Q: Isnít this also around the same time that you became friends with Neil Young?
NL: Thatís right. Just before we left for Los Angeles, I snuck in on Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the Cellar Door in Washington D.C. I got to be friends with them, spent two days hanging out with them, and Neil stayed in touch from the road. It was unbelievable that Neil Young would stay in touch, but we were going to LA anyway. When we got to LA, David Briggs, Neilís producer, took us under his wing and we became the house band at the Topanga Corral, but we also played anywhere and everywhere.
Q: You made "After The Gold Rush" with Neil Young, which was made in 1969 and released in 1970. How was that experience?
NL: It was through David Briggs, who was still helping Grin trying to make it big, and our album came out around the same time as "After The Gold Rush" came out. We made that record at his house in 1969 with a mobile truck, which was an amazing experience. Neil pushed me on the piano, not because I could play but because of my accordion experience. I was able to do very simple, basic rhythmic things. It was just a classic record.
Q: In a paragraph or less, what is Neil Youngís particular brilliance?
NL: In a paragraph or less, it would have to be that he is as great a songwriter as there will ever be. Everything else is a distant second. Neilís a great musician, heís very eccentric, eclectic and has a beautiful, haunting voice. But you know what? All of those things are a distant second to being an amazing, amazing songwriter. The same thing could be said about Bruce Springsteen. When you combine the words with the melody and the music, itís a power that everything emanates from. They happen to be amazing singers and musicians, but if they werenít, they couldnít ruin those songs. They would be still be part of our emotional landscape and be just as powerful. You canít hurt songs that good.
Q: Tell me about your recording and touring experiences on "Tonightís The Night"?
NL: By then, Grin had put out an album, was touring and we were busy. In 1971, Crazy Horse, Neilís backing band with Danny Whitten, wanted to make a real record without Neil Young. Jack Nietzhe, the producer, and I, joined the band to make the record. To me, it was the best Crazy Horse record because Danny was alive. Then they wanted me to quit Grin, and I wouldnít because all of the time I wasnít with them, Iím with Grin touring. Danny died, we did the "Tonightís The Night" record, and it was the first time I had a taste of this show business conflict.
I felt guilty I wasnít with my guys all the time, but they understood that this was a great opportunity. Art Linson was the first one to say, "Columbia wants you do go off with Grin and tour and record, and here you are doing stuff for Neil Young." I said, "Yeah, I know, but Iíve got to do this with Neil. I canít say no to him." I couldnít believe it because I was so naÔve about the business. Then Art Linson called this big meeting at Barneyís Beanery in LA, which was a hangout. It was me, David Briggs, Art Linson, Neil Young, and Elliot Robertís, Neilís manager. I was freaking out because Art was telling Neilís manager, "Nils made this record for you and now you want him to go to England and tour with you and then tour again in the States? Whatís in it for him?" I wanted to say, "Art, shut up. I donít want to stop working with Neil." Itís funny because all those guys were savvy and understood the business and I did not. Basically at the end of the day, they let the Eagles open for Neil, and when we came back to the States, they let Grin become the opening act. It was amazing, because when we got back to America on the "Tonightís The Night" tour, I got to open with my band Grin, and then when we finished, Iíd run off stage, dry off, throw on another shirt and play with the "Tonightís The Night" band. It was all good to me. But Art had a point, and that it wasnít all good, and that this was a cutthroat, ruthless business. Art was just protecting me because he wanted Grin to succeed and didnít think I should be helping Neil Young. To me, it was all a part of the same thing, and that was the music, not this cutthroat part of the business.
Q: Since you brought up the Eagles, I gotta ask you about them because their body of work is right up there with some the greatest acts of all time.
NL: They were touring with us right when they were about to explode. I knew them a little bit through Neil and David and Topanga Canyon. I bumped into Glen Frey quite a bit, but I didnít know them that well. I was still kind of a kid at that time, 21 or 22. I thought the Eagles were just great, but I was totally wrapped up in Neil and what he was doing. Of course on the European tour, the Eagles were amazing every night and obviously went on to have the hall of fame career that they still have to this day. It was bizarre to them open for Neil on the "Tonightís The Night" tour because that tour was so different.
Q: Iíve heard a lot about that tour and the bad reception Neil got for his new interpretation of his work. What were your recollections of that tour?
NL: Itís basically a generalization but the English audiences were kind of horrified because he wasnít doing the hits. He wanted to expose the audience to something radical and new, and they were close minded in general. Now, almost 30 years later, every time I go to England, people come up to me and say, "What an idiot I was! That was one of the greatest shows I ever saw."
Q: What was he trying to do on that tour that was so different? I understand he did a lot of improv and even experimented with rapping.
NL: This is my perspective, and so Iím not talking for Neil. Danny Whitten had died and Bruce Berry, a roadie of his had died, and it was kind of a dark period. It was as if Neil had gathered his friends around him and from 6 p.m. to midnight, we drank, played pool and partied. We were a group of friends hanging, and from midnight to dawn, weíd record off and on. Neil was showing us new music. He was trying to record with a remote truck, and he said, "Listen, weíre not going to polish this up. Weíre going to play passionately, kind of live and record it as we go. I want people to see it how it is."
