Long before Bruce Springsteen came a-calling, Nils Lofgren was hoping to break out from the shadow of Neil Young and do his own thing. Evidently Springsteen made him change his mind.
I have a ‘Best Of’ Nils Lofgren CD, now downloaded on to the iPod, which seems to have fallen out of print nowadays though similar collections are available. This one, however, seems to be the only one that contains his live version of ‘Any Time At All’, the sturdy Lennon-led Beatles’ song that opened the second side of their Hard Day’s Night LP in 1964. Many of the other tracks are terrific too, evidence that The Boss knew what he was doing when he recruited Nils, always a fine guitar player, to replace Steve Van Zant in 1984. Check out ‘Back It Up’, ‘Goin’ Back’ (the 1966 Goffin-King song, not quite up to Dusty’s version but still lovely), ‘Keith Don’t Go’ (urging Keef R not to risk a trip to Toronto to face drugs charges in 1977), ‘I Came To Dance’, ‘Shine Silently’ and ‘Baltimore’ (the Randy Newman song).
This quite brief interview with Nils is from May 1975, when I was Melody Maker’s US correspondent in the Big Apple, and in the light of what the future brought makes strange reading.
“It’s not that I don’t like playing with Neil Young,” said Nils Lofgren between shots on the pool table in A&M’s office last week.
“It’s just that the time is right now for me to be doing my own thing instead of being a back-up man. I guess I could go on playing with Neil for as long as he wanted, but that’s not what I want.”
What Nils really wants is simple: a solo career as well as a chance to put his own music across to fans in the kind of numbers that Young attracts.
“Actually,” he said, leaning the pool cue up against the wall, and gazing over the New York skyline from A&M’s 32nd floor habitat, “what I’d like is to play with Neil on tour but for Neil to give me a chance to sing my songs during his set. I’d do three or four songs in the middle.”
Would Neil allow that? “I dunno. On the last tour I had the first half to myself and I went back on to play with Neil for his half. It felt wrong. I mean... how could I go out and play my balls off as a supporting act when I know I was also the top act on the bill as well. A support act ought to give the headliner a hard time, but I would have been giving myself a hard time. It was a weird situation.”
Nils was making a quick trip to New York last week to help promote his first real solo LP which was released last month by A&M with whom he signed well over a year ago. His first album for the label was a Grin album, but the band subsequently split up and Nils became a solo artist on the label.
Two previous albums by Grin on Columbia had met with good critical response but they failed to sell, despite Nils’ growing reputation as an integral part of the Neil Young band. Nils played on the Crazy Horse album and contributed an awful lot towards After The Goldrush, still regarded as Neil Young’s definitive contribution to the vinyl library.
Nils, who sings, plays intricate guitar and delicate piano, is a diminutive musician who owes his breaks to Young and who seems hard pressed to sort out the conflicting loyalties.
Grin split last summer, a mutual decision within the group caused by their general disappointment at not hitting the big time despite the critical praise heaped upon them. It wasn’t, says Nils, a hard decision and it was something of a relief for him to find himself on his own, especially when it came to writing.
For his solo work, Nils turned to drummer Aynsley Dunbar (currently playing with a new band, Journey) and veteran R&B bass player Wornell Jones for studio help.
“Now I’d like to form a band with those two, but neither of them are available. Aynsley has his new band and obviously he won’t give that up for me even though we get on well together. I couldn’t afford to pay either of them permanently,” said Nils.
“In the next two months I’m going to go out to Los Angeles and look for musicians to form another band, but this will be the Nils Lofgren band instead of Grin, which was a proper group unit. I really can’t wait to get moving again.”
Right now Nils tends to dismiss his past in a few quick sentences, preferring to talk about his hopes for the future and his chances of putting together a band of his own. “I want to get a show together as well as a band. I know the music will be o.k., but people today seem to want to watch something as well as listen.”
To this end, Nils, a trained gymnast, is practising some leaps and jumps that will put even Pete Townshend to shame. “I’m practising with a sort of small trampoline so that I can do a flip-over whilst still playing my guitar. I’ve tried it without the guitar and that’s easy, but playing as well... I dunno.”