musicaficionado.com article: How Nils Lofgren Almost Became The Next Big Thing

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How Nils Lofgren Almost Became The Next Big Thing

BY
MITCHELL COHEN
 
 
PHOTO COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES
 
 

After the Gold Rush

 
Lofgren's gateway into the big leagues was the result of an encounter with Neil Young at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. Nils, who'd already formed his trio Grin, was a confident teenager; he approached Young for some advice, and that lead to an invitation to come out to California to participate in the recording of After the Gold Rush, an album that genuinely was eagerly anticipated. Young's previous album with Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, was a creative breakthrough, and Neil had contributed a couple of the best songs on CSN&Y's Déjà Vu, so there was a lot riding on the next solo effort. Most of 'After the Gold Rush' was cut at Young's place in Topanga Canyon, and although Lofgren was a guitarist with no piano-playing experience (although he was adept on the accordion, so keyboards were not foreign to him), Neil wanted him on piano, and Nils was a cooperative kid. He became a pianist.
 
While preparing to make a Grin album, Nils moonlighted with the Young-less Crazy Horse for their 1971 self-titled Reprise debut. Joining guitarist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot, and drummer Ralph Molina on Crazy Horse, along with Lofgren (back on guitar, as well as backing vocals), was the LP's co-producer Jack Nitzsche on piano. On a few cuts, Ry Cooder contributed slide guitar. It was one of the year's best albums: Whitten wrote and sang five of the tracks (Downtown and I Don't Want to Talk About It were highlights); Young gave the band Dance, Dance, Dance; Nitzsche threw in a few, including the searing Gone Dead Train, written with Russ Titelman (it'd previously been cut by Randy Newman for the Performance soundtrack); and there are a couple of Lofgren originals, Beggars Day, on which he sang lead, and Nobody, a song that he also recorded with Grin for their debut, but which wasn't released until a Grin compilation decades later. This impressive conglomeration of talent was one-time-only; by the following year, when it came time to do a second Crazy Horse album, Nitzsche had moved on, Whitten was too messed up to participate (he died in November 1972, at 29), and Lofgren had his own band to attend to.
 

Grin, at this point, was a trio (but not a "power trio," although they could get loud enough) consisting of Nils, drummer Bob Berberich, and bassist Bob Gordon, and in the D.C. area they were quite the big deal. In May '71, right before the release of 'Grin', and not long after Crazy Horse hit record stores and edged into Billboard's top 100, Grin played a big anti-Vietnam War rally in D.C. This was right after Nixon's invasion of Cambodia stirred up nationwide protests, and just two days before the shootings at Kent State. What you hear on the audio that exists from this show was that even though their debut album hadn't come out yet, they already were moving on: the set included songs that wouldn't show up on record until the "Rockin' Side" of the following year's '1+1': Moon TearsSlippery FingersEnd Unkind. What you hear on the Grin album, produced by David Briggs and released on Briggs's new CBS-distributed Spindizzy label, is a band that hasn't quite figured things out in the studio: Like Rain is a lovely ballad, "Take You to the Movies Tonight" a charming proposal that would kick of Lofgren live sets for years, and the lingering mystery is why the chunky, catchy See What a Love Can Do, with backing vocal assistance from Neil Young, Danny Whitten, and Ralph Molina (it could easily be a Crazy Horse outtake) didn't catch on and become a hit at rock radio. But as impressive as those tracks are, the rest of the album didn't live up to Lofgren's glowing reputation. Also in '71, Lofgren wrote the Briggs-produced Jerry Williams single "Sing for Happiness," and Nils and his fellow Grinsters played on Williams's on Spindizzy.

If Only Reviews Sold Records…

The second Grin album, '1+1', was divided into "Rockin'" and "Dreamy" sides, just like those Oldies But Goodies LPs that devoted one side to dancing and the other to making out. You dropped the stylus at the beginning of the Rockin' half, and there was a song that justified all the hype. "White Lies" was so infectious, so impeccably crafted, with a chorus that rose to an ecstatic peak. Surely it would break the band beyond their regional following, if the reviewers had anything to say about it, and the reviewers had plenty to say, not only about this slick power-pop gem, but about the whole album. Please Don't Hide, track two, was like Raspberries, if Eric Carmen weren't quite so blatantly reverent towards his sources, "Moon Tears" was ideal mainstream rock, if the mainstream hadn't gotten so dumbed-down, the "Dreamy" side wasn't somnambulistic at all. Ken Barnes, in Phonograph Record Magazine, called it "one of the most exciting albums of '72"; Greil Marcus reviewed it for Creem and proclaimed, "Each song moves back and forth into highs and lows with a great sense of surprise… Lofgren is emerging as a major talent." Ben Edmonds, also in Creem, said '1+1' had "a flawless rockin' side and a soft side that came close to matching it."

