Nils Lofgren being interviewed at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The E Street Band's Nils Lofgren: "What Chuck Berry was to Keith Richards, Keith Richards is to me"

Written by: Rock Hall

During a recent tour stop in Cleveland, Ohio, we caught up with 2014 Hall of Fame Inductee, much-lauded solo artist, E Street Band guitarist and incredible storyteller Nils Lofgren.

Nils shared how he first became interested in playing the guitar, a faithful night seeing both the Who and Jimi Hendrix in concert, the influence of Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones, the Beatles; and the "god awful" music he and Bruce Springsteen made while backing Chuck Berry in Cleveland at the Rock Hall's opening concert.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Your first instrument as a child was the classical accordion. How did that come about? 

Nils Lofgren: Well, I spent eight years on the South Side of Chicago, where I was born. When I was five, every kid played accordion. I asked to take lessons, and I did. After the waltzes and polkas, you move in to classical or jazz. My teacher sent me in to classical accordion. It was an enormous musical study and backdrop, and, as a young teenager, I fell in love with the Beatles and Stones. Through them, I discovered the British invasion, the American counterpart of great rock bands in the 60s; Stax Volt, Muddy Waters, Motown, Howlin’ Wolf, all of it… Little Richard, Jerry Lee [Lewis].

RRHOF: During the mid 60s, you gravitated to guitar as it became the dominant instrument in rock. Tell us about when you first started playing…

NL: I just was playing guitar as a hobby. After playing classical music, it’s the written note; you cannot change the written note. To just improvise blues guitar was very exciting. Having emotionally fallen in love with this type of music and sound, it was very… transformative for me, and powerful, but it was always just a hobby. In the mid 60s, you really didn’t see rock and roll. The Beatles, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix; you loved them, but you never thought, ‘I could do that for a living.’ Just like we do to our kids now: you’re a teenager, every four months you’re a stranger to yourself because of hormones, and all the adults are saying, ‘Pick a job, and a life, a college… What are you going to be?’ You’re like, ‘What are you talking about? I don’t even know who I am, let alone what I’m going to be!’ That’s what we do to our kids, and I was no exception.

RRHOF: How did your love for playing guitar develop into a career?

NL: I had great parents that financed all these lessons, and then, very long story short, because it’s a whole other story, but basically I hit the road at 17 with my band Grin. We struck out at New York with some auditions, headed out to L.A., and, just before I left, I met Neil Young. I was sneaking backstage asking for advice because I knew nothing about the music business. Really, it was the Beatles and Stones; my brother, Tommy, played an old beat up guitar my dad had, started showing me my first chords; that’s how I fell in love with the guitar, just as a hobby. It was a night in Washington, D.C., where I went and saw the Who, it was ’67, and then we ran over to the Ambassador Theater to see the Jimi Hendrix Experience… Pete Townshend was in the audience with us, and seeing those two bands that night I was kind of possessed uncomfortably with the notion like, ‘Maybe I need to be a professional rock musician.’ Of course, next I was like, ‘Well, you can’t do that. This is middle-America, we don’t do that.’ Long story short, I was possessed with this notion, and here I am, this September, 47 years later, on the road. I’ve been very blessed with a lot of rocky ups and downs, but, all in all, I’ve been one of the lucky ones. I’ve just had incredible adventures and opportunities, and been able to make a living playing music, which is also my hobby.

RRHOF: What is 1986 Rock Hall Inductee Chuck Berry’s influence on your work? 

NL: Chuck Berry… Well, you know, Chuck Berry… I kind of discovered through Keith Richards. It’s funny. I feel like what Chuck Berry was to Keith Richards, Keith Richards is to me. So… what Chuck did was incredible and beautiful, but by the time I discovered him, I was already deep into the Beatles and Stones and from my perspective, they had taken what he did and amplified it, as the generations do, into something even bigger and broader, an emotional landscape that I could grab on to. I still saw Chuck at 86 [years old] last year opening for… I think it was a Billy Joel or Elton John show, and he was still great.

RRHOF: Have you ever had the opportunity to play alongside Berry?

 NL: [The E Street Band] played for him when the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame opened, which was… you know, it’s funny; I was never in a backup band for Chuck Berry. Bruce Springsteen tells the story, he was in one of them; Ronnie Newmyer, a bass player friend of mine did one… everyone who says the story says Chuck shows up, has to get paid first, never communicates with the band, just starts playing and you have to follow along. He’s not known for his bedside manner.

RRHOF: The memories from that performance must be long-lasting, then...

NL: One of the great moments… we were at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the E Street Band had been broken up, basically, since ‘89; in ‘92 or ‘93 when the Hall opened, we backed up Jerry Lee Lewis, it was great; we played a few E Street songs, it was great; just that whole day there, watching Al Green’s sound check was one of the highlights of my life… that’s another story. So, anyway, at the end, Chuck comes out, we’re backing up Chuck Berry; I think you have… G.E. Smith, with his great band; you’ve got Steve Van Zandt, Chrissie Hynde, Bruce Springsteen, myself, two or three other amazing guitarists, and Chuck’s out there. I got an acoustic guitar; I’m just trying to get something going; it’s real free form, and again, we’re just going to do something off the cuff. Chuck, again, not too communicative; he’s standing there, and he starts playing. Well, we’re all pros, so we start following along. Somehow, a minute or two in, he like… shifts the song in gears and a key without talking to us. Now, we all… okay, we’re pros, right? So, we’re all like… trying not to make a train wreck, and it’s tricky. Okay, what key is he in? Let’s start playing there. He shifts keys again. He shifts keys four or five times; I can only imagine to mess with us. I can’t imagine why else this happened. We’re all looking around at each other, the cast of characters and the backup band; these are pros, decades in. We are making these horrible sounds, collectively, in front of a stadium, sold out. We’re looking at each other like, ‘This can’t be happening, right? We’re not creating this thing we’re listening to. Yes, we are.’ At the height of it, when no one has any idea how to fix this, Chuck looks at us all and starts… looking at us, duck walking off the stage, away from us. He leaves the stage, leaves us all out there playing in six different keys with no band leader, gets in the car and drives away. Now if that’s not rock and roll… and, I love Chuck Berry, but man… and, it’s funny, all these years and stories… ‘Did you ever back up Chuck?’ ‘No, no, no.’ Well, I got my chance. Man, it was everything that was promised and more.

RRHOF: Had anything that, er, off-key ever happened to you on stage before?

NL: No. It was so bad. Then on the ride back, we kind of started talking, and I was in a van… and there’s a lot of other stuff going on that day, but Bruce and I started talking about that, because I don’t think the two of us… we’ve been in a lot of clubs together, jams separate from the E Street Band, and I don’t think the two of us have ever participated in something that god awful musically since we were probably 13 or 14. I didn’t even start playing until I was 14. The fact that we did that in a stadium, in an event like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opening; it was just so insane and absurd and bad, that we got into one of those laughing jags where you can’t stop laughing; we were howling. When we could barely talk, we would explain another awful thing that happened with Chuck as our leader. We just couldn’t… it was just hilarious and awful all at once.

Get the Scope on Nils Lofgren's Incredible New Box Set "Face The Music"