Nils Lofgren has spent more than fifty years on the road as a touring musician. The experience of a Lofgren concert is mesmerising; it’s on the stage when his energy, dynamism and true talent are on full display. His new live double-album captures that feeling. The multi-instrumentalist’s gifts are such that he is a respected figure in the industry, which has led to collaborations with the likes of Lou Reed and Patti Scialfa and an invitation to join the first two All Starr bands with Ringo Starr. Of course, Lofgren is also known for working with Neil Young and Crazy Horse and being a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band for over 35 years. Lofgren has been rather busy of late. Last year saw the release of studio album ‘Blue with Lou’, which featured a number of songs written with Lou Reed, and ‘Colorado’ with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Then, without a break, he toured ‘Blue with Lou’, resulting in a brand new live album, ‘Weathered’, this year. In a year bereft of gigs, this is something to savour. To top it off, Lofgren has just worked on Springsteen’s latest album, ‘Letter to You’, which was The Boss’s 12th chart-topping album in the UK. Americana UK’s Andrew Frolish caught up with Lofgren just before ‘Letter to You’ dropped to discuss the live album and what it’s been like to record and play with some of music’s finest.
You’ve had a really busy year; how have you been doing?
Well, I think room for improvement has reached an all-time high at this point on our planet! Anyway, I’m glad we are focusing on something quite a bit more hopeful in music and art and song which is certainly still the planet’s sacred weapon as far as I am concerned.
It certainly is and you’ve just released the new live album ‘Weathered’ recently. Why did you feel that now was the right time to put out the live album?
Actually, last year when I toured with the Weathered band for the ‘Blue with Lou’ album, there were a number of firsts. It was the first time in sixteen or seventeen years that I toured with a band, an electric band. Mostly, I’ve been playing acoustic solo shows. I was doing band shows with East Street Band and the last couple of years with Neil Young and Crazy Horse but I hadn’t done my own band tours in a very long time. It was also one of the first times in decades I was able to get the band that made the record, ‘Blue with Lou’. They all came out on the road: Andy Newmark on drums, Kevin McCormick on bass and my brother Tommy, who is my favourite person to play with. Tommy and I go all the way back to Grin days and, of course, grew up together and he is still as good a friend as I have. Also, we had Cindy Mizelle, who is usually booked with Steely Dan or some other big act; she was interested and available and wanted to come sing with us. So, it was a great collection of characters.
I intentionally had planned not to make a live record and not to record the shows. I wanted to just go town to town, the band and crew on a tour bus in these clubs all across America and just jam a lot, have a lot of fun and not worry about making a record. It was my intent to make each night a unique experience only for the people in the room. At the last minute, my wife, Amy, implored me to record the shows just to have them in case we wanted to use them. Thank God she did because a few months after the tour, really with no intent of releasing anything, Matt Bittman, our sound man, sent me some rough mixes and I realised there was a really special vibe going on with this group. We’d had hundreds of hours of gigs experience together on the road in various combinations and it really showed. Everyone was loose and free; we jammed a lot, there was a lot of improvisation and I just felt it was a really fresh take on what I do with a band. So, we decided to mix it up and share it. As Matt and I were working on that, the pandemic set in heavily on the entire planet. I’ve had to cancel a year and a half of great work, a year and a half of touring with three of my favourite bands. All that went away and I realised a live record, especially in these times, would make a lot of sense. I am very excited about it, especially in light of the fact that I can’t go sing and play for anybody.
It means a lot to fans. They can’t come out to a show but at least they’ve got the live record.
Yeah! It’s a real throwback to my favourite part of live shows, which is improv. Basically, it’s all based on the blues and I encouraged everyone in the band to improvise and just play what they feel. Cindy and I have worked so much together with the E Street Band: on the ‘Wrecking Ball’ tour, the ‘Magic’ tour, the ‘Working on a Dream’ tour. Amy and I first met her on the ‘Seeger Sessions’ tour and we became friends for many years before this project. On stage, I asked her to just improvise and scat and if she felt like doing something do just do it, to feel free to improvise around the harmonies and her voice really became another instrument in the band. Her harmonies gave us all a lift. We all got along great and had a ball, so I’m glad it’s all out to share and you can get it on www.nilslofgren.com. It was just kind of a happy accident that we recorded the shows thanks to Amy. You know, she produced it with me; we brought the whole band and crew into our home and kind of put the whole thing together here. She designed all the merchandise and got everyone ready to get on the road. When I come to the UK, Amy is usually at the merch stand. After the show, I go out and sign for an hour anything anybody wants me to. We bring along our t-shirts and CDs. It’s a very ‘mom and pop’ old school operation. Touring is a joy, especially in the UK because once you land you don’t have to see an airport or an aeroplane anymore! I was hoping to bring the Weathered band over to the UK this year but of course, everything went away because of the pandemic. Fortunately, we got this great record to share.
