Published in the winter 2011 issue of MyLIFE magazine
For legendary guitarist Nils Lofgren, his mid-November Veterans Day concert in Phoenix was a homecoming of sorts. Having just returned from the exhausting 18-show, 20-day international leg of his Acoustic Duo tour, Lofgren played to a raucous, sold-out crowd at The Rhythm Room, a small, dark venue in a rundown section of the city.
A square, nondescript concrete bunker, The Rhythm Room is a legendary blues bastion, situated only a few miles from Lofgren’s Scottsdale home. The venue is often cramped, hot and loud. Nonetheless, it offered the uncompromising Lofgren and his “band,” the multifaceted, tap-happy Greg Varlotta, a heightened sense of intimacy and great acoustics to showcase their diverse talents.
For Lofgren, this was clearly not “just another room, just another town.” Surrounded by family, friends and some 300 fans, the diminutive Lofgren was in a zone. That room, on that night in Phoenix, offered Lofgren a place to shine.
“Whether it’s in big arenas with Bruce Springsteen or on my own, my job is to prepare completely so that when I walk on stage I can turn my mind off and trust my musical instincts. I try to focus and always make the shows as good as possible,” Lofgren said. “I want to get down in it—lost in the music as soon as possible. I want to hit the ground at 98 and get over 100 as quickly as I can!”
But on that particular night, Lofgren didn’t follow his own script. He came on stage alone and played a melodic solo on the harp—this was his latest “oddball” instrument and a recent gift from his “Jersey girl” wife, Amy. He followed that with a sincere homage to U.S. veterans, singing the national anthem with a soulful, caring joy. Lofgren made the song his own, with a unique, stirring rendition that was the polar opposite of rote, ballgame versions. As the anthem came to a close, the crowd stood and cheered, but not because a ballgame was about to start.
At 59, and with two hip replacements behind him, Lofgren still possesses incredible energy, a pristine, choirboy-like voice, deft guitar skills and an underrated ability to write heartfelt songs. While it’s his skills as an axeman that have earned him his lofty reputation, he has a slightly different perspective. “I feel like I’m a songwriter first,” he said. “Everything else flows from that.”
Having spent more than four decades on the road, the last 26 years as a key member of Springsteen’s E Street Band, Lofgren is no stranger to those big arenas and the frequent travel that accompanies such worldwide fame.
That frequent travel takes him away from Amy, his stepson, Dylan, and their large family of dogs and cats. Leaving Scottsdale, his home for the last 15 years, clearly grows tougher and tougher for Lofgren. “I really hate to go. When I leave home, the dogs give me dirty looks and the cat pisses on my suitcase!” he joked. “Yet those three hours on stage are a healing, therapeutic experience for me, an experience I hope I never have to give up.”
Born in Chicago of Swedish/Sicilian ancestry, Lofgren grew up in Bethesda, Md., where he and Amy still own a home.
A classically trained accordionist and self-taught pianist, Lofgren began playing guitar when he was 15 years old, learning to play on his father’s dusty, beat-up acoustic.
Three years later, at the age of 18, he found a way into Neil Young’s band, playing piano and guitar and singing on Young’s seminal album, 1970’s After the Gold Rush. It proved to be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with Young.
“I was shy by nature, but I was driven to learn and learn from the best,” Lofgren recollected. “I’ve talked my way into all kinds of situations and great collaborations, beginning with the Neil Young meeting. I’ve made a career out of ‘friendly stalking.’”
In 1974, after several years of fronting the Washington, D.C.-based band Grin, Lofgren smoothly transitioned into a successful solo career—a career that has produced several near-hit singles, including “I Came to Dance” and “Shine Silently.”
Lofgren’s 1975 debut solo album was a success with critics. One of those critics was Jon Landau, Springsteen’s manager. Landau’s Rolling Stone review labeled Lofgren’s solo debut “one of the finest rock albums of the year.”
Springsteen and Lofgren had connected years earlier, when Lofgren was touring with Grin and Springsteen was making the rounds with his previous band, Steel Mill.
