Nils Lofgren, Taking Memos From the Boss

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 18, 2009

Guitar whiz Nils Lofgren has spent a quarter-century playing with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, an outfit that's earned a bit of a rep for its performing prowess.

There's never a dull moment onstage, especially on the current tour, which touches down at Verizon Center tonight: Springsteen has been calling nightly audibles, pulling audience requests directly onto the set list -- and surprising the band with cover songs that haven't been worked up ahead of time, from "Good Lovin' " (the Rascals) and "96 Tears" (? and the Mysterians) to "Mony Mony," the old Tommy James and the Shondells tune that was added to the set last week.

Lofgren, Bethesda's former boy wonder, recently checked in from the road.

How's the tour looking and sounding so far from your stage-right perch?

Hey, I love it. We kind of got back into the whole improv thing sooner than I thought. . . . This time, we're playing songs we don't even know how to play, which, I guess, is taking improv to new heights. Everyone's scrambling and having fun with it. It's kind of new territory. But Bruce has discovered we don't even have to know a song to play it. I wouldn't have thought of that myself.

You haven't been stumped at all by some of the covers he's calling out?

Not really. Obviously, I can probably find a song or two that we couldn't play. But in general, if it's any kind of popular song -- British Invasion, Motown, Stax-Volt, the blues -- we can probably do it. We all grew up in the '60s playing in bar bands, when you had to learn how to play the songs in front of people. And jeez, we've probably got 300 to 400 years onstage between us.

Your shows are being picked apart by fans more than ever, what with set-list info widely available online, whether it's via Bruce's site or on Backstreets, where the set-list analysis almost happens in real time. What do you make of the nitpicking?

You've gotta understand that since live music started thousands and thousands of years ago, fans have been off at the corner bar picking the show apart. So now it's on the Internet. Big deal. Listen, in the '60s, I used to travel all up and down the East Coast just to see Jimi Hendrix. I loved him. Did I like one show better than the other? Yes. Did I sit around and gossip about it? Probably not. But I don't begrudge the fans their opinion.

There's some controversy surrounding the show here. TicketsNow, the Ticketmaster-owned reseller, sold some tickets to the show that it didn't have, leaving some fans in the lurch. Do you follow that sort of news at all?

Not too much. . . . I read what Bruce commented about it, how wrong it was, and I'm obviously in total agreement. Listen, that's why the whole planet's getting run down, because of greed and freedom gone unchecked. Sadly, there's people that aren't burdened with a conscience. Greed is king. We don't police those people well enough as a society, and that obviously has to change or things are just going to keep getting worse. This is just a microcosm of what's wrong with the planet. Look at Bernie Madoff.

America to me is the greatest country in the world and the greatest experiment in freedom we'll ever have. But our forefathers, I'm sure, expected us to police freedom appropriately. In other words, you shouldn't have freedom to pipe in porn to kids' computers . . . You shouldn't have freedom to murder and pillage and get out on good behavior in seven years. What the hell is that about? That's the great challenge of society, is to police freedom appropriately. It's not happening at the moment.

So what's the role of a rock-and-roll band in all of this? To find solutions? Provide an escape?

The "escape" word hopefully leads to some spiritual peace. I've sat in hundreds of shows where for three hours I was transported to a peaceful, hopeful place, whether it was Ray Charles, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, the Stones, the Beatles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, John Fogerty. I've seen so many great bands, and I've gotta admit, that's what I think Bruce is doing better than any performer today; he's giving the audience, yes, an escape but also maybe some spiritual hope and confidence that they didn't have when they walked in the doors at 8. And maybe they leave with that and it lingers as they get back to the challenges of daily life.

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