This article is also included in our Neil Young e-book 'Here We Are In The Years' which is available to buy now by clicking here
A little extra something': a career overview of one of Neil's greatest collaborators Nils Lofgren.
I really, really wanted to add a Nils Lofgren book to the Alan’s Album Archives collection, but knew in my heart of hearts that it would never sell (and thirty-one books would have made for a very odd number). So here’s a compromise: the most important figure in Neil’s book (bar him and Crazy Horse) with his own section at the end, with a run-down of all the big ballads, angsty rock, the experimental one-offs and every trampoline in the Lofgren discography. (Of course, since writing this Nils has become an official member of the Horse anyway, so even better!) Going back through it all album by album I’m struck by the parallels to Neil: there are the critically acclaimed early 1970s records (though Nils never hit the commercial heights of Neil), the plunge into despair following the split with Nils’ first wife, the sudden return in 1979, the gradual slide into obscurity and experimentation in the 1980s, the 1990s revival, the 2000s slump and the epic box set to put things into perspective. Like Neil Nils’ catalogue is a true range of the good, the bad and the indifferent but ultimately the good moments are so brilliant you don’t mind putting up with the rest and even they’re quite interesting simply because of the depth and range of the artist making them, though if Nils lacks anything it’s the team that Neil had around him – had there been a David Briggs or even a Crazy Horse then things might have been so different and Nils would have the best-selling book in the Alan’s Album Archive series. Personally I’ve never understood why Lofgren isn’t at least as famous as big name super-stars, so why not give his catalogue a try? After all, Neil’s only given us a handful of archive sets this year for a change, maybe you have some money left over for once?!?
1) Nils Lofgren and Grin "Grin" (1971) Like Rain/See What A Love Can Do/Everybody’s Missin’ The Sun/18 Faced Lover/Outlaw/We All Sung Together/If I Were A Song/Take You To The Movies/Direction/Pioneer Mary/Open Wide/I Had Too Much
Chicago-born Lofgren was already a child prodigy on the accordion before he heard rock and roll, bought a guitar and fell in love. He already had a backlog of songs at age seventeen when he formed his first band ‘Grin’ modelled after his surname alongside bassist Bob Gordon and his vocal sparring partner, gruff-voiced drummer Bob Berberich. Desperate to make it in the music business, Nils attended a Neil Young gig at the ‘Cellar Door’ and forced his way backstage to meet the man himself. Neil was, uncharacteristically, impressed and asked Nils to look him up if he was ever in Laurel Canyon. Lofgren did just that weeks later, hitch-hiking all the way, only to meet Neil on his way out and having to make the journey all over again a second time. When the pair did meet up Neil was making ‘After The Goldrush’ and already had too many guitar players, but he did need a pianist. Nils had never played piano before, but Neil argued it was close enough to an accordion – so Nils’ first released recordings feature him learning an instrument he didn’t know how to play! He was to get better very quickly indeed though and on Neil’s recommendation Grin impressed David Geffen enough to sign to A& M Records. This first record, released when Nils wasn’t quite yet twenty, is young dumb and a whole lot of fun. Veering between teenage pop and screaming proto-punk rockers, Grin have a greater range than most bands of their era and Nils already has his style down pat: wide-eyed innocence at how great life can be with a touch of cynical disbelief at how often human beings always seem to fall short. His musical prowess is already staggering, while his vocal gymnastics with Bob B are terrific, the two egging each other to go that bit further. The material is perhaps a bit more patchy on this first record than on some later discs though, with a lot of songs containing the same mid-paced stomp. When this record is at its best, though, it’s pretty darn great indeed.
Three tracks to download: ‘Like Rain’ is one of Nil’s best ballads, one which starts off cute and ends up killer soul. It will become more subtle later with more experience, but Nils already nails it here. Bob B shines on ‘Everybody’s Missin’ The Sun’, a gorgeous reflection on being young and penniless and homeless, while knowing deep down that life will never be this good again. ‘We All Sung Together’ is the start of Nils’ utopian side, as a couple of years after Woodstock he imagines the world singing together on a track that veers from soul to gospel.
2) Nils Lofgren and Grin "1+1" (1971) Rockin’ Side: White Lies/Please Don’t Hide/Slippery Fingers/Moon Tears/End Unkind//Dreamy Side: Sometimes/Lost A Number/Hi Hello Home/Just A Poem/Soft Fun
Everything works on album two bar the low sales figures, with an inventive eclectic record generally considered Grin’s masterpiece. Already Nils’ material is being easily divided up into hard-hitting rockers and dreamy ballads, so Grin take the inventive step of not making a side ‘A’ and ‘B’ but a ‘rocky’ and ‘dreamy’ side (you’re meant to be able to listen to them in any order, but the CDs have always put the ‘rock’ side first). It is, to my ears at least, what ‘Pet Sounds’ should sounded like: a tale of a relationship growing and disintegrating written from the heart, but with an orchestral accompaniment that actually rocks and adds to the authenticity of the writing. The opening fifteen minutes sustain a ridiculous level of intensity as Nils picks himself up from a failed relationship to urge his girl to be honest with him and the second is almost like a tale told in flashback, happier times when Nils could afford to give his heart without it being broken. Graham Nash, intrigued after hearing Neil talk about the band, dropped in to help with production and adds some neat Holliesy harmonies to Nils’ most 1960s hook-filled pop song ‘Hi, Hello Home’. Bob B also gets his definitive performance on a gloriously messy ‘End Unkind’, a killer creepy track that ends with maniacal laughter. ‘White Lies’, meanwhile, is the closest Grin ever got to having a hit, a glorious collection of energy, riffing and poetry – it didn’t chart but a lot of DJs loved it and played it lots across the start of 1972. Amazingly, these three songs aren’t even the best on the record, recorded back to back with the first Crazy Horse album that shares a similar vibe and feel.
Three tracks to download: ‘Moon Tears’ is still my favourite Nils rocker, even here in two minute truncated form. Nils’ girl decided it’s not working and wants to be friends, knowing he’s sweet enough to understand – he is, but only after a ridiculously virtuoso eruption of anger, bluster and hurt feelings. ‘Sometimes’ features Nils alone against an orchestra putting on his dreamy teenage voice and one of his most poetic lyrics about how not all relationships are meant to be. Best of all is ‘Soft Fun’ – Nils goes too OTT too early here, but later live recordings will show this to be a gorgeous song, a meeting of minds between two sensitive souls who are obsessed with each other and scared of how it makes them feel.