In 1984, shortly after guitarist Steve Van Zandt left the E Street Band to pursue a solo career, The Boss approached Lofgren about joining his band.
Springsteen invited Lofgren to jam with him and the band at saxophonist Clarence Clemons’ nightclub, Big Man’s West, in Redbank, N.J.
Over the next two days, Lofgren jammed with what he called “the greatest band in the world.” When it was time to say goodbye, they stepped outside into the night. “I thanked Bruce and asked him to let me know when he had made a decision, even if it was two weeks later—even if it was at 4:00 in the morning. I went to give him a hug goodbye, and he said, ‘I just talked to everyone. Do you want to join the band?’ I was in shock, totally blown away. I said to him, ‘So you’re asking me right now to be in the band, out here in the Jersey streets?’ I immediately said yes and went home to pack for the Born in the USA tour. It was a great moment.”
It was in 1985 during that tour that Lofgren met former Beatle Ringo Starr. The two quickly became friends, with Starr occasionally attending Lofgren’s solo shows in the United States and in the United Kingdom.
In 1989, Starr reached out to Lofgren about joining his original All Starr Band. Lofgren, while on hiatus from the E Street Band, joined Starr for several world tours and albums. “Oh, they’re the finest musicians in the land,” said Starr of his 1989 band, which also included Joe Walsh, Billy Preston, Jim Keltner, Levon Helm, Dr. John, Rick Danko and Lofgren’s E Street bandmate Clarence Clemons.
Lofgren, who said he is constantly asked if he regrets not focusing more on his solo career, said this about hooking up with Starr and Springsteen: “If you love being in bands, how are you gonna say no to that? We’d sit around telling stories. Every story Ringo told was a Beatles story. He’d never been in another band. That was an unbelievable thought. [The All Starr Band] was his first gig without the Beatles, and I was in the band! That’s very cool. When you get around people like Ringo, Neil and Bruce who you love and admire, you just soak it all in. Those are experiences you must say yes to, and I did.”
Being part of a team, being in a band—particularly the E Street Band—is nirvana for Lofgren. “I’ve played street basketball all my life, and I grew up playing football. I love that team aspect of being in a band. When you’re not the boss, you can help in other ways. You try to spread good feelings, but you’re not the heavy, the psychiatrist having to solve all the problems. I thrive in a great band, not having to be the boss. I’m happy banging on a tambourine and singing harmonies if that’s what’s needed. As a bandleader, it’s something Bruce requires from all of us.”
In 1991, Van Zandt returned to the E Street Band, a move that Lofgren embraced wholeheartedly. “It was great to have Steve back, his musicianship, his great personality and, most of all, that raw voice paired with Bruce’s. The only other two rockers who’ve ever sung together with that raw intensity are Mick [Jagger] and Keith [Richards].”
Indeed, Lofgren credits Van Zandt’s return with giving him the impetus to learn different instruments, to become the band’s “swingman.” “We don’t always need four guitar players. So, I thought, why don’t I learn some of these oddball instruments? These instruments are now in the band’s arsenal, and because of Bruce’s amazingly authentic songwriting, they’re used on a regular basis.”
A longtime Fender artist, Lofgren is routinely cited as one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time. When Springsteen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, he called Lofgren “the most overqualified second guitarist in show business.” In Clemons’ 2009 autobiography, Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales, Clemons took it a step further, saying, “Steve, Bruce and Nils are all great guitar players, but of the three, Nils is the best. Nils is an incredible guitar player.”
Lofgren, his ego always in check, is uncomfortable with such comparisons. “Bruce and Steve are amazing guitarists. Rolling Stone has a list of the 100 greatest guitarists. Forget me—I won’t even talk about me not being on the list. Why isn’t Bruce on the list? It’s crazy. Just because he’s a great songwriter, he doesn’t count? Bruce is an amazing guitarist. Rolling Stone lists the 100 greatest singers but omits Sting and Chrissie Hynde. How is that possible? You can’t leave off Sting and Chrissie Hynde and say this is the top 100 singers. You can’t take lists like that too seriously.”