You mentioned working with Cindy Mizelle. I think two of the album’s highlights are ‘Tender Love’ and ‘Big Tears Fall’ where her voice really comes to the fore. It must have been great working with somebody like that on the tour and on the album?
We stay in touch but I’m so used to Cindy being busy. She’s usually on the road with Steely Dan, so I almost didn’t ask her but Amy insisted we ask her! Surprisingly and gratefully, she was available and Cindy was all over the ‘Blue with Lou’ album; one of the main instruments on that record was her singing. When we went out on tour, I warned everybody we’d be staying in the Holiday Inn Expresses and playing five or six shows a week, working hard. Everyone was up for it, you know, it was kind of a joy to just go for it – no-frills, no big-time, no press attention or distractions. We just went town to town on a bus, and on stage, everyone would figure out what they had to do to make the most of each night. We had a wonderful time! All the clubs were nice to us, gave us good sound checks, got us fed and were helpful with what we needed in each town. It was a really old school approach at its finest with a great band. God willing, I’m hoping down the road that we all get to get out to sing and play again. Hats off to the band and crew because they all did a great job.
You talked about improvisation and I think that’s a real feature on the record, that sense of freedom. Was that easier with going electric and with a full band than on your usual acoustic tours?
Oh yeah, one of the things I really embraced and really enjoy is that it’s a very different approach. On the solo acoustic tours, there is really no point in the evening when I am free to stop singing and playing, shuffle around and do a little dance on stage! With the electric band, I did that often! A case in point is the insane 16-minute version of ‘I Came to Dance’. By the end of the night with the band, I’d give myself permission to tell Andy and Kevin, “Hey, you guys entertain us, I’m just gonna go and have a drink,” and I’d walk over to the side of the stage by the keyboard rig where Tommy, my brother, usually was and just sip a coffee and let Andy and Kevin just go to town, just jam. Sometimes, it would be a long time before I’d even want to walk back out and play because they were so good! One night, Kevin started doing a great bass solo and started walking into that groove of ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’ or at least I caught the idea in what he was playing. I just started singing the chorus and it turned into a whole new section of ‘I Came to Dance’. The whole album is like that – it put a big smile on my face! You can hear it in ‘Too Many Miles’, which has some beautiful, scatting and improvisation from Cindy later in the song. I still remember one night when I played a riff and it was such a good deep pocket the band had going, I just had to stop playing and singing. I just started dancing round clapping my hands – you can hear the handclaps! I can’t do this in an acoustic show. No one wants me to stomp around and clap my hands with no music but inside a great band, I took advantage of that a lot. There is a lot of space and air. Everyone was jumping in with ideas that would surprise all of us every night, which just encourage us all to another level. I call it ‘going fishing’ when great musicians are looking for fresh ideas; it inevitably surprises you, makes you play differently and it’s just a very organic thing. When you have people of that calibre and do it all night long, it builds a vibe, a special soulful feel. It really enhances the show and it was an honour to play with this group. I hope we can do it again.
How do you go about selecting songs for the tour and recordings for the album? There are so many to choose from.
The live album runs much like our show. We would change four or five songs a night, try and do different songs night to night, but invariably I wanted the record to reflect the show as it was. So, I think it was probably seven or eight cities out of the 20 or so that all these versions came from. I just picked the best versions. I had to give myself permission to have some rough edges in my playing and singing. I was just looking for the best vibes, the jams, the things that caught on. When you get away from it a bit, there’s a great pacing point. At first, I listened to it and thought it felt good but I started playing guitar and then just stopped. Then, I looked at it a little harder and realised that I stopped because I was dancing and clapping my hands and having so much fun; I listened to what Cindy does with her voice – it’s really extraordinary. You look at it as a whole and realise I stopped because it was special. You realise the value of all that air and space. Usually, when you are making records you don’t get to that freedom and familiarity because when you’re in front of an audience every night. All these things take leaps and bounds forward as a piece. The audience kind of guides you to where you’re going and gives you an energy that personally I don’t find anywhere else. I’ve had great moments in the studios, making great records, great moments in rehearsals that make everyone laugh sometimes and some crazy jams that are wonderful but nothing like in front of an audience. To me, it’s where the greatest interaction and magic occurs thanks to their energy.
One of the songs with that real sense of that energy is the epic version of ‘Girl in Motion’.
