Nils Lofgren admits that he thrive when he’s playing in bands without being the leader.
That ability to offer what is needed for someone else’s creative vision is what got him a gig early in his career with Neil Young, resulted in a return with Young last year as a member of Crazy Horse, invited as one of the original members of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an integral part of the tight, indefatigable E Street Band that backs up Bruce Springsteen.
Of course, Lofgren has never sat around and waited for another high profile opportunity to come around. He’s had a long-running solo career that began in 1975 and resulted in 26 releases and countless tours.
At the moment he’s combining his solo and collaborative worlds with Blue With Lou. The album keeps the rock and roll flame alive with an even split of six new originals and six songs he wrote in the late ‘70s with the late Lou Reed. The writing partnership led to 13 songs — three landed on Reed’s album, “The Bells” while Lofgren used tracks on the albums “Nils,” “Damaged Goods” and “Breakaway Angel.”
Affected by the passing of the legendary New York musician, Lofgren worked on the five unrecorded songs that remained. That activity energized him to pen new material that includes the title track, which honors his former songwriting partner, “Remember You” (a reminiscence about the family’s beloved dog Groucho), and “Dear Heartbreaker” (a tribute to his longtime friend Tom Petty).
Lofgren recorded “Blue With Lou” at his home studio in Arizona with longtime musical associates Andy Newmark (drums) and Kevin McCormick (bass) and guest appearances by saxophonist Branford Marsalis and vocalist Cindy Mizelle (E Street Band). All but Marsalis (and with his brother Tom on keyboards) toured with him to support the album.
We talk the morning after one of his concerts about the Lou Reed collaboration, playing with some of rock’s biggest artists, working on the new Crazy Horse album, his guitar style and more.
“I’m delirious after a great show last
night,” he said. “Feeling great about playing with the band again,
especially the band that made this record.”
I mention that I saw him perform at the Kent Stage and was surprised but pleased about the no cellphone policy. “Yeah, I know. Phones have changed the whole dynamic at concerts.
“I know some people have taken cellphones at the door. Comedians have done that. To each his own. However, you want to focus on what we’re doing. I’m hoping you just hook into it and listen and that it touches you in some way, and you can take a little bit of musical inspiration out of there that lingers in your life and helps it. At best that’s what happens to me.”
JPG: I thought it was a nice touch to open the concert with a brief instrumental take on the Crosby, Stills Nash & Young song “Ohio” (the venue is located near the site of the May 4, 1970 campus shootings).
NL: My wife, Amy, suggested that. We were talking and she said, “Where are you going to be?” I said, “Kent, Ohio.” She said, “Rather than sing the song, just open with the guitar riff.” Some people got it. I thought it was a beautiful idea.
JPG: I met you after the concert. My sister told you the story of meeting Lou Reed after his concert and telling the score of the New York Rangers game that night. She mentioned that she didn’t know if he’d care about the result, which he replied with, “What makes you think I wouldn’t care?”
NL: It was interesting to find he was such a sports fan, which a lot of people are. You wouldn’t be surprised if Lou wasn’t into it but he was, and that’s cool.
JPG: For someone who doesn’t know him it would seem that following sports would be of no interest to him. That brings this up. Lou Reed had a prickly public persona, someone who could be easily pissed off. I know that producer Bob Ezrin connected the two of you but how was it dealing with him? Did you see a softer side of Lou?
NL: Thanks to Bob Ezrin. He proffered an idea that Lou was open to. If Lou had been like, “Bob, I’m glad that you and Nils are doing your thing. I’m just not interested in this. Have a good album,” and send us on our way without having to go into that personality thing. I wasn’t looking for a job in his band. We were asking for help as a co-writer. The fact that he was open to it at whatever moment in time that we caught him felt like it might benefit him too because there was so much music and his forte is lyrics. It was just a natural chapter that worked out…and afterwards, too.
