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Nils Lofgren Is Coming Home

The legendary rocker talks performing, lyrics, and the Washington Bullets.

Photograph of Nils Lofgren by Jo Lopez.

Hip-replacement surgery wasn’t enough to slow down legendary rocker Nils Lofgren. “I still jump around, tap-dance—all of that was approved by my surgeon,” he says. In his 46-year career, the musician, who grew up in Montgomery County, has played with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Rod Stewart, and Ringo Starr, among others. We spoke to him about his memories of living—and rocking out—in Washington.

What’s it like to perform in your hometown?

I’m thrilled to have a homecoming. My plan is to get my three brothers up onstage with me singing. My 88-year-old mother will be in the audience. It’ll be a beautiful moment.

How did your parents take it when you left home at 17 before graduating from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda?

I left a long apology note under my pillow and ran away to Greenwich Village. It was a [lousy] thing to do, but they forgave me. It all worked out. At 18, I was playing on “After the Gold Rush” with Neil Young in Los Angeles.

What’s the story behind your jingle “Nobody Bothers Me” from those Jhoon Rhee self-defense TV commercials in the ’70s and ’80s?

I wrote and recorded it at Bias Studios in Falls Church. We just found an old 16-track master. I got paid with free lifetime classes, which I haven’t really taken advantage of. There’s a band [OK Go] who play it live. It’s become a kitschy cult classic.

How about “Bullets Fever,” the song you wrote in 1978 when the Washington Bullets won the NBA championship?

The Bullets weren’t favored in the playoffs but won their first game. I wrote and recorded the song, made 30 cassette tapes, and dropped them off anonymously at radio stations around town. The Bullets kept winning, and the song was played everywhere. Owner Abe Pollin tracked me down and invited me to his office. I was dressed like a rock ’n’ roll pirate, probably hung over, but we got along right away. I suggested we press 1,000 45-rpm records to give as a fundraiser for his charity. He loved the idea, and we did it.

What’s the difference between working with Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young?

They’re eerily similar. They don’t tell you what to play. They want you to surprise them with something emotional and powerful for their song. Neil has a little more of a reckless streak, but Bruce does improvisational shows, too. I played with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, and I asked about the rules. He said, “Wear what you want, play want you want, and sing what you want.” That’s what great band leaders do.

How’d you become a rock and roller in the first place?

I practiced and played accordion seriously until I was about fourteen. I entered multi-state competitions, and won my second one in a big auditorium in Maryland. I didn’t get rock and roll at first; it was three chords and boring to my ears, but then I discovered blues guitar. That’s all about improvisation, which was freeing after the accordion, where you spend a year practicing two pieces for a competition and plan it out note for note in advance. I’m a little rusty, but I still play it.

Nils Lofgren will perform at the Birchmere June 8-9. For more ongoings this month, check out our Editor’s Picks.

This article appears in our June 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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