Nils Lofgren pays tribute to Neil Young

By  Peter Lindblad

Nils Lofgren recorded The Loner using the Martin D-18 acoustic guitar Neil Young gave him after sessions for Young's album After The Gold Rush were finished. Photo: Mark Hendrickson.

Nils Lofgren recorded The Loner using the Martin D-18 acoustic guitar Neil Young gave him after sessions for Young’s album After The Gold Rush were finished. Photo: Mark Hendrickson.
Neil Young was asking a lot of Nils Lofgren, being that it was Lofgren’s first real session work.

It wasn’t enough that Lofgren, only a teenager at the time, had been invited to help Young — already an established star — realize his vision for After The Gold Rush.

Young also wanted Lofgren to do something he wasn’t comfortable doing.

“I think I was nervous because I… was asked to play piano, and I wasn’t a piano player,” explains Lofgren. “And I was a little startled by that, but Neil and David (Briggs, Young’s producer) both felt that due to my 10 years of classical accordion study I would have no problem picking out simple piano parts.”

Young and Briggs’ instincts were dead on, and Lofgren’s lovely piano sketches, not to mention his stunning guitar work, added poignancy to an already emotionally honest and reflective After The Gold Rush, with its faded and frayed country-folk meditations on matters of the heart.

Ever thankful for the opportunity, Lofgren is repaying the favor with a tribute album of quiet, off-the-cuff covers of some of Young’s greatest songs on Lofgren’s sparse new record, The Loner. He recorded it while on Christmas break from last winter’s Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band tour.

It was Lofgren’s manager, Anson Smith, who came up with the idea, and Lofgren decided to do it in the most stark, up-close-and-personal way possible: at home, with just a guitar or a piano to accompany his expressive vocals.

“I spent a couple weeks singing 25 or 30 songs of Neil’s without recording anything — no production, just literally woke up in the morning, sang for a few hours to my dogs and cats, and after two weeks, it seemed like some of the songs stopped sounding like good karoake and made a transition into something more special.”

That magical transformation continued when Lofgren went into the studio.

“Once I felt like I had a dozen or so of those, then I turned on the tape machines and went out into the studio, set everything up, and I also realized that the only chance this had of working was if it was completely live — no production, no overdubbing, just me and one instrument doing the performance,” relates Lofgren. “And with that as the rules, I came up with 15 songs that felt right.”

Lofgren has always tried to do right by the people he’s worked with, whether it was Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen, or the band he started out with, Grin.

That goes back all the way to his Topanga Canyon days, when Lofgren and Washington D.C.’s Grin, were trying to get somebody out in Los Angeles to take notice of their no-frills, working-class rock ’n’ roll.

Young and his producer, David Briggs, had, and Briggs “… kind of took us under his wing,” remembers Lofgren. Little did Lofgren know then what lay ahead for him.

Before Lofgren’s California gold rush, back in the nation’s capitol, just as Grin was about to head to the West Coast, Lofgren went to see Young and Crazy Horse play the Cellar Door on their first tour. Lofgren took a chance and ducked backstage to meet Young.

“[I] started asking a lot of questions, and fortunately, Neil handed me a guitar and let me sing some songs for him that I’d written — basically, most of the first Grin record, which was a couple of years away from being recorded,” says Lofgren. “And the next thing I knew, I had a cheeseburger and a Coke and a table, and I watched four shows over two nights at the Cellar Door — spectacular shows — and spent the afternoon hanging out at the hotel with Neil.”

Three weeks later, Grin hit L.A., and Lofgren sought out Young and Briggs. Briggs took Lofgren into his home and would assume the role of producer for Grin, who had set up as house band at The Corral, a local bar in Topanga Canyon.

“David was Neil’s best friend, so, living with David, I saw Neil fairly regularly,” says Lofgren. “He came and jammed with my band.”

About a year after Lofgren arrived in California, his ship came in when Young recruited him for After The Gold Rush. Having become familiar with Young socially, Lofgren wasn’t intimidated about working with him. And yet, he was right to be apprehensive. Besides not knowing his way around a piano, Lofgren also didn’t have an acoustic guitar for the sessions.

“Neil lent me his Martin D-18 for the guitar parts I had to play, and he gave that guitar to me as a gift at the end of the sessions, which, of course, remains my most treasured guitar and was the only guitar, really, that I thought appropriate to record these live versions of his in a real intimate, stark setting,” says Lofgren.

