Scottsdale's Nils Lofgren Became Famous as a Member of the E Street Band; Now He Gets the Spotlight with New Box Set
Nils Lofgren's ranch in Scottsdale almost feels hidden.
It's not far from the city, from the clubs of Old Town and the shops at Scottsdale Fashion Square, but his large plot shares none of the bustle. It's secluded and quiet, with mesquite trees rustling in a soft breeze.
Lofgren's spread is impressive. He and his wife share a beautiful 1935 adobe home, built by Arizona architect George Ellis, with their four dogs. A gorgeous '51 Chevy pickup sits on the lot, along with a 1968 Cadillac DeVille with a cow skull affixed to the grill. There's a full basketball court, though 63-year‑old Lofgren doesn't play as much as he used to -- he's going easy on his titanium hips, replaced just a few years ago after a life of pick-up basketball games and onstage stunts. Lofgren's short; his low center of gravity encouraged an aggressively physical performing style, incorporating dramatic back flips and guitar acrobatics.
Lofgren's career as a sideman is one of the most illustrious in rock 'n' roll history. Playing alongside Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Ringo Starr, he's toured the world and performed for massive crowds. But, along the way, he's always recorded his own music, building a massive discography. Like Lofgren's Scottsdale ranch, a spacious plot hidden in the midst of a busy metro area, his solo catalog is vast but obscured by the bright lights that surround it. Now, fulfilling a dream Lofgren long had abandoned, the musicians's solo work is set to get its due with the August 5 release of Face the Music, a comprehensive look at the music Lofgren created when he wasn't contributing to artists with huge name recognition.
Face the Music, a sprawling 10-disc retrospective from Fantasy Records, spotlights 45 years of Lofgren's songs. The collection spans his expansive but predominantly out-of-print back catalog, including songs from his early-'70s melodic rock band Grin, his major label solo albums from the '70s and '80s, tracks culled from his self-released albums from the '90s and 2000s, and outtakes, covers, and rarities.
The set features a 136-page book edited by noted rock writer David Marsh, as well as notes by Lofgren, photos, and quotes by his many admirers, including Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Bono, and Sam Moore of R&B duo Sam and Dave. The personnel list reads like something an enthusiastic rock critic might conjure in a fever dream, listing Neil Young, members of Crazy Horse, Paul Rodgers of Bad Company, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Nicky Hopkins of the Rolling Stones, rock pioneer Del Shannon, Merry Clayton, Edgar Winter, novelist Clive Cussler, and the late Rick James (yes, that Rick James) as contributors.
Weeks before the box set is to be released, Lofgren is dressed casually in black jeans and sneakers as he leads the way into his eight-car garage. The structure is adorned with a desert scene painted by local street artist Danny Campa. He's converted the garage into a rec room and studio. There are guitars and amps in every corner. The walls are lined with gig posters and photos: a Danny Clinch shot of late saxophonist Clarence "The Big Man" Clemons, Lofgren's longtime close friend and bandmate in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, and a photo of Lofgren hanging out on a boat with Springsteen -- "The Boss" in a literal sense for Lofgren.
Past the control room, where Lofgren records much of his solo work, is his guitar room. When he performs solo, he brings seven or eight guitars with him to clubs. When he heads out with the E Street Band, he loads up about 50. He's just returned from 34 dates with Springsteen on the High Hopes tour.
Since joining in 1984, Lofgren has been part of every incarnation of the E Street Band.
His tenure is the capstone of his career as a sideman. His big break came at the tender age of 17 when he began playing with Neil Young. Since then, in addition to the E Street Band, he's served as a member of Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band and contributed guitar to albums and live performances by the likes of Stephen Stills, Foreigner, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Seger, and Carl Perkins.
Lofgren is pictured on the cover of Face the Music in stark black and white, sunglasses and chop sideburns obscuring most of his face. He holds the box set in his hands, smiling. "It's all in here," he says, tapping it rhythmically.
Lofgren was born in Chicago in 1951. He started playing accordion at age 5.
"After the waltzes and polkas, you go into classical or jazz," he says. He mostly played classical. "I'd enter contests, very serious contests where you study for a year on two songs and play it in front of judges. A lot of high pressure when you're 13 or 14!"
Lofgren enjoyed the music, but he quit taking lessons when he was 15. By then, his family had moved to Maryland, near Washington, D.C. He picked up guitar, playing with his brother Tom, and eventually started playing in bands. He caught shows that permanently altered his outlook: Creem, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Animals, the Hollies.
He formed bands, eventually settling in with a lean combo called Grin, and began attracting attention, opening for acts as they rolled through town. Lofgren made it a habit to poke his head into artists' dressing rooms and ask for advice. Some were more receptive than others.
