Listen to it here!
Today we’re doing an overview of Nils Lofgren and Grin.
Here’s the script
Hello and welcome to Junkman Radio. I’m your host, Greg von Teig. Today I’d like to shine a spotlight on one of the lesser known greats of rock n roll. Beginning his career by playing guitar and piano for Crazy Horse and on Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush at the ripe age of 19, Nils Lofgren was situated in a uniquely advantageous position as he split from Young to form the group Grin. The original line up of Grin was Bob Berberich on drums and Bob Gordon on bass, with their first album also featuring Lofgren’s old friends from Neil Young and Crazy Horse. This first album, titled simply Grin, went undetected by much of the musical press, but had a lot more polish than is usually found on debut records. It featured great classic rock in a stylistic vein of Eric Clapton or The Who, with Lofgren’s own innovation being most remarkable in the tone of the instruments, but the album also balanced the rock with slower more subdued numbers. The first song on the album is a good example of each of these styles. It is called Like Rain.
Grin’s strength was always the guitar work. Lofgren plays many instruments, but his true love is for guitar. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that his soloing is exceptional, since he had studied under blues rock legend Roy Buchanan. While they feature nothing all that innovative, the execution is on point and always energizing. This can be heard very well on their second album, 1+1. This album utilized and emphasized the division between sides of the record. Lofgren had utilized this in the first album, but it became more transparent on 1+1 as he labeled one side “Rockin’ Side” and the other “Dreamy Side”. On the rockin side is a fantastic example of the intensity and urgency Lofgren is able to communicate through his music, called Moon Tears.
But the softer side of this album has always attracted me more. It comforts me in a distinct way. Lofgren is said to be a very calm and considerate man, so it comes as no surprise that this more gentle side would be as fantastic if not more than the more rock focused works on side 1. This side also features Lofgren’s excellent accordion skills on one of my favorite of all of his tracks, Lost A Number. While never a particularly acclaimed lyricist, I find this narrative of a missed opportunity one of the most compelling in his discography, and the easy rhythm and melodies make the song comforting for when you’re feeling like our narrator.
[Lost A Number]
Grin’s great weakness was drummer Bob Berberich. Tho he was generally able to keep time and stabilize the tempo, there would be many instances when he would hit the snare just half a beat off, which throws the listener for a loop. This is most noticable in one of my favorite songs, We All Sung Together, which is a travesty.
Grin released two additional albums, adding Nils Lofgren’s brother Tom as an additional guitar, but I don’t have much to say on them. They’re not bad, they’re great, but they’re so similar to the first two that I have trouble saying anything more than what I already did.
Tho they never found much commercial success, Grin was cherished by critics and lead to Lofgren into the upper echelon of rock n roll superstars. These connections made for a very impressive rock resume. The best example I know of is when Mick Taylor left the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards tapped Lofgren and offered him an audition. Lofgren didn’t think he was cut out for the Rolling Stones life style, so he instead recommended his friend Ronnie Wood, and the rest was history.
He is most famous for replacing a guitarist in another band, tho. During the making of Born in the USA, E Street Band guitarist Steve van Zandt departed from the group. Springsteen had been running into Lofgren at various events since Bruce’s first band, Steel Mill, ran into Grin during a brief stay in San Francisco in 1970. When Lofgren was offered the position in 1985, he took it. It proved to be his most commercially successful venture, and lead him to be inducted in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.
Today, it is very difficult to get Grin’s records. Lofgren’s contract with Spindizzy Records was not kind to him, and he has not been able to get the rights to reissue these albums, tho he has publicly said that he is trying. While many artists might shy away from their earlier work, Lofgren still plays the old Grin songs when he tours solo. And with good reason. They are exceptional pieces of music that should be available more widely, but can still be found in the world of the second hand market.