E Street Band’s Nils Lofgren: ‘Life is grand’

There ain’t too many of us left.

For Nils Lofgren, who’s using the familiar refrain as a song title, it’s both a call to arms for old friends like Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Sam Moore – and a goodbye to lost brothers like sax player Clarence Clemons.

Photo: AP Photo
Playing the National Anthem prior to Game 3 of a first-round series NHL Stanley Cup playoffs hockey game in Glendale, Ariz.

What it’s most definitely not: the last gasp of a dying breed. Lofgren – who proudly titled his new album Old School – has surpassed his 60th birthday with the vigor of a much younger man. He’s pain-free after hip replacement surgery and is eagerly awaiting an upcoming tour with Bruce Springsteen and the other members of the E Street Band.

But first things first: Lofgren’s album is dedicated to his late comrade, Clemons, who would have turned 70 on Wednesday.

For 27 years, Lofgren stood alongside the Big Man, two friends sharing the spotlight and a shenanigan or two. The personal and professional aftershocks from Clemons’ sudden passing in June have not subsided. His sax was a pillar of the E Street sound; Clemons also was the band’s spiritual center.

Though eagerly anticipating the tour, Lofgren is also “dreading the journey to get up to speed without Clarence.”

He’ll miss their “whispering dialogue in the dark” … helping each other with “the next surprise song” … popping into Clemons’ dressing room before shows. They talked every week between tours.

Springsteen’s struggle with the “ominous, complex issue” of how to musically fill the Clemons void is “a rough one” that Lofgren doesn’t envy – but whatever the decision, he backs his Boss “a thousand percent.”

Despite the lingering heartache, Lofgren is brimming with hope and humor. “I look at the people standing,” says Lofgren. And performing.

After decades of honing their craft before huge live audiences, E Street musicians can “play songs we’ve never played before, figure out how to cover for each other,” communicate with hand signals.

They can “work on an arrangement 30 seconds onstage while the teleprompter guy frantically searches for a lyric from a sign Bruce has thrown down like a Frisbee at him.”

Besides musical adaptability, physical fitness is crucial.

“God willing, we’ll all be up for it,” says Lofgren. “I certainly am counting on that.”

Photo: AP Photo
US Airways Center, Phoenix, Ariz.

At her recent recording session, E Street’s Patti Scialfa and her husband, Springsteen, “were in great shape.” But Lofgren sheepishly admits that he’s working off a “15-pound tire.”

On the road, he’s “very disciplined.” Performing is “a big workout” in itself; he also hits the gym. At home, though, he’s “truly a sweet junkie.” While glued to a football game, he’s been known to polish off a pint of vanilla Swiss almond ice cream, buried beneath a mountain of chopped white chocolate and even more nuts.

He dryly advises adding “a couple of hits of skim milk to keep it low-fat.”

And don’t even get him started on the cookies.

Once a gymnast, Lofgren has long been known for his stage stunts as well as his instrumental prowess.

The double-hip replacement three years ago eliminated his pain for the first time in 15 years. Wear and tear had finally gotten the best of him: “too much city court basketball, and back flips on my trampoline, and jumping off drum risers for four decades onstage.”

During the excruciating post-surgical period, Amy Lofgren propped the phone to her husband’s ear as Neil Young, his lifelong mentor, sustained him.

“I’ll never forget: At the end, he said, ‘Hey, you know, heal up and get well. … Need you around. There ain’t too many of us left,’“ recalls Lofgren.

“Right then, through the haze of pain meds, I recognized that as the potential to be a great song.”

He was thrilled to stand “eye to eye” with Moore, his longtime friend and idol, while recording the high-octane duet.

Lofgren marked his milestone birthday while making the album. When he sings about “The New 18,” his 60-ish character is “lost” but determined to “claw back to some dignity.”

“There’s a lot of people my age that are unemployed; they’re losing their home; they’re losing their spouse; their kids have turned on them. … It just takes one wrong turn or one wrong circumstance to throw your life into chaos – at any age.”

His own top priority is a healthy mix of family and work. But concerts with the E Street Band involve a certain kind of managed chaos.

“Last tour with E Street, I think we had something like 53 instruments on the road,” he recalls.

Lofgren observes which instruments Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt are strapping on, then instantly decides what sound will best complement them.

“It’s very organic,” says Lofgren. “Sometimes Bruce … won’t say anything. He’ll start playing something and you pick up what you hear and it’ll work. Other times … he’ll look back at me and point” – sometimes at the pedal steel, a stand-mounted, 10-string guitar with foot pedals and knee levers, played with a round, metal slide bar.

Lofgren has always been an extremely quick study. When he was 18, Young insisted he learn to play piano for the “After the Gold Rush” album.

After the last E Street tour, he was summoned to record with yet another Rock Hall inductee, Jerry Lee Lewis, on lap steel, a 6-string guitar with Hawaiian origins that’s played flat on the lap, with a grooved metal slide bar.

Lofgren’s glad he “shut up and said yes” instead of emphasizing his lack of experience. During one “funky” passage, Lewis shouted out: “Play that steel, killer!”

“In my mind, I went, ‘Are you talkin’ to me?’“ Lofgren says gleefully. “And I realize I’m the only steel player in the room.”

He also revels in a wildly creative group called “The Whack Brothers,” which hangs out at the Springsteen homestead in New Jersey. They got their name while recording with Scialfa at the home studio. Lofgren – inspired by the uninhibited, super-artistic vibe there – was “lettin’ my freak flag fly … comin’ up with some crazy part I was hearin’.”

“Man, Nils,” observed Springsteen, “that’s pretty whack.”

Soon, the muse was striking left and right: “We all came out with whacked out parts.”

“If you have musicians of that caliber, there’s no point in tying their hands,” says Lofgren. “And if you’re smart, you put ‘em in an environment where they have some time to explore ideas.”

Photo: AP Photo / The Arizona Republic
Tucson Benefit Concert, Tucson Convention Center, Ariz.

It could be a lesson for just about any walk of life.

“…Amidst the whacked out parts that don’t work,” says Lofgren, “you come up with some extraordinary stuff.”

And when that happens, “Life is grand.”