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Interview: Nils Lofgren Talks About His New Album, His On-Line Guitar School and the Evils of Dog Fighting

Nils Lofgren has had one of the most diversified careers of the rock era. Over his 43 years in the business, he has played with the likes of Neil Young on his album After the Gold Rush and as a member of Crazy Horse, Ringo Starr as a two-time member of the All-Starr Band and, for the last 27 years, as a member of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band. On top of that, he has worked on numerous other projects including his original group, Grin, and on a long series of solo recordings.

VVN Music had the honor of talking to Nils on a variety of subjects including his new album, Old School, his on-line guitar school and his activity in researching and speaking out on the subject of dog fighting. He and his wife, Amy, are Acclaimed Ambassadors of the Best Friends Animal Society of Kanab, Utah.

VVN Music (VVN): I'd like to start by congratulating you on your new album. I've listened to it a number of times and it really is great.

Nils Lofgren (NL): Thank you so much. I really feel like its one of my best and feel great about it. It was a labor of love for a long time. I took my time with it and tried to find a balance with being at home with my family and hitting the road to stay sharp musically and finally got it done. Something I'm proud of. I'm glad it feels good to you.

VVN: When I look back over your career, which has been amazing with Neil Young, the E-Street Band and so forth and, from my count, this is your, I think, fifteenth solo studio album. Does that sound about right?

NL: Yeah, I've lost count. There's been so many of them and, of course, I had four albums with Grin and so many other projects in between all of them, I think it's at least that much but, whatever it is, I'm happy I got a new record done and out. It's a lot of work. You want it to feel right. That's the beauty of performing live. There's no second chances. You do your best and you have a chance to fix it or tweak it tomorrow night. The studio thing is quite different and I struggle with that kind of patience so I really worked hard at keeping a lot of the performances live and then the overdubs as live as possible and I think it shows and was worth the effort.

VVN: I was recently talking with a band that said they are now recording even when they are out on the road in hotel rooms. You doing anything like that or are you mainly working in the studio?

NL: Yeah, I don't have that technology down to that point. Certainly, when I'm doing shows now, my sound man will just run a live recording of the live feed into the computer, which I'm grateful for. I have a little primitive hand-held recording device, used to be the micro-cassette, that has awful fidelity but, if I get an idea on the road, it's in my backpack and I can just throw the idea down and forget it, knowing it will be there at the end of the night or the end of the week whenever I'm home to address ideas for songs. For the recording process, I work in my studio. I have a 24-track and a Mackie console. I'm not really an engineer but I know how to get good sounds to tape without any EQ so it doesn't screw it up for an engineer. I did 90% of the record at home like that and then I moved into a great local studio with an engineer, Jamison Weddle, to mix it with computers and recall and all that great stuff because I'm not an engineer. It was a great tool to have to mix it and take advantage of all the parts I got to tape over the months.

VVN: What really struck me was that you have a pretty wide range of styles on the album and, yet, the first two cuts (and I think you've probably heard this before) are kind of cutting or angry. Did you sequence it that way?

NL: Yeah, I did that on purpose. I always make records that are kind of representative of my schizophrenic nature...not really in a bad way. Look, we're all people. We have ups and downs and everything in between. That's all and as a musician, I grew up loving all kinds of music. When you talk about rock, blues, soul, folk and country, those are all genres that I feel comfortable playing. I love jazz but I'm not a jazz guitarist. I mean, I can improve if the chords are simple enough but at some point I'm a fish out of water because I don't have the musical expertise but, all those genres kind of meld together. Even Grin had kind of a country, rock, folk, blues flavor to it and that just continued. That always will be that way.

It was a chance to write things very personal and powerful messages to me and explore all those genres and different instruments I've picked up over the last ten years as the E-Street Band's swing man with pedal steel, dobro, lap steel, bottleneck, string banjo...all these other sounds. They just give me more tools. It was fun after a couple of years on the road with the E-Street Band. It was a big break from making my own music but, when I came to this project, I wasn't rusty musically. I was just kind of refreshed with the idea of “Wow. I haven't made a record in a long time and I haven't done my own music in awhile.” So, it was kind of an exciting next chapter that I began with some musical muscle from being out on the road for two years. I wasn't rusty in that sense.

