From E Street to ‘Colorado’: Nils Lofgren on Reconnecting With Neil Young & Crazy Horse

Neil Young's right hand man is Bruce Springsteen's left hand man, to say nothing of being his own man.

Nils Lofgren performs at the 30th
Amy Harris/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Who could feel more special than Nils Lofgren? Along with maintaining a sterling solo career that found him recently releasing his most imaginative project yet, “Blue with Lou” (featuring a series of songs he co-wrote with the late Lou Reed 31 years ago), this year Lofgren has been hanging out with the man who first brought him to prominence: Neil Young. As a guitarist-accordionist who played on several seminal early Shakey albums, and recently became an official member of Crazy Horse again after playing with that band in the early ’70s, Lofgren has been an integral part of the Neil Young saga — that is, when he isn’t playing in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, as he has since 1984.

This week, Young and Crazy Horse (Lofgren, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina) first released the crabbily minimalistic documentary “Mountaintop” about their Telluride recording sessions. Friday, that filmic preview is followed by the fruits of that labor, the cranked-up and cautiously optimistic “Colorado,” Young’s first Crazy Horse-backed album in seven years. Variety recently spoke with Lofgren about reconnecting with his old comrades.

Neil has moved the possibility of live dates with Crazy Horse into 2020, saying he wants to concentrate on film work during the rest of 2019. Bruce Springsteen has indicated he’s getting back into the saddle in 2020 with the E Street Band. Do you know what next year looks like? And how does it feel to be someone working alongside two empire state songwriters and bandleaders?

There are vast similarities between Springsteen and Neil in that neither micro-manages what you play. They want to hear your ideas. As long as you’re down in it, they allow for raw emotion in your work. They prefer it. That’s a beautiful thing. With that, when it comes to their plans, my wife Amy and I are on hold with any of my (solo) shows until the year reveals itself. There’s nothing booked yet, so I’m laying low. I will say that if were up to me, you’d see a lot from both bands out there.

You have worked with Neil or Crazy Horse several times, going back to the record the band did without him in 1971, as well as his “After the Gold Rush” (1970) and “Tonight’s the Night” (1975) albums. How did you find the dynamics have changed going into “Colorado”?

I met Neil when I was 17. I actually walked in on him 50 years ago this last May while he was playing at the Cellar Door (in Washington, D.C.) when he was first touring with “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.” My band, Grin, was headed to Los Angeles, after that, and true to his word, when we got to L.A., Neil turned me onto (producer) David Briggs, who took me under his wing, and by the time I turned 19, had me on “After the Gold Rush.” That was a big deal. Now, long before I got there, or got with him, there was a plan for Crazy Horse to make their own album, without Neil, but with their own singer, Danny Whitten. They invited me to join in for that album, which was another great honor. Then sadly, Danny went and died on us, which lead to the “wake album” we call “Tonight’s the Night.” Later on (in the 1980s), I did Neil’s “Trans” album and tour with him as well. We have this reoccurring history, which, save for my own stuff and with Grin, is my longest running musical relationship — my longest running musical family.

Is having Neil call you out of the blue like having a brother ring you up for a favor?

He just asked me to jump in, kind of cold, to do five shows (in California) commemorating “Tonight’s the Night” (in 2018). Then we did some shows in Winnipeg. It was a joy watching Neil, Billy and Ralphie together. I’d be on the horse and then I’d fall off the horse. That last night in Winnipeg, though, it was a great, ragged ride. The horse never threw me. [Laughs.] I was on it that whole night.

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Courtesy Reprise

How did that act as a catalyst for things to come?

It had something to do with Neil mentioning that he had started writing something for us. He rang me up and said that he had these songs for us, and could I get up to Telluride for two weeks to start recording a record before my whole solo tour thing launched? You asked me about the earlier records. I will say, back then, there were some extremes. “Tonight’s the Night,” for instance — Danny Whitten, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, so many people had died. It was a dark but healing record, dealing with all these deaths. We’d sit around the studio, drink tequila, have a joint or two. We wouldn’t even start playing until midnight; after that, we’d play until dawn. We were younger. There was a lot of drama, and not just with our friends and heroes dying. It was the entire climate of civil rights and Vietnam. A lot of heavy stuff going on.

That seems to be going around in 2019 as well.

Fast-forward to the present day, and we’re all very weathered. There’s experience, and a confidence that comes from that. There’s a peace, too. Billy got stranded in a blizzard coming in and was a couple days late. So we got a chance to do some skiing, and my wife Amy is a great skier. We’d hang out, and as it was the turn of the season, it was empty (in Telluride) — a real ghost town up there. Lots of dogs just running around, coming up to us. We’d have dinner with Neil and Daryl (Hannah), and it just felt so good to see Neil so happy, like he found a soulmate. He seemed so centered as he was approaching this record — so near to his home in the mountains of Colorado. I think there was a peace and a centeredness that we all had and all brought to “Colorado” that we didn’t have with “Tonight’s the Night.” The fact that we get to do this 50 years later is valuable.

There’s a song on the album, “I Do”… You can us singing “Thank you for making all this happen again. We’re going to do it just like we did it back then.” That’s him talking about what I’m talking about. Can you believe it? We’re still standing all these years later, and creating something new. Ralphie is funny. We stayed friends all these years, very close. And he kept telling Neil that we had to do something new. You can’t force anything, though. Luckily, we’re all here, excited to have a band. We did have a few technical glitches.

