Nils Lofgren of the E Street Band Recalls the First Time He Heard The River
Photo by Eric Marcel
“I love the New Times.”
That was Nils Lofgren’s opening gambit, so how can you not be charmed by a guy who professes deep seated feelings for your publication right out of the gate? (Though perhaps our cover story on Lofgren's box set had something to do with that.) Some of this year's crop of presidential hopefuls could learn a thing or two about Lofgren’s finesse and economy in conversation; how stays on point about what he needs to plug, shares the spotlight with others, gets in an anecdote or two about his illustrious associates, and still manages to be a regular Joe throughout. In a sense, he is a campaigner; he’s been on the road for 48 years come this September, rocking, shaking hands, and who knows, probably kissing babies. For the last 20 years that campaign has been a grassroots one with which he has been able to maintain a thriving solo career without involving a phalanx of people.
And of course there is his 30-plus year association with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who pull into town this Thursday at Talking Stick Resort Arena to promote the Boss’ boxed set The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, which celebrates that double album recorded just a few years before Lofgren joined the band in 1984.
And, of course, it’s a hometown show for Lofgren, who knows what the Talking Stick arena’s original name is and has lived in the Valley for 20 years with his wife, Amy, a professional chef among other talents.
On Chasing Amy
“Strangely enough, 35 years ago, I met Amy in Asbury Park [New Jersey] at the Stone Pony. We were both just kids. After a show at the Pony, she didn't even come to see me. I met her, convinced her to hang out with me, and at 6 a.m. I went to Boston and begged her to come with me. She said no, she had a job and her mom and all this. So I thought I'd see her in a few months. I never saw her again for 15 years. Twenty years ago, we met again. I was passing through Scottsdale at a great club, The Rocking Horse, that burned to the ground not long after. She came up and said 'Hi, remember me?’ And we were both at the end of divorces, and we've been together ever since.”
That’s when Lofgren moved his home and studio base from D.C. to Arizona, a place he hates to leave for long stretches and sounds eager to return to as he is calling in from The River tour in St. Louis.
“This is my 48th year on the road,” he ruminates. “I've long tired of leaving home, but that's a champagne problem, as Amy points out. We were talking about how much I love playing live, it's kind of like my favorite thing. And the way Amy put it, and it applies to the E Street Band as we started this tour, for musicians that love to perform live, it’s like going to Oz and the audience is Oz and you go there to find you heart, you go there to find your musical brain, you go there to find your courage. And speaking for myself as a 64-year-old and not being very happy about dragging the suitcase out, saying goodbye to Amy, and having my dogs, who I love, giving me dirty looks, and leaving home is rough, it is truly like going to Oz and finding this part of yourself you don't find anywhere else. There’s a level of heart and courage and your musical brain getting fired up that you don't get jamming at a local bar, you don't get in recording in a studio, you don’t get puttering around at home. You only get it in front of an audience. So to have a homecoming concert Thursday in Phoenix, I thought that was a good perception."
One of Nils Lofgren's many guitars.
On living in Arizona
Did Lofgren find moving here a tough adjustment after years of living back east?
"Well I've been traveling the entire country since ’68. I'd been through Phoenix many times. It's not like you're playing the Sahara. It's a town, there are friendly people and great crowds. I always thought the audiences there were really good. I'd go through there regularly, but I never stuck around.
“I got to love the mild climate. Between Chicago and D.C., I'd had decades of winter, ice, slush, freezing — I just tired of that. And even though it's grown incredibly over the past 20 years, when Amy was there you could ride horses down Scottsdale, and north of Shea there was nothing but desert. When I got there, the 101 wasn't even open. Even though it's got a large populace, it's still a slower pace of life to me than the coasts."
On The River
Lofgren recalls the first time he heard the album, having bumped into Springsteen while he was out in L.A. mixing the album, the first Springsteen album to incorporate his serious writing style with the kind of pop throwaways he’d previously given to the likes of Southside Johnny, Greg Kihn, or The Pointer Sisters, only to watch the other artists enjoy great chart success.
“Bruce describes the album as a young adult being part of a planet instead of an outsider. I heard it well before it was released, and I was always impressed how they got the sizzle of the live performance into the album so to be out here playing here is a beautiful thing.”
The E Street Band has only played the album in its entirety once in concert, in New York City a few years back. The learning of an entire double album is a drop in the bucket of what a Springsteen sideman has to learn for each tour.
“We've been friends since we did an audition night together in 1970 for Bill Graham at the Fillmore West with Steel Mill and Grin. When I first joined I was overwhelmed with just a hundred songs, but on the last tour we played 240 different songs, so you could imagine the scope. You can't stay on top of the entire catalog so you kind of guess, you communicate, Bruce gives us a heads up and he'll surprise us with an audible on stage and we use our instincts to make do and make it work. There's a great boxed set with bonus tracks we'll probably dig into. We're starting off with a great bonus track called 'Meet Me Tonight In the City.'"
