Nils Lofgren revisits a productive partnership with Lou Reed
When Nils Lofgren sat with Lou Reed to discuss writing songs together while they were watching the Dallas Cowboys play the Washington Redskins on television in Reed’s New York City apartment in 1978, he probably didn’t imagine it would take 40 years for many of the best songs from their resulting collaboration to finally see the light of day.
Better late than never.
Lofgren’s searing, deeply felt “Blue With Lou,” his first solo record in eight years, is centered on six of the songs they co-wrote (including “City Lights,” which Reed recorded for his 1979 album “The Bells”). The 12-song set features some of the best work of Lofgren’s career and demonstrates just how fruitful the songwriting collaboration turned out.
Lofgren, who plays a sold-out show with his band at City Winery on May 18, and Reed wrote 13 songs together, eight of which have already surfaced on Lofgren or Reed solo efforts. Lofgren decided to revisit the five unrecorded tracks as a springboard for his return as a solo artist.
The musician, widely known for his superb work as a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, fondly recalls his unorthodox collaboration with Reed, which was set up by producer Bob Ezrin.
“I had 13 songs, complete with melodies, bridges, and lyrics that needed changing, so Lou said to me, ‘Send me the music,’ and I did. Shockingly, 3½ weeks later — honestly, I’d pretty much forgotten about it — he called me at 4:30 in the morning,” Lofgren, 67, says via phone from his home in Arizona.
“Lou said he’d been up for three days and nights with no sleep, and he loved the tape. He had completed 13 sets of lyrics and was willing to dictate them to me. I got a pad and pencil and took notation. It was careful notation, and I asked a lot of questions,” he says with a laugh. “He was really cool and thoughtful and above all, he was excited about the songs.”
A conversation with Lofgren, one of the great guitarists of his generation, is a deeply rewarding experience as he speaks with the same empathy, passion, intelligence, and grace reflected in “Blue With Lou” and his solo work, dating back to 1975’s superb “Nils Lofgren.” He talks about his wife, Amy, who co-executive produced the record, with abiding love and devotion and speaks of his grief over the death of his two dogs, Groucho and Rain.
This humanity spills over into the music on “Blue With Lou,” which is marked by loss — there are tributes to Tom Petty (who died in 2017), Reed (who died in 2013), and his dogs — and concern for the well-being of this “deeply troubled planet we’re living on right now.”
“I wanted to do something authentic and real when I made this record,” he says. His original compositions, like “Rock or Not” or “Too Blue to Play,” deftly counterbalance the Reed collaborations that feature the intense, slit-a-vein wordplay of the late New York bard of wounded souls.
One of the finest songs they wrote together, “Talk Thru the Tears,” captures the strengths of both artists, with Reed’s heart-on-his-sleeve vulnerability combining with Lofgren’s wonderful melodicism (the track evokes Lofgren’s own “Shine Silently”).
“That’s one of the more tender pieces from Lou,” Lofgren says. “There’s always the edge in his work, but you hear a different side to him there, and his love of Charlie Chaplin comes through, as it does on ‘City Lights.’ It’s one of my favorites.”
Among the new compositions on “Blue With Lou,” a record cut mostly live in the studio, is the Petty tribute “Dear Heartbreaker.” Lofgren became acquainted with Petty and the Heartbreakers when they opened his 1977 tour. The former gymnast, who used to do backflips off a trampoline while onstage and now tap dances, saving his gymnastics for the fretboard, says he wasn’t planning “to write a song about Tom, but then one day, I took a break and listened to music and tap danced. I got this verse, and it was a personal note to Tom and the band. It just kept coming out of the rage and sadness of losing him and, ultimately, the band.”
As the new record reflects, Lofgren is uneasy about the direction of this country and unafraid to express his thoughts. He says his wife is “a vocal member of the resistance on Twitter, especially as a woman and a mother.” He decries the destructive role of money and fame in our culture.
“Becoming rich and powerful has become a mental illness at the expense of everything, including our very humanity and our planet,” he says. “All the brilliance and humanity are getting trampled by things like fame, which has also become a mental illness. Add the cameras and showbiz 24/7 on top of the greed and power, which has been a problem for centuries, and you have such a potent diabolical mix for disaster for the human spirit. We’re in a real crisis.”
When Lofgren spoke, he had just returned from a brief recording session with Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the band he played with very early in his career, for a new album that the guitarist says will be done when Young deems it ready. “I have no idea when that will happen. I just had a great time playing with them again. Whatever happens, it’ll be worth waiting for.”
As for the status of the E Street Band, which is on hiatus for the foreseeable future, especially with Springsteen’s new solo record coming out in June, Lofgren says his guess about the future is as good as anyone’s.
“I’m a lifer musician and I need to go and sing and play, so I’ll be there,” he concludes. “We love Bruce and the band, and if in another year and a half or whenever there’s another chapter, we’d be grateful for it. It’s very rare stuff to play in a band like that. As a fan — and I am one — let’s hope there’s definitely another chapter.”