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Nils Lofgren – A Retrospective Look at a Musician’s Musician

Issue 132

Once upon a time, I was a young assistant manager at Globus Brothers Studios in New York City. They were the creators of the Globuscope 360, a servo motor scan camera that could capture ultra-wide panoramic shots. The studio specialized in panoramic and stop motion photography, as well as blue screen video. Their cameras have been used by the Smithsonian, the US Department of Justice, the Yale University Art Gallery, and numerous other exhibition venues. Some of the best-known images using the Globuscope 360 are the numerous stop motion action shots of Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton during the 1980s.

As it turns out, one of the more unique projects that I was asked to assist on was for a trampoline photo shoot. The studio manager said it was for “some rock musician guy named Nils Lofgren.” The manager looked at me and said, “You’re close to the same height as him and you’re in pretty good shape. Come in the day before and bring some gym clothes. I want you to be his body double so we can get the lighting and framing all set.”

I was excited. As a fan of Nils since I heard his “authorized bootleg” in the 1970s, I was looking forward to meeting the man himself – a talented singer/songwriter, superb guitarist, and a creative and reliable musical collaborator: no lesser legends than Neil Young, Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen have all concurred on that last point.

******

A native of Washington, D.C., Nils Lofgren was somewhat of a musical prodigy. Starting at age five on the accordion (which he has still played on occasion in the studio and onstage with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band), he soon took up the guitar and got Jimi Hendrix fever, with the Fender Stratocaster and Uni-Vibe (a pedal simulating a Leslie rotating speaker)-heavy Band of Gypsys-era guitar tone combination becoming a part of his own signature sound.

While still in his teens, Nils formed Grin, a power trio. At age 17, he met Neil Young and they became friends, leading to an invitation from Young to play guitar and piano on the LP that would become After the Gold Rush. Nils was then invited to join Young’s backing band Crazy Horse. He would continue to play with Neil Young intermittently throughout his career, as part of the Tonight’s The Night band in 1974, during the 1982 Trans tour and at other times including presently with Crazy Horse.

Grin released some critically acclaimed, but commercially unsuccessful albums from 1971 to 1974. Their most well-known song, “White Lies,” received some FM radio airplay.

 

One of the concert highlights from Grin’s shows, which later became a mainstay in Lofgren’s solo performances, was the song “Moon Tears.” A 2004 Grin reunion concert shows that “Moon Tears” is still as potent a hard rock song now as it was 40 years ago. Showmanship is not in short supply at a Nils Lofgren concert as the cross-harmony guitar solos at (3:32) display:

 

When Grin disbanded in 1974, Nils Lofgren got a solo artist deal with A&M Records, and his self-titled debut got rave reviews from Rolling Stone and NME (New Musical Express). Always the perennial music fan and eschewing the pretensions of rock stardom, Nils’ standout track was a fan’s heartfelt plea to Keith Richards not to go to Toronto, where he was facing drug charges at the time. “Keith Don’t Go” is probably the song most people know Lofgren for (and the live acoustic version has become an audiophile-classic demo track)

 

 

Lofgren’s studio records failed to catch on, even as he developed a loyal following through his exciting live shows. A&M released a limited edition “authorized bootleg” Back It Up!! (1975) of Lofgren’s concert set (expanded on the 1977 2-LP Night After Night) that was only distributed initially to radio DJs. It received more airplay on FM radio than his studio recordings.

Though diminutive in stature, Nils was a skilled athlete, being a longtime basketball junkie (his song ”Bullets Fever” was dedicated to the NBA Washington Bullets and was later updated in 2017 to “Wizards Fever” to reflect the team’s current name) and a diehard Washington Redskins (now the Washington Football Team) football fan.

 

In high school, Lofgren was a competitive gymnast. Trampoline backflips were a regular part of Lofgren shows, something even Bruce Springsteen decided to keep during performances with the E Street Band throughout the 1980s to 2003.

 

Nils’ prowess on guitar gained the respect of both his peers and his personal heroes, including Washington D.C.-based American Axe virtuoso Roy Buchanan:

 

Nils Lofgren also befriended the normally curmudgeonly Lou Reed. Lofgren says the two bonded over a passion for NFL football, with D.C. native Lofgren a longtime Washington supporter while Reed was a Dallas Cowboys fan. They wound up writing together, with a few of their collaborations appearing on Lou Reed’s The Bells (1979). “City Lights” is probably the best of the Reed/Lofgren songs from that record:

 

With his A&M contract reaching its maturity and renewal unlikely, Lofgren teamed up with producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Lou Reed and many others), to record Nils. Despite catchy songs that garnered FM radio play, like “Steal Away.” “No Mercy,” “Shine Silently,” a cover of Randy Newman’s “Baltimore” and even a couple of Reed/Lofgren tunes, Nils only reached  number 54 on Billboard’s US charts. “Steal Away” became the first single.