Yeah, look that was Kevin and Andy who made the original version with me at Ocean Studios in Los Angeles with Ringo Starr standing by watching us work. He came in earlier to hang out with us. He played later on ‘Walkin’ Nerve’, which was a brilliant live track that me, Kevin and Ringo recorded live in the studio just standing around with no baffles, looking at each other. You know, hey, when you get to play with a Beatle that’s how you have to do it, man, like the old days! It was just magical that Kevin came up with this crazy, beautiful, melodic rhythmic bass part with the harmonics that he just played throughout the song and I just went off and caught a great jam in the end there and I’m glad we got a version of that to share.
For me, it’s probably the high point on the album, especially the story about Ringo that you used to introduce it. (Ringo Starr advised Lofgren not to add anything further to ‘Girl in Motion’: “Well, you’re done. That was beautiful. Don’t add shit and fuck it up!”)
That was a hilarious story because, in addition to being correct, Ringo was speaking as someone who’s made, I think, the greatest body of recorded music in history. He probably saved me and Kevin untold hours of work trying and experimenting. There was a good chance Kevin and I wouldn’t have been brave enough to just look at it as a sparse trio and say now let’s leave it alone. We would have probably added some stuff in. You can put 20 different sounds on a record but, even if they are all done well, everything can get camouflaged; I mean, the space goes away – that’s just the way it is. You can’t have 20 instruments all setup and playing as loud as each other, but when you just have three and a voice, all of a sudden, the air really lends itself and there’s that space around the whole band. On this ‘Weathered’ album you can feel it a lot and it’s just natural. We were all enjoying each other so much, I think we all just backed off. I know I did, which is a blessing too because sometimes I just play too much; I get too carried away and excited. I felt like this band really tempered my playing and there’s a lot more space in it, which I like. I appreciate you saying that as I really enjoyed it.
It was hilarious when he just announced to us that we had completed the song and it was time to move on, don’t mess it up by playing another note or adding another sound. There’s not that many people in the world who could give that advice and have me and Kevin just embrace it as the truth but we had one of them with us. God bless Ringo for pointing that out and steering us straight on that decision.
Of course, you’ve worked with him quite a lot in the past, haven’t you? What was it like being a member of his All Starr band and other bands you’ve played with?
Well, it was one of the great blessings in my life. I mean I am a band person; I know how to be in a band. My favourite thing by far of what I do is playing in front of an audience. I have this incredible home with my wife, Amy, of almost 25 years, and our dogs and I don’t like leaving. Probably the last 15 years I’ve had quite a bit of homesickness and it gets harder and harder to leave home. But I’ve noticed last month was 52, five-two, 52 years on the road. I’ve noticed that when I’ve away from home now I have a much deeper gratitude and focus and reverence actually for the act of walking out in front of an audience with a band or with a body of music to perform. You know, I call home and check on Amy, check on our dogs, our son lives down the road, everyone is okay great. Then, I’m able to draw myself into this opportunity and it’s really very powerful for me. I tend to be undisciplined on my own at home and kind of meander around. I don’t know what to do with myself all the time but, on the road, I am very disciplined. Every show date is just this great challenge and reward where, no matter what else happens, tonight at 8 o’clock you are walking out in front of an audience, who went through a lot to get to see you and they are expecting good things and they are rooting for you. It’s just a God-send for me that I grew up embracing live performing and it means so much. It means, perhaps, more than it ever did, with the worries of the world. All of a sudden, you get to turn your phone off and you walk out with a group of musicians. For a few hours, man, it’s just you and the audience and this music. The gift of music was not one I created. I don’t like organised religion but I believe in a God and I like to think I’m fairly spiritual. Between my parents’ DNA and some higher power, it’s just a really great gift I got, so I try to do something with it. I worked a fair amount at it and I’ve been blessed with this ability to be comfortable with, and at home in front of, an audience improvising, not worrying about playing the same thing every night.
I played the classical accordion for 10 years, and it was a great musical education. It was such a joy when I picked up the guitar as a hobby just to improvise and play the blues. And I’ve had the blues with all the horrible stuff going on, the governments and our planet. I really haven’t gotten it together to do more writing and start working on a new record, which is something I have to do. What I’ve been doing each day, I’ll just put on BB King, Albert King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bruce, Neil Young, whatever, and I just play the blues. I have a funky little speaker in the house or go out to my garage studio, plug in my guitar and just play the blues to these great artists. That’s kind of an exercise in some kind of emotional peace with all the worries we have.
The live thing, you know, is such a great feeling when you walk out there with a great band, whether it’s with Bruce and the East Street Band or Neil Young and Crazy Horse, with Patti Scialfa (Bruce’s wife) or on the road with Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis. I’ve had the chance to be in a lot of great bands.
