Nils Lofgren Interviewed: “That was a big turning point, when everyone started dying…”

Nils Lofgren on hooking up with Neil Young as a teenager, making After The Goldrush and Tonight’s The Night and how he narrowly missed out on joining The Rolling Stones.

Nils Lofgren performs at the 30th Annual Bridge School Benefit Concert at the Shoreline Amphitheater on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016

by Bob Mehr |
Updated on

Watching Jimi Hendrix as a kid turned accordion prodigy Nils Lofgren into a rock and roll lifer, solo star and Swiss Army sideman to Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young… and Lou Reed. In this extract from our interview with Lofgren in the latest issue of MOJO, he discusses first hooking up with Neil Young and Crazy Horse as a teenager in California, making After The Goldrush and Tonight's The Night and how he narrowly missed out on joining The Rolling Stones.

In 1969 you met Neil Young and Crazy Horse…

Grin [Lofgren’s 70s band] had auditioned for [Hendrix engineer] Eddie Kramer in New York and we’d struck out. We weren’t good enough for Eddie. Even though I was immature, I wasn’t stupid enough to think there was something wrong with Eddie; I knew there was something wrong with us. So, I figured we’ll just keep writing songs and we’ll go out to LA and try there. That’s when I encountered Neil at the Cellar Door. He had his Martin guitar and said, “Sing me a song.” I had just about the whole first Grin record written. I think I played him four or five things: Like Rain, Outlaw, If I Were A Song. Neil said, “That’s really good, why don’t you hang out with us?” I was underage, so [Young’s manager] Elliot Roberts gets me a cheeseburger and Coke and a table for the show. I had loved Neil from the Buffalo Springfield, but I was blown away by Crazy Horse on that first tour. Neil said to look him up when I got to LA. True to his word, when I did, he hooked me up with [his producer] David Briggs. Neil and David – those two guys became my greatest mentors.

You ended up playing on After The Gold Rush and also became part of Crazy Horse on their first band album. I imagine those were formative experiences on a lot of levels for a teenager.

I used to get into David Briggs’s VW and we’d drive up the hill to Neil’s blasting Creedence Clearwater Revival every day going to work on After The Gold Rush. I remember telling David, “Wow, it’s cool not to be a band leader – all the stuff that’s non-musical goes away.” Even then I realised it’s great to be in a great band and not have to lead it. With Crazy Horse, I didn’t know they were going to ask me to join. But I’d gotten to be friends with Danny [Whitten], Ralphie [Molina] and Billy [Talbot] and then you got Jack Nitzsche who’s a genius and a mad man playing keyboards and producing. This was heady stuff for me. I was so lucky to hook up with these great savvy, compassionate players at such a young age. That imprinted on me my whole life up to the present day.

Danny Whitten’s life and death have been so mythologised, partly because of the Tonight’s The Night album, but his passing must’ve had a real impact on you.

It did. Danny flew to Maryland at one point, potentially to join Grin. He had just deteriorated. His life had become drugs and alcohol. I remember we were going to see Roy Buchanan play. And just as the show is about to start, a guy comes on the mike: “Paging Nils Lofgren to the stage – you have a phone call.” It’s our roadie saying, “I’ve lost Danny.” “What do you mean?” “He snuck out – he’s probably going door to door in the dark in rural Maryland looking for drugs.” Fuck!

We realised Danny was too sick to be in our band. When he left, it was heartbreaking. And, of course, it’s well documented the saga with Neil trying to help Danny out, and then Danny ODs. That was a big turning point – when everyone started dying, your heroes and your friends. Jimi Hendrix had died. And when Danny died, it was like, Oh my God. By the time we get to Tonight’s The Night it’s a different world.

"Has Young ever been so elegant and savage, so unfettered and experimental, in his guitar playing as he was during this period?" Read MOJO's verdict on Volume Five of Neil Young’s Official Release Series.

The Tonight’s The Night album and tour seemed like a strange wake or maybe an exorcism of some kind.

Nobody was in a good place. I certainly didn’t have any tools to process what had happened. Then we went on the road and people were expecting to hear Heart Of Gold and receive Neil as their hero-poet. But we’re doing a show where it’s all this dark stuff they’ve never heard and Neil’s doing these intense raps and we’re making all this noise. People were booing, throwing bottles, it was heavy. There was a madness to it. But the music and the madness kind of saved us, got us through the grief and the rage.

Your self-titled debut solo album came out in 1975 and featured Keith Don’t Go, your tribute to Keith Richards. What inspired the song?

On the Tonight’s The Night Tour in 1973 in England, every day I met what seemed like half a dozen of Keith Richards’ “best friends”. All of them were saying, “We’re really worried about Keith, we don’t know if he’s going to be around much longer.” I’m thinking, Keith Richards just made Exile On Main St. – he can’t be in that bad a shape. That was my naïve take on it (laughs). But constantly hearing all these friends worried about him, I got this idea, and had this riff. For the box set [2014’s Face The Music] we found an earlier version, of Grin recording it, with Neil actually playing some piano and singing. That’s my favourite version, very raw and aggressive, with Neil’s haunting voice going, “Keith don’t go…”

"Nils is a unique combination of talents..." Bruce Springsteen sings the praises of Nils Lofgren

It was around this time that you tried for the Stones guitar gig, right?

I was running errands in Maryland and I hear on the radio Mick Taylor has left the Stones. I gotta ask for an audition. Before I can do anything, I think, Ronnie Wood – he’s the guy, that’s his gig. But a month passes, and they still haven’t announced a new guitar player. What’s going on? I tried calling the Stones, couldn’t get through to anybody. Finally, I got hold of Ronnie Wood. He says, “I turned the Stones down, I’m gonna stay with Rod and the Faces. But I told Keith about you. He’s staying at my cottage – call him up.” I call and sure enough Keith answers. “Yeah, Ronnie told me about you… we’re gonna get the band together in Geneva and we’re gonna have a bunch of guitar players come through. You’re welcome to come out.” Of course, not too long after, Ronnie realised he should take the gig and he did.

"Peter Grant sees me and starts dragging me by the scruff of the neck to the door..." Read MOJO's interview with Nils Lofgren in full, in which he discusses his early years as a teenage hustler, playing with Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Ringo Starr and more.

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