Rock Legend Nils Lofgren

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Guitarist Nils Lofgren of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band will talk about his music and career.

Ted Simons: Guitar virtuoso Nils Lofgren is in the rock and roll Hall of Fame, inducted as a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street band, but he has long career as a solo artist.

Ted Simons: Joining us now is Nils Lofgren. What a pleasure to have you here.

Nils Lofgren: Thanks so much.

Ted Simons: Thank you so much for being here. D.C. kid, E Street band - and Arizona resident. How did you wind up here?

Nils Lofgren: I started in Chicago on the south side near midway, my dad moved to Maryland outside of D.C. when I was 8. And that was really where I cut my teeth. And I was on the road at 17. 1968, I hit the road. This month is 46 months on the road -- 46 years on the road. But I was in the stone pony, a famous nightclub in New Jersey. At the end of the night I met this beautiful young girl on the bus that was with a friend much hers and one of the roadies had them on the bus, and Amy talked near hanging out with me and had to leave at 6:00 a.m. for Boston. I was begging her to come to Boston so we could get to know each other, but she said her mom would kill her and her boss, of course she had a boss. I said I would square it, but she said that didn't work. 15 years went by, and 18 years ago at the Rockin Horse a great rock club here in town, I was passing through, she walked up and said hi, remember me. We were both at the end of divorces and a very long beautiful story short, we've been together ever since.

Ted Simons: And you're here ever since --

Nils Lofgren: 18 years here in the valley. My mom and brothers are still in D.C., we visit and talk them into coming out here. But I love it here and this is my home.

Ted Simons: Does where you live impact your music? Would you be the same Nils Lofgren if you were born and raised in Arizona?

Nils Lofgren: Well, I think so. Basically because if you're a musician, in my case in particular, I fell in love with performing. It's a gift I have. So you travel. And you spend probably as much Tede away from home as home. I wouldn't -- I'm sure if you studied it, psychiatrists studied it your geography has something to do with it. But there have been Tedes when I've been in one of the most beautiful settings in the world and I've had the blues and just haven't felt like writing a song. I've been at terrible dingy bar and gotten inspired and put out a boom box. So I'd like to think it's more of some god given talent I have and a love of music.

Ted Simons: When did you know had you that god given talent? Because you were very successful very young.

Nils Lofgren: I started at 5 years old on the accordion of all things. South side of Chicago, everyone played accordion, I asked for lessons, my folks paid for 10 years of lessons. After the waltzes and polkas you move into classical. I won contests, so I knew I a gift for music, but it was just fun and therapeutic. And at 15 I picked up the guitar as a hobby. In the mid '60s we worshiped Jimi Hendrix and the stones, but you didn't do that for a living as a teenager. And one night I saw the Who, in 1967, and then I went over across town in Washington, DC and saw the late show Jimi Hendrix experience. That night I was possessed with being a rock musician. Hit the road at 17, ups and downs, but 46 years later it worked out.

Ted Simons: It did. Looking back, hitting the road that young, being -- Playing on million-selling albums as a teenager, playing piano, which you played the accordion so I guess you knew the piano, though not that well it.

Nils Lofgren: It was a strange thing. Thanks to meeting Neil young when I was 17 at a nightclub, I used to sneak back and ask advice from my heroes because I knew nothing about the music business. He befriended me, we stayed in touch, my band was in L.A. anyway, and he turned us on to his produce David Briggs and we moved in with David and he produced Grin. But I saw Neil a lot, so a year later at 18 years, he asked me to do of After the Gold Rush album, and he said you're going to play guitar, sing, and piano. I said I'm not a professional piano player. And they had more confident in me than I did, and they said you have won contests with the accordion. I said so what, they said we just need a few simple parts and we believe you'll find them. So that's the beautiful thing about from the classical thing, where everything is written, serious studies, Flight of the Bumblebee, all these masterpieces. Then you're playing blues guitar, you can make mistakes, be funky be out of tune. If you feel something special and deliver it, it works. So it was a magical kingdom from the classical word of world on accordion, but it served me well.

