Nils Lofgren has been both a bandleader and a team player, and is equally accomplished in both roles. He has fronted his own band, Grin, and another throughout his 40-year solo career, but he has also been a valued member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band and Neil Young and Crazy Horse (as well as Crazy Horse, sans Neil). One more high-profile collaboration, however, has gotten short shrift—his songwriting partnership with Lou Reed, which spawned Lofgren’s latest studio album, Blue With Lou. Parke Puterbaugh talks with Lofgren, ‘rock’s most valuable player,’ about Reed, Ringo, Neil, the new albums and more.
By Parke Puterbaugh
A Nils Lofgren interview comes with a unique instruction from his manager that “all interviews must be recorded.” I’ve interviewed Nils on a few occasions, and the first time we talked, before the taping mandate had been formalized, he remarked, “I hope you’re recording this!”
I was able to reply that yes, I faithfully tape and transcribe. I believe it’s the only way to do justice to what people say. I can understand completely why someone like Nils, who is a stickler for excellence in his music, would find it unacceptable to be misquoted and sloppily paraphrased.
In Lofgren’s case it’s an especially necessary thing to have tape rolling, because he is a voluble conversationalist who has a bottomless trove of stories about a life in music that has intersected with some of rock’s most fascinating figures. When you’re talking to Nils, you don’t want to miss a word.
Lofgren spoke to me by phone from his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he lives with his wife, Amy, and their dogs, Rain, Dale and Peter. Nils’ son, Dylan, lives down the street. While we talked, the dogs occasionally barked in the background, though I was unable to transcribe their remarks. (Sorry, Nils!)
In the interview Lofgren delved into his totally unique songwriting collaboration with Lou Reed. Though it happened 40 years ago, it helped jump-start his latest studio album, Blue With Lou, which came out in 2019. He also discussed the ensuing tour – his first as a bandleader in 15 years – which gave rise to his recent live album, Weathered. Along the way I learned from Nils – passing on some advice he received from a hale and hearty ex-Beatle – that broccoli and spring water are the secrets to a long and healthy life.
Weathered is an appropriate title for a live album by a veteran rock and roller undertaking a tour during the fraught later stages of the Trump administration, shortly before the pandemic hit. We’ve all weathered a lot, and the term has a universal ring of truth in this day and age. It appears in the lyrics for “Too Blue to Play,” a song from Blue With Lou: “I’m too weathered/ Gettin’ in too deep to play/ Yes, I’m weathered/ And I’m just too blue to play.”
Fortunately, Lofgren doesn’t mean he’s too blue to play guitar. In fact, Nils plays up a storm on Weathered, which is filled with lengthy, discursive solos that explore a range of textures and techniques unique to his talented fingers. Check out “Girl in Motion,” whose nearly 15 minutes are given over to a remarkable extended solo that unfolds as a series of impressionistic, overlapping knots of sound. After five decades as a working musician, he’s still pushing himself.
Blue With Lou and Weathered reunited Lofgren with bassist Kevin McCormick and drummer Andy Newmark – musical collaborators dating back to Nils’ 1983 album Wonderland and even earlier in the case of Newmark, who drummed on 1977’s I Came to Dance. Vocalist Cindy Mizelle – who, like Lofgren, is a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band – appears on both albums as well. Nils’ younger brother, Tom Lofgren, who’s been in various editions of Nils’ bands since the late 1960s, played rhythm guitar and sang on the Weathered tour. Their other brothers, Mark and Mike Lofgren, made cameo appearances as well. Nils is quite obviously a family man whose loyalties run deep.