Young, according to Lofgren, didn’t get into specifics regarding what he wanted from Lofgren on After The Gold Rush. For his part, Lofgren didn’t try to do too much.
“There was some simple direction, but, not to put words in his mouth, I think what he got was a musician that loved his music,” says Lofgren. “And so, I had an affinity for it, as far as melody and rhythm, also playing the piano, which was an unfamiliar instrument. I played very simple parts that, to me, were very engaging and creative, as opposed to maybe a virtuoso that had to be coached to play less.”

Playing those basic, solid rhythms and adapting his performance to the thematic whole of Young’s music, Lofgren found that he fit right in with the rest of the crew.
“We had Greg Reeves playing beautiful, colorful bass underneath, and Neil on top with his singing and guitar playing, or piano playing,” says Lofgren. “And Ralphie Molina, the drummer, and I were kind of the meat in the middle, playing very simple, solid parts, and it just all worked out.”

Recording After The Gold Rush the way they did went a long way to developing the sonic feel of the album.

“It was a great four-piece band that we had recording that record,” says Lofgren, “and most of the tracks were done live, and then we’d go in and sing some of harmony parts, and [it] was just a very easy, emotional record to record at his home up in the hills of Topanga.”

Ah, Topanga, a place of incredible natural beauty, surrounded by mountains and inhabited by a cross-section of seemingly disparate people that somehow made sense together and created an arts community that flourished.

“It was this beautiful community I got to grow up in, with David as kind of my mentor/big brother, and all his friends, too,” says a wistful Lofgren. “It was as much about life and living as it was about music, although that was the priority. Weekly softball games, barbecues and beer coolers… there was a strange, beautiful combination of a little bit of the hippie vibe mixed with like this redneck music thing.”

Off the grid and away from everyone, Young and his band worked on After The Gold Rush in his makeshift home studio.

“Under his porch, which overlooked all these beautiful hilltops, kind of this mountain-esque Topanga landscape way up high in those hills, there was this small, cozy, live recording room, and there was a little control panel room right next to it,” recalls Lofgren. “Just very small, very intimate and you know, we just played — jam for a few hours, take a break, you walk upstairs and you’re on this beautiful patio overlooking all these gorgeous Topanga hills.”

The creative environment, according to Lofgren, was casual, but also intense, “… because of the music. We played together, and it just sounded fresh.”

Much of the credit for that goes to Briggs, who died in 1995. Tough and protective of his musicians, Briggs was no corporate lackey.

“He always regularly asked the recording executives and managers to leave [the studio], ’cause they would be interested in talking business,” says Lofgren. “And he would be happy to burn every bridge with no consideration for his professional future [and] tell them that the studio was not a place for business. And they would disagree with him. And he’d tell them to get out. He’d throw them out, and he burned a lot of bridges doing that, and as musicians, we’d all smile or smirk under our red faces and gratefully did it.”

For The Loner, Lofgren called on his old friend, credited as co-producer on the record, to, once again, help him carry out an assignment that made him ill at ease.
“I kind of used David’s spirit to produce this record, ’cause I could never have done anything this live and raw, but it worked,” says Lofgren. “It’s just not my nature in the studio to do anything live. I love live recording. I learned a lot about it on the … Gold Rush and the Tonight’s The Night sessions, in particular. But David was kind of the champion of all that.”

With Briggs overseeing the project from the afterlife, Lofgren didn’t feel pressured to polish over every little mistake. “I tend to struggle with patience in the recording studio. So, what David’s spirit allowed me to do is forget that every once in a while my pick was banging on the guitar, forget every little nuance that might not have sounded technically perfect, which really doesn’t matter if the emotional content is there.”

And it is there on The Loner, which features two After The Gold Rush tracks, the pained “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and a gorgeous version of “Birds,” a song Lofgren often incorporates into his own acoustic live set lists.

For “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” Lofgren remembers, “Originally, I was on piano, and then Ralphie and I sang these high harmonies. I just remember the melodic content along with the lyric really struck me as powerful, and we recorded it, and then, of course, to get to sing on it with Ralphie, I just felt there was a similar haunting innocence to Neil’s voice and mine that made it easy to sing with him.”

Other classics like “I Am A Child,” “Long May You Run” and “Harvest Moon” can also be found on The Loner. Before recording the album, Lofgren sought Young’s blessing and got it. “He’s always been supportive,” says Lofgren.

Over the years, their partnership continued to grow, and though he doesn’t think Young has heard The Loner yet, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t like it.

“I’ve heard from his manager and wife, and they both liked it,” says Lofgren. “He’s so busy touring that it may be sitting on his desk at home, and I hope if and when he hears it that he’ll recognize it as a very honest, sincere attempt to recreate some gorgeous songs.”

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