Ted Simons: Working -- Meeting these heroes of yours, because you are a rock fan, in terms of songwriting, you had your band Grin, which is a phenomenal band, I remember -- As a D.C. kid, you're -- Anyway, you got Grin, the solo career, which people don't -- Some people -- They think of you as the E Street guitarist, you had quite the career before that.

Nils Lofgren: It's OK, people come to my show and say, we took a chance, because you were Bruce Springsteen's guitar player, we had no idea you wrote songs or sang. That's a common story. If you don't have big-hit records. I don't mind F someone finds out I sing and write and maybe at the MERCH table at the end of the show I had a nice 26-month break from that playing with the E Street band and now I'm getting back to my own shows, big show coming up October 3rd at the talking stick. But I love people coming to check me out for any reason, and the goal is to do something special with my own songs and voice and guitar that will make them want to come back.

Ted Simons: Why didn't grin make it big? Why didn't the solo career get bigger than it was?

Nils Lofgren: You know, unless you have -- Unless you're Bruce Springsteen or Sting, 98% of people make records or more have the same story. You work your heart out, make your best records, the company gets excited, they put it out, promote it, it never translates into heavy rotation. That beautiful thing where they play the song so much the world claims to be sick of it, and that's every musician's dream. And it just didn't happen. I prefer as opposed to pointing fingers at the record company, which of course there's some of that, I prefer just to focus on myself and, OK, let's get better. For 20 years I haven't had a company, I have Nils Lofgren.com, I make music I'm proud of and sell it there. I sing and play a lot, post all the dates there. And I'm still working on a record. I'm going to work on another record coming up, but I put a 45-year retrospective out last month called "Face the Music."

Ted Simons: This has got to be fantastic. You've got stuff pre-grin, when you were a teenager in here.

Nils Lofgren: Yeah. Hats off to Fantasy Records, they got everything I wanted, we filled up 10 disks, there's nine C.D.s, a bonus disk and a DVD of obscure footage. And I'm so grateful, because a lot of my old music is out of print. Not a unique story for musicians that didn't have big hit records. To assemble it all, handpick it, put the order back together, there's 136-page story that Dave marsh insisted I write and he edit. My wife Amy picked the artwork and worked with the art directors, our -- We turned our home upside down for 18 months and we were the brain trust of producing this. And Amy's got great taste artistically. I put on terrible outfits, the only thing I'm good at is playing music. In front of an audience I'm a pretty safe bet. Other than that it's iffy. Hats off to Amy and Omar the assistant was helpful. 18 months of working with people all over the country, to go through thousands of pictures, ephemera, posters, 45s and putting a great story together.

Ted Simons: When you listen, especially when you listen to the early music, what do you think?

Nils Lofgren: I'm surprised at the sincerity and honesty and intent, and I notice it instantly. And again, I was blessed in a way, in the 'skis there was an explosion of beautiful music from British invasion, Motown, the old blues guys, I go to the same club I met Neil young, muddy waters let me hang out in the dressing room and watch him play cards and did two shows that night for me. I got to see a lot of powerful performances. But there was no video no, internet. So the only game in town had you to learn how to play in front of people. So that's am did you was play in front of an audience. To this day that's that serves me well. It's a home for me, it's where I feel comfortable. Of course you're being judged, but it's some place that feels like a second home for me, and I feel like I know what I'm doing. I like to take chances and improvise, and it just seems to always work out if I prepare properly.

Ted Simons: When you listen to the older music do you say, I wonder why I made that chord change, or maybe that solo -- Do you do that or just go, what a kid that was.

