From Stones to Springsteen, there’s only ever been one Nils Lofgren

Guitarist Nils Lofgren, left, on stage with Bruce Springsteen at Leeds Arena on July 24, 2013. (picture by Mark Bickerdike)
Guitarist Nils Lofgren, left, on stage with Bruce Springsteen at Leeds Arena on July 24, 2013. (picture by Mark Bickerdike)

Interview by Graham Chalmers

Long-time member of Bruce Springsteen’s legendary E Street Band, prominent player on several of Neil Young’s best-selling albums and close enough friend of Lou Reed to share a beer in his New York apartment - Nils Lofgren has been one of the greatest rock musicians on the planet for nearly four decades.

The cover of Nils Lofgren's classic Cry Tough album.

The cover of Nils Lofgren's classic Cry Tough album.

But this guitarist’s guitarist is also one of the most modest people in the business, as Harrogate and Scarborough audiences will soon discover when he comes to the Royal Hall.

Talking to this hugely-respected musician at an unfeasibly early time of the morning at his home in the USA, he says: “My wife Amy designs T-shirts for me and usually comes along on tour.

“She will probably be on the merchandise stall at the Royal Hall. I’ll be there afterwards, too. I’m always happy to chat and sign autographs.

“This is a down home, old school, grass roots tour.”

It’s 7.30am US time when I ring Nils at his home in the western part of Scottsdale in the heat of Arizona but he’s been up for an hour already.

“When I get off the road I like to get up early to walk the dogs. I wake up with the sun and get going early.”

Readers who are fans of Bruce Springsteen will recognise this much-travelled, virtuoso musician from the occasional show ‘The Boss’ has performed in Yorkshire.

Nils is usually the one in the bandana stage right of Bruce, while fellow guitarist Little Steve Van Zandt is the one in the bandana stage left.

I tell him I saw him with Bruce and the band at Man City’s ground a couple of years back during Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball tour and that were even better than they’d been when I first saw them on stage almost 30 years earlier at Rounday on that glorious day in 1985 when Bruce brought his Born in the USA tour to Leeds.

Interesting outfits you were wearing at that time, I add.

Nils said: “It was the 1980s, there was all sorts of crazy fashion going on! I remember being on the runway which went into the crowd. Touring became a bit of a circus in those days. We all have more wisdom now.”

As part of my research I’d read that Nils, a born and bred Rolling Stones fanatic from his teenage years in the mid-1960s, had encouraged Keith Richards to ask Ron Wood to join the band rather than himself after the departure of guitarist Mick Taylor in 1975.

I’d dismissed it as the sort of thing you would say until Nils starts to explain the whole lengthy saga in person.

What follows is the short version of his reply.

“When I heard the Stones were auditioning I was excited but the first thing that popped in my head was that my friend Ron Wood was perfect for the job.

“It didn’t seem possible at first because he was in The Faces so Ron gave me Keith’s number. I did call Keith who said I was welcome to audition but it never happened because Ron had a change of heart and decided to leave The Faces.

“I’ve met Keith many times over the years and he’s always very gracious and very nice to me.

“As for the thing about him not liking the song I wrote, Keith Don’t Go, I can’t speak for Keith but to me that’s rubbish.”

Now a still youthful-looking 64, Chicago-born Nils hit the ground running as a young musician in rock music’s golden heyday.

That’s him credited playing piano and guitar on Neil Young’s classic After the Goldrush album in 1970.

Anyone who thinks Nils’s own solo career can be boiled down to Cry Tough, his classic album from 1976 with its spangly blue-tinged cover shot of the cool young man as a hot guitarist, should think again.

When you throw in his abilities as a singer and obvious gifts as a songwriter, it’s no wonder Face the Music, an amazingly comprehensive box set of his solo releases which came out last year, included a whopping nine CDs.

It’s also no surprise he has ended up working with so manyother legends over the years, even co-writing songs on Lou Reed’s cult 1979 album, The Bells.

But his memories of that brief partnership hint at something more than simple talent or versatility as being the key to his high standing and lengthy success.

“His producer Bob Ezrin put us together. Our intention was to write songs together rather than play. We ended up coming up with around a dozen we liked, some of which ended up on one of my albums.”

Famous for being, er, one of music’s ‘strongest’ characters, if the legend is to be believed, Lou was a bit of an awkward customer at best.

But Nils dismisses the myth in such a casual fashion it makes you think again.

“Myself and Lou got on well. We drank together in his New York apartment in a spectacular fashion watching NFC games.

“I’ve never worked with anyone awkward. If they were, I would just walk away.”

With 25 solos albums to chose from, fans are in for a real feast of music when Nils arrives at Harrogate’s Royal Hall in November accompanied by his special guest, multi-instrumentalist Greg Varlotta.

Having chatted for half an hour with Nils, I come to the conclusion the one thing that marks out Nils above all else in the crazy world of rock n roll is his lack of ego.

I decide to tell him so.

Nils says : “I love my solo career. I wouldn’t be happy to be the boss of a band every day of my life. There’s a lot of issues bound up in that I’m happy not to deal with.

“I’ve always felt like I won the musical lottery at an early age.

“I’m not sure about what is is but I believe in some higher power not of my own making.

“It’s been a great journey in music and it’s still exciting to me. I love it all.”

Nils Lofgren plays the Royal Hall, Harrogate on Wednesday, November 4.

Tickets are available from Harrogate Theatre box office on 01423 502116 or online at www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk

Nils Lofgren is also playing Scarborough Spa on Friday, November 13.

This article is a truncated version of the full interview which appeared in the Harrogate Advertiser’s print edition on September 24.