Time To Face The Music: A Q&A with Nils Lofgren

Nils Lofgren
To those less aware, it may seem odd to devote ten discs (including a DVD) and 169 tracks to an individual many know mostly as a sideman to the stars, albeit a stellar sideman at that. And while it’s true that Nils Lofgren is known mostly to the masses as a reliable sidekick — first for Neil Young in an early incarnation of Crazy Horse, and currently as chief foil for Bruce Springsteen in the E Street Band — it’s his lengthy solo career that’s clearly deserving of this extensive reexamination.

Consequently, credit the folks at Fantasy for giving Lofgren his due with the aptly entitled Face the Music. The music goes back to the beginning, some 40 plus years ago, with Lofgren at the helm of Grin and his subsequent tenure with an initial incarnation of Crazy Horse. However the bulk of the box spotlights a solo career that’s spawned such would-be, should-be classics as “Back It Up,” “Cry Tough,” “Shine Silently,” and perhaps the greatest paean to a fellow rocker ever written, “Keith Don’t Go” (the “Keith” in question bearing the surname “Richards.”) His associations with both Young and Springsteen serve as the crowning touches on his career, one worthy of induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the other members of the E Street Band earlier this year.

We recently had a chance to talk with Lofgren from his home in Arizona and we took the opportunity to ask his thoughts on the box and his career.

Listening to this music again must have brought back some great memories. What moved you the most?

I do still perform a number of these songs live a lot and for me, that’s a big charge because playing live is what I love most about my job. But to go back and listen to all these things, to hear the fresh sounds of the young wide eyed musicians of Grin, with the help of David Briggs and Neil Young, I realize we were very lucky to have such great mentors. We did work really hard, because back in the sixties, the only real game was playing live, so we did really work hard at it and translated it into our recordings. Even though we were green, we had the amazing David Briggs who came of moved me into his home and took us under his wing. It was just a beautiful journey that really doesn’t happen anymore.

For your fans, this box set ought to be reaffirmation of what a great career you’ve had. Is this further impetus to help reboot for your solo career?

I’m excited about the next chapter, but to me it’s exciting to take a step back and promote a great box set with a lot of representation and a lot of extras reflecting 45 years of hard work. Eventually that will lead to writing more songs and figuring out what’s next for me. That’s kinda where I’m at.

You were recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the E Street Band. That must have given you a great sense of satisfaction.

That was a beautiful night but it was kind of bittersweet. We hoped they would have figured it out before Clarence died and Danny died, and they should have. And that sums it up — beautiful but bittersweet because they should have done it while Clarence and Danny were alive, and we all agree with that.

That first album with Crazy Horse was one of rock’s great lost treasures. What was it like being a part of that band early on?

It was a great line-up, with Danny Whitten, Jack Nitzsche… and Ry Cooder playing on several tracks. To go from After the Goldrush to that was just incredible. They asked me to join the band and help make the album, which I did. And with Jack Nitzsche as the keyboard player it was amazing.

Likewise, Grin was such an outstanding but underrated outfit? What led to its demise?

We did four albums and got great reviews, but we didn’t make any money, so the record label said, guys, you’re making good albums but you’re not making us any money so we’re going to have to drop you. That was just the first big wake-up call of welcome to show business. But it’s so great with the box set that I could go back and pick my favorite Grin songs and re-sequence them in an entirely new running order.

To have played with both Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen is an incredibly impressive accomplishment, and yet you’re clearly more than merely a sideman. How do you view your overall standing, especially in light of this remarkable box set?

I’m a band oriented person. I’m very comfortable as a band leader, but when you get to play with great people and to play great music, that’s just as exciting for me and being the boss. I love that and I discovered that very young. So it’s a natural role for me because I’m always making my own records and I’m always going to sing and play. When Miami Steve came back to the E Street Band in ’99, we didn’t need four guitar players so I challenged myself to learn a little pedal steel and dobro, bottleneck and banjo and even though I was a beginner on those instruments, I had some great teachers who put lessons on tape that I could take with me on the road. It’s all part of the same journey, whether I’m in a band or leading a band. It’s all music that I love. There’s a whole different take on it when you’re not the leader but it’s still kind of fun. When I do my own shows, I play all the solos and I’m singing all the songs, but I still love singing harmony and working with other people and great bands.