During a reflective interview, Lofgren touched on the various phases of his career. As a solo artist, he’s made 15 studio albums, and there have also been numerous live releases, from 1977’s Night After Night to 2020’s Weathered (both double discs). Before going solo, Nils fronted the wonderful early 1970s group Grin. Throughout his work, he’s exhibited a tough-tender dichotomy that was most strikingly exhibited on Grin’s 1+1, which was divided into a “Rockin’ Side” and a “Dreamy Side.” Lofgren and Grin have been recognized as power-pop trailblazers, and his self-titled solo debut from 1975 is simply one of the essential rock albums of the decade. No less a fan than Bruce Springsteen – who drafted Nils into the E Street Band in the mid-1980s – noted that while recording Born to Run, he and producer/manager Jon Landau “referenced Nils’ first solo album for our sessions.”
Beyond all that he’s done on his own, Lofgren has collaborated with some of rock music’s most esteemed figures, including Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr and Lou Reed. Rock music isn’t baseball, but if it were then a compelling case could be made that Nils Lofgren is rock’s Most Valuable Player. To recap his most impressive stats:
- In his rookie season, Lofgren accompanied Neil Young on the early-1970 sessions for After the Gold Rush. Playing piano, he was all of 18 years old at the time. He was an official member of Crazy Horse for their first (and best) album, 1971’s Crazy Horse. Lofgren also turned up on Young’s Tonight’s the Night, a dark and powerful “wake” for Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who died in 1972 of a heroin overdose. He resurfaced on Young’s 1983 Trans album and tour. In 2019 Lofgren reunited with Neil Young and Crazy Horse, serving as Frank “Poncho” Sampedro’s replacement when the guitarist retired.
- Lofgren’s many seasons with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band commenced in 1984, when Steve Van Zandt left to devote more time to his own work. Springsteen has admiringly referred to Lofgren as “the most overqualified second guitarist in show business.” In his autobiography, Springsteen wrote that Lofgren “has done much more than step in and replace my old friend Steve over the years. He became a very responsible second lieutenant, fully committed to his position in the band and giving everything he had. On top of that, Nils was just a beautiful guy to be around. He was an assured, calming, inspiring presence and one of the world’s great guitarists.” Nils remains an E Street member in good standing, having played on Springsteen’s late-2020 release, Letters to You.
- Lofgren got to know Ringo Starr during the British leg of Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. tour, and they formed a lasting friendship. Ringo tapped Nils as a charter member of his All-Starr Band, a pickup team of veteran rock and rollers that has changed with every tour. Nils was on-board for the first tours by Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band in 1989 and 1992. His bandmates included Joe Walsh, Dr. John, Billy Preston, Todd Rundgren, Dave Edmunds, and The Band’s Levon Helm and Rick Danko.
- In 1979, Nils Lofgren and Lou Reed undertook an unconventional writing collaboration that yielded 13 songs. Three of them appeared on Lofgren’s album Nils and three more on Reed’s The Bells. A few others trickled out on subsequent Lofgren releases, and the remainder appeared on Blue With Lou, closing the circle on what might seem like one of rock’s unlikeliest matchups. Think about it: Lou Reed was not known for his cowriting habits. It’s a remarkable story that Nils details in this interview as if it happened yesterday.
“Don’t Let It Bring You Down”-Neil Young, After the Gold Rush album, Nils Lofgren on piano:
Given this amazing array of collaborators, I felt compelled ask why him? Why has Nils Lofgren been the go-to guy for some of popular music’s greatest artists – in short, rock’s most valuable player?
PKM: Beyond all of your solo work and time with Grin, you have this other side that is collaborative. You have been involved with Neil Young at various points, been a longtime member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, had this prolific writing binge with Lou Reed, and played in a few editions of Ringo’s All-Starr Band. These are artist’s artists. They’re highly talented, self-determined and don’t do anything they don’t want to do. What is it about your nature that attracted them to you and vice versa?
Nils Lofgren: I think what it is, is being a bandleader is a lot of nonmusical work. There’s a lot of stuff you’ve gotta deal with that has nothing to do with music. Geez, I was only 17 when I met Neil Young, and I was 18 years old making the After the Gold Rush album. I was living with David Briggs, freeloading on his floor in Topanga Canyon as Grin was making their way. I remember being in his beat-up VW bus, cranking Creedence Clearwater Revival while driving up to Neil’s house to record After the Gold Rush. And I still remember saying, “Man, it’s so neat not to be a bandleader! It’s neat just to be in a band.” All those other things go away.
