An elite supporting actor

By Sergio Ariza

People don’t usually know Nils Lofgren, Chicago born on June 21, 1951, beyond his role as a band member accompanying 2 of the most important figures in rock music, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, the guitarist has a considerable career on his own behalf,  be it on his own, or as a member of Grin or Crazy Horse, which added to his performances as an elite rhythm guitarist with the folks mentioned, Lou Reed, Ringo Starr, and Willie Nelson, make him one of the most interesting and undervalued guitarists in history. 

You could say that Nils Lofgren was a child prodigy, but his first instrument wasn’t the guitar but the accordion, which he played from 5 to 15 years of age, by then he had already fallen in love with the 6-string and had bought his first Telecaster, as a tribute to his first idol, Jeff Beck. When he formed his first band, Grin, in 1968, he had already changed to the guitar which he is most associated with throughout his career,  the Stratocaster, preferably from the ‘61 models, as tribute to the man who had replaced the Yardbirds guitarist as his new hero, Jimi Hendrix.

Grin was a power trio made up of Lofgren himself on vocals and guitar, bassman George Daly and Bob Berberich on drums. They mostly played around Washington D.C. where they lived, but their luck changed when Neil Young and Crazy Horse came to town to play at the Cellar Door. Lofgren went to see them 4 times in a row and managed to get into the dressing rooms to talk with Young. He took to the young guitarist, Nils hadn’t yet turned 17, and when he told him he was planning to move  the band to California, he didn’t hesitate in taking him under his wing and gave him his phone number on the condition that he call him the moment he arrived.

Lofgren and his band band ended up living on a ranch rented by Young and more importantly, the young talent was invited by the ex Buffalo Springfield member to record what would be his masterpiece solo album After the Gold Rush. It was the spring of ‘ 70 and with bearly 18 years under his belt Lofgren was recording his first record with a music legend. He couldn’t believe his luck but was stunned when Young and producer David Briggs asked him to play piano, an instrument he could barely play, instead of the guitar. It was part of their plan, to look for someone who would give that amateur touch to the recording and Lofgren seemed the perfect fit, his 10 years studying accordion would make it easy for him to switch and the results can be heard on iconic pieces such as the title song Only Love can Break Your Heart. Of course, before they finished the recording sessions Young decided that he wanted to record Tell Me Why with just 2 acoustic guitars, and since young Nils didn’t have one, he gave him a Martin D-18, the one you hear in the song. Over time it became his most prized possession and in 2008 it became the absolute star on a record he tried to return as a favour to his first mentor, The Loner-Nils sings Neil.  

Lofgren used his credentials on a record so significant to get a recording contract for his band and in June 1971 (to celebrate his hefty 20th birthday) Grin would come to be, recorded between ‘69 and ‘70, with the help of Neil Young and Crazy Horse and produced by Briggs. On it, songs like Outlaw and Direction stand out as proof of his great qualities as guitarist. But his relation to Young and Crazy Horse was far from over. 

During the recording of Gold Rush Lofgren was required to join Crazy Horse, and he didn’t miss his chance. That is how he appeared as a full-fledged member on the namesake debut record of the group, the only one they recorded while Danny Whitten was still alive. He was the main composer and lead guitarist of the band but left it so Lofgren to  take over the lead guitar and even get a couple of his own songs in the album, the rocker Beggar’s Day (one of the best of his career and which he sings on too) and Nobody. If we throw in the appearance of the stellar Ry Cooder on three songs and the excellent quality of Whitten’s compositions, we have the second classic in the career of Nils Lofgren before he reached 20. 

The bubble and youth, where Lofgren lived, was such that in 1971 he didn’t bat an eye in calling Stephen Stills, and after introducing himself as Neil’s friend, said something like, “ Hey man, I got this great band Grin and think you should join us”. Stills, one of the big stars at the time, couldn’t believe his ears, but instead of telling him to go to hell, he responded to this snotty kid, “ Look, I already have a great band right here and don’t think I can join your little fixture, but if you want to play, I’m recording a new record, so if you want to come by the studio you’re welcome”. That was it, playing on just a couple of songs with an acoustic, and in 1971 Lofgren appeared in the credits of Stephen Stills 2, sharing the space with Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia.  

