Nils Lofgren was a fresh-faced 18-year-old kid the first time he met Neil Young around 1970. The guitarist was in Los Angeles trying to get his band Grin off the ground when he entered the wily Canadian’s orbit. Before long, he was adding piano licks and whipping out frenzied, electric riffs on Young’s folk-rock masterpiece After The Goldrush. The whole endeavor was almost too surreal for the young D.C. native to even wrap his mind around.
Not long after releasing After The Gold Rush, Young experienced one of the great losses of his life when his friend and collaborator Danny Whitten died of a drug overdose in Los Angeles. Whitten was the guitarist in Crazy Horse, a group Young utilized as his raucous backing outfit throughout the early ‘70s. The band also consisted of Billy Talbot on bass and Ralph Molina on drums. Young ultimately channeled his turmoil into music, creating his darkest, and perhaps most inspired work Tonight’s The Night. Once again Lofgren was brought in to play on the sessions. His most notable contribution can be heard on the song “Speakin’ Out. Midway through the track, you can audibly hear Young on the recording asking the guitarist to take a solo.
In the decades since the Tonight’s the Night sessions, the two men have largely gone their separate ways. Lofgren replaced Steven Van Zandt as a member of the E Street Band in 1984, touring the world with Bruce Springsteen, while Young proceeded to create dozens of new records, film projects, and other electronic pursuits.
After Frank “Poncho” Sampredo hung up his Stratocaster and departed the Crazy Horse lineup due to health concerns however, Young called and invited Lofgren out to play some shows with him, Molina and Talbot to celebrate the release of the Tonight’s the Night: Live at the Roxy album. The shows were a triumph, and Lofgren decided to stick around. In 2019, he worked with Young on his then-most recent album Colorado. And when the world locked down because of COVID and Young once again wanted to record, Lofgren made his way high above the Rocky Mountains, where he and the band huddled inside of refurbished, century-old barn to make some new joyful noise.
Recently, I had the opportunity to jump on a call with Lofgren to talk about his decade’s long friendship with Neil Young, how they managed to write and record his latest album Barn, and what the story is on seeing the E Street Band once again sometime soon…
SPIN: You started working with Neil again I think back in 2018 beginning with a Crazy Horse gig in Fresno. How did you link up with together after so many years?
Nils Lofgren: I do the Bridge benefits occasionally and stay in touch. But I think it was to celebrate the 45-year release of Tonight’s the Night: Live From the Roxy, where we opened that night. He put out a double vinyl. Then we had a run of shows to celebrate that. At the last minute, Frank “Poncho” Sampredo had some stuff going on at home that was kind of an emergency nature, and he just couldn’t make it. Instead of canceling the shows, Neil called and said, “Hey, can you just jump on the Horse out of the blue?” I did, and that kind of started this journey where I was playing back in Crazy Horse. We did a handful of shows, eventually he started writing, and I moved to Colorado. Now out of the blue, we’ve got a new album Barn coming out December 10.
Take me back in time a bit. What was it like first working with Neil, Ralph, and Billy in Crazy Horse all those years ago?
It was just so much. I was 18 during After the Gold Rush. My band Grin was going out to L.A. anyway. Neil turned me on to [his producer] David Briggs, who took Grin under his wing. He became my probably greatest mentor with Neil; big brother, producer, mentor. I saw Danny and Billy and Ralphie all the time. Early on, while we were doing After the Gold Rush, there was a plan to make a Crazy Horse album without Neil, and just have their own identity. Especially the singer and writer, like Danny [Whitten]. Fortunately, or tragically before Danny passed, we got that record done. Jack Nitzsche joined the band to produce, and to play keyboards, fabulous.
It was really old school. I’ve forgotten a lot, but I remember going to Studio Instant Rentals, and showing up with Jack, me, Danny, Billy, and Ralphie and rehearsing all these great songs with Danny as our lead singer. I wrote a couple for them, “Beggar’s Day” and “Nobody.” It was just a real honor to make that record. That led to Tonight’s the Night, and the touring. Of course, in the ’80s we did Trans, and we recorded some songs for that. Then we did a long tour in Europe in stadiums. The MTV Unplugged I got to do. Now recently, Colorado and Barn. It’s just such a long history with dear friends. I stay in touch with everybody, and I go see them play here and there, when Amy and I are on the road with E Street, we went and saw Crazy Horse a couple times.
Let’s talk about Barn a little bit. You know 2020, the whole world goes nuts and locks down. At which point did Neil get in touch with you and say, “Hey, I’ve been working on some songs?”
He said, “Look, we can’t tour indefinitely. Rather than this mythical year and a half away, which would be this summer, which is still not likely because of COVID. So, I’ve been writing a bit for the band. Why don’t we get together, maybe we’ll record four or five things and do it safely, with masks and protection and all that?” The theme was, maybe if we did that two or three times at possibly different locations, we might eventually get enough for an album. Out of the blue, we kept writing. By the time we started recording, we had six, seven things; eight, nine. All of a sudden, we realized, “Damn, we’ve almost got an album.”
Neil was very clear. He was excited. He was like, “How amazing is it that the four of us can play and sing together after all these decades?”