As seen in “Mountaintop,” the warts-and-all documentary about the album.

Recording always presents challenges. Maybe somebody didn’t get enough oxygen that day. To a man, though, we all walked out of that studio with these demos knowing that we got the songs and we got the singer. Whatever obstacles were in the way, we were just going to be patient and get this thing recorded. It was a beautiful thing.

Was there any one song during the “Colorado” sessions that presented the most challenges?

What comes to mind when you say that is “Olden Days.” We had a very primitive demo of Neil in the house on a little mic and an acoustic guitar. Thinking along the lines of the demo, Neil stayed on acoustic and I told him that I heard an accordion. As we went along, Neil came out of the booth. I could tell he was thinking. He said, “Before we do the standard thing we’re hearing, acoustic guitar and accordion, which is along the lines of ‘Harvest Moon,’ let’s see what happens with two heavy electrics. Let’s bypass the effects, and just have the raw guitar into the amp with nothing else on the chain.” Now, it would have been beautiful if we had done it the first way. Ralphie would’ve used the brushes. As soon as we put the electric on, though, we realized that this was going to be a real Crazy Horse album.

There’s a message on “Rainbow of Colors” that’s so celebratory; I’m waiting for one of the candidates to jump on that. There’s “Green is Blue,” which requires me on electric and him on piano, but with a gentleness there. If one of us has to migrate to an acoustic, we will. Whenever we could, though, we’d strap on the electrics and approach everything with a rougher Crazy Horse edge.

What was the first track you recorded for “Colorado”?

We were having dinner with Neil and Daryl, talking about the demos and the song “Eternity” and the “clickety clack” of it, and I started tap dancing in the living room. Ten years ago, I had both hips replaced. Too much basketball; too many trampoline flips. Couldn’t do that anymore, so I took up tap dancing. Neil thought that was a cute story, so two days later, we’re setting up in the studio and Neil says, “We’re going to start with ‘Eternity,’ and Nils is going to be doing some tap dancing on it” — as percussion. That was fun. Neil played live on vibes, and the rest of us were playing over these piano and vocal tracks he had.

Before we started, Neil warned us going in that he had two or three live tracks of him playing acoustic shows where he loved the vocal, and he really didn’t want to change that, so he had us all play live to that. We were all in the studio, with headsets, playing live to that voice. I think that set the tone. It’s emotional and raw. When Neil sent the demos, he said, “Don’t overthink this.” He wanted us to familiarize ourselves with the changes, but “don’t work out ‘parts.’ Let’s wait and see what happens when we start hearing each other.” That’s a great template for any work with Neil. Time and schedule permitting, Neil and I and Crazy Horse will get out there and play some of this live.

There’s the still-fresh matter of “Blue with Lou,” the 2019 album where you finally revisited a handful of songs that you co-wrote with Lou Reed over 30 years ago. Why did it finally see release now?

I think this is one of my best albums. Long ago, Lou and I wrote 13 songs together. Immediately, we put out several of them. When Lou tragically passed, though it took me a few years to get my act together and make another solo record, I knew that I couldn’t leave these songs left behind, unheard. As I was finishing up an Australian tour with the E Street Band early in 2017, I started in earnest writing up this new record, first with these songs that Lou and I had done, arranging them, getting familiar with them again, figuring what to do with them. That process jumpstarted the whole album.

One of those songs, “City Lights,” really sounds like an amalgamation of what the two of you do best.

When we were doing that song in the first place, when he was doing the lyrics, he told me that he was keeping my chorus for a story he was writing on Charlie Chaplin, which I just thought was brilliant. Lou did a narrative lie only he could do. I wanted to do a version of it with the original melody. Branford Marsalis played some brilliant sax on it… I just knew when I made another record, songs such as that had to be on it.

How do you as a player and as a composer respond to lyrics? In the case of Neil, for example, are you playing to what he’s written down, and how the lyrics are making it sound?

I’m responding to — playing to — the singer and the sound of his voice, first. Case in point is this album, “Colorado.” I had raw demos from Neil, most of the lyrics of which I understood. Once we got together in the studio, I took the lyric sheet and quickly began reading them, so that I was not left to wonder about anything. So I’m playing to the voice and the melody, but I need to know what they’re saying. Or you know what? I wouldn’t say “need.” It helps to get an idea what the written words are, so that when I’m processing, that’s a part of it. There’s the instinctual, too. Sometimes you want to stay out of the way of what they’re saying.

Did you respond similarly to Reed when you first got together? Or with Springsteen?

Lou’s “The Bells” record… I was only involved as a co-writer, the music and melodies, and asked Lou to listen to them to see if he could come up with lyrics. It was a strange thing. Bob Ezrin recommended we work together. We met at his apartment, talked it through, and found out that words come very easily to him, with the music being more difficult, which is the opposite of how I am. He asked me to send him a tape, which I did, of 13 songs, and a few weeks went by. I had forgotten about it. Next thing you know, he’s calling me at 4 a.m., saying that he had been up for three days and nights, that he loved my tape, that he’d finished 13 complete sets of lyrics, and that he wanted to dictate them to me on the spot.

That’s hilarious.

I know. But I put on a pot of coffee and started writing. Look, I love these guys as writers. I’m not reviewing what they’re doing. I’m just trying to get as deeply into it, what they’re saying, as quickly as possible. I don’t question it. Once I know, they’ll help form how I approach a song. I want to trust what I’m basing my playing on.