It is a different dynamic because you aim to please a bandleader, but you’re also there because hopefully they trust your ideas, sense of melody, timing, feel and flavor for the songs. And they sense your love for their music, which I have. So at a very young age I discovered that I really love being in a great band and not always having to lead it. And it’s something that’s just as rewarding and emotionally committed for me to do.
I’ve gotten to do this Willie and Friends project with Willie Nelson, where there would be a video shoot with all these great singers coming in. Willie has done a number of those, and I was invited to that. I also did a lot of session work on three albums by Patti Scialfa, Bruce’s wife, who makes brilliant records. We actually took one of them out on the road with this insane band. It was Patti and me, Steve Jordan, Willie Weeks, vocalists Lisa Fisher and Robin Clark, and Mark Stewart, an incredible musician from Paul Simon’s bands.
I was living with David Briggs, freeloading on his floor in Topanga Canyon as Grin was making their way. I remember being in his beat-up VW bus, cranking Creedence Clearwater Revival while driving up to Neil’s house to record After the Gold Rush. And I still remember saying, “Man, it’s so neat not to be a bandleader! It’s neat just to be in a band.”
I just thrive in a live setting. I love being onstage in a great band, and I know how to be in bands. It’s a true calling, being on a team and having a great thing to share and touch people. I’m quite as happy, content and fulfilled as somebody in the band as I am leading the band. So that’s why I’ve been able to weave back and forth throughout many decades and really embrace working with others.
I hope the reason they keep asking me is that I do play songs. I’m grateful for having a reputation as a guitar soloist, but that’s not really what I set out to be. I set out to be a songwriter and singer and rock musician. So I’m always listening to the song. I’m not just an instrumentalist doing a session gig. I’m in a band performing and presenting songs. So whatever it is, I’m grateful for it because it’s led to just as many colorful chapters as my own solo work.
PKM: You’ve crossed paths with Ringo Starr at various points. On Weathered, you introduce “Girl in Motion” by telling an amusing story about how Ringo influenced the original recording of the song on the Silver Lining album.
“Girl in Motion”-Nils Lofgren, from the Silver Lining album:
Nils Lofgren: That’s a song Amy asks me to play every night. It’s one of her faves. That was Kevin McCormick producing the Silver Lining album and, again, Andy Newmark playing drums. We were in rehearsals before we started recording, and Kevin came in one day and said, “Hey, I’ve got this interesting bass harmonic part I want to try out for ‘Girl in Motion.’” It became the signature of the whole song, just a very hypnotic thing. Ringo was in the studio hanging out with us. He was there to play on “Walkin’ Nerve,” which he played brilliantly on.
“Walkin’ Nerve”-Nils Lofgren, from the Silver Lining album, Ringo Starr on drums:
Actually, Ringo and I had jammed on that riff on the ’92 All-Starr Band tour, and I hadn’t even written the lyrics yet. I just had this blues-riff rhythm thing, and Billy Preston would jump on the organ sometimes and sing “She’s a Woman” to the “Walkin’ Nerve” riff. (laughs)
Anyway, we tracked “Girl in Motion,” and it was feeling pretty good as a power trio. We were debating what to add to it because, of course, you overthink things as producers. And it was Ringo Starr who announced to us that we were done. We were like, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, that is beautiful. You’re not going to ruin it by adding shit, are you? Just leave it alone. You’re done.” Only someone like Ringo could give us permission to get out of our own way. We listened to it again and went, “Yeah, it’s beautiful. Why would we want to add anything?” If he hadn’t been there, God knows what we would’ve done to the record.
PKM: Well, you’ve gotta listen when Ringo makes a production suggestion.
