His 60th birthday is a milestone Nils Lofgren will remember always, for mixed reasons. A couple of days before the occasion, he rushed home from England, where he was in the midst of a solo tour.
Clarence is Clarence Clemons, who played tenor saxophone and had been an eminent, founding figure in the E Street Band since 1972. Clemons was buried June 21, 2011, in Florida. The coinciding events affected Lofgren profoundly, he said, but his wife and one of his own songs helped pull him through.
“Even though I’d written a song about that very theme, death and loss, I was ready to go to some dumpy motel, be miserable, watch bad TV, pack to go home and just feel the sadness of the loss of Clarence,” Lofgren said.
That song was “Miss You, Ray,” an ode to Ray Charles, one of Lofgren’s music heroes. The song is on his latest solo album, “Old School,” released in September 2011.
“But after the funeral, Amy took us all out for dinner, band, crew and friends, and it turned out to be very comforting and provide lots of solace.
“Even though it was very sad and sorrowful to lose him, it reminded me of what the song says: Life is still grand. There are still people left, and the people you’ve lost want you to live your life. That was lost on me till we got out to dinner that night.”
But for Lofgren, who joined the E Street Band in 1984, and the rest of his bandmates, grieving Clemons’ death and moving on also required profound adjustments professionally. It is a process they had some experience with: In April 2008, the band lost founding member Danny Federici, who died of complications from melanoma.
This March, Springsteen launched the Wrecking Ball tour in Atlanta, the first for the E Street Band without Clemons.
“It was really rough,” Lofgren said, of getting accustomed to performing live without Clemons on stage. “First of all, I can’t imagine Bruce handling it any better than he has. The way he has presented it in concert is kind of mind-blowingly successful in the way it allows everyone in the audience and on stage to grieve, but appropriately.
“Of course, we’re grieving. Of course, it’s a terrible loss. But we’re here. We’ve got great songs, we’ve got great musicians: What are we gonna do?
“Bruce has been spectacular in how he put this all together to acknowledge it pretty early on in the show. Kind of like give everyone in the audience permission to grieve but celebrate your life tonight because it is precious.”
Lofgren has been asked if not playing again was ever under consideration as a show of respect to Clemons.
“I was like, ‘Well, it was a thought, it was an idea in the air, but how does that respect Clarence?’ ” he said. “I never saw anyone work as hard as Clarence, with all his aches and pains and health issues, to be able to get out there and play every night. It was the most precious time of his day.”
Lofgren recalled the time four years ago when he underwent double hip-replacement surgery at the same time Clemons had his knees replaced.
“The fourth day in, I was really beat up,” he said. “The therapist came in and said, ‘We’re going to take a three-block walk outside with your two canes and spotters. Where do you want to go?’
“I said let’s go up the road and see Clarence, who just had his first knee done. Walked three blocks up the road in New York City to see Clarence. Three weeks later, he had his second knee done. We both got well enough to do the Working on a Dream Tour.
“So I know Clarence would want us to get out and play.”
Instead of finding one person to replace Clemons, Springsteen overhauled the band, adding a five-piece horn section that includes saxophonist Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew, and more background singers.
“I feel so grateful to be out with this great band, with Bruce leading us, playing these great songs,” Lofgren said. “As much as I miss Clarence, I still feel that gratitude and feel like we’re doing great, great shows.”
The change in personnel has changed the vibe on stage, Lofgren said.
“Very naturally and organically, I might play a little less because there’s a lot of space filled up by sound,” he said. “But that’s natural. It’s kind of nice. You hear something and go, ‘I don’t really need to play here,’ and sit there bopping along, watching Bruce, listening to these beautiful sounds that haven’t been there in the past, waiting for something you want to jump in on, because there’s a lot of freedom to improv, or when there’s a line I need to present every night.
“Having a five-piece horn section is great. A lot of Bruce’s music lends itself to a great horn section. We had one for the Tunnel of Love Tour in 1988. And it’s a great sound to hear and play to regularly. Plus they’re great guys.
“It’s fun to watch people discover, as a professional musician, what a great band leader Bruce is. It’s a wonderful progression of a great, historic band, and I’m very proud of how Bruce is navigating us and challenging us to do something every night that is unique and spectacular that touches an audience and sends them out with feelings of hope and inspiration that will linger.”
When the Wrecking Ball Tour is over — and right now there’s a nine-month break between shows in Mexico City in December and Rio de Janeiro in September — Lofgren said he will return to his solo career and his own songs.
“I’m proud to be in this band,” he said, “and whenever Bruce says he wants to fire it up, I’m there. But I don’t do both. I’ll tell people about my record, but my focus is on this band and this tour. And when Bruce decides to wrap this tour up, I’ll go back to doing my shows in clubs.”
One of the songs he’ll sing in those club shows is “Miss You, Ray,” which he has altered.
“I started singing, ‘Miss You, C,’ about missing Clarence,” he said. “I got a great recording of me singing the song as ‘Miss You, Ray’ that I felt was really powerful, so I left it as that on the record, which is how I wrote it. But it’s metaphorical, of course.”
It’s also applicable to a guy who has been touring for 44 years, who has worked with legends besides Springsteen (including Neil Young and Lou Reed) and who has accumulated legions of friends. Life at 60, Lofgren said, is about finding gratitude and appreciation for what matters most and accommodating the pains and losses.
“I’ve got a great home, a great wife, Amy, four dogs I miss more than ever when I’m gone,” he said. “I no longer enjoy leaving home. I no longer enjoy airports or flying. But the opportunity and experience to walk on stage with a great band and great audience awaiting has taken on a new level of importance and a new level of excitement and inspiration and appreciation.
“If you’ve been around a long time, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a musician or writer, it’s hard to escape the loss thing. You bury family and friends and grief can take you out at some point. And the idea of looking around at what’s left is easier said than done.
“So it comes down to trying to apply some of the wisdom of the good things about getting older, because it’s not all bad, but it’s not all good. Finding a balance isn’t always easy.”
| Timothy Finn, The Star