Everyman rocker and guitar giant explains how He found common ground with the Late Great Lou Reed
Nils Lofgren could be considered the essential traveling troubadour. While his career spans over 50 years, beginning with his iconic outfit Grin, he’s best known among the masses as being the faithful sidekick for two indisputable superstars, first Neil Young, later Bruce Springsteen and now, both, naturally at alternating times.
Somehow, in the midst of all that activity Lofgren still finds time to tend to his solo efforts, an ongoing endeavor that’s occupied him since Grin’s demise. Nevertheless, Blue with Lou, his latest outing — and his first in several years — finds him partnering with another legend of superior standing and fellow underrated guitar hero, the late Lou Reed.
“I first met Lou when my producer Bob Ezrin took me to a recording session of Lou’s to meet and ask if he’d consider some co-writing with me,” Lofgren recalls. “Bob and I felt we had a lot of songs with good music but subpar lyrics, and we were hoping Lou might be willing to help. I was excited that Lou was open to the idea and suggested he and I get together at his apartment in a few days to discuss. I arrived at his New York City apartment the following week in the evening and we had some drinks and talked about writing and got to know each other. We were both big NFL fans and we watched a Cowboys vs Redskins game and rooted for opposite teams. I found this funny and touching in a way.”
They may have been on opposite sides of the scrimmage line, but as Lofgren tells it, they were solidly on the same side as far as their songwriting intents were concerned.
“As we talked late into the night, we realized that I wrote music fairly easily and had to work harder on lyrics,” Lofgren continues. “Lou was the opposite, and lyrics came naturally to him. In light of this, he suggested before we book a loft and slog it out hours a day with piano and guitars the more traditional way, that I send him the songs I’d written with titles, melodies, lyrics I needed replaced, ‘la de da’ melodies…. really, everything I had on the songs that Bob Ezrin and I wanted his help on. I left late at night, after a great time and visit, with this plan in place. I sent Lou a cassette of 13 songs as requested, and got back to my pre-production work with Bob. As weeks went by, I figured Lou was too busy to help us and carried on with my work as we had plenty of completed songs to prepare.”
Fortunately, he was mistaken as he found out later.
“About three or four weeks later, Lou woke me up about 4:30 a.m. and told me he loved the cassette I’d sent,” Lofgren continues. “That of course was good news, but I still wasn’t clear on the timing of the call. Then he excitedly explained that he’d been up for three days and nights working on the cassette, and had just completed 13 sets of finished lyrics he felt great about. He felt so good about it, he wanted to let me know immediately and suggested that if I got a pen and paper, he’d dictate the 13 finished lyrics to me!”
“That woke me right up,” he recalls. “He stayed on the line while I made a pot of coffee, got my pad and pencil, and spent another two hours taking Lou’s dictation and getting every word right. We were both excited about it, and Lou asked to use three of the songs immediately on his Bells album, which I was happy about. I spent the next few days placing these great, new Lou Reed lyrics into the songs, and Bob Ezrin and I used three of them on the Nils album.
VIDEO: Nils Lofgren – Nils (full album)
Subsequently I’ve used two more since. ‘Life,’ from the Damaged Goods album, is a haunting, beautiful lyric of Lou’s, and Branford Marsalis plays a soulful sax on it. Lou came to the final mix session in New York and loved it, which meant a lot. ‘Driftin’ Man’ is on my Break Away Angel album. So that’s eight now that’d been shared. I’d go see Lou in concert and have a brief visit where we both happily reminisced of those unusual co-write sessions. Grateful for, and proud of them.”
Nevertheless, there were some songs that remained, and Lofgren subsequently made it his mission to make sure that they weren’t forgotten.
“I’d always hoped Lou would want to take a look at the five songs left behind someday,“ he reflects. “Tragically, we lost the great Lou Reed, and at that point I knew it was my job to make these songs left behind into records to share one day. I’m proud they’re on the new album, in addition to my version of ‘City Lights’ from Lou’s Bells album. He loved my chorus on that one, and wrote a story about Charlie Chaplin. Thus six co-writes with Lou and six of my own on my new album.”
The results justify Lofgren’s intents. The co-writes with Reed are, as one might expect, edgy and intense. “Attitude City,” as its name implies is an intensive rocker, flush with drive and determination. “Talk Thru the Tears” is a soaring ballad, supremely affecting and representative of the best of both men’s efforts. The aforementioned “City Lights” easily rivals Reed’s original take on the song, courtesy of a brilliant Branford Marsalis sax solo that literally seems to send the song rocketing to the stratosphere.
Fortunately, the tracks composed by Lofgren alone also measure up to those written with Reed. The steady resolve of “Cut Him Up” and tender caress of “Too Blue to Play” and “Remember You” reflect the prolific prowess that’s always been the essence of Lofgren’s efforts overall.
Then again, Lofgren’s always been a solid team player. He shares those sentiments freely.
“I hit the road 50 years ago in 1968 when I was 17,” Lofgren recalls. “At 18, I was playing on the After the Goldrush album and at that early age, I realized how much I enjoyed a break from being the bandleader and just playing in a great band. Through the years I’ve had amazing opportunities to play in a number of wonderful bands. It’s fairly organic in the sense that I’m happy working on my next album and my tours as I love to play in front of people, and when a situation arises to play in a great band with people I love, I’ll always try to make the timing work. The scheduling may get challenging sometimes, but I’ve got an amazing wife Amy who always steps up and helps make these rare opportunities work for us, our dogs, and our lives. It can get hectic, but looking back through 50 years, I’m grateful for all of it. I sure feel great about Blue With Lou, and I hope Lou’s smiling down from heaven and enjoying our songs being shared.”
VIDEO: Nils Lofgren – The Relix Sessions, 4/5/19