Lofgren: Yeah, the Beatles have the greatest body of recorded music in history, and getting to be in Ringo’s first two All-Starr Bands in ’89 and ’92 was a real joy and a highlight for me. Amy and I went with him – September 1, 2019, I think – for the 30th year anniversary to the actual day of the first All-Starr Band. When he closed out his tour that year, 30 years down the road, we all went out and sang “Help!” and got to celebrate with him. Hats off to him! It’s a beautiful thing.
He was going to go out on the road again but like all of us had to cancel because of the virus. We all talk about it, that we as musicians have never really not been planning for a tour – working on songs, arranging something, thinking about gear and equipment, having to say goodbye to the family. All of a sudden that went away for millions of musicians. It was very startling and we’re all hoping – as is everyone in every walk of life – we can safely get back to what we do.
PKM: Your latest studio album, Blue With Lou, pays tribute to several musicians who have passed. But the flip side of it is you look at Ringo and he’s ageless. He still looks really healthy and in good shape.
Nils Lofgren: It’s just so inspiring. Every birthday he has a big bash, “Peace and Love Day,” all around the world. It’s an honor to see him out doing that, inspiring us all and showing how it works. It’s funny, he turned 77 on July 7th, 2017. We were having dinner with him somewhere in L.A. and Amy was like, “How the hell do you stay so fit?” And he went off on a dissertation on broccoli and spring water. (laughs) So Amy, who’s a professional cook – no stranger to any food – regularly has broccoli in the home now for me. He’s been very public about growing up in poverty and having a lot of health issues, and it’s so heartening to see someone that gifted be a healthy 80 and still go out and play. We’re all blessed because of the Beatles and the body of work they left us. I so wish they were all still here to work together and heal us as a planet. But Ringo and Paul are doing that quite well in their solo work and together.
PKM: I’m curious to learn about your history with Lou Reed and how you hooked up with him. On your solo album Nils, there were three Nils-Lou cowrites, and on his album The Bells there were three more. Both were released in 1979. A bunch more of them turned up on Blue With Lou, and you also perform some of them on Weathered. How did you two happen to collaborate?
Nils Lofgren: I was making the Nils album, with “Shine Silently” and “No Mercy” on it, back in the late 1970s with the great Bob Ezrin as producer. We had a lot of songs, but Bob said, “Look, you’ve got a lot of songs where the music is really good but the lyrics are subpar compared to the best tunes you’ve got. Instead of rewriting them, what would you think about working with a great lyricist, a cowriter?” And I was, “Well, depends on who it is.” When he mentioned Lou Reed, I just laughed and thought that would be a brilliant but impossible idea. But he had worked with Lou, had produced Berlin and was in touch with him, and next thing I know we went over across town, I think that day or the next day, and had a meeting with Lou about working and writing together.
Lou was surprisingly open to the concept. He said, “Why don’t you come down to my place” – I think it was in Greenwich Village – “and we’ll talk it through.” So I went to Lou’s place and, funnily enough, he’s a big NFL fan. There was a Dallas-Washington game on, and he asked if we could watch the game. So we sipped some drinks, watched football and rooted against each other, and talked into the night. I said, “Look, I write music all the time pretty successfully, and lyrics usually take a bit more work.” Lou said, “I’m the opposite. I write words all the time and sometimes the music takes a bit more work.” So he said, “Before we go into a loft, get a piano and some guitars and start hashing it out, why don’t you send me what you’ve got and let me get a read on it?”
We had a lot of songs, but Bob said, “Look, you’ve got a lot of songs where the music is really good but the lyrics are subpar compared to the best tunes you’ve got. Instead of rewriting them, what would you think about working with a great lyricist, a cowriter?” And I was, “Well, depends on who it is.” When he mentioned Lou Reed, I just laughed and thought that would be a brilliant but impossible idea.
So long story short, I sent him 12, 13 pieces of music and said, “Lou, we don’t like any of the lyrics. I’ve got titles and words I don’t like. Do you just want me to la-de-da the melody?” He said, “No no no, sing what you’ve got. I may not want to replace everything. Let me just take a look at exactly where you’re at with these songs that you want new words for. Just send me sketches, primitive is fine, but sing what you’ve got so I’ve got a take on it.”
