It's not a stretch to call Nils Lofgren a rock-and-roll Zelig. Since leaving home as a teenager to pursue musical stardom, he has served as a key player in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and Neil Young's Crazy Horse. He has collaborated with musical luminaries (Ringo Starr, Lou Reed, Rick James, Willie Nelson) and non-musicians alike (he wrote a song with author and Arizona neighbor Clive Cussler and wrote/performed the music for John Madden's All-Madden Team). In between, he has found time to release nearly two dozen solo records.
2014 is gearing up as one of Lofgren's highest-profile years yet. Last night Lofgren, who's 62, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside his E Street Band cohorts. On May 27, his 45-year career will be feted with "Face the Music," a CD/DVD box set featuring 169 songs, 40 previously unreleased. Before heading down to Dallas for the Springsteen tour's U.S. leg, he sat down to share some lessons he has learned along the way.
Trust your mentors: After founding his first band, Grin, at age 17, Lofgren quickly found mentors in Neil Young and Young's producer David Briggs; upon arrival in Los Angeles, he lived at Briggs' house for a spell. So Lofgren wasn't surprised when he learned that Young might call on him to work on the project that became "After the Gold Rush."
What did come as a shock was the role Young and Briggs envisioned for the then 18-year-old. They wanted Lofgren to sit in on piano, an instrument he didn't actually, you know, play. "I said, 'Guys, I'm honored to do this, but I mean, I'm not a professional piano player,'" Lofgren remembers. "They both said, 'Look, you've played classical accordion your whole life. We just need some simple parts—you'll figure it out.' They had more confidence in me than I did." Four decades later, does Lofgren think his performance holds up? He laughs. "There's no session piano player alive who could have played as simply as I did without falling asleep. It was both a brilliant accident and a premeditated decision on their part."
Accommodate your collaborators: When producer Bob Ezrin suggested that Lofgren seek a co-writer for the lyrics to a batch of almost-complete songs, Ezrin had a name in mind: Lou Reed. Playing musical matchmaker, the producer got the two together at Reed's Greenwich Village apartment to watch Monday Night Football. Shortly thereafter, Lofgren sent a cassette of the music to Reed.
Weeks passed without a response. Then one morning at 4 a.m., the phone rang. "It was Lou. He said, 'I've been up for three days and nights with this tape. I really like it,'" Lofgren recalls. "Then he said, 'I just finished 13 complete sets of lyrics and I think they're really good. If you want to get a pad and pencil, I'll dictate them to you.' So I put on a pot of coffee and sat there for hours while Lou dictated 13 finished songs." Reed claimed three for one of his records, while Lofgren released three more in 1979 and put a few others on the box set. Lofgren plans to complete the remaining three or four once the current leg of the E Street Band tour ends in May.
Assume nothing: Prior to joining the E Street Band in 1984, Lofgren had struck up a friendship with Springsteen and performed with him once or twice. But when Springsteen extended an invitation to come to New Jersey and play with the band, Lofgren recalls, "I knew I was going up for a kind of audition, even though Bruce wouldn't have used that word. He's very low-key; he'd say, 'Hey, why don't you come up? Maybe we'll get the guys here and play a little bit.'"
Lofgren wasn't about to let his future boss' informality dissuade him from preparing the way he usually does: "I didn't want to ask [bassist] Garry Tallent to shout the chords in my ear while we were rehearsing." Lofgren had a friend secure bootleg copies of Springsteen concerts and an advance cassette of the yet-to-be-released "Born in the USA" album. "I said, 'Can I borrow it?' He said no way, so I said, 'Okay, well, can you come to my mom and dad's house—I was visiting them in DC—and just sit there while I listen and take notes?' He said, 'I can do that.'" Obviously the visit/audition went well: After two days, he got the nod to join, which, he says, "was a gift from heaven for me."
Don't lay blame: For all of Lofgren's solo successes, he lacks a defining hit. Still, Lofgren doesn't see any point in playing the what-if game. "I came close a few times. I prefer not to point a finger at the record companies. It's like, 'Look, I did my best,'" he says. "You make music to share. You want to reach people."
Keep on moving: Lofgren intends for this bit of wisdom to be received both metaphorically—keep pursuing the projects that engage you most—and literally. He brings this up in the context of sharing the stage with Springsteen after Lofgren had both hips replaced. "I loved to play basketball three or four hours a day. Everywhere on the road, I'd ask the promoter, 'Hey, can you find me a three-on-three?'" Lofgren says. "So between basketball and the backflips and jumping off drum risers for years, I destroyed both my hips.
"This last tour with Bruce—when I get crazy, I climb up on Max's [drummer Max Weinberg] riser and then I think it through and go, 'You're going to jump eight feet to the ground? Not a good idea,'" he adds with a laugh. "When you go to sing with Bruce [at his mic stand], it's crowded. When you're done, you tend to explode away. Last year I went over the PA stacks and tore my rotator cuff. At the Isle of Wight, I went to spin away and I didn't see the metal corner of a speaker cabinet. My tendon split right down the middle of my calf."
Keep at it: Lofgren jokes about the need some musicians feel to "keep the myth alive. People think that, yeah, you fill your days with Disneyland and booze and chicks and drugs, and then you just walk out on stage and somebody hands you a guitar and you play," he says. "But for me—and I'm not speaking for anyone else—the hard work pays off."