Nils Lofgren: Yeah, that's all. A lot of artists will rerecord their music. I will go, I'm singing better now 40 years later, shocker, you should be, but there's innocence and a charm to really hard work on a team of people with a common goal, and under the supervision we got lucky David Briggs, Neil young's producer produced all the Grin records. There's an innocence and charm and power to that, and emotion that I wouldn't want to redo. So now when I listen I'm so far away from it, I can enjoy it again, because it's not something I normally do is listen to my own stuff. Of course I had to do a lot of it to put this together.

Ted Simons: When you were doing -- Writing your own songs, still writing your own songs, but when you were first starting did you read a book, ask your mentors, do you know the 1-4-5 chords? How does that work for someone so young?

Nils Lofgren: Everyone is different. For me I fell in love with rock and roll through the Beatles and stones, and that opened the floodgates, the British invasion, so I was always kind of inspired by those types of songs. There are many of them. Beautiful songs, lyrics, and I'd sit there with a piano or guitar; my first songs were on the accordion before I picked up the guitar. But again, I just thanks to my mom and dad and whatever higher power there is, I had a gift for melody, and mixed with rhythms and the inspiration of the act at the Tede, and you learn from them. You study the Beatles and how they crafted, the Motown songs, it's like guitar playing after two or three years it started melting into my own thing. Which is ideally what you hope for in songwriting. But I think any great songwriter, I've done that whether it's Bruins or Neil Young's, we'll all talk about oh, yeah, that song I got inspired by Buddy Holly that song. 45 years ago. So it all -- We all take the soup of the best of the best from the last hundred years, even classical, because I was mired in deep classical melodies for 10 years and that served me well too.

Ted Simons: You mentioned starting very young, playing with Neil young, obviously the E Street band now, some guys, you had a career going there, and -- But you're a session guy, you're a band member, how different it is from being the guy in the spotlight, to the guy on the side with the guitar?

Nils Lofgren: It's a little different, but if you're working with people you love, and you're engaged by the journey, then it's similar, and I will say when I was 18 and I did the after the gold rush record with Neil young, and Ralphie Molina, Greg Reeves, but I remember vividly going to work going, god, it's nice not to be the boss today. But I'm in Neil young's band. And I realized it's cool, and honestly it's refreshing for me. A lot of solo artists are uncomfortable if they're not the boss. Personally I found it very inspiring and refreshing, like for instance now, 26 months on the road with the E Street band, now I'm excited about my next record that I'll write, which I haven't even started yet because I'm getting ready to do shows, but I'm not musically rusty because I had this great adventure with the E Street band. For me personally I love -- One helps the other. It's very inspiring to be in a great band. When you're the bandleader, there's a lot of nonmusical issues. I'm happy to do them but they have nothing to do with music. A couple roadies, you got -- Have a fight, you weigh in, some musician gets cranky have you to be a psychiatrist. All that goes away when you're in somebody else's band. Plus I don't sing harmony. I got to play rhythm guitar, pedal steel, DOBRO, bottleneck, all these sounds that I've learned, that when you are the bandleader, right family so you should play all the solo and sing all the songs, so I love being in a band with different responsibilities than the standard leader.

Ted Simons: It's obvious you love music, you love what you do. The joy is there. You're not some guy going through -- It's obvious you just speaking with you. Talking Stick is when?

Nils Lofgren: October 3rd, 8:00 to 10:00, some of my first shows in three years. Very excited. I'm practicing now. Me and my buddy Greg, a great local player. But there's electric, acue tick, tap dancing, trumpet, crazy wild stuff, and I will dig in deep on the guitar. Electric and acoustic.

Ted Simons: The Grin One Plus One album, I still love it. I was a kid when I got it, you were a kid when you made it. There's a song High, Hello Home." I thank you so much for joining us and thank you for stopping by. This box set looks fantastic.

Nils Lofgren: You can get it at the website, there's free music and info there too.

Ted Simons: Can you play that song?

Nils Lofgren: Yeah, let me fire that up for you.

Nils Lofgren:Guitarist, Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band;

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