I enjoyed my conversation with Nils Lofgren! From the first moment he was easy to speak to and felt like an old friend. His warm, upbeat, energetic vibe, and love of what he does shines through everything. Along with supporting two iconic artists his solo work is wonderful. Nils has a strong sense of who he is and has so many interesting stories, thoughts and ideas. I enjoyed learning about his work with Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, his views on politics, his great relationship with his wife Amy and much more. Through it all his absolute love of music shined through. He even gives lessons to encourage people of all skill levels to enjoy playing music. I hope you’ll enjoy reading this and getting to know Nils as much as I did.
Interview by Fredda Gordon. Photographs by Debra L. Rothenberg.
Nils Lofgren: Thank you.
FG: I’m going to get to those later. You started playing accordion when you were 5 years old. Why did you choose accordion?
NL: I was born on the south side of Chicago and lived there for about 8 or 9 years. My mom’s parents are immigrants from Nicosia, Sicily and my dad’s an immigrant from Sweden, he came over when he was 3. In those two cultures accordion is very popular, and for some reason in my neighborhood all the kids that I played with seemed to be taking accordion lessons. I asked my parents for lessons not realizing how much I would fall in love with the study of music itself. At a very young age it became a part of my life. I loved it and played all the time. Teachers used to warn my parents “Don’t let him practice so much, he’s going to burn out,” but I never did.
FG: Was it unusual that so many kids played accordion?
NL: I mean it wasn’t like an epidemic [chuckles]. I also had a cousin Gary who was like a big brother to me and he was playing accordion. And there were enough accordion players around that I got excited about trying it. So, at a young age, after the waltzes and polkas, my teachers moved me into classical accordion of all things. I studied it for almost 10 years. I entered very serious classical contests where you study two songs for a year and compete in a five state area. It was a great musical backdrop for when I picked up the blues guitar and fell in love with rock and roll.
FG: Was there other music in your house growing up? Were your parents into music?
NL: They didn’t play instruments per se but their number one hobby was dancing. They played music in the home all the time. The great old American songbook, you know, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, all the swing orchestras, but they went dancing almost every weekend. They truly loved to dance, and I think they were very tuned into the healing properties of music so all four of their sons play and sing. Tommy [Lofgren] and I went professional at a young age but Mike and Mark play and sing beautifully. We always had their encouragement because they love music. Regardless of whether we took to it or not they were happy when we asked to take lessons, in my case accordion, or showed an interest in the guitar or singing or anything like that because they spent their whole life appreciating music in a deep way.
FG: What was your first meaningful musical experience, your aha moment?
NL: I was in bands playing Bethesda Youth Center, Ayrlawn, all these little teen clubs, playing the cover songs of the day, The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, The Animals, countless great bands from Britain. In the mid 60s we idolized Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Stones but none of us thought you could do that for a living in middle America. One night when I was 16 we went downtown to Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. to see The Who, Herman’s Hermits and the Blues Magoos. They were all great but The Who was spectacular. Then we rushed over to the Ambassador Theater to see the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Pete Townsend was in the audience and we were all excited to see this unknown magical figure that we’d been hearing about. Well Jimi came out, he completely blew my mind. I was not ready for it. When I walked out after that night of seeing The Who, Blues Magoos, Herman’s Hermits and then Jimi Hendrix I was literally possessed with the notion that I must try to be a rock musician for a living, something that had never occurred to me once until that night. That was a real aha moment to turn this hobby into something that would be meaningful.
It was a scary possession because all of a sudden I found myself dropping out of high school, running away to Greenwich Village, looking up record companies in the yellow pages, subwaying to the office and asking for work. They were looking at you like, “Who the hell is this?” I knew nothing about the music business, but after that night I took a serious go at it, burned all my bridges locally and became kind of a pariah in my neighborhood for being a dropout and a runaway.
Interestingly, after about 8 or 9 days in New York City living in the street, I caught pneumonia and got very ill. When I got home, my parents nursed me back to health. They were out-of-their-minds happy that I was okay and furious that I ran away. I actually left a note under my pillow to say ‘If I’m gonna do this I can’t ask you to support me, so I’m going off to try to find my own way and not burden you.’ They nursed me back to health and were insistent I go back to high school. I said ‘I can’t do that, thank you for taking care of me, I’ll go make my own way.’ Being the great parents they were they said, “We’re very unhappy with your decision, but rather than go out in the street why don’t you stay at home and pursue your dream. You have to do your chores, follow all the rules of the house, and you have to pay rent.” They picked a figure back then… I used to babysit for neighborhood kids fifty cents an hour, that’s how old I am, sixty nine… and mow lawns for three dollars… so fifty dollars. That wasn’t a big figure but it was enough where I had to work.
