Nils Lofgren, famously a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and Neil Young and Crazy Horse, is making the rounds touring a solo record this summer, coming to Atlanta for a two-night stand at City Winery over Memorial Day weekend. His new album, Blue with Lou, includes five songs that Lou Reed cowrote with him in the 70s. He also wrote a ballad for Tom Petty, another for his dog, and some hard rocking exhortations to keep going despite how difficult that sometimes is. We gave the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inductee a call to ask him how he does it.
This album in particular appeals to me immensely. I’m the world’s greatest Tom Petty fan. Although I’m sure you’ve met many people who lay claim to that. And I’ve written a fair amount about Lou Reed. So you’re working right in the middle of everything I love right now.
Thank you. Yeah, me and Amy [Lofgren’s wife], well we’re massive fans. We still speak with great anger and sadness of his passing regularly.
Can we start by talking about “Dear Heartbreaker”? That’s a tribute to our dearly departed Tom, of course. And he arguably kind of owes his fame to you, because the first time the Heartbreakers got any attention is when they opened for you in the UK in ’78.
That was a great tour, and I was startled by how good they were. And of course, I was making a live record night after night. So it was nice to have a great band in front of you kicking your ass and making sure you brought your A game when you walked out. But they were destined for stardom without me. That would have happened. It was a memorable tour, because both bands really did a great job.
But Amy and I both love Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and we’d go see them all the time. And this last tour, they did not have a Phoenix show, so we went to Red Rocks in Denver. Loved the show, had a brief visit. And yeah, you know, Benmont [Tench, the Heartbreakers’ keyboardist] and I became good friends. And the other guys were always friendly when we’d go see them. But we were worried they wouldn’t come to Phoenix, so we went up there to see a great show—of course, never knowing it was the last.
And when I was writing this record, I had no intention of writing a song. But you know, we were so upset about Tom’s passing. And much like when John Lennon passed, I was just so shook up. Because the Beatles have the greatest body of recorded music in history, I believe. And I stopped listening. I knew it was wrong, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I was just so overwhelmed with grief, because they were the reason I put down the classical accordion and picked up the rock guitar. It was The Beatles. And finally, I got over that, but I thought, wow I can’t do that anymore.
I started going into that mode when Tom passed. And I said, you can’t do that. You’ve got to listen to the music. It was almost like a pep talk to myself, and a note to Tom in heaven. Whatever. But you know, don’t back down. Your music’s there for your spirit, let it lift you. And it was just kind of a little verse to myself, to remind me not to make the mistakes I made with the Beatles’ body of work when John Lennon passed. But then all of a sudden, without meaning to, every day another verse would come. And it kept getting longer and longer. And all of a sudden I just thought, oh my God I’ve got five verses. I guess I’d better put it on the record.
You do so many collaborations. Is there any chance that there are tapes of you two, in a vault somewhere? Did you and Petty ever talk about working together?
No, we were just distant friends. I only saw Tom at his shows. Of course, I saw him play a lot when he opened for me, and chatted with him a bit. Have always been a massive fan. But I never got to get to know him really well. He was always friendly, and Amy and I would never miss a show in Phoenix. And you know, he left a body of work which is just stunning. But it never got past that. He was just one of the all-time greats I got to see a lot. Had that funny beginning where it was, I’m sure, the last time they were an opening act on a tour, back in ’77.
Would you say that you’re as big a fan of Lou Reed’s body of work?
Yeah, I thought Lou was just one of our greats. It’s funny, I mean it’s hard to believe, but I played basketball all the time, my whole life. And between that and doing back flips off the stage on trampolines, jumping off PA stacks and drum risers, I destroyed my hips. And ten years ago I had both my hips replaced at the same time. So I had to give up crazy basketball, and I picked up tap dancing. And I’ll go out and sun tap, I call it. Amy put this beautiful eight-foot diameter tap board in the backyard for me, and I’ll go out and tap in the sun and sing. It’s a good workout. It ain’t like basketball. But still, it’s better than going to the gym. And you know, I would tap dance to “Won’t Back Down” by the Heartbreakers, and “Sweet Jane” by Lou Reed. They are two of my favorite tap songs. It’s quite a bizarre image, but it’s a great hobby. And I may even try to do a little tap dancing in the show somehow.
