A call from New Jersey - When Springsteen phones, Lofgren puts his solo career on hold

The State, 2002-12-06, by: Michael Miller
When the call came late last spring, Nils Lofgren dropped everything to hit the road once again with his old pal from New Jersey. What else can you do when the Boss is on the line? "I was going to play all summer with my band," Lofgren said by phone a week ago from Las Vegas. "But when Bruce called to do this tour, I was thrilled. You never like cancelling work, but obviously, it was necessary."

"Bruce" is Bruce Springsteen. Lofgren is one of rock's most admired guitarists, and he's been an integral part of the E Street Band for 18 years. His incendiary solos and powerful vocals have graced every tour the group has made since the "Born in the U.S.A." jaunt of 1984-85. "I love being in bands," said Lofgren, 51. "I've spent the majority of the past 34 years on tour. It's where I'm most at home; it's where I'm most disciplined. I've had many great bands of my own, but I've got to say, the E Street Band is as great a rock 'n' roll band as there's ever been in history."

Road-tested and tour-tough, Lofgren brought an impressive history of his own to the E Street Band when he joined in 1984. He led the early '70s rock trio called Grin, which scored a Top 40 hit with the tune "White Lies." He played on Neil Young's landmark albums "After the Goldrush" in 1970 and "Tonight's the Night" in 1975 and still found time to release five solo albums of his own before 1980. "I've been getting my music out there since I was 17," he said.

Lofgren is still releasing solo work whenever he's not recording or touring with Springsteen. In fact, he postponed a tour to support his latest solo album, "Breakaway Angel," so he could reunite with the E Street Band. A stellar 14-track disc that features Lofgren's sophisticated songwriting and some extraordinary acoustic guitar work, "Breakaway Angel" was released earlier this year on his own Vision Music label. "It was probably the most fun I've had making a record," he said. "Most of my singing and playing was live in the studio, and it's not all flashy, but we did leave some extended jams on at the end of songs. That's an advantage of not having a record company breathing down my neck and telling me the song has to be three minutes."

After working through several major-label record deals during his 32-year career, Lofgren is now taking a grass-roots approach to getting his solo music heard. The pay might not always be as good, but the artistic freedom is priceless. "I left my last (record) deal six years ago," Lofgren said. "I've started a Web site and faced the fact that I'm just not going to get industry support. It's a little scary, but it's also exciting. If I keep making music I'm proud of, I'll keep looking for an audience. I might pick them up one by one, but it's still about making music and sharing it. That's my job."


Lofgren got to know Springsteen in the early '70s when they'd bump into each on the East Coast club circuit. Lofgren was working hard to make Grin a big-league act, while Springsteen was whipping a new outfit called the E Street Band into shape. A decade later, in May 1984 to be exact, their musical paths became intimately intertwined. "I'd been visiting Bruce six months earlier up in New Jersey," Lofgren said. "I just went up for a visit on a weekend, and I was kind of down in the dumps. It was the first time in my life that I could not get a record deal. People were calling me a dinosaur. I was a little freaked out."

Springsteen and Lofgren jammed at some clubs and just hung out and talked a lot. One afternoon, they were sitting around and watching MTV when a news item came on about guitarist Steve Van Zandt leaving the E
Street Band to pursue a solo career. "Bruce was a little upset because at that time, that was just a rumor. He and Steve hadn't made that decision." But Lofgren knew there were E Street changes in the wind.

"Steve's a great writer and singer, and having been a solo artist for so long, I could totally relate to what he was going through," Lofgren said. "If you don't get your music out, it builds up in you and it starts hurting. So I took the opportunity at that point to tell my friend Bruce, 'Hey, if you ever need a guitar player, I want an audition.' " A few months later, Van Zandt did indeed leave the E Street Band to form Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, and not long after that, Lofgren's phone rang. "Fortunately, after jamming with the band for a couple of days, it felt good to Bruce and he asked me to join," Lofgren said. "It was a great honor."

Lofgren joined just in time to see the world as part of the "Born in the U.S.A." tour. He played on Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love" album in 1986, and continued to tour with the E Street Band until the members went their separate ways in 1989. Lofgren recharged his solo career with a full-throttled roar. He recorded albums such as the 1986 double live set "Code of the Road," 1991's "Silver Lining," with guest vocals by Springsteen, and the excellent 1996 disc "Damaged Goods." He toured with Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band in 1989 and even beat the much taller Howard Stern in a one-on-one basketball challenge for charity in 1991.