I used the yellow pages because there was no internet then. I put Grin together and we called every fraternity, sorority, teen club, nightclub and started working for very little money, but working. I had an enormous support system at a very fragile age that really got me going at 17 professionally.
FG: You were a gymnast too back then and you have used it in your musical career. Do you still use those skills?
NL: Well, Fredda, I wish I could say yes. I was a big football, basketball, soccer player. I loved sports, still do. I fell in love with gymnastics, got fairly good at it in junior high school and worked out at the YMCA downtown in high school. Back then there were a lot of high schools that only had a women’s team. Gymnastics was still considered a girl’s sport and they didn’t have a men’s team in high school. I’m like, ‘A girl’s sport? Look at what the girls are doing. None of you can do that!’ It was that prejudiced mentality. Then you look at the men’s gymnastics and I’m like, ‘Look what they’re doing! Nobody on the football team can do that, the best athlete in school can’t do that!’ But that was the stigma. So, I started working out at the YMCA with a great old coach friend. This dovetailed into Grin making a record. We went out to Los Angeles, I befriended Neil Young, that’s another story.
FG: Yeah, I have questions about that.
NL: Yeah, that’s another story. Let’s fast forward a bit. Grin is making a record and we’re going on the road. Back then there was no video, no internet. They would give you tour support and charge it against your royalties if you ever made any money with the record. We took very small salaries [chuckle], stayed in cheap hotels, opened up for hundreds of bands. In general the audience would be yelling for the headline band, throwing bottles at us sometimes. We do our little half hour and get off, but we were so grateful to be on the road. But, we got on a big tour with J. Geils. This was before I became an extrovert on stage. I stood still with my eyes closed and really concentrated on playing and singing.
[At this time] I thought to myself, ‘I know I’m going to become more comfortable jumping around but right now I’m not, and until I get there what can I do visually that’s not faking it?’ because I just didn’t feel uninhibited yet. I knew that physical freedom and extroverted expression was part of being a performer but I wasn’t there yet. So, I came up with the crazy idea to go to my gymnastic coach/friend Vern Elder, and learn how to do a backflip while I play the guitar. When you do a backflip it’s all upper body. You throw your hands violently up in the air for spin and torque. When you’re holding anything you remove your upper body from the stunt so it’s a whole different thing. Vern put me in the big ceiling belts and taught me a different technique to do a backflip while I play.
So now I’m going to put this in the show. We’re down in Tampa, Florida opening for J. Geils. We walk out for about 3,000 college kids drinking, partying and excited. The promoter said, “If you play one second over 30 minutes you’ll never work in Florida again.” We said, ‘Lighten up man, we got a clock, I got a watch, we’re going to be fine.’ We go out and play and for 30 minutes. The audience is screaming, “J. Geils, J. Geils… get off the stage!” throwing bottles at us. After being booed for half an hour I run at the tramp [trampoline] back by my amp, jump up, hit it and I come back flipping towards the audience while I’m playing the guitar. I land, the band cuts it, and we run off stage to our dressing room and we’re like, ‘Wow, that was crazy. They hated us.’ [Laughter]. In about 20 seconds the promoter comes flying into the room all upset. He said, “You gotta go back and do an encore. Get up there now!” and I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, “That back flip drove them out of their minds. I’ve got 3,000 drunk college kids throwing chairs. They’re going to rip the place apart if you don’t do an encore.” We mess with him and said, ‘Well, no, we want to work in Florida again and you said 30 minutes so we’re done.’ He said, “You’ll work again, I’m not kidding they’re really going nuts, you’ve got to go out.” So we went out, played a song and everyone clapped and applauded. I still remember going to myself, ‘Welcome to show business!’ and that flip stayed in the show for decades.
FG: But not anymore.
NL: Not anymore. I played basketball about 20 hours a week all over the world. I’d tell the promoter, ‘Get me a pickup game, I gotta play some basketball.’ I played a lot in city courts with cement, terrible surfaces and between that, doing the back flips, jumping off drum risers, being extremely athletic… both hips had bone-on-bone cartilage and 12 years ago I had both hips replaced at the same time. The surgeon said, “I know you love it but you have to stop playing crazy basketball, and those back flips, you can’t do them anymore because if you land wrong you could never walk again.” I think my mini tramp is on the Hard Rock, Acapulco wall. I had a good run. Even on the Born in The USA tour Bruce and I talked about it. He said, “Tell me something, if you do the flip a hundred times how many nights you gonna fall?” and I was like, ‘Oh, maybe one. I usually just fall on my butt slide across the floor. Never went to the hospital, never got seriously hurt.’ He looked at me and said, “Okay let’s put it in the show.” So, we started doing it.