It’s a great sound, to be sure.
Yeah, I picked it up as a hobby. The guy I’ve worked with for twelve years or so, Greg Varlotta, in my acoustic duo show, is a great tapper, and he gave me some lessons. So I do it for fun. But it is a great form of percussion. Like playing drums with your body. So, anyway, all these people. It’s tragic that they’ve left us. But the music is there, and we’ve all got to keep listening and let it heal us and take their spirit with us as we move forward.
So, Lou passed several years ago, and when you wrote together, you had these thirteen songs, and they’ve been kind of trickling out on your albums and his since the late ’70s. These are the last five in the bunch. How did you two decide what belonged where? Why didn’t you just record an entire album together?
He was working on a record, I was working on a record, and Bob Ezrin and I decided we had a lot of songs done. There were a lot of songs where we really liked the music and we agreed the lyrics were subpar. And he had worked with Lou, and Lou let us come over to the studio and have a conversation, and surprisingly, he was open to some cowriting. So, he said, why don’t you come to my apartment, we’ll talk it through. And the following week, I went to his apartment.
There happened to be a Cowboys and Redskins NFL game. And I did not know this, but he was a huge football fan. So we rooted against each other, go figure, I rooted for the Cowboys. And you know, we talked into the night about writing. We found that he writes lyrics very naturally, and works a bit harder on the music. I’m the exact opposite. The music kind of pours out, and I have to put in more work with the lyrics. So he thought, well look, before we rent a loft and get a piano and guitar and start, you know, putting in six, eight hours a day cowriting, why don’t you send me a tape of what you have.
And I sent him a cassette of thirteen songs. He said, leave the titles. Leave all the words. I know you don’t like them. Just put it all out there. And la-de-dah’ing some melodies. But the music was all there. And I told him, and Bob Ezrin agreed, look Lou, change anything. Music, title, lyric. We don’t like the lyrics. We’re look for help with everything, so take carte blanche to anything and everything, if it inspires you. And I kind of forgot about it, a few weeks went by. And one night, the landline, of course, this is before the internet and cellphones, he woke me up at 4:30 in the morning. And said he’d been up for three days and nights straight, loving the cassette. He woke me up because he just finished thirteen sets of finished lyrics he felt great about, and he was inspired and excited. And if I felt like it, he’d dictate them to me right then. So, I put on a pot of coffee, got a pad and pencil, and spent a couple hours with Lou Reed dictating thirteen finished sets of lyrics to me.
And he even said, there’s three of these I want to use right now on my Bells album. And I said, great. Bob and I used three more. I put out two since, and these five that got left behind, I always felt maybe Lou would call. I mean, I’d go see him play at shows. We laughed and had a good reminiscence about that, you know, kind of painless cowriting in a way. And I always thought we might revisit them together. At least look at them. And then when Lou passed, I realized it was just my job to share them and make sure people heard them, on this record.
You and he are both known for being very prolific and very hardworking. People say the Boss is the hardest working man in show business, but you fulfill all the E Street Band obligations, plus a fair number of projects with Neil Young, and then you’ve got, like, your own twenty-some solo albums over the course of four decades, plus all the touring. And on this album, there’s that song “Pretty Soon,” that kind of talks about the fatigue of the album cycle. Why are you going at so fierce a pace for so long? What does it take for you to keep operating like that?
Well, you know, actually it takes an amazing wife: Amy. We’ve been together 23 years. And you know, our children are our dogs. Her son, Dylan, is down the road. He’s 28. But our dogs are our kids. And she is a great music lover. She knows that not only is it how I make a living, but you can’t really play a hundred shows in one town. You’ve got to travel. And she runs the home. She does all the merchandising, the art designing. She’s a professional cook by trade, but when she was a kid, she worked with Winterland Productions and did the merchandise for the Doobie Brothers, the Tubes, the Go-Go’s, the Beach Boys. And so she’s really good at that. And thank God, she handles all that. Keeps our home going, and keeps everything afloat while I come and go.
