Photo Credit: Charles Schultz
Music fans who were quick on the trigger immediately snapped up all the tickets to Nils Lofgren’s appearance at The Dakota. This show kicks off a North American tour of his brand new album Blue With Lou, which dropped April 26. Show details may be found HERE. It’s always worthwhile to keep checking to see if any tickets become available.
Lofgren was kind enough to spend time with TCM talking about the making of the record, as well as his collaboration with the album’s namesake, Lou Reed. Prior to jumping into that conversation, I’d like to encourage readers to seek out the album and give it a listen. Tons of new music becomes available every year. Personally, it’s never difficult for me to winnow everything down to just a couple albums that really moved me, come the end of the year. This one makes the grade. It’s worth every minute spent with it.
A bit of background on Lofgren’s remarkable career. He’s one of those artists who the casual music fan might not readily identify. However, if you’ve been a fan of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band or Neal Young’s Crazy Horse, you’re familiar with his music. Along the way, he’s shared the stage with Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. You name it he’s been there.
50 years ago, as a 17 year old musician who dropped out of school to pursue a music career after seeing Jimi Hendrix in concert, he sneaked past security into Neal Young’s dressing room following a show in DC. They’ve maintained a close working relationship ever since. Beginning with After The Gold Rush, through the anti production masterpiece Tonight’s The Night. Lofgren had just returned from a recording session with Young when we spoke. So all of us have something to look forward to!
In his young twenties he was viewed as an emerging star and he was signed to major labels. In the early 80’s the rock business was drying up. Like many great musicians, he was cut loose simply because he wasn’t churning out radio hits. Depressed, he called up his buddy Bruce Springsteen who invited him up for the weekend. He never left. He’s been playing guitar with The Boss since 1984. All those pyrotechnic guitar riffs, dance moves, somersaults and flips belong to Nils Lofgren. Yeah, that gypsy looking guy churning away as hard as Bruce. Over the ensuing years he also managed to release well over 20 solo efforts. A number of which climbed well up the charts. The album credits are just as numerous. He’s a guy who spends a lot more time making music than working on being a star.
The nucleus of the collection of songs which comprise Blue With Lou go back to 1979. Lofgren’s producer, the legendary Bob Ezrin, introduced the two. Lofgren had a number of songs with which he was not satisfied. Mostly, he wasn’t happy with the lyrics. They proposed doing some co-writing; Reed was interested. He was mailed a cassette which contained a total of thirteen songs. Reed was invited to do whatever he wanted with them.
“Three or four weeks went by and I was at home working on other songs. And he woke me up 4:30 in the morning. He said: ‘Hey, Nils, it’s Lou. Just want you to know how much I love this tape you sent me!” I said: ‘That’s great news!” and I was excited about that. But I was still puzzled at the time frame. He said: ‘Look the reason I’m calling now is that I’ve been up three days and nights straight. And I literally just finished thirteen sets of lyrics I feel great about!’
“That woke me up! He said: ‘I’m excited about it and, if you want, I’ll dictate them to you right now.’ I didn’t want that moment lost, so I asked him to let me put on a pot of coffee. I got my pad and pencil. Very slowly and meticulously and carefully I spent a couple hours taking dictation, and notating it correctly, from Lou Reed. And all the sudden, hours went by and we both realized…the thirteen songs were done.”
Reed immediately asked for, and was given, permission to use three of them which appeared on his The Bells album, released in 1979. Those songs were the opener, Stupid Man, along with With You and City Lights. “I spent the next two or three days putting Lou’s lyrics to the music. It was just kind of a beautiful liaison. It was fairly painless. Months and months of working on music and then 3 days and nights of Lou Reed being excited and inspired. And there we go!”
“Over the years I put two more out. Lou came to New York City for my mixing of Life which ended up on my Damaged Goods record and he loved it, felt great about it. Branford Marsalis played sax on it; just another honking song. Then I put out another one out with the Breakaway Angel album called Driftin’ Man. So that was up to eight.”
Although Lofgren always thought Lou would call up one day and suggest they take another look at the five left behind, it never happened. “And I always wanted to do my version of City Lights at some point. He loved the chorus. Said: ‘I’m keeping your chorus on City Lights and I wrote a song about Charlie Chaplin.'”
