In a career spanning over 40 years, Nils Lofgren has carved out a unique niche in the music industry, gaining fame as both a killer lead guitarist with Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Ringo Starr, and as a critically acclaimed solo artist. This month, Eagle Rock Entertainment released Cry Tough, a two-DVD set comprised of three concerts he recorded between 1976 and 1991 for the legendary German TV show “Rockpalast.” Despite turning 60 this summer and having had both hips replaced in the fall of 2008, he remains as tireless as ever, and is preparing to go on an acoustic tour of the Northeast and the United Kingdom. We spoke with the man Springsteen once called “the most overqualified second guitarist in show business.”
Let’s start with the new DVD. I’ve seen a lot of videos over the years of many artists from “Rockpalast.” What was it that made that such a special show?
In general, as a performing musician, whatever TV you do, you’re always interested in finding the guy who is in charge, because they’re asking you to cut the songs or change your set. There are a lot of handicaps that are inherent with normal TV production which you’re used to. So you’re always trying to cut to the chase and figure out what the hampering rules are and making it as user-friendly as possible. “Rockpalast” is unusual because the producers and director – Peter Rüchel and Christian [Wagner] – aren’t looking to change anything. They’re looking for a full-length concert and to have us do what we normally do without any changes, just somehow capture it on film, which was great. That was an unusual concept in relationship to TV shows. It’s appealing to most musicians to get an entire show and try to capture the essence of the artist in performance. That was their intent was and it was great for us, especially me, who plays a lot and has toured a lot and continues to tour.
I have to figure that it’s antithetical for a touring musician if you want to change the setlist or stretch out a song in those situations where everything is planned out.
That’s inherent in promotion, and I understand that concept. But even when you do a big TV show with Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young, it’s very “rush rush.” There’s not a lot of rehearsal time. They’re all professional people, but it’s kind of quickly thrown together because you’re just a three and a half-minute segment of an hour-long TV show that they intend to shoot in front of a live audience and not have to fix anything. We’ve all done it a lot, and you’re used to it, but you don’t like it. It keeps you a little bit off-center, at best. That was the antithesis of what your show is about, and “Rockpalast’s” intent was to not change a thing and just capture what you normally do.
I remember seeing you on “Late Night With David Letterman” when Flip came out. I think you were playing the whole night with the band, but it ran long and they couldn’t get to your song, so all you did was your flip on the trampoline.
When you sit in with the band, you don’t really get to do a song. That’s a whole different echelon of commitment. But I think one night they were doing Stupid Human Tricks, so I volunteered to pull out my trampoline. David held it and I did my stupid human trick, which was my flip. We made a little bit out of it. But those guys are great. I’m old friends with Steve Jordan, the original drummer, Paul Shaffer and Will Lee, and the current band. I love going and playing that show. And when you do that show you’re excited because the house band is going to back you up appropriately. Same with the Max Weinberg 7. I was always thrilled to have them back me up when I did Conan.
There’s a moment in the song “Cry Tough” from 1991 when you do the slide solo right in front of the crowd and they’re just standing there very respectfully, looking at you or your hands. That’s very different from an American audience.
Audiences are different everywhere, but there is a reverence in Europe. I’ve toured Germany a lot and there are some noisy – in a good way – and wild crowds. A lot of these nights, people were also part of a TV show and had been there a long time. There were other acts. Also, sometimes people in the front, knowing they’re on camera, might be like a deer in the headlights – a little inhibited. I definitely believe they’re enjoying what they’re hearing just as much. My attitude is that they’re in the building. They’re there to see something special, and that’s my job to give it to them. If they want to sit on their hands and stare or get up and dance around and be crazy or anything in between, that’s their right.
The 1979 show was part of a festival, wasn’t it?
