Rock guitarist, vocalist
Though he is undoubtedly better known for his work backing other, more famous musicians—most notably Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young—guitarist Nils Lofgren has had a reasonably impressive solo career in rock as well, having recorded more than a dozen solo albums since 1975. He has also enlivened his concerts with daring jumps and flips while playing guitar.
Born in Chicago in 1952, Lofgren grew up in Maryland, close to Washington, D.C. His musical education began with the accordion at the age of five, but by the time he hit 15, Lofgren, won over by the likes of The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, found himself drawn to rock and roll—and the guitar. It was reportedly after seeing Hendrix in concert that Lofgren left school and fled to New York’s Greenwich Village, where, as a 16-year-old, he recorded a single for Sire Records with the band Dolphin.
By the late 1960s, Lofgren was fronting his own band, Grin, which he formed with drummer Bob Berberich and bass player Bob Gordon. Lofgren’s brother Tom later joined the band on guitar. It was Grin’s growing notoriety
Born 1952, Chicago, IL. Married to Cis. Formed Grin with Bob Gordon (bass) and Bob Berberich (drums), 1969; sang and played piano on Neil Young’s 1970 album After the Gold Rush; released self-titled debut with Grin on Spindizzy, 1971; released last album with Grin, Gone Crazy, on A&M, 1973; released first solo album Nils Lofgren on A&M, 1975; replaced guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, 1984-1991; member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, 1992.
Addresses: Record Company— The Right Stuff, 1750 N. Vine St., Hollywood, CA 90028. Website— www.rawks.com/nils.
that drew the attention of Neil Young, who invited Lofgren to work with him on Young’s After the Gold Rush (1970), to which Lofgren contributed vocals and piano. Lofgren nearly joined Young’s band Crazy Horse, as well, after contributing to the band’s 1971 debut.
Instead Lofgren pursued a rock future with his own band. But while Grin’s first two albums, 1971’s Grin and 1 + 1 in 1972, earned strong critical praise, their commercial fortunes were disappointing. After 1972’s All Out, Lofgren headed out on the road with Young. He returned to record Grin’s 1973 album Gone Crazy, but that turned out to be the band’s swan song. Facing financial woes and little prospect of attracting the audience some critics felt they deserved, Grin disbanded in 1974. “We were getting better than we had ever been, but the record company said, ‘Hey, you’re not selling enough albums, so you can’t make records anymore,’” Lofgren recalled to Jas Obrecht in Guitar Player. “We didn’t want to go back to doing Top 40 in nightclubs. We didn’t want to stagnate forever and live in the past. It was sad to break up, but other than that, the whole era and life of Grin itself was a very positive, exciting thing.”
Having toured with Young on the Tonight’s the Nighttour in 1973, Lofgren was a logical choice to join Young in the studio for the 1975 album of the same name. Lofgren also released his first solo recording in 1975, a self-titled effort that included “Keith Don’t Go,” a nod to Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and a cover of Carole King’s “Goin’ Back.” Nils Lofgren is considered by a number of critics to be among his strongest efforts. Commenting on the album in the Rolling Stone Album Guide, Paul Evans called it “an absolute delight: solid rock delivered with infectious energy and great self-confidence.” After that auspicious debut, Lofgren apparently stumbled somewhat on his next release, 1976’s Cry Tough, produced by Al Kooper. Some critics noted that while his musician ship was impressive, his vocals were decidedly less so.
If Cry Tough got mixed notices, the following year’s Came to Dance apparently fared even worse critically. After 1977’s double live album Night After Night, it was two years before Lofgren released another record. The wait was worth it, as 1979’s Nils was hailed as a strong return. The album featured three songs co-written with Lou Reed, who included another trio of the pair’s collaborative compositions on his own The Bells (1979). The single “Shine Silently,” while never a chart hit, earned particular praises.
After inking a deal with Back street Records, Lofgren released Night Fades Away in 1981, followed by Wonderland in 1983. However, a week after Wonderland’s release, Lofgren said in a 1991 Rolling Stone article that after a new president took over the label, Lofgren was promptly dropped. “‘I had to look for a new deal, and to my horror I couldn’t get one,’” Lofgren told John Swenson in that story.
