For the last twelve years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be playing music at a pretty high professional level. I’ve also been lucky enough to be a sideman through all that time, so I’ve been wonderfully anonymous through it all.
Case in point— (and you’re just going to have to excuse the #humblebrag quality of some of this)— I played on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show last year. I was playing keys for my buddy Jeff Campbell. I had quite a rock star day— I flew into LA, took a cab right to the show, rolled in backstage and met up with the rest of the band, did the gig (as Homer Simpson reminds us all, we musicians call it a “gig”) spent the night at a classic LA hipster hotel (the caviar in the hallway vending machine was only $300 bucks!) and flew home the next day. Sounds pretty glamorous, huh? Well… the whole experience on Hollywood Boulevard that day reminded me what a seven-layer cake of humble pie (sorry for the dessert mixed metaphor) fame is. Allow me to break it down:
Level 1— the guys on Hollywood Blvd. dressed up like movie stars and movie characters.
Level 2— the tourists there to take pictures and wait in line to see Jimmy Kimmel’s show.
Level 3— Jeff Campbell: handsome bugger.
Level 4— The “famous” people on the show in front of Jeff (it was the actress from The Great Gatsby— we weren’t allowed near her. The dressing rooms are stratified as well.)
Level 5— Jimmy Kimmel (or his first guest, depending on how A-listy)
Level 6— The stars looking down on us from the billboards overheard (it was Wolf on Wall Street Di Caprio that week)
Level 7— The guys in the offices on the top floors of the buildings with DiCaprio on them deciding who will be the next DiCaprio.
I'm scared to look directly at this picture.
So where was I? Right around a 2+, I think, as long as I had my “performer” wristband on. My favorite moment came when I had to step outside about an hour before showtime. By then, there was a big line of people waiting to get into the show. When I opened the door, about fifty people shouted and took my picture, and then groaned sadly when they realized they had wasted digital storage space on a picture of no-one. A few even looked at me accusingly as if I had tricked them into taking my picture in the first place. I felt like I could hear the line delete my photo.
I was on TV for exactly 1.65 seconds. That’s 1.65 seconds more than I ever expected to be, but not enough to register on any starmaker machinery.
And it was GREAT! I had a blast, and I didn’t have to suffer through the nerves that Jeff must have felt. It was all bacon and gravy and chocolate and butter cream icing and no vegetables (what’s with all the food metaphors? I’m getting a snack after I finish writing this one.)
If I was still trying to peddle my own material with my 90s ponytail, there’s no WAY I’d be on Kimmel. I finally found my calling when I took two steps to the right and started helping people make their songs sound good (thanks, Rich Price!) Being a sideman is fantastic, and suits me so much better.
I tell you all of this in order to explain why I have developed a soft spot for this song, my favorite performance by perhaps rock’s most successful guy like me.
Nils Lofgren spent over a decade almost making it— first in Grin, then as a solo artist, and sometimes flirting as a guitarist in other bands. He’s a damn fine musician— he can play just about anything better than most people, has a voice born to blend and hit difficult harmony vocals, and (especially important if you grew up in DC in the 70s) HE WROTE AND PERFORMED THIS SONG!!:
If that was Nils’ only contribution to culture, he’d be on my short list.
But the hard truth about Nils? His songs aren’t that memorable. He just put out a NINE CD collection of his life’s work, and I liked a handful of songs on it, and they were all from his debut album. I don’t dislike any of them, but I can’t hum them or remember them right after they finish. He’s a guy born to play music— other people’s music. Once he joined the E Street Band in 1985, he discovered the perfect gig for his talents. He makes Bruce Springsteen’s music sound better, and based on what a wonderful overall guy he seems to be, he helps keep the E Street Band together. And he doesn't have to carry the show.
It's why this performance is his best; he didn't write it. “Goin’ Back” is a Goffin/King tune, one of their little miracles, and while Dusty Springfield, The Byrds, Springsteen, and a dozen others recorded it, I think I like Nils' version best. The song is about trying to hold onto and recapture youthful innocence in adulthood's more complex landscape. The lyrics suggest that you can, that even though there are no more "electric trains" and "sailboat[s]" to play with, it's still possible to "think... young [while] growing older." Most performances of the song, however, hint at an underlying lack of reconciliation-- that "you can't go home again." They turn the song into something wistful: sophisticated, yes, but also in the wrong hands a little maudlin.
Not Nils-- he's the dreamer, the eternal optimist in this performance. By speeding up the tempo a little and adding that fantastic "look at how fast I can play! Wheeeee!" piano part, he does something different. The song becomes a declaration, not a warning or a meditation. It's over in a flash-- under 2 1/2 minutes-- and it's a bouncy, happy paean to being a wide-eyed kid in long pants. It would fit right in over a montage in a cartoon movie in which the main character finds his courage. Nils believes he can stay an open-minded kid forever, make "every day a magic carpet ride."
And he did-- he just had to jump on someone else's carpet to do it. It's good work it you can get it-- take it from me.
Now go buy a Jeff Campbell record.