I played basketball my whole life and football as a kid, played a lot of soccer. I love sports. Being in a band reminds me of playing in a super bowl or world cup. It’s great when you’re playing for a home-town crowd. With a band, it’s a hometown crowd every night and you’re guaranteed a victory! It’s just an amazing feeling to know that, hey, we’ve got a victory coming, people are going to be rooting for us, let’s see how far we can run up the score and make it as special a night as we can for everybody in there. I’ve played hundreds or thousands of games of basketball, football, soccer, whatever, and I’ve probably lost as many as I have won but when you do the right calculation and you are in a great band that’s how it feels when you get to walk out in front of an audience. It’s a magical thing and, God willing, I hope there’s a lot more of it in my future and in all of ours.
That’s a brilliant way of looking at it. You just mentioned working with Springsteen and the East Street Band and of course, you’ve just worked on the new album ‘Letter to You’. When did you receive the call about that?
It was last winter. Bruce had announced in public that he had written some songs for the E Street Band and, at some point, was hoping to record them. He talked about getting back to playing with us, which was a great idea. But ideas come and go every day and it was very different actually getting a call for us all to show up together. The plan was to record as a band in the same room, which we hadn’t done in a long, long time. It was exciting to get together with everyone. Bruce had a great batch of songs and we started making records.
Bruce and I were driving somewhere on the Reunion Tour in ‘99 and 2000 and I laughed that I’d been in the band since ‘84 and I was still waiting to make a record with the E Street Band. It’d been 16 or 17 years and he said, “Yeah, it’ll happen, don’t worry about it!” We’d do one-offs, like a Pete Seeger song or Woody Guthrie song for a charity record, a soundcheck on the ‘Born in the USA’ tour. There was stuff like that, but it was just kind of came and went. The first album that we made in earnest was ‘The Rising’, such a beautiful record. Max, Roy, Gary and Bruce would track these great songs. We’d all go down for a few days and put our stuff on. I’d sing with Patti and Suzi. Steve would come down and put something on; it would just go like that. Danny would go down and play and then Charlie Giordano, of course, who just had a birthday. But we weren’t all in the room at the same time. We made some great records but didn’t all get together and just go at it with all of us playing live and being in the room together.
This time, we made sure we could all see each other, of course. They gave us these really nice little mix boxes so we could make our own mix basically. I don’t like to hear myself too much; I like to be set in the band and hear plenty of the rhythm section and Bruce singing and everybody else. These little things are nice – everyone gets to make their own mix so you’re not imagining anything. You just dial in the way that’s best for you to get immersed in it emotionally and trust your instincts. It was very organic, we had a ball, it was just as much fun hanging out with and listening to the play-backs as it was playing and just being with everyone as a band. It was a very special week of hard work and very productive work. We were all excited to listen back because when you are listening you don’t have to do the focus of playing. It’s a whole other thing – you just get to enjoy what you did. Of course, you are critical of it and you want to fix that little passage there and make it funky. Pretty much all of it was live and pretty much all of it was saved and used. It shows, I think, and it’s got a great feel to it. Bruce was singing well and the songs were great. It was just a real joy after all these years to get to do that again! Like I said about playing live, there’s a gratitude and a precious aspect to it because you realise that nothing lasts forever but this great band with Bruce as our caretaker is still alive and very well and functioning at the top of its game. It is a real rare thing and a real joy!
Did the songs change much or grow once you were all together and playing live together?
I wouldn’t say that they changed much but regularly everyone has great ideas. So, you get seven or eight people throwing out great ideas and it gets a little overwhelming sometimes. You know, I tend to stay quiet because usually, someone else will have the same idea as I do and I just stay focusing on my part. If I really feel strongly about something, I’ll say, “Hey what do you think of this?” It’s just an organic thing. We do that at soundchecks over hundreds and hundreds of gigs because there is an audience coming and you’ve got a show to do.
The other thing I really like about people like Bruce, Ringo or Neil Young, Patti, Willie Nelson, all these great people, they don’t talk too much about whether it will work or not. If you have an idea, they just do it. That’s what I love about these bands! You don’t sit around and get nervous or argue about it like when you’re younger. If someone has an idea, Bruce would always just say, “I don’t know, let’s just hear it,” and we’d give it a go. “I’m not sure, let’s hear it the other way.” Then, after hearing both ways, “Yeah, I think we’ll go with the new idea,” or “No, let’s leave it like it was.” We’ve done that thousands of times at sound checks. Even during shows, we’d improvise and change everything on the fly with the confidence and the energy off the audience. That’s getting some inspired idea in the heat of the moment: you just do it; you just play it. I thrive in those environments. Whether it’s rock and roll as a hobby or professionally, it’s still the antithesis of classical music, which I studied for ten years on the accordion, where every note must be played the same. To this day, that’s one of my favourite things about the blues and the rock and roll I’ve gotten to play over the last 52 years professionally.
