Q: In looking over your incredible resume and career, it appears to me as if a lot of your rock Ďní dreams came true?
NL: Yeah, Iíve had this unusual career where as a solo artist Iíve never had a hit record, Iíve never had the giant album sales, but Iíve had a 33-year career where Iíve played all over Europe and America. Iíve been able to keep making records, write songs, and I feel like Iím getting better at it. I think itís just been a blessing in disguise. It does get frustrating at times--hey, you make music to share with people. I mean, what a gift it would to be able to get in your car and turn on the car radio and know that within 10 minutes youíre going to be able to hear yourself like Sting, or Bruce Springsteen or U2, and thatís a big thrill, but also at the same time, Iíve watched a lot of talented people have requirements like that. Like, "If I donít have a hit record every two years, Iím a failure and Iím going to sit on a barstool and drink and be miserable because thereís somebody out there thatís not as good as me on the radio." Thatís a real dangerous set-up and place I never want to go or be. Iíve seen a lot of that, so thatís kind of helped, and also a blessing in disguise because when I look back over the course of 33 years, probably 85 percent of that time has been my own music. That 15 percent of playing with the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Neil Young, Ringo and the All-Star Band, has not only been a huge education and break from being the bottom line, but more than anything Iíve ever taken from those liaisons is confidence.
I really respect and treasure the music Neil Young makes or Ringo makes or Bruce makes. Here are guys who are basically saying matter of factly, "You belong in this band." It reminds me Iím allowed to separate myself from the corporate politics of the music industry. Iím allowed to still hope and strive someday maybe Iíll get on a record label or I will have a hit record. Itís really helped me distance myself from that fantasy world of politics that can get you really down and feel like, "Hey, you donít belong here." Those things remind me that I do belong here and that Iím passionate about my music and Iím trying to make it. Iím just so grateful that my natural instincts were when I was given those opportunities to work with other people that I took them because I had no idea how valuable those opportunities would be. Looking back now that Iím 50 years old, and 33 years in and two new records out and to be excited again. And itís the excitement of a kid going, "Iíve got a great band and Iíve got to go out and play in front of people." Iím also grateful that I donít care if itís just 200 people in some little bar in Los Angeles or in San Juan Capistrano. Iím thrilled I really have something to present that Iím really confident thatís going to go over well. After 33 years to feel that way is an accomplishment in and of itself, that I want to treasure and nurture and hang onto, whether or not commercial success comes or not.
Q: You started your career at an interesting time in the late 1960s where the music industry, intensity and artistry level was so high.
NL: Yeah, I was lucky. In 1968, I turned professional at 17. Of course, in the early 1960s is when I started. At that time, you could turn on the radio and it was the Beatles, Animals, Kinks, and the Stones. Weíd be in Industrial Arts class and my teacherís radio would play in the background. All of a sudden, weíd hear "Letís Spend the Night Together," by the Stones and weíd run up to the radio and turn it up a bit. It was such an amazing time. In Washington D.C., where I grew up in the suburbs of Maryland since I was 8, I could regularly go downtown and see The Who, see the Animals, see the Kinks, see the Yardbirds, see Jeff Beck with Rod Stewart, see Cream on their first tour. There was just this explosion of music and the live thing, too. I got to see Jimi Hendrix and followed him all along the East Coast. In fact, my band Grin got to open a few shows for him in California.
On my 21st birthday, I was the opening act for Hendrix on a tour in California. And to firsthand see this stuff, too, was amazing. Music was there for everybody. Iíll never forget the night I decided to become a professional, we went to see The Who with Keith Moon at Constitution Hall, and even onstage, Pete Townsend announced that he was going to rush over and see Jimi Hendrix across town to our version of the Fillmore East called the Ambassador Ballroom. Literally, after this amazing Who show, we all rushed across town, including Townsend in the audience, and watched Jimi Hendrix. It was funny how vivid this memory is, but we were so naÔve at the time, but soaking everything in and being exposed to innovative ideas. We were just teenagers and Hendrix comes out with his trio. I havenít heard anything yet, and he said, "Iíd like to dedicate this song to Pete Townsend, whoís in the audience. Itís a little song called ĎSgt. Pepperís Lonely Heartís Club Band.í" Of course, the immature teenagers we were, we thought how could he play "Sgt. Pepperís?" It has horns, it has strings, and thereís only three guys up on stage. We were all looking in the wings expecting some orchestra to parade out. My buddies literally said to each other, "How can he do that? Thereís only three of them?" I still remember that, right? Jimi, to look at him, was the most beautiful performer there you ever saw. He was right out of the paratroopers and it was before he got down to 90 pounds. He was like Michael Jordan to watch--just beautiful. He naturally played at a different level. So weíre all sitting there not knowing what was about to go on, but there was this buzz and excitement. Iíll never forget, while we were sitting there trying to figure out where the rest of the band was going to be, and deciding for Jimi Hendrix that he canít play this properly, he started bobbing up and down with this big grin on his face, then looked at Mitch Mitchell and counted down. "Two, three," and all of a sudden he disappeared , we all jumped to our feet and this explosion happened, the opening chords of the song, heís doing "Sgt. Pepperís" as a trio, not unlike "Purple Haze." Heís disappeared, but he was sitting down on his ass near his heels, his guitar between his legs doing his "Sgt. Pepperís" riff, chewing on this big wad of gum and grin. We were just stunned because, of course, he did it beautifully, and we all forgot about how the Beatles did it, and got exposed to somebody who just seemed to drop out of the sky.