3) Nils Lofgren and Grin "All Out" (1972) Sad Letter/Heavy Chevy/Don’t Be Long/Love Again/She Ain’t Right/Love Or Else/Ain’t Love Nice?/Heart On Fire/All Out/Rusty Gun
Grin are by now lined up for the chop, with two flop albums in a while, so Nils throws out the more interesting experimental tracks and adding two new members, younger brother Tom Lofgren on second guitar and shrieky gust vocalist Kathi McDonald (Janis Joplin’s replacement when Big Brother and The Holding Company reformed without her). The result is a patchier record that’s trying just a bit too hard to sound like everyone else around, but when it works it still works really well, with more hooks than a pair of curtains.
Three tracks to download: ‘Sad Letter’ is an interesting place to start: Bob B was full of the joys of Spring but has just that second got a letter out the blue dumping him. Nils writes back trying to explain things from his point of view, but they only succeed in triggering each other instead as they set off on some amazing vocal acrobatics yet still somehow manage to stay in delicious close harmony. ‘Don’t Be Long’ is an aching ballad given an extra kick from Kathi’s vocals – too strong elsewhere on the album, she’s spot-on here for a ‘how it did go so wrong?’ kind of song. ‘Love Or Else’ is Nils’ lusty side showing itself for the first time, as he demands his lover go all out or go home over a hypnotic rock riff.
4) Nils Lofgren and Grin "Gone Crazy" (1973) You’re The Weight/Boy & Girl/What About Me?/One More Time/True Thrill/Beggar’s Day/Nightmare/Believe/Ain’t For Free
Grin knew this was to be their last chance and they don’t sound as if they’re enjoying themselves too much. Nils sounds distracted, re-writing older better songs and sounding as if he’d rather be anywhere but the recording booth. The loss of ‘Danny Whitten’ also casts a shadow over this record which has the feeling of lost innocence running through it (though it’s not quite ‘Tonight’s The Night’ – Nils is too ‘up’ for that – it’s more like the run of songs on ‘Homegrown’ where Neil is trying to find his way out of the depths of despair). It’s a real shame as Grin sounds as if they still had so much to give and the interaction between Nils and Bob B is great, the pair alternating which is to be the crazy’ one and which is the ‘straightman’. The fact that only two of these songs made it to Nils’ box set when two-thirds of the other records made it rather says it all.
Three Tracks to download: ‘You’re The Weight’ is one last gasp of Grin intensity as Nils pays tribute to someone whose important and ‘heavy’ enough to be ‘worth waiting for’. Desperate for material, here Nils nicks back ‘Beggar’s Day’ from the first Crazy Horse album and dubs it a ‘eulogy for Danny Whitten’, who died shortly before the recording of this record started. Compared to the Horse it’s hopeless, a plod not a gallop, though it’s still a great song in any version. ‘Believe’ too sounds nothing here but in later live recordings will prove to be one of Nils’ prettier songs, as he urges a lover (or perhaps himself) to brave his heart to love again.
5) “Nils Lofgren" (1975) Be Good Tonight/Back It Up/One More Saturday Night/If I Say It It’s So/I Don’t Want To Know/Keith Don’t Go/Can’t Buy A Break/Duty/The Sun Hasn’t Set On This Boy Yet/Rock and Roll Crook/Two By Two/Goin’ Back
Nils re-signed as a solo star and at first at least had a better time of things, with this record out-selling the Grin quartet and picking up lots of good reviews. Rightly so – other albums are darker and more powerful, but in terms of consistency this is the best record Nils has ever made. Affectionately known as ‘Fat Man’ to fans after the circus cover (the same backdrop was used in a Monkees TV episode AAA fans!), this one has everything Grin had and more too: rockers, ballads, experiments, gospel and soul with a couple of Nils’ greatest lyrics on offer too. The fine players on this record include Wornell Jones and Jefferson Starship’s Aynsley Dunbar.
Three tracks to download: ‘Keith Don’t Go’ is rightly hailed as one of Nils’ best songs, recorded as a tribute to Keith Richards at a time when his drug intake was alarming his fans. It’s a quite brilliant Stones pastiche in parts, but even the Stones couldn’t play this well with this much energy. ‘The Sun Hasn’t Set’ is one of my favourite Lofgren songs, a smart sassy tale of how everyone in his life has always written him off from school upwards, but as long as he’s alive he still has a chance to prove people wrong and get his heart’s desire. A smart snappy piano hook reveals how far Nils has come since ‘After The Goldrush’ five years before. Finally, ‘Goin’ Back’ might seem like an odd choice – it’s a cover of the very drippy Carole King song that got short shrift in these books when The Byrds covered it. Nils, though, gives this song of fading childhood an added bite and a circling piano lick both of which make it soar.
6) Nils Lofgren "Back It Up – The Official Bootleg" (1975) Take You To The Movies-Back It Up/Keith Don’t Go/I Don’t Want To Know/The Sun Hasn’t Set On This Boy Yet/Goin’ Back/Like Rain/Beggar’s Day-Soft Fun
The story goes that because Nils was doing so well in terms of airplay but not sales A&M would concentrate on them, offering up a ‘promo’ 1000-copy live set for them to play to drum up interest for his first album. The record was so popular it became a bootleg, while the record company turned a ‘blind eye’ to it because it was drumming so much publicity and they thought it was a bit too soon for an official live album. The album then became fully official in 2003 when it was released on CD as part of Nils’ discography, with its original bootleg cover that consisted of cut-and-paste newspaper cuttings! It’s a good little show though not the best, with Nils and band on sleepy form compared to the energy of their best gigs. The players on this record include Tom Lofgren, Scotty Ball, Mike Zak and Al Kooper.
Three Tracks To Download: ‘I Don’t Want To Know’ is the song that changes most from the record version, going from upbeat pop in denial to a sad blues lament sung with real bite as Nils comes to terms with a former lover moving on without him. ‘Keith Don’t Go’ isn’t up to the record but features a blistering guitar solo. ‘Like Rain’ is already a world away from the studio version, an intense song of misery rather than a fluffy but cute bit of pop.