As with the live album, that freedom, that improvisation is all part of the energy.
It’s like a lot of what we do on stage. There are times Steve and Bruce are on electric guitars so I’ll throw in some rhythm guitar. I do a lot of rhythm playing on the new record. There would be songs where Bruce is just focusing on his singing and, of course, we are rearranging as we go. You know Steve and Bruce have been doing that with Roy and Gary and Max for decades; they might want to repeat a chorus there or make an intro’ shorter. We’ll try it and Bruce will decide. There’s a funny moment in the film that’s coming out where you see us all doing that: saying what about this, what about that and didn’t we decide to do it this way and finally, because we are all a bit weathered ourselves, Bruce goes “Aahh, I’m not sure where we are going to stop, so just watch me and when I stop, you stop!” We get to the point we can’t think anymore so we just play! That’s the advantage of that kind of history and ability to read each other. A lot of the time, it’s internal. I’d be playing my rhythm guitar and I’m thinking that something’s not right. Then, I’d get the idea like on the song ‘Ghost’ that it doesn’t need a rhythm guitar. Instead, I’d ask one of the techs, Kevin (an old friend who did a tour with me in Ringo Starr’s band), to get my Fender baritone. No-one was paying attention to me so I just put down my acoustic, picked up my baritone, and found a part that I thought fit better and that’s what wound up going to tape. There is another song where I felt it didn’t need my rhythm guitar and I decided on an open G tuning and played some slide on my lap steel, which fitted better in there and was used. Everyone is doing that internally, whether it’s Roy using his amazing instincts to come up with different voicings in different parts of the piano or Gary going to a different pickup or a different bass guitar. Everyone has their own little internal world that helps us evolve as a group as we are trying extra choruses or cutting a verse in half or changing the overall arrangement. We are producing our own parts at the same time; it happens so fast and organically, a very beautiful thing.
Are there any particular highlights for you?
I think every song is a highlight. I was blown away. I’ve done recording sessions that got bogged down and took a lot of time, doing parts over and over. We’ve all participated in that. It was just so different working as a group together, banging through these ideas. When I’d go down to Atlanta and make those records we’d discussed, like ‘The Rising’, ‘Magic’, ‘Working on a Dream’, Brendan O’Brien and Bruce would be producing together and they’d give me three or four ideas that they needed to get on tape. We’d work on those over a few days and once they were all down, they’d ask if I had any ideas that I wanted to throw down. I might have two or three ideas and they’d always give me the tracks that I needed. Rather than judge them or decide then, they would let us all put down our own ideas and listen. Like a giant musical jigsaw puzzle, they would put their final picture together, bringing in everything.
But this time, when you are all in the room together and everything is evolving at this fast pace, your own parts evolve into the whole. You find what fits better, evolving the arrangements towards a final run through. It was just very natural and organic. It was intense but it was also very fun and rewarding because you knew you were safe and among dear old friends and you had great, great songs and musicians to work with. So, it was a win-win all the way around. I think it shows and people will notice it when they hear the album.
Of course, you’ve just done ‘Letter to You’ and you had your live album this year but towards the back end of last year you also had ‘Colorado’ with Crazy Horse and Neil Young. How did that compare as a recording experience and a band experience?
It’s very similar in the sense that Neil likes to play live. A lot of the time, Neil took it a step further in the sense that, rather than use headphones, he wanted it to be just like a bar band and have speakers in the room. Of course, there was a lot of leakage, which means that if my amplifier is really loud it will bleed into the mics that are near drums. We’d put up little baffles to keep my amp from bleeding into the drums but we were all in the room playing together. For the most part, we had everything going through a PA but still had the same vibe. Neil would start playing a song and we’d learn it quickly. Often, the second or third time through would be the take. As a musician, sometimes you like to be nice and play it a few more times! But you have to realise when you’re a musician and working with people of that calibre, people who write such incredible songs, that when they’re in it and they are singing and they get a vocal that works, then you should be able to be done. Again, there were a couple of times when I had some other ideas and I’d go out and try to play my guitar over. It was musical but did it feel better…no, it usually didn’t feel better than what happened live.
