Nils Lofgren Celebrates Nearly 50 Years With Neil Young
The recent announcement that the E Street Band's Nils Lofgren would be stepping in to play guitar with Neil Young for the upcoming Crazy Horse gigs adds another chapter to a long-running working relationship and friendship between the pair, who have been musical comrades for nearly a half-century.
“As a Crazy Horse alumni, I am beyond honored and grateful to be playing again with these dear, old friends," Lofgren tells UCR. "They’re really good, too! Met Neil, Danny, Ralphie and Billy almost 50 years ago! Blessed.”
Young first came into contact with Lofgren at a time when the guitarist was working to get his own band, Grin, off the ground at the beginning of the '70s.
As Lofgren reflects in the liner notes of his Face the Music box set, he was young and inexperienced and knew “nothing about the music biz” -- specifically, the boundaries between musicians and their fans. He would sneak backstage in search of valuable advice from “pro musicians.”
One particular instance found Lofgren backstage at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., where Young handed him his Martin guitar and listened to him sing several songs that would eventually show up on the first Grin album. “I watched four inspired Neil Young and Crazy Horse shows that weekend and spent time with Neil, who encouraged me to ‘look him up’ if we got to L.A.," Lofgren recalls.
He took Young up on his offer and, following a failed audition for Jimi Hendrix producer and co-owner of New York's Electric Ladyland Studios Eddie Kramer, he and the members of Grin decided to head to Los Angeles. “I did look up Neil Young and he was the same, cool, supportive guy I’d met in D.C. weeks earlier,” he says.
Young’s producer, David Briggs, took Lofgren under his wing and moved him into his home in Topanga Canyon, and eventually, he would be on board to produce Grin’s 1971 debut album. As Lofgren writes, it was the start of a “long, beautiful journey with Briggs as my friend, musical mentor and producer."
For Lofgren, it’s a journey which has had a lot of interesting twists and turns. During a 2014 conversation, he talked about how, at 18 years of age, he found himself playing on the sessions for Young's classic After the Gold Rush album, with just one wrinkle -- in addition to guitar, they also wanted him to play some piano.
“I was a classical accordion player for 10 years from 5 to 15, and I picked up the guitar later, probably not until I was 14 or 15, put down the accordion -- and I still play it, but I stopped studying. I was just playing blues guitar as a hobby for fun, and at 17 I hit the road professionally, being possessed with the idea one night after seeing the Who and Jimi Hendrix Experience, I hit the road with my band Grin," he says.
"On After the Gold Rush, when Neil said he wanted me to play a little bit of guitar, sing and some piano, I just took exception to it and said, ‘Well, geez, I’m really not a professional piano player.' But they were the ones who said, ‘Well, you played accordion since you were 5 and you’ve won contests, you’ve studied classical -- we need some simple parts and we’re confident that you’ll find them on the piano.’”
Lofgren says that gave him the confidence and the ability to take a chance on himself -- something he never would have done. “It just reminded me through the years to just shut up and say yes,” he says.
More than that, it added an important musical tool to his arsenal. “Thanks to David Briggs and Neil Young, it became more and more a part of what I did with Grin and in my solo work," Lofgren notes.
With Young and the members of his extended musical family, Lofgren found that the doors would continue to open. And he was more than okay with the changing shape of what would be required from him as a player, depending on the situation.
“As I continued on, because of my friendship, I learned early on that if you’re with good people and great music, it’s nice not to be the boss every day of your life -- for me,” he says. “There’s a lot of solo artists that would be uncomfortable with that, but I found it very inspired and refreshing, because I love music. I love playing rhythm guitar and singing harmony, and when you’re the main guy, you can’t do that. So that was exciting and then it felt natural when Crazy Horse wanted me to make their first album with Danny Whitten, which I did [and] that led to the Tonight’s the Night tour.”
In a 2015 conversation, Lofgren addressed the question of whether or not he’d ever found himself on the wrong side of the mercurial singer-songwriter. “I don’t think I ever did," he says. "Neil kind of gets, I think, an undeserved bad rap like that. He is very intense, but not in a bad way. You know, everybody’s intense when they’re performing their own music. I think people really don’t realize what a great sense of humor and what a brilliant guy he is. And smart. He can be thoughtful and caring and cynical and sarcastic like all of us. I’ve had some great adventures with him. Putting the Trans tour together, we were at his ranch for over two months and you know, just to live and work with him, it was a real joy and blessing.
"Once in a while, there would be something going on live that might not be feeling right to him, and he’d just be glaring around, but he was professional. He didn’t ever fine people onstage like James Brown or anything like that,” he adds.
“I just always just felt like, I looked him in the eye and just stared at him, because he knew. We met when I was 17 and one thing Neil knows about me is that a) not only do I love his music, but b) he’s a very inspired artist to me and he’s been a huge mentor to me, so I show up prepared. Yes, I made mistakes, but it’s not for lack of caring or preparation.”
