Nils Lofgren Gets Blue With Lou (Reed)
Songcraft: “Fictional characters with non-fictional emotion”
By Michael Toland,
12:01AM, Thu. May 23, 2019
Five decades in, Nils Lofgren maintains a full musical life. Besides long-running partnerships with Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, and Neil Young, the guitarist boasts dozens of LPs both solo and with his band Grin, and a notable summit with Lou Reed. Sample wares from the D.C.-raised dynamo, 67, on Thursday, May 30, at the 04 Center, 2701 S. Lamar.
Austin Chronicle: Your new album, Blue With Lou, debuts five unreleased songs of the 13 you co-wrote with Lou Reed beginning in 1979. Rarely did he collaborate with other songwriters.
Nils Lofgren: Yeah, I was a little surprised. My familiarity with Lou was going to see him play, loving his music, and then having this brief but great musical liaison in his apartment one night for six or eight hours and then later on the phone talking about these lyrics [he’d written]. So it was just a beautiful accident. [Producer Bob Ezrin] and I caught him at a good time when he was open to it.
AC: Reed’s known for a certain style and attitude, especially in the Seventies. Do you think he expanded on the kind of lyrics he’d normally write when he was writing with you?
NL: No, I think he was all Lou. There was one great song on Nils called “I Found Her.” It’s talking about how she was, “Hiding underneath a rock/ Let me tell you, she was all fucked up.” We called Lou from the studio: “We got a track on your song that we love. Do you mind if we say ‘all messed up,’ because it might get some airplay, and if it says ‘all fucked up’ it’s not gonna get any?” He said, “No, man, do whatever you want. Change any music – carte blanche to edit what I sent you. Feel free to edit, embellish, change.” He gave us leeway with the lyrics. That was very cool.
“Talk Thru the Tears” is such a tender song, but there’s still that little edge in the lyrics even though it’s coming from a more tender place. He does that in his own work, but it’s unusual to me. That’s one of my favorites I wanted to get done. Lou is extremely observant, and he honored the power of art and music to stir, to heal, to enlighten people, to lead them somewhere positive through a darkness.
AC: There’s also the song “Blue With Lou,” a tribute to Reed himself, plus “Dear Heartbreaker” in tribute to the late Tom Petty. The one that really hits me, as the owner of three dogs, is “Remember You,” about the death of your dog Groucho. How hard is it to translate these feelings of loss into a song?
NL: I don’t ever think of writing those types of songs. The only reason they’ve happened is because they’ve come at me. Whereas other songs I had a theme, an idea, and I wanted to see it to fruition. Those songs were accidents in the sense that I got an inspired moment and all of a sudden, I was singing and playing a verse. The next thing you know, there’s a second verse, a third verse.
The Tom Petty song just grew and grew. My wife Amy and I went to see him at Red Rocks because they weren’t playing Phoenix, and we’re both such huge fans. It was a beautiful night – never thought it would be the last time we’d see them. We were so angry every day after we lost him. We woke up every day and spoke of it, like how fucked up and angry we were that Tom was gone. Now there’s memories, a great body of work, but it really shook us up and it still does. So the song was an accident.
We went up to Sedona, which is a beautiful place. We were staying at a hotel in all these beautiful red rocks, but it was an Indian burial ground, and there were a lot of spirits around. It wasn’t a peaceful thing. There was a little side room where I couldn’t bother her, because I had this idea. We’d just lost Groucho, and it was very upsetting, and I just started writing this song about loss, but through my experience with Groucho.
There’s a verse in there about Rain, who we just lost last month, and we’re not over it at all. She was the heart and soul of our home for 15 years. They were our first two dogs, and we’re just not feeling right. Our two remaining ones, Dale and Peter, don’t know what’s going on either, and it’s just a mess.
Of course this is a crazy busy time for me, and it’s not allowing us the normal grieving process. But Amy loves music, and she understands. Look, all year long I’m planning a three-and-a-half week tour and that was it. Next thing you know, I’m off in a polar vortex of playing with Crazy Horse in February. Now, out of the blue, we’ve got these two weeks of recording sessions.