The whole album was kind of that with a lot of bizarre themes, and it was a beautiful, haunting record. I remember at the time, he had recorded that and "Zuma" and brought both recordings to a party. Of course David Geffen and all these other studio execs there didnít get "Tonightís The Night." Then Robbie Robertson came up to Neil and said, "Youíre not going to release the pretty, polished one are ya?" Of course, "Tonightís The Night" was amazing, and it took another musician like Robertson to affirm that to him. While recording sometimes, weíd say to Neil, "Hey, I got the word wrong" or "Let me fix that note," and Neil would say, "No man, you guys were really into it."
The other thing was, weíd get up through the night and we wouldnít work on any one song. Weíd have a four or five song set, and weíd get up and perform them like a little mini-set for nobody. We might have a few buddies there, but basically our headspace was that we were going to perform these songs, and not twice. We did that for a few weeks and Neil picked the songs that he felt were the best takes, which were a work in progress. It was a real statement of hereís how it is before the polish. He wanted to let his audience into a more intimate side of what his audience did. He spoke regularly against the polish of the regular stuff. He was ODíd on it. He said, "I canít make one more record like I did with Buffalo Springfield or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young." He wasnít putting down those records but he said he had had it with the process of record making, and he did it in a different way.
When we went on tour, we presented it as it was. On stage, we literally played the record front to back, starting with "Tonightís The Night." If you read the words, itís kind of like the stream of consciousness. He started rapping at the piano, where we had glitter boots tacked all around. We had a palm tree with a light bulb. Neil was in these seersucker suits, talking into the microphone about Miami Beach. God knows what his thought process was at the time, but it reverted back to his frustration of his friends dying and the whole thing. He was obviously rebelling and upset about the whole thing and this was a forum to express it, and people werenít getting it. The audience would yell, "Cowgirl In The Sand" or "Down By The River." Heíd be like, let me do what I do and see if you dig it. Once in a while the audiences would get so irate, and Neil would get angry in return. Heíd get so frustrated and threw his guitar on the ground and stomped off and left us out there as a band, and people were freaking out.
One night in particular, he came back out and put his guitar on, he was very angry, and turned to us and said, "Down By The River." He counted it off and we did a 12-minute version of the song which was angry and nasty and great. The people were going crazy, and Neil went, "Are you happy now?" It was like, you came to see me do my thing. Is it okay if I continue now? Very interesting stuff to be a part of. One night we did "Tonightís the Night" twice. The audience had heard us play, and werenít very receptive, and when we finished, Neil said, "Okay, now weíre going to play a song youíve heard before." Everybody in the audience applauded and thought, "Great, heís going to play a hit for us now." Then he launched into "Tonightís The Night" again. On that tour, Iíd jump up on the piano wearing combat boots and ankle weights, playing guitar with my teeth, because there was just so much adrenaline and that was my way to stay stuck in the place we were at. Just all this effusive, explosive, off the cuff kind of emotional bile coming out and whatever emotional stuff Neil was going through. Looking back, it was a fabulous thing to be a part of.
Q: You worked with Neil Young again on another interesting recording of his in 1983 called "Trans." The rumor was that Young recorded that album to piss off David Geffen, who had been hounding him for a commercial album. Instead, Young presented him with an avant-garde piece that was anything but commercial.
NL: The crazy machine record. Neil called me and said he wanted to put together a Trans band and we rehearsed in Hawaii for a month in this funky studio, made some beautiful stuff, another whole album, and took four or five cuts that we did and stuck it onto his home recordings. We went on a crazy, long six or seven week tour of Europe with the Trans band. We were doing stuff that was amazing with synthesizers. I had headsets on and Iím singing, and Neil Youngís voice is coming out. Very groundbreaking stuff at the time I thought. Neil might have said he just did that to piss off David Geffen. When you listen to the stuff he was writing, they were these very emotional pieces, almost from the point of view from the machines. A lot of it was what Neil was going through with his son, Ben. There was one song, "Transformer Man," that we did again on MTVís "Unplugged" in 1996, and it was very bizarre stuff. You listen to that and itís so groundbreaking and way ahead of its time. The fact that it was just all machines, but itís Neil Young, itís almost like the machine was talking, as if it was saying, "Hey, donít discount me. I have a soul, too." It to me was so cool. I doubt he did it to piss off David Geffen, but Iím sure he knew at the time that David wasnít ready to swallow that. From an executiveís viewpoint, they think, "Youíve got to do this to fit it into this slot here in order to make the big money. If you donít do this in order to fit it into this slot, I canít do my thing." It was all so beyond me because I was just so focused on the music. God knows what the real truth is. I thought "Trans" was just brilliant.
Stone Pony London
Nils Lofgren Intervew: Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4