How Nils Lofgren Almost Became The Next Big Thing
After the Gold Rush
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 Tears, Slippery Fingers, End 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."
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.
A Game-Changing Bootleg
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.
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