7) Nils Lofgren “Cry Tough" (1976) Cry Tough/It’s Not A Crime/Incidentally…It’s Over/For Your Love/Share A Little/Mud In Your Eye/Can’t Get Closer/You Lit A Fire/Jailbait
Like the third Grin album, Nils tries to follow up a critically acclaimed record with one that’s much the same only more commercial. Like ‘All Out’ it doesn’t quite work though there are still many great moments here. A lot of the songs are popular with fans though and are still in Nils’ set-list to this day. Continuing his ‘unlikely covers’ theme, this time Nils cover Graham Gouldman’s Yardbirds song ‘For Your Love’, slowing it down and then speeding it up so it’s less cat-and-mouse but way more intense. Lots of players turn up on ‘Cry Tough’, the first Lofgren album recorded in different studios over a long period, though the most interesting ones are old Crazy friends Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, who add some lovely backing harmonies to the songs ‘Incidentally It’s Over’ and ‘Share A Little’. Interestingly, while the two men don’t play on them, these are also the two with the most Crazy Horse vibes, tight slinky intense rockers.
Three tracks to download: The last time we had a song about being dumped for being unable to dance in an AAA book it was a Merseybeat cover of a flimsy 1950s song and treated like a joke There’s nothing that jokes about ‘Cry Tough’ though, which is a slow-burning epic about overcoming obstacles and doing everything in your power to make your dreams come true. Nils’ fast-fingered guitar solo is impossible to keep up with using your ears, never mind what it must have been like to play. ‘Share A Little’ is a gutbucket blues in the Stephen Stills mould, a repetitive riff and Nils in angry, calculated form suddenly and violently lashing out just as you’ve grown used to this unique style, with Billy and Ralph’s lovely harmonies adding to the drama. ‘Can’t Get Closer’ is the hit single that never was, a catchy single straight from the heart about love and loss and gradually realising a relationship that once meant so much is falling apart, full of fizz and sizzle.
8) Nils Lofgren "I Came To Dance" (1977) I Came To Dance/Rock Me At Home/Home Is Where The Hurt Is/Code Of The Road/Happy Ending Kids/Goin’ South/To Be A Drummer/Jealous Gun/Happy
Alas Nils was running out of ideas for his third album, which in many ways is his weakest effort. All the songs are simpler than usual and in the dying days of prog are stretched out past breaking point. ‘I gotta be my dirty self, I won’t play no jive!’ wails Nils in the title track – ironically this is the first of his records where he does jive us, with none of the ‘dirt’ of previous records on display. Even on automatic pilot Nils has something to offer, but this is a record to give a miss. Players this time around include Tom Lofgren, Wornell Jones, Andy Newmark, ‘Ram’ session guitarist Hugh McCracken and The Rev Patrick Henderson.
Three Tracks To Download: ‘I Came To Dance’ is the most popular track here. It’s no ‘Cry Tough’ and recycles many of the same ideas, but it is as catchy as hell and on stage gave former leading gymnast Nils plenty of excuses for fun with trampolines. ‘Code Of The Road’ is a gloomy slow-burning rocker about how different being a touring musician is to being at home, which is at least more from the heart than other songs here. Finally, this album’s surprise cover song is ‘Happy’, the Keith Richards rocker off ‘Exile On Main Street’. Alas slowed down to a crawl it rolls more than it rocks, but the sentiment is pure Nils.
9) Nils Lofgren "Night After Night" (1977) Take Me To The Movies/Back It Up/Keith Don’t Go/Like Rain/Cry Tough/It’s Not A Crime/Goin’ Back/You’re The Weight/Beggar’s Day/Moon Tears/Code Of The Road/Rock and Roll Crook/Goin’ South/Incidentally…It’s Over/I Came To Dance
Hopes were high following ‘Back It Up’ that Nils’ first official live LP would really be something, but alas Nils is still in something of a slump. Even the title has a tinge of weariness to it. Compiled from three different gigs on the ‘Dance’ tour (London, Glasgow and California), it’s not that it doesn’t get going so much as that it doesn’t have any sense of dynamics (unusual for Nils), with everything sounding much the same. Musicians this time around include Tom Lofgren, Wornell Jones, David Platshon and the Rev Patrick Hendersen. It’s a real pity that Nils didn’t wait a tour as the 1979 one was superb (you can buy a Nils DVD featuring his Rockpalast gig for German TV that year and its outstanding). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this double set is one of Nils’ hardest records to track down today and it’s the only record Nils ignored entirely for his ‘Face The Music’ box set.
10) Nils Lofgren "Nils" (1979) No Mercy/I’ll Cry Tomorrow/Baltimore/Shine Silently/Steal Away/Kool Skool/A Fool Like Me/I Found Her/You’re So Easy
This is more like it! Usually when record companies get involved they ruin records, but A&M’s suggestions for getting a ‘hit’ record were actually quite sensible this time around. First of all they asked if Nils could work with a ‘name’ songwriter, preferably someone also on the label; though he was hurt at first, Nils cheekily suggested The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed and was shocked when first A&M and then Lou himself agreed. The two don’t sound as if they should have a natural bond but they do, Lou generally writing ‘poems’ (and dictating them to Nils in the middle of the night over the phone!) and Nils then setting them to music. This results in a tougher, more credible heartfelt sound than we’ve had of late, while also allowing Nils to explore his more melodic side as a contrast to Lou’s more cynical world view. Especially notable are ‘I Found Her’, a warm glowing romantic song about a girl Nils saves from drug addiction and who then makes sure she stays addicted to him instead and ‘Steal Away’ where Nils all but orders a girl to run away and elope with him. Nils is up to the challenge too with some of his best vocals, gritty and nasty and spiteful, but still with his usual sense of beauty and awe. Other collaborations by the pair turn up on Lou’s period album ‘The Bells’. However it’s another co-writer, Dick Wagner (not the opera guy), who helped Nils come up with his most famous song ‘Shine Silently’, another huge radio hit that deserved better sales. A&M’s other suggestion was a name producer and on Lou’s recommendation picked Bob Ezrin. This ended up being the last record Bob would work on before Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ and while the songs are very different there is something similar in the production – a sense of scale and spectacle and shimmer and even sound effects on occasion, all tied up with a contemporary pop feel that keeps things listenable. The result is one of Nils’ best albums and only a couple of embarrassingly teenage songs stop this being his greatest (‘Kool Skool’ is surely Nils’ worst song, a horny Lofgren remembering teenage days groping girls in his class). This album’s weirdo cover is Randy Newman’s ‘Baltimore’, which is re-arranged here to sound like Bruce Springsteen – Nils will be asked to join the E-Street Band five years later...Musicians this time round include Tom Lofgren, Bob Babbitt, Stu Daye, Jody Linscott, Allan Schwartzberg and Bob Ezrin himself on backing vocals.
