Nils Lofgren, one of the world’s great guitarists, is a musician’s musician. He has shared a stage or a recording studio with the likes of Neil Young, Crazy Horse, Lou Gramm and Ringo Starr and for over 30 years he has been a key member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Lofgren’s latest solo record is a fascinating project, built around a set of songs co-written with the fabulous Lou Reed. Back in 1978, the stars bonded over an NFL match between their teams, the Redskins and the Cowboys, and talked late into the night. Their collaboration resulted in 13 songs, some taken by Reed and some used by Lofgren. When Reed passed away in 2013, five of the songs remained unreleased and now, along with a new version of ‘City Lights’, form the centre-piece of ‘Blue with Lou’, Lofgren’s well-received new album. However, it’s one of his own new compositions, ‘Pretty Soon’, with its recently-released video, that has really caught fans’ attention. Americana-UK caught up with Lofgren after his promotional tour of the USA to explore the song and his song writing process.
Nils, one of the most exciting songs from the new album is ‘Pretty Soon’. Can you tell us the ‘story’ behind the song? What was the inspiration and where did the idea come from?
I was deep into writing the recent record, ‘Blue with Lou’, which got jump-started with six songs I wrote with Lou Reed. Once I got into the writing groove, I had a lot of ideas and one day I was just messing around with open D tuning: D, A, D, F sharp, A, D (low to high). So, you had a nice drone and I was just strumming that rhythm that starts the song. I just started messing around with lines, really the first line to the song, “Baby don’t you worry now // I’ll be coming home.” I had the idea about it being ‘pretty soon’ because in life in general it’s kind of universal concept: I’ll stop drinking soda tomorrow or I’ll cut back on my sweet intake tomorrow or I’ll start exercising tomorrow. It’s the idea of the moment being a little more important because people are always putting things off to the future and thinking that I’ll get to it pretty soon. The first line about returning to something valuable just came to me. I like the rhythm of it; I like the feel and there was a sort of singsong quality to the melody. In the second line, I sing, “…swell smile.” That word ‘swell’ is an old Americanism from the 1950s. I guess ‘swell’ was replaced by the word cool in the last 30 or 40 years. When I sang that second line, I was just fishing and it just reminded me of a character that was a bit simple and naïve, honest, viewing everything through a lens of thinking that everything is great. He thinks that he’s going have a good life and has a kind of admirable naivete.
Then, after those two lines, I wanted to move into the minor chords and the thing got a bit darker. I was trying to find what to do with it and the idea came to me that this guy was now talking about coming home to a girl. He was head over heels in love and had the misguided idea that to prove his love and, to try to be more of a man for the girl, he was going to enlist and go to war, which is sadly a common refrain through the centuries: young men thinking about becoming a soldier and not thinking through what that really means. So, that gave me the impetus for the story to take a darker turn and have some more drama to it where this character very misguidedly decides he’s going to enlist and go to war with that pie in the sky idea that he’s going to win and return with the spoils of war and be a decorated soldier. He thinks he’s going to come back to his girl and will have a great life, completely oblivious to what going to war really means because he was too young and immature. He has a good heart. So, now he’s in love with a girl who is very intelligent and worldly without travelling the world. I envisage some young couple in a small town that could be anywhere: America, England. She’s already smart enough and seasoned enough to counsel against it; she says: “You’re all I need. Pretty soon is now. We’ve got each other and that is the gift.” He doesn’t get it, so goes to war and finds himself in an awful predicament. That’s kind of how it all started. Throughout, whether it’s letters or phone, she’s still counselling: pretty soon is now I don’t need you to do anything but be you. Of course, he doesn’t get it and he goes off to war.
Later in the song, he finds himself in a battle zone; his friends are dying and it hits him, sadly it takes that long to hit him, that everything he needed was right in front of him before he enlisted in the form of this girl he’s in love with. Now he’s startled by the revelation and realises pretty soon is now. He thinks, “I’ve got a get back to my true love but I’m in a real hell of a predicament how do I do that,” and the story ends with that realisation, that determination at all costs to get back to her. I’ll leave it up to the listener but in my mind I’d like to think the character figures it out and he’s on a plane and figuratively telling her, “Don’t ask me how I’m doing it but I’m going to get back to you because pretty soon is now.” So, it went from this old school beginning that reminds me of the ’50s when I grew up. Everyone’s real hopeful and kids got to be kids: they weren’t being told how to use a bullet-proof frigging back-pack to save their asses from a crazy white supremacist with an AR15 coming into their classroom to kill them; we just got to worry about baseball cards and bubble-gum. There was an innocence that is now being ripped away from our youth and this song was speaking to that innocence where a young man makes a terrible decision for the wrong reasons and then gets woken up on the battlefield by the words of his girl who was counselling all along that he didn’t need to be anything but just be him for her. I’d like to think he gets back okay. There might be some heavy circumstances he has to go through but if I like the idea that he gets back to the girl. That’s kind of the story of how that song came about. I got more interested and excited about it when it took a heavy turn that with that first minor chord. He’s talking about a war to win and fighting to do but with a misguided image of what that means. Unfortunately, he doesn’t wake up to the reality until he is deep in a war zone.