While Springsteen is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the E Street band has yet to be awarded the same honor. Lofgren wasn’t shy about his feelings on the subject. “It’s absurd. It’s embarrassing to the Hall of Fame. It means even more to my bandmates, and that’s why I’d like it to happen for them. I guess it’s a pet peeve for this cranky old musician,” he said. “Stop making excuses, and just do it.”
Asked to single out what charges him up the most when playing with Springsteen and the E Street Band, Lofgren became quite animated. “I prefer not even knowing where the set’s going to go and it blows up into that ‘best night of my life’ experience. The band grew up listening to Motown, Stax blues, the British Invasion, all the classics from the ’60s. Because of that, Bruce is able to invite the fans in, asking them what they want us to play. He pulls signs out of the audience, rifling through cards like a college kid looking for that one clean shirt in the laundry pile. He knows that even if he picks some obscure song we’ll be able to follow. He picks a song, we huddle and the crew has maybe 20 seconds to scour the Internet for lyrics. Then it’s up on the teleprompter and we’re off. I laugh and say, ‘Don’t even give me a set list. It’s useless.’ I love those down-and-dirty, pouring-sweat, let-it-all-hang-out shows. Bruce challenges himself and us every night. That’s what makes this band and Bruce so special.”
While most musicians crave the security of a record deal, Lofgren has taken a different course, making full use of Internet technology to successfully market himself and his catalog of music through his popular website, www.nilslofgren.com. “The music business is very political. Bureaucracy and politics constantly get in the way of creativity. I’ve found a way to produce my music without the record companies. With technology, I can continue to make records and share music that I’m proud of.”
Lofgren has also established his own online guitar school. Those with little or no knowledge can inexpensively learn to play guitar from an acknowledged master. “I get tired of people saying they can’t play guitar because they have no talent and rhythm. I started the online lessons for those people—to get them playing and having fun right away. The only requirement is the desire to learn how to play.”
Having concluded the Acoustic Duo tour in late November, Lofgren is enjoying time at home with Amy, other family members and friends. Happily ensconced in his garage studio, he’s focusing on writing and recording new material that will likely result in an online CD release sometime this summer.
Lofgren met Amy some 30 years ago in Asbury Park, N.J., when he and his solo band were playing the famous concert venue The Stone Pony. “We talked for hours,” Lofgren reminisced. “I wanted her to join us for our next show in Boston, but she just couldn’t do it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get another chance to plead my case until 15 years later, when I was out in Scottsdale, playing at the Rocking Horse Saloon. It was a hell of a wait between the first and second date!” he quipped.
As for Lofgren’s friends, they’re a loyal, eclectic mix, including Ringo, bestselling author Clive Cussler, sportscaster John Madden, acclaimed chef Chris Bianco and gonzo artist Ralph Steadman.
“I love to be around great guys, good people who are artistic. There are plenty of bad people to go around, so I try hard to surround myself with good people,” he said.
Lofgren seemed overwhelmed when discussing his life and achievements. “Over the last 42 years, I’ve been so fortunate. I’ve met so many wonderful souls. I’ve played with Neil, Ringo, Bruce, Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Nelson, Branford Marsalis and so many others. I’ve enjoyed them all. I get a lot of attention for that, yet that’s only a part of my life. I love to sing my own music as well. For me it’s all part of the same amazing journey.”
“While I may always be on the ‘D list’ commercially, I’m on the ‘A list’ with most of my friends and peers, and that’s fine by me. It means the world to me that the people I collaborate with know I’m a good person who will make good music with them. I just love making music—to play, sing and be passionate about it,” he shared.
Nearly three hours later on that hot November night, the joyful Rhythm Room crowd was on its feet, cheering, swaying back and forth as Lofgren closed the night with a soaring, full-band version of “Shine Silently.”
With his voice clear and his smiling Jersey girl dancing along, Lofgren made his guitar sing, while his poignant lyrics reverberated far beyond the small room.
Nothing left to say
Nothing left to prove
When it’s said and done
There’s nothing left but you, babe
For Nils Lofgren, there is certainly much left to say, but indeed, nothing left to prove.
After all these years, he still shines silently, yet ever so brightly.