It was a big “Rockpalast” show, one of the biggest ever. That was at the height when it was going out to six or seven million people, simulcast all over Europe live. It was weird, from 10 or 11 at night until dawn, all through the night in a giant place with the biggest indoor crowd I had seen. It was with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. I think I was in the middle. We were going to have a big jam session at the end, but it never happened. It was nobody’s fault, it just didn’t come about. It was a great night. I loved working with those people. I’m not sure if those are the only three I did or if I did even more, but those were three notable ones I’m thrilled are out and available now. Certainly there’s a charm to each one, and as a performer who feels like I’m slowly getting better at what I do, I feel there’s a confidence and a growth in ’91. But they’re all different snapshots of somebody on the road with a great band who loved being on the road and being there.
There is definitely a greater confidence in the ’91 show in how you’re presenting your material and in your command of the stage.
Yeah, it’s there in little touches like having Larry Cragg there, who’s Neil Young’s main guitar guy and a great musician but never gets to play. Larry came along and looked after my guitars, but we also took advantage of having him out there playing keyboards and guitar and having an extra tone that, for me, as a bandleader, is very subtle but important and inspired me to have this nice big band. Usually we try to time it so that we have a couple of months of gigs under our belt, whether it’s in the States or Europe. I remember the ’79 show was at the end of a long month, so that was exciting because you had a chance to really get down into live performance mode,and hopefully by that point it’s just another night on the road and you pay attention to doing your preparation so that you can go out and really be down in it and enjoy it.
What did you see when you went back and looked at these shows?
Bad outfits! My wife Amy has great fashion sense and she’s kind of been helping me out the last decade. Of course, Bruce is easy because he’s like, “Hey, wear whatever color you want, as long as it’s black.” It’s not quite true, but we had a fiasco going on during the “Born In The U.S.A.” tour. But what I see is a guy and a band immersed in their job. Certainly I see maturity and growth, but there’s a charm to all of them, if I don’t get too critical about it. And the great thing about the live environment is that people, in an audience, sense that you’re pushing yourself and you’re down in the music for them. I noticed that in all three shows. I’d probably pick ’91, just because I was singing and playing a little better. But it was no less of a focus in ’76 or ’79, I was just less experience. But I hit the road in ’68, so these are good snapshots of me and a bunch of people I love to play music with, in front of great audiences that were rooting for us, which is the beauty of a live environment. It’s not like they’re coming in and expecting you to be someone else. They just want you to be into it. And it always works if you are. I mean, we take a lot of chances. There’s a lot of jamming and improv, and mistakes that come with that. I call it “goin’ fishin’,” but that’s something I need to do in every show.
Is it tough to sell a DVD in a YouTube culture, where there’s an audience that expects these things to be free?
I would say yes. I’m out of that loop. I haven’t had a record deal in 15 years. I have a little website and the complete freedom to do what I want. I realized my career was disappearing in 1995, so I got out of my last deal and went on my own way. So I’m thrilled Eagle Rock wanted to strike a deal with “Rockpalast” and my manager to get this out there. As far as commercial viability, I don’t have a clue. I just assume everything has dried up because of the Internet. Nevertheless, it’s great to have a package in my hand, and I’m putting together a list of addresses of musicians to send them to this morning, which is fun.
Another video project of yours is the guitar lessons that you’re selling through your site. I have to say that $20 for a one-hour lesson with you is a damn good bargain.
Thanks. I noticed I lot of people would come up and say they’d love to play guitar but they had no talent or rhythm, so that meant they couldn’t. I always hated that and thought, “Who told you that?” You need talent, luck, and a lot of other stuff to be a professional musician. But this is if you just want to play for fun. The intermediate school is for people who play a bit. The “Because The Night” solo is a big piece and hopefully you can learn from it. But for people who want to start at zero, who feel like they’re handicapped because they don’t have any talent or rhythm, that’s what my beginner’s school is for. You don’t need talent or rhythm, just give me a little time and I’ll show you how to enjoy playing guitar. And I checked with local players who charge $50 or $60 an hour, so I thought $20 an hour was a great deal. Plus, the hour is in your computer and in your home forever, so you can watch five minutes, learn one lick, shut it down for a day or a month. When you get through the hour and feel like you want some more information at home, just order the next lesson or jump around. I’m trying to make it user-friendly and the goal is to enjoy the gift of music without having to wait for some extended period of time. Everyone’s busy, everyone’s got crazy commitments. The world’s crazy and this is supposed to be a peaceful, authentic, healing type of medicinal therapy. To have music be that out of the gate when you can’t play anything is a little tricky. My intent is to give you tips, not just physically but also emotionally how to handle these lessons and make it an enjoyable journey.