If only reviews sold records. But as Barnes ruefully admitted in another Phonograph Record piece, "Lofgren, if he wanted to, could compile a scrapbook eight feet thick from the favorable reviews he's enjoyed since '1+1'." And that would make one laudatory doorstop. Sadly, White Lies, the only chart single Grin ever had, peaked at #75, and the album never made the charts at all. Grin expanded to a quartet with addition of Nils's brother Tom on guitar, and recorded a third and final album for Spindizzy, All Out, which despite some fine tracks—Sad LetterLove or Else (it's not a date-rapey ultimatum, thankfully)—was generally considered a letdown after the near-perfection of '1+1'. It showed some strain, the burden of high expectations. Terrific live shows didn't move the needle either. Grin, with the second Lofgren on second guitar, could crank up the noise, and stretch the songs out to the point where they were veering into jam-band world ("Moon Tears" could go on for over 10 minutes), but that wasn't really playing to Lofgren's strengths. And Grin found itself on some incongruous bills, with bands like the Guess Who and the J. Geils Band. Then there was the time they came to New York City in 1973 to play the Academy of Music with Slade and Black Oak Arkansas. Billboard dismissed them thusly: "CBS group Grin who opened were less successful," the reviewer noted, than BOA in overcoming "the Slade freaks." When you're third on the bill under Noddy Holder and Jim Dandy, there is little room for nuance.
 

Grin Goes Crazy

 

In 1973, Grin changed labels, moving to A&M, and Lofgren spent some time that summer, before the release of Grin's Gone Crazy, in the studio with Neil Young. The results of those sessions wouldn't be heard for two years, when Reprise finally released Tonight's the Night. The album is as streaked with death as a Peckinpah movie, and as unsettling. Within a few months, Danny Whitten and another friend of Neil's, Bruce Berry, OD'd, and the album is so raw that you can sort of understand why the record label sat on it for a while; maybe they thought Young would forget about it, or change his mind, as he'd been known to do. But after Time Fades Away and On The Beach, they probably figured, It's not like Neil's going to deliver another Harvest any time soon, so let's get 'Tonight's the Night' out of the way. Lofgren is all over the album, contributing rippling saloon piano and high harmony vocals to a number of tracks, including Albuquerque and Roll Another Number (For the Road) (the most dissolute country-rock this side of Exile on Main St.), playing guitar on the title track and Speakin' Out.

 

'Tonight's the Night' stayed in the vaults, and 'Gone Crazy', well, it was just another good Grin album, once more produced by Briggs, and just a bit murkier. What About Me zips along, and Lofgren repurposes his Crazy Horse song Beggars Day as a eulogy for Danny Whitten, but too much of the album feels thrown together. Late in '73, Grin went on the road as the opening act for Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and on that tour, Nils admitted in an interview that "it's confusing to have two different concepts of music coming across from the one band. Live, it's impossible to put the mellow things across… To our audience we are a rock band." Evidence of that trap is on an episode of the syndicated radio show the King Biscuit Flower Hour that was recorded in the band's backyard of Maryland, and linked up with a set by the Steve Miller Band. They're plugging 'Gone Crazy', so the set includes You're the Weight and "Beggars Day," along with revamped—and mostly extended—versions of earlier Grin songs like "End Unkind" (over eight minutes) and "Moon Tears." What's missing, as Nils more or less concedes, is the melodic side, the "dreamy" side of Grin; it's as though they're trying to get crunchier, and there's no light touch. It feels like a cul-de-sac, and it was.

 
"We never had any commercial success," Lofgren says in Terry Staunton's liner notes for a Grin reissue, "and by 1974 the pressure became, 'Hey, you're good, but you're not making us any money with these recordings.' Rather than go back and become a club band, it seemed the only way to go forward was to break up." Grin played a farewell concert in D.C.'s Kennedy Center. "We went out in style."
 

A Game-Changing Bootleg

 
Still working with Briggs, but with a new rhythm section of bassist Wornell Jones and drummer Aynsley Dunbar, Lofgren made his solo debutfor A&M, and it was more confident and consistent than the previous two Grin LPs. Back It Up and Keith Don't Go (Ode to the Glimmer Twin), the latter a fan's plea to Mr. Richards, were his strongest rock tracks in a while, and the album ended with a version of Gerry Goffin and Carole King's reflective Goin' Back, which became a staple of Lofgren's live set (it was also, for a few Roxy dates in '75, a part of Bruce Springsteen's repertoire). Reviewers, among them Jon Landau in Rolling Stone, were solidly back in Nils's corner, a couple of the cuts started getting FM-rock airplay, and for the first time, Lofgren had an album on the charts (admittedly, not very high). One of the gigs to promote Nils Lofgren took place at the Record Plant in Sausalito on Halloween 1975, taped for broadcast on KSAN in San Francisco, a show that began with the brief, plaintive Take You to the Movies Tonight, sprinted through songs from the current album, and ended with Like Rain and a medley of "Beggars Day" and '1+1''s "Soft Fun."
 

