Five previously unreleased songs the duo wrote in 1979 form the centerpiece of Lofgren’s latest album
PHOTO: CARL SHULTZ
Not only is Nils Lofgren a Rock singer/songwriter whose headlining career stretches back almost 50 years — first with his band Grin and then under his own name — but he has also been a dazzling guitarist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band since 1984. Further, he joined Neil Young’s band, Crazy Horse, for some crucial 1970s recordings, and has recently rejoined the group to play with Young on new concert dates and an in-the-works album.
Lofgren has won accolades — and fame — for his work with those giants, as well as for his solo work. But it’s surprising to learn just how much another of his collaborations, a lesser-known and lesser-celebrated one, has meant to him, spurring a just-released solo album.
In 1979, he and Rock icon Lou Reed wrote 13 songs together. They separately released eight of them on their respective albums, but five fell by the wayside. Now, those five form the centerpiece of Lofgren’s new album, Blue With Lou. Lofgren and his band — including his brother Tom on guitar and keyboards — will perform in support of the album at Memorial Hall on May 15 as part of the venue’s Longworth-Anderson music series. Lofgren will also perform other songs from his extensive catalog.
He is exuberant about those “lost” Reed collaborations finally reemerging.
“We had this fabulous magical writing experience, where all of a sudden we had 13 songs that we wrote together,” Lofgren, speaking from his Arizona home, recalls of collaborating with Reed. “Immediately on our respective albums, Lou used three of them and I used three, and over the next few releases I put two more out. The other five I always thought, in the back of my mind, that Lou would call and say, ‘Hey, why don’t we take a look at those songs we wrote that haven’t been used yet?’
“When Lou passed (in 2013), which was very sad and upsetting, in the back of my mind was this seed that said, ‘Man, you’re the only person that can now share these five songs that nobody heard.’ ”
Those five songs are “Attitude City,” “Give,” “Talk Thru the Tears,” “Don’t Let Your Guard Down” and “Cut Him Up.” Additionally, Blue With Lou contains Lofgren’s new version of their song “City Lights,” which Reed had first released in a different arrangement on his 1979 album The Bells.
Besides “City Lights,” Reed had released “Stupid Man” and “With You” on The Bells. Lofgren recorded three of their collaborations on his 1979 Nils album — “A Fool Like Me, “I Found Her” and “I’ll Cry Tomorrow.” Lofgren subsequently recorded their song “Life” on his 1995 album Damaged Goods and “Driftin’ Man” on 2002’s Breakaway Angel.
The loss of Reed obviously permeates the new album’s six collaborations, although the songs themselves are very rocking and vital. The six other songs on Blue With Lou are new Lofgren solo compositions, recorded mostly live in the studio by him and his band. They can rock hard, too (“Rock or Not”), but some also address losses — of Tom Petty (“Dear Heartbreaker”) and of Lofgren’s and his wife Amy’s beloved dog Groucho.
The original idea for the collaboration with Reed came at the suggestion of producer Bob Ezrin, who was working with Lofgren on Nils and had produced Reed’s 1973 masterpiece Berlin. Lofgren had first shown Ezrin some early written drafts of songs he had prepared.
“It was his suggestion to get us together,” Lofgren says. “Rather than me go after upgrading lyrics that we thought were subpar, we thought, ‘Let’s see if we can get a great lyricist interested,’ and magically it turned out to be Lou. We went by and visited him at his (New York) recording session, and he was surprisingly open to it and friendly. Lou said, ‘Come to my apartment and let’s get into this.’
“Unbeknownst to me, he was a big NFL football fan. I just happened to walk in on the beginning of a Redskins-Cowboys game, and he said, ‘I’m a big Dallas Cowboy fan. Do you mind watching the game with me while we talk?’ I said, ‘You got to be kidding me. I grew up in the D.C. (District of Columbia) area. I’m a Redskins fan and the Cowboys are our most hated rival.’ So we both saw that as a great icebreaker.”
Energized by that meeting, Lofgren prepared a cassette of 13 songs he had been working on — he had melodies, titles and some lyrics he didn’t like — and sent it to Reed. After about three and half weeks had passed, Lofgren’s phone rang at 4:30 a.m. An excited Reed said he had written full lyrics for all the songs.
Lofgren recalls the conversation: “He said, ‘That’s why I called at this hour, because I’m excited. And if you’d like, I’ll dictate them right now.’ I said, ‘Man, that’s incredible. Let me put on a pot of coffee.’
“I wanted to seize the moment, so I got a pad and pencil and we spent another two hours on the phone. I took very careful, meticulous dictation. He was very patient with me; he would repeat the lines if I wasn’t clear with them, until I got every single thing he wrote accurately.”
Lofgren had been counting on having plenty of time this year to work on recording Blue With Lou and rehearsing for the tour. But old friend Young intervened by asking him to come to Colorado to record his new album with Crazy Horse, and then maybe tour in August and September.
“(Young) called and said, ‘Look, I’ve been writing and I got all these songs I like. I know you’ve got a record coming out and its bad timing, but can you get to Colorado and record for a couple weeks?’ ” Lofgren says. “It was bad timing. The decision would have been no to just about anyone else, but with Neil it was a joy and honor.”
Meanwhile, the E Street Band has been on hiatus while Springsteen pursued his extended Broadway engagement in 2017-18 and planned his upcoming solo album Western Stars. But just last week, Springfield announced he had new material for an E Street Band project.
This interview with Lofgren occurred before that news broke, but I asked him about the possibility of a new E Street Band tour.
“There’s no bigger fan than me,” Lofgren said, “and I hope there’s another chapter down the road, but I can’t ‘what if?’ myself with anxiety. I’ve got to do 19 great shows in the next four weeks, so that’s enough to bite off right now.”
The Nils Lofgren Band plays May 15 at Memorial Hall. Tickets/more information: memorialhallotr.com.