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Nils Lofgren Is in the E Street Band and Crazy Horse — and He Still Found Time to Make a New Solo LP

In the early months of the pandemic, Nils Lofgren didn’t know what to do with himself. The guitarist had been on the road since the Sixties, when his band Grin took off, and in the years that followed he’d launched many solo tours between stints with Bruce Springsteen in the E Street Band, Ringo Starr in the All Starr Band, and Neil Young in the Santa Monica Flyers, the Trans Band, and Crazy Horse.

“Covid threw me for a loop,” he tells Rolling Stone via Zoom from a hotel room in Vienna the day after an E Street Band show at the Ernst Happel Stadium. “I’d been on the road for 55 years. I loved being home with [my wife] Amy and the dogs. Our son Dylan would come over with his dogs. That was great. But I’d never gone for three years without performing in my professional life. And it kind of took a toll, more than I’d hoped.”

He started spending a lot of time in his garage studio playing blues covers by B. B. King, Albert King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, but he still wasn’t fulfilled. “After a while I felt like, ‘You got to do something professionally. And it’s just not safe to go into the little bars and clubs I play. So just write a record.’”

The result is Mountains, which was recorded largely at his home studio in Phoenix, Arizona. It features guest spots by Neil Young, Ringo Starr, former E Street Band background vocalist Cindy Mizelle, the Phoenix Children’s Chorus, and the Howard Gospel Choir. Lofgren handles much of the instrumentation himself, but he’s joined by bassists Kevin McCormick and Ron Carter, drummers Andy Newmark and Tim Biery, percussionist Luis Conte, and harp player Christine Vivona.

We spoke with Lofgren about the creation of Mountains, the inspiration behind many of the songs, his ongoing world tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and his hopes for a tour with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Along the way, we take a few detours into the past to hear about his years working alongside some of rock’s greatest legends.

Walk me through the process of creating Mountains at your own house. How did you go about that?
I’m 72. And because of Covid and my own health issues, I knew I had to make it at home. So Jamison Weddle, my fantastic engineer and friend, who has been working with me for over 20 years, would come over for three- to six-hour clips, four or five days a week.

We’d both test and wear masks unless I was singing to keep it as safe as we could. I got Covid flying home after finishing World Record with Neil Young. I exposed Amy, but she didn’t get it, thank God. So I was very careful not to start having the traditional arrangement of, “Here’s five musicians, and they’re going to move in for three weeks.”

We made the record in isolation with the wonders of technology. And I kind of piecemealed together, mostly just me and Jamison working in my garage studio.

When did this happen?
This was all last year. I was determined to get it done before the end of the year. Once Bruce said, “We’re going to hit the road in 2023,” I worked a little harder to make sure it was done by Christmas.

I decided to call the record Mountains, just because I felt like flashbacks to the PTSD of the Sixties, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam draft, the assassinations. Grin used to play at the big demonstrations downtown. I felt like I was having flashbacks to that.

It was cathartic to make a record, not overthink it, and just know I was going to share it. I just knew I had to push extra hard to get it done before I headed to rehearsals in January.

The album opens with “Ain’t the Truth Enough.” It’s an angry song where you sing, “Who filled your head with lies/You’re Kool-Aid hypnotized.” What inspired that?
My wife Amy, who’s this fierce social media fighter for women’s rights, kids’ rights, human rights, common sense, democracy…She’s really deep in it and has got a lot of fans for it. There has been a war on women my whole lifetime. It’s gotten a lot worse recently. So I thought, “Well, what if I wrote a song from the perspective of a fierce mother whose husband just came home from the Jan. 6 insurrection?”

I needed a woman to sing with me, and the great Cindy Mizelle just killed it. Some songs take a lot of elbow grease, but this was done in two or three days. And of course, I knew I had to ask Ringo to play on it. I sent him the demo. He called me back and he started singing the chorus over the phone. He said, “Love this. When you’re ready, send it to me. I’ll play on it.”

It’s pretty amazing you can just dial up a Beatle and get him to play on one of your songs.
It’s crazy. I mean, I was a classical accordion player playing Beatles medleys at my ninth-grade variety show. Fast-forward years later, we’re playing Wembley with Bruce on the Born in the USA tour. Of course, the Mighty Max [Weinberg] wrote the great book, The Big Beat [Conversations with Rock’s Greatest Drummers]. We go to Ringo’s birthday party. He had a studio set up to jam. And I said, “Unless they throw me out, I am not leaving until I get to play with Ringo.”

