AS if it were not enough to be a virtuoso on guitar, piano and accordion, and a decent singer to boot, today’s subject played a mean trampoline. Nils Lofgren has always been keen to share his athletic prowess with audiences, which is why said piece of gym equipment used to be an essential part of his stage kit.
Nowadays, after a double hip replacement, he restricts his physical exertions to a spot of tap dancing but, at 68, remains a great performer. As he says: ‘Even if I have an off night, at least the audience will recognise someone who’s trying to entertain them.’
Nils Hilmer Lofgren was born on June 21, 1951 in Chicago, to a Swedish father and Italian mother. The family moved to Bethesda, Maryland, where Nils studied the classical accordion from the age of five. He stuck with the instrument for ten years, combining school studies with a keen interest in gymnastics and basketball (despite being only 5ft 3in), before the Beatles inspired him to be a rock and roller and he took up guitar and piano.
At the age of 17 Nils formed a band, Grin, with bassist George Daly and drummer Bob Berberich, playing gigs throughout the Washington DC area. He met Neil Young at a club called the Cellar Door in Georgetown. It was the beginning of a lifelong association.
Young invited the trio to stay at his rented home in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, where they remained for several months. Lofgren, then 19, was asked to join Young’s band, although sadly there was no place for the other two chaps. He played piano and guitar on Neil’s breakthrough 1970 album After The Goldrush and joined the group Crazy Horse, who appeared on three of the eleven tracks. Lofgren contributed two songs to the band’s own eponymous debut album released in early 1971. These were Beggar’s Day, which would become a fixture of his future solo performances, and Nobody.
Buoyed by his contribution to Goldrush, Lofgren negotiated a record deal for his old band Grin, although Daly had left to become an A & R man at Columbia Records and been replaced on bass by Bob Gordon.
The first track of their initial self-titled album is another enduring Lofgren classic, Like Rain. Album two, 1+1, showcases the artist’s love of classic American pop, typified by the opening song White Lies.
Lofgren obviously believed in getting LPs off to a good start because the highlight of Grin’s third, Gone Crazy, is its opener You’re The Weight.
Album four, All Out, includes this nice one, Heavy Chevy.
To be frank, all the Grin albums are a touch on the lightweight side despite the addition of another Lofgren, brother Tommy, on rhythm guitar after 1+1. They were a commercial flop and the band threw in the towel in 1974. However, our lad remained convinced of his ability and soon released a solo LP, Nils Lofgren, also known as the Fat Man Album because of the cover.
As I remarked in a previous blog, I enjoyed the songs but thought the sound lacked edge. A few months later, however, I saw him on TV when he gave a wondrous rendition of Back It Up and I realised what he was all about.
A brilliant, brilliant guitarist and what a showman. Studio recordings have never done justice to his talents but I managed to get hold of an unofficial tape of a live radio performance. This would eventually be given a UK release on CD in 2007 as Back It Up!! Live . . . An Authorized Bootleg.
As I said in my earlier piece, I saw Nils at Manchester University in 1975 and he was dynamite, trampoline and all. Before the performance he gave me a world exclusive interview which has never been published. I was trying to get in touch with the A & M Records press officer to make sure I could get into the gig without a Students’ Union card, and ended up calling the band’s hotel room.
Unknown voice: Hello?
AA: Hi, I’m trying to contact Denny. Is he there, please?
UV: Nah, sorry, he ain’t.
AA: Any idea when he’ll be back?
UV: Can’t tell you, sorry.
AA: Is that Nils, by any chance?
NL: Uh, yeah, who is this?
AA (struck dumb with awe): Splutter. Just a fan. Can you get him to ring me on Burnley 23161?
NL: Yeah, sure. Bye.
Riveting stuff, eh? This will form the basis of my forthcoming book: Nils and Me, a Memoir (Picador, £25.99), although it does need fleshing out a bit.
Apart from his guitar heroics that evening, Nils gave a bravura piano performance on the Carole King song Goin’ Back, heard here in a concert from about that time.
His next LP, 1976’s Cry Tough, had a great song in It’s Not A Crime, here played live, but again suffered from a general lack of oomph. Ditto the third solo album, I Came To Dance. To appreciate him, you had to see him live and I still greatly enjoy a German DVD, Nils Lofgren at Rockpalast, which features stirring performances from 1976 and 1979. As I write, there are a couple of copies available on Amazon for not very much.
When Nils eventually got around to releasing a live double album, 1977’s Night After Night, it somehow failed to transmit the full power and immediacy of his performances. Not bad, though. Here is a reworking of Beggar’s Day.
His next studio effort, Nils, in 1979 featured a couple of collaborations with Lou Reed including A Fool Like Me but once again sounded weedy. Hardly surprising when it was produced by Bob Ezrin, who made such a pig’s ear of Reed’s album Berlin. Why would anyone want to do a Santana-style version of Randy Newman’s Baltimore?
Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter did a marginally better production job on 1981’s Night Fades Away. Here is Nils performing the title track on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test – the TV sound is a bit erratic but the guitar quality goes up to eleven.
Three years and a couple more LPs later, Nils joined Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band as a replacement for Miami Steve Van Zandt, a part-time actor who would later appear as Silvio Dante in the Sopranos. Here is Nils doing a backflip as Bruce introduces him to the audience. He remains a member of the group to this day, while also touring occasionally with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. Here he is performing with Springsteen in 2008, completing a forward roll in mid-solo. It would be one of his final pieces of onstage gymnastics.
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Nils said: ‘Growing up as a kid, I loved athletics, and I played them all the time. Basketball I played constantly. I sought out games, and it was a big part of my life. I tried to play 15, 20 hours a week. I’m only 5-3, right, so I wasn’t that great, but I love the game and I was a good passer. The bigger guys liked that, and I was great on defense. I hit the road in ’68 with my band Grin. I started doing a backflip off a trampoline while playing the guitar. That got me jumping off PA stacks, pianos, trampolines, and I beat myself up pretty well, and to my horror, 10 years ago I had to have both hips replaced.’
Later in the interview comes one of the oddest questions ever fired at a rock star: ‘Who smells better, Ringo or Bruce Springsteen?’ Diplomatically, he replies: ‘They both smell pretty great!’
Lofgren’s most recent project is the 2019 album Blue With Lou, including several songs co-written with the late Mr Reed. Here’s a sample, Pretty Soon.
So that’s Nils Lofgren – something of an underachiever in the studio but an onstage pocket titan. Next time the Boss is in town, keep your eyes and ears on the little guy with the guitar and cross your fingers he’ll turn on the tap dancing.
PS: In my column last week on Genesis, I averred that they gave only one encore at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, in April 1975, despite playing two at every other gig on the tour. A reader, Pete York, emailed me to say that he was there and they did in fact perform two – The Musical Box and Watcher of the Skies. To prove it, he sent a link to this distant recording of the actual concert, and sure enough Watcher is on the end, played after I had departed thinking the show was over. So all these years I felt cheated when in fact I had succumbed to a common failing among teenage boys – premature evacuation.