Thankfully he didn’t belabor it. He came in with the 10th song, we literally learned it together, with no arrangement really. Finally, he just said, “Just follow me. I’m not sure where it’s going to go.” We cut that 10th song and then it’s “Let’s go into mix mode.” Next thing I know, I get a call saying there’s a release party at the Roxy, where we opened the Roxy with the Tonight’s the Night band in ’73, I believe.
Really? So it was all done live?
It was a barn. It was set up like a nightclub stage.
We had our wooden Indian. We had the upright piano that I played on After the Gold Rush. Brought a lot of guitars. Brought my accordion. When we had to sing some harmonies, we just got around Neil’s mic and the playback PA. We kept the music low and sang together; mixed ourselves.
Man, that is old school.
Everything was live and immediate. Neil, who does this a lot, likes to record while you’re learning stuff and not working out parts that you come back to all the time. So, it’s very loose and raw. He was in a great spirit and just kept writing. Next thing you know, we had 10 songs, it was a beautiful thing.
Was there any difference between the experience of recording with Neil in 1970 versus recording with Neil in 2021? It seems like he’s still kind of putting you through the paces and keeping you on your toes.
Yeah, not too much. With Neil, it’s really not “Learn your part.” It’s like, “I don’t want you to have a part.” Just play. Play what you feel. Once in a while, it’s standard classic Neil where when I got up there, we started looking at the songs and say, “You got any feel for which ones I might play piano on?” And he thought about it, and he said, “No, no, I don’t.” I got that it was just an immediate thing. I might get an idea to pick up a different instrument. I remember on “Song of the Seasons” we were like, “Well, should I play piano? I love that upright piano.” But the accordion, either one’s good. Neil just broke down and he said, “Why don’t you try the accordion?” Next thing you know, we got the take.
The lineup of Crazy Horse has changed through years, but the constant has been Billy Talbott and Ralph Molina. The rhythm section. Not a lot of people can play with Billy and Ralph. You can’t spook the Horse, as Neil is fond of saying.
When I was working on After the Gold Rush at 18, Ralphie was our drummer and Gregory [LeRoy] played incredible bass. Danny would come out and sing harmonies and of course. It was always understood that at some point Danny was going to be the lead singer and Crazy Horse was going to make a record featuring Danny’s songs and voice and the band on their own. They were a group playing together years before they met Neil. That came to fruition, with Jack Nitzsche joining on keyboards and producing. It’s just such a long history and especially making that Crazy Horse album at such a young age, that just cemented what was already a dear friendship with all of them.
Billy and Ralphie, we spent so much time on the road after Tonight’s the Night, on funky buses traveling around England and then the States, where my band Grin opened the show. It’s just such a long history, not just as musicians but as friends. There’s just no pretense. There’s a rigorous honesty. You’re very comfortable disagreeing, laughing, poking fun at each other, being serious, being happy, all of it. It’s kind of the familiarity of a half a century family that’s still intact, musically and emotionally as friends.
You mentioned E Street, and Bruce Springsteen is someone you’ve worked with for decades. In what ways are he and Neil similar or different as bandleaders?
With Bruce and Neil, they’re very hands-off. They don’t micromanage what you’re playing. A lot of times, they don’t even recommend an instrument. They just start singing a song and you get an idea and you pick up that instrument. Usually, it works out. Sometimes they may say, “Hey, why don’t you try this one, see how it feels?” Look, it’s exhausting if you have to tell everyone what to play. That’s just not a good situation for the type of freeform music and bands that both these bands are. There’s no rules. Whether you’re caught off guard, or having something be planned and rehearsed, either approach does not keep it from being a brilliant and emotional music experience as long as you’re with people you love and the music’s great.
Not to get morbid about it, but another figure you mentioned was David Briggs. He made so many of those great records with you and Grin and with Neil back in the day. In the back of your head, when you’re still jamming with Neil all these years later, do you ever think like, “I wonder what would Briggs think of this?”
We talk about it openly. We felt like everything we were playing, we had Ben Keith, David Briggs, Elliot Roberts, they’re all there with us. We felt them and we used them. They were there with us, as far as we were all concerned. They always will be. Because it’s just such a visceral, integral, emotional part of everything we are as a band.
What’s something that people don’t understand about Neil, or maybe they get wrong about him?
That’s a tough one. He can be funny as hell. Hilarious sense of humor. Obviously, he’s very intense and takes the music seriously, but to have fun with it and be free with it. Case in point when he said, “I don’t even want to write a setlist. Let’s just go have an experience.” And not with the idea like, “Gosh, I hope it works out.” His point is, “Yeah, well whatever it is, it’s going to be beautiful because it’s unplanned, it’s unrehearsed, it’s unknown. It’s us being a musical family and just reacting to each other and having the confidence and the knowledge that that is a great tool to not shut down and to use, and not say here’s a setlist, we’re going to follow it.” That works for some people and I get it, they like to know what’s coming. In fact, they like to hear the same thing every night. I understand that. But we’re the antithesis of that. That’s the joy, I think, of working with Neil. His love of the unknown, especially musically.