Best known as a guitarist from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, a key player on Neil Young’s iconic album After the Gold Rush and an occasional member of Crazy Horse and Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, Nils Lofgren is one of the all-time greatest sidemen in rock’n’roll history. Not to mention the all-time greatest trampolinist in rock’n’roll history. He’s also a celebrated solo performer in his own right, and his latest round of live commitments – including shows around the UK – sees him celebrate 50 years of professional touring.
On the eve of hitting the road, Lofgren chatted to us about the songs that made him as a young Swedish-Italian-American growing up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. in the 1950s and 60s, and how they set him on a path to putting down the accordion – which he played classically between the ages of 6 and 15 – and picking up the guitar, before going on to eventually perform with rock and roll hall of famers galore. Not to mention become a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame himself when the E Street Band were inducted in 2014.
“I’m 66 now and I still feel like I’m trying to grow up,” Lofgren comments wistfully, as he reminisces on his musical youth.
The Beatles – I Want to Hold Your Hand
Nils Lofgren: One song that comes to mind that was very dramatic was of course the famous Beatles – who have to me the greatest body of recorded music – and their famous Ed Sullivan show appearance where they did the song ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’. Because I’d been studying classical music and the great classics of all time and performing them and getting inside them as an accordion player, I had a keen sense of melody, and it just was startling and very powerful that song.
Still to this day when I hear I Want to Hold Your Hand it’s like an otherworldly thing
That raw harmony stuff that was very musical and beautiful, mixed with the soul of just two guitars, the rhythm section and very powerful singers. Still to this day when I hear it it’s like an otherworldly thing. And then the bridge – it reminded me of all the great old Broadway songs. It just had such a musicality, a shift of gears that led you right back into the main thing. It kind of took my sense of melody from the great songs like ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and ‘If I Loved You’ from Carousel and just put this startling rock element and soul into that. So that was an early one.
The Rolling Stones – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Nils Lofgren: In the mid 1960s there was a lot of upheaval and turmoil in America with Vietnam and our Civil Rights struggle. I started getting some frustrations, because as a kid you try and tune it all out, but then you can’t. Then ‘Satisfaction’ came along by the Stones. I remember being in like a mechanical arts class in junior high school and it came on – somebody had a little transistor radio, might even have been the teacher – and I remember hearing that fuzztone riff, with the chords and the acoustic guitar in there. Just all of it. And it’s stayed with me to this day. “Can’t get no satisfaction” and “hey, hey, hey that’s what I say”, to me this was like “yeah whatever, I’m here I gotta live so onward!” That’s what I took from it and it really sort of touched the frustration and the scary aspect of not knowing who the hell I was at that time in my life, and how every time I seemed to figure it out, four months later I’d be a different person.
Muddy Waters – Hoochie Coochie Man
Nils Lofgren: Thanks to The Beatles and the Stones and what we call the British Invasion, I got turned on to Stax, Motown, Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Albert King and all the old greats. ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ by Muddy Waters was another one that I loved. I actually got to meet Muddy Waters at the Cellar Door, a little nightclub in DC. He let me hang out in the dressing room with him and I watched two shows, in a little 200 seat café with a wraparound balcony, so everybody was on top of him. Just to see that man in that small setting, and that song in particular, it was just such a guttural power. That really freaked me out and touched me.
Bob Dylan – Blowin’ in the Wind
Nils Lofgren: If somebody said to me “you got 10 seconds what’s the greatest song ever written,” I’d say ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. It’s still more poignant than ever, it still touches on – hey there’s all this beauty and art and gorgeousness in music and these soulful acts by kind people that have nothing, and then you look around at all the madness and chaos, usually sadly at the hands of powerful rich white men. That song just blew my mind and still does. It’s funny, I take away from it that our human race, while it still keeps shooting itself in the foot, I just get a sense of hope from it. Yeah it’s blowin’ in the wind but we’re gonna find it. That’s just me trying to be hopeful about things.
Jimi Hendrix – Little Wing
Nils Lofgren: Hendrix was one of my favourite guitarists – Jimi and Jeff Beck were off in their own little stratosphere for me. I took lessons learning the guitar and we’d study Clapton and Jimmy Page, Albert King and BB King, and of course Hendrix and Jeff Beck. But for me those two were off on their own. ‘Little Wing’ was a monumental song for me, where Hendrix took two and three note phrases and put them in this minor, floating, waterfall sound – he had this two note waterfall thing that he did.
I feel like within that three or four minute piece, Jimi changed how I saw guitar playing for the rest of my life
In ‘Little Wing’, he put a minor tilt to it and everything was both floating and stormy but beautiful at the same time. It just really imprinted on me. I feel like within that three or four minute piece, Jimi changed how I saw guitar playing for the rest of my life. I’d already been a giant fan of all his works, but that piece really in particular opened the floodgates of some kind of vision of what guitar music could do. It wasn’t just rhythm and it wasn’t crazy lead, it was this combination of every form of guitar playing I’d ever been aware of, but in this really powerful emotional way. I thought that was so beautiful and still do.
Nils Lofgren is touring the UK until the end of May – for full dates and details see nilslofgren.com