By Christopher Phillips
After several years on the road with the E Street Band, Nils Lofgren has had some time to himself since the spring — and he's been making the most of it. After releasing an immense, career-spanning box set, the ten-disc Face the Music, he's now gearing up for a January U.K. tour greatly anticipated by fans across the pond.
"My home is on stage — with the band or with a buddy, or alone," Nils tells Backstreets. "It doesn't matter if there's 300 people or 30,000, to me. Every show day, especially these last few years as I've gotten older, I wake up with an even greater excitement and gratitude for the chance that night to go out. I look at it the same way with Bruce, even though, obviously, he's the bandleader and does the heavy lifting. Of course, as we all know with the E Street Band, we've got a great singer with great songs, and he always brings his A game, so that's another plus. But it doesn't matter if you're tired, on show day it's like, these people came for me to be good. So have a double espresso and walk out in front of 30,000 people yelling at you — or 300 people yelling at you and for you and rooting for you — and bang, the adrenaline occurs."
So beginning January 8 in Milton Keynes, that's the plan, for a 16-date run in England and Scotland along with multi-instrumentalist Greg Varlotta. Visit nilslofgren.com for the complete itinerary.
"My own shows, between singing and playing, are a bit more physically challenging," the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer says, noting that despite the epic length of E Street shows, he's not singing lead all night. "I'm excited to do them and get that under my belt — to feel like, 'Okay, I'm 63, I'm doing my own shows again. The people like it. I did a decent job.' That's my next goal. And then I'll just keep working until, if, and when there's another chapter for E Street — which, right now, there are no plans I'm aware of. You know, there's no point in belaboring it. After Born in the U.S.A., my first run, I was like, 'Wow, if that never happens again, that was a wondrous, once-in-a-lifetime thing.'"
Of course, that was 30 years and nine E Street Band tours ago. "All in all," says Nils of his performing career, "it's been 46 years as of September, and I'll take as many more as I can get."
"Right now, another big focus is to get back to writing songs," he says, "because [when the E Street Band is on tour] I'm so immersed in our songs, the E Street songs Bruce wrote, that I just don't try to do two things. Now, in addition to getting back to playing myself, it's exciting to start writing, see what comes out again, and hope to get another record made in the next year or so."
So a ten-disc box isn't enough? That doesn't count?
Nils laughs. "That counts as a release, yeah." And after its initial run quickly sold out, Face the Music is available again. The deluxe set numbered and signed by Nils provides quite the history lesson for anyone less familiar with what Nils has been doing himself this last half-century or so — outside of his lauded work with Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and others — and a goldmine for everyone waiting for this music to come back into print.
Let's talk about the box. I'm excited to look at this thing with you — it's a beast!
Yeah. It's funny, I could talk about any of the bands I've been in all day long, and I've been blessed to be in a lot. But it's a momentous thing, after having so much of my old music out of print, to have a company, Fantasy-Concord, that wanted to go back and let me handpick the best of 45 years and get it out in a ten-disc set. Nine discs and a DVD — I'm thrilled about it.
Concord's putting this out. On the box, there's also a Rhino logo and a Universal logo. I can only imagine what you had to navigate to get all this music in one place.
That's part of why it blows my mind that this exists. Because over the years, I called the old companies and offered them five bucks a record to get some copies of old records out of print and they always said no. So yeah, that's one of the things that was tricky. It was an 18-month project once we green lit it. And for [Concord] to go back and get every track I picked… just mind-blowing.
Early on, the original president, Gene Rumsey, and Tom Cartwright, an old A&R friend who was working on the project and brought it to me with Gene, they agreed that if we were gonna do this, it had to be comprehensive. Their real concern was trying to go back and get every old track we wanted — that's the logos you're talking about.
I think four of the nine CDs technically had to be made by the other companies! They don't have a lot of faith in each other, so they're like, "We'll make the deal, we'll charge you, we'll print them and send them to you so we know exactly what you've got." Then of course, 20 years ago, I went my own way, so songs from the last 20 years compiled just came from me.
But those first 25 years… that's a lot of red tape to go through.
It is. It was an enormous project. I've got to hand it to Fantasy and Concord, they stayed true and worked out some deals with labels that were not easy. They beat each other up, too [laughs]. Also, had critical help from [music attorney] Scott Johnson and [manager] Tom Goldfogle.
It's worth dwelling on what an accomplishment that is. The first time that you and I talked for Backstreets was 13 or 14 years ago, and I remember we spent a good bit of time talking about your frustrations with so much of your old material out of print. Wasn't it Wonderland — didn't Backstreet Records [no relation] declare bankruptcy pretty soon after that thing came out? All the things that you've had to deal with, trying to make that music available again to fans… and finally it's like, "Ah, here it all is," you know?
