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Nils Lofgren: 50 years of 'just being a guy in the band'
HARI SREENIVASAN: Bruce Springsteen has spent much of his 2018 performing an acclaimed autobiographical show on a New York City stage, and tomorrow a film version of that show, "Springsteen on Broadway," will make its streaming debut. But 2018 has been a signal year for one of his band members as well, Nils Lofgren. He also has a noteworthy biography of his own and is celebrating his golden anniversary in the music business. NewsHour Weekend's Tom Casciato has the story.
TOM CASCIATO: Even if you've never heard of Nils Lofgren, chances are you've heard Nils Lofgren. He's best known as a member of Bruce Springsteen's famed E-Street Band and for periodically backing Neil Young.
But what about ... Ringo Starr in the spotlight? there's Nils Lofgren. Jerry Lee Lewis at the mic Nils Lofgren. Chuck Berry out front? ... Nils Lofgren. Willie Nelson and Friends? ... if you blink you'll miss him, but there's Nils Lofgren.
Performing before tens of thousands, he doesn't mind playing sideman to the household names.
NILS LOFGREN: Even though I'm grateful for a reputation as a guitar player, I don't need to solo. I enjoy giving it up and being a guy in the band, and contributing as best I can.
TOM CASCIATO: But had things broken a bit differently, he might have been one of those household names himself, though that's kind of a long story.
NILS LOFGREN: By the way i just want you to know this month i'm celebrating 50 years on the road.
TOM CASCIATO: Nils Lofgren fell in love with music early, but he didn't begin with guitar lessons.
You started out on the accordion?
NILS LOFGREN: Yes. My mom's Sicilian, my dad's Swedish, and it's a big part of their heritage, the accordion. So, i asked for lessons. I still love the accordion. but you know, the written note in classical music, which i studied classical accordion after the waltzes and polkas-- you know, all the emotion has to come inside the notes written. You cannot deviate. So, i fell in love with the idea of blues guitar, where you improvise what you hear.
TOM CASCIATO: That love turned to pure passion the first time he went to hear Jimi Hendrix.
NILS LOFGREN: And Jimi blew us all away. And that night, I was-- it was almost an uncomfortable possession I left with that I had to try to be a professional rock musician, which never entered my mind until that night.
TOM CASCIATO: How old were you?
NILS LOFGREN: Seventeen. Within weeks, I dropped out of school. I was very harmless-looking. I looked like a waif. You know, I was like five foot two and you know, I had a handful of songs. And not knowing anything about music industry or the business, I'd sneak backstage at every show, try to meet the performers and ask for advice.
TOM CASCIATO: One night that teenage Lofgren went to a show at the legendary Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., and approached the headliner: Neil Young.
NILS LOFGREN: And Neil had a Martin (PH) in his hand, and he said, "Would you have any songs for your band?" I said, "Yeah, I've written a handful of songs." And he handed me his guitar and said, "Sing me one. Sing me another." And after four or five songs, he says, "I really like those songs
TOM CASCIATO: Slow down a second.
NILS LOFGREN: Alright.
TOM CASCIATO: You're 17 years old? You invite yourself unannounced backstage to a Neil Young show--
NILS LOFGREN: Well, I walked in on them. I didn't ask for an invite, or I might-- if I'd asked management, "Can I meet Neil," the answer would've been, "No, he's busy."
TOM CASCIATO: Before he knew it, Lofgren was invited to Los Angeles to play guitar and piano on an album that would become a classic.
NILS LOFGREN: When I was 18 years old Neil Young and David Briggs asked me to play on the After the Goldrush album. And I just practiced and practiced and this particular day Ralphie -- the great drummer, Ralphie Molina -- stayed behind and we were working on Southern Man, it was like bum bum bah ... bum bum bah.
That's where the snare is. And after about a half an hour, I wanted to break it up. And you know, I come from the-- the polka, accordion school. You know-
That whole oompah thing. And so I started double-timing, you know, the-- (PLAYING) doin' octaves, and you know--
So when Neil and David came back from lunch, they said, "What the heck is that?" And I said "That's Southern Man with a polka beat." And they said, "That feels great, but don't ever say that again."
TOM CASCIATO: Rock and roll ruled the airwaves back then, and Nils Lofgren was an up-and-comer. Still, not even 20, he made his first national television appearance in 1971 on a PBS special alongside one of his idols, virtuoso Roy Buchanan.
NILS LOFGREN: Roy was a master. And I fell in love with that sound.
TOM CASCIATO: The master helped the kid develop what would become a signature style.
NILS LOFGREN: This was the first time I heard-- harmonics sound like bells. And he showed me how to do it.
TOM CASCIATO: Lofgren was on the rise, and it appeared the sky was the limit. In his 20s he performs live with his own bands, and recorded a series of solo records, getting some great reviews along the way.
NILS LOFGREN: In the '70s, you made some very well-thought-of solo albums. Did you think that stardom was on the way? Well, you know, the whole stardom-- rock star thing, sex, drugs, rock and roll, and death, that never had a big appeal to me. I really didn't wanna be famous. I always saw it as like a very serious venture of making a living playing music, as a musician.
TOM CASCIATO: A gymnast as well as a musician, Lofgren incorporated acrobatics into videos and concerts. But no matter what he tried, by the early 80s, his music just wasn't selling.
NILS LOFGREN: The record deals dried up. And to my horror, I went to all the companies and they're like, "Nope. You-- you've been at it now for quite a while. No hit records, you don't make us money. You're kind of like a dinosaur." I hit a-- really low point. I got down in the dumps. I started drinkin' a little too much and -- feelin' sorry for myself.
And it was during that time period-- I'd stayed in touch with Bruce. We first cro-- crossed paths in 1970. And so-- I called him, and he said, "What's goin' on?" And he could tell I was kinda down in the dumps. Said, "Why don't you come up and hang out with me for a weekend in Jersey which I did."
TOM CASCIATO: It wasn't just a weekend with Springsteen. It was the start of Lofgren's second act, among rocks most acclaimed backing musicians, a chance to 'just be a guy in the band', even if it was one of the world's most famous bands.
TOM CASCIATO: That was really life-changing...
NILS LOFGREN: Totally.
TOM CASCIATO: A lot has changed in Nils Lofgren's half-century as a performer. As he's continued to record rock and roll has given way to hip hop as America's most popular music. The club where he first met Neil Young is a Starbucks now. And with two artificial hips and a pair of torn shoulders the gymnastics are a thing of the past too.
But the final show of his 50th year, playing for tens of thousands but for a few hundreds at New York City's Winery, Nils Lofgren seems perfectly satisfied.
TOM CASCIATO: if you could give some advice now to that 17 year old Nils Lofgren who used to sneak backstage to rock stars. What would you say.
NILS LOFGREN: Oh boy I just say you know keep following your dreams. Don't sign anything. Drink less. Honestly I was just a scared young musician in love with rock n roll and just music period. And. You know I look back and realize that I was given a gift that I didn't ask for. Just trying to caretake it in my wildest dreams I would have never been greedy enough to think 50 years later. Hundreds of people would come from. All over to hear me sing my songs for them. After 50 years I've brought a crowd to walk out and sing for and I almost feel like all I have to do is get out of the way and let the music come through me.