All these great people really just loved the live experience. It was true with Ringo too. I remember when we were on the ‘Born In the USA’ tour in ‘84 and ’85, Max wrote a book, ‘The Big Beat’, about drummers. He and Ringo were friends and we went out to a birthday party for Ringo at The White House, which John Lennon used to own. There was a room set up to jam and I thought to myself, “I don’t care if they throw me out, I’ve got to try to get a chance to play music with Ringo Starr.” Eventually, at 2:00 am that happened. We were jamming together; it was fun and the party went well into the night. We were sitting around sipping some hard drink and I was just loving having a conversation with Ringo. At some point, he gave me his number and said to stay in touch. I started calling him every few weeks and I would be in England every year touring. He’d come to my shows and we’d stay in touch. Then, he spent more and more time in LA where I lived and I’d see him there. I still remember in ’89, I was just in a rental house and he called and said, “Hey, I’ve got to get out and play and be a drummer!” Nobody can follow The Beatles but it was admirable that he realised being famous and having money is not a replacement for being a musician. It was bothering him and he came up with this great concept of an ‘all-star’ band where everyone would get up and sing two or three songs. He could go out front for a few songs and sing some of his solo hits because he had a lot of solo hits, more so than the other Beatles, actually. He wanted to drum most of the night and it was very brave of him to put this band together. He wanted me to be in the band and told me where we were going to go and rehearse. I said, “Count me in!” What a blessing, you know, to help one of my heroes get out and enjoy the gift of playing live. I was on cloud nine and I remember thanking Ringo profusely. I started to say goodbye and begin organising the songs to submit for the band to play, and Ringo laughed at me and said, “Well, wait a minute, don’t you want to know who else is in the band?” I said, “You’re in the band and that’s enough for me!” He told me we’d got Dr. John on piano, Billy Preston on organs, Levon Helm and Rick Danko from The Band and Jim Keltner will be our full-time drummer. Joe Walsh from the Eagles and you will be our guitar players and Clarence Clemons is coming along to play sax. I mean you know you hear a line up like that and you just don’t even believe it’s true. Then, to go out and spend four months putting a show together and touring with those guys. Oh, my Lord, it was just a dream come true.
Again, I love being in great bands and I’ve been very blessed to have an opportunity to play in so many different bands. There has never been a finer collection of talent than in that band. After the first band in ’89, I did the ‘92 band too, which was amazing. Joe and I were repeat members. Just last year, we celebrated 30 years to the day, I think at the Greek Theatre. When we opened in ‘89 we all gathered and watched Ringo play a show at the Greek Theatre at the end of his tour. We all went out to help him sing ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’. It was just great to see somebody with what he’s contributed with The Beatles go out and play and enjoy that gift and not be denied just because he was that good and that famous. A lot of people get that famous and, all of a sudden, their life’s no longer being a musician, it’s just being famous with all these other sets of problems. As my wife, Amy, says succinctly, fame can become a mental illness and has certainly damaged a lot of lives. So, it’s very heartening to see that, as tragic as it is to have lost John Lennon and George Harrison, Ringo and Paul are still out playing and touring. It’s really inspiring for all us musicians because you can’t get better than that and you can’t get more famous than that. They’re still out insisting they give themselves the gift of music and evolving and creating and singing for people after 60 years of doing it, much like the Stones. There’s not a lot of bands like that. I’m greatly honoured to have been in those two All Starr bands. I’ve seen many of them as they come through town. Me and Amy were ready to go and see Ringo playing in Phoenix recently and like every single tour on earth it had to be cancelled because of the pandemic. Of course, we all hope we can get back to that safely in the not too distant future.
Indeed! Such amazing people you are talking about, like Levon Helm and Danko. To play alongside such people in a band like that…what a fabulous experience.