"Some were understandably rude, because they were busy," Lofgren says with a laugh. It was a backstage meeting with Neil Young that dramatically changed Lofgren's trajectory.
"When I snuck back to Neil, he said, 'Here's a guitar. Play me a song,'" Lofgren says. "I played him half the first Grin record, which was written but not recorded."
On his 19th birthday, Lofgren opens for Jimi Hendrix --
Young liked what he heard. He invited Lofgren back to his hotel the next night. Lofgren went, hanging with Young and his band and explaining that Grin was headed to Los Angeles in a few weeks to record the band's debut album, and Young encouraged him to look him up when they arrived.
"So I looked him up, and true to his word, he was very friendly and supportive," Lofgren says. "He turned us on to his producer, David Briggs, who became our mentor. I moved into David's home."
Briggs and Lofgren began work on the first Grin album with drummer Bob Berberich and bassist Bob Gordon. Much of the LP is included on Face the Music. Opening song "See What Love Can Do," makes a clear case for Lofgren's dramatic vocal and guitar style, with a fraught falsetto and a pinched harmonic guitar solo inspired by Jeff Beck. But the album also showcases Lofgren's power as a balladeer, with the country folk amble of "Everybody's Missing the Sun" and an ode to teenage love, "Take You to the Movies Tonight," which rolls with an easy swing and intricate acoustic guitar work.
Grin (featuring Lofgren, third from right) signs a record deal.
While Grin was having "ups and downs" and waiting for its debut to hit record store shelves, Young enlisted the guitarist to play on his 1970 LP After the Gold Rush. Ever idiosyncratic, Young insisted Lofgren play piano, though the 18-year-old never had done so professionally. His accordion chops were employed on songs like "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" and "Southern Man," and though not initially credited in the liner notes, he also provided vocals and guitar work.
In 1971, Lofgren joined Young's backing band, Crazy Horse, for its first tour. Grin's self-titled debut was released, featuring contributions from Young and Crazy Horse's Ralph Molina and Danny Whitten. Lofgren and Briggs began work on Grin's sophomore album, 1972's 1+1. Showing off Lofgren's hard-rock side and his gentle pop abilities, the record was split into two halves, a "rocking" side and a "dreamy" side.
"I really like his sweet stuff -- my current favorite is 'Sometimes' from 1+1," says Eric D. Johnson (who records as EDJ), a Portland-based musician who led indie-pop outfit the Fruit Bats and contributed to albums by The Shins, Vetiver, and Califone.
"I adore that 'dreamy side.' I've always kind of felt like more artists should break things up in that way . . . I think 1+1 is a nice companion piece to the first couple of Big Star records in that regard. But, yeah, he's a real honeydripper on that early Grin stuff. People think of him as this shredder headband dude, but I like that early-'70s make-out music best."
The band worked at a steady clip, inducting Lofgren's brother, Tom, as a guitarist with 1973's All Out and Gone Crazy, featured him performing a back flip on the cover -- a move that would become somewhat signature in his live shows. Though the tight, melodic songs found some airplay and the band's live show established Grin as a powerful force, commercial success eluded the group.
"Those records were full of what feel like lost hits to me," Johnson says. "I think Nils falls neither in the household-name category, nor is he a super-lost, deep-cut dude. When I mention him to folks, those who do know him generally associate him with Springsteen [and] less with Neil Young for whatever reason. But it seems like those Grin tunes could have been huge. He was so incredibly young on them, which always seems to be a thing that either sinks artists or makes things totally work."
As Grin was disbanding, Lofgren got a call from Young, who wanted the guitarist to join him for an album called Tonight's the Night. It would serve as a recorded eulogy for Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, both of whom had died of drug overdoses. The album, and Young and Briggs' unique approach to the recording process, would profoundly influence Lofgren's work and style in the decades to come.
"Neil was fed up with production," Lofgren says. "He'd understood he'd made some beautiful records with Crosby, Stills, and Nash . . . and he wasn't devaluing them, but he said, 'I'm tired of all that. We're gonna do an anti-production record. It's all going to be live in the studio. There will be no fixes, ever, no matter what.'"
Lofgren accompanies Neil Young on accordion
Recorded live to tape, with minimal preparation, Tonight's the Night is not just one of Young's greatest albums but one of the best rock albums of all time. Ragged, raw, and shambolic, the album is often harrowing; rock 'n' roll as exorcism, reverie, and wake. You can hear studio chatter, imperfect harmonies, and an undeniable sense of the musicians staring at each other, listening, and carefully tapping into a mysterious force.
"We'd get together around dinner, have some tequila, a joint or two, play pool all night, kinda 'til midnight, the wee hours," Lofgren says. "And then, after midnight, we'd sit around the couch, he'd show us a rough overview of a song, and we'd go to the other end, plug in, and play. As harsh as [the record] is, it's refreshing in a way. It's one of the more powerful records that I've been involved in."