VVN: I do appreciate the fact that you brought up all of the different genres. I think that music today has gotten so homogenized down into strict genres. Radio is that way. On my website, we've tried to make it as broad as possible with blues, country, folk, rock, soul, trying to bring back that multiple genre type thing.

NL: As well as how valuable that is for the listener as there are so many great songs in all those genres, especially the guys who wrote the book on it. Hank Williams, to me, was the Jimi Hendrix of country songwriting. It's just very authentic, visceral, powerful stuff. At its best, you see some younger, newer artists kind of harken back to that type of writing.

There's a lot of good and bad music out there and I'm all for anyone sharing any of it, especially the good stuff.

VVN: There are two cuts on the album that I found really quite beautiful. One was Irish Angel which I understand you have been performing live for a number of years.

NL: Bruce McCabe wrote that. He was in Jonny Lang's band when I first heard it about four years ago. My wife Amy and I went to a show...loved Jonny Lang and loved Bruce McCabe. I fell in love with the song and started singing it almost every night. I kept saying over the last five or six years “Man, I've got to get that on a record.”

Again, the concept of this Old School...I felt like there were a lot of things I had to accomplish on this record. One of them was getting a performance on Irish Angel I was proud of. Very glad I did it. Bruce has heard the song and given me his two thumbs up, which I'm grateful for. It's a beautiful ballad.

VVN: The other one that struck me was When You Were Mine. I have to ask. Was Harley one of your dogs?

NL: You know what? That's a live vocal, very emotional vocal and one of my favorite songs I've ever written. It's kind of symbolic for how the world is tearing everyone away from everyone, even their loved ones, and how you have to fight to hang on to it and get it back. It could be your son, your mother, a sibling, a cousin, a friend. There's negative darkness on the planet which is available for us to tap into and pull us apart.

My wife used to tell the story...When she was younger, she was going through a divorce, she was alone, she had a very young infant and she was under enormous anxiety and stress and she had this dog Harley. Beautiful dog. I think it was a Golden Retriever and was just the salt of the earth and the light of her life during a very bleak chapter with dark stuff going on while she was protecting her newborn. Fleeting the state to go to Jersey where her family was, being ordered back, no help from the courts. Really a nasty sad story.

One of the most heartbreaking things I ever heard in my life was, while she was literally on her knees with anxiety and raising her son, she was out one day and someone broke a padlock on her yard and stole the dog. The dog was never found. It couldn't have been at a worse time in her life. The only thing worse that could have happened was if someone had stolen her son. It was always to me one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever heard in my life because I know her history.

So, in this song, the theme When You Were Mine...whether it was your son or a relationship with a higher power or whatever...everything worked out and Harley came back. Then Harley killed a drug dealer. Just a confluence of beautiful justice served kind of happy moments but in a little more ominous, powerful setting than a Leave It to Beaver episode. It just always struck me as a powerful story but I chose for it to have a happy ending in this song.

VVN: Even though it didn't in real life.

NL: Not in real life but, you know, there are other happy endings and we are all going through it at every age. There is good and bad stuff happening to all of us. The world's crazy. More than ever, you've really got to hang on to the good stuff and you've got to really do it with a passion. It's not like a flippant thing anymore. My song Dream Big, work hard, stay humble, dance a lot.

VVN: I got quite a bit of the frustrations with life out of the song Old School.

NL: Yeah, that's a real dark song. I mean, the first verse I'm just poking fun at kids. It's a common theme. There's a whole sitcom that just came out, Last Man Standing. It gives the idea that we complain about kids today but we're the ones that are spoiling them rotten and telling them it's OK to grow up slower. Look, it's hard for everyone but growing up is rough. Thirteen to thirty is probably the roughest time for anybody in general. It's tough on all of us, including kids today, but that particular song is born of the rage of watching TV for years. I mentioned Jane and Nancy G and Joy Bahar who keep waving the flag of “What the hell are we doing with this letting out these predators?” They go after our kids. What's that about? It is a shameful black mark on congress and all of the powers that be and I don't think anyone disagrees that there are certain things that, if you do, you shouldn't have a second chance. I don't necessarily believe in the death penalty but I think we can all agree that, if someone is going to go and rape and murder your daughter, we don't want them to have a second chance at it, do we? Of course not and they get second chances. What does that say about us as a society? I just sit there and scream and curse at the TV. It was kind of embarrassing so finally I wrote a song about it and the character in the song doesn't have that luxury. He's lost a child. He's there and he's ready to take them all out and I can't blame him.