FG: I’m shifting gears. You thank your wife Amy on the album and I know she’s a support to you. How did you meet?
NL: Amy’s from West Orange, NJ and she came out where we are now, the Phoenix, Scottsdale, AZ area and settled here as a professional cook. She’s an extraordinary cook. That was over 30 years ago. Initially we met at the Stone Pony when I was playing there in the early 80s. I met her after a show, I thought she was amazing. I convinced her to hang out with me for just a few hours at the Empress Motel with her sister. I just loved her, I thought she was great but I had to go to Boston at 6 a.m. on my tour bus. We were playing there the next night and I must have asked her a hundred times, ‘Just please come to Boston.’ She said, “No, my mom will kill me. I got a job.” I was drinking heavily, I thought, ‘give me your mother’s number, I’ll square it.’ And, ‘Let me talk to your boss, I’ll fix it, I’ll have you back tomorrow, I’ll fly you home, train you home, whatever you want. Let’s just not stop visiting.’ But she wasn’t ready to come to Boston. I said goodbye. I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’m in New Jersey every three months playing a show so I’ll see her.’ I never saw her again for 15 years.
NL: Then, almost 24 years ago I was playing here in Phoenix and at the end of a show Amy walked up and said, “Hi, remember me?” She was at the end of a divorce, so was I and again I had to get on the bus to San Diego. At this point I was determined never to have a relationship again. She gave me her number and we commiserated about divorce. I thought she was fabulous. [She said] “If you ever want to come and see Sedona or any of the beautiful sights here … So, I had her number and I started calling and we started talking for hours on the phone. About five weeks after that run of touring I flew here to get to know her son Dylan who was four years old, and Amy, and it kept getting better and better. We’ve been together now for 24 years but it was 15 years between the first and second date. I still give her grief. She could have saved me a lot of dark time just coming to Boston.
FG:[Laughter] That’s true.
NL: And like you said, she’s got a great artistic sense. She does the album covers, all our merchandise designs, she’s a partner in our little mom and pop Cattle Track Road Records. It’s invaluable to have someone who loves music but isn’t in show business to just give me very honest, blunt opinions all the time.
FG: Are there any albums you listen to over and over? What do you listen to?
NL: What I listen to a lot is a hodgepodge of the British invasion, the American counterpart, all the Stax/Volts, all the Motown records, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Sam Cook, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, all the blues guys, Sting, Peter Gabriel, [Amy: The Pretenders] The Pretenders, [Amy: Patti Smith], Patti Smith, Amy’s just rocking [laughter], Joan Armatrading. Actually, Joan Armatrading opened for me in the mid 70s.
I listen to the best of everything and people turn me onto songs all the time. I really consider music the planet’s sacred weapon. Every day literally billions of people turn to music for some kind of community, healing and inspiration, especially in the dark times we’re in now. It’s a magical force. I love talking to people that [say], “Oh, I can’t play, I don’t play.” I say, ‘You don’t need talent to play, you just need a love of music!’ and I try to encourage them. I have a guitar school at my website nilslofgren.com designed for people who think that since they have no talent or rhythm they’re not allowed to enjoy playing guitar. I try to show them how to do that and enjoy it.
FG: Your online performance of “What About Us?” is powerful! It seems in the 60s and 70s there was a lot of political music like that and we don’t have so much of it now, or do you think it’s still coming?
NL: It’s funny. I’m on twitter a lot with Amy, she helps me out, and people kind of complain about that and I point out to them that there was a certain time in the early 70s where Crosby Stills Nash and Young were a huge super group. They were as popular and big as Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, so everyone watched everything they did. But Neil Young has a website Neil Young Archives and he has a newspaper called the Contrarian and there’s brilliant social commentary every day. So, I warn people, just because Neil Young hasn’t made a pop album that sold 15 million copies and is all over MTV, don’t mistake that with him not speaking out. You’re just not taking the time to get the message.
FG: I agree but the young upcoming musicians, are they speaking out enough?
NL: I think that they are. Our whole pop culture is still that top 20 radio thanks to the internet. There’s a lot of good and bad about technology of course, but there’s a lot of great people out there that are off the grid making very powerful musical statements, they’re just not in the mainstream. I agree with you, I’d love to see more mainstream artists do that, but at the same time it was exciting the last few months to see like a Taylor Swift start really speaking out vocally about voting and encouraging young people to vote and how critical it is. I haven’t studied her music, she may have written a song or two.