I stayed at the jam, late at night, sitting up drinking with Ringo. He was very friendly. He gave me his phone number and said, “Stay in touch.” I called him every few weeks, and started a friendship. I was in England every year touring acoustically and he’d come to the shows.

Fast-forward to 1989. I was living in L.A. Ringo calls me and says, “Look, I got to find a way to be a drummer and get out, play, and sing. I’ve got money. I’ve got fame. But I’m miserable. I’ve got this All-Star Band concept. Everyone’s going to play two or three songs. I get to go up front, sing some of my hits, but mostly I’m going to play drums. I’m putting this together with my favorite musicians. I want you to join the band.” I was out of my mind happy.

He said, “Wait a minute. Don’t you want to know who’s in the band?” I said, “Well, you’re in the band.” He said, “Yeah, I’m in the band.” I said, “I’m good.” He laughed and said, “Well, let me tell you, Dr. John, Billy Preston, Joe Walsh, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Jim Keller, and Clarence Clemons.” And I was like, “You got to be kidding me, man!”

Tell me about getting Neil Young to sing on your new song “Nothin’s Easy.”
I’ve been waiting for years to have a song where I really think Neil Young needs to sing the harmony, because it can’t just be any song. I sent it to him. I wasn’t presumptuous, but he called back and said, “This feels good, man. Send it. I’ll sing.” I was very blessed to assemble quite an accidental cast of guests that really made the record better.

Let’s talk about “Only Ticket Out.” Reading the lyrics, it’s clearly about a journey from alcoholism and drug addiction to AA.
Well, I’m 35 years clean and sober. I did not mention AA by name in the song because you’re supposed to remain anonymous. But the song is a story, largely autobiographical, about someone completely in the throes of alcoholism and addiction.

I have a sense of humor about it, talk to a lot of people, and try to help others. But that was a particularly harsh, honest song. And because of the subject matter, I thought it should have a little heavy-metal approach with some more bombastic, harsh sounds and guitar.

You cover Springsteen’s “Back in Your Arms.” What drew you to that one out of all the songs in his catalog?
We’ve played that song on and off for the last 20 years with Bruce. I loved the song when it was on the Tracks album. I thought, “Oh man, this is a beautiful ballad.” When we did it live, Bruce slowed it way down. He did a five-minute rap before he started to even sing. I just loved it. At a couple of soundchecks, Bruce said, “Man, why hasn’t anybody covered this?”

I tried to record it when I made Blue With Lou, but I realized I need a choir. I brought in the Howard Gospel Choir. My wife Amy isn’t in the music business, but she told me I should add Cindy Mizelle to it also. I just turned her loose on it. I’m really proud of the way it came out.

“Won’t Cry No More” is dedicated to Charlie Watts.
The Stones were touring a couple of years ago, and they were looking great. I’d check them out all the time on YouTube. And when Charlie passed, it was really a shock. I got really angry, but also sad. I started listening to a lot of Stones music, and really tuning into the drums. I was trying to hook in the spirit of Charlie to help me through this uncomfortable rage, angst, sadness, and pissed off-ness.

One morning as the sun was coming up, lounging with [my dog] Rose on the couch, I came up with this blues riff. I started singing about Charlie and that led to other stuff. It was this fury of, “I’m so disgusted that he’s gone that I’m not going to get upset or cry anymore” And then by the end of the song, I’m crying. It was just a way for me to process something I don’t have the tools for. Even though I’ve lost a lot of friends and family, that one really threw me for a loop. I used that song to kind of help me get through it.

On “Remember Her Name,” you’re pretty clearly singing about Amy. It even references little moments with her at the Empress Hotel in Asbury Park.
That’s from the night I met her at the Stone Pony. We went to the Empress Hotel that night and talked until 6:00 a.m., drinking way too much. I had a show in Boston the next night. I was like, “Come to Boston. I’ll put you on a train.” She said, “Oh no. I got a job. My mother would kill me. My boss would kill me.” I said, “Give me their numbers. I’ll call them.” It was about 4:30 a.m. at this point. She laughed and said, “You’re not calling my mom and my boss at 4:30 to tell them I’m going to Boston.” So we waved goodbye. I was in Jersey every few months, so I figured I’d see her.

I didn’t see her again for 15 years. I was playing at the Rocking Horse Saloon in Scottsdale, Arizona. She walks up at the end of the night and goes, “Hi. Remember me?” She was at the end of a divorce. I had a four-year-old son. Thank God I got her number that night. We’ve been together ever since. It’s been 27 years. But the 15 years between the first date and second date was rough. I went through a lot of shit I shouldn’t have had to go through in those 15 years.