Bud Scoppa, an executive at A&M Records who was also a respected rock critic, listened to the Record Plant tapes, and being a long-time Nils/Grin fan, was knocked out. He thought other people might be also, so A&M pressed seven songs from the show on vinyl, packaged it like a bootleg, called it Back It Up!! Live… An Authorized Bootleg, and sent it around to critics and radio programmers. It started to get a lot of attention, and some suggestions that it was the superior representation of the new Lofgren songs than the studio versions. There was chatter about releasing it legitimately, but Lofgren was already working away on his next album, and thought sending Back It Up out into the world would be like "insinuating we're afraid my new one isn't as good as a two-track rough." He had a point, and A&M obliged him by keeping the Record Plant session illicit, but he was probably wrong; now that 'Back It Up!!' is an official album in the Lofgren discography, anyone can hear how it punctuates that phase of his career, how it could have done for his profile something similar to what A&M did the following year with a live album by Peter Frampton.

 
A "real" live Nils Lofgren album, 'Night After Night', didn't come out until 1977, by which time 'Frampton Comes Alive!' had emphatically proven what a live album can achieve for a previously second-tier singer-writer-guitarist. But it didn't have the contagious spontaneity of 'Back It Up!!', and came after a couple of mediocre Lofgren studio albums, '76's Cry Tough (with an okay statement-of-purpose title track, a cover of Graham Gouldman's For Your Love, and the very creepy Jailbait), and '77's misbegotten I Came to Dance, on which the usually reliable Lofgren even stumbled on the Stones' Happy, which you'd think would be something he could crush. All three of those mid-'70s Lofgren albums mid-charted, with the buzz around 'Cry Tough' 
 

giving him enough recognition that CBS Records decided to dust off the Grin catalog, slap the first two albums together in one double sleeve, and promote the combo with the headline "Nils Lofgren Has Emerged." The copy advised readers to "Catch up on the energy that led to the emergence of Nils Lofgren, currently creating great interest in all the media." But after '79's 'Nils', produced by Bob Ezrin and including a few songs cowritten with Lou Reed (a few Reed-Lofgren collaborations also turned up on Reed's '79 album The Bells), Lofgren was once again label-shopping.

The Winding Road to E Street

 

 
In the early '80s, two uninspired Lofgren albums came out on Backstreet Records (no relation to the Springsteen song, although the association was prescient), and Nils once again joined up with Neil Young for the utterly bizarre Trans album (1982) and Young's subsequent tour. Then in 1984 he got "The Call." Lofgren and Bruce Springsteen had crossed paths over the years: in 1970, Grin and Springsteen's band Steel Mill each played an audition for Bill Graham's Fillmore West on the same day (Grin did play the venue the following year, third on the bill under the Rascals and Grootna); Springsteen's trusted advisor Jon Landau was one of Lofgren's advocates in rock-writer world; and Lofgren says that Springsteen invited him to listen to The River when he was finishing up that album. There was a mutual-admiration thing going on, so when guitarist Steve Van Zandt thought it'd be a good move to go solo right before the Born In the U.S.A. tour, there was a slot open in the E Street Band that was perfect for Nils.
 
 
When a friend in the Springsteen camp told me that Van Zandt was splitting, I immediately thought, "That should be Lofgren's spot." It seemed preordained, like Ron Wood becoming a Rolling Stone (actually, at one point Wood thought Nils would be an ace candidate for the second-guitar job in the Stones, before taking the gig himself). In Lofgren, Springsteen got himself an acrobatic foil (literally: Nils was known for his gymnastic trampoline flips while not missing a guitar link), an adept soloist and singer (on the Reunion tour, he added an angelic lilt to the concluding ensemble piece If I Should Fall Behind). Over on stage right, the physical contrast and playful interaction between the titanic Clarence Clemons and the diminutive Nils was always something to keep an eye on.
 
 
Even when Van Zandt came back to E Street, Lofgren stuck around, and that's where he's been whenever Springsteen decides to round up the gang for a recording session or a run of live dates. But Springsteen's schedule isn't exactly steady or predictable, so Lofgren has had time on his hands to tour, make his own albums, even assemble a massive and comprehensive boxed set, 'Face the Music', that starts with Grin's inexplicable non-hit "See What a Love Can Do" and traces his career over nine CD's and one DVD. In describing '1+1', the Rolling Stone Record Guide called it a "lovely blend of tough hard rock and ironic teen-heartbreak ballads." That's what Nils has been up to from the very start, as a supporting player and a frontman, searching for an elusive combination of toughness and tenderness.
 
 
When asked what brought him and Bruce together, he told an interviewer that way before he joined Springsteen's band, "We'd take drives together, talk about music. We kind of had the same sensibility about the power of rock'n'roll music in general." As critic Lester Bangs wrote, Nils was the "ultimate fan": the one who got the chance to help Neil Young make some of his most startling, and most inscrutable, music, write with Lou Reed, fill a hole in Springsteen's band. His catalog of songs is very impressive, but maybe the one that means the most is the one he sang directly to one of his rock heroes when it looked as though the Stones might be torn asunder. "The postage is my soul," he sang about the missive he's sending out through the song, "contains a message from millions, says 'Keith don't go'." You can call that a sappy rock and roll love letter if you like, but I don't think he'd care.

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repeat the greatest lie till they believe it

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