A few weeks went by. I was working with Bob doing pre-production, taking the train up to New York and back down to Maryland, where I was living outside of D.C. Lou woke me up at 4:30 in the morning one night and kind of blew my mind. He said, “Look, I got the cassette, and I love the music. I’ve been up for three days and nights straight, and I’ve just finished 12 complete sets of lyrics. And if you wanna get a pencil, I’ll dictate them to you right now.”
We both laughed at that. And I put on a pot of coffee and spent about two and a half hours with Lou dictating 12 songs. I joked with Lou, “Are you telling me now, at 5 a.m., I just wrote 12 songs with the great Lou Reed?” We both got a kick out of that. He said, “Look, there’s three of them I wanna use for The Bells. Run that by Bob Ezrin and get back to me.” And so that was that.
Later I put out a song called “Life,” with this haunting lyric he wrote and Branford Marsalis played beautiful sax on. It’s on the Damaged Goods album. And again in the late Nineties, my Breakaway Angel album had a song called “Driftin’ Man.”
“Driftin’ Man”-Written by Nils Lofgren & Lou Reed, from Break Away Angel album:
And then, you know, the others stayed in the basement. But I always thought to myself, “I’ve got to resurrect them.” Of course we’re talking about time. You always think, “Lou and I will look at those and get them out to share.” And then all of a sudden, tragically, we lost Lou.
I thought he was doing great after his surgery, and he seemed to be for awhile. I’d go see him play a couple times at nightclubs – the 9:30 Club in D.C. – and have a visit after the show. Again we got a kick out of our fairly painless cowriting session and the fact there were other songs that needed to be addressed. So once we lost Lou, it was very sad but I knew we had to get these songs on my next record to share, and thus Blue With Lou.
PKM: So you exhumed all of the unreleased songs that dated from that ’79 collaboration?
Nils Lofgren: Yeah, all the way back. Basically there were five songs no one had ever heard, and then Lou had done one of my favorite songs, “City Lights.”
“City Lights”-Written by Nils Lofgren & Lou Reed, from Reed’s The Bells album:
When Lou called me that night he said, “I love your title and your chorus and I’ve kept it, but I’ve rewritten the song to be a story about the great Charlie Chaplin.” And of course a lightbulb went off – the movie City Lights – and I hadn’t even thought of that. I just wrote a partying song called “City Lights,” and he gave it a much more serious slant, a story about Charlie Chaplin. Lou performed it on The Bells as a narrative, and only Lou could do that. Nobody does that any better than Lou. But I always wanted to do “City Lights” with the original melody. So that was a sixth song [from our collaboration] I knew I wanted on the Blue With Lou album.
Lou woke me up at 4:30 in the morning one night and kind of blew my mind. He said, “Look, I got the cassette, and I love the music. I’ve been up for three days and nights straight, and I’ve just finished 12 complete sets of lyrics. And if you wanna get a pencil, I’ll dictate them to you right now.”
PKM: When and where did you write the title track, “Blue With Lou”?
Nils Lofgren: I was finishing up The River tour. [In 2016-17, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band toured to mark the 35th anniversary of The River.] We did the last leg in Australia, and I started working on this bottleneck riff and singing the phrase “Blue With Lou.” I wanted a song that was not too hokey but spoke to what Lou meant to me. I came up with that, and it turned out to be the title.
“Blue With Lou”-Nils Lofgren:
I used those songs I’d written with Lou because I just wasn’t in a writing frame of mind. I mean, I had ideas but I was having trouble getting started. But I used those five songs and a rearrangement of “City Lights” to jump-start me into the album and get excited: “Okay, I’ve got a new album. Half of it’s written with Lou, and for the other half I’ve got a lot of ideas.” That really got me back into the writing process. By the time I had about 20 songs, I called Andy and Kevin into town. Much like we’ve done together before, we didn’t even roll tape for seven or eight days. We just learned 20 songs. We tore ’em up and rearranged them. We got in a room with no baffles where we could look at each other, sing and play. So that way we were going for live vocals, live everything. We banned the click track, no drum machines, just like an old-school power trio, and we had a ball. And if we got tired of a song, we had 20 others to pick from. We’d just go to something fresh and come back to a song we’d beaten up a little bit that day and needed a break from. So it all worked out great, and I was really happy we got out those songs I wrote with Lou.