“Anyway, when we lost Lou, it was awful of course. But in the back of my mind, I knew that my next record, whatever else it was, I needed to get the songs no one else had ever heard and my version of City Lights done. It would make up half the record before I put anything out. That was one of the requirements and I got it done. But I miss Lou. I’d go see him play and I’d always go back to say hi. He always spoke fondly of that time we spent together and those songs we wrote. Kind of how unusual, and in some ways, how easy it was. Opposed to your standard co-writing things.”
“But once he was gone, upsetting as that is, I knew it was my job to get them on the next record. That’s something I’m proud to have accomplished.”
Blue With Lou contains a dozen tracks which seamlessly flow together. The penultimate track is titled Dear Heartbreaker. It serves as an homage to Tom Petty. Without sounding like a Petty tune, it’s full of sonic Easter Eggs which pay tribute. Again, like Lou Reed, this was an artist with whom he was friends. He and his wife Amy, effusive fans of his entire body of work.
I asked him how he met Petty and about their relationship. If ever you wanted to know how high on the rock and roll mountain Nils Lofgren has climbed, he indicated that they got to know each other back in 1977. Petty was already in the process of breaking out. He was the opener for Nils Lofgren’s world tour which became the double live album Night After Night. Lofgren laughed: “I’m sure it was the last time they were ever an opening act!”
“Me and my band were shocked at what a great opening act we had. I mean they really weren’t an opening act. But it kind of kicked us in the butt and raised our game to follow them. And it turned out to be a wonderful tour ’cause they were great and got all this wonderful press. It was almost begrudgingly but the press admitted that I was able to hold my own with my band!”
“I don’t think there was ever another time when they passed through town, whether I was in DC, LA and I’ve been in Phoenix for 23 years, that my wife Amy and I, Amy loves ’em as much as I do, would always go see them play. That last tour, they didn’t have a Phoenix date. So Benmont Tinch, that great keyboard player who’s an old friend, was kind enough to hook us up. We went up to Red Rocks and treated ourselves to their show in Denver. It was a beautiful night. It thundered. It rained. They sent the audience and band away and then brought us back and finished the show.”
He described how Dear Heartbreaker came about and that refrain about refusing to back down. “I wasn’t planning on writing a song. I wrote in the guest room with my dogs, off the main kitchen where Amy hangs out and works. She’s a professional cook. You know, we were so upset when Tom passed. And every day we spoke of it. How sad and angry we were and bitter about it. And what a loss it was. I found myself beginning to do what I did when John Lennon passed, where I felt like I couldn’t even listen to the music. I went through quite a bit of that with the Beatles and I had to pull myself out of it because that was the greatest body of music ever recorded. The Beatles got me off of classical music and into playing the guitar. So I felt, just like Tom said: ‘I’m not backin’ down!’. I’m not going to do that again with The Heartbreakers. I gotta keep listening and just accept that the music is here. Even though Tom’s gone. A couple lines started coming out and it was just like I was singing to him. And without meaning to, another verse. Every day another couple lines. Then all the sudden, I had like five verses! And I went ‘You know, I just gotta put this on the record.’ It really wasn’t my intent but it just came out.”
“I was glad I got a chance to express myself rather than just be angry and bitter with my wife, and saddened. And, too, kind of representing all the women and girls that loved Tom and The Heartbreakers, including my wife, I asked the great Cindy Mizelle to sing it as a duet with me. Just to kind of reflect all fans of both genders in expressing our love, admiration and sadness about his passing.”
We talked about the New York influence with which the new album is imbued; Lofgren talked about the impact the city has had on him and on the record. “Look, I grew up in Chicago for 8 years and spent a lot of time in the DC music scene. Probably working in New York City, I must have spent the equivalent of a couple years living there. I’ve been on the road 50 years now. The city vibe and feel’s not lost on me. You know, at this point, I don’t know if I could handle living there. But I love going there for a few days to work. And over the years, by working there, probably spent a few years or more living there.”
“So it’s all part of what Lou’s lyrics meant to me. In general, there was kind of an element of rage and intelligence and disturb you, heal you and enlighten you, push you forward. But I always got the idea that you could kind of process and feel all those emotions, and not just be self destructive. You could actually make progress and move forward through all that pain and enlightenment. That, to me, was what Lou was about at his best. That’s what the song Blue With Lou refers to. What I wrote about him.”