In 1999, however, Lofgren received another phone call from New Jersey. Springsteen was putting the E Street Band back together and an old friend was returning to the fold. "We've had Steve back now since the last tour, which is fabulous," Lofgren said. "Steve made all those great records with Bruce, and when you hear those harmonies, you want to hear Steve singing them. And those great guitar parts the two of them wrote, it's been a very beautiful experience for me to play with them."


He might not look like a buzz saw or a ballpeen hammer, but Lofgren's guitar playing packs the same kind of wallop. And he knows that his fiery fretwork is only one cog in a very powerful, well-oiled rock 'n' roll machine. "I often say that Bruce has the biggest toolbox in rock history," Lofgren said. "First of all, it's a big band, and between all the different people in the band, Bruce has an enormous array of tools to choose from. He's a master at mixing up all the sounds at his disposal and running the whole show."

In addition to Van Zandt, Lofgren's bandmates include bassist Garry Tallent, drummer Max Weinberg, keyboardists Roy Bittan and Danny Federici, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, singer Patti Scialfa and newest addition Soozie Tyrell on vocals and violin. The multifaceted outfit can lay back for a quiet number, then shift into overdrive for a raging rock tune. "There'll be songs where there's only Bruce and his guitar and maybe a violin," Lofgren said. "Then there's the 10-piece roaring band .'.'. and everything in between."

With more than 30 shows of the current tour under its belt, the E Street Band is getting noticeably stronger, Lofgren said. For his part, the firebrand guitarist is finding new challenges by adding some vintage instruments to his arsenal. "I'm playing some new instruments this time out," Lofgren said. "A little pedal steel, a little dobro, some lap steel and some six-string banjo. These are fun challenges for me, because I'm a beginner at all these instruments."

Despite all the stringed challenges, you'd think an accomplished guitarist such as Lofgren would get frustrated at not being able to rip off more electric solos during Springsteen's shows. "No, I don't, and I'll tell you why," Lofgren said. "I honestly love to play rhythm guitar. I feel as challenged and creative with an acoustic rhythm guitar in my hands as I do with a solo spot.

"When we play a song like 'Prove It All Night' or 'Tougher Than the Rest,' songs like that when I'm playing acoustic guitar the whole song, I get to turn my whole body into a shaker. I crawl inside the high hat of Max, interact with his drumming and create swells in the rhythm like a giant percussion instrument. It's a very trance-like place I can go and stay for five minutes." When Lofgren comes out of his shaker-like, acoustic trance, he's sometimes surprised by what's next. "Bruce has been turning it up a notch lately," Lofgren said. "He's starting to pull out some old songs and calling audibles onstage" - he means like a football quarterback changing a play - "'.'.'. counting them off at the mic. It's very exciting."


Lofgren is equally excited about taking his solo career into the future via the Internet and his own record label (check out nilslofgren.com). He'll release another double-live CD early next year, and he's even finding time to jot down song ideas and fiddle around with new chord changes while touring with Springsteen. "I've got a dozen ideas for new songs lying around in my notebook and my little boom box of cassette riffs," Lofgren said. "When this tour winds down, I'll probably hit the road with my band and do some acoustic shows as I start formulating another body of songs for a studio record."

For now, however, Lofgren is devoted to helping his old pal from Jersey, who's not showing any signs of slowing down. "Bruce and the E Street Band are as good as they've ever been," Lofgren said, " and I want this tour to last as long as possible. I'm a great fan of Bruce, I love and respect him, and I don't care if I'm playing two little lines in the middle of a five-minute song, to me there's power in every note."

It's those little things, Lofgren said, that add up to make an evening with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band such a riveting affair. "If you love the music like I do, you can embrace every phrase and feel like it's adding to the cumulative whole," he said. "You know Bruce is taking every little thing that's positive and using it through the night so by the end of the show, people are going crazy and feeling touched, in a positive, spiritual way." Like the Boss says, come on down for the rising. Come on down for the rising tonight.