Yeah, for a long time I had to accept it — because I did the legwork, and the answer was always no. I investigated a right-to-work clause, and basically discovered, no, if they want you extinct, that's their prerogative, based on what you signed 40 years ago, or 45 years ago. And that's not a unique story. Anyone that doesn't have hit records, I'm sure — there are a lot of artists that have similar stories. They kept working and wanted to access their old works that were out of print.
Southside has stories like that to tell.
Yeah, I mean, it's a standard thing. In terms of Wonderland, that record was so special to me; but my buddy Danny Bramson, who brought me to Backstreet, was being fired. The guy who took over, Irving Azoff — I called him specifically to ask, "Can you let me go? I'm sure you're under pressure to dump acts that don't make you money." And he was like, "No, you're gonna be great here. We'll give it an A-plus treatment." And they'd already put me on the list to drop me.
I just bumped into Irving. He runs the Eagles, he's a huge mogul but we get along alright. It's just kind of part of the business we're in, you know? I have a cynical outlook at it, borne of experience, and that's why I went my own way. Which is great, and I don't begrudge anybody success, and I get that the music business is to make money. I get that. But sometimes when you have a personal conversation with someone, all you're asking for is the truth. I was ready for it to be disappointing. I was like, "Yeah, I get it, let me take this record I love and find another company and give you your money back, that's all." But you don't always get the straight answers.
The bureaucracy of it got to be so maddening; that's why, when I got off of my last deal in '94 or '95, I just said, "You know what? Thanks to technology, I'm gonna go my own way." I'll probably get back to that after this box set, but to have this thing done and out, and have a company that wants to promote it with me and let me put together something we're proud of, 18 months of work… it was really fun, you know?
Picking your best 169 tracks — tell me about that selection process. How difficult was that? How fun was that?
Because so much of it was out of print, first I had to get a notebook out for the project, to assemble every song I ever put out. Most box sets, the hook is the bonus tracks, because most of the fans have everything. But in my case, a lot of the fans were always like, "Hey, can I get your second Grin album? Can I get your second solo album? Where can I get this?" (That's why I had gone to the old companies and wanted to give them five bucks a CD, so they can make some money, and they said no.) Anyway, I got every title down in the notebook, and I started reviewing it all.
I wanted to put together songs that right now, today, I could listen to front to back, and not get up off the couch and move the needle, figuratively or otherwise, to skip a track or two. So I had some healthy arguments with Tom Cartwright [credited on the box as Executive Producer] — not really arguments, just debates about what to leave on and off. And in the end — it was amazing — they always deferred to me.
But there were a couple tracks that Tom convinced me to put on. One was "Drunken Driver," Neil Young was playing guitar. It's such a powerful, dark song that it's almost disturbing to listen to. It's a very disturbing story. Because, myself, I'm 26 years clean and sober. I wrote it on a bullet train in Japan with the E Street Band. It was just so disturbing, I was gonna leave it off, and then Tom lobbied to get it on, and he had a good point. So that wound up on. Things like that.
But it was just mostly me hand-picking everything, and then getting some good feedback from Fantasy-Concord Records, and at the end of the day, I made the final decisions. My wife would chime in with a request or two — Amy was our executive art director. We all looked at hundreds of pictures. Truly, my wife was lobbying for that picture we used, which is a crazy black and white, but it's a very rock 'n' roll-type picture.
Yeah! This was in '67, I had a band called The Shot. We all frizzed our hair, a la Jimi Hendrix, and we were a power trio, cover band. We did Hendrix and Cream, basically. You know, we'd do "Smokestack Lightning"…
Was that in D.C.?
That was in Washington, D.C. and Maryland, and that picture came from them. We looked at hundreds of decent pictures. I hate photo shoots, and I'm not really good as a poser — live is where I get the best shots. But man, this thing had a vibe to it.
My wife, who really lobbied for the picture, and Abbey Anna, the original artwork director, came up with the idea — all these boxes are dark. They're black, or they're deep blue, or deep brown, and with a kind of historic library look to it. She said, "Well, with a startling picture like this, what if it's all white?" We debated a lot of ideas and that one won, and I think it was the right choice.
The booklet is really fascinating — lots of color, unlike the cover. And lots of memorabilia and liner notes.
We spent months going through pictures, editing things. We turned our home upside down, and God bless Amy, she really deserves production credit. Abbey Anna left the company and the new art director, Nancy Given, who's wonderful, too — she's in Boston… Fantasy-Concord's in L.A., I'm in Scottsdale. So it needed a lot of long distance phone calls and real time conversations, looking at things, moving things around, to eventually get this 136-page booklet together.
You originally wanted to have Dave Marsh write the liners, but he insisted that you do it yourself.