I was glad to see that many of the beginners’ lessons dealt with blues scales and riffs because one of my problems with modern rock – even the stuff I like – is that the blues isn’t as important as it once was. It’s as if we’ve become too many generations removed from it.
Everything you hear is based on the blues and the major scale, and it’s an extension of that. I don’t know many more scales – I’ve always wanted to learn them. Someone just showed me the harmonic minor scale, which is really how I play – minor blues with a little dissonance and the haunted stuff that gets in there. But it all comes from the blues to me. The last few lessons have been specifically moving the blues up the scale. The final lesson, which I’ll do when I get back from these Northeast gigs, is combining all five positions and how you jump from one to the other. These are things that were so important to me early on that I still use and apply. The blues scale is kind of like magic. No matter how you combine these notes, they’re gonna sound kind of cool. It’s a piece of the kingdom.
Is it true that Roy Buchanan personally taught you how to play the pinch harmonics that are your trademark?
Roy was one of my musical heroes, along with Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix. They were the three guys who inspired me most as a lead guitarist. I fell in love with the sound of harmonics through Roy Buchanan, who played them with a flat pick. What he did was extraordinary. Other guitarists like Billy Gibbons also do great harmonics. But I used to go see Roy play in clubs and sit with him in the dressing room. He was very open and friendly and always answered anything musical I wanted to know. He did, right there in the dressing room, sit in front of me and show me repeatedly how to do it. And I couldn’t do it, because I didn’t play with a flat pick. I wasn’t going to give up the thumb pick. I figured out how to make that sound with a thumb pick by putting my finger over the string, which led to a bit of a bouncing harmonic technique. I developed that accidentally thanks to not being able to take his lessons. I picked up a lot from Roy, not just the harmonics but the volume swells, the intent of the note, the classy sound of metal inside a sustained string without too much fuzz. Some of the best guitar I ever heard was in the funky redneck country bars in the D.C. area and the suburbs of Maryland where I used to go see Roy play a lot.
You’re about to start an acoustic tour, mostly of Britain but a few dates in America, called “Nils and Friends.” Who are the friends?
Greg Varlotta who’s a great musician – keyboards, guitar, sings, plays trumpet – he’s been with me the last couple of tours. Basically, it’s the two of us going to England and the Northeast. But in Washington, D.C., I’ve got all the Lofgren brothers up. The first three nights are at The Birchmere in Virginia. Thankfully, Tommy, Mike, and Mark will be with us. Mary Ann Redmond, a great, great singer from D.C. will be with us the first two nights. So it’s an old home week with all the Lofgren brothers, and then Greg and I will carry on with five one-nighters in the Northeast and the UK. When I get back, I’m playing a couple of shows out here in Scottsdale and Tuscon in November. My intent is to work part-time in the winter in the Southwest with the acoustic duo and work on another CD of my own. I’m writing songs right now and demoing them, and I hope to get something out next summer.
You mentioned before about having freedom without a label in 15 years. It seems that your solo career has taken a back seat to your work as sideman. It was six years between Flip and Silver Lining because you did two tours with Bruce Springsteen and one with Ringo Starr in that time. Is that frustrating?
