May 5, 2014

Nils Lofgren



by Harvey Kubernik ~

The work of singer-songwriter-guitarist Nils Lofgren receives a comprehensive audio study in Face the Music, a definitively annotated nine-CD/one-DVD boxed set that chronicles Lofgren’s 45-year solo career from Fantasy/Concord Music Group.

The collection’s music component, chosen by Lofgren himself, comprises 169 tracks, stretching back to Lofgren’s early work with his Washington, D.C.-area band Grin, which he founded at the age of 17 in 1968, and surveying both his major-label solo albums and independent self-released music. Two of the CDs contain 40 previously unreleased tracks and rarities. The DVD features 20 video clips selected from a body of performances as diverse as Nils’ career.

A detailed, 136-page booklet, with an introduction by music journalist and author Dave Marsh, houses Lofgren’s track-by-track commentary and personal reflections on his work, as well as his tours of duty as a sideman with Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Ringo Starr. The set also has homages to Lofgren by Bonnie Raitt, Joe Walsh, Sting, Bono, and Paul Rodgers.

Nils LofgrenLofgren selected his own personal favorites from his four albums with Grin (1970-73) and his highly praised solo releases for A&M, MCA/Backstreets, CBS, and Rykodisc (1975-1992), many of which had been allowed to go out of print during the compact disc era.

Nils hand-picked efforts from Grin’s repertoire: “Like Rain,” “White Lies,” “Slippery Fingers,” and “Beggar’s Day” (the last of which he also recorded on Crazy Horse’s 1971 debut), plus solo outings like “Moon Tears,” “Back It Up,” “The Sun Hasn’t Set,” “You’re the Weight,” “Incidentally … It’s Over,” and “Dreams Die Hard.” Lofgren’s collaborators include Young, Springsteen, Starr, Graham Nash, Levon Helm, Al Kooper, Buddy Miles, Billy Preston, Aynsley Dunbar, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.

Nils also culled material from 10 albums issued since 1993 on his own Cattle Track Road Records imprint and sold via his web site,

“The writing was on the wall,” suggests Lofgren, “and in the mid-’90s I realized, look, without some hit records and some power to throw your weight around with the companies, you’re lost. Thanks to technology, I realized, ‘Now is the time for me to walk away from that and put out music I’m proud of on a web site,’ which I’ve done for 20 years. At the end of the day, I’ve continued to make solo records and release them. The downside is that it’s very grass-roots, and a lot of people might not hear about it. The upside is I’ve kept that kind of artistic freedom that I got kind of spoiled with.

“Those were times that I don’t think can happen anymore. I look back and I’m quite amazed that I’ve been that blessed to make that kind of music with that cast of characters. Things like that are just magical. I never could have dreamed that they’d happen.”

Long-time Lofgren fans will find some surprises on the two CDs of unissued material, which reaches back in time to his work with the pre-Grin band Paul Dowell and the Dolphin and includes rarities from the Grin era. Nils offers, “The piece de resistance for me was finding an old master tape of Neil Young singing and playing piano on ‘Keith Don’t Go’ with Grin, and getting his permission to use it after we remixed it.”

nils_lofgren_face_the_music_pack_shot_portfolio_panels_back_discsMulti-instrumentalist Nils Lofgren at age 18 joined Neil Young’s band and played guitar, piano and sang on the acclaimed platinum album After The Gold Rush. Lofgren continued his recording career with the band Grin in 1971 releasing albums 1971-1974 on the Spindizzy/Columbia label.

Lofgren was a member of Crazy Horse in 1972, writing the FM radio favorite, “Beggar’s Day,” and in 1973 appeared on Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night. He began his solo artist career for A&M Records with Nils Lofgren that spawned the songs “Back It Up” and “Keith Don’t Go.”

Lofgren’s musical career over five decades has included musical director/bandleader stints for ABC-TV’s Paula Poundstone Show, and The Cable Ace Awards, as well as playing alongside Cab Calloway.

Nils was also a session musician on Jerry Lee Lewis’ Last Man Standing and played guitar with Willie Nelson at the Kennedy Center Honors.

It was in 1984 that guitarist Nils Lofgren was invited to join Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. In May of 2014 Nils is currently touring North American with Springsteen and his group.


Q: What is the genesis of Face the Music?

A: I’ve had a website for 20 years after parting ways with record companies. I make music and I go play and I do stuff I am proud of and release it through I used to call the old record companies about my masters and on their books I owe them a lot of money. I would say to them, ‘Look. It costs a buck and a quarter to make a CD. Let me pay you five dollars a CD and buy a thousand CDs from you.’ And they’d always say no. And it was a source of frustration. And just kind of accepting that, which is not a unique story. A lot of artists and musicians go through that. So I’m thrilled Fantasy wanted to do this.

