Nils Lofgren on New Neil Young and Lou Reed Collaborations: Exclusive Interview
One of the most anticipated Record Store Day releases in 2018 was the arrival of an album recorded live at the Roxy Theatre in 1973 that found Neil Young and his band running through a set that mostly included songs that eventually found their way onto Young’s Tonight’s the Night LP in 1975.
Young and the group, who were referred to as the Santa Monica Flyers, had just recently completed recording many of the songs and were excited to share them with the audiences at the Roxy, which had just opened its doors on the Sunset Strip.
For guitarist Nils Lofgren, the release of the Roxy recordings was an important moment. “They put out a double live vinyl, which was so cool to have,” he tells UCR. “I was the first guitar player on that stage, and that was a beautiful thing to put that out.”
Bringing things full circle, Lofgren was back onstage with Young and Crazy Horse last year for a pair of shows. “It was just beautiful," he says. "These guys are one of my first musical families outside of my own band, Grin. Fifty years later, to be able to play with them and play those beautiful songs of Neil's, it was just an incredible opportunity.”
Lofgren says the shows were “very classic Crazy Horse fashion -- raggedy and emotional.” He recently added more dates with the band to his calendar. “I got together with Billy [Talbot] and Ralphie [Molina] at Billy's home in South Dakota, in the Plains, in the polar vortex that was hitting our country.” he says. “We rehearsed for a few days and took a 12-hour bus ride through the snow and ice into Winnipeg to do two more great shows with Neil.”
He's now in the studio with Young, who recently revealed plans for the first new Crazy Horse album since 2012’s Psychedelic Pill. “Nils Lofgren is an original member of the Horse, dating back to After the Gold Rush and Tonight’s The Night,” Young wrote on his website. He "will be with Ralph Molina, Billy Talbot and I, making our new Crazy Horse music high in the Rockies.”
Lofgren says he's grateful for these moments. “I've gone to see Neil play all these years," he explains. "In '83 we made the Trans album and tour. That was kind of old-school meets new-school. I got to play a lot of his great hits with Crazy Horse.
"Of course, we also got to play some of the songs from After the Gold Rush and Tonight's the Night that I recorded with them. I've gotten to play a lot of those songs with Neil through the years. The Tonight's the Night Tour, actually, that's where I fell in love with the song ‘Don't Be Denied.’ On the Trans tour we played a lot of hits like ‘Hurricane,’ ‘Don't Cry No Tears,’ things like that.”
Lofgren also recalls some of the appearances he's made at the "30 years of the Bridge School Benefits, [where I] sat in with the Harvest Moon band. That led to the MTV Unplugged, where I played a lot of those great songs with that band. It's all just top of the heap when it comes to being in a great band and playing great songs.”
He's also revisiting another chapter of his career with the release of Blue With Lou, his first new studio album in eight years, which highlights five previously unheard songs he co-wrote with Lou Reed at the end of the ‘70s. The collaboration came together at the suggestion of producer Bob Ezrin, who was working with Lofgren on sessions for the Nils album that eventually emerged in 1979.
An unlikely pairing on paper, Reed and Lofgren discovered they had great chemistry and a shared love for football. “We spent a long night in his apartment talking about it," Lofgren recalls. "He was a big NFL fan, which surprised me. There was a Cowboys/Redskins game [that night]. I grew up in D.C. and he was a fan of the Cowboys, so we rooted against each other and had some drinks and talked into the night about how to go about it.”
Lofgren says he already had many songs but was in search of “better lyrics.” Reed suggested he send over some music, so Lofgren gave him a cassette of songs he was working on. Meanwhile, he continued on the album with Ezrin; several weeks later, he got a call from Reed early enough in the morning that Lofgren was still asleep.
“He said he'd been up three days and nights, he loved the tape," Lofgren says. "He was inspired and had just finished 13 sets of lyrics and said he'd dictate them to me if I liked. I didn't want to lose the moment, so I asked if he'd give me a minute to put on a pot of coffee, and he laughed about that. I sat there for two hours, dictating these 13 songs. I used three, he used three. I put out a couple since. So that's eight that [have seen] the light of day.”
“City Lights” made it onto Reed’s 1979 album The Bells. "He had said, ‘Look, I love your chorus. I want to keep your chorus. I wrote a story about Charlie Chaplin,’" Lofgren recalls. "I was honored that he wanted to hang onto my chorus. He did a beautiful kind of carnival-music recitation of ‘City Lights,’ which I love. But I always wanted to share the original melody.”
Lofgren included a new version of “City Lights” on Blue With Lou, along with five other previously unreleased Reed co-writes. The songs fit seamlessly with the remaining half-dozen the guitarist wrote for the new album.
Among the new songs, “Dear Heartbreaker” emerged as a tribute to the longtime connection he shared with the late Tom Petty. “I was a big fan early on,” he notes. Lofgren says Petty and the Heartbreakers opened for him in the U.K. when he was recording the 1977 live album Night After Night. “They were kickin’ our ass every night and made us really on our toes,” he recalls. “I was a great admirer of the band and their work with Tom. They had one of the great bodies of recorded music in rock history.”
In support of the new album, Lofgren will hit the road for the first time in more than a dozen years with a full band. He’ll be joined by his brother and former Grin bandmate Tom Lofgren on guitar, keyboard and vocals, along with drummer Andy Newmark, bassist Kevin McCormick and vocalist Cindy Mizelle, all of whom joined him in the studio for the new record.
“Very rarely, could [they] do a tour like mine in these little clubs,” he says. “It not only speaks to our friendship, but the musical adventure we had making this record, in addition to the ones in the past. Everyone was excited about it and proud of it.”
But the shows won’t simply be a trip down memory lane. “We’re making new memories with a new record I'm very proud of,” Lofgren explains. “It's been well over 15 years since I played [solo shows] with a band, so to be challenged to put a band show together with that cast is going to be a wonderful journey.”