I mentioned at the top of this piece how I was so impressed with the way that the songs on Blue With Lou fit together and flowed. It’s beautiful old school, in that it seems a complete piece, as opposed to a number of collected recordings. So different from most modern day records which lead with the best track (in hopes of catching some radio time because not too many listeners commit to listening through an album in the modern digital age, hook ’em early or lose ’em!). It’s a topic I’ve bounced off every artist with whom I’ve had a chance to speak. It’s interesting that most young artists approach the art form in the aforementioned manner. After all, it’s easy to download a single, stream a Spotify track or if you really want to beef up, cut an EP. But don’t waste time taking listeners on a journey. Hit them right out of the gate.
Artists who have been at it for the past 20 or 25 years seem to fall into a middle ground. The major shift in the industry doesn’t really seem to affect them the same way. Their success is often a function of being able to adapt to a rapidly changing landscape. But the mature artists, those like Lofgren, still view music presentation as an album. It is the basic format. The challenge and the culmination of the recording arts.
“I was lucky to start in ’68. At the age of 17, I had my two greatest mentors in Neal Young and his producer David Briggs. I lived with David in California and by 18 years of age I was making the After The Gold Rush album with him. And so I’m so ingrained in the idea of making records. Of making an album. Getting a body of songs. It’s just sort of a peaceful, healthy mantra approach for me. We had twenty songs when we went in to make this record. So I knew I had to have the six Lou Reed songs…and the other, whatever, six or eight, five or four more of mine. We got six that came out just great and I didn’t force any of the others. I just went with these twelve which I thought would make a great record. But, of course, I like to have another six, eight or ten extra songs before you even think about recording or bringing in musicians to record the record.
If somebody held his feet to the fire and forced him to identify a particular song for which he felt a special affinity, what might it be? “Yeah, I mean, I’m really proud of all of them. There’s a couple songs that were accidentally written from the point of view of soldiers. One was Pretty Soon and Too Blue To Play. Probably Too Blue To Play because that’s been a riff and a title I’ve had for years and I didn’t know what to do with it.”
Long story short, the concept revolved around meeting his wife Amy, who he met briefly following a gig at Asbury Park’s Stone Pony back in 1981. Fifteen years later, following a show in Scottsdale at The Rockin’ Horse, she walked up to him and said ‘Hi! Do you remember me?’ He remembered her vividly. But each of them was coming out of a tough divorce and Lofgren really didn’t feel like he wanted to once again be in a serious relationship. Despite friends’ encouragement that he needed to go back out and date, he had grown accustomed to being healthily alone. He figured he had enough baggage. His always on the road lifestyle severely limited his desire to try to commit. What he found was a kindred spirit. Both were really too blue to play. “Too beat up to put on any facades.” Both were initially reticent to fully rejoin life. When the song came together he didn’t want it to be autobiographical. So he wrote it from the point of view of a Special Forces Ranger, after many tours of duty, just trying to hide away who stumbles into the love of his life. It’s a spare, haunting and full of hope ballad of the highest order.
Any other reflections or thoughts on the upcoming tour? Lofgren was quick to point out that it had been at least 15 years since he’d packed up his own band on a bus and hit the road to tour. Most of his work outside that of The E Streeters and Crazy Horse was solo or duo acoustic material with his friend Greg Varlatto. In fact, he wondered if in the entire half century of making music, he’d ever taken out his own band that had also cut the album.
So we’ll get to see long time drummer and compatriot Andy Newmark along with bassist Kevin McCormick hold down the rhythm section. “No better swing man than my beautiful brother Tom Lofgren, who I don’t get to play with that much. He’s coming along for the whole tour. The main featured vocalist on the record, Cindy Mizelle, with whom we got to be good friends on The Wreckin’ Ball Tour with Bruce. She came out for a few days and sang beautifully on most of the record. We’re excited that everyone’s coming! I’m impressed they all made time for me because they’re all really high demand musicians.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, may well be the only thing Nils said during the entire conversation that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Given everywhere that man has been, all that he’s accomplished and the sheer quality of the material he and Lou Reed wrote for Blue With Lou…who wouldn’t drop everything to be part of the project? I bet they’d all say the same thing.
So if you’ve got your ticket for The Dakota, expect great things. We can all look forward to all the hopes, energy and passion that comes from the first night of a tour with brand new music. For those who didn’t get lucky, there are still two ways to walk away feeling a little bit better about your lot in life. Check out Blue With Lou. You can test drive it on iTunes or sample it on Spotify. (But then buy it because like the rest of us, he deserves to be paid for his work!). Then check the website HERE to see what cities might still have a few tickets available. Call your friends or family in that locale. Let them know they need to grab those tickets right now. I promise, the street cred you’ll gain from the tip will pay dividends for years to come. See you at the Rock Show!