Three Tracks To Download: ‘No Mercy’ seems an unlikely candidate for a fan favourite: it’s basically a boxing tournament gone wrong. However Nils’ catchy chorus and his metaphors for being nice to people even during a fight make for a winning combination. ‘Shine Silently’ is one of the best songs Nils ever wrote, a beautiful song about unsung heroes that turns from moody song of hopelessness to golden singalong by the end. Even if it took The Hollies to get the most out of this song (with an even more gorgeous 1988 cover) this is many a fans’ favourite Nils track for a reason. ‘A Fool Like Me’ is an overlooked classic too, a catchy song written from one fool trying to date another, where Nils admits to being charmingly naïve as if it’s a bad thing when it’s a good part of why we love him so much (As I also think ‘all people are equal’ I guess that makes me a fool too).
11) Nils Lofgren “Night Fades Away” (1981) Night Fades Away/I Go To Pieces/Empty Heart/Don’t Touch Me/Dirty Money/Sailor Boy/Anytime At All/Ancient History/Streets Again/In Motion
The title sounds like a Neil Young album, but alas it’s the Springsteen influences have taken over fully for another of Nils’ poppier and more commercial albums that doesn’t really have the depth of his best work. Now signed to ‘Backstreet Records’, this is the first of a run of Nils’ obscurer albums that are difficult to track down, particularly on CD. The best of this record (i.e. what’s below) is still worth tracking down though and continues the blend of anger and innocence of ‘Nils’, with signs of Nils’ fraying first marriage (to actress Cis Rundle). This album has not one but two unlikely cover versions: Del Shannon’s ‘I Go To Pieces’ and The Beatles’ ‘Anytime At All’, a relatively obscure song from the ‘Hard Day’s Night’ soundtrack which was one of the first LPs Nils bought at the age of thirteen. Nils played almost everything himself on this album, which is notably low on percussion, though producer/engineer Jeffrey Baxter helped out with some synth and guitar parts.
Three Tracks To Download: ‘Empty Heart’ is similar to the Grin songs of loss and betrayal, an angry set of stabbing chords mixed with Nils’ vulnerable lines about being hurt and lost watching another relationship go wrong. ‘Don’t Touch Me’ takes things a stage further, an angry Nils barking at his lover not to come anywhere near him and that he’s getting his own back after being used, with a sly menacing vocal that’s genuinely creepy. ‘Ancient History’, meanwhile, is the only time outside Neil’s discography a tack piano is a good thing on a song about an ex coming around again many years too late, with a vocal that doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry and a guitar solo that’s exquisite even for Nils.
12) Nils Lofgren "Wonderland" (1983) Across The Tracks/Into The Night/It’s All Over Now/I Wait For You/Daddy Dream/Wonderland/Room Without Love/Confident Girl/Lonesome Ranger/Everybody Wants/Deadline
‘Wonderland’ is a more consistent record, but again lacks something of the joi de vivre of Nils’ best work. The darkness is still here and much of this record feels as if it’s under a cloud, but on the better songs the sunshine does come out again in a very Nilsy type way. We’re back to one unusual cover again too: Bobby Womack’s ‘It’s All Over Now’ (best known from the Stones cover). Released on MCA, perhaps this record’s most memorable feature beyond the title track is the very arty front cover with Nils and band (Andy Newmark and Kevin McCormick) in sunglasses sitting on some arty chairs against walls painted vibrant shades of primary colours. Guest musicians include Louise Goffin (the daughter of Gerry Goffin and Carole King), Edgar Winter and Carly Simon.
Three Tracks To Download: Both side closer are superb edgy rock songs. ‘Daddy Dream’ might be gibberish when you study the lyrics but Nils sings it like he means it, with his guitar cranked louder than it’s ever been barking away behind him. ‘Deadline’ is an angry stomp of belated punk, Nils running himself ragged for no reason as a clocking tick of a riff keeps him on his toes against some more exceptional solo-ing. However it’s ‘Wonderland’ itself that delights the most, Nils writing the rules for his own particular paradise that sounds great to me – you never have to hurt anybody for yourself to ‘get ahead’, there’s no ‘fairytale Hollywood people messing with your head’ and ‘even the pretty girls think that being nice is cool’.
13) Nils Lofgren "Flip!" (1985) Flip Ya Flip/Secrets In The Street/From The Heart/Delivery Night/King Of The Rock/Sweet Midnight/New Holes In Old Shoes/Dreams Die Hard/Big Tears Fall
‘Flip!’ is something of a return to form though. Nils’ best album of the 1980s, on the one hand it waves goodbye to lots of trademarks (songs about tears and dreams and the shot of Nils doing somersaults on the cover – at thirty-four it was becoming too hard to do on stage anymore) and on the other it’s the most contemporary album Nils has probably ever made, full of booming period synths and production noises. This is alas a little off-putting to modern ears, but the material is (mostly) good and timeless enough to withstand it all, with some of Nils’ greatest lyrics all about digging deep and continuing to dream in the face of adversity. Released on another minor label (Towerbell Records), it did better in the charts than any of Nils’ records had for a decade (perhaps because of his recent touring with Brucey) and deservedly so. One of the reasons this record works so well is the amount of old friends along for the ride including Wornell Jones and Andy Newmark. This is also the one of Nils’ CDs to have a ‘bonus’ track, excellent period B-side ‘Beauty and The Beast’.