They’re out there, it’s just not that the top bands of the early 70s and late 60s happen to be making social commentary led by Bob Dylan. When somebody says, “What’s the greatest song ever written?” there’s so many, but off the top my head I always say, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ How many times are we going to have to become an endangered species before mankind figures out to be kind to each other and fix things? More and more younger people are starting to wake up and get woke to the political issues. It’s just humanity. It’s just basic common sense.
FG: It doesn’t make sense to me that people are not nice to each other.
NL: It’s really a scary thing that you know we have such darkness and light inside us that you would think especially people in charge would encourage as much light as possible but now we’ve noticed fame can become a mental illness very quickly. We’ve all seen it damage and kill many beautiful talents. Money and power are probably even older than fame as far as a mental disease that just destroys the mind’s ability to say, ‘Hey, yeah, I like being rich but let’s fix things. Let’s have a safe beautiful planet to be a big shot on,’ if that’s your goal. But they forget that part and it’s a big problem.
FG: One of your songs, Black Books, was used on the Sopranos. Can you tell me about that song and how did you feel about them using it on a television show?
NL: I think it was the turn of the century… it’s funny to say that in an interview… ‘Back at the turn of the century,’… I was going to make an album called Acoustic Live. It was me, in a live setting, acoustically, with my brothers and Paul Bell. My brother Tommy had this spooky synthesizer sound that we would use on our tours and he came up with this beautiful patch. It’s a dark country story, a haunted country tale, about a man and woman that are in love with each other but they’re so toxic to each other that they know they have to go their own ways, but it’s not done with anger or resentment. It’s just like, “You’re too crazy for me. I love you but…”. It became a great acoustic version of a song I wrote for the Damaged Goods record.
After an E Street Band show in Madison Square Garden we were backstage visiting with Stevie Van Zandt and the cast of the sopranos was there including David Chase. My wife Amy took the acoustic live record and gave it to David and said, “This is a new record, I hope you enjoy it.” Weeks later we get a note from him saying he liked the album. I just saw it as a fan note and Amy said, “That’s David Chase, the producer of the Sopranos!” Shortly after that David called and said, “I want to use Black Books in The Sopranos.” We were thrilled out of our minds, we love the show. He used it in a haunted scene where the mother goes up to see the daughter at college and, for the first time in her whole life, contemplating leaving. It was a very beautiful, haunted image. And then again at the end of the episode. We were so grateful that David not only liked the album but chose to use that song.
FG: You play with some very big musicians, is there anyone that would make you nervous to play in front of?
NL: Probably. My favorite guitar player in the world right now is Jeff Beck. It’s funny, Jeff and I have been to some parties where there was jamming. Jeff doesn’t jam much, he’s known for that, and I say, ‘Jeff, you want to jam?’ [chuckles] I opened for Jeff Beck way back in the mid 70s, a Jeff Beck and Jan Hammer tour. He’s somebody I’d be nervous, but I would still walk out and play with him if he asked me to.
On the Amnesty International tour in ‘88 with Peter Gabriel, Sting, Tracy Chapman, Youssou N’Dour and The E Street Band, we were in some archaic cement stadium in Africa. I found this cement room with great echo in the middle of the bowels of this ancient stadium. I was warming up, singing “Every Breath You Take,” one of my favorite songs. I love the police, I love Sting’s work, I think he’s one of our great talents and he happened to be looking for a private area. He found this room, opened the door and I’m sitting there singing his song. He said, “Oh, you like that song?” I said ‘Yeah, I love this song.’ He said, “We play every night, feel free to come out and jam with us if you like.” From then on I’d walk out on stage a little nervous, but excited.
Once Branford Marsalis had me do a session and I said, ‘Branford, I can’t play jazz,’ and he said, “Yeah, but the way you play is going to work.” I was kind of lost, and being the brilliant musician he is he said, “Nils, you’re overthinking it. Just pretend you’re playing blues and you go from a b flat chord to an f chord, from the one to the five.” It was like a key to the kingdom. Then he brought me down to a nightclub once when he played DC and I had a ball. Usually when people of that caliber ask you to sit in you always want to say yes regardless of nerves.
FG: You’re that caliber too.
NL: Well, when playing blues or rock and roll I feel comfortable.
FG: Speaking of rock and roll, I loved your new album, Weathered. What did you have in mind when you named it?
