Photo: Jo Lopez Photo
Nils Lofgren Faces The Music
It's shaping up to be quite the year for GRAMMY-nominated multi-instrumentalist Nils Lofgren. In April Lofgren was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, a rare distinction for a backing group. The induction underscored how valuable the E Street Band has been to Springsteen's timeless music and live performances.
Lofgren first gained notoriety when Neil Young recruited the then 18-year-old to play guitar and piano on 1970's After The Gold Rush. He subsequently performed as part of Young's Crazy Horse band, and has also worked as a sideman for Ringo Starr. Lofgren joined the E Street Band in 1984 for Springsteen's tour in support of Born In The U.S.A., replacing departed guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who returned in 1999.
On Aug. 5 Fantasy Records will release Face The Music, a career-spanning box set of Lofgren's solo work dating back 45 years to his days leading his Washington, D.C.-area band Grin. The package includes nine discs, two of which contain 40 previously unreleased tracks and rarities, one DVD and a 136-page booklet with track-by-track commentary and Lofgren's personal reflections. Face The Music is particularly special to Lofgren because his early solo albums have been out-of-print for years, despite his best efforts to get them rereleased.
In an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview, Lofgren discussed what the release of the box set means to him, his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and how being a member of the E Street Band made him a more versatile musician.
What do you hope to achieve with this box set in terms of how your solo music and career are perceived?
The most important thing is that a significant part of a 45-year recording effort has been extinct for decades and now the best of it is finally going to see the light of day. Musically, it's being put together very intelligently in high fidelity. I also assembled close to 40 of my home demos and basement tapes, which largely I own because I've been without a record company for 20 years. The box set includes 189 tracks, so this was an extraordinary adventure. My wife was involved a lot. Our home was turned upside down.
Did you learn anything new about yourself or your work while compiling this massive collection and then writing most of the text for the booklet?
I don't listen to my old music much. I have so much in front of me. Psychologically, it was also kind of painful to look back because the record companies would not rerelease my old music and the lawyers said I had no right to this work. But this project got me to look back at it. It reminded me that I've been busy outside of those great bands I've been in. I put together 13 hours of music that I could actually listen to. Everything still rang my bell emotionally. That says a lot because I'm a very harsh critic of myself.
I especially enjoyed listening to your guitar work on a lot of these tracks. Do you feel that aspect of your talent can be more fully expressed in your solo work?
Of course. When Steve [Van Zandt] came back into the E Street Band in '99, we had four guitarists, including [Springsteen's wife] Patti [Scialfa] on rhythm [guitar]. By the time Bruce and Steve get done playing guitar there's not much left for me to do. So I challenged myself to become a musician we did not have in the E Street Band: a pedal steel player, a dobro player, a bottleneck slide player, a lap steel player, [and] a six-string banjo player. I studied classical accordion for 10 years as a kid from [ages] 5 to 15. I knew I was the right guy to do that in the band.
How do you feel about the E Street Band being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
It was a great honor that was long overdue. I'll forever be disappointed that they didn't do it while [longtime E Street bandmates] Danny [Federici] and Clarence [Clemons] were alive, which was inappropriate. It was a beautiful thing, but bittersweet.
What's made this band so special over the years and what role has Springsteen played in allowing the E Street Band to be more than just a support group?
In any great band you select people where you trust their instincts. You turn them loose and get surprised and inspired by their playing. It's never been done better than the E Street Band. You have all these great musicians that understand the song and instantly play the song. Bruce will say, "I want you to go play a solo here." He'll point to people all night long. He changes things all the time. The live shows are always [improvised], which is very powerful. You have seven or eight core guys. We've had 19 people in our band the last few years; great singers and horn players that all understand the music. They don't come up with ideas that don't fit. Bruce will fine-tune everything because he's our leader.
In your Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech you mentioned that during the previous Springsteen tour the band played more than 220 different songs. How challenging is it to develop a command of that many songs?
Well, you don't have a command of that many songs. It's very challenging. Bruce might show us the sign of a song we've never played. We meet at his mic and talk it through like kids in a basement in the '60s. "What's the key?" "How does the bridge go?" If I come up on a part I'm not sure of, I've learned to fake it or just play a "chuck a chuck" on guitar and stay down in it and contribute in some way. … It's very exciting. It goes back to the whole [improvisational] nature of blues guitar, which I fell in love with through the Beatles and Stones. It's about the excitement of knowing that you've got a great team and having the confidence of playing a song almost nightly that you didn't know or a song you hadn't played in 30 years. Bruce has been doing more and more of that the last few years, challenging himself to make it an exciting night for all of us.
(Jon Matsumoto is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.)