Three Tracks To Download: The title track is gorgeous, Nils taking the metaphor of his on-stage acrobatics to tell us how we can turn our life around from whatever gets us down, whatever age we are (‘eight or forty-nine’). Nils also sounds, ironically given his success with this album, as if he’s come to terms with his record sales too, sighing sadly that ‘trying your best don’t mean bein’ number one’. One of Nils’ most emotional and powerful songs. ‘King Of The Rock’ isn’t far behind either – one of the most outré examples of heavy rocking in it’s canon, it still has room for some fascinating lyrics exploring Nils’ psyche and what makes him keep returning to his muse of music over and over again. Every creation has purpose and mine is to rock! Well, to write about rocking anyway…’New Holes In Old Shoes’ is a superb song that goes somewhere new and points forwards to the pained acoustic blues of the 1990s. Nils’ vocal is muted and guilty as he realises he’s repeated some dumb mistake from his past, a ‘new soft touch’ that turned out to be ‘the same old blade’ and is keeping him up at night. Will he never learn? Superb.
14) Nils Lofgren "Code Of The Road" (1986) Beggar’s Day/Secrets In The Street/Across The Tracks/Delivery Night/Cry Tough/Dreams Die Hard/Believe/The Sun Hasn’t Set On This Boy Yet/Code Of The Road/Moon Tears/Back It Up/Like Rain/Sweet Midnight/No Mercy/Anytime At All/New Holes In Old Shoes/Keith Don’t Go/Shine Silently/I Came To Dance
In contrast to the energy of ‘Flip!’, Nils’ second ‘proper’ live album is another oddly sleepy double-record set that isn’t up to other live shows out on bootleg or D DVD. Wornell Jones, Johnny ‘Bee’ Badanjek and Neil Young ‘roadie’ Larry Cragg try their hardest but this is a dodgy set by Nils’ standards where every song feels as if runs on much too long. Give it a miss.
‘The Sun Hasn’t Set’ has, after a decade on the road, turned from a moment of bruised defiance into a twinkling song of self-confidence. ‘Like Rain’ is the sound of a man whose been through a lot before his time in comparison to the innocent naïve version that kick-started Grin’s career. ‘Keith Don’t Go’ has another glittering guitar solo, even if it takes a looooong time to get going.
15) Nils Lofgren “Silver Lining” (1991) Silver Lining/Valentine/Walkin’ Nerve/Live Each Day/Sticks and Stones/Trouble’s Back/Little Bit O’Time/Bein’ Angry/Gun and Run/Girl In Motion
I was always surprised it took Nils so long to follow up one of his more successful LPs and why Towerbell Records didn’t simply sign him up immediately (only ‘surrogate’ Pink Floyd guitarist Snowy White sold more on the label). Instead Nils had to wait six years to make a studio set for Rykodisc which, oddly given the circumstances, comes off feeling a bit rushed. The production stylings are if anything worse than on ‘Flip!’ but the material can’t match it, with the exception of a handful of truly brilliant songs. For the most part Nils is in a drippy mood too, having recently got married to second wife Amy – though a lot of fans love this album’s near-hit single ‘Valentine’, I’ve always found it one of his drippiest songs. The silver linings of this album are the musicians which include Kevin McCormick, Andy Newmark, Billy Preston, Levon Helm and – as a favour for joining his first two ‘All-Starr’ tours – Ringo Starr.
Three Tracks To Download: Alas this isn’t the best take of it, but the live versions of ‘Walkin’ Nerve’ show that it’s one of Nils’ best songs. Seeing his family growing up, Nils is reminded of his own awkward teenage years when he was pulled in all directions and sets it to a rocking riff that’s forever trying to knock him off his feet. It’s also the best drumming Ringo had played since Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’ album of 1970. Do check out the ‘All-Starr’ live version of it though which goes one stage better and thrashes everything else on Ringo’s 3 CD set! ‘Sticks and Stones’ is even better (but again works far better live), as a wounded Nils slinks into his shell after a fight, only to finally explode in anger in the final verse after five-minutes of pretending he won’t. Magic. ‘Girl In Motion’ isn’t up to these two songs but is very sweet, Nils caught between an old love and a new love as he realises that his life is changing.
16) Nils Lofgren "Crooked Line" (1992) A Child Could Tell/Blue Skies/Misery/You/Shot At You/Crooked Line/Walk On Me/Someday/New Kind Of Freedom/Just A Little/Drunken Driver/I’ll Fight For You
The sequel (also out on Rykodisc) was equally patchy material-wise but sounds great, the start of a run of more acoustic led (and thus less dated) albums in Nils’ discography. There are more sweet songs about Nils’ new love, but interestingly also a greater opening up as he reveals his vulnerable side like never before (‘I’m in deeper and it shows!’ as one of the better songs puts it). This time round Nils is joined by Eric Ambel, Johnny ‘Bee’ Badanjek, Frank Funaro and Andy York.
Three Tracks To Download: ‘You’ is a great little love song, one that combines a catchy chorus shouted in ecstasy and a quieter verse where Nils worries if he can ever live up to the love of his life. ‘A Shot At You’ is the other extreme, a slow-burning ballad (though notably a lot faster here than in the live versions!) where Nils vows to keep her for the rest of his life whatever happens next, with some gorgeous guitar fills along the way. Finally ‘New Kind Of Freedom’ stands out on an album without many production frills, a Grin-like song about optimism and hope. ‘Is the war really over?’ Nils asks nervously. ‘Did I win the fight?’ The answer surely is yes, with Nils about to enter another golden patch.
17) Nils Lofgren "Everybreath" (1993) No Return/Tender Love/Take Me Home/No Tomorrow/Dreams Come True/Rainy Nights/Alone/Tryin’ Not To Fall/Good Day For Goodbyes/Lions Wake/Out Of The Grave/A Lefty/Tough Trails/Fallen Into His Hands/I’ll Arise/Dance Of Life/Will There’s A Way/Where I Wanna Be
‘Everybreath’ is an odd little album, unique in Nils’ discography. For a start it’s a film soundtrack, albeit one released a full year before the film, and thus the only time Nils wrote ‘for’ characters rather than from the heart. It’s the only album Nils released for label SPV. It’s also the start of what he would later call his ‘living room voice’, a deeper less commercial growl that’s a world away from his poppier younger days and suits the more complex songs from the second half of his career. There are also a lot more instrumentals than normal and even the songs that aren’t come with lengthy interludes, making this one of Nils’ best albums to buy if you’re mostly into his technique. This all makes for one of Nils’ slower, less immediate albums that take a while to grow on you but has a lot of good stuff as ever and was great value for money on first release, coming as it did with a ‘bonus’ EP ‘I’ll Arise’ containing the last four songs. It’s certainly a lot better than the film, about an unemployed actor who is seduced by a lesbian in a nightclub and ends up mixed up with an arms dealer. It must have been difficult for Nils too – his ex wife was playing the lesbian! Nils plays most of this album himself but is joined by guest vocalists Tommy Lepson and Bonnie Sheridan Bramlett, half of ‘Delaney and Bonnie’ (She was Delaney…no only kidding, Bonnie it is!)