PKM: It’s such a simpatico ensemble. You can hear the three of you conversing instrumentally throughout the album.
Nils Lofgren: I’m glad to hear that. That was the goal. That’s why we didn’t even try to get a take for a week. And then, without wanting to camouflage what was going on with the power trio of me, Andy and Kevin, I added very little music. It was mostly the voices of Cindy Mizelle and this men’s choir singing mellow “oohs” and “ahs,” like you’d hear on the old Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson records. Cindy was one of the main colors on the record, one of the main singers, along with the men’s choir. I really didn’t add much to the power trio. Kept the touches very simple and Cindy was a big part of the record, vocally.
PKM: The ”men’s choir” sounds a bit like the Jordanaires or the Ink Spots.
Nils Lofgren: Yeah, exactly. Those were the sounds I heard most throughout as color to stay away from putting on any more instrumentation that would get in the way of what the trio was doing in our interaction. It’s just kind of a fresh vibe I was feeling at the time. Look, I’ve been guilty of putting on too many guitars or keyboards, but in this case the whole point of how we approached tracking live was to keep the other sounds out of the way of the rhythm section and the core, and with those singers we were able to do that.
PKM: It doesn’t sound like you encountered the prickly Lou Reed. People were led to believe he was difficult to get along with, that he could be profane, an interviewer’s nightmare, that kind of thing.
Nils Lofgren: No, and I think I have Bob Ezrin to thank for that. Not that Lou wouldn’t have been fine if I met him at a show or something, but Bob paved the way for that, was very respectful, and just proffered an idea. It was up to Lou to pursue it. Fortunately he said, “Meet me at my apartment,” where we had a long, fun night of football watching, sipping on some hard liquor and talking through how to go about this. He was open to it, and I think too he was still kind of fishing for songs for his album, The Bells. So it was just a beautiful adventure all the way around, and it was so hilarious that he woke me up at 4:30 in the morning to inform me, “Get a pad and pencil and a cup of coffee, because you’re going to be taking dictation for three hours. Oh, by the way, you and I have just written a dozen songs together, and I like ‘em!”
PKM: Plus there was the incredible fact he had been up for three days straight.
Nils Lofgren: Oh, man, it blew my mind. When he proffered the dictation idea, part of me was like, “Man, he wants to do this now.” I was on a landline, there were no cells phones or Internet. I did it slowly but surely and made sure I got every single syllable correct. He was excited about it and so was I, and now it’s all out there to share.
PKM: Did you ever have the opportunity to play with him – sit in on an encore or something like that?
Nils Lofgren: No, I never had that chance. I saw him at the 9:30 Club and we were visiting after the show. I’m not one of those – I love jamming, but I’m not too pushy about it. Of course, “Sweet Jane” is one of my favorite songs ever. On the Weathered tour, we did two nights at the City Winery in New York City, and the second night we did a version of “Sweet Jane.” Intellectually, we all understand nobody’s around forever. But you always think, “Someday we’ll get out and play. Someday I’ll get to do that.” And then bang, you know, you don’t get to do that anymore. But at least I had these songs to resurrect and share.
PKM: It struck me that Blue With Lou is, in a way, a blues album. Not in the formal sense that you’re playing blues progressions, but there’s a reflective sadness about the passing of people. The title song is a tribute to Lou. You do a beautiful song, “Dear Heartbreaker,” about Tom Petty. You even do a moving song about the passing of one of your dogs. Talk about the mood and vibe you were in when you were writing that album.