Yeah — other than Dave's foreword, I wrote it all, and Dave edited it. He'll tell you, he tried to stay hands-off as he could with editing, and he never changed the intent. As I wrote and Dave edited, we talked a lot about it and signed off together on the story.
And you pretty much go song by song.
Yeah. I do a brief history from age five. It's a musical story, from age five on the accordion in Chicago, up to when Grin finally hits the road and gets a record deal. Briefly, I run out to L.A. and hook up with David Briggs and Neil Young, and that led to our first signing with Clive Davis. So Grin got our start, and then I really speak to every song.
A lot of the songs just have a little paragraph about what I was thinking at the time, and other songs will lead to long stories that are very colorful and fun. Dave was right: it reads a lot better, it's a much more exciting box set and story, because it's in my own voice.
Meanwhile, while you're writing, they're still working on the audio side. Were masters tough to track down?
Well, that's the thing. We tried to go back — Fantasy tried to get the analog whenever possible, and we got some of it. Not as much as we'd hoped for, but Billy Wolf, the mastering engineer, is a genius. He's got all these analog machines and tricks to work with CDs if you have to. So, it was a real mix of getting some analog tapes, and then some instead of whatever the high res is, 192, we got the 96 — which is still better than a CD. And then, in some cases, maddeningly, the companies would be like, "Well, we own your music. We wouldn't sell it to you in the past, now we're gonna make a deal with your company… but we lost it. We can't find it." It's funny, you get to that place where a company from 42 years ago says, "Well, we lost all the paperwork, and we lost your music."
So Billy would have to go get CDs. And then there were different releases of CDs, and Billy would have to analyze which one was the best to master off of. I mean, it was deep, on every front.
Is everything remastered?
Everything has been remastered, every single song. I've worked with Billy Wolf for 20 years; he's a musician and an extraordinary engineer and mastering engineer. He mixed a couple of my records — he mixed the Nils Sings Neil: The Loner album, he mastered Old School, he mixed Sacred Weapon — and mastered them. I just needed somebody — early on, I got Fantasy to sign off on that — somebody that I knew, that I trusted, that knew my music and knew my history to really put this all together. Because it's five decades of sound and music, and it all has to flow. I didn't want to put out every record I ever made, and that wasn't the idea. The idea was to take the best stuff.
The songs that didn't make it: I don't think they're bad, I just think that they're not giving me an emotional hit today. Much like a show, people say, "Why didn't you play that song?" and I'd say, "Well, I wasn't emotionally committed to it tonight."
Right. Part of the fun of a box like this, part of the value, is that, these days there's so much media to consume that one of the best things you can have is a good curator. Somebody to go through and say, "Well, here's what you should watch, here's what you should listen to." To me, it's a thrill to be presented with these as your choices for the best of the past five decades.
Yeah, and I got a lot of good feedback from Concord-Fantasy — Tom Cartwright and the other people that were familiar with my career chimed in — from Billy Wolf, friends, my wife. There were a bunch of people who would just be like, "Hey, you're not gonna leave off this song, are you?" That kind of thing.
I've got one, myself. When Gerry Goffin died earlier this year, we posted the video of you playing "Goin' Back."
Right, from The Old Grey Whistle Test.
That is such a great performance. I'm sure some people don't even know what a good piano player you are.
Thanks, man. Really, I owe a lot of that — I was just kind of tinkering around on the piano as an accordion player, and it was the After the Gold Rush sessions where Neil [Young] and David [Briggs] said, "We want you to sing, play guitar, and play a little piano." And I said, "Well, I'm not a professional piano player." They said, "You've won contests and studied classical accordion for 10 years, right?" I said, "Yeah," and they said, "Well, we need some simple parts, and we're confident you'll be able to find them." They had more faith in me than I would have, so thank God for them. That was a crash course in piano, and then again in '73 with the Tonight's The Night tour where I played a lot of piano and electric guitar. It led to me looking at it as a voice a little more and more on my own records.
Did you consider "Goin' Back" for the box?
Yeah, we did. There were just so many great songs that I wanted to keep the covers to a minimum; that's one that arguably should've been on there and wasn't. But there are probably 100 songs we left off. You're right, that one probably should've been on there… but hindsight is 20/20.
I was glad to see "Valentine" on here — not only because Bruce is on it, it's just a fantastic song. I don't think you and I have ever talked about it. Can you tell me how that song came together?
After Born in the U.S.A., I went on the road with the Flip band; that album had come out in the middle of the E Street tour. I was in England mixing the Code of the Road live album, me and Tim Foster, my sound man. On the eve of Valentine's Day, I wrote the song. Tim and I made a demo there that night, and we sent it around to stations in London, and of course it was Valentine's Day, and it got massive airplay. Just kind of on a lark, I did a solo acoustic show with a percussionist, Jody Linscott; it was a big theater in England, and it was sold out — based on airplay of that demo.