Three tracks to download: ‘Dreams Come True’ is Nils all over – someone whose been through hell still vowing his comeback and believing in second chances on the closest to pure blues in his catalogue. ‘Alone’ will be completely reinvented and revamped in better form for ‘Damaged Goods’ to come but gets a mention here because that album’s spoilt for choice. In its remake it’s a haunted song about loneliness and despair complete with screams in the fade-out and a scattergun electric guitar part that sounds as if it’s fighting a losing battle. Here it’s a reflective song about loss and middle age, with more chance to hear one of Nils’ most exquisite melodies. ‘I’ll Arise’ is a sweet little long and a live favourite, Nils’ storyteller overcoming bad odds thanks to his lover and ‘family ties’.
18) Nils Lofgren "Damaged Goods" (1995) Damaged Goods/Only Five Minutes/Alone/Trip To Mars/Here For You/Black Books/Setting Sun/Life/Heavy Hats/In The Room/Nothin’s Fallin’/Don’t Be Late For Yesterday
Nils’ masterpiece. Everything about this album is superb: it’s the deepest set of songs in Nils’ catalogue, all biting songs about the darker side of life and the frailty of humans, delivered with panache by a power trio of Nils, engineer/bassist Roger Greenawalt and drummer Andy Newmark and some superb production that’s a cross between ‘Sleeps With Angels’ and ‘Mirrorball’. Every song on this album packs an emotional whallop and each one goes somewhere different, from a former alcoholic relapsing and ending up in prison, to a broken-hearted lover that’s been cheated on, to a teenage parent who can’t face up to his responsibility, to a killer who so doesn’t want to be in a gang, to a broken middle-aged man trying to find the strength to love again – and all of them ring true. One of the finest albums about depression and loss ever written, this is right up there with my favourite records by anybody. Fans who wondered if Nils could ever stop being ‘up’ long enough to hear a Nils Lofgren version of ‘Tonight’s The Night’ are in for a treat here on one of the greatest albums you have probably never heard of.
Three tracks to download: Well, this will be a challenge – all twelve are worth hearing. ‘Black Books’ is especially stunning though, as Nils wonders where a relationship went wrong and comes up with the philosophy ‘the hardest truths don’t have a why’, while he tries to block out the tales of his ex having fun with half the town. ‘Life’ is a leftover from the Lou Reed co-writes that wouldn’t have fitted on ‘Nils’ but sounds great here, a battered and growly-voiced Lofgren figuring that after decades of abandonment ‘life’s the only mother I know’ and apologising for not being able to love openly again. ‘Nothin’s Fallin’ is a slow-burner. At first it’s too empty and too slow but in such illustrious company. But the more you play this album the more it’s the ‘keeper’, Nils no longer trying to hide the bleakness of his surroundings as he tells us everything that’s gone wrong and why he thinks it will never go right again. The moment when he breaks away to la la la to what would normally be the ‘uplifting’ Lofgren middle eight of hope and optimism, only to fall back down, his voice breaking, is one of the most painful moments in music that doesn’t involve a Spice Girl.
19) Nils Lofgren “Acoustic Live" (1997) You/Sticks and Stones/Some Must Dream/Little On Up/Keith Don’t Go/Wonderland/Big Tears Fall/Believe/Black Books/To Your Heart/Man In The Moon/I’ll Arise/Blue Skies/Tears On Ice/All Out/Mud In Your Eye/No Mercy
After Nils’ greatest studio set comes his greatest live one. Nils sounds like a wizard on an album that only features him and his brother Tom. The ‘silver lining’ in not really having hits is that Nils can get away with playing just about everything and he performs all sorts of rarities from his back catalogue, most of which are greatly improved by the new setting. Impressive. The handful of new songs are delicious too. Another must-buy. Interesting that Nils should find his second golden period (1992-1997) so soon after Neil founds his (1989-1994/1995) and for roughly the same length of time.
Three Tracks To Download: ‘Sticks and Stones’ always sounded like a great song, but this is the definitive performance; no synthesisers to hide behind here and Nils doesn’t so much ebb and flow as open up his heart and soar. ‘Black Books’ also gets an extra level of intensity from the simple organ notes that signal the doom cloud of a relationship before suddenly bursting forth into rainbow-bright shimmery colours. ‘Man In The Moon’ is another great teenage song, a lost and lonely narrator figuring that he doesn’t understand any human being alive and none of them understand him, so he may as well go to live with the man in the moon.
20) Nils Lofgren "Breakaway Angel" (2001) Puttin’ Out Fires/I Found You/Love A Child/Tears Ain’t Enough/I Can’t Fly/All I Have To Do Is Dream/Driftin’ Man/Love You Most/Cryin’ Tonight/Heaven’s Answer To Blue/Seize Love/The Hill/Without You/Open Road
Alas Nils couldn’t quite keep it up, though ‘Breakway Angel’ is still half a great CD and at it’s best still matches past standards. The front cover, sadly, is not one of them, a pen scribble that just screams ‘cheap’, while the production doesn’t feel as if new label Hypertension spent a lot of money on it either. Nils is back to mixing his acoustic and electric sounds though and has a good backing band including Lee Sklar (veteran of many CSN records), Wade Matthews, John Previtt, Mike Botts, Timm Biery and more harmony vocalists than you can shake an accordion at. Nils has revived his old habit of unexpected cover songs too, this one being Everly Brothers hit ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’, which sounds rather nice slowed down to a lullaby.
