Q: What was it like for you the first time as a solo artist? Were you scared now that Grin was no longer in the picture?
NL: Yes. Itís funny because even though I wrote all the songs for Grin, I was so used to being a part of a band. All of a sudden, here I am a solo artist out on the road. I was in New York City, and of all the places, I played at The Bottom Line. The night before my opening night, Bruce Springsteen is closing a week there with the E Street Band. At that time, Bruce was the new Messiah. Bruce did this unbelievable show and was so good. I had to do my show the next night, and I was so nervous, I went back to my hotel room and sat up all night and did sit ups, studied the songs and the words. I was overreacting, but how do you follow Bruce Springsteen? I had been in the business since 1968, and here we are seven years later and Iím with a brand new band and weíve never played live. My old band and my old life are over, and Iím onto the next chapter. It was a very traumatic time for me, but we ended up doing a good show. It was just growing pains was all.
Q: When did you officially join Springsteeen and the E Street Band?
NL: May of 1984. I maintained a distant friendship with Bruce because I had always been a fan. We both frequented the same studios in Los Angeles, take drives and talk a bit. I always admired Bruceís work ethic and his tunnel vision to do things right. In 1984, when he needed a guitarist, I got the first call. I jammed with the band for a few days, it felt good, and I joined.
Q: So you had no involvement then with the recording of "Born In The USA?"
NL: Not a note. In fact about four or five months prior to that, I went up to spend a weekend with New Jersey and he had just finished the record. CBS did a good job of keeping the recording under wraps. I spent the weekend with him going to bars and jamming, talking a lot. He was a bachelor in his home, the same one he still has, and we just hung out. I was kind of down in the dumps then, and he was offering support. We played his record in the car and at his home, and I was just fascinated with it and thought it was the best record heíd ever made. When I first heard "Dancing In The Dark," I said to him, "Oh my God, thatís a hit record." And of course, it was. It was strange because we were watching MTV together when they announced that Little Steven had left the group to do his own thing and that his replacement was going from New Jersey. Bruce told me at the time it was bull, and of course, it was bull. I took that opportunity to say to Bruce, "Gee, if you ever need a guitarist, Iíd love an audition." Bruce looked at me kind of funny and said, "Really?" You see, Bruce probably thought as a solo artist I wouldnít become a part of his band, and Bruce is very serious and passionate about what he does so heíd want somebody from there. I assured him that was most certainly the case. It was a good chance and a nice accident that I just happened to be there to remind him of that. Sure enough, four or five months later when he needed someone, I got the call and it worked out.
Q: That was the biggest tour of the year, if not the definitive tour of the decade, and you got the call of a lifetime?
NL: Not only that, but it was four weeks before opening night! There was no way I was going to be ready for opening night, which was Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was funny, on opening night, I bumped into Stevie Ray Vaughn in the menís room and we had a nice chat. The next time I went in, I bumped into Kevin McHale, the basketball player from the Boston Celtics. We got to be good friends and have maintained a friendship with him because through that tour, I got to see a lot of Celtics games. Even though Iím 5-foot-3, Iím a basketball player at heart, and I always wanted to talk about the inside scoop on basketball with Kevin. Well, Kevin was bored with that subject and wanted to talk to me about the inside scoop on the rock world, and we ended up having a lot of fun. It was only 20 shows into the tour where I felt comfortable playing.
Q: How did you prepare yourself?
NL: I did what any musician would do, and that was to immerse myself in his music. I put a ban on all music except Bruce Springsteen music. He started me off with a list of 50 songs, and Bruce gave me this little room inside his home and Iíd just hide out there and play day and night, practice, write charts. If I had questions, Iíd ask Bruce. In the morning, weíd both wake up and go for a five mile jog and then that was it. Iíd go into my little cubby hole and heíd grab me for dinner. He had this cook who would come in and cook for us and help out. Other than that, Iíd go into the guest room with the tape player playing when I went to sleep, then wake up in the morning and push the play button, and did that for the next few months. It was too much to take it, but what you want to do when you walk onstage is to know the material so well that you can just turn the mind off. I couldnít shut the mind off at first, but I knew enough to do the job right. The goal was how soon would it take me to where Iíd get to the point to turn the mind off? Well, it took me about 20 shows. And everybody in the band was great. If I had any questions, they were there to help. I remember when it finally hit me, we sold out the Meadowlands for 10 nights in a row and that first night, I was able to shut the mind off. I finally did it through osmosis. It was great all along, but those first 20 shows were the toughest. Fortunately because I did have a solo career, Iíve always believed that one thing enhances the other and Iíve always kept up a solo career. Itís always so surprisingly refreshing to go off and do a world tour like that with a great band and then come back to my own music.
Q: How did you handle the four hour concerts that Springsteen was so famous for?
NL: I love performing live, so it was as much as a mental workout as it was physical. Itís an exhausting and exhilarating performance, but I loved it. My own bands were used to doing three hour shows and that was with me singing lead. With Bruce singing lead, that took a huge toll off of me. It wasnít that hard to adapt to because I was used to playing long and hard. On the "Born In The USA" tour and even on the "Tunnel of Love" tour, we always did it with an intermission. We had it scheduled for a 20-minute break, but it always worked out to be a 30-40 minute break. It just could never be 20 minutes. On this last tour, we tried it as an experiment without having any breaks. For a while we did it for two and a half hours, then it crept up to three, then three hours and 15 minutes. But in reality, that, with no break, was basically the same four-hour show with an intermission. If you love to play live and you have the material, you donít want it to be over in an hour and a half.
Q: And how did this last tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band come about?
NL: I was about three months into recording what is my new album, "Breakaway Angel," when out of the blue, really, Bruce decided to call to do the last tour. Fortunately, I was mature enough to give myself permission and take my music and put it aside and throw it into Bruceís stuff. On "Born In The USA" I felt like the rookie; the guys were always great to me but personally I felt uncomfortable on the first part of the tour. "Tunnel of Love" felt better, but the great thing on the last tour was having Little Steven back in the band. He gave us a boost and thereís a little more power in the tours. We have that voice that was on all those great records, and thereís just something to that, you know what I mean? I also had the opportunity to play a little pedal steel guitar, and just these little touches to the band just add something. It was a classic combination of using all the tools. Bruce pointed out to us at the end of the tour, "That work is done forever," and the bottom line was, we were better than ever. I donít think Bruce would have done the tour if he didnít have all of us back. It was magical. Personally, it was great for me because I literally waited until the last note was done before I even looked at my own stuff again. Because of that, it was very refreshing to come back and start right where I left off. Iím excited and passionate about it even without the help of the industry or radio backing it. Iíve got a really colorful and great career to draw on. And Iím still in the E Street Band, so if that ever happens again, Iíll still be there, but right now, this is a good time for me to get back on my own again.
Stone Pony London
Nils Lofgren Intervew: Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4