A couple years later, I'm in L.A. and I'm recording it, and I asked Bruce to sing the harmony. That was a more official version for the Silver Lining album, and it came out great — and it made the cut on the boxed set.
So many moving parts for this thing — that was originally on Ryko, wasn't it?
Yeah. If it wasn't my boxed set, I could've never done this work. It was funny, because early on, I started getting a little cranky: "Man, this is like 15 or 20 hours of music to plough through, to get it down to 12!" But then I'm like, "Dude, it's your boxed set. This music's out of print. Stop whining and do your work."
You know, I long ago accepted that I really have no patience for recording in the studio. I find it because I'm a professional, and I've gotten good at finding it, but my natural gift is to be preparing for a show and doing a show. That's where I thrive. It doesn't matter how hurt or tired I am — I'm your guy. I'm a guy who's just gonna be down in it from the time I wake up 'til after the show, and take great comfort and reward in giving some people a great live experience, which is what I'm best at, of all the things I do, and most enjoy. The only downside is, you've got to leave home to do it.
So making records is hard work. But hey, if you can't get yourself excited about a boxed set of music that's been extinct — and for years, I had to accept that most of this music was extinct and would never see the light of day again— then you're not gonna get excited about anything.
So what did you most enjoy about it?
It was really an extraordinary adventure on every level, but the meat of it for me was: I'm sitting here with notebooks of songs, 45 years of hard work, of things I've written, big screens of pictures, strolls down memory lane, looking for pictures of, like, Terry Magovern, who was like a brother to me, and a father to my wife and son. Just getting to do that: like a Sherlock Holmes digging deep for all these elements, getting them and getting them right. Having it done and in your hand is really almost shocking to me.
It is shocking, especially in the age we're living in. I mean, you've already talked about leaving the majors behind and doing your own thing, using social media and digital downloads and all that — yet here you've got not only physical product on a label, but also one of the biggest boxed sets that I know of. It's kind of astounding that that's happening in 2014.
We all see the history now of people, if they're lucky, they get a second album if they don't have a hit. That's it. Here I am, I'm not bragging or proud of it, but I've had 45 years of recording without a hit record. I look at the liaisons on the record with extraordinary numbers of musicians, and even the testimonials were so touching to me, that so many people wanted to participate and chime in with a little remembrance or plug. It was kind of startling and beautiful.
You've got great contributions in the booklet from Neil Young, from Roger Daltrey…
And Elvis Costello, who really gave us a long piece about first hearing Grin as a songwriter way back to "Like Rain" in the early days.
If putting all this together was an ongoing project for 18 months, were you able to be doing some it while you were on the road with High Hopes? Or would you have to use your down time between stretches of shows?
Well, as opposed to writing a song — which takes a deeper kind of commitment and can get me away from the E Street work, it's hard for me to do on the road — this was mostly just a lot of notebook tech details. Before the tour started, I had done most of the song research and picked the titles, and really had that locked down. So then the rest was kind of fun — just like which of these three pictures is best, editing text with Dave Marsh — it was great. And at some point, you need to take a break from studying the E Street music. So without taking away from the work at hand, I chipped away at it every day in my spare time and we got it all done.
Thirty years with the E Street Band for you this year — and finally Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, too. I thought it was really powerful when Bruce was inducting you guys, relating that conversation with Steve in the kitchen about the importance of the band. My impression was that Steve was not expecting Bruce to tell that story, and that Bruce was clearly pretty choked up by the whole thing.
Yeah. I think it choked Steve up, too, and I thought it was a really beautiful moment of honesty that Bruce chose to share with the world… hats off to both of them.
You say there are no E Street plans right now. Any sense of what the future holds?
It's funny, we saw Billy Joel recently, and he was wonderful. Most of his crew used to work with us, and they're dear old friends, and it was a great night for me and my wife. You know the way Billy Joel plays Madison Square Garden, right? He plays once a month. He plays enough shows to give the crew a full time job, and that's what he's doing now. He might sell out Madison Square Garden forever.
Well, as a bandmate and fan who's happily worked as hard as I have for 30 years on E Street, I'd love to see us work more, of course. But Bruce has blessed our planet with his music and does the heavy lifting. So I have great respect for whatever he needs to do for himself and his family. But again, as a longtime member and fan, I would certainly hope for and welcome another E Street Band chapter down the road.
Interview by Christopher Phillips; event photography by Michael Zorn. The ten-disc Face the Music box is available now from Backstreet Records. The forthcoming Backstreets #92 will have more talk with Nils: looking back at the High Hopes tour, working with Tom Morello, and more. Visit Lofgren's website at nilslofgren.com.