Three Tracks To Download: ‘Puttin’ Out Fires’ is Nils’ most commercial song for a long time, a catchy love song in reverse, Nils realising all the damage he could cause if he reveals his secret crush so he keeps it to himself. ‘I Found You’ is in many ways ‘I Found Her’ in reverse, this time from the heart. Nils is the addict, lost and terrified and lonely until a lover turned his life around. The chorus ‘heck, I almost like me since I found you’ is another one of those really goose-pimply moments in Nils’ canon. ‘Driftin’ Man’ is yet another Lou Reed leftover (how many songs did they write?!?), a Springsteeny song about an American leaving home with ‘big plans’ that come to nought.
21) Nils Lofgren Band “Live” (2003) Puttin’ Out Fires/Daddy Dream/Too Many Miles/Driftin’ Man/Damaged Goods/Two By Two/White Lies/Shot At You/Tears Ain’t Ebough/I’m Buyin’/I Don’t Want To Talk About It/Like Rain/I Found You/Can’t Get Closer/Lost A Number/Slippery Fingers/Message/Girl In Motion/Gun and Run/Star-Spangled Banner/The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
Nils’ next project was his weirdest yet – 2002’s ‘Tuff Stuff’, featuring the Madden American football team! It’s quirky even for Nils and not what you might call a ‘proper’ CD with most of the songs instrumentals barely lasting a minute and often overdubbed with American Football commentary, so we’ve skipped it here. You only really need it if you’re a big American football fan and only then when you’re driving to a match rather than for pleasure. ‘Live’ is a return to things as normal though – a bit too normal to be honest, with Nils’ fourth live album his first to collect all the songs you’d expect to see on one of his concert CDs. There’s nothing wrong with it, just again a sense that Nils is commemorating the ‘wrong’ tour with Nils struggling with the simpler ‘power trio’ unit style (bassist Wade Matthews and drummer Timm Biery) that doesn’t work as well as Grin did even (perhaps especially) with so many Grin songs in the line-up. It is at least Nils’ longest record so far, lasting more than two hours.
Three Tracks To Download: I’d still take the more inward looking acoustic studio version, but the new swaggering arrangement of ‘Damaged Goods’ is an interesting take on a defiant song. There are three ‘exclusive’ songs here. While you can skip a mangled ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ it is worth downloading ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’, Nils’ collaboration with Danny Whitten for the first Crazy Horse album. It’s a song good even Rod Stewart can’t mess it up too much, though bootleg versions of it are better. Similarly there are lots of better versions of ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ (especially Johnny Cash’s) but Nils performs this sweet ballad well.
22) Nils Lofgren "Sacred Time" (2006) In Your Hands/Fat Girls Dance/Comfort Your Love Brings/Pay Your Woman/Whiskey Holler/You’re Not There/Tried and True/Mr Hardcore/Comes A Day/Frankie Hang On/Trouble/Can’t Take The Rock
‘Sacred Heart’ was his next album ‘proper’ and despite a stronger Lofgren drawing on the front cover this time is something of a disappointment. Nils just doesn’t sound that inspired, lacking his usual melodic touch or his ability to say so much in so few words. Some of it in fact is downright ugly – not a word I’d use for any past Lofgren song but whole swathes of this CD – Nils has been hanging around too many American footballers with this brainless noisy rock. The best thing about this album is the sheer amount of guest stars which include Crosby-Nash, Willie Nelson, sons Mark and Mike Lofgren, brother Tom for the first time in a while and – best of all – the long awaited return of Grin’s Bob Berberich. Once again Nils plays most of the instruments himself and sticks to acoustic and electric guitar and synth with a dash of accordion.
Three Tracks To Download: In the middle of so much noise pretty acoustic ballad ‘Comfort Your Love Brings’ really stands out. Nils again pays tribute to wife Amy for saving his life on a song that would normally be under-par but here sounds like one return at least to the lyrical, sensitive Nils of old. ‘Tried and True’ is the other acoustic song and another stand-out as Nils adds a mandolin to his repertoire on a song about the importance of faith in all things even when tested. ‘Can’t Take The Rock’, meanwhile, is a dumb re-write of ‘King Of The Rock’ but gets an added frisson of greatness from Berberich’s rich backing vocals. They briefly sound like they’re teenagers again, though Grin would never have come up with a song this basic.
23) Nils Lofgren "The Loner – Nils Sings Neil" (2008) Birds/Long May You Run/Flying On The Ground Is Wrong/ I Am A Child/Only Love Can Break Your Heart/Harvest Moon/Like A Hurricane/The Loner/Don’t Be Denied/World On A String/Mr Soul/Winterlong/On The Way Home/Wonderin’/Don’t Cry No Tears
On paper this seems like a brilliant idea: one experimental eclectic arranging genius paying tribute to another. Nils was there for so many of the important moments in the Young canon (‘Tonight’s The Night’ ‘Trans’ ‘Unplugged’ ‘Colorado’) that surely he has an interesting view of Neil’s back catalogue. Alas, what we get is just another set of acoustic covers of Neil Young songs without the depth, range or inventiveness of the originals. It feels like all those Bob Dylan cover sets out there – everything has been prettified to make it more palatable to the ear, but in doing so that takes away the bite that served these songs at their best. The one-take no-frills-or-overdubs method of recording – something Nils has never really done before – also makes everything sound depressingly cheap. A bit of a wasted opportunity. I would love to see a Neil Young collection of Nils Lofgren songs though, that would be great!
Three Tracks To Download: It’s nice to hear Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Flying On The Ground Is Wrong’ re-arranged for guitar at least and Nils sounds more confident here than elsewhere. Nils was there for ‘World On A String’ and it’s one of the most Lofgren-like songs Neil wrote, Nils bringing out the song’s message of defiance rather than it’s despair. ‘The Loner’ gets the best re-arrangement, caught somewhere between the Stills and Young versions with an opening blues-guitar flurry and Nils’ vocal at it’s deepest.
24) Nils Lofgren "Old School" (2011) Old School/60 Is The New 18/Miss You Ray/Love Stumbles On/Amy Joan Blues/Irish Angel/Ain’t Too Many Of Us Left/When You Were Mine/Just Because You Love Me/Dream Big/Let Her Get Away/Why Me?
Although Neil’s been largely following the crazy-paving Young catalogue, this is the odd one out – the Lofgren equivalent of ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ but released to commemorate turning sixty (Neil was thirty-seven when he made his). It’s a swinging set of rockabilly-sounding originals, but like many a retro album sounds decidedly stodgier than any records from the 1950s actually did. Nils’ voice is just beginning to fade too after decades of constant touring. At least he’s back to exploring unlikely covers again, this time round treating Bruce McCabe’s folky ‘Irish Angel’ to an almost jazz backing.
