By Blake Maddux
“Since the late ‘60s I’ve been up and down the Northeast corridor, and Boston’s always one of our favorite stops.”
Any résumé that includes Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Ringo Starr as references is bound to be looked upon favorably.
This might explain why rock musician Nils Lofgren has worked steadily since he received his first credit at age 19 on Neil Young’s 1970 album After the Gold Rush. Following that, Lofgren recorded four albums with the critically acclaimed (read: commercially unsuccessful) band Grin, which included his brother Tom, from 1971 to 1974.
Since 1975, Lofgren has made the occasional return to Young’s backing band Crazy Horse, played in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band from 1984 to 1989 and between 1999 and 2014, been a member or Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, and recorded a slew of solo albums.
Last month, Lofgren released Blue With Lou, a 12-track offering that includes six new originals and six others that he co-wrote with Lou Reed in 1979. The tour in support of the album includes a sold-out show at City Winery on May 18.
Lofgren spoke by phone to The Arts Fuse from his home in Scottsdale, AZ, where he has lived for 23 years with his wife, Amy, and their beloved dogs.
The Arts Fuse: When did you first cross paths with Lou Reed and how did your relationship proceed from there?
Nils Lofgren: I was working with [producer] Bob Ezrin on the Nils album in ’79. We felt the lyrics were subpar and we talked about co-writing as opposed to me just doing rewrites. He mentioned Lou Reed. I thought that was unlikely but I loved the idea. I had no idea of their history and that Bob had produced [Reed’s 1973 album] Berlin. The next day we take a trip over to Lou’s studio, we meet him, we talk for 20 minutes. Surprisingly, he was open to the idea and he said, why don’t you come to my apartment the following week and we’ll discuss it.
We talked into the night about writing and come to find out music comes more naturally to me and he’s the opposite with lyrics. He said to send him a tape of what I had and I sent him a cassette of 13 complete songs in the sense that I had verses, choruses, bridges, and titles, but a lot of the lyrics were unwritten and there were choruses and themes that I didn’t really feel attached to. We asked him to please change any music if it helps.
About three or four weeks went by, and I kinda forgot about the idea because it seemed unlikely. Then he woke me up at 4:30 in the morning and said he loved the tape and had been up three days and nights straight and had just completed 13 sets of lyrics and was excited about it. That’s why he woke me up! I was very surprised and inspired, so I got a pad and pencil, put on a pot of coffee, and spent two hours-plus taking dictation from Lou Reed. At the end he said, Look, I’ve got three songs that I’d like to use for myself right away. Bob and I used three songs, and I spent the next few days putting the words to the music. I’ve put out two since then, and I always thought Lou might call to look at the five left behind. After we lost Lou, I knew that it was my job to get them on this record.
AF: How many of the six songs on Blue With Lou that you and he wrote together have never appeared on record before?
NL: Five of these songs are ones that no one’s ever heard. All six of mine are new. There’s one song called “City Lights.” Lou loved my chorus and he said, I’m gonna use your chorus and write a song about Charlie Chaplin. He chose to narrate it, but I always wanted to record that with original melody. And I came up with kind of a reggae feel, a little bit of a lighter skipping. It’s a very dark song about this genius comedian coming and kind of healing our country while we’re in the middle of a depression and after it, then we turn around and throw him out. Not unlike some of the madness going on now: no common sense and letting the darkness take over. I asked Branford Marsalis to color the whole thing with his brilliant sax, which he did.
AF: Do you think that it is particularly important in the age of Trump for musicians to address social and political issues?
NL: Well I don’t force that. My wife, Amy, is a fierce part of the resistance on Twitter and she really gets into it. Especially as a woman, she’s rightfully so incensed with what’s happening. But I had this great title, I thought anyway, “Rock or Not,” and in light of what’s going on, the whole concept is “shit or get off the pot.” I just had to go deeper into kind of a political statement, mainly through a woman’s eyes but mine, too. I mean, we’re all in this together. It’s really an abomination, what’s happening at the hands of these rich, powerful men that seem to get mentally ill with the disease of power and money at the expense of all humanity, all life. It’s not a protest album, but I didn’t shy away when it came to me.
AF: “Dear Heartbreaker” is a tribute to another recently departed musician. How far back did you and Tom Petty go and how often had you worked together in that time?
NL: Probably the last time Tom Petty & the Heartbreaks were an opening act was for me in ’77 in England. We did a four or five-week tour and they kicked me and my band’s ass. I became a giant fan and followed them ever since. Last tour they weren’t playing Phoenix, so we treated ourselves to a show at Red Rocks in Denver. I had no intention of writing a song, but one day this one verse started coming to me. It was almost just like a little note to myself and to Tom, like, damn man, this is awful, but I’m gonna keep listening to this great music with now a real sadness in my heart. And the verses kept coming. I didn’t really want them to and didn’t plan on it, but after I had five verses I went, “Damn, I think I need to write this song.”
AF: Were you expecting Neil Young to invite you to work on his new album with him?
NL: No. It came out of the blue. We did five shows last year and a couple in Winnipeg during the polar vortex in February. Neil knew I had a new record coming out and was getting ready to hit the road, and said, I know it’s bad timing, but I’ve been writing these new songs and I really feel good about them. Could ya get up to Colorado and we’ll start doing some recording and see where it leads? It was really seat-of-your-pants, last-minute stuff, but I really feel good about it. Probably that will continue through the year, I think. We had a good start.
AF: Do you have any specific memories of playing Boston throughout your 50-year career?
NL: Oh yeah. I love Boston. The old Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall, used to play there two or three times a year. My band Grin opened for Van Morrison up in Boston. One of my favorite rock towns. The audiences are great. Since the late ‘60s I’ve been up and down the Northeast corridor, and Boston’s always one of our favorite stops. I’m really glad it’s on the tour. Taking a full band into Boston, that hasn’t happened in, I don’t know, 20 years. I’m excited to come back with a band and a new album I feel good about.
AF: Speaking of Grin, do you think that they will ever get the recognition that they so richly deserve or are you happy with the band’s legacy as a cult favorite?
NL: Well, I wouldn’t say I’m happy. I love Grin. My three brothers and Bob Berberich, the other drummer and singer, are doing Grin Again shows and I’m really happy about that. But look, we made four albums, we really got good at everything, and we just didn’t have hit records so the record deals dried up. But I have fond memories of Grin. You make music to share, so my vision wasn’t to be some cult obscure band, and l’d love for people to continue to get exposed to the music. I’m grateful anytime somebody discovers Grin that didn’t know about us.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, the Somerville Times, and the Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and one-year-old twins–Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson–in Salem, Massachusetts.