DC-Area Guitar Hero Nils Lofgren Talks About Playing With Springsteen and Hendrix and Why He’s Learned to Tap Dance

What to Know

  • Bethesda native Nils Lofgren got his start in music in the D.C. area.
  • He went on to play with Neil Young and Ringo Starr and has been a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band for more than three decades.
  • Lofgren is playing solo shows at The Birchmere Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Fifty years ago this month, a high school dropout from Bethesda headed to New York City with a few of his friends in hopes of becoming a rock star.

Looking back, Nils Lofgren has no regrets.

“I headed off to Greenwich Village,” Lofgren recalled in the lobby of The Willard Intercontinental Hotel, around the corner from the White House. “We started looking in the phone book for record companies and walking around asking for work.”

Lofgren and his band, Grin, would find work. In fact, Lofgren hasn’t stopped working since. He’s recorded and toured with musical greats like Neil Young and Ringo Starr.

“I’m just completing 50 years on the road.” Lofgren said with a smile. “I would have never been greedy enough to think 50 years later I’d have a run of shows here in D.C., and hopefully my mom and three brothers will be there to play with me, and I’ve got new music I’m putting together to share. So I’m very blessed and lucky.”

Lofgren has most notably been serving as backup guitarist to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, a gig he’s had for 34 years. But Lofgren said he was a fan long before he was a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band.

“Of course I bought tickets to see the band in the ‘70s and early ‘80s,” Lofgren said. “Now I’ve got a better seat with more homework involved to take it.”

Lofgren first learned to play the accordion, then his brother Tommy started showing him some guitar licks.

“He was my first guitar teacher,” Lofgren said of his brother, who will join him on stage this weekend at The Birchmere. In fact all three of Lofgren’s brothers will join him on stage.

“I always love playing in the dc area,” he said. “There’s just a level of comfort here and history that puts me at ease.”

Lofgren was 16 years old Aug. 13, 1967, when he saw Jimi Hendrix perform at the old Ambassador Theater in Adams Morgan. Lofgren was in the front row for what went down in D.C. history as one of the greatest rock shows of all time — the night Hendrix set his guitar on fire while members of The Who sat in the front row.

“One night I saw, at Constitution Hall, The Who, the original Who, with Herman’s Hermits and the Blues Magoos, who had the first five blinking suits in rock history,” Lofgren recalled. “We all rushed over to see Jimi Hendrix’s late show at the Ambassador Theater.

"I still remember that night. Jimi broke up his guitar, I guess in honor of Pete Townsend, who’d come over and was in the audience, and he took the guitar neck and he threw it in the audience, and I had made my way to the front row, and the neck landed right at my feet. All these people were swarming over me and through me to get to the guitar neck. And I still remember I didn’t care about the guitar neck. I didn’t want to take my eyes off of him.

"I was transformed that night, between the Who and Jimi, I was like, What is this? What’s he doing? I didn’t want to miss a thing. I didn’t want to miss how he walked off stage. I didn’t want to miss how he laughed or smiled. And that night I walked out of there thinking, Man, I was almost possessed by an uncomfortable notion. I think I have to try being a professional rock musician.”

That would not be the last time Hendrix and Lofgren would cross paths. Lofgren saw Hendrix perform more than a dozen times, but three years after seeing Hendrix at The Ambassador, Lofgren and his band, Grin, got a gig in California.

“We opened for anybody and everybody,” Lofgren said. “Frank Barcelona, one of the great booking agents of all time, Art Linson who was my manager at the time and still like a brother to me, I’ll never forget he called and said, ‘Hey, I got you another opening act slot.’ I said, ‘Yeah, for who?’ He said, ‘Jimi Hendrix, and one of the nights is on your 19th birthday.’ So June 21 and a couple of other nights in California, Grin opened for Ballin’ Jack and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

“I remember it was my 19th birthday and we were out of our minds because we could sit on the stage and watch Jimi, and I’d seen him a dozen times, and David Briggs said, ‘Why don’t you go say hi? It’s your birthday, you’re never gonna get a better chance.’

“So I knocked on the Winnebago door, and Jimi Hendrix answered the door, and he was just standing there grinning at me and I shook his hand and said, ‘Mr. Hendrix, I’m a giant fan. You’re really the reason why I’m trying to be a professional musician, and we’re your opening act and we’re really honored,’ and in the back of my mind, I said, OK, don’t invite yourself in for a guitar lesson, just say thank you and leave,’ and just before it got to be long I said thanks for everything have a great show and I walked away. It was just a beautiful moment I’ll never forget. Of many.”

While Lofgren credits Hendrix with inspiring him to follow the dream of being a professional musician, he said it was watching two D.C.-based guitarists that also lit the fire.

“Well of course the greatest was Roy Buchanan,” Lofgren said, crediting Buchanan with helping Lofgren develop his trademark style of playing that Lofgren calls “bouncing harmonics.”

Lofgren also credits another D.C. guitar slinger, who, like Buchannan, sadly took his own life.