No, it’s the opposite. Remember that this September is 42 years on the road. I was blessed and lucky to come out of the gate in ’68 being up in New York with Grin making demos and getting turned down. So the act of recording and playing live has been a part of my life for 42 years. I love it. I’m happy to be a bandleader, and I like to think I’m good at it. But, I will say, that I found out early on with Neil Young, if you’re in a great band and you have musical freedom, it’s nice not to be the boss everyday. It’s a different way to look at music. Right now I’m coming back to a batch of new songs. I’m excited about my next solo record and I’ve got ideas for it. I’m excited and challenged to put a show together after almost three and a half years of not being the main guy. So this is all fresh and exciting to me, but I’m not rusty musically because I’ve been on the road with Bruce and the E Street Band. I’ve been through this where you’re like, “Oh, Jeez. I’ve got to get callouses on my fingers again. Shame on me for not keeping up my guitar playing.” It’s not bad at all. I’ve been down in it playing as an instrumentalist, singing background and interacting with a great band for two years. And now, it’s time for me to go into the clubs and do a great show as a singer, soloist. And it’s all good stuff and part of a long career. Yes, the focus, if you’re looking at a commercial press level, it’s rightfully overshadowed by liaisons with icons like Neil Young, Ringo Starr’s first two All-Star Bands, the E Street Band. But probably 80% of the last 42 years I’ve been a bandleader/singer/songwriter making records. It’s all part of a journey to me that’s very healthy. I started having trouble getting a record deal in the early-80s. People would say, “You’re off with these other bands and it’s not what a solo artist should be doing.” I love being in bands and being on teams. You get to be in a band like Tonight’s The Night with Neil Young and go on the road? I’m not going to say no to those opportunities. And if that hurts me as a solo artist, so be it. To me, it benefits me because I’m excited and more engaged when I come back to my own thing and have a level of freshness that I otherwise wouldn’t.
The first E Street Band show I saw last year, you came out of your solo in “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” by spinning around and I thought, “OK, Nils is back.” How are the new hips holding up?
The new hips are great. I was spinning around with the bad ones, and I did a couple of dive rolls with them at Giants Stadium during the “Because The Night” solo. It was a surprise to everyone because I didn’t tell Bruce or the band. Thank God, I have a great surgeon, Dr. Paul Pelicci at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. He put them both in at the same time. It’s a helluva rehab. The first two months were hairy. But it scared the hell out of me, and it was aggravating because I destroyed my hips more through basketball on city courts than the trampoline and jumping off drum risers. I ripped them apart, they were dust for the last five years, bone-on-bone. The last tour with Bruce was great for me because I wasn’t the main guy and it was a great environment to have freedom and it helped to do my rehab and have people to help with bags and guitars. Two years out of the surgery I’m in shape to do my own gigs in the clubs and meet the challenge of that. I’m in great shape, knock on wood. I’m doing physical therapy two days a week – not real intense, just keeping an eye on it. But I’m optimistic that they’ll do great on these upcoming gigs.
Have you been able to play basketball again? I remember those ads in the 90s saying something like, “Nils Lofgren shoots 53% from the floor and plays Takamine guitars.”
No, I can shoot around. I’ve got a court on my property that my wife put in because she knows I love it. The new hips love motion and they hate impact. If I want to be crippled for the rest of my life, they say that’s what will happen if I go back to the city courts and play crazy basketball with big guys. Unfortunately, I can’t do that kind of impact on the artificial hips. So I shoot around, relive my glory days of playing Boston Celtics practice with Kevin McHale and making an ass out of myself.
And you beat Howard Stern [back in 1991]
I beat Howard Stern, 34-4. I put up with all of his schtick. He had the gall to think that just because I’m 5’3 it’s impossible to beat somebody. He was fast, 6’5, and pretty coordinated, but he had no clue how to play basketball. I had a bad first half but I picked up in the second and beat him, 34-4.
Is there any news on the E Street Band front?
There’s no plans for the E Street Band. We put out the Live From Hyde Park DVD, a three-hour Bruce show, and I know he’s working on a great Darkness On The Edge Of Town retrospective that’s due out this fall. But as far as the band touring or getting together, there’s no plans for us right now. So I’m glad to have my own thing to sink my teeth into, and there’s a lot of free music at nilslofgren.com. I’m dusting off my garage studio here and trying to remember how all the machines work. So my goal is to get a new CD out by the summer and keep doing the acoustic shows part-time. Then, maybe I’ll think about getting a band together and taking it out on the road.