The theme is as relevant now as it ever has been. Did you develop the music and lyrics together?
The lyrics, music and the instrumental parts evolved together. A lot of times I have a lick and a notebook and it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. I pair a musical lick with a title or a theme or even just a line with a hook and then it’s kind of filling the blanks. This one came together over a few days but once I got the idea, which was triggered by the second line that had a nice singsong quality and I thought about how it could have a bit more weight to it. It wasn’t the traditional here’s the verse and then the chorus. In this case, the actual lyric drove the music, moving on to the next phrase with the girl having no faith in the things he trusts in because she’s already more naturally worldly, intelligent and sees the world through more cautious, seasoned eyes by nature and so sometimes I found myself going to a minor chord when an extra line to sing required another four bars and I realised it just wasn’t the normal structure for a standard song: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, here’s the bridge, here’s a little solo, then back to the last chorus or double chorus. I let the story drive the music, which is not always the case. It’s one of my favourites for all those reasons. It was kind of interesting that a lot of times as a songwriter the music gets regimented, not in a bad way. We all grew up with the great song writing from Broadway in the ’40s and then, of course, the Beatles and the Stones. Still, that standard form went away to let the lyric have the weight it needed.
When did you know that the song was finished and ready to record? Did it change much during the recording process?
In this case, this record was unusual in the sense that I was determined to record live in the studio without a click track; we banned drum machines. I didn’t want to be in the glass window looking out at people. I wanted to be in the room with Andy, our drummer, and Kevin, our bass player. We’re old friends who have worked together a lot. I wanted to be able to sing and play live and go for a really good feel. Without a click track, letting Andy drive us. Kevin and Andy are amazing together. Towards that end, we didn’t even start recording final takes for seven or eight days. We learned 20 songs. We ripped them up, trying different arrangements and if we got to a place where we were excited about a song, we might play it for a while. If it started bogging down, we wouldn’t worry about it; we’d just go to another song, keeping it fresh and come back to it in a day or so. That gave us a lot of tools to keep the sessions fun and fresh even though we were making an album. We don’t normally record that way. Towards that end, I wanted to be able to sing and play every song well live, you know, I don’t know about that bridge line, I’ll write those lines later. Let’s just get the basic track and I’ll figure out the final lyrics. I spent months and months kind of at a normal pace at home, singing for hours a day with these songs, mostly to my dogs in our son Dylan’s old room. He’s out of the house down the road, he’s 29. I didn’t go in the studio across the yard because I like to be with my family as a leave so much. So, I wrote this record in my home with my dogs hanging around and Amy around the house doing her thing. That song in particular took a long time because, as I discussed earlier, every line I had to decide, should that start with the minor chord or should it be the 4 chord or the 1 chord. I tried it in a lot of different varieties for quite a while before I really settled on what was right for the lyric. I experimented with the singing for quite a long time before I finally got to the right format in my little notebook. I always use pencil because I’m always changing things – I got the pencil trick a long time ago because, if I use pen, I get so marked up I can’t even find the words! It looks like hieroglyphics! So, I kept erasing and trying different chords and finally I got the structure where I felt the chords changed to match the lyric and the intent and the drama of the song. Once I got that, I just worked hard at trying to sing it and enjoy it. It was many months before I even brought in Andy and Kevin because I wanted to have a really good shot at doing the album live in the studio. It’s easier adding touches to a record when the core of it’s done, the live guitar, bass drums and the singing in particular because I just don’t enjoy overdubbing vocally, going it alone and singing a song over and over. I’m much more engaged and emotional when I’m singing with other people. I have to look at that as a shortcoming but that’s a shortcoming I have and it’s become greater as I’ve got older. This record is very important to me and I really wanted everything to be as live is possible in the studio, as immediate as possible. Towards the end, I recall this song in particular taking a couple of weeks, singing it over and over, checking the start of each section. Instead of forcing an answer, I just kept singing it and eventually the lyric drove the answers that were revealed with the chord structure to match the story.
You mentioned working with Andy and Kevin and I also spotted Greg Varlotta in the video. Who else did you collaborate with and what was it like shooting the video?
