Nils Lofgren met Neil Young in Washington DC's Cellar Door club in the late `60s. Nils played Neil some of his songs and the two musicians became friends, Neil offering to give Nils any help he could. Shortly after, Neil asked Nils to play on `After The Gold Rush' (1970). Nils recorded and toured with Grin in the early `70s then embarked on a solo career in 1975. That same year Nils played on `Tonight's The Night' and toured with Neil, then in 1982 Nils played on `Trans' and again toured with Neil. Most recently Nils played on `MTV Unplugged' (1993). Besides working with Neil and enjoying a successful solo career, Nils has also toured and recorded with Bruce Springsteen. Nils' latest release is a solo record entitled `Damaged Goods' (1995).
Q: Was it strange to be asked to sing and play piano on `After The Gold Rush' when you are mainly known as a guitarist?
LOFGREN: It was a strange and wondrous adventure for me. I'd met Neil Young when I was 17 and we became friends. He was very kind and helpful to me and David Briggs, his producer, took my band Grin under his wing. He wound up producing all our records, helped us get a record deal, and find our manager, Art - Art's now retired from rock `n' roll and is a big movie producer in Hollywood. But it was a great time and a year later when I was 18 years old Neil asked me to play on this project `After The Gold Rush' and he said he wanted me to play piano...
My right hand was fairly accomplished from the accordion but it was still kind of a classical place I came from - I studied classical a lot and there's a lot of melancholy melodies, and my left hand is very basic and simple which I think fits in really well with Ralph Molina's drumming style especially on `After The Gold Rush'. We had Gregg Reeves who's a very busy bass player, kinda like a James Jamerson-type thing and `psychadelic-ised'. Somehow Gregg was able to do that and maintain a really solid groove and yet add all these colours on the bass. So it was a great combination, you know - Ralphy and I played very simply and Gregg added a lot of colour and filled up space on the bass and I think that must have been why Neil wanted someone with a simple style. It was so basic on the piano since it was a new instrument for me. I did get to play acoustic guitar on `Tell Me Why' and `Till The Morning Comes' and get to sing a few harmonies with Ralphy - which was great. It was just a really exciting trip and adventure for me.
I'll always be grateful that Neil gave me that opportunity. Of course, that led to doing the `Tonight's The Night' record where I played more piano and then some electric guitar on `Speaking Out' and the title track. And then the `Trans' album was great `cause we moved into using synthesisers and vocoders and the computer world which Neil was on the cutting edge of. That was exciting `cause I learned a lot. The last thing a couple of years back was `MTV Unplugged'. I just love playing with Neil - I think he's one of the great writers of all time and just gets a mood out of his music that's very intense and very emotional.
Q: `Tonight's The Night' was recorded shortly after the deaths of Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry. Was that a traumatic time?
LOFGREN: There were a lot of tough emotional feelings... Danny was the one who asked me to join Crazy Horse to make their first album which I think is just a great record. Jack Nitzsche and I both joined to make the first Crazy Horse record and Danny came back east - he was gonna try to join my band Grin. But by that point he was so sick that he just couldn't hold up. So, the `Tonight's The Night' record - at the same time there was a dark cloud over all of this we made a point of enjoying ourselves too. We had a good time. We'd do it like a show - we'd get up and really go after something and perform it and then stop, go take a break, go shoot some pool, come back, do it again, on and off until the early morning and then we'd, you know, head off and meet up again later. So, at the same time it was really sad to lose Danny and Bruce... I also remember feeling very grateful that I had these friends, that I was alive and that I was being included in such a special project. And there was a real sense of family in that sense despite the obvious sadness due to the loss of Danny and Bruce.
Q: Some people think that Neil lost direction in the `80s and then found it again in the `90s. What do you think of that?
LOFGREN: Yeah, well, I don't think that. I'm very open to the different things Neil does because of my history with the accordion, classical music, jazz, whatever... I didn't study much jazz but I mean... I love all different kinds of music - I grew up listening to big band music so part of my musical experience was radical differences, a lot of different styles. There's always a central core of a great song and a haunting message in what Neil does or even just having a sense of humour and poking fun at things. And I found that thread maintained all the way all through the `80s. That's just what Neil does - he does different things. That's kind of a natural thing to do. Instead of trying to camouflage it and make it seem packaged like Neil Young he would hang a hat on it and really go for it. I mean, he just went for it and I didn't think he lost his way at all. I think there's some great stuff on all those records. Like any writer and singer I think every record has it's highlights especially the `Trans' album - I just thought it was beautiful. We did `Transformer Man' live onstage and that was just really bizarre. In fact on `MTV Unplugged' when we did `Transformer Man' I just though it was a beautiful rearrangement of that and again there's that real kinda spooky, vulnerable vocal thing that Neil's always able to accomplish.
And then `Computer Age' from `Trans' had this - [sings guitar melody and guitar riff first heard from 0:18 to 0:22] - when we played it live it made me want to cry. It was so angry and beautiful. It reminded me like a Stones thing or something but with these beautiful melodies in it. And real vulnerable melodies - just a wild combination of feelings that Neil was able to create... I mean I think if he's pleasing himself and hitting an emotional chord himself then there's gonna be a lot of people that are gonna get it. I'm kinda curious too about my new record [`Damaged Goods'] `cause I know a lot of people almost don't recognize me when they first hear it and I know there's probably going to be some people that don't get it but it feels very emotionally `on the money'. I'm hoping enough people can understand it and get it - enough have said that already to me that I'm real optimistic about it.
Q: Have you got a favourite memory of recording or playing Neil?
LOFGREN: Umm, not really one favourite memory, it's all been really great. I do remember the `Tonight's The Night' tour in particular in England because nobody understood what we were trying to do! I remember Neil banging on the piano doing kind of a rap thing. You know, `Bruce Berry, guitars in his arms...' and all kinds of strange rapping stuff while he's pounding on the piano making as much noise... I do remember jumping up on the piano - I used to wear these combat boots and ankle weights to help me feel like I was cemented into these slow grooves and I wound up getting up onto the piano and starting to bang these heavy boots into the piano strings trying to break them and playing with my teeth down kinda hovering over Neil kinda trying to answer him while he was doing this crazy rap. That's a moment that jumps out as being really something I still remember as a highlight.
`Broken Arrow' 2A Llynfi Street BRIDGEND Mid Glamorgan CF31 1SY Wales UK URL - http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/nyas
© Douglas J Noble 1995