On the busted blues epic "Speakin' Out," Lofgren delivers one of the album's most powerful moments. "All right, Nils, all right," Young intones, and Lofgren cuts through the mix with a careening, elegiac guitar solo.
This Fender Stratocaster features Ralph Steadman's characteristic "splattered" psychedelic imagery. Learn more about it here.
Grin disbanded in 1974, and Lofgren and Briggs set to work on his solo debut. The idea, much like the impetus behind Tonight's the Night, was to achieve a raw, spontaneous live feel. It was "my first serious effort to get live vocals during tracking sessions," Lofgren writes in the Face the Music liner notes. Released by A&M in 1975, the album earned rave reviews -- Jon Landau, who would go on to manage Bruce Springsteen, called it "the best rock album this year."
Much of the album is included in the box set, and its songs, chiefly Lofgren's chiming power-pop ode to Keith Richards, "Keith Don't Go," rank as some of the best material on the collection. Lofgren was 24, and still without a major commercial hit to his name. He was starting over. "The Sun Hasn't Set on this Boy Yet" addresses his concern with striking out on his own, meeting his fears with optimism: "I'm back on my feet / With no regrets/ 'Cause the sun hasn't set on this boy yet."
The album began a string of releases for A&M: the live album Back It Up!!, 1976's slick Cry Tough, 1977's I Came to Dance, a double live LP, Night After Night, in 1977, and Nils in 1979. Throughout the decade, he received some airplay on progressive and AOR stations, and his live shows developed a reputation as outrageous.
Lofgren opened for Boston in Tucson in the late '70s, says longtime Arizona promoter Danny Zelisko, who booked Lofgren. "I loved him on record and even more live. He used a trampoline on stage and did fierce solos while doing these incredible jumps in the air and spinning. Very fun and impressive."
Mainstream success continued to elude Lofgren. In 1979, the label brought in Bob Ezrin, known for his hit work with Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, and Kiss, to oversee Nils.
"The label said they wanted to bring in co-writers, and I said that I didn't do that," Lofgren says. "Ezrin said, 'What about Lou Reed?' And I said, 'Well, yeah, okay. That would be cool.'"
Lofgren went to Reed's Greenwich Village apartment to watch a football game, and the two struck up a friendship. Reed would call Lofgren in the middle of the night and dictate lyrics over the phone. Their collaborations ended up spread across Lofgren's album and Reed's The Bells.
"His passing is a terrible loss," Lofgren says of Reed's death early this year.
At Ezrin's urging, Dick Wagner, who'd worked with Reed, Kiss, and Cooper, also contributed songwriting. A team of hit makers at his side, Lofgren was certain that Nils would be his breakthrough.
"I thought they'd be hits," Lofgren says of songs like "Shine Silently," a driving ballad with a heartsick chorus and multi-tracked harmonies, "but it didn't happen."
Lofgren continued recording for A&M through the early '80s, eventually moving to MCA for 1983's Wonderland. The record failed to find a home on rock radio, and Lofgren was dismissed. Without a label, he continued to work on music, but it was a dark time for him.
"I had lost my record deal, and I was feeling kind of down in the dumps. It was kind of a blue period for me," Lofgren says. He spent some time with an old friend, Bruce Springsteen, whose pre-fame band Steel Mill had performed with Grin.
Lofgren and Bruce Springsteen. He's backed up Springsteenas a member of the E Street Band intermittently for 30 years.
"We just talked a lot," Lofgren says of his friendship with Bruce. "We went up on a sand dune, and I was telling him about working with Neil Young so much when I was young. I said, 'If I'm with great songs, great people, it's fun -- I'm really engaged.' I was just commenting how enjoyable it was to play piano or rhythm guitar, [to] sing harmony. I think Bruce just kind of filed this away -- that I was someone who enjoyed being in an ensemble."
In 1984, E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt left the group, and Springsteen called Lofgren to "come jam." The group was prepping for the Born in the USA tour, in support of an album that had made Springsteen a superstar. After two days of playing, "[Bruce said] 'Hey, man, this feels great. I talked to everybody. You wanna join the E Street band?' I said, 'Now?' And he said, 'Yeah, now. Go home pack your bag and come back and start rehearsing for the Born in the USA tour.' I said, 'I'm in.'"
It was the start of a 30-year run with the E Street Band. Springsteen would go on to record with other musicians for much of the '90s, but each time he needed the E Street Band, Lofgren got the call. Springsteen reunited the E Street Band full-time in 1999, and the group's 2002 release, The Rising, chronicled post-9/11 America.