In at least one instance, Lofgren was the right secret weapon who was in the right place at a much needed time: when Young and his band were preparing to tape an episode of MTV Unplugged.
“I wasn’t in that band, but I played some Bridge School Benefits with him [and] the Harvest Moon band [that were] brilliant! We showed up to rehearse for the MTV Unplugged, which they did in New York, and Neil didn’t like and refused to let them air it. So we were going to try it again in L.A. and he hired me to be along,” Lofgren remembers. “I talked to him weeks in advance and that’s the great thing about him, he’s all about the music, so we talked through the songs and sets and what he wanted, which I’ve done in the past, [to] kind of like ghost his parts and double them so if he wants to go off and play a lead or if he just wants to stop playing and sing, he knows that I’m there covering the theme.”
Lofgren spent several weeks rehearsing for the planned L.A. performance and found himself walking into an unexpected situation when he met up with the rest of the players.
“The very band that recorded the album, forgot their own parts on Harvest Moon," Lofgren says. "[Young] got pissed off pretty early on in rehearsals, and he and David Briggs, they said, ‘You guys don’t even know your own songs -- you’ve got to practice -- I’m going to get a drink.’ So I thought, ‘Oh, great -- I’ll go have a shot with David and Neil,’ and he said, ‘No, Nils -- you sit here and sing and rehearse the band.’"
Young and Briggs left and hit the bars and, as Lofgren relates, they would pull up every couple of hours and check in on the band’s progress. “[They’d] listen through the wall and decide they weren’t good enough and go off and have another shot," he explains. "Meanwhile, I’m sitting there with these guys and I’m like, ‘Well, if you’re not going to respect Neil Young’ because I showed up ... .' The thing is when you walk into a room with a guy like Neil Young with those songs that he says we’re going to sing and play, not to be corny, but to coin his song, you’re expecting to fly. I mean, you’re really expecting, like, ‘Man, all I’ve got to do is play my part and this is going to be special,’ and then these guys don’t even know their own parts.”
Lofgren knew what he had to do in Young’s absence. “I just looked at these guys -- and I love all of these players -- Ben Keith and I were in many bands with Neil and had a lot of high adventures on the road for months together -- I just said, ‘Look guys, I’m just going to sing every song on the page twice. You guys do what you want,’" he says. "I just sat there and sang the songs twice and went through it over and over and they played along or not and the next day we got together and it was a little better. But that’s classic, I mean, anybody -- me, you, whatever -- you show up, you’re going to do a show and your team shows up and somebody doesn’t care or they’re drunk or they’re not into it, they forgot how to do their part, it bums you out. And Neil’s no different -- I don’t think he’s any more mercurial or crazy than anybody else.”
When it was time to do the gig, Lofgren showed up early to work on "homework" and some final last-minute preparations -- to “ease into” things so that he could build up to the show and not come in cold. There was still one more curve ball coming from Young’s camp that he would have to weather.
“I was in a Winnebago on a giant MTV set in Burbank and [Young’s manager] Elliot Roberts pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, thanks for the hard work and showing up prepared -- Neil wants you to know that he’s happy with the job you did, but he’s on the outskirts of town feeling uneasy and he may show up in a couple of hours and do the whole thing alone,’" Lofgren recalls. "I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, man, we sound pretty good now!’ But it’s not my place to tell him how to feel, so I just kept my fingers crossed and when he and David Briggs showed up, David kind of gave me a wink like it was on and we did the show and there were some stops and starts.”
One of Lofgren’s favorites is “Long May You Run,” and they played it twice and Young stopped it twice that day.
“He didn’t like how it felt," Lofgren explains. "He was pretty on edge and I didn’t blame him, you know, I get it -- you show up and you gave the guys weeks of notice, it’s not like you called them the night before, so you want them to show up prepared. But anyway, he said, ‘Oh, let’s forget that song,’ and I stopped him in front of the audience and I said, ‘Man, don’t forget the song -- it’s not the song’s fault -- this is one of the great songs,’ as politely as I could, and he looked at me like, ‘Well, you count it off,’ so I counted it off and we got the take that’s on the record, thank God. It was just one of those great moments and I’ve had so many moments like that. It’s just called being in a band.”
Lofgren says he's grateful for the entire ride that he’s been fortunate to take as an artist across the decades. He would eventually record a full album's worth of Young's songs, The Loner: Nils Sings Neil Young, as a tribute to both Young and Briggs.
“All of the chapters with Neil, Trans, MTV Unplugged -- they’re all highlights, as is every show on record with the E Street Band, the two Ringo Starr All-Starr Bands, I’ve played in a couple of bands with Patti Scialfa, with Steve Jordan and Willie Weeks and other great casts of characters and I just love being in great bands,” he says. “If it’s for me to lead the band, I’m happy doing that, I’m comfortable doing that and I’ll continue to. But as long as it’s a great ensemble of people that I like and get along with, it’s very good for my musical soul to take a break from being the boss every day and just be on a team.”