“So about 16 months ago, Tom Cartwright, an old friend, who has worked with me through the years at other record companies and Gene Rumsey who was the head of Fantasy/Concord at the time, approached me with the idea of discussing a comprehensive box set. And long story short, we kept meeting and it lead to a ten-disc 45-year retrospective that I am very proud of and still a little surprised it is happening.

Q: What about the process of compiling the music?

A: Initially when we started the conversation and got more serious about it, eventually it lead to the reality of me going, ‘Well, if we’re really gonna do this and it’s 45 years, and I’ve done a lot of work consistently throughout, can we make it a comprehensive thing?’

“Which resulted in the ten discs, two bonus discs, forty tracks, some never heard before. Some Grin stuff we found. The criteria was and I gotta hand it to Concord/Fantasy, which is unusual to hear from a record company if you can imagine, everyone had opinions, but at the end of every decision, ‘Well, it’s your box set. You make every final decision.’

“So they made suggestions, there were some debates, but at the end of the day no one every argued with my final choices. And what I wanted to do was be able to listen to all the CDs front to back without picking the needle up and skipping a song or two. So I left off those tracks where I thought, ‘Hey…It was good… But I don’t want to hear it right now.’ I tried to assemble a running order and re-visit the songs how the songs play one after the other. Same thing you did like when you made an album. Keys, feels, and to do that with 189 tracks was an enormous physical task. 16 months of non-stop work.

Q: When did the project started to define itself?

A: Initially when I got the go ahead, I presented the two discs of bonus tracks, a rough assembly of that, and then they were excited about that. ‘Cause most boxed sets everything is available and the big hook is the additional tracks. In my case it’s an added bonus, sadly, that most of the old music is out of print. So it’s all kind of a good thing. When I knew I had that many discs and could really fill them up I felt right to start the project. I went through every record I made and picked my favorite tracks that I could play back to back. Agonizing over some choices what to leave on or off. By the end of the day I played them, I assembled them, I moved them around and this is what I came up with.

“We also agreed very early on that if we couldn’t get all the stuff maybe we shouldn’t do it. So with that theme in mind, and the last 20 years I own everything, but certainly the first hundreds of songs were old companies. They went back once they had my wish list and struck deals for everything, even some terrible deals for Fantasy. But in the spirit of doing this right, they wanted to get every single track and there wasn’t one track I had to let go of because of politics. I was afraid if we got into that at all I might not want to do it and they understood that. So they were very serious about trying to make it all happen. And they did. Fan or not, I think it is kind of a lost body of work in general the last 50 years that is seeing the light of day in May.

Q: Face the Music has Neil Young singing and playing piano on “Keith Don’t Go” with Grin.

A: You know, that blew my mind. In 1973 Grin was recording and between labels. Columbia and A&M (Spindizzy). And we were working on this song “Keith Don’t Go” that I had written on the Tonight’s The Night tour with Neil. It was a thank you note to Keith for all the great music and on behalf of all the fans. Neil was in town and my producer David Briggs was talking to him on the telephone. Next thing you know, David says, “I got Neil to come over tonight. Maybe we can get him to play.” Next thing you know, Neil is playing piano and singing brilliantly and we cut a love version with Neil.

“I knew I had a cassette of that. For days I rummaged through thousands of cassettes, because I’m not a good librarian, frustrated as hell. And then Bob Dawson, who was the engineer for Briggs, came out to my basement and we go through all these 16 tracks and we find the master tape of that session. We mix it up. He was there, he knew Briggs, and knew the vibe and sound. So instead of finding a cassette that maybe I could bake and have a bad mix of a great performance, we actually, true to that day and that experience, make the mix we all were listening to in the room that night. Neil was happy to give us permission to use it. And that’s kind of the gem of the bonus tracks.

Q: What was one of the things you earned from touring and recording with Bruce Springsteen over the decades that informed the creation of Face the Music?

A: It is kind of an extension of what I was blessed to have start with Neil and David, and soon after, Jack Nitzsche, Danny Whitten and Crazy Horse. Just that authentic honesty and optimism about thinking big about what you’re doing and dream big, which is a song from my last album that sums it up.

“I noticed with Bruce, ‘OK. What is the biggest thought, the biggest thing I think of here?’ And then he starts working on it with the band. Then you see him going, ‘That’s my biggest thought. How can I top that?’ And that was my high hopes. ‘Let me see if I can top them.’ And Bruce puts in time in trying to make it better. And I kind of brought that into this project.


Harvey Kubernik has published six books. His most recent literary entry Turn Up The Radio! Rock, Pop and Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972 is available through Santa Monica Press. Introduction penned by Tom Petty, afterward from Roger Steffens.

One Comment

  1. Lwood

    What a great songwriter, guitar player and Performer….a DC DJ once called him the original ‘Punk’, I don’t think he was far off.

    Surprised he didn’t mention the A&M limited release ‘Authorized Bootleg’….it was such a great follow up to Nils’ 1st A&M official release as I recall, but of course there were few who worked the record at FM stations.

    Nice interview too!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *