Photo: Brad Chesivoir.

`Damaged Goods' may be the title of Nils Lofgren's new album but it certainly isn't a reflection on the music. The illustrious sideman whose talents have been borrowed by Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and - fab me! - Ringo Starr has enjoyed a successful solo career since 1975. `Damaged Goods' draws on that wealth of experience Lofgren has gained over the years.

Besides his work with Young and Springsteen (and let's not forget Ringo), Nils has recently guested on Branford Marsalis' `Buckshot Lefonque' (1993), written a soundtrack for the movie `Everybreath' (1994) and earlier this year played with the E-Street Band backing Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis at the Rock `n' Roll Hall Of Fame concert in Cleveland.

`Every record you do benefits from your past,' he says. `I've done a lot of different kinds of records and I think this is the "freshest" record I've ever made. The record is very dry, very "in your face" with no reverb and no delay on the voice. At first it put me off but then I fell in love with it - it really puts the vocal right down your throat. There's a lot of me on the record - I'm singing most of the harmonies, I'm playing almost all the guitars and I'm playing the keyboards. So it really has my stamp on it plus some really unusual production.

`I had a batch of about 35 songs which is unusual - I usually don't have that many songs. Roger Greenawalt, the producer, and I did some home demoing in my basement studio over the course of a year or so. As the songs started popping up I thought there was a good collection of characters in the songs that are all having a pretty rough ride but are still managing to survive. So the title `Damaged Goods' was just a good phrase to sum up most of the characters in the songs - good people going through rough times but managing to survive.'

One of the songs, `Nothing Is Falling' features a particularly sparse arrangement and a guitar riff reminiscent of Keith Richards.

`Yeah - daa nuhnuh,' grunts Lofgren in a `Start Me Up' stylee. `It's very stark and naked so that when parts come in they can be very loud. That riff is an example of that. I also played slide on it in a tuning I can't even remember - we were sitting there trying to create this illusion of falling in a chordal sense. I found the chord to start with but every time I took the slide down to the next chord there were two or three bad notes. So I started tuning the pegs until I found a tuning that would work in both positions.'

Although virtually synonymous with the Fender Strat, for `Damaged Goods' Lofgren picked from a range of about ten instruments, including an old Gibson Les Paul and a Zemaitis given to him by the wife of the late James Honeymann-Scott. Another historic guitar was the Bigsby-equipped `52 Les Paul Gold Top he's used on the `Trans' tour with Neil Young and a `61 Strat which bore the biggest burden of the leads. A souped-up Mesa/Boogie Mark III - much warmer-sounding than a regular Boogie - did the amplifying honours.

`I also used three or four acoustics including an old Martin D-18 that Neil Young gave me as a gift for playing on `After The Gold Rush' (1970). I'd never had an acoustic guitar and that was the first time I'd really played one. I remember running off into the woods, got lost, sat down and started playing this guitar. It's still one of my prized guitars.'

`After The Gold Rush' was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with Neil Young, extending through `Tonight's The Night' (1975), `Trans' (1982) and `Unplugged' (1993).

`I'd met Neil Young when I was seventeen and we became friends. A year later Neil asked me to play on `After The Gold Rush' and he said he wanted me to play piano. I was confused because I really didn't play the piano! But he knew that because of my accordion experience and my natural sense of melody and rhythm that I would probably pick out very simple, basic parts. Looking back I imagine what he had in mind was space, which was a beautiful thing for that record and leaves the focus on the song and Neil's haunting voice.'

`Tonight's The Night' is regarded by some fans as being Neil Young's finest album. Recorded shortly after the deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and Crosby, Stills & Nash roadie Bruce Berry, it seems to have been a traumatic time for all involved.

`There was a lot of tough emotional feelings that went along with losing Danny and then Bruce. We all were close to both of them - Danny was the one who asked me to join Crazy Horse. It was really sad to watch him deteriorate. We all loved him and encouraged him to get help but he wasn't able to do it. At the same time there was this dark cloud we made a point of enjoying ourselves. It was a strange thing. We'd show up at SIR rehearsal hall at around six in the evening and most of the time we just partied and played pool until around midnight. We went out of our way to keep the flame burning. About midnight we'd start playing these songs of Neil's and we never really got to "learn" them. There was a whole performance quality to the proceedings and we'd be at it sometimes `till six in the morning. There was a real sense of family despite the loss of Danny and Bruce.'

Received wisdom has it that Neil Young lost his direction in the `80s and found it again in the `90s. Lofgren thinks that received wisdom is an ass, but having himself starred on the critically murdered `Trans', he would say that wouldn't he?

`I'm a huge Neil Young fan and I think I have a good understanding about what Neil is doing. I know he's jumped around a lot but I think that's a natural part of making music. People who are really creative, I think it serves you best to go for it. You don't always please everybody but I think if Neil is hitting an emotional chord himself then a lot of people are going to get it.'

Although a bandleader himself, Lofgren seems to have no difficulty fitting into other people's bands. `Whether it's Neil or Bruce or Ringo Starr or Lou Gramm, I think all of us came from the same melting pot of the British Invasion, Motown, blues, R'n'B... I'm not into labels but I guess "melodic rock `n' roll" covers everybody from the Beatles to Bruce to Neil. There's a feeling that everyone's trying to capture that I find very much the same - it's kinda like getting the mind to go away and become more of a spiritual animal playing this beautiful song. My job with these people is to get to the exact same place where there's an emotional freedom and spiritual energy coming out of the band projecting a song.

`It's a very natural thing to listen to what's going on and know what is needed. With Neil I sometimes play keyboards which I'm very comfortable doing. Then with Bruce he might put down his guitar and I would be covering the rhythm or lead where necessary and he could just be a performer which is something he's an expert at. On `Tunnel Of Love' (1987) I didn't play much at all, just little touches here and there - almost like a rhythmic, percussive thing. That's what I did on `Blood Brothers' from `Greatest Hits' (1995) - I found this little groove of just two or three notes, found a spot for it to fit with Max Weinberg's drum part and it just lent more of a percussion quality to the song. Bruce's band is so big and with Danny Federici and Roy Bittan playing keyboards and Clarence Clemons on sax there's so much music going on that it's hard to find a spot. But it's interesting because instead of being the main instrument I get to find these little parts that really fit in. I try to find a part that's physically easy to play so it becomes more of a percussion sound and it can really slide into a groove to keep the thing rolling. In that respect maybe the E Street thing is different from Neil Young `cause it's such a big sound already - I might be looking for a little different kind of a part.'

Playing guitar wasn't Lofgren's only role with The Boss on the `Born In The USA' tour. A high school gymnast he brought a trampoline into his live act early on in his career to compensate for his onstage shyness and it enjoyed a comeback with Springsteen.

`About 65 shows into the `Born In The USA' tour I left the circus. I was doing it in `Rosalita' and Bruce pulled the song out of the set for a while so the trampoline went out of the show. I just felt like I'd done it for 16 years every night from 1969 to 1985. It's a great stunt for the audience but it was a distraction for me `cause I had to worry about it all night. It was very dangerous and I fell quite a few times but never got seriously injured. I got tired of worrying about it `cause my goal onstage is to stop thinking. As a person I think too much and onstage is one of the places where I have a lot success at stopping that. I decided enough was enough and I wanted to concentrate more on my playing...'

No more triple salchows in the pike position for Nils Lofgren, then - on stage at least. In fact from now on the gymnastics will remain firmly on the fretboard. Flipping hell!

This interview was originally published in `The Guitar Magazine' Vol 6 No 1, Christmas 1995.

Douglas J Noble 1995