NL: Weathered in a good way. We are all so tired of the pomp and circumstance of show business. We’re all serious musicians, we all love being in front of an audience and it was the combination of all that history, probably a couple centuries of history and no airs, no five-star hotels and special waiting on the star and all that stuff, which is fine [too], we all do it. The goal is what happens on stage and when you turn a cast of characters like that loose and just give them complete freedom you get what we did and I was really grateful to have it out to share.
FG: How did the idea of the album come about?
NL: I hadn’t played with a band of my own in 15 years. I do acoustic shows and I play with the E Street Band and Bruce, I play with Neil Young, but not my own music. So, I made an album a year ago called Blue with Lou, and it featured six songs I wrote with the great Lou Reed, who sadly we lost. The band that made that record [includes] Andy Newmark on drums, Kevin McCormick on bass and Cindy Mizell one of the main singers.
FG: I love her voice.
NL: Amy and I would go see Bruce when he had the Seeger sessions, that kind of Dixieland, folk band he took on the road. Cindy was one of the singers and we got to befriend her. Then Cindy and I worked together on hundreds of shows on the Wrecking Ball tour, Magic, Working on a Dream… so we’re old friends. I wanted to go out and play electric for the first time in 17 years and it was exciting that everyone that made the album [Blue with Lou] said, “Yes,” because usually you can’t get all those people. I warned them, ‘We’re going to be playing little clubs, staying in small hotel chains but everyone has their own room, we got a bus for us and the crew, we’re going to live together and travel around for five weeks or so,’ and everyone was game. As opposed to a lot of the bigger tours that all these people have been on, there was an earthiness. And, the idea came up to make a live record and I said, ‘No recording, I just want to enjoy being in a band again with an electric guitar, do a lot of jamming, and keep it informal.’ But just before we left Amy again said, “Please. Just record the shows. I know you don’t plan on making a live record, please record them.” And we did. Thankfully. We really jammed a lot and had a lot of fun…
FG: It sounds like there was room for everyone to have fun. How did it evolve through the tour?
I said, ‘Cindy, in addition to the harmonies please improvise. Don’t talk to me on the bus about it later for the next night, do it right on the spot.’ So, you hear Cindy just going off and adding stuff. It was like having a whole other instrument. And Andy, Kevin, Tommy and I have toured hundreds of shows together through the decades. It was a combination of freshness and freedom because I don’t coach people what to play, just be you and surprise me.
We hit a really great groove and afterwards Matt [Bittman] sent me some rough mixes and I realized, ‘Man, I’m sloppy and having too much fun, but there’s a great vibe here and we probably ought to share this.’ And that coincided with covid. I had a year and a half of work. I was going to go work for months with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. I was going to try to get the Weather band out at the end of the year and then Bruce and The E Street band were talking about going out all next year and it all went poof and disappeared because of the pandemic. So, I felt like it was even more important to get a double cd of this live, joyous tour out to share and I’m so glad Amy insisted we record it.
FG: Girl in Motion. That one is my favorite.
NL: Yeah it’s a hilarious story.
FG: I heard it on the album! I would recommend our readers listen to that story. Spoiler alert, Ringo Starr plays a big part in it. Let’s go to Bruce’s album Letter to You featuring The E Street Band. It looks like it was so much fun making it. Is it fun playing with Bruce? And, how much do you rehearse?
NL: Usually when we’ve made records Bruce would cut the basic track with the rhythm section and then we’d all come down one at a time and add ideas and he would work on the jigsaw puzzle when we were all gone and assemble it all with a great producer. This time was very different because I think the last time they [recorded an album all together at the same time] was way back to Darkness on the Edge of Town in the late 70s. But this time Bruce, out of the blue, wrote a collection of songs for the E Street Band. It was something he was wondering if he could do or not. Of course, I never doubted. All of a sudden he had the songs so the idea became more serious. I remember talking to Roy Bitten who said, “I had lunch with Bruce in New York City and he said he just wrote a whole album of songs for us. Nils, I said ‘Bruce, please don’t send us demos.’” Because when Bruce makes a demo, he’s such a brilliant musician it doesn’t matter what he’s playing. He’ll get on a keyboard, a tambourine… his instincts and abilities are so much better than people think that you get a demo and if there’s a slide guitar I’ll think to myself, ‘Hey, learn that part.’ You change it a little bit and add your own thing, but it’s based on a theme from a master musician. Roy’s point was, ‘Let’s start from scratch.’ For whatever reasons Bruce was ready for this. He got us all together at the same time and there were no demos, no rehearsal and [he didn’t] send us songs. Nothing. We walked in completely cold with notepads, much like we do on the road. It was like that. We’d be at a soundcheck and Bruce would have something we’d never heard so everyone gets their pad and pencil and he goes off mike and goes through it and we’re all writing notes. We get our little chord chart and map and that’s the rehearsal.
