Tough back in the ’70s, Nils Lofgren has been one of my favourite guitarists. So naturally, I’m pretty pleased that his new album Blue With Lou — featuring new recordings of six songs he co-wrote with the one and only Lou Reed a while back — comes out Friday. I’m even more pleased by the fact that I’ve heard the whole thing, and it’s a superb album. I’ll have more to say on that later. Right now, it seems like a good time to repost one of my old interviews with the man. I’ve been lucky enough to talk with him a few times over the years, and he’s always been friendly, chatty and full of energy. Here’s a discussion we had back in 2010, when he was promoting the Cry Tough live DVD:
Nils Lofgren is his own boss again — for the time being. After more than 25 years with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, the veteran guitarist is back in “solo mode,” touring clubs and working on a CD while the hardworking group is on hiatus.
“It’s a big shock to go back to being in charge,” admits Lofgren from a house he owns near Washington, D.C. “There’s obviously a lot that’s involved with that, especially on the club circuit. But that’s really good and healthy for me. And I’m singing and playing my own stuff again. I’ve got a great batch of new songs I’m proud of. So if the phone rings and The E Street Band is working, I will be there with bells on. But there are no plans right now. And I’m not sitting around waiting.”
Fair enough; Lofgren has always been a guy who likes to keep busy. Over his lengthy career, the gymnast-turned-guitarist — once known for jumping on a trampoline during shows — has played with everyone from Neil Young to Ringo Starr, fronted his own band Grin, released a slate of solo albums, and even offered guitar lessons online through his website, in addition to his tenure with Springsteen. One of his latest releases is the two-DVD set Cry Tough — named for his 1976 LP — which collects three gigs taped for German TV between 1976 and 1991. Despite having both hips replaced several years ago, Lofgren is still a man on the move. But he slowed down long enough to talk about solo artists vs. sideman, Neil vs. Bruce, and cold-calling Keith Richards.
I was shocked to see your age. You don’t look it.
Thanks. I was shocked too. The first day of summer, I turned 59, and working on my 60th year is a little overwhelming. And it’s been 42 years on the road for me. So that’s been kind of freaking me out. But I’m grateful. And I’m not too crazy.
After all these years, what’s it like to watch those old gigs on DVD? What do you see?
I see a lot of bad outfits. (Laughs) But I also see a bunch of guys that really wanted to be there and really had their hearts in it. That was really nice to see. It’s really just nice to have. Most of my s—, because I never had commercial success, is out of print. You can’t get it. So for somebody to take these three shows, remaster them, release them and involve me in the process, it’s been a thrill. I’m handing these out and mailing them off to all my friends.
You may not have had massive commercial success, but you’ve certainly had a rich career as a sideman.
I found out at 18, working on After the Gold Rush with Neil Young, that unlike some artists who need to be doing their own stuff and don’t have the heart for anything else, I really love being in a great band. I’m team oriented. And if you’re in a great band with people you love, it’s great not to be the boss. I’ve done cool stuff with The E Street Band and Ringo’s All-Star Bands and Willie Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis. And if I’d had a big solo hit, none of that might have happened.
Can you compare working with Neil vs. Bruce? They seem very different.
They’re actually very similar. Obviously, they have a different sound — but the focus is always on emotional content. Neil is a little more open to frayed edges, and as he would put it on the Trans tour, peaks and valleys. But it’s very similar from my perspective. They don’t give me a lot of direction. They count on me to play the song properly but don’t restrict me.
Is it true you almost replaced Mick Taylor in the Stones?
I wouldn’t go that far. What happened was when Mick quit, as the No. 1 Stones fan, I literally drove my car over a median and sped home to call The Rolling Stones to audition. I didn’t know them; I was just a stupid young musician. Halfway home, I realized, that should be Ronnie Wood’s gig. I knew Ronnie a bit so I called him. He said they offered him the job but he turned them down to stay with The Faces. But he said, ‘If you’re interested, Keith is at my cottage trying out guitar players.’ He gave me a number and I called it — and Keith Richards answered. I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t know me, but was totally honest and open with me. He said, ‘Yeah, we want Ronnie but he won’t do it. I’m frustrated.’ He said the whole band was going to audition guitarists at a cattle call in Geneva or some exotic city and if I wanted to come down, no problem. Then, within the next week or so, Ronnie changed his mind and took the gig. That’s the whole story.
You must have a ton of great stories. Have you ever thought about writing your memoirs?
Yeah, but I’d have to out too many people. I don’t want to go to my friends and ask them to approve 300 different stories. I just don’t have the energy.
When Bruce calls you up, is it planned long in advance or on short notice?
Usually it’s very short notice, because he keeps his options open. He’s so prolific, he’s probably always got three or four albums in his head. And we’re always hoping he picks the one that involves The E Street Band. As a giant fan who used to buy tickets and go see him play, nobody would like to see another chapter more than me.