David Crosby sings on the song.
David was a friend of 55 years. I met him through Neil all those years ago.  David and Amy got to be pretty close because they were really good on Twitter and really insightful, sticking up for what’s right, and giving people shit when they needed it.

David said to me, “I want to sing on your record.” I said, “I’d love that, David. Let me wait until I know which song is right for you.” And sure enough, as soon as I started writing that song and I got an inkling of the chorus, I said, “Man, this one’s for David.” And he sang beautifully on it.

It’s amazing to think this is probably the last record of new songs that’ll feature both Neil Young and David Crosby.
I hadn’t thought about that, but when Neil said, “Yes.” I went, “Oh, that’s cool. They’ll both be on the record.” I didn’t really think it through like that, but you’re right. That’s heavy.

“Angel Blue” is a nice note to end the record on.
I started the record with “Ain’t the Truth Enough.” It’s a serious song from a mother’s point of view, dealing with this guy that she thought she knew and loved, home from an insurrection. And the very last song… I’m a recovering Catholic. I look at all religions as cults. I know they serve a purpose for some people, not for me. So I do believe in some higher power, not the religious kind, but something greater than us. If that’s God, fine with me.

“Angel Blue” is an old, unfinished song, one of the few on this record from the past. But I loved the opening lines, “Lean your weary halo on my wing/And let the peace come/As your darkness dies in my light/Even angels falter now and then.”

There’s beautiful people doing great work. Sadly, they’re just not running the shows, or the world would be in a lot better shape. But “lean your weary halo on my wing and let the peace come,” I just thought that was a great way to wrap up the journey of the record.

You’re pretty busy at the moment, but do you hope to do solo shows at some point soon where you can play this new music?
I know I love to perform. I had been doing a lot of small club work and embracing it and loving it, sometimes as an acoustic duo. I hadn’t played with a band in 15 years. So just before the pandemic shut everything down, I took a full band out with Andy Newmark, Kevin McCormick, Cindy Mizelle, and my brother Tommy.

I just wanted to go play. I didn’t want to record. And thank God Amy said, “Please just record the shows. I know you don’t want to put out a live record.” But when I listened to it, had a great vibe. Long story short, we put out a double live album called Weathered of that band. But of course I look forward to the day where I get out to play.

But, man, I’m deep into this [E Street Band] tour. It’s one of the things I learned with Neil when I was 18. It’s great not to be the band leader every day of your life, because there’s a lot of things that are not musical you need to deal with when you’re the band leader. They all go away when I’m in someone else’s band.

The idea of saying, “Hey, I got 13 days at home. Let’s schedule a couple shows and play.” For me, that’s madness. I want to get home to Amy, my dogs… I want to put all this aside, though I’m super grateful that there’s more work. And, man, we are in great shape with the band right now. Everyone’s happy and deep in it.

A solo tour is a distant idea. I can’t be like, “Well, six months from now, let’s book it.” I can’t book anything six months from now. Selfishly, I hope this tour keeps rolling on. So until this is done, whenever that is, and I hope it’s not soon, at that point, I’ll look at getting back out. And of course it’ll be nice to have the songs from Mountains to add to the other stuff to when I finally get back on the road. But right now, I’m thrilled to be out here.

The E Street Band reconvened in Red Bank, New Jersey, in early January. You guys hadn’t done any live work since early 2017. Did it take any time to shake off the rust or incorporate the new band members?
I left home Jan. 6. I had talked to Bruce and stayed in touch with most of the band guys anyway. He told me about the Only the Strong Survive album with these great soul hits. So I thought, “Oh man, maybe some of my old horn buddies will be there, like Ed Manion, Barry Danielian, Curt Ramm.” And sure enough, they were all there.

I was really excited when we found out we were touring and we’d have a little choir and we’d have the horn section. Because to me as a singer, it’s more fun when you have these great voices that are there all night long strengthening everything you’re doing.

And rehearsals were a little, not rocky, but it was getting your sea legs a bit, all of us in our own way. It usually takes about 10 or 15 shows. But we came out of the gate really strong. I was really impressed.

After just four shows, Covid hits. Band members start missing shows.
I was super-careful. Amy hooked me up with my Instacart and DoorDash. I didn’t even do room service. Even with all that, it still happened. I was shocked when I heard that Steve was going to miss a night. But I cover for Steve, and he covers for me. It’s obviously just what parts you don’t need to sweat, and what parts need to be there.