VVN: That kind of dovetails into something that is more of a statement than a question for you. I remember last year when you wrote the open letter to the NFL and its support of Michael Vick. I know people who do pit bull rescue and I'm right there with everything you said.

NL: Thank you. Originally, the letter was written privately to fifteen broadcasters to pass around because my problem was with the broadcasting. My initial things was “Look you guys, I know you have to talk about how great the on-field performance is but, after fifteen hours, you didn't spend five minutes talking about those dogs and how they're doing and where they're at and that's just terrible journalism. That's terrible reporting from people I've watched and admired as a huge sports fan.

Then, when they said “we want to post you're letter”, I was like “I don't know. It was meant for the broadcasters.” Anyway, I let them print it and it got 20,000 shares. I got vilified. I got people crucifying me, calling me a racist. Just tearing me to shreds and other people thinking I wasn't harsh enough. It was an eye opener and freaked me out but I have no regrets.

I did a lot of research in the Best Friends Sanctuary in Utah that took 22 or 23 of the dogs and are still nurturing them. That is such a beautiful thing. It's just my opinion. I get it. I just feel like that kind of behavior does not warrant a second chance at a job like that. That's just an opinion and it's not personal against Michael Vick. I feel that way about anybody who does that to animals. That was my opinion and I shared it and I don't regret it.

VVN: To me, if somebody can do something like that to animals, there is something broken in their morals and they could just as easily do it to a person.

NL: I did a lot of research at Best Friends Sanctuary. In fact, ESPN edited the piece. I worked with an editor as all the great sports writers like Rick Riley...people said, “Look, we all work with editors and you go and make sure that they don't edit anything that doesn't represent you.” We argued about some things and I was going to pull the plug on it but I got Best Friends involved that reassured ESPN that everything I was writing was correct and they let it stand. That was the reason I let it out.

Just so you know, I did a lot of research and they have, through their underground network, have some ins to the dog fighting world and I came to find out that there are a lot of people that world and...not to misquote me but anything that has to do with dog fighting is torture...but, I will say that there are a lot of people in that world that are really down in it as owners and breeders that, when they have dogs or puppies that don't cut the mustard in the violence department, they give them away to shelters. They give them away to children. They give them away. The decision to torture them to death is a different decision than giving them away because they aren't violent enough. That's two different types of behavior. It's all involved in dog torture but there's a distinction there. I think the fact that, for six years, Mr. Vick and his friends decided that, instead of giving them away when they were unacceptable animals, they needed to be tortured to death speaks volumes.

VVN: Back to the album, it's my understanding that the song I Miss You, Ray was written for Ray Charles but you are using it now, in concert, as a tribute to Clarence Clemmons.

NL: Yeah, I sing “I Miss You, C.” I wrote it months before Clarence unexpectedly had a stroke and passed away which was horrific. Again, a powerful theme to me was...the greatest man in my life was my Dad. I lost him thirteen years ago. I still miss him. I was blessed to have a great Dad. I'm a freak. Most people I know have problems with their families. I was one of those freaks who had a functional family but it didn't keep me from getting in trouble. It doesn't keep me from having ups and downs but I am blessed with a great family.

If you live long enough you start saying goodbye more and more and its rough. I used the loss of one of my musical heroes, Ray Charles, as a metaphor for that loss in a song that says to everyone and myself “Hey, life's still grand.” We owe a lot to them. We still have the memory and, hopefully, there's still some friends and family left standing. As you start taking all those losses, the hits start piling up and I think you have to start to focus more on who's left because, if you don't, it can take you under. It's a very painful, heartbreaking thing, especially if you are blessed with powerful people like that in your life. It's kind of a reminder to myself that it's OK to have the blues but look around. You've got three great brothers, your Mom's around, your wife, Amy's, hanging in there. She's beautiful. You have friends. Look into some of them while you're grieving your losses.