The video was a great thing. A good friend of ours, Kii Arens, who is a very gifted musician, artist and producer. He and Jeffrey Ross, the comedian, who is a very dear friend, were coming to Arizona. Jeffrey had a show and they came to the house and heard the finished record. I gave Kii a copy and he knows I’m doing it without a record company. Me and Amy just have our Cattle Track Road Records here in our neighbourhood in Arizona and it was just a homegrown effort. He said, “You know, I’d really like to help you make a video because something special is going for me with that song, ‘Pretty Soon’. I’m going to bring my two-person team to Arizona and work around the clock for two days. My vision is to use the desert backdrop where you live.” Then he asked me if I could find a neighbour who could take him up on an aeroplane and shoot wild horses running. It was such a strange request but we were so happy that he wanted to help us make a video. Sure enough, we’ve got a great neighbour, Dan, who flies a plane and is familiar with the Indian reservations. Dan got him up in the sky and taking passes over true wild packs of horses as opposed to using stock footage. So, it’s a very homegrown authentic thing and we did it at our property and in our neighbourhood and at the Indian reservation where we found these in wild horses. It was just extraordinary the job they did – I thought it was beautiful. They captured the song and the feel of where we made the record and took advantage of the geography and the vibe and made a great video for us.
It’s a striking video and it looks like it was a lot of fun to make.
There’s a small men’s choir that I have all over the record. It was Kii’s idea to use them in the video. In this particular song, we used Greg Varlotta, who works with me all the time, and John Willis and Gary Bruzzese a great local drummer and bass player. I got those three and myself to a form a four-voice choir. They’ve got a great vibe. Kii decided, as a juxtaposition to the desert, to have them all in tuxedos. I thought it was crazy! It was a wild concept but we did it. It was really Kii’s concept for the whole thing. I did throw in the idea of doing a little tap dancing, which I picked up as a hobby in the last ten years since I had both hips replaced; I had to stop playing crazy basketball and put the trampoline in the closet – no more backflips off the trampoline on stage because I’ve got these metal hips. I completely destroyed every bit of cartilage in my hips. So, I had picked up tap dancing and asked what Kii thought and he agreed that would be cool. We shot it on this 8-foot diameter tap board made out of mesquite Amy gave me as a gift. She had it custom put in next to our pool so I could tap outside. They miked it up and just as an addition to the record had a few second pieces of me tapping but with the actual sound thrown into the video, which I thought was a great touch. It was a bunch of inspired people who are really knowledgeable in the desert community here and making the most of one of my favourite songs on the album. The video is a powerful visual example of the song and it gives it a lot more weight.
Do you feel that ‘Pretty Soon’ reflects the rest of the album?
This is an important record to me. I’d written thirteen songs with Lou Reed and five of them no-one had ever heard. Lou used a few and I used a few. I always thought that we might look at the ones that we left behind but then Lou passed away. I just realised that now no-one’s ever going to hear those songs unless I get them on a record. That was the concept: it was just something that needed to happen. It was six or seven years since I made a record and I felt that I needed to get all those songs recorded. Also, when we wrote those songs together, there was a song, ‘City Lights’, that Lou used my chorus for. He loved the chorus but he wrote a story about Charlie Chaplin, which I thought was so brilliant. When I had the title ‘City Lights’, I didn’t even remember that Charlie Chaplin made a famous movie ‘City Lights’ even though I was a fan. Lou wrote the story for ‘The Bells’ album and he narrated it; he was a great narrator. Lou did a great carnivalesque thing, which juxtaposed the heavy lyric he wrote about this gift of a man coming to our country, making everyone laugh when we were in the Great Depression, a horrible time. Chaplin gave all this light and hope to our country and then we turned around and threw him out, not unlike the madness of government today where no good deed goes unpunished to a startling dangerous point. But I always thought to myself that I’d like to do my own version with the original melody, which was a cool melody. I spent a long time, once again, in my son’s old room, working that out. So, that makes six songs that are co-writes with Lou and by the time we recorded I had another dozen or so songs of my own so we had about twenty songs to record and to choose from to make the best album.
How have audiences reacted when you’ve played ‘Pretty Soon’ live?
I haven’t played it live yet. We had very little rehearsal time to put the band together and hit the road. Every night we played four to six songs off the new album and we just never got ‘Pretty Soon’ together. We did a leg of the tour and I thought this is a great band and this has to happen again and I hope it does. It was so unusual to get the band together that made the record: characters like Andy, Kevin and Cindy Mizelle, a great singer and friend, who Amy and I got to know well on the ‘Wrecking Ball’ tour, and my brother Tommy from way back in the Grin days. After thousands of solo shows, to get him back out on the road was a very special thing. But all of a sudden, without enough rehearsal, we were doing shows. We had five or six things that worked together from the new album, which was good as it’s often just two or three because people don’t know the material. Sadly, ‘Pretty Soon’ was a song that we never played live. That was my fault; the men’s choir thing was something we could’ve done with Kevin McCormick, who could sing the low parts and my brother, Tommy, and Cindy could do anything. But we never got the vocal stuff together; we often talked about it and thought about doing it without the vocals. We should have because it’s a great grooving song. That was my fault as a band leader; I never let go of the harmonies and that was an excuse to never get it in a show. All of a sudden, you’re on a roll and the other songs were going great and we didn’t introduce something that felt incomplete. I’m hoping there’ll be a second chapter of taking this band out on the road later this year at some point and we can get ‘Pretty Soon’ in the set.