"I've been very blessed in a strange way. If I started having hit records when I was 19 or 20, I wouldn't have played with the E Street Band and Bruce . . . I wouldn't have been in the All-Starr Band with Ringo," Lofgren says. "Look, if you start having hit records, the company is like, 'You can't go play with Neil Young. You're a big star -- you can't do that.' And the business and management get in the way. I've been lucky because I never had that pressure from management or companies, partially because I wasn't that important to them . . . I've just always done what I wanted."
Nils and Amy Lofgren hang with their dogs.
In 1996, Lofgren was in Scottsdale, playing a small club called the Rocking Horse, which would burn down a year later. A woman named Amy Joan Aiello approached him, saying they'd met 15 years earlier at the Stone Pony in New Jersey. While studying and working as a cocktail waitress in Jersey, Aiello made it to a packed Lofgren show. Her friend got "picked up" by Lofgren's road manager, and Aiello ended up hanging out with Lofgren on the tour bus.
"This little person jumped on the bus," she says. "We just hung out with him . . . and he was a gentleman and great. He kept saying, 'Will you come to Boston with me?' and I said, 'No, I've got a job. I'm in school. My mother will kill me!' He kept saying, 'I'll square it with your boss. I'll square it with your mom.' I said, 'You're not going to square it with anyone. I barely know you!' That was it."
The next time Aiello saw him, it was on MTV. When she heard the guitarist would be performing in Scottsdale, where she'd since moved, she decided to check out the show. The two ended up reconnecting, Lofgren at the tail end of a marriage and in the process of divorce. He fell for her instantly.
"There was a long time between the first and second date," Lofgren says, laughing. "My theory is that she should have come to Boston. But I was pretty crazy, drinking heavily [at the time]. I might have been too much for her. It was a long wait, but it worked out."
Things got serious quickly, and Lofgren decided that he'd had enough of the commute from the East Coast. "I started coming off the road to visit her and her son, Dylan," Lofgren says. "I was comfortable living here."
Lofgren moved to Scottsdale in 1996, and the two married in 1998.
Lofgren says Arizona politics may be ridiculous, but he loves the place. He loves eating at Slanted Rice at the Hilton Village, Rancho Pinot, Tarbell's, and Pizzeria Bianco, his favorite restaurant. "The area has grown so much, even just in the 18 years I've lived here," he says.
Since settling in Arizona, Lofgren has maintained a steady pace of solo records. His latest, 2008's The Loner -- Nils Sings Neil, features solo renditions of Neil Young compositions, and 2011's Old School features contributions from Paul Rodgers of Bad Company, Lou Gramm of Foreigner, and Sam Moore of Sam and Dave. Selections from both are featured heavily on Face the Music, as is "I Remember Muscatel," a Western ballad penned with Valley of the Sun resident and novelist Clive Cussler.
"Nils likes to get it right," says Otto D'Agnolo, who owns Chaton Studios in Phoenix, where Lofgren records in addition to his home studio. "He's not one for [saying,] 'Fix it in the mix.' So many artists today expect the recording engineer to tune their vocals, edit their rhythm, and completely fix their track. There's none of that for Nils."
Jamie Weddle, who's mixed Lofgren's records at Studiocat Pro, says Lofgren's work has "a rawness and grittiness to it while still maintaining the exceptional quality of musicianship."
The raw approach connects Lofgren's work, from his early recordings with David Briggs to Old School. And while the Face the Music collection, with its 10 discs, is clearly geared toward the hardcore collector, Lofgren is thrilled to have his music in print at all.
"I used to call the old companies and say, 'Hey, I owe you a lot of money,'" Lofgren says. "'My records are out of print. It costs a buck and a quarter to make a CD; let me give you five dollars a CD and buy a thousand and sell them on my site.' They'd say no. What do you mean no -- you're gonna make four dollars a CD. But we're such a big company it's just a hassle. Making money is a hassle? [And they'd answer,] 'You're kind [of] just too small potatoes.'"
Lofgren's career has been marked by a strange contrast between fame and relative anonymity. Though, as he says, it's granted him the freedom to follow his own path, it sometimes has meant that his work flew under the radar.
"I've recorded a lot for 45 years, and I've never had a big hit record," Lofgren says. "I don't know if that could happen today. [Now] you can't have a four-year career without some degree of fame."
Since settling down from the road, Lofgren says he wants to start playing solo shows around the Southwest. He's scheduled to perform Friday, October 3, at Talking Stick Resort. He's looking forward to blowing the dust off his recording gear, "figuring out how it works again."
Lofgren says, "Forty-five years later, I have this history of not only recorded works of my own but of extraordinary bands I've gotten to play in. I love being on stage with people who have the same goals, a body of songs, an audience coming, and the challenge: You've got all day to put a show together for 'em, [so] what are you gonna do? I still love that."
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