It was very intense but freeing because we’re all together so I wasn’t wondering, ‘What should I do to allow room for Stevie and Bruce?’ I hear what they’re playing so I instantly pick the third idea I hear. Meanwhile we have a map that Bruce just sang to us, so when we start playing together instantly you get ideas. Steve has done this with the band longest of anybody like, “Hey, maybe that chorus should be double there,” or “Maybe that solo should be out.”
The thing I love about Bruce is rather than talk it through and analyze it with words he said, “Let’s hear it!” Immediately you hear something and then instantly you know how you feel about it. If there’s a great idea and we’re all split, of course Bruce is the bottom line because he’s got to sing it. But it was very efficient that way and organic. I’m playing acoustic rhythm a lot. I love playing rhythm guitar because usually Stevie and Bruce are on electric, but there’s a couple of songs I was like, ‘I don’t know what I need to do, but this is not it.’ Meanwhile the band’s going on trying things hoping within 20 to 30 minutes we’re recording. I’m producing my own part internally as everyone is. These guys are so good nobody has bad musical ideas. I try to keep my mouth shut most of the time and really focus on what I’m doing and whether or not I should use another instrument, another voicing… get happy with what I’m contributing.
Along the way Bruce would give us ideas. We’d be doing something and he would just look over at me and point to the pedal steel guitar, or point to the dobro, like, “Let’s try another sound in there.” It’s much like that, but it’s very organic and the fact that we’re all together made it remarkably quick and effective and emotional, and for us very joyous. It’s very intense, but once you get to the point where you say “Okay that’s our arrangement,” Bruce will go, “Maybe we should listen because we’re close.” Then when you listen without your instrument on and focus on the big picture as a listener and how your part fits. We all get some final ideas, like, ‘I’m going to play less there… let’s uh double this part…’. We go out and do it, and next thing you know it’s done. It was very exciting and I hope there’s more of it down the road but I don’t want to get too greedy, I’ll just be happy we got a new record out.
FG: Could you talk a little about Neil Young? You played piano on Gold Rush, an iconic part on an iconic album, when piano wasn’t your thing. Were you expecting it to be so classic? And, how would you compare Neil to Bruce?
We [Grin] were making our way as a professional band writing songs, looking for a record deal. We struck out in New York with some auditions, we made a plan to go to Los Angeles. Not knowing anything about the music business I try to sneak backstage at shows and ask musicians for advice because I knew nothing. I was a big fan of the Buffalo Springfield, went down to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse on their first tour at the Cellar Door in Washington DC. On the upper stairway around the side of the building there was a dressing room [with] very little security. I would usually go in there and ask for advice and I walked in on Neil and Crazy Horse on their first tour. Neil had a Martin guitar and I said, ‘Look, I’m sorry to interrupt, I’ve got this band, I’m 17, I don’t know what I’m doing but we’re trying to have a go of it. We’re going to LA in a few weeks. I’m so excited to see you play and could I get some advice.’ Some of the guys in crazy horse who are dear friends of mine now said, “Ah, go to New York kid,” like that’s the advice… get out of here. I said, ‘We went to New York, we struck out. We’re going to LA.’ And Neil said, “Well, you have any songs?” and I said, ‘Yeah, I write songs.” So, he handed me his Martin, and said, “Sing me a song.” I sang one. He said, “That’s really good. Sing another,” and I sang about five songs. He said, “Man, those are really good songs. Why don’t you spend a couple days with us?” and Elliot Roberts said, “Come on I’ll get you a cheeseburger and coke and a table.” I watched four shows over two nights and spent the afternoons with Neil at the hotel.
When they left town he called me from the road and stayed in touch with me. My band got out to LA and true to his word he took us under his wing. [He] turned us on to David Briggs and I moved in with David, my greatest mentors of all, those two. As Grin was making our rocky way with David Briggs looking for a record deal, I saw Neil a few times a week. [He] would come and play with my band and they became friends, like older brother mentor type friends.