Yeah! It’s just insanity! Every day, it was such a gift. I mean, I saw The Band on their very first tour and ‘Music from Big Pink’ was a gospel album of rock and roll and American country, soul, folk, blues, rock, pop – all of it! Every night with the All Starr Band, Levon would have a party in his room for anyone. He’d just call room service and ask for two of everything on the menu! He’d have his door open all night and I’d never miss a chance to go up there. There were so many great moments. Every soundcheck, I’d hear Dr. John start tinkling on the piano and I’d grab an acoustic guitar and run out and sit on his bench. Just to sit there at Dr. John’s piano bench and watch him play while waiting for the others to come out! Moments like that are just irreplaceable. At one point in the tour, Rick Danko asked to do an old blues song ‘Raining in My Heart’ and ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ by The Band and I played my accordion. I’ve got to check YouTube and see if there is a version of ‘Raining in My Heart’ – Rick Danko sang with this beautiful voice of his and made it like a gorgeous, old soulful ballad while I was sitting playing my little accordion. You can imagine we didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time, just a week and a half. We’re all pros and we quickly threw the show together. For vocal rehearsals, there were times when Joe and I would get a guitar and we’d set up some couches and benches in a big square. There were so many singers and, man, to sit around the couches without the band roaring and just be able to hear that cast of voices all singing together, oh my Lord. This was before cell phones, unfortunately. Otherwise, I would have bootlegged the whole thing, just for myself, of course! Just to sing with these guys that you love and respect and have listened to them sing your whole life and they’ve inspired you…to be singing with them as a large group made an unbelievable sound. Thanks, thanks Ringo Starr, thanks Sir Richard Starkey for those beautiful moments that have changed me and moulded me into a better musician and person. It’s like I said earlier, music is a sacred weapon for the whole damn planet and we are all turning to it more and more in these dark times. It’s delivering. It’s sad we can’t go see it in person but that day will come. For now, I am just playing music more and more just to keep my head out of the darkness whilst we navigate this rough chapter, we’re in as a human race. We’ve kind of made ourselves the endangered species at this point and it’s up to us go get out of it. So, God bless music. I’ve turned to music my whole life and the study of it is a sacred weapon to deal with depression and worry and it’s never been more powerful or helpful than it is now.
That’s a really powerful statement about what music means to people.
And that’s the beauty of it. I have a guitar school on my website – there’s a lot of free video there and free bonus tracks there for people to check out. I’ve started a page on there called ‘Rockality’ with two rock and roll stories I wrote about my life in music. I’m getting ready to do some ‘Rockality’ stories on video to put out in this next year. Basically, I just make music to share and put it out. It gives me a chance to stay in touch with people. I went my own way in the 1990s when I got off my last record deal and decided to be a free agent. It’s a real testament to the power of music, which has been a source of comfort and inspiration since I was five years old. Thankfully my parents danced as a hobby and loved music and would play it in the house all the time so, when me and my three brothers wanted to learn instruments, they encouraged it. It allowed me to hit the road when I was 17 after a lifetime of studying music.
It’s a real lifetime in music. How did it come about that you got back with Crazy Horse over the last couple of years?
It was funny. When you become an adult, and now I’m 69, there are certain things you have to do to not let your life fall apart. People are counting on you and it can sometimes be a bit oppressive because I’m a kid at heart. I’m immature and I have a real childish streak. Picking up the guitar and playing the blues, that’s childlike. Doing something creative or artistic or hanging out with your dogs, embracing your animals, that’s childlike. Once you’re an adult, wandering into childish behaviour can have dire consequences. I remember years ago one day I was riding around town down in Phoenix. I had some big errands to run and stopped in at our lawyer’s office about estate planning. Me and Amy were trying to be responsible adults and all this awful stuff you don’t want to think about. I was just doing adult business on the freeway and the phone rings. I think, “Okay, who’s calling and what’s the next adult thing I have to do now?” I was in that negative kind of space, aggrieved of being an adult, which is silly and immature but that’s me occasionally! I answer the phone and it’s Neil Young, “Hey Nils, how you doin’?” I was thrilled to hear from him, of course. He said that in a couple of weeks’ time he was doing a version of ‘Born in the USA’ for the MusiCares tribute to Bruce Springsteen in Los Angeles and wondered, since I had history with Crazy Horse, if I could play the piano and synthesiser parts, joining the band for the gig. When I asked when, he said he was already preparing at a ranch in San Francisco and I agreed to go the next morning. So, instead of getting a call from Amy about something like the stove breaking and calling the repairman, all of a sudden, now I’m planning a trip to go play with Crazy Horse and Neil Young, which is very childlike and inspiring.
I got up there and we worked it. A week later, MusiCares honoured Bruce all night long. It felt like a great home-coming for me with Crazy Horse. Roy Bittan was great loaning me his tech, Marty, to get all those crazy sounds he uses on ‘Born in the USA’, that massive synths sound that is the whole song. All of a sudden, we get to do this song with Neil. Much like that, a couple of years ago the phone rang with an ‘unknown caller’. It’s on a Sunday and I’m with Amy just being peaceful with our dogs out by our little pool. I’m thinking, “Oh, what’s broken? What do I have to fix?” Again, it was Neil and he said, “Man, you know we’ve put out the live at the Roxy (Tonight’s the Night Live).” The ‘Tonight’s the Night’ band I was in, we opened the Roxy on Sunset Strip Nightclub and we were the first band to play on the stage and christened the place. Neil put out a live album of us playing there and he wanted to commemorate that with five shows. Frank Sampedro, who replaced our dear friend Danny Whitten who we lost at a very young age, has done a brilliant job with 37 years in Crazy Horse. He had some stuff going on at home and he just couldn’t make it, so Neil called me. Rather than cancel these shows because Frank had to stay home, “…could you just fly in with no rehearsals and walk into some shows with Crazy Horse?” I agreed but then the next worry is, of course, shit the schedule is going to be bad! He talked to Elliott, his manager, who’s a dear friend of mine that I met the same night as I met all of them some 50 years ago. So, I got to fly in and start playing with Crazy Horse again.