But it caught us all off-guard. Because of the size of the band, Ed, who is a great sax player, was able to cover for Jake. He stepped up and played Clarence’s parts. Steve is such a powerful singer, but we had Curtis and all these other singers. It was natural to cover for each other.

That show in Dallas was the first E Street show with just you and Bruce playing guitar since 1988. You were doing things like “The Promised Land” solo that you hadn’t really done since back then, since Steve does that now.
It’s just natural to step in. Before the show I was like, “There are things I need to remember to cover.” But when you’re out there it’s like, “Oh shit, this part Steven did. I better jump on that.” It comes to you, because we’re a well-oiled machine that’s used to hearing each other for hours and hours and hours on the road. So everyone stepped up and took care of each other to get it done. But it was a unique experience.

Then you got Covid and had to miss the next show in Houston. I’m sure it was weird to not be on stage for one night. You’d never missed a single show, ever.
Ever. I was very upset because I wore a mask all the time. I was really pissed off. I was in a hotel looking at the roof of the Toyota Center with the band inside. And I’m sitting here in this freaking hotel room. I mean, I don’t like to leave home anymore. I’m away from home. I’m not working. There’s my band. I mean, it’s Bruce’s band, but it’s my band.

Missing that show really messed me up. But I’m an adult, so you call on adult reasoning, you take the medicine, you get well as soon as you can.

This show is pretty different than last tours since the setlist is largely locked in. That’s allowed you guys to really perfect it and nail every little nuance of the songs.
We change a few songs here and there, which is great. But there’s a depth that you’re allowed to get into and access when there’s some repetition. That’s mainly because you start hearing a lot of detail of what every other person is doing. And inevitably that familiarity allows for a lot deeper interaction and kind of a musical understanding.

If you’re ad-libbing 15 songs a night and even your singer doesn’t know what’s next, you just can’t get that depth. So it’s all good stuff, man. We got, God knows, probably the biggest catalog of any band out there. And when he’s ready, he’ll call other songs, which we’ve done. I’m game for whatever Bruce wants to project. The band and the audiences are arguably as good as I’ve ever seen. I’m very grateful for that.

I’ve seen the show a bunch of times. There are so many great moments, but “Last Man Standing” into “Backstreets” gets me every time. It’s so powerful.
Yeah, I mean that’s as great a segue as we got. Just a beautiful moment.

Are you hoping there will be more shows next year?
I learned a long time ago to give myself permission to get down in whatever band I’m in, whatever role I’m have. We had a couple tours planned with Neil and Crazy Horse, which I was so excited about, especially after World Record. I felt like we really started taking some strides. Neil and I were jamming more together, like in “Chevrolet” and “Break the Chain.”

[In 2019,] before the pandemic, Bruce’s management called me and was like, “There are no shows this year. You’re free to do what you want. Next year, we’re planning on going out and playing all year.” And the same week, Elliot [Roberts], God rest his soul, called me. He said, “Look, in seven weeks Neil wants to start a tour and stay out all year.”

I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I was like a kid in a candy store. “No conflicts! I get to go out with Crazy Horse all year, no conflicts, and then go home for a bit, the holidays, and all next year with E Street!” I was giddy, so excited about it. And then within three weeks, everything got shut down, all plans got tabled. But that’s life.

[Neil’s manager] Frank Gironda is a dear friend who I met through Elliot Roberts many years ago. And of course, Jon Landau and I go way back. He was doing articles about my records before he even hooked up with Bruce.  And my joke is I go to them and say, “Look, between these two bands, I have 90 years in. Ninety years! I’ve done a good job. Can you just let me make the touring schedule for a year or two? I have earned that, right?” And they all laugh and say, “Get lost. Go away.” It’s all good though, whatever happens.

Neil is out there now playing by himself. It seems like he’s really having fun. People like him, once they get in front of an audience, alone or with a band, a duo, whatever it is, you know it’s going to be brilliant.

That Rainbow Theatre 1973 show he just released, which you obviously play on, is pretty sensational.
Frank called me just a few months ago about that. He said, “Look, we found somebody who had a good tape recorder on at the 1973 Rainbow Theater. We’re going to release the whole show.” I said, “You got to be kidding me.” They sent me the music right away. I listened to it four times through. I mean, it just was so emotional and stirring for me.