A year later I was 18 years old and David warned me, “You’re gonna get a big call from Neil.” [Neil called and]
said, “I’m making an album After the Gold Rush, I want you to play guitar, sing and play some piano.” I said, ‘I’m not a professional piano player.’ But they knew my musical history, saw my pictures looking like a dork winning an accordion contest and said, “We just need some very simple rhythmic parts and we think you can handle it, so we’d like you to do this,” and at that point I just shut up and said, ‘Yes, thank you.’
I practiced all the time. I was nervous and worried because these were my first professional sessions as a piano player. Looking back what I see is Greg Reeves was playing down low, deep in a pocket, but adding a lot of color and with Ralphie the drummer and myself on the piano very simple in the middle with a lot of space it had a great vibe, with Neil on top. Any other piano player, the great piano players, none of them could have stood playing as simple as I did. They would have been bored and fallen asleep, but I was so challenged and so into it and creative with my simplicity and had an affinity and a love for the music, and it all worked out. That was an extraordinary break and opportunity at 18 to make that record.
I was at that point good friends with Crazy Horse, I joined [them] to make the first Crazy Horse album featuring Danny Whitton, Neil’s right-hand man and a great singer and songwriter in his own right. Then tragically Danny went and died on us, awful! All of a sudden, all our heroes and friends were dying, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Danny. We make this wake album called Tonight’s The Night, live in the studio. A very dark record commiserating this dark chapter. In the 80s we took the Trans album on the road. [In the] mid-90s I did MTV Unplugged with Neil. Most recently we did the Colorado album last year and I’ve been playing with Crazy Horse the last two years. So, half a century.
FG: What is he like as a boss?
NL: He’s great! He has a great sense of humor, he’s very brilliant. I think [he and] Bruce are quite similar in the sense [that] he doesn’t like to over rehearse things. I think, in a small way, Neil may like things to be even more rough and frenetic but they both love improv, they don’t like micromanaging people that play with them. They’re just like, “Do whatever you want.”
Case in point, when we were out the last seven shows we did with Neil, we always vocal rehearse, we sing together which is really bonding and cool before a show. Very similar to Bruce, Neil will write you a set list that you know you will not follow, but it gives you an idea of what they’re thinking before a show. You know you won’t follow it so you’re always paying attention. Taking the live thing a step further, Neil doesn’t even have monitors on the floor, he just has a big sound system on the side of the stage. It’s almost like you’re playing in a room with the sound system and you’re all hearing the same thing.
We were doing the vocal rehearsal in Winnipeg and a half hour before a show Neil’s like, “You know guys, I don’t even feel like writing a set list. Let’s just walk out there and play whatever comes to mind for two hours.” [Laughter] That can only happen with a group with that kind of history, love of the music, understanding of each other and confidence in each other. So there’s a lot more similarities than differences between Bruce and Neil. Two of the greatest writers we’ll ever have and two people that love a reckless live show that’s unique every night and never repeat it again.
FG: I read somewhere that Bruce choreographs his shows down to the minute.
NL: That’s a generalization with a lot of inaccuracies. I’m always improvising [for example] I never play “Badlands” the same twice. People are like, “No, you played it the same every night.” I never played it the same. Of course, when you play “Born to Run,” when you get to the lick, you play the lick [sings the lick] but then the rhythms you improvise. Much like that there’s some set things Bruce may do, like he’ll body surf out to the middle or get a singalong going, but the shows are very reckless. They’re never the same twice.
[Another example, Bruce] would slide across the stage into Clarence’s arms and they give each other a kiss, that might be choreographed. The choreography would have been, “Catch me before I go off the stage, instead of whacking me up the side of the head kiss me like you did last night,” [laughter]. In that sense it’s choreographed.
FG: I understand that you also admire Keith Richards.
NL: More than admire. Certainly one of the all-time inspiring figures in my life. Growing up as a guitarist you had Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, BB King, and Albert King. For composing rhythmic, thematic playing you’ve got Keith Richards, Pete Townsend and George Harrison… giants. They wrote as they play. Keith in particular. To this day Keith is underrated because when he writes all those songs he’s creating thematic composing and yes, he’ll go off and play lead, and play that quite brilliantly, but his real gift is playing thematic rhythm as a composer creating the riffs that make songs like “Jumping Jack Flash” or “Brown Sugar.” They would be completely different animals without Keith and the way he hears things like that. There’s been no greater inspiration as far as a guitar player/songwriter.
Back on the Tonight’s the Night Tour a lot of musicians showed up talking about Keith Richards and they were worried about his health. I had this musical riff, kind of a dark rock riff, and I wrote a song called “Keith, Don’t Go.” It was a way of saying in more of a dramatic fashion, ‘You know you’re bringing a musical message to millions of people, please take care of yourself and keep healing us.’ I’ve had a chance to meet Keith through the years, he’s been incredibly kind and gracious and he remains to this day as great an inspiration musically as I’ve ever had.
