By Chris M. Junior
Playing live is Nils Lofgren’s forte, and as 2010 winds down, he’ll be gracing plenty of concert stages.
No, he’s not scheduled to hit the road again with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And, no, he’s not joining forces once more with Neil Young, another longtime associate.
Lofgren’s itinerary consists of solo dates: Following a stretch of U.S. gigs in September, he will launch a U.K. tour in mid-October that runs through the end of the month, then return to America for shows in November.
This flurry of solo activity follows the recent release of “Cry Tough.” The two-disc DVD set (Eagle Rock Entertainment) features Lofgren concerts from Germany that were filmed in 1976, 1979 and 1991 for the TV series “Rockpalast.”
Prior to his tour, Lofgren discussed “Cry Tough,” his guitar technique, his role in the E Street Band and what the future holds.
There are times when an American rock act develops an exceptionally strong, long-lasting connection with a particular foreign market: Cheap Trick and Japan, for example. Are the three “Rockpalast” concerts on the “Cry Tough” DVD an indication that you’ve received a high level of support in Germany through the years?
Nils Lofgren: That is accurate, but that also includes all of Europe and, in the last decade, there’s been a focus on the U.K. I had the opportunity to go over in 1973 on [Young’s] “Tonight’s the Night” tour, and I’ve been going ever since. … I started establishing relationships with friends and promoters and started coming over regularly on my own.
Way back in the 1970s, there was tour support, so we would go over every year for two months. In Germany, we would do about eight cities. The “Rockpalast” people approached me early on, and they had a very different concept. … It was unusual to have somebody say they wanted to record the entire concert with no changes and try to facilitate capturing what you do night after night — without altering it at all. But that was the theme, which was very unusual. … I remember producer Peter Ruechel and director Christian Wagner following me around and meeting with me, and it sounded too good to be true, but it turned out to be true. I’ve done many shows for them, and I’m glad they put these three together.
Concerts can be complicated events, and televised concerts have even more components that could go wrong. Were there any difficulties or worries associated with these “Rockpalast” shows that were stressful at the time but are humorous in retrospect?
NL: Not really. I’m a very user-friendly musician in the sense that I like to communicate. I’m a detail person, and my goal is to be an analytical, homework guy up until showtime, and then just shut the mind off and be a reckless rock musician and trust my musical instincts.
The theme [for “Rockpalast”] was for me to do what I do with my band and have it captured. To that end, my door was open and I kept almost hounding people to communicate regularly, and it paid off. … I spent all day communicating with anyone and everyone, and the goal was to, once we hit the stage, just do our show. Nothing else changed; they just knew how to capture it, and that was all in place ready to go.
During your solo in “Valentine,” from the 1991 “Rockpalast” show, the camera stays pretty tight on your hands, providing a good glimpse at your technique. Talk about how you developed the way you use a thumb pick, your open fingers and volume knob with your non-fretting hand — and was Jeff Beck among your influences?
NL: To me, Jeff is by far the greatest living guitarist. I always thought Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Roy Buchanan were off in their own little stratosphere. And then everybody else — Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, all three Kings [Freddie, Albert and B.B.], and you got Pete Townshend and Keith Richards doing the two-note, three-note themes without soloing necessarily, but writing songs as they play. And Dave Davies did a lot of that, too, in The Kinks. He kind of created that whole block chord style, which changed how music was written.
I was a friend of Roy’s and a big fan; I followed him around the country bars in the funkier parts of Maryland. And that’s where I heard harmonics sound like bells. Roy would show me how to do it, in these dingy little dressing rooms in these funky bars. He showed me how to do the harmonics with a flat pick, and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t even use a flat pick, but I loved the sound. So I tried to find a way, and I did find a way to get those harmonics sounding kind of bell-like with a thumb pick and with my finger over the string. … The finger on my right hand was replacing the left hand when I would hit the harmonic on the 12th fret.
[Through Buchanan] I picked up the volume swells. And anything and everything [else came] by watching [others]. I followed Jimi Hendrix around in the 1960s. I followed the Jeff Beck Group around; I was kind of a groupie who sneaked backstage on the “Truth” tour. I befriended Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood. I was raving about Jeff Beck, and they sent me down the hallway to walk in on Jeff in a little room by himself practicing. I think he just didn’t have the heart to throw me out. I was maybe 16 at the time, and he let me sit there and watch him play. To this day, he’s an old friend who knows I’m his No. 1 fan.
A few Bruce Springsteen-related questions, if you don’t mind. Does every E Street Band member have a bright-red, Springsteen-only phone at home that rings whenever he wants to record or tour?
NL: (Laughs) Not quite, but it’s very seat-of-your-pants, last-minute notice. There are a lot of successful people [who do that]. I learned that with Neil Young. I used to get a call from Neil’s management: “We’re going on the road; here are the dates.” And two weeks before you’re about to head off, you get a call: “Neil isn’t feeling it. We’re not going.”
Bruce is somebody who when he’s ready, he’ll let you know. But it’s not like you get a lot of notice. So it’s not unusual.
With four guitarists in the E Street Band, how are parts and roles typically defined, both in the studio and onstage?
NL: It’s turned into this beautiful, accidental, kind of osmosis thing. … Bruce has based this band around a two-keyboard sound, so it certainly doesn’t need four guitar players. So it was a perfect opportunity for me to be a much greater swingman – meaning go learn a little pedal steel guitar, go learn a little dobro, go learn some bottleneck, go learn some lap steel. Bruce got me on the six-string banjo in the studio. It was a nice opportunity to become a musician on four or five other instruments.
I like playing rhythm guitar, so if Steve [Van Zandt] and Bruce have the Stratocaster and Telecaster, respectively, then I would naturally go to an acoustic guitar. And once in a while, Bruce will say, “I want three electrics,” and to marry the sound together, I would play this old Fender Jazzmaster with the heaviest strings you can buy. There’s no way you can bend them; they have this thickness and warmth to them that [works] when you gotta have three electrics. But in general, I have all these other sounds that give me a wide array of other things to add.
As you close in on age 60, what are some of your goals for the next few years? Or at this stage in your life and career, do you take things as they come and not look too far ahead?
NL: The immediate goal is, after almost a four-year break, I’m going out as a bandleader, singing my own songs. I do a lot of improv soloing in my shows on acoustic and electric, so this will be really healthy for me musically.
I’d like to get a new record out on my Web site (www.nilslofgren.com) by next summer, and so I’ve started demoing new songs. I’ve got a beginners and intermediate guitar school, so I’ll be taping some lessons this winter.
My main goal is to stay healthy and creative. My forte is playing live. I have a beautiful home and wife, and I get homesick, so if I’m going to leave home, I want to really do something special for the audience that’s satisfying for me and makes me feel like I accomplished something.
• Get the new John Lennon book: "John Lennon: Life is What Happens, Music, Memories & Memorabilia"
• Get the invaluable record collector's resource: Goldmine® Record Album Price Guide, 6th Edition
• Upgrade your Goldmine subscription with an All Access membership. Free access to seminars, downloads and collect.com. Also exclusive deals, sales, and a sneak-peek at new products.