 

Lofgren’s subsequent records on new label MCA continued the downward spiral of diminishing commercial success in spite of good songs. Night Fades Away (1981) barely made the Billboard Top 100, squeaking in at 99. Wonderland, (1983) an arguably better album, didn’t even reach the top 200.

 

In admittedly dire financial straits when his MCA contract expired, Lofgren was looking at the prospect of becoming a rock and roll never-was casualty, but his amiability and stellar musicianship was remembered by the former leader of New Jersey bar band Steel Mill. Both Steel Mill and Grin had previously auditioned for concert promoter Bill Graham and won opening billing slots at Graham’s Fillmore East in the early 1970s.

When Steve Van Zandt left the E Street Band for a solo career with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, Bruce Springsteen remembered Nils Lofgren from the Steel Mill and Grin days, and called up Lofgren to try out with the E Street Band. Nils was soon invited to become a permanent member of the band, which was just about to commence its mammoth 1984 Born in the USA tour.

The phoenix-like rebirth of Nils Lofgren’s career led him to signing with Sony/CBS. His new album was to be titled Flip, and CBS decided to have Lofgren do one of his trademark backflips for the record cover.

******

After a day of jumping on the trampoline as Nils Lofgren’s body-double to get the proper camera elevation and light rigging coordinated, I was told that Sony wanted someone to shoot video footage of the photo session, so I was assigned to that job.

Nils was very friendly, and eager to get a workout on the trampoline, having been cooped up in the studio for the past week mixing his new album. He had several different-colored guitars and a collection of multicolored outfits, along with an art director and a stylist.

Nils handed me a couple of cassettes and asked me to play them on the sound system to set the mood. They were mixtapes of some then-current favorites with a lot of cuts from The Police.

I set up the video camera and started shooting footage as Nils began doing backflips while the multiple strobe lights went off. The stop-motion camera was tasked to capture Nils’ full backflips throughout their entire arcs, from leap to landing.

After about 15 takes, the art director called for a wardrobe and guitar change for a different color scheme. Nils was barely winded.

******

Despite sharing Springsteen’s label, Nils Lofgren’s Flip only made it to 150 on the Billboard US charts and in the mid 30s on the UK charts (where 1977’s I Came To Dance and Night After Night had also charted previously).

Lofgren’s UK stature is curiously disproportionate to his underwhelming US success. The late James Honeyman-Scott from The Pretenders and The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, both huge guitar heroes in the UK, have frequently name-checked Nils Lofgren as one of their favorite guitarists and singers.

While Nils Lofgren has continued to release fine solo records when not playing with the E Street Band or Neil Young, major success on his own has continued to elude him. Since his live shows are still a steady draw, a number of his releases have been live concert recordings. Some of the records have been all-acoustic, including a covers collection of Neil Young songs, The Loner – Nils Sings Neil (2008), with his acoustic guitar version of “Like a Hurricane” getting some critical notice.

 

His 2019 release, Blue With Lou, finally unveiled all of the never-before-revealed additional songs written during his collaboration with Lou Reed back in 1979.

 

The music video for the song “Pretty Soon” features a tap dancing sequence by Nils, a skill he started to learn following his hip replacement surgery in 2008. The gymnastic stunts had taken their toll, but tap dancing was another physical skill he developed, which would be used again when Neil Young called him up to replace Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on guitar and vocals with Crazy Horse for the new album, Colorado (2020). In addition to guitar, Neil Young convinced Nils to record a tap dancing solo on “Eternity”:

 

With a new record and 2021 tour scheduled with the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen will once again be on stage with Nils Lofgren on guitar. Unlike Springsteen’s folk rhythms and roots-rock electric solos or Steve Van Zandt’s R&B/garage rock approach, Nils Lofgren’s guitar style is very different. He plays with a thumb pick and fingers, which allows him to execute his calling-card cascading artificial harmonics, a technique more usually associated with jazz guitarist Lenny Breau or country legend Chet Atkins. How do I know this, one might ask?

******

After what must have been the 50th backflip and fourth wardrobe change, Nils was starting to get tired. I had by then run out of videotape and wandered down to the ground floor to get a better view near the trampoline.

As Nils started another flip, his hand reached out as it looked like he would descend near the edge of the trampoline instead of the middle. He landed awkwardly with a foot between the springs and I caught him, preventing him from hitting the trampoline rail, while my other hand kept his prized 1961 Stratocaster from crashing against the concrete floor.

Nils thanked me and seemed more grateful about saving the guitar than him! I mentioned to him that I also played guitar and he took a break and gave me a one-on-one impromptu lesson on how he plays the harmonics with the thumb pick, including letting me play his Strat. Nils Lofgren: a humble guy and a  true gentleman.

That’s how I know.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Takahiro Kyono, cropped to fit format.

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