FG: What’s next for you?
NL: Well, Fredda, I’ve had a bit of the blues lately. I had a year and a half of work taken away and I’ve spent half my life on the road preparing for a show for you, or somebody. Also, my wife Amy and I go out a lot to hear music and have people sing for us, so that all went away and I really haven’t gotten my sea legs. I feel a little unhappy about my lack of discipline with the exercise and practicing and this and that. What I will do is put on an electric guitar, little blues sound, a little distortion and on my phone I’ll play Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Albert King, Bruce, Neil, anybody, just play the blues. Just for a half hour, 20 minutes here and there. Now that this pandemic is indefinite and no work is coming back, my next step is to challenge myself to write another record. I have leftover songs from my last studio record Blue with Lou that I can start with, I have ideas in my notebook that are incomplete, so that’s my next big job. And start taking better care of myself. Amy is cooking brilliant food, gardens organic and tries to keep us healthy as we wait all this out.
But the much darker cloud I’ve been living under, more ominous than that, I feel like we’ve been living in a terrible racist dictatorship here in America and it’s really upset me. It’s moral treason on a daily basis in a country I love, with a lot of beauty, and a lot of soul, and a lot of problems we should be working on and we’re working to exacerbate the problems and make it who we are. It’s really got me down. We’re struggling with keeping a handle on that emotional disease and we’re doing everything we can. Amy’s on Twitter, she’s a fierce resistance fighter. I chime in and I talk to people and try to convince people of what’s really going on. That’s an ominous cloud that we hope to lift soon and I expect it’ll be a giant battle.
Back in 1968 Grin played at some of the Martin Luther King rallies down in Washington D.C. and I have to say it was a beautiful, brilliant thing to participate in and I’d look around and I would see white faces, but there weren’t enormous amounts of them. Recently, when George Floyd, rest his soul, was murdered in the street, to see hundreds of thousands of young white kids out there saying, “This is wrong,” it was really heartening to me. And I have to believe that despite Fox News brainwashing everybody, and I understand it’s just entertainment and spin, but at some point they’ve said, “We care more about a dictatorship and money than the constitution or humanity itself.” And, with climate change and all these dictators not caring about people, or their lives, or health, we become an endangered species. As I’ve said, fame can become a mental illness, well, money and greed and power have become a mental illness that has infected our entire government and we just have to replace them and start over.
FG: You can see how a civil war can happen.
NL: I think we’re in a civil war in some respects where truth doesn’t matter and there’s so much cruelty and meanness and it’s in the name of Donald Trump and the GOP and they tell us all, “You’re imagining things, get over it.” Something that really is scary to me is when the head of the FBI, that’s a republican appointed by Trump, says our number one terrorist threat is white supremacy and then Tucker Carlson gets on and says [swiping his hand], “Ah, that’s fake news, ignore that.” Do all those people just ignore it? Why? Didn’t you think that maybe you should listen to this man? It’s scary stuff. Like I say, it’s moral treason on a daily basis and we gotta get some truth back and turn it around. Shame on all these people, but they’ve bought into it, lost their souls to this, and they’re going for it. So I’m praying that enough people get out to vote.
Just a few months ago my wife came out of the salon in like a strip mall with 40 little shops and two women came at her and yelled at her for having a mask on, and the sign says, “Please wear a mask.” Amy took issue with it and they got up and came at her and said, “You better get that mask off. You’re going to get in trouble wearing it, get the hell out of here.” She got the manager who said, “I can’t do anything it’s just a suggestion.” Being the fierce warrior she is, she outed their shop on social media and said this is what these people are doing. She went back [to the salon] a few weeks later and to be safe she took a licensed, armed, six foot four ex-marine licensed to carry with a loaded weapon. He walked her in, put a chair right at the door and sat there, walked her back to her car and waved. That’s not an America I want to live in. And these people are Americans, and they have a vote. Joe Biden’s right, you have to find a way to police truth.
FG: Thank you for your time. It was great speaking with you and I feel like we could go on for hours.
NL: Thanks to your audience and the readers. I’ve been on the road 52 years last month and I’ve had this brilliant life and 99 percent of it is because of the audience and the people that show up. Like I said, music’s our sacred weapon. Pick up your sword, whatever it is. I don’t care if it’s a stethoscope or a fire truck, pick it up and start swinging and keep swinging for democracy and let’s start healing the planet.