And I’ve slowed down a bit. I spend more time at home than I used to. But you know, I grew up to be someone who loves to perform. And it’s also how I make a living. So, you have to leave home to do it. I don’t like leaving home anymore. But I’ve found it gives me a deeper gratitude and focus for the shows, because that’s the only reason I’m not home. So, I kind of channel that into the shows. And after 50 years on the road, I’ve got to say I’m as excited as ever. And challenged, too. It’s a great challenge to put a band together and a show, with a new album, and take it out, try to make an inspired night of music for people that, hopefully when they leave, it’ll linger a bit in their lives. That’s our job, and we’re working hard today to put the show together. We’re excited about it.
What you said about Amy kind of reminds me of what Pete Seeger always said, how his biggest accomplishment was just staying married, and still have work at the same time.
Well, you know, it’s strange. It was like, about 38, 9 years ago, I saw Amy at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park. And we spent a few hours getting to know each other. I loved her, and at 6:00 AM I had to go to Boston. And I couldn’t convince her to come to Boston. I was on a tour, and I was in Jersey six, seven times a year. So I thought for sure I’d see her again soon, and I did not see her for 15 years. And then 23 years ago, at the end of a nightclub show in Scottsdale, she walked up and said, hi, remember me? And we were both at the end of divorces, and thank God I got her number that night. Even though I had to drive to San Diego with the band. And we’ve been together ever since. So I got a second chance, but I wish it wasn’t a 15-year wait.
How is the commitment to being in a band different than the commitment to being in a marriage? Because you’ve been in both for a long time.
Amy’s my soulmate for life. It’s a constant 24/7, for the rest of my life. You know, a band comes and goes. Right now we’re a family. I’ve been lucky enough to play with people that I’ve been playing with for over 40 years, on and off, that have become dear friends. And Amy loves them all too, and they’ve been in our home many times. Of course, Tommy, my brother, having him out is amazing. But you know, Amy recognizes that, too.
It’s a second family. But it is a family that, you know, you go live together, breathe and create this music together and then all of a sudden everyone goes off to the next project. But the difference is with this band, we all stay in touch as friends, and…God, it’s been eight years since I made a record, but all these people, Kevin McCormick, Andy Newmark, my brother of course, Cindy Mizelle. We’ve been good friends for a long time and we stay in touch when we’re not on tour together.
This album is coming off of Cattle Track Road Records, even though a bunch of your earlier solo work was issued by a variety of bigger labels. I mean, every musician dreams of that kind of control, but so few actually achieve it. Is it your plan to release your solo work on Cattle Track Road from now on? Do you have plans to release anybody else’s music?
It’s just a mom and pop thing for me and my wife to put out stuff. Way back in the early ’90s I had a record company I was butting heads with and I spent a year and a half of hell getting out of a lease. Once I was free, also thanks to technology, I knew I could never deal with the bureaucracy of the music business like that again. So I decided to stay a free agent with a website that way anything whether it’s art, a one off, an entire album, whenever Amy and I have something we want to share we can just share it.
We have a great team with Dick and Linda Bangham runs the website back east and they help with the artwork, changing designs and overseeing. So we’re just a mom and pop operation. Like you said, the freedom is essential. The music business is crazy enough as traveling musician without involving the bureaucracy of a record company. So I’m grateful to have my freedom.
Now, that’s some of the ghost of Tom Petty talking right there.
Yeah, and also I realize, headed back to Atlanta, I think way back in the ’70s I remember playing Alex Cooley’s Ballroom and walking across the street to see the old Fox Theater when it was in danger of being torn down. I’m glad it’s alive and well, but have really fond memories of the great crowd and I’m looking forward to getting back.
We’re looking forward to having you later this month.
Well, we’re going to be in great shape and do a great show for everyone. So thanks for spreading the word on the record and tour. I appreciate it.
Megan Volpert lives in Decatur, teaches in Roswell and writes books about popular culture, including the forthcoming Boss Broad and Straight Into Darkness.