It was really that night, after being exposed to years of the Beatles and Motown, that it just touched a nerve in me as a guitarist. I thought, "I canít be him," I mean, nobody can be that, but I wanted to be a professional musician. The thought never occurred to me before. It was weird because I was still in school, not a bad student, got Bís, stayed out of trouble, kind of a loner and was really into music. Three weeks into my senior year, to my horror, not only did I want to become a professional musician, but I couldnít go through another year of school. I had to start now! It was almost like I was possessed. I wrote this big long note to my parents and put it behind my pillow, saying basically that if I was going to bring this shame on my family, I was going to do it my own way. I couldnít play this suburban high school game, and I didnít feel I could say to them, "Oh, and by the way Iím quitting school and I need you to support me." The only kids who left my school were juvenile delinquents, and they wound up working at a gas station or going to prison or knocking up their girlfriend and having no life. I couldnít do that, so I had to leave and go make my own way. I hitch-hiked to the airport, got on a plane and flew to New York. Got in a taxi and had the driver take me to Greenwich Village, and I started my life as a professional musician on the streets of Greenwich Village.
Q: That took some serious balls . . .
NL: More than balls, I thought it was fear. If I was going to be a professional musician, I couldnít ask my parents for money because thatís not being a professional musician. Yes, I tend to do things all or nothing, but I did. It was funny because Iíd stay with the runaways in Greenwich Village at night. It was September, and all day it was hot, then at night it got cold. Weíd take turns nodding off and watching each other on the street. It was just a kind of thing runaways did together. Then during the day Iíd open up a phone book and look up a record company. See, I never spent a day in New York other than as a child on a field trip with my parents. So Iíd find an address, take the subway uptown, sneak into a record company, literally walk up to an A & R guy and ask him for help. And theyíd be, "Listen kid, thatís not how it works. Good luck to you."
Sometimes people would talk to me, but inevitably theyíd show me the door. It was just a fascinating time, but after eight days of that, I got so sick that I returned home with pneumonia. I was so sick I was gonna die. My parents nursed me back to health, wanted me to go back to school but I refused. Rather than throw me out of the house, they set up a plan where Iíd pay rent, I did chores. Even though the whole community was against my parents and me. Even my friends told me, "What are you doing ruining your life? You can admire those people, but you canít be those people. You canít do what they do." I told them, "Well, I have to try." It was a very weird time, but I have to say the only people who didnít freak out and try to discourage me were my own parents, which was bizarre because in the late 1960s it wasnít a career path.
Of course the arrangement worked out. I immediately put Grin together and called every fraternity and booked us all over the place. I was so scared. I snuck back into every concert and just asked a lot of questions. It was a great time and a lot was going on. I kept going back to New York, and one time, I snuck into CBS on the 12th floor and was being escorted out by security when in came Sly Stone, who was hot at the time. He came in on a brand new ten-speed bike, which was the rage at the time. He saw security getting ready to toss me out and he stopped them. He was goofing and asking them what was going on, and I told him what I was doing. He said, "Well, if you canít find a place to stay tonight, weíre going to have a party tonight at my place." He gave me a room number at some hotel. Sure enough, instead of staying up all night on the street, I went up to his hotel and knocked on the door. He opened it up, and it was like some movie, and he said, "Oh yeah, youíre that runaway kid. Just find a place in the corner and crash here." He had this all-night, crazy party with all kinds of women. I hadnít even had a girlfriend yet, and I was 17 going on 13. I literally went into the corner, crawled up in the rug and crashed for the night. That was just one of many, crazy, wonderful adventures and things that happened to me.
Q: Didnít Grin start to take off soon after you formed?
NL: The short story is, we went to Los Angeles, hooked up with Neil Young and David Briggs, the producer, and made four good albums. We never had any commercial success, and by 1974, the pressure became, "Hey, youíre good, but youíre not making us any money with the recordings." Rather than go back and be a club band, it seemed like the only way to go forward was to break up and become a solo artist. It was a painful decision. Grinís last record was for A & M Records, and Jerry Moss, who I loved, made a decision to let me continue as a solo artist. My manager, Art Linson, who is now a successful movie producer, who is like a brother to me and we grew up with each other, was managing Grin. He told me straight up that he couldnít get a deal for Grin, and so we did a farewell concert together at the Kennedy Center, which was the first rock band to ever play there, and so we went out in style. I carried on as a solo artist.
Stone Pony London
Nils Lofgren Intervew: Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4