We’d go see him play, whether it was in DC or wherever he was and he’d be friendly. I’d come back for a quick “Hello” and we’d fondly remember this chapter together that was beneficial for both of us. We mixed “Life” off the “Damaged Goods” record in New York City, and I called him and he happened to be there. He said, “Give me half an hour. I want to hear this.” Had him sit down to hear the final mix just when we were happy with it. Gave us a thumbs up. It did feel great. It was very unusual, beautiful song. Branford Marsalis played a haunting sax on it.
So, these little vignettes we both owed to Bob Ezrin who put us together. It was a mutually beneficial and inspiring thing without the standard renting a loft, have an upright piano and a couple guitars and going six to eight hours a day and just plowing through ideas, which can be very productive. This was an easier way to go about it where he happened to really love the tape I sent, and without me there weighing in I gave him carte blanche to change anything including all music or any of it. As a potential co-author, he got into it and had a real writing jag for three days and nights and knocked off 13 lyrics, which is beautiful.
JPG: Did you have a friendly relationship after that or was it more one and done as far as the collaboration?
NL: Well, it was more just calling and saying, “You’re playing in DC. I’d love to come to the show.” “Great. It would be good to see you. Come back before, we’ll say, “Hi.” That kind of thing, or if I’m in New York. “Hey, I’m recording one of our songs. Got a beautiful sax by Branford Marsalis. Before we move on, are you in town?” He said, “Yeah.” “Would you like to hear it?” “Yeah. Leave it alone. I’ll be there in half an hour.”
Other than these brief liaisons like that and seeing him at shows, having a chuckle about a very productive time together as co-writers thanks to Bob Ezrin suggestion, that was it. Always thought he’d want to call and revisit the five songs left behind. I always wanted to do my own version of “City Lights,” which is one of my choruses he kept. Keeping the chorus and I’m writing a story about Charlie Chaplin.
So, to have half of the album based on this and then write a song “Blue With Lou,” which was what I thought was a cool little bottleneck riff and came up with the title one day on the road with E Street. Knew it was going to be my way of paying homage to Lou as this whole record is based around those songs left behind.
JPG: You did a number of songs that weren’t recorded, what was it about “City Lights” that made you want to re-record it because Lou’s version is very different than what you did?
NL: When I heard Lou’s version, which I loved, he referred to my melodies in the music in kind of a carnival-esque, vaudevillian feel but he chose to narrate the lyrics. I always thought it was a cool melody. I really liked the melody. The narration worked for Lou but I could never do that and I just felt like I’d love to hear this sung. This is well years before I ever thought I’d ever visit everything, but I wanted to sing it with its original melody because there was a lilt to it that was kind of whimsical and reminded me of Charlie Chaplin, which is where he took the story.
Originally, after Lou and I shared three songs each, we got six of the 13 out, I put two more out. One of them was a song called, “Life” that’s on “Damaged Goods” where Branford played the sax. When I revisited “City Lights” we got a live track that was so great with this groove that really took me a long time to find. We got the track and I thought to myself that it needs some color and I had no interest and didn’t have the heart for exploring a lead guitar overdub. Sometimes, I know it needs more color and I’ll find a guitar part but I just didn’t want to do it. My heart wasn’t in it. I thought who better than Branford if he’s willing to go after this because the whole whimsical thing with Charlie Chaplin, and there’s a bit of mood and darkness that Branford brings so well with such great instincts, not unlike what we’re going through today.
Here’s this beautiful soul, Chaplin, who came to America right after the depression when no one was doing well and everyone was struggling and everyone had a darkness in their home and in their country to live through and he brings us this wonderful soulful humor that makes us laugh and get out of ourselves and find some hope. He presents that to us as a country and we turn around and throw him out. Really? Is that what we’re about? That’s not unlike what we’re going through now. Are we really small-minded, fearful, resentful, bigoted people. No. I don’t think so but there’s a lot of us that are. It’s very sad and tragic. Revisiting that song that Lou wrote, especially asking Branford to relieve me of the burden (slight laugh) of orchestrating it with a lead instrument, which he did so kindly and brilliantly, was another gift that I stumbled on to while making this record.
