One of rock’s great sidemen, Nils Lofgren joined Neil Young’s band at just 18, adding his blazing guitar to Young’s seminal After The Gold Rush album and also playing on his bleak masterpiece Tonight’s The Night. Since then, Lofgren has backed stars including Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ringo Starr and, most enduringly, Bruce Springsteen, joining the E Street Band just before the all-conquering Born In the USA tour.
He’s now well into his fourth decade at the Boss’s right hand. Since forming Grin in 1968, Lofgren has also enjoyed a parallel and ongoing career as a band leader and singer-songwriter. In Grin he employed his unique onstage trick of doing a backflip off a trampoline while playing a guitar solo – and for which he somehow has no serious injuries to report.
Today he’s at home in Arizona. It’s here that he shot his latest project, Blind Date Jam, with friend and pedal-steel wizard Mike Smith, the pair of them going at it in Lofgren’s garage. The baking Arizona sun is not long up and he’s just back from walking his three dogs.
Which was the first song you figured out how to play?
I was six years old and it was on an accordion. It was Santa Lucia, an Italian ballad. I very quickly started to learn those old country songs from my grandmothers, who were Italian and Swedish.
How’s your Italian cooking?
Oh, I’m terrible. I’m married to an incredible professional cook, Amy. Thank God she cooks for us. But I have got to the point now that I can butter a piece of toast without burning it, and boil water for tea. That’s the extent of what I’m able to do in the kitchen.
What’s the first piece of advice Neil Young gave you?
Prior to recording After The Gold Rush with Neil, when I was seventeen my band Grin moved from Chicago to LA and I was living in Topanga Canyon with David Briggs, Neil’s producer. David was kind of my big brother and mentor, so I was around those guys a lot. I had a year of hanging out with Neil and David and just getting to know them. Mainly, they instilled their work ethic and passion about music. That was invaluable to me at a very early age. To this day they were the two biggest influences on me.
When did you first pull off the trampoline trick on stage?
It was in Tampa, Florida and Grin was on a tour opening for the J Geils Band. I was kind of a shy, introverted guy, and I had watched the whole energy and physical performance of those guys and thought: “What can I do that is visual but not fake?” I was a gymnast in junior high, and I got the idea that my old coach could teach me how to do a backflip off a mini-tramp with a guitar. I could already do a backflip, but once you put a guitar on, you have to relearn the stunt. He taught me how to do it using ceiling belts and a rope.
In Tampa, we played to thousands of college kids and for a half-hour they booed us and threw bottles at us. At the end of our set I did my first flip and they just went crazy. Welcome to show business
What is your unsung claim to fame?
I’m the only guitarist in history who’s played with Cab Calloway and Bart Simpson. A friend of mine at Fox wanted to do a couple of Christmas jingles for The Simpsons one time, and the obvious thing was to have a rock version with me as the straight guy and Bart as the wild man playing Jimi Hendrix licks around me.
What’s the perfect guitar riff?
I wouldn’t use the word ‘perfect’, but some of the guys I would like to have walk in front of me and play are Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Albert King, BB King, Roy Buchanan, Tommy Emmanuel, people that become one with the instrument and their soul goes way past any technical prowess.
When was the last time you cried?
I’ve had a few bouts since we lost our dear old dog, Groucho, at Christmas. I tend to well up pretty easily.
Do you believe in God?
I do. And I believe there’s an afterlife. I’m hoping that I’ll see my dad again and our dogs that have passed. I just don’t like organised religion at all. I’m a recovering Catholic.
What’s your favourite indulgence?
It used to be a lot of hard liquor, but I’ve been clean and sober for thirty years. Now I’m a sugar and caffeine junkie. And I know it’s not good for me – I’m sixty-six. At half-time during a football game on TV, I might get a pint of Haagen-Dazs Swiss Vanilla-Almond, put the whole pint in a bowl and sprinkle a bag of chocolate pecans over it. Then I get some white chocolate and dice it up and dump that all over it. Then I sprinkle it with a little coconut, and throw in a few shots of skimmed milk so it will be non-fat.
What will be written on your tombstone?
That’s too ominous of a question for me to even go there right now.
Nils Lofgren tours the UK this month. Tickets are on sale now. Blind Date Jam is available now to download from nilslofgren.com.