Nils Lofgren considers buying a Powerball lottery ticket every now and then, but why bother? He’s already one of the luckiest men in the music business.
The suburban Washington, D.C.-based guitar legend has had the kind of career experiences that a $180 million jackpot can’t buy. He routinely plays alongside Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr. His own group, Grin, had a four-album run in the early ’70s, and his solo career has spanned three decades.
“Those are invaluable experiences that have a lot to do with who I am,” Lofgren said recently. “I know in certain ways I have a corny, sentimental side and the business I’m in is a bit callous, so sometimes all those experiences in those bands with those people have given me a lot of confidence to weather being one of the outsiders when it comes to commercial success.”
Nils Lofgren, an outsider? Odd but true.
For the first time in a long time, he’s without a record deal, but that didn’t stop him from financing his latest album, “Acoustic Live,” recorded at Barnes of Wolftrap in Vienna, Va., on Jan. 18, 1997. After selling the album at shows, Lofgren then secured a distribution deal with The Right Stuff, which released it to retail on June 30.
“I’m thrilled because I think it’s one of the best records I’ve ever made,” Lofgren said. “I loved it; there’s six new songs on there, which made it a lot more interesting.
“The goal was to capture an emotional performance of an acoustic live show, but acoustic live by nature is very intimate, closer to the basics in how a song is originally conceived and then its stripped down with a band. It allows people to get closer to the essence of the song and the singer, and it puts me and the people I play on the spot more; it’s a deeper focus to maintain, and once you find it and get it, which is my job and you’re supposed to do it immediately actually, you can really tell the audience appreciates getting an up-close look like that.”
Lofgren is appreciated in many circles, dating back 30 years ago next month, when he made his professional debut. The way he tells it, it has been an uphill battle ever since.
With $100 in his pocket, Lofgren left home at age 17 and made his way to New York intent on winning a record deal. Contrary to urban legend, he did not run away from his family; he was going where his heart led him.
“My parents were the only people who supported me creatively when I wanted to be a musician,” Lofgren said. “All my friends, the whole community was in an uproar, like ‘You can’t do that.’ The only kids who left school were juvenile delinquents. I went to New York and after about eight days, I was ill with pneumonia, I was living in the street and freezing at night and sweating during the day.
“I hung out mainly on the doorsteps in Greenwich Village. One runaway would watch each other as we slept, and during the day, I’d take subways uptown. I’d look in the phone book and I’d sneak into record companies. I would hide in the hallway and when I saw an opening, I would run to somebody’s office and started babbling, ‘I want a record deal.’ Usually, they’d have security escort me out. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Thanks to the lighting director for the group Traffic who befriended him, Lofgren packed a year of living into those eight days.
“The deal was, I gave him all my money to fix his car and I got to hang out with him,” Lofgren said, “and he took me into the clubs where Jimi Hendrix was, where all these great musicians were jamming after hours. He used to sneak me into the Fillmore East with him, and I’d jam with the Animals backstage in a little dressing room.
“Then I ran into Sly Stone as I was getting kicked out of CBS. On the 10th floor, he came in on a new 10-speed bike, with his Afro. He stopped me as they were taking me out, and he talked to me a while and found out what was going on with me. He got a kick out of me being a 17 year old runaway looking for a record deal. He told me where he was staying, and I couldn’t find a place to stay at night. Late that night, as shy as I was, I banged on his hotel door. He had like 50 people in there partying; he let me go off into a corner, curl up and sleep on the floor.”
Weak from pneumonia and desolate, Lofgren returned home. His parents nursed him back to health, but his burning desire to make a name for himself never wavered.
“I really wanted to be a musician, and my parents couldn’t convince me to go back to school,” he said. “The reason I left was ‘Well, if I’m going to make a decision like that at age 17, I can’t expect Mom and Dad to pay my way, I gotta go make a living.’ My parents made me pay rent, gave me some incentives, and let me start off as a professional out of their home.”
After his first group failed, Lofgren formed Grin with drummer Bob Berberich and bassist Bob Gordon. In the audience at one of their early shows was Neil Young, who was so impressed with Lofgren’s guitar, singing and keyboard abilities he asked him to play on his “After the Gold Rush” album. He also contributed heavily to Crazy Horse’s debut album but turned down an invitation to join the band; he remained committed to Grin.
Grin recorded three moderately successful albums for Spindizzy/Columbia and one for A&M, but by 1973, the group had run its course. While the press falsely speculated Lofgren would replace Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, he began a long, fruitful solo career. Four of his first five albums for A&M cracked Billboard’s Top 60 from 1975 to 1979.
“Then I got to be friends with Bruce (Springsteen) in the early ’70s and maintained a friendship,” Lofgren said, “and luckily, in ’84 he needed a guitarist and I got the call, and after a couple of days of jamming in New Jersey, it felt good. More importantly, it felt good to Bruce and the band, and I was invited to join (for ‘Born in the U.S.A.’), which was another gift from heaven.
“Then, on that tour after a gig at Wembley Stadium, we were all invited to Ringo’s 50th birthday party. They had a studio set up and we got to jam with him and got to talking and struck up a friendship. Four years later, in ’89, he asked me to join his first All-Starr Band and then invited me back for the second All-Starr Band.”
Three more Lofgren albums charted, the most recent being 1991’s “Silver Lining” (Rykodisc). Though he’s a free agent now, he isn’t so consumed anymore with landing a deal. He’s waiting for the right company “that’s willing to get their hands dirty and push a little bit and dig, because I know there’s an audience out there that enjoys this stuff and finding it is just way too complicated for a record company.”
“I’m still the same as when I was 17,” he said. “I still have my dreams that someday I’ll have a big hit record and bring my own lights and P.A. and get to have a bus with my family and get to rehearse a lot and do cool things onstage, design a set and get my old custom trampoline back in the show and do flips again. I’m a performer, I love to be in front of an audience, and it came out on this record.”
BWF (before we forget): For more on Nils Lofgren on the Web, visit www.rockhouse.com/nils/ or www.bakernorthrop.com. … The Nils Lofgren album discography – “Nils Lofgren” (A&M, 1975); “Cry Tough” (1976); “I Came to Dance” (1977); “Night After Night” (1977); “Nils” (1979); “Night Fades Away” (Backstreet, 1981); “Wonderland” (1983); “Flip” (Columbia, 1985); “Code of the Road” (Towerbell, 1986); “The Best of Nils Lofgren: Don’t Walk … Rock” (UK Connoisseur, 1990); “Silver Lining” (Rykodisc, 1991); “Crooked Line” (Essential, 1992); “Every Breath” (Rykodisc, 1994); “Damaged Goods” (1995); “Acoustic Live” (The Right Stuff, 1998).