VVN: Just Because You Love Me. You wrote that song for your wife?

NL: Yeah, it's basically for anybody who has a powerful love in their life like that. Again, I was taking liberties as a writer. Fortunately, although I love my wife dearly, I wasn't flushing thousands of pills down the toilet. It's metaphorically speaking. I'm very grateful to have someone like that in my life. After my second divorce, I went into relationship retirement for two years convinced that I should never have a relationship again because of my crazy business and my crazy planet. Luckily, sixteen years ago at the Rockin' Horse, a rock club out here on the road in Scotsdale thus, long story short, we fell in love and dated and we've been married almost fourteen years. This is my main home now. I still get back east to see my family. I'm grew up in the D.C. area where I migrated to from Chicago after eight years there where I was born.

The song is just kind of a breather in the darkness of the record. Even some of the ominous, hopeful things have a bit of darkness in them so that was just a straight out “Hey, lucky me.”

VVN: I know you did a short tour in October. Any plans for the future now?

NL: I've got two shows booked at The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA on February 18 and 19. They're kind of an annual weekend there with the Lofgren brothers and Greg Varlotta. I'm going to fill in the dates and start just playing as much as I can and try to get to places I don't normally get to now that I have a new record and just keep spreading the word.

VVN: I wanted to ask you to tell me a little bit about your on-line guitar school.

NL: For 43 years now on the road, people have been saying “Hey, I'd like to play guitar for fun but I'm not allowed to. I have no talent or rhythm.” I'm always asking “Who told you that?” and they never remember. So, I'm trying to dispel that myth and the point of the beginners school is to start at zero for people with no talent or rhythm and say “Look, here's something to do with just one finger that takes no talent and no practice. I will back you up and let's make music NOW.” Feel how it feels to make music and then, with that being said, know that everything that you've learn is going to be gymnastics for your hands and it will frustrate you and understand that, if it's ten minutes or twenty minutes, once you start getting all “I don't want to do this anymore” go to the one finger thing, wind back to that little jam. Let me back you up and have fun for five minutes or five hours. It doesn't matter. Than walk away and just realize it's not a race. Music can be therapeutic out of the gate. It usually isn't with most teachers so that's the theme of my beginner's school.

VVN: Any chance you might move to a more intermediate or advanced school in the future.

NL: There's about a dozen intermediate lessons there. There's an intermediate school. In fact, the last three lessons are a marathon 3-1/2 hour lesson of the Because the Night solo I've been doing in front of the E-Street Band the last two years. There's a lot of good stuff there. The first lesson is my acoustic version of Keith Don't Go with all the soloing and harmonics. The second lesson is my bouncing harmonics and how you accomplish that with a thumb pick or a flat pick. They're both good schools with information. I slow everything down really slow and break it down so even beginners can get through an intermediate lesson with no problem. You just take it one lick at a time.

VVN: I have to ask you one last question. I'm sure you've been asked a thousand times but people will be mad at me if I don't ask. Any news on the future of the E-Street Band?

NL: No, it's an obvious, ominous, complex issue and as a member of the band who is not the band leader, and I embrace that role. Whether I work for Neil Young or Ringo, it's fun not to be the boss. It's nice to wake up and not be the boss and just be in a great group and have different musical insights and responsibilities that you can explore. The bottom line is, for me, Clarence was a dear friend off the road more than on stage and we talked every week consistently and I miss him. To me, as I'm grieving his loss, I'm allowing that to be an inappropriate and impossible topic for me because it's not my choice. I love Bruce, whatever he decides to do, I'm behind 1,000 percent and I can't even imagine how complex and difficult that decision is nor am I trying to figure it out because it's not my place.

VVN: I can see how he would have a lot of mixed emotions at this point.

NL: Yeah, I do, too and it's not even my decision so I'm just letting it be an impossible topic for me right now as I grieve my buddy's loss.