In 1978, Nils Lofgren was a well-regarded but vaguely underperforming singer and guitarist. His former band, Grin, had been a disappointment, and he was in between the gigs that would come to define him: A few years previous, he had been a member of Crazy Horse, and had played on some of their most iconic recordings with Neil Young. A few years later, he would join Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band during its “Born in the USA” boom era.
But in 1978, Lofgren was struggling. He was recording a solo album, “Nils,” with producer Bob Ezrin. He had music written, but couldn’t get the lyrics right. Ezrin suggested that Lofgren meet his friend, Lou Reed. “I thought to myself, ‘He’s not gonna co-write with me, he’s Lou Reed,’ ” Lofgren recalls in a phone interview. After a brief meeting at his studio, where Lofgren was surprised at how friendly and amenable Reed was, they agreed to meet at Reed’s place a few days later.
After spending a night drinking whiskey and watching Monday Night Football together, Lofgren passed Reed a tape of 13 fractured songs, some with bridges and melodies, telling him he could change anything he wanted. “Three or four weeks went by and we kind of forgot about it,” Lofgren says, until Reed called him one morning at 4:30 a.m. “I was surprised and happy to hear from him, but I was confused about the timing. He said, ‘I’ve been up for three days and nights. I love your cassette, and I finished 13 complete songs of lyrics that I feel great about.’ I was startled by the excitement in his voice.”
Reed spent the next few hours dictating lyrics to an amazed Lofgren. They divided up the songs: Lofgren used three on “Nils,” and later released another two, and Reed used three on his 1979 album “The Bells.” Lofgren says neither man placed any limitations on how the songs would be used. “I was thrilled he wrote a song with me. He didn’t need my permission how to produce them, and I didn’t need his.”
Away from home
In 2017, four years after Reed’s death, Lofgren was on the Australian leg of Springsteen’s anniversary tour for “The River” when he started thinking about Reed, and about those remaining unheard songs. It was already a difficult time. “I was missing home, worried about my animals, worried about my wife being alone so much,” Lofgren remembers. He began using pre-show sound checks to piece song ideas together. “I would go a couple hours ahead of the band and Bruce. I like to have time to myself there.”
Back home in Arizona, he began to assemble “Blue With Lou,” his first solo album in eight years, which features the five newly unearthed Reed collaborations, and several new Lofgren compositions. He's now touring behind the album, with a stop at the Kent Stage on Thursday.
The album, recorded live in the studio, is an occasionally somber, mostly straightforward ballads-and-rockers collection. Lofgren was preparing to take it on the road when Young called, inviting him to the studio with Crazy Horse.
Lofgren had rejoined the band for some live shows in 2018 after a decades-long absence, as a last minute replacement for guitarist Poncho Sampedro, but Young’s call was still a surprise. “He had some great new songs, and he wanted to get Crazy Horse together in Colorado and just start the recording process,” says Lofgren, who has only just returned from the sessions.
“It was kind of a stunning surprise. It’s a work in progress that’ll probably continue on and off throughout the year. Two weeks from now, it’ll be fifty years that I walked in on Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Lofgren, 67, was born in Chicago and raised mostly in Maryland. He was a teenager when he appeared on Young’s classic “After the Gold Rush,” and just a few years older when he played on Young’s “Tonight’s the Night.” He is utterly at ease with Mount Rushmore types like Springsteen and Young, having spent large swaths of his career in service to one or the other.
It’s tempting to think of Lofgren as a kind of Rock Star Whisperer, with a Littlefinger-like skill for navigating superstar egos. He dismisses the idea. “These are dear friends who expect me to be myself,” he says. “I can’t play that game of, How do I behave here? There’s nothing adversarial, it’s very organic and creative.”
Springsteen will soon drop a solo project, "Western Stars" (“That album’s been in the can for a few years,” Lofgren says. “I’m glad he finally released it”), and recently announced that there would be no E Street tour in 2019. The E Street Band has been pressed into service only intermittently since the ’90s, its members left to their own devices the rest of the time.
This means E Streeters potentially spend a lot of time waiting for Bruce to call, something Lofgren says isn’t as anxiety-provoking as it sounds. “I love the band, and I hope there’s another chapter,” he says, “but I was glad that Bruce came out and very gently made a statement that E Street wouldn’t be touring this year. That frees me up. That way, when a booking agent says, ‘Why should I book you? What if Bruce calls?’ I [have an answer]. It was nice that he mentioned that officially, so we could all do our own thing and work.”