Thre Tracks To Download: One thing to say about this record is that the sweet ‘Love Stumbles On’ does a better job of a guitarist accompanying himself with echo than ‘Le Noise’ ever did. ‘When You Were Mine’ is a sweet song most likely remembering Nils’ first marriage when it was good and the scary time a hurricane pulled into town. ‘Let Her Get Away’ is Nils’ best song in a decade, a sadder twist on the same theme about how finding a new love never fully replaces the first, with echoes and memories that haunt you years on.
25) Nils Lofgren "Face The Music" (2014) See What A Love Can Do/Everybody’s Missin’ The Sun/Like Rain/Outlaw/If I Were A Song/We All Sung Together/Take You To The Movies/White Lies/Slippery Fingers/Moon Tears/Lost A Number/Soft Fun/Hi Hello Home/Love Or Else/Sad Letter/Ain’t Love Nice/She Ain’t Right/All Out/Rusty Gun/Beggar’s Day/One More Time//One More Saturday Night/If I Say It It’s So/Can’t Buy A Break/Back It Up/I Don’t Want To Know (Live)/The Sun Hasn’t Set On This Boy Yet/Rock and Roll Crook/Two By Two/Cry Tough/It’s Not A Crime/Share A Little/Can’t Get No Closer/Mud In Your Eye/I Came To Dance/Home Is Where The Hurt Is/Rock Me At Home/You’re The Weight (Live)/Goin’ South (Live)/Incidentally…It’s Over (Live)//No Mercy/Shine Silently/Steal Away/I Found Her/You’re So Easy/A Fool Like Me/Night Fades Away/Ancient History/Sailor Boy/Empty Heart/Don’t Touch Me/I Go To Pieces/Across The Tracks/Daddy Dream/Wonderland/Room Without Love/Confident Girl/Into The Night/Deadline/Everybody Wants//Secrets In The Street/Big Tears Fall/Dreams Die Hard/Girl In Motion/Walkin’ Nerve/Trouble’s Back/Bein’ Angry/Valentine/A Child Could Tell/You/Shot At You/Crooked Line/Someday/New Kind Of Freedom/Drunken Driver//Alone/No Return/Tender Love/Dreams Come True/Out Of The Grave/Lion’s Wake/Damaged Goods/Only Five Minutes/Setting Sun/Life/Nothin’s Falling/Little On Up/Blue Skies/Black Books (Live)/Man In The Moon/Believe (Live)//Delivery Night/Code Of The Road/New Holes In Old Shoes/Puttin’ Out Fires/I Found You/Love A Child/Driftin’ Man/Without You/Heaven’s Answer To Blue/Seize Love/Open Road/Speed Kills/I’m Buyin’/The Wind/We Got Guys/Hard Lines/Tears On Ice/Misery//Like Rain (Live)/Star Spangled Banner/In Your Hands/Mr Hardcore/Tried and True/Frankie Hangs On/Fat Girls Dance/I Am A Child/Mr Soul/World On A String/Old School/60 Is The New 18/Miss You Ray/Amy Joan Blues/Dream Big/Irish Angel/Ain’t Too Many Of Us Left/When You Were Mine/Why Me?/Wreck On The Highway//Keith Don’t Go (Alternate Version)/Try/Sing For Happiness/Duty (Alternate Take)/Sweet Four Wings/Just To Have You (Alternate Take)/I’ll Arise/Some Must Dream/Stay Hungry/Heaven’s Rain/Whatever Happened To Musicatel?/You In My Arms/Here For You (Alternate Version)/Hide My Heart/Love Is…/Awesome Girl (Alternate Version)/When You Are Loved/Bullets Fever/Message//Beauty And The Beast/You Are The Melody/Tears Inside/Face The Music/I Don’t Stand A Chance/What Is Enuf?!?/London/Go Away/Heart Like A Hammer/True Love Conquers Legends/Yankee Stadium/Sad Walk/Dalmation/I’m Coming Back/Mad Mad World/Jhoon Rhee Advert/It’s Better To Know You/Last Time I Saw You
We end with an epic box set which, if you can afford it (and it’s way cheaper than ‘Archives’!) is the best way of tracking down these albums with only a small handful of essential songs missing (the ‘proper’ version of ‘Keith Don’t Go’ most obviously!) Nils has spent a lot of time and effort buying back his catalogue so he could release them all together and unlike some boxes that fall short all eras of his career are given their proper time and space. Grin take up the first disc and Nils’ solo career the next six discs before a full two hours of unreleased material on discs eight and nine. If in truth this material is as up-and-down as Nils’ career in general, the best of it is as great as any of his near hits and lesser singer-songwriters would have killed for it. A highly impressive set that charts a true talent who was never afraid to grow, especially in its original limited edition version signed by Nils himself with an additional DVD disc of twenty music clips and a glossy book. The set’s most interesting moment: the early recordings of songs from the ‘Nils Lofgren’ album back when it was nearly a ‘Grin’ album. The set’s most bonkers moment: ‘Whatever Happened To Musicatel?’, a collaboration with Nils’ neighbour novelist Clive Cussler. The set’s second most bonkers moment: ‘Bullet Fever’, a thirty second jingle dedicated to the basketball team from Washington!
Three Tracks To Download: Amazingly the only time Neil guested on a Lofgren recording it wasn’t even released! The alternate early version of ‘Keith Don’t Go’ is all over the place, in contrast to the re-recording’s intensity and power, but it’s great to hear Nils and Neil duelling on guitars once again on a classic track. ‘Sweet Four Wings’ is quickly growing to become my favourite track by Grin, a soulful gospel ballad with Nils and Bob Berberich in fine voice on a song about freedom and loss. Finally, ‘Here For You’ is a beautiful song, the ‘heart’ of ‘Damaged Goods that still comes with the twist of the knife in the chorus when you realise it’s really a song about co-dependency and two partners making sure the other will never be able to live without the other. Here in an early take and a much slower arrangement it doesn’t quite have the scale or power, but you do get to hear better just how beautiful one of Nils’ greatest melody lines is, even when the partners are singing about ‘having met true love and scratched her face’. Magnificent.