It looked like everything was headed starward but he resisted this, there were 3 other records with Grin in 2 years, the splendid 1+1 in 1972 (with songs like White Lies, a little power pop gem and Slippery Fingers, where you can appreciate his debt to Hendrix), and All Out, and Gone Crazy (with the exceptional You’re the Weight) in 1973, but the albums crashed commercially and the label fired them.

That year Lofgren was again called for by Neil Young to record the glorious and very dark Tonight’s the Night, a record wrapped in the grief of the drug overdose death of Whitten. This time Young, besides playing piano, asked for his Stratocaster and you which  can be heard in the title song, and also in the raw Speakin Out in which he shines with a grand solo, as always, with a thumb pick. On the record’s promotional tour Nils was part of Young’s band and in the USA, he played in the opening band with Grin. Despite the opportunity, the band definitely broke up in 1974.

Yet the guitarist was far from throwing in the towel and in 1975 his first namesake solo record was released. It’s the best work of his career and has songs as big as Back It Up, If I Say, It’s So, Rock and Roll Crook and Keith Don’t Go, the tribute to one of his biggest influences, Keith Richards. Rolling Stone magazine put it up in the clouds, but once again, sales didn’t match the great reviews. The same thing happened the following year with Cry Tough, great songs such as the title song, Its Not a Crime and Share A Little (where he plays like never before, using harmonies to lovely effect) but they made few waves beyond the media. 

In 1977 his company wanted to promote him as the next big thing, behind the success of Springsteen in' 75 and Frampton in ‘76, getting Van Halen as opening band, but success skirted him, and the arrival of punk and new wave turned  him into a dinosaur of the old guard before he was 30. However, he was still getting the attention of the biggies, in 1979 Lou Reed called him to collaborate on a few songs, having Lofgren put the music to his lyrics. In the end three songs appear on Reed’s new album, The Bell, and four on Nils by Lofgren. 

At the start of the 80s history repeated itself and after a short meeting with Young for the record and tour of Trans, his record company left him after the significant Wonderland from 1983. But then a unique chance popped up, after the immense success of Born in the USA, Stevie Van Zandt chose to try his luck out alone, and left the E Street Band, the ‘Boss’ Springsteen immediately called Lofgren to take his place. So in 1985 he became a member of one of the most explosive live machines in the history of rock. His new job saw him singing praises when in 1986 the live compilation Live/1975-85 was released where you can hear him on the tremendous version of War that was put out as a single.

The following year Springsteen recorded Tunnel of Love, a record about his broken marriage, in which the E Street Band hardly takes part. Still, Lofgren shone with his solo on the title cut. After the promo tour, Lofgren joined Ringo Starr’s All Star Band together with people like Joe Walsh and Dr. John, and in 1991 Silver Lining was released, a record with help from Springsteen, Ringo and Levon Helm. But still his career never got off the ground and his maximum exposure came in 1999 when Springsteen got the band back together, and Lofgren and Van Zandt became permanent fixtures sharing the guitar load with the ‘Boss’. To get into his own space, Lofgren sometimes changed to  a Jazzmaster that mixes well with the leader’s Telecaster and Little Stevie’s Strat.

His diversity when it comes to playing instruments, the dobro, the slide, the pedal Steel and the accordion, can be tracked all through the great records released by Springsteen in the 21st century starting with The Rising in 2002. He has taken advantage of moments off the road with the ‘boss’ to keep his solo career going (now self-editing) and collaborating with stars as big as Jerry Lee Lewis and Willie Nelson, always happy to play in a great band.  And it doesn’t seem to bother him much not being in the spotlight, he was already saying back in 1975 that he'd rather play in a great band like the Stones than triumph alone. I guess it’s not necessary to say that when talking about great bands, the E Street Band have few rivals when it comes to taking the stage and Lofgren enjoys both his lead roles, like when he launches into his solo on Because the Night, as when he’s one step behind, relishing what he calls the “ best live performance in rock history”. And you know, as in the movies, music also requires great supporting actors that make the stars shine.

(Images: ©CordonPress & flickr/