One of the most recognizable parts of one of Neil Young’s most beloved songs is the piano in “After the Gold Rush.” Nils Lofgren was 18 - with no piano training - when he recorded that part. That was back in 1970. For Lofgren, it was the beginning of a long and influential relationship with Young and his longtime producer, David Briggs.
This summer, on his label Vision Acoustic, Lofgren released “The Loner: Nils Sings Neil” as a tribute to Briggs, who died in 1995, and to Young. The CD is available through www.nilslofgren.com.
Talk about how this Neil Young project evolved into a full-length CD.
My manager, Anson, suggested the idea. He brought me this idea of doing this in the acoustic format, which I really wouldn’t have thought of myself, frankly.
I assembled 25 to 30 of my favorite Neil Young songs quickly off the top of my head and made tapes and started listening to tapes and started driving around town singing along. I’d get up very early, and I’d also sing to the dogs and cats a few hours each morning. Without belaboring any song, some of the songs made the transition from decent karaoke to something I hoped was more special.
I wanted it to be a quick and emotional project, in the spirit of the “Tonight’s the Night” and “After the Gold Rush” records I made with David Briggs producing and Neil Young. As soon as 10 or 12 songs had made that transition, I went with those and ended up with 15 that worked.
You have a distinctive voice. Have you ever had any vocal training?
No. I just started singing as a teenager. In the early days of (his first band) Grin I kept trying to scream like Paul Rogers or Rod Stewart or Muddy Waters or Howling Wolf. I eventually gave that up. I realized I had a gentler voice, and I should learn to be comfortable with it and go with what I got.
Like on “Black Book.” I first heard that on “The Sopranos” and would never have guessed it was you.
That was a song from “Damaged Goods,” a very obscure record of mine from the mid-1990s. It became a favorite in my live acoustic shows and is on my “Acoustic Live” CD. It’s one of my favorites, a haunting country tale of a strange, tragic relationship.
How did David Chase find it?
After one of our Madison Square Garden shows with the E Street Band, back in, I believe, 2000, my wife, Amy, and I were backstage chatting with David Chase and some of the “Sopranos” - of course we were all very proud of the work of our guitarist and singer Stevie (Van Zandt) on that show - and Amy gave David Chase the “Acoustic Live” CD.
Soon after that, we got a note from him and his wife thanking us and telling us how much he enjoyed it. The next thing we knew he wanted to use it in the second season. Where he used it - Carmela is seriously entertaining the idea she might have to leave Tony - it gave me chills. And I wrote the thing. I wasn’t used to hearing it in that light. It was very powerful.
How is this E Street tour different from previous tours?
Having a new record is great. This tour more than any highlights how great the band is. We went from the traditional five weeks of preparation down to three, which was a challenge for me. But it went great.
The band is doing some of the best shows we’ve ever done. We have the last two weeks coming up, and even though off stage sometimes we look like a M-A-S-H unit - with ice packs and heating pads - we’re still doing some of the best shows ever. We’re all still growing and learning. ... It was the last chance we all had to play with Danny (Federici). We miss him terribly. But it has been great having these live shows to help us navigate that.
You are a virtual guitar teacher on the side, right?
Yes. I’ve started this beginner’s guitar school (at nilslofgren.com). All these years people tell me they’d love to play guitar for fun but they have no talent or rhythm so they’re not allowed to. I’m trying to dispel that myth. If you love music, you don’t need talent or rhythm. You need a good teacher and a little time.
The point of the beginner’s school is: Here’s the hard stuff. Don’t let it frustrate you too much, but it will be hard. It’s gymnastics for the hands. I’m still learning. I still get cramps; I still get blisters. But here are some things you can do with only one finger today that sounds and feels like music.
How many students do you have?
I put up a lesson every three to four weeks (also at nilslofgren.com). You can download them and own them for life. More than 100 people took the first lesson, more than 80 took the second lesson and 60 for the third. So there are people who didn’t give up after the first lesson, which is the point.