You mentioned going back out on the road. What is next for you, musically speaking?
For now, I’m just kind of laying low, taking care of my health. I made an album with Crazy Horse and Neil Young, which was so special. I met those guys 50 years ago this last May. I’m hoping that record will come out at the end of October. There are no plans to tour right now. Of course, there are no plans for E Street but after all the great things that Bruce has done recently one would hope that in the next year or so he would want to get the band back together. Again, these are just ideas that aren’t on paper and haven’t been implemented. At the moment, I’m just taking care of myself. We’ve lost a couple of dogs we loved dearly in the last year and a half. Now, our oldest dog, Dale, has been under the weather; he’s twelve. Our chihuahua, Outlaw Pete, keeps licking him all the time, trying to heal him. He’s doing a bit better these days but I’m gone a lot, man. I’ve been on the road fifty years and at least half that time I’ve been missing in action from my family. I’ve got this beautiful wife who does all the merchandising, all the artwork; she is a professional cook and cooks great organic food from her home garden. She looks after all of us. We’ve got these two dogs and we’re all helping each other. We are a family without Groucho and Rain; they were the heart and soul of our home and we’ve lost them. It’s a good time to lay low, stay home and see what pops up next. If nothing is happening, I’ll probably get back out later in the year and start doing some touring, either solo or maybe get that great band back together and do a run, maybe going over to England. I usually get there once a year and a four to six week run with my acoustic shows with Greg Varlotta. We do love playing the UK; it’s one of my favourite places. It’s also a place where we can get a tour bus, band and crew. We go from town to town and Amy comes with us and sells the merchandise she’s designed and has a good run with me out on the road, which she doesn’t always get to do. So, there’s a lot of options but right now is a good time stay at home and help Amy with the dogs and just enjoy being in the beautiful home that she’s made for us.
Which other artists have influenced you and your sound?
I love the Beatles: they were the reason I put down the classical accordion and picked up the guitar and started playing rock ‘n’ roll. It’s thanks to the Beatles and the Stones. It was through them I’ve discovered everything Motown, Muddy Waters, Little Richard, Howling Wolf. I just saw Ringo Starr and his All-Star band here in Phoenix, just a few nights ago. I think it was thirty years to the day of the first show at the Greek theatre with the first of his bands that I was in. I was in the first two. Hopefully, I’ll get to LA and give a nod to one of the all-time greats, Ringo Starr, who is out playing for us. He just turned 79 and he’s out there showing how it should be done. It’s really very inspiring.
You’ve had an amazing career leading up to this point.
I’ve been really blessed – for someone who likes to be in bands, I’ve been in my share of great ones! I’m grateful for it but I’m even more excited after making this record, how enthused I am about today and the future. I’m just continuing to play and grow and get excited about ideas. ‘Blue with Lou’ is really one of my favourite records ever. It’s right up there with the best I’ve ever done. It was nice to take my time over it, a couple of years writing and crafting it with the idea of doing it live in the studio and having dear friends like Andy and Kevin help me get that done. A lot of people in the music industry would hear it and say they would want to produce it more. My gut said that the charm of the three of us playing and singing live, not diluted, would work. I have no illusions – there’s so much competition and I’m someone who’s been around forever and haven’t had a record deal in decades. Happily! If I have something that I’m proud of to share, I will experiment with good ideas on keyboards, guitars, accordion, percussion, all the various instruments that I play. But, at the end of the day, I listen and if it’s not helping the song and is clouding the original recording, I’ll leave it as close to the original format as possible. The whole record is like that and I’m happy with the recording. Adding vocals by Cindy, who is extraordinary, and the men’s choir, were touches that Ricky Nelson and Elvis used to use, with choruses having a soothing quality. But that didn’t get in the way of the original trio recording. I’m not afraid to experiment with it but it was a much stronger record with the original trio and some vocal touches and then pretty much leave it be.
Recording live seems part of your musical identity.
Even when you record live, there is always the option of adding lots more tracks and sounds but, if you are processing thirty different sounds, it’s a crowded room. If you walk into a room and there’s three and four people, everyone’s going to get more attention. We’re really proud of it. I stuck to my guns because we don’t have an A and R person looking over our shoulder. In the case of ‘Give’ or the title track ‘Blue with Lou’, we had some great jams that went on for six or seven minutes. No-one was there to say this must be a three-minute song! We got into a great jam together and, if it feels good to us, it might feel good to listeners. I’m much more content following my own musical instincts after fifty years!
‘Blue with Lou’ by Nils Lofgren is out now.