“It’s very organic the way the band comes together. I defer to Bruce and Steve all the time. I hear endless parts. I'll look at what they're doing and play the third part I hear and it usually always works out. Much more than musicianship, as a band our instincts are spot on because we love Bruce's songs and that type of music and have an affinity for how to play it.
On Keith Richards
Lofgren classifies himself as an artist with no hits, but he did have a popular radio hit with a song "Keith Don't Go" that somehow missed the lower regions of the Top 100. Lofgren has told a story about how he finally met his idol, who meant as much to him as Chuck Berry meant to Keith Richards.
I wondered, when he met his idol was it the same experience as when he and Springsteen played in an all-star band backing up Chuck Berry at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show? Chuck reportedly kept changing keys on the band, making all the Hall of Famers with onstage sound like rank amateurs.
“Then he duck-walked off the stage and got into an old ’50s car and drove away, and we were all playing in five different keys to an arena audience. It was hilarious."
“I love Keith Richards, and I'm not speaking about the diabolical nature of Chuck but more the positive nature that inspired Keith and many young guitar players of that generation. I've met Keith many times; he's always been kind and gracious. We never discussed the song I wrote for him, 'Keith Don’t Go.' I know he knows I wrote it and I have to believe he understands the spirit with which it was intended, which is 'You share a gift we all need. It's a beautiful thing you do. Please stick around and keep doing it and hats off to you on behalf of all us fans.'
"After all these years, Steve Jordan, who plays in The Expensive Winos, brought me into a dressing room, and there is Keith. He said hi, he was very friendly, but he's there sitting in a corner practicing through this little amp. So I'm visiting with Steve on the other end and all the sudden I hear Keith playing the famous Chuck Berry lick. I have to say I've played it a thousand times and I've heard it 10,000 times, and I've never in my life heard it sound like that and I can’t even explain it to you. It's just three notes put together in a different way. But there was something going on physiologically and spiritually and musically what was going on inside of him and how he heard that riff of Chuck's. It was a deeper thing. It meant more to Keith than it meant to Chuck even though Chuck who created it.
"And that’s kind of like what the Stones did for Howling Wolf, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and what it became. 'Honky Tonk Women,' 'Jumping Jack Flash.' It came from them but they made it their own because they had a deeper affinity for it and it meant deeper for them and it became something else.
“Fast forward to a Willie Nelson and Friends TV Special where he would play with a cast of 20 great singers. I was part of a house band, one of four guitar players. I was with Greg Leisz, one of the great lap steel players and Hutch Hutchinson on bass, all this cast of amazing singers coming through and one of the guests was Keith Richards. There was like 20 people onstage and on the other side of the drummer was this giant piano Jerry Lee Lewis was gonna play and in the bell of this piano was Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Keith Richards.
"Now we're playing so technically now onstage playing with Keith Richards. Now, I'm an old, grizzled veteran myself so I had a sense of humor about it. 'Hey Keith, I can barely see you there but we're making music together.' So Kid Rock comes out ... he's a great showman. We were doing, I can't even remember. 'Whole Lotta Shakin,' maybe. And he's up there whipping the crowd into frenzy and I understand with monitors and the frenetic sound onstage. He didn’t notice but just as Kid Rock got a buzz to go jump off the piano and run to the audience, you know Jerry Lee tells the band to bring it down. None of us thought it was an intentional slight but he didn’t hear the cue. So what of you do? Part of you wants to acknowledge the frenzy but that other part of you says wait a minute, Jerry Lee says bring it down.
"So we're all just treading water. I could see a look on Keith's face, he was feeling the same thing we were feeling but he's freakin' Keith Richards, so out of the blue he just explodes out of the little pack of guitar players he's in, he goes right to the front of the stage, steps in front of Kid Rock and does one of his twirls when he spins on one leg twirls around. He's still a showman so he's not going to try to openly bring the show down, with some kind of scary gift that bums everyone out.
"And even better, as soon as he spun around he turned his back on Kid Rock and walked to the other end of the band and he got down with his guitar between his legs and his legs are spreads and he's looking right in my face and he just sits there rocking out with his back to in our faces with his back to Kid Rock. I can’t tell you what’s going through Keith's mind but all I can tell you is instead of Keith rocking out 20 feet away, now he's just rocking out dirty in front of Greg, Hutch, and me. And all three of us are just in heaven. And Keith went and made a statement and rocked out with the band and I was like 'Hey, there's a lot of people here besides you.' I don’t know if that’s what he was saying to him but that's what he was saying to me."
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