“Danny Gatton was amazing,” Lofgren said. “I’d go see them play regularly. Especially Roy. I got to befriend Roy and used to go to the Crossroads in Bladensburg, Maryland. It’s funny because I had my long Beatle hair. Right away Roy would take me around to the tables and tell his redneck friends, ‘He’s my friend, leave him alone. Don’t hassle him because of his long hair.’ I’d sit there and watch Roy play and be inspired.”

Lofgren loves returning home to the D.C. area, and not just to see his mom and three brothers, who all still live in the area. Lofgren said he embraces the familiarity of his hometown and the memories.

“Naturally brings up a lot of memories of growing up at my mom and dad’s house, going from accordion to guitar, going from amateur, fun guitar player to thinking I could be a professional,” he said.

“When I get here, I know my way around,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll walk down M Street or Wisconsin Ave. and look at all the old buildings I used to work in. The Cellar Door, The Keg, The Silver Dollar, there’s so many places I played back in the ‘60s. The only game in town was to play live in front of people.”

Lofgren has remained busy since the E Street Band has been on a break while Springsteen performs his one-man show on Broadway.

“It’s very healthy for me to get right back into my own music,” Lofgren said. “When E Street finished ‘The River’ tour, ‘The River’ ended and we went to Australia. I started in earnest writing a new album and I worked at it for well over a year. Earlier this year, Andy Newmark and Kevin McCormick, great bass player and drummer, who worked with me on ‘Wonderland’ and ‘Silver Lining’ — Andy and I go way back to ‘I Came To Dance’ in ’77 — we tracked the record. I feel great about it. Mostly live in the studio, electric bass, a couple of acoustic songs, a couple of piano songs I wrote on the piano. I hope to have it done by end of the year and out this spring.”

Lofgren is also very excited about the box set he recently released showcasing his 50 years of music.

“I got to, for two years, dwell on everything I’ve done, and now it’s kinda listed,” he said. “The cream of the crop, if you will. I didn’t want to put everything out. My goal was to figuratively listen to 10 to 12 hours of music without ever feeling like I had to lift the needle and move it, and I accomplished that. I’m really proud of it.”

As he’s grown older, Lofgren has had to change some things about his lifestyle and his live shows. He no longer spends 15 to 20 hours a week playing basketball — “I loved playing three-on-three,” he said. “I’d play every day.” — and he’s no longer doing back flips or jumping off amps while playing guitar. Double hip replacement 10 years ago ended all of that. So Lofgren took up tap dancing, and yes, he’ll be dancing during his solo shows.

“I’ll take a poke at it in the show,” he said with a grin. “Still I’m a beginner, so either it’s mildly musical or hilarious.”

Locally, Lofgren is known not only as one of the greatest guitarists to come out of a town known for great guitarists, he’s also known for two songs he wrote that he rarely, if ever, performs: his ode to the 1978 NBA champion Washington Bullets, “Bullets Fever,” and a 26-second commercial jingle for Jhoon Rhee taekwondo studios.

Lofgren said someone mentions the Jhoon Rhee song, “Nobody Bothers Me,” on a regular basis.

“It’s almost like once a month I get a tweet from somebody or at the website someone talking about the Jhoon Rhee commercial,” Lofgren said. “I was taking karate in Kensington, at the Jhoon Rhee studio, and Jeff Smith, the light-heavyweight champion of the world at the time, took me under his wing, and I would work fights in the corner for him, ya know. That’s where I got the idea for my song ‘No Mercy.’”

Lofgren remembers that one day Smith asked him for a favor.

“He said, ‘Mr. Rhee is doing a commercial with his two little grand kids, and he’s wondering if you’d write him a piece of music.’ We talked about it. It was really down home, grassroots. I wrote the commercial, and the deal was you get a lifetime member ship to any school in the world Jhoon Rhee. I did it for him, recorded it at Bias with Bob Dawson, great friend and engineer who still has a great studio in Virginia and did ‘Bullets Fever’ with me.”

The commercial would run on TV for more than a decade.

As Lofgren prepares for his fall solo tour, he’s unsure when he’ll be back on stage with Springsteen and his E Street bandmates.

“I’d love to see another chapter, and there’s no plans,” he said. “Ya know, Bruce is our caretaker. It’s quite a formidable creation, The E Street Band. I imagine after

four or five nights a week for a year and a half, he might want to rest a bit. He’s so prolific, God knows the other projects he’s got going on. Fingers crossed there be another chapter, but absolutely no plans at the moment.”

While the guitar virtuoso has no plans at the moment for reuniting with Springsteen, he has big plans for his solo career. After his new album is released, he’d like to put a band together and hit the road again.

“It’s been a long time since I toured with a band,” he said. “That’s a vision I’d like to accomplish next year. We’ll see. But my main goal is I’m excited about a new album that I think will be one of my best. I’ve a got a run of shows in front of me starting with three in D.C. where there’s no place I feel more welcome or comfortable.”

Lofgren appears with his brothers at The Birchmere this Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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