Lofgren again found refuge as a sideman, hitting the road with Young for the 1983 Trans tour. He then joined Springsteen’s E Street Band in 1984, replacing Little Steven Van Zandt. The union proved to be a solid one, with Lofgren remaining a member of the band until Springsteen opted to work without the group in 1991. The mid-1980s thus saw few solo releases from Lofgren, aside from two compilations and 1985’s Flip, which yielded a minor hit in the UK with the single “Secrets in the Street.”
The recording break was apparently a welcome one for Lofgren, though. As he told David Simons in a 1998 article in Musician, “When I worked with Bruce, he completely removed that whole animal of making records and competing in the commercial world…. And that pause let me come back to my own music refreshed, feeling like my batteries were recharged, and ready for the next record.”
After the lengthy stint as a Springsteen sideman, Lofgren toured with Ringo Starr as part of his All-Starr Band before focusing again on his solo career. For 1991’s Silver Lining, Lofgren’s musical friends returned the favor. The album featured the talents of Starr, Clarence Clemons, Levon Helm, Billy Preston, and Springsteen, who lent harmony vocals to the single “Valentine.” As Swenson noted, the album reflected Lofgren’s maturation while maintaining “the high-energy guitar playing that Lofgren has been known for.”
His maturation was in evidence in his next release, 1992’s Crooked Line, as well. Reviewing the album for Entertainment Weekly, Jim Farber called it the “toughest-sounding power-pop record since Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, not to mention the truest.” Helping out this time was Young, who lent backing vocals and harmonica to “You” and played electric guitar on “Drunken Driver.”
For a performer who has made his mark as player, it is perhaps fitting that Lofgren’s late 1990s efforts included two live records: 1997’s Code of the Road: Greatest Hits Live! and 1998’s Acoustic Live. While he never became the type of rock superstar he played backup for, by the 1990s Lofgren said he had learned to take comfort in playing live, which helikened to “therapy at this point” in a 1996 interview with Gregory Isola in Guitar Player. “I’ve had a real up-and-down career—that hit record has been elusive—but the audience has kept me going,” he told Isola. “They don’t care what chart position you’re in or how many units you didn’t sell or what some executive thinks of you. They let you know instantly if you’ve knocked ‘em out—that’s liberating.”
Nils Lofgren, A&M, 1975.
Cry Tough, A&M, 1976.
I Came to Dance, A&M, 1977.
Night After Night, A&M, 1977.
Nils, A&M, 1979.
Night Fades Away, Backstreet, 1981.
Wonderland, Backstreet, 1983.
Flip, Columbia, 1985.
The Best of Nils Lofgren, A&M, 1985.
Classics Volume 13, A&M, 1989.
Silver Lining, Rycodisc, 1991.
Crooked Line, Rycodisc, 1992.
Damaged Goods, Pure, 1995.
Code of the Road: Greatest Hits Live!, The Right Stuff, 1997.
Acoustic Live, The Right Stuff, 1998.
Grin, Spindizzy, 1971.
1 + 1, Spindizzy, 1972.
All Out, Spindizzy, 1972.
Gone Crazy, A&M, 1973.
Best of Grin, Epic, 1985.
With Neil Young
After the Gold Rush, Reprise, 1970.
Tonight’s the Night, Reprise, 1975.
Trans, Geffen, 1982.
Buckley, Jonathan and Mark Ellingham, eds., Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides, 1996.
DeCurtis, Anthony and James Henke, eds., The Rolling Stone Album Guide, Random House, 1992.
Erlewine, Michael, executive editor, All Music Guide to Rock, 2nd Edition, Miller Freeman Books, 1997.
Graff, Gary and Daniel Durchholz, eds., musicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1999.
Romanowski, Patricia and Holly George-Warren, eds., The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 1995.
Billboard, June 1, 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, Sept. 4, 1992.
Guitar Player, December 1985; June 1991; March 1996.
Musician, December 1998.
Oakland Press (Michigan), February 28, 1999.
Rolling Stone, Sept. 29, 1983; July 4, 1985; March 7, 1991; May 30, 1991.
—K. Michelle Moran