Why didn’t we have a camera rolling? That was such a momentous tour. We did this crazy set where Neil is wearing 16-inch glitter boots. He’s hammering on the piano, doing songs no one had ever heard. Neil’s rapping and going crazy. We’re playing this crazy music. People were throwing bottles and yelling at us. They wanted to hear the hits.

We get on the bus after doing what we thought was a beautiful, special show. Elliot takes Neil to the back of the bus. “You’re out of your mind. You’re losing $10,000 a week. The next truck stop, let’s get out. I’ll get a limo. We’ll go to Heathrow. We’ll fly back. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, we’ll be making millions within weeks.” And Neil’s like, “No, I’m having fun, Elliot.”

The head space for that tour was Cuervo Gold tequila and Thai weed, which we smuggled in. So [producer] David Briggs would go back and say, “Elliot, leave Neil alone. Stop bothering him, man. This is art. This is beautiful. Don’t you realize what they’re doing? How special this is?” And I thought, “Yeah, Elliot, why didn’t you go get a film crew? That’s what you should’ve done. Got a film crew and filmed that tour.”

Neil announced the other day that he’s playing the Roxy in L.A. on Sept. 20, which is the exact 50th anniversary of the famous opening night where you guys played.
Yeah, it broke my heart. Neil called me and said, “Hey, this is the anniversary, can you come and play?” And I’m like, “It’s between two [E Street Band] shows. I can’t travel on a show day. I’m going home to see Amy, though. I got the weekend off. How about we do it Saturday night?”

I was really hoping that the whole Crazy Horse band could do it, but that’s Farm Aid. That kind of blew my idea.

You do have the night off between shows in Albany and Columbus, Ohio.
But then I’m going to California, where the next day you’ve already lost three hours and you’re traveling on a show day. You can’t travel on a show day and keep your sanity if you’re Nils Lofgren. Maybe if you’re some other lunatic drinking and smoking, but not me, man. I got to get there the night before. I don’t travel on show days, period. Unless I’m with Bruce and the band. If that’s their plan, fine. But I don’t leave the tour.

Do you think Neil will wind up playing that show solo acoustic? Maybe just with Billy and Ralph?
He can do whatever he wants. That’s the thing, a guy like Neil with those songs… He just decided to go out alone. He’s doing great. If he decides, “I’m into doing a power trio with Ralph and Billy,” it’s going to be great too.

I really think the E Street Band and Crazy Horse are two of the greatest bands in rock history. It’s pretty nuts you’re in both of them at the same time, even if it occasionally presents problems like this.
It’s weird, it’s beautiful. And I mean, Crazy Horse is one of my oldest musical families, and I really treasure and value it all. I still miss the hell out of David Briggs. And whenever Bruce is done, I hope Neil takes Crazy Horse out and I get to do it. But that’s just me being a musician, living in a dream.

The camps operate so differently. Bruce plans things far in advance. Neil just sort of flies by the seat of his pants.
In some senses, yes. But on the other side of the coin, you’ve seen Bruce take signs out of the audience, and throw them down on the stage. They have to surf the internet and get the lyrics in his teleprompter in 18 seconds. And we’re making up an arrangement to a song we’ve never played, or haven’t played in 18 years. So there’s a looseness and a chaos they both like, and we all adapt to it and love it.

But yeah, maybe Neil takes it a little further. We were doing a couple of shows in Winnipeg [in 2019]. We do a little vocal warmup before the show. So we’re sitting there singing like we’ve always done, Ralphie, Billy, me, and Neil. And he has a little Wurlitzer. We’re just about done and we’re going on in 20 minutes. So we’re like “Neil, give us a set list. I know we’re not going to follow it, but at least we can look at something.”

And Neil looked at us and he said, “You know, guys, I don’t feel like writing a set list. How about we just walk out and play whatever comes to mind?” Now that’s not happening very often in the world of rock & roll, where people just kind of walk out and play whatever comes mind.


It was quite telling about the power and confidence bred over decades and decades of people working together, loving it, and just hanging with it for all those years. I’m honored to be back playing and recording with them, and excited for another chapter, whatever it is.

I’ll wrap in a second, but I know Bruce fans in Australia are hoping the tour is going to come there next year. You think that’ll happen?
Anything’s possible. I just hope we continue this great show that we’re doing and keep reaching people and spreading some joy. I hope we keep playing wherever, anywhere. I’m not involved with those decisions. They’ve never asked me, and that’s OK with me. But wherever they want to play, I’ll be there with bells on for as long as they like.

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