E Street star misses Clemons

Nils Lofgren (WENN.COM)

Nils Lofgren (WENN.COM)

Life on E Street won't be the same for Nils Lofgren.

Six months after the death of sax player Clarence Clemons following a stroke, Bruce Springsteen's longtime guitarist is still grieving for his bandmate and buddy - and admits he has mixed feelings about returning to the road with The Boss in 2012.

"It's going to be rough," says the 60-year-old musician. "I miss Clarence terribly. I stood next to him for 27 years - and we had a much deeper friendship offstage. Now, I'm never going to stand next to him again. That's painful in my mind and heart; to actually live it is going to be painful too.

"At the same time, I'm thrilled and proud that Bruce has decided to challenge us. Because we can't be the band we were. There's no Clarence 2. So we have to find out what kind of band we can be without Clarence, and how great a gift we can share musically with whoever wants to show up."

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But Lofgren isn't sharing details of how the band plans fill the Big Man's big shoes - or divulging any info on Springsteen's pending North American tour and upcoming album. "I can say this: You can safely assume Bruce is still at the top of his game as a writer and a singer.

Past that, I just feel any information about Bruce should come from Bruce."

Thankfully, the chatty rocker - whose 43-year-old career has also included stints with Neil Young and Lou Reed, in addition to his own solo work - still has plenty to talk about. First on the list: His latest album Old School, a feisty disc about aging and loss, voiced in Lofgren's choirboy rasp and peppered with his needlepoint fretwork.

From his home in Arizona, Lofgren called up to fill me in on singing to his dogs, how he'd run the world and more. The highlights:

It's been five years since your last album of original songs. Were you getting itchy?

Yeah. I'd taken a break from being a bandleader and songwriter for a couple of years, but I was still extremely engaged musically with the E Street Band. So I got off the road excited about the next chapter, but not rusty. It was a good combination. Traditionally, I start writing silly songs just to get into the groove. After a couple of months of that, I start to have some solid ideas to explore. With this record, I waited until I had about 20 songs, and I picked 15. But I didn't even bother recording them until I could perform them live on guitar or piano and sing them. I wanted to do them live in the studio so I had an emotional core to work around. So for weeks, I sang them in the living room to my dogs. It's just one of the many reasons I called it Old School. I took the old-school approach like when I grew up, where you had to play and sing live, as opposed to crafting things as a puzzle in the studio. I know people that are masters at that, and have that patience. And I know I'm not one of those people. I've never had patience in the studio. And as I've gotten older, I've got even less patient.

Yeah, you seem kinda cranky at times on these songs.

I'm very cranky at times - and scared. I wanted it to be an authentic record about the pros and cons of being around for a while, and that's part of being 60. There's a lot of gratitude that comes with having spent 43 years on the road and feeling like I'm getting better at what I do. At the same time, three years ago I had both hips replaced, and I've been burying friends and family. So there's another ominous level to getting old. As my mom used to say, getting old is not for wimps.

When you're a kid, you think when you're 60, people will be running around putting on your slippers while you watch the game and bringing you soup. None of that's happened for me (laughs). The good news is I'm not quietly fading away. I'm trying to be a little mellower with wisdom and not get riled up about everything. But if you watch TV, there's a lot of reason to be upset. Amid all the hopes and dreams and positivity, there's a lot of darkness floating around and a lack of common sense and a lot of inept decisions by leaders that have gotten the planet in dire trouble. I have faith there are solutions, but I don't see our leaders seeking them like I'd like them to.

If they put you in charge, what would be the first thing you'd change?

Oh man. What, in charge of the planet? Well, look: I'm not a religious person at all. I don't like organized religion. But I believe in a God. So my dream would be for God to come down and just straighten everybody out: Tell everyone what the deal is and to mind the ship.

It's just not necessary, the chaos and violence and destruction we visit on each other. It's just not a requirement.

A lot of people might expect you to call on your E Street bandmates for your solo albums, but you didn't this time. Why not?

It wasn't intentional. Bruce has sung on my records before. This particular record was just very homegrown. Literally 95% of it was done before I went across town to a studio and got a real engineer to help me mix it. I did it all here on the property. But I did want some friends to sing along, so I got Sam Moore and Paul Rodgers and Lou Gramm. Sam Moore sings on Ain't Too Many of Us Left, which is true.

But Sam is still standing and still singing his brains out beautifully. The E Street Band backed him up at that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert. And he was gracious enough to come into the room and stand across from me and sing live, which was extraordinary - and a little intimidating.

A lot of bands who change members say the music is bigger than the band. But with E Street, it almost seems the band is integral to these songs. That must make it daunting to go forward.

Well, you're right. The story and the history is much deeper and much greater than the songs themselves, than the notes themselves. And Bruce had more to do with creating that sense of community than anyone else. But everyone played a big big part in it, including me for the last 27 years - and I'm the new kid. But yeah, all the painful ups and downs of being in a band and surviving and playing thousands of hours together on and offstage - there's a sense of power and expression there that you can't get just by hiring great players to play parts.