“Dear Heartbreaker”-Nils Lofgren, from the Blue With Lou album:
Nils Lofgren: I would call it a blues album. That’s really how I started, and that’s the feeling I wanted to make. That’s why I wanted to record live in the studio. Yeah, I did have the blues. They’ve gotten a lot worse in the last couple years. That’s all tempered by the reality that I’ve got an incredible wife, Amy, of 25 years. We have our dog family. Our son’s safe down the road. So I’m lucky in that way because I see a lot of people struggle mightily. And I have friends to call to deal with the fact that none of us has ever really had the experience of not being able to plan a tour or think of a tour. It’s a new adventure to have that taken away.
But when I made that record, I was also dwelling on the losses. We lost Lou. We lost our dog Groucho, who “Remember Me” is based on. A while ago I lost my father, who was a hero to me, and we lost my mom last year. So yeah, it is a blues album, but it does deal with the dignity of what you had, too. Tom Petty was a big hero of mine, and I just wasn’t planning on writing that song about him. Amy and I, both huge fans, would always see the Heartbreakers when they come to Phoenix. Benmont Tench, the keyboard player, is an old friend. In fact we did a tour together in ’77. Before they broke big, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers actually opened for my solo band on the Night After Night tour, where I was making a live album. It was probably one of their last opening-act runs before Damn the Torpedoes came out.
Benmont was kind enough to hook us up with tickets for Red Rocks. [On May 29-30, 2017, Petty and the Heartbreakers played at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre in what turned out to be their final tour, as Petty died on Oct. 2 of that year.] Amy and I treated ourselves to a trip up there and saw an amazing show. We got to say hi to everyone in the band and reminisce a bit.
One day after Tom died, I was in the guest room writing. My dogs were hanging around. It was interesting. For a long time, Amy and I would actually curse out loud every day about Tom’s passing. We were really pissed off about it and very hurt, as millions of people were. But one day I just started singing a couple of lines. It was almost like a little prayer. Every other day or so I’d just sing a little nod to Tom’s loss and all of a sudden two more lines, and then I’d get an idea for another line. I’d just jot ‘em down in a notebook. Over a couple weeks I had a lot of lyrics, and I thought, “Is this gonna be a song?” Anyway, it turned out to be “Dear Heartbreaker.”
Yeah, there’s a lot of blues looking at what’s lost and what’s left, the gratitude for it and the heartbreak of not having people you love around anymore. Especially when someone’s gone, you treasure the times you had, whether brief or not. It’s funny, once we were up in Telluride skiing, and we took a day trip to another one of those ski towns. Amy and I went into this old hotel for lunch, and Lou and Laurie [Anderson] came out with ten-speed bikes. They were going bike-riding. We had a nice visit. I’d never gotten to meet Laurie, and I love her art and her music, too. I remember, after saying goodbye, I was preoccupied again. I was like, “There are all those songs we left behind. I need to get back to Lou.” You think that’s a great idea, so it’ll keep forever, right? And then you lose someone of that caliber, and it really shocks you. The only avenue left to deal with that loss was to resurrect those songs on the album. I feel like, okay, well at least I did what I could with the music that wasn’t shared.
PKM: What was like being in Neil Young’s rebooted Crazy Horse for the Colorado album?
Nils Lofgren: That was beautiful. After 37 years! I think Frank [Sampedro, Crazy Horse’s guitarist] just got tired of the road and wanted to stay home. That’s the gist I got from Neil and the guys. And of course I’m an alumnus going way back. So to get back and play live… We did a couple shows in Winnipeg [in February 2019] during the polar vortex. It’s funny, because me and Ralph [Molina] and Billy [Talbot], just the three of us, went to Billy’s house in South Dakota. From there we had a 13-hour bus ride in 30-below temperatures to get into Winnipeg to meet up with Neil. We did a couple shows there, and they started sounding really good. The second night in particular had a real vibe to it, and I think it jump-started Neil to write for us, which led to the Colorado album. Amy drove me up to Telluride, where there’s a recording studio we were working at, and then she came back during the last few days to pick me up. We had a little listening party to listen to the roughs we’d done with Neil and the guys, and then we drove off the mountain. There was snow, rain, ice and sleet, and we got down off the mountain just in time. I got home and literally turned around and drove to the airport to pick up Andy Newmark to get ready for rehearsals for the Weathered tour.