We did some more shows and, eventually, Frank, who’s done some incredible playing and shows, just decided he wanted to get off the road and finally spend some time at home with his family. I just slid back in the band. We did a couple more shows, including Winnipeg and that lead to Neil writing the ‘Colorado’ album. We got together in Colorado, flew up in the mountains and recorded that record, which came out last October. We were going to start touring again for a couple of long months, starting on April 29th in Chicago. The great thing about Neil is we do a run for a couple of months and if we’re having fun, we’ll stay out all year! So, I was all excited, you know, to get back out in front of an audience with Neil and Crazy Horse. I really wanted to move the work that we had done of seven shows and an album forward and take it to the next level. For bands like us, every 10 or 15 shows, it’s just osmosis – when you’re in front of an audience, the band gets stronger. As your body starts fatiguing through the travel and the road weariness of it, the musculature tour of the band itself gets stronger and everyone is at a higher pace and different level. It’s much like a sports team, playing game after game; they just learn how to be with each other and get better at it. Making that album live in the studio just like a bar band was beautiful. Also, I was hoping that by the end of this year I’d be able to take the Weathered band over to the UK. Then, we were talking about getting out all next year with Bruce and E Street. That was a year and a half of the best work I could have thought of and it has all disappeared.
The world needs to change first. I’m living in the possibility it can all come back if, in our little world here in America, we can get this racist dictatorship out of power and get some real adults with some expertise and compassion. If we can hire all the Doctor Faucis of the world and start doing the right thing by people, all people, and being a better country and having much better leaders which we sorely need. Same with the whole planet, you know, which is coming to a complete crisis point. There are so many solutions out there and brilliant people with great ideas. To abandon those ideas in the name of money and greed and power whatever it costs, including becoming an endangered species as a human race, is madness. I’m heartened by all the early voting going on as voter suppression becomes like a massive game plan for one of our parties. I mean, who would have thought to keep millions of people from voting to stay in power? What an idea. What a moral treason! We’ve got to look out for each other, protecting the right to vote and have a voice.
I hope collectively as a world we start turning it around. Imagine what the world would be if everybody was just calmly pulling for each other and doing the right thing and being kind and considerate. I want to work towards a world like that because the way we are going now is not sustainable. We have to vote people out and put people in there to help heal the planet and our environment and our collective souls as human beings. If we only listened to our animals, they’d teach us every day about unconditional love and common sense but we’re just not paying enough attention. So, I’m hoping there is a big turning point coming up for all of us and we don’t have to go down this awful road too much longer.
Now, I do believe that: I believe that we all need to work towards a collective, hopeful compassionate goal; everything like clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean minds, clean hearts. We need rid ourselves of the childish greed and corruption that’s destroying our environment and our collective souls. I think now everyone is waking up and realising that we’ve got to do something about it. I wrote a song for my ‘Silver Lining’ album and played it on one of Ringo’s tours called ‘Bein’ Angry’ – it’s a full-time job! We all get enraged and it’s debilitating. I think everyone is ready to try to create a calmer, saner, safer, healthier planet. At the moment, it seems that the truth is optional. We’ve lost control of it now and truth is no longer necessary but that is destroying society. We have to change that and make the truth critical again. We all have to respond to the truth. You have to pick a side and the side is truth, respect, dignity and humanity. That’s the side and, if you’re not on it, you’re the problem and we’re going to try and bring you over to the light.
I think that’s a brilliant note to finish on – that hope for the future, the search for the truth and that healing of the collective soul.
I still call some of my friends in the UK and we’ve missed coming over there this year and touring around the countryside, playing all the towns and the great little theatres. We hope to get back to that soon. Hats off to the UK audiences: Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England and all of the little towns we’ve been coming to for half a century. God bless everybody for showing up as it’s helped make the beautiful life that I have possible. I will be back when it’s safe for all of us, I promise that God willing.
Nils Lofgren’s ‘Weathered’ is out now on Cattle Track Road Records
Photo credits: Carl Schultz – Photos 1, 5 and 7, Barry Schneier – Photos 2, 3 and 4
Jerry Frishman – Photo 6