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Nils Lofgren: Eye-popping past, poignantly present

Homeless runaway? Backstage intruder? Daredevil gymnast? Rock guitar virtuoso, playing to tens of thousands of fans?
/ Source: The Associated Press

Homeless runaway? Backstage intruder? Daredevil gymnast? Rock guitar virtuoso, playing to tens of thousands of fans?

Nils Lofgren has been there, done that — and more.

Lofgren — who was struck by creative lightning at a Jimi Hendrix concert, plucked from relative obscurity as a tenacious teen by Neil Young, and went on to go guitar-to-guitar with Bruce Springsteen — shared some of his eye-popping past, and his heart-wrenching present, in a freewheeling interview with The Associated Press.

His new mission: Unleashing the "therapeutic" joy and energy of music as he soldiers through U.S. tour dates while gripped with grief.

Lofgren was performing in England when his dear friend and E Street Band mate Clarence Clemons suffered a stroke. He intended to fly to Florida and "sit with Clarence as he recovered."

It was not to be. The Big Man's funeral was held on Lofgren's 60th birthday.

"Turning 60 is a pretty big deal," said Lofgren. "And if someone said, 'List 10 million awful things you don't want to do on your birthday,'" he never, in his most "diabolical" musing, could have fathomed that.

After the funeral, "I was just devastated, like everyone else, and ready to go to a dingy hotel, just sit there, watch bad TV ... forget about my birthday."

Instead, his wife, Amy, rallied shell-shocked band members and other friends to mark his milestone at a restaurant. "It was really a beautiful respite from the sadness and sorrow of the day."

Lofgren also was drawn to the E Street Band's "London Calling" DVD — "just to see me standing there with him, or running over and talking about a song, or just doing a little dance move with him."

Lofgren returned to stage Wednesday night, wearing a vulnerable expression as the spotlight revealed him. Employing his ethereal voice, guitar pyrotechnics, piano, harp and even his tap shoes, the versatile musician instantly whipped the crowd into a frenzy at New York's historic Tarrytown Music Hall. And soon, he was smiling, too — doing his trademark spins, playing guitar with his teeth, recalling how a feisty, 85-year-old Cab Calloway once gave him hell as they did a TV show together.

The set list included "Miss You Ray," a song on his upcoming fall album that was inspired by Ray Charles and other departed souls. His live version was updated as an homage to Clemons: "...The morning sun, it don't shine as bright — the evening stars are dim tonight. Your ancient voice stills my fearful soul. I miss you, 'C.' I miss you, 'C.'"

He and Clemons shared the same side of the stage, to Springsteen's right, for many years — the towering black sax player spending night after night alongside the diminutive white guitarist.

Some of Lofgren's happy memories help ease the pain. During the "Born in the USA" tour, he'd often dive through the air and then roll while clutching his guitar.

"Because we're both hams," he said, Springsteen started getting down on all fours for Lofgren to dive over him.

One night, Lofgren asked the ever-game Clemons to pay attention and play along; Springsteen got a surprise.

"Clarence got right down there next to Bruce and made a big show of it. ... So instead of diving over the Camaro, now I've got the Camaro and the bus."

"I went, like a lunatic, sprinting across and dove over both of them."

A trainer told them to knock it off. "I had a big head of steam. What if, on the way up, I accidentally, you know, had my guitar bang into my singer's face" — or worse?

Lofgren's never been a stranger to the live wire.

The Maryland B-student ditched his senior year of high school for Greenwich Village. "Nobody dropped out of school where I was, except the juvenile delinquent that was pumpin' gas and had knocked up his girlfriend and his life was already over."

"I started looking up record companies in the yellow pages ... walkin' in and asking for work. Usually, I got put out pretty unceremoniously. Sometimes I'd get a few words of advice."

For eight cold nights, he dozed on stoops with "a bunch of runaways."

During one unannounced job-hunting foray, CBS security was escorting him out when future Rock Hall inductee Sly Stone checked out the spectacle. Stone invited Lofgren to "crash" at his party.

"Shy and freaking out," Lofgren went to the hotel room. The door opened to "this massive disco, '60s, roaring party."

Exhausted, "I just curled up in a corner behind a couch, fell asleep."

"I woke up and everyone was passed out"; he returned to the stoop. To this day, he's "grateful that somebody like Sly Stone had been so kind."

He soon went home, "scary ill" with pneumonia. "Instead of just trying to crush my dream," his parents provided shelter and structure until his band, Grin, started making money.

The dropout perfected his own curriculum.

"I would go to any and every show I could, try to sneak backstage, with varying degrees of success, and ask for advice," he recalled.

"When I snuck backstage on Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Neil was kind enough to hear my plight. ... He handed me his guitar, let me sing some songs. ... He got me a cheeseburger and Coke."

Grin went to Los Angeles. Young and his producer mentored Lofgren.

"I got invited to do the 'After the Gold Rush' project, which was a huge learning experience and opportunity for anybody, let alone an 18-year-old in his rookie year of professional musicianship."

The trained accordion player actually learned the piano for Young's platinum album.

"That wasn't my idea," Lofgren said with a chuckle. He told them he had some "bad news" — "I'll play guitar and sing; I'm not a piano player."

They responded with good news: "We want somebody who doesn't know what the hell they're doin' to play simple. We want you to stay out of the way of Neil's songs." (He's now a consummate pianist.)

On his 19th birthday, Grin opened for Hendrix. The star-struck Lofgren was billed with "the greatest guitar player in history."

Lofgren, who's since collaborated with a myriad of artists, including Ringo Starr, joined the E Street Band in 1984.

Worlds converged, leading to "some wild jams" with Young and Springsteen, backed by Lofgren.

"Bruce and Neil are cut from the same cloth," he said, improvising "with great, emotional passion."

"I'm just like a kid in a candy store," said Lofgren. "I'm just glad to be in the building."

These days, Lofgren savors his stints as an Arizona homebody. His 20-year-old stepson delights in getting the family's four dogs to howl off-key.

And "when I pick up the accordion," jokes the self-effacing musician, "that seems to elicit some howls pretty quickly."