PKM: So your batteries were warm, so to speak.
Nils Lofgren: I was exhilarated. Playing with Neil has been a joy. Ralphie and Billy are some of my oldest musical friends and family, and hey, we were going to start a tour on April 29th, 2020, in Chicago. We had two nights booked. We had a couple nights on the road already booked. We were going to play some of the older buildings, some of the ones that haven’t been torn down yet, because Neil loves that. We found these old theaters and did like seven shows over two years. And the Winnipeg shows led to the Colorado project, which was lovely. Just standing in a room with those guys and singing around a mike and playing the same piano, the Gold Rush upright, I played on “Southern Man” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” I mean, it was a very brilliant, spooky feeling to sit down again at that piano I’d played on when I was 18. To play on another Neil Young record with my dear friends was quite beautiful and a special kind of spooky for me.
PKM: I’ve been enjoying Weathered to the point I did a deep dive through your back catalog to figure out which songs came from what albums. I was fascinated to realize that it opens with two cuts from Wonderland, which came out in 1983. Then I realized you’re still playing with Kevin McCormick and Andy Newmark, the same rhythm section from that album.
Nils Lofgren: Everyone in the band has a long, deep history. Kevin, Andy and my brother Tommy toured together a long time on Wonderland. We did a lot of hellacious jamming. Andy’s been with me on and off since back in the mid-1970s with I Came to Dance, and whenever he was free would come on the road with me. So it was just a beautiful cast of characters and old friendships going all the way back to my brother Tommy, when we got him a GED to leave high school to join Grin way back in the late 1960s (laughs). So the Weathered tour was a beautiful ride. I gave everyone freedom and encouraged them to improv, have fun and interact, which we did the whole time. We just got on a bus, had a great crew, went from town to town. We worked pretty hard. We did five shows a week, usually. But we love to play.
PKM: It was good to see Tom on Weathered. Over the many years you’ve played together, I don’t think you have had, at least publicly, the kind of spats so many other rock and roll siblings, like Ray and Dave Davies, have had.
Nils Lofgren: (laughs) No, no. I’m the oldest of four boys. We had great parents, and I can say honestly my three brothers are my best friends. We talk regularly. We’ve never really had a cross word. So getting Tommy back on the road was a real blessing. We did a cram course in about six days, got a show together and hit the road. We’re all veterans, and I think everyone embraced the fact there were no rules other than if you feel something and get an idea, then please share it. Don’t talk about it with me the next day at a soundcheck. Just feel free to be yourself all the time. The freedom is what you want from a band, ‘cause then you get surprised all night long, too. And then you add a great audience, and you’re off to the races.
When Nils Met Lou
Here is a breakdown, by album, of the baker’s dozen songs that resulted from the writing collaboration between Lou Reed and Nils Lofgren. In addition, the title track from Nils’ Blue With Lou is about his late songwriting partner: “Lou’s walk on the wild side/ Still profound and profane/King of that street corner/ His words slash and lick the pain.”
–from The Bells, by Lou Reed (1979)
“A Fool Like Me”
“I Found Her”
“I’ll Cry Tomorrow”
–from Nils, by Nils Lofgren (1979)
“Life”–from Damaged Goods, by Nils Lofgren (1995)
“Driftin’ Man”–from Break Away Angel, by Nils Lofgren (2001)
“City Lights” (with Nils’ original melody)
“Talk Thru the Tears”
“Don’t Let Your Guard Down”
“Cut Him Up”
–from Blue With Lou, by Nils Lofgren (2019)
You can order Blue With You and Weathered from Nils Lofgren’s website: https://www.nilslofgren.com