And everybody gets it. We all go through it. But I lost my 91-year-old mom last October, so the whole song “Remember You” reminds me that you don’t really get over those things. I feel like our animals have souls and we’ll see them again, but it is rough. I was in the middle of all these feelings, so I felt good about the trip, because I came up with this song that expressed something that was really dear to me.
AC: You have to find a balance, because you’re expressing something deep, but you’re still writing a song that has to work.
NL: Right. Most of my writing is autobiographical, emotional content, but not characters. It’s something I’m feeling, but I’m able to express it more freely if I’m using fictional characters with non-fictional emotion.
AC: Speaking of which, I’ve always felt that “No Mercy” [from 1979’s Nils] is near-perfect songcraft.
NL: You know, Bob Ezrin and I felt that too. Bob was like, “This song doesn’t need a note or a lyric – you’re done.” I was taking beginning karate lessons at a Jhoon Rhee school in Washington, D.C. In fact, I wrote a famous jingle for them. Jeff Smith ran the school, and he was the light heavyweight champion of the world. I didn’t want to get into fighting. I was just doing it as a discipline. But they started taking me with their fight teams to be the cornerman.
I’ll never forget: You’re in a ring with these young men you’ve traveled with while they’re in three-piece suits, all cleaned up and honorable. They bow to each other, genuinely respectful. Then they get in the ring and it’s full-contact karate. They’re just ripping each other’s heads off. These young men are coming back to the corner, and I’ve got the bucket, and they’re spitting blood and teeth into [it]. Then afterward, they’re bowing and deferential – a show of reverence to their opponent.
It reminded me of the concept that in this mad world we’re in, too often good people are put in a corner, and to protect your family, you have to hurt somebody. It’s an awful dilemma that adults are faced with, and that’s what the theme was. Working the corners, I got this concept of “No Mercy,” where it’s a dog eat dog world, and even if you have compassion for someone in front of you, the world puts you in these corners where it’s him or me.
I’d like to think that we could hopefully breed ourselves out of that as a human race, but we’ve taken a step backwards [chuckles], and I hope it’s a wake-up call that we’ve gotta move forward and do that.
AC: You’ve collaborated with so many legends – Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed – but you’ve had a long and productive solo career, and even before that, you led Grin. You’ve been doing this not only your entire adult life, but part of your childhood as well.
NL: Yeah, I started on accordion when I was 5 or 6, and studied classical music for nine years. It was a great musical backdrop when I picked up the blues guitar as a hobby. I’d fallen in love with the Beatles first and through them I discovered the Stones, the British invasion, American counterparts, Stax/Volt, Motown, Little Richard, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Albert King. That opened the floodgates. My brother Tommy started playing guitar first, showing me a few chords in the house, playing teen clubs in the Sixties. He loved Hendrix, the Beatles and the Stones, but it never occurred to [us] that you could do that for a living.
I was 17 – maybe 16 – when I saw the Who, Herman’s Hermits, and the Blues Magoos. Then we ran over to see Jimi Hendrix play a late show at the Ambassador Theater. I came out of there possessed. It was almost uncomfortable. But I had to try to be a rock musician, and 50 years later, here I am with a new album I’m proud of. Amy showed up last night to drive me back home Sunday. I’m recording with my dear friends Crazy Horse. Two weeks from now marks 50 years from when I walked in on Neil Young & Crazy Horse at the Silver Dollar in D.C. It was startling to look at ’em all.
But look, man, I got my standard aches and pains like everybody else. Losses pile up. But to be standing and singing and playing with friends, and have a tour of my own coming up, and a new album I’m proud of... I would have never been that greedy in 1968 when I hit the road at 17.
Lou Reed & Nils Lofgren Co-Writes
• “Stupid Man,” “With You,” “City Lights” appear on Reed’s The Bells (1979).
• “A Fool Like Me,” “I’ll Cry Tomorrow,” “I Found Her” appear on Lofgren’s Nils (1979).
• “Life” appears on Lofgren’s Damaged Goods (1995).
• “Driftin’ Man” appears on Lofgren’s Breakaway Angel (2001).
• “Attitude City,” “Give,” “Talk Thru the Tears,” “Don’t Let Your Guard Down,” “Cut Him Up” and a reprise of “City Lights” appear on Lofgren’s Blue With Lou (2019).