Music

Less Is More: Nils Lofgren Piano Man

Neil Young’s seminal 1970 record, After the Goldrush, yielded so many classic compositions, many would be surprised to find out it was panned by critics upon release. Now, the album routinely occupies "top 100" and "best of" lists by fans and critics alike. It is a record I’ve heard so many times it often goes unnoticed by me when played, sinking into the background like the wallpaper on my grandmother’s kitchen walls; familiar and comforting but long since removed from piquing any real curiosity. Some records are like that, essential but no longer warranting of examination. Or, so I thought.

Recently, I mindlessly reached into the stack of vinyl I have next to my stereo. Retrieving the worn, frayed, musty scented copy of "Goldrush" -- bearing more than a striking resemblance to the patchwork jeans displayed on the back cover -- I decided to put it on while I folded the pile of laundry gathered on my couch. T-shirt in hand, out of the speakers the folksy strums of Neil’s acoustic guitar filled the room. He plaintively asked to be "told why" and I reflexively hummed along.

Suddenly, with the opening piano chords of "After the Goldrush" my ears stood up at attention. I must have resembled a dog that hears the word "TREAT" go un-spelled from his owner’s lips, I was struck by how simply the progression was rendered. Having seen Young play this many times before on piano, I assumed he was also on the recording. The back of the album, however, revealed Nils Lofgren was credited with piano.

Lofgren, a guitar player and Chicago area native, was only 17 and had virtually no experience playing piano. He reportedly practiced his parts around the clock during breaks in recording. His rapport with Young would last overtime, appearing next on guitar for the recording of Tonight’s the Night. But it was his turn as piano player on "Goldrush" that would serve as his introduction into rock music’s pantheon.

Nils and Neil live onstage.

Originally, Young sited inspiration for the songs on the album came after reading a screenplay written by Dean Stockwell and Herb Berman entitled After the Goldrush. The film was never released but the songs generated for the soundtrack were. "Goldrush" came out just fifteen months after Young’s Everybody Know This Is Nowhere with Crazy Horse and his collaboration with Crosby, Stills, and Nash Déjà Vu. He recruited members of Crazy Horse and tapped relative unknown Lofgren to play piano on the record.

With each track on the album I was drawn to the economy and restraint of Lofgren’s playing. His chordal approach added heft to Young’s vocal delivery while providing foundational support for the songs melodies. It’s the type of playing that suggested nods and eye contact amongst the participants. Langdon Winner, in his original review of the record for Rolling Stone in 1970, described the band’s performance of "Southern Man" this way; "By today's standards, the ensemble playing is sloppy and disconnected. The piano, bass and drums search for each other like lovers lost in the sand dunes, but although they see each others' footprints now and then, they never really come together." This "half-baked" quality-as Winner further characterized it- become the hallmark of Young’s work with Crazy Horse and went on to inform subsequent alt-country playing in further decades. Lofgren was integral to this dynamic.

You need only listen to "Cripple Creek Ferry" to hear its echoes in the work of Wilco, Ryan Adams, Old 97’s and others. The piano comps along just behind the beat, lending the rollicking atmosphere of a honky tonk to the track. "Oh, Lonesome Me" features reticently delivered fills bridging the gaps left by guitar and bass. The playing throughout is earnest and textural, framing some of Young’s best-known melodies, without clogging up the space.

On the more up-tempo track "When You Dance, I Can Really Love", the staccato plinking of single notes drives the tune forward. He tackles each song more like the guitar player he is better known for being. It is this sensibility that lends "Goldrush" a vacuole quality. Less self-aware players might have tried to overcompensate for their lack of experience by trying to prove too much.

There is no better evidence of this type of restraint than on "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", one of Young’s best-known vocal melodies. The vocal is simply augmented and nurtured along by Lofgren’s piano line. A more virtuosic and accomplished player could easily have cluttered this song. Instead, the lullaby at the song’s core is left unmolested. That may be precisely what Young saw in the neophyte.

By album’s end I was filled with the type of excitement I seem to only get from discovering a new band these days. In a sense I had. Now, when I listen to After the Goldrush, I hear melodies I had never considered before. Lofgren has of course gone on to achieve fame as both a solo artist and as one of the most heralded sidemen in rock.

Nils with his new "Boss".

Bruce Springsteen, whose E Street Band Lofgren has been a member of since the mid-'80s, once quipped that the best guitar player in his band was relegated to third-string status.

I’ve since begun to take a different view of albums I’d written off as fully explored. Given the right frame of mind, a mundane, distracting task, and open ears, undiscovered wonders lie buried just beneath the surface of records you’ve heard thousands of times before. It only takes one more listen.

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