JPG: In prepping for this I listened to Lou’s version of “City Lights” off “The Bells” album as well as yours off of “Blue With Lou.” Your version has a bit of a reggae feel as well as shuffling blues.
NL: Basically, what happened was, I wrote it on the piano and it goes da-da-da-da-dum. It was really herky-jerky. That’s the song that came out of me. When I sent it to Lou he came up with a different version of that. It’s not a real toe-tapping feel. I felt like when I was going to do it. I tried playing it for awhile with my original feel and thought, “Well, the melody is there but there’s not much of a physical pulse that makes me want to dance a little bit, move a little bit.” Charlie [Chaplin] was such an amazing master of physical movement and using the body to illustrate. It took me quite awhile. I kept trying different feels and ideas for weeks as I put the record together, usually in the guest room off the kitchen where Amy is cooking for us and my dogs come out and hang out with me. That’s where I wrote most of the record in our son Dylan’s old room with the door open, just being part of the family and part of life.
Finally, one day I stumbled on this — you’re right — a little bit reggae but there is more of a pulse. My right hand found a chunking rhythm that still let the whimsical nature of the melody breathe over it. Then, I realized that would have to be the path I went down because I just didn’t want the same of what I wrote, and Lou based his track off of. It’s like a lyrical presentation and that original vibe.
JPG: Well, the song works in both your version and Lou’s version. Another newly-recorded song from your collaboration with Lou Reed, “Give” is standout track that, while it was written so long ago it’s also very current in its lyrics.
NL: Yeah, man. It’s tragic that it has to be so current, that we just don’t seem to realize that if we don’t start giving everything we got to each other, not at our own expense, but just as a part of humanity’s gift to itself, we’re in deep shit. I thought it was just as topical as ever and one of the ones I really regretted not doing something with in the past.
JPG: Another song that really stood out to me was “Talk Thru the Tears” not only because of the melodic reference to Nat King Cole’s “Smile” but they also may be some of Lou’s most touching lyrics.
NL: One of the more tender things Lou’s written. I was so taken because I sent him the title and some words that I thought were godawful. I said, “Lou, do you want me to just la-di-da everything or not even give you the title? He said, “No, give me your titles. Give me everything you got. I know you don’t like the lyrics. Give it all. I know I can change anything but I want to see where you’re at with it with the understanding that it’s not acceptable to you. I want to see where you’ve taken these things before I start rewriting them or writing them from scratch on a lyric level,” which is what I wanted. He also had carte blanche to change any music.
But yes, this is one of the most touching lyrics he’s written. There’s still that little bit of edge here and there but it comes from a tender place, which I thought was brilliant.
JPG: Lou made the album “Magic and Loss” that dealt with the deaths of two people close to him but there’s also “magic” in life. Your album, “Blue with Lou,” isn’t exactly like his but it does in a way address magic and loss due to where the lyrics came from on the songs co-written with Lou as well as the newer songs written by you about Lou, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Groucho (Nils’ dog who passed away).
NL: Yeah. (sighs) I lose track of time. I’ve been blessed to work in a lot of other great bands where I completely morph into a different musical character that’s right up my alley. That’s very natural for me. When I come back to my own work I’m kind of refreshed in a way because I’ve had a true break from being the bandleader and being the songwriter but not from being musical. I’m also staying down on a musical journey from another perspective of singing harmonies, playing different instruments, looking at different types of parts and what they can do to a song and how they can color it.
I had a lot of ideas but I wasn’t really gung-ho to write but I was gung-ho to start, and I was like, “How can I get this going? I don’t have any songs of my own or riffs or ideas in my notebook that’s making me go, “I gotta get this written out.”
So, I turned to the songs with Lou that were unwritten and this one particular journey we spoke of, “City Lights.” Well, here’s six songs that need to be on my next record. Let me just dive into all of them and at some point in that journey, putting them together to record, arrange, be ready to make a record, hopefully, I’ll get the writing bug a little more in earnest and that did happen. So, I used those songs with Lou that had to be on the record that no one had heard as a jumpstart and it worked.