Nils Lofgren of E Street Band Recalls Writing ‘Bullets Fever’ in 1978
WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – While the Wizards are fighting an uphill battle to remain alive in the 2014 NBA Playoffs, with a 3-2 series deficit to the Pacers, Washington, D.C. still very much wants to believe in them.
On one hand, much of the nostalgia for Bullets Fever seemed to have dissipated in the long layoff between the Wizards opening-round elimination of the Chicago Bulls and their Game 1 victory over the Indiana Pacers.
Whatever sentimental value had lingered on into the second round, seemed lost forever once the Wizards fell two games back after dropping three consecutive games in their series against Indiana.
And yet, their Game 5 victory provided a glimmer of hope that 5-seeded Washington (44-38) could overcome the odds, eventually push a Game 7 and advance past the 1-seeded Pacers (56-26) to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1979, one year after the franchise’s sole NBA championship.
In that respect, the connection to “Bullets Fever” — a song penned by longtime E Street Band guitarist and Montgomery County native Nils Lofgren, chronicling the Bullets unfathomable run to a championship in 1978 — now seems stronger than ever.
“They weren’t expected to go far,” Lofgren said of the ’78 Bullets when I reached him for comment roughly two weeks back. The 3-seeded Bullets (44-38) remarkable playoff run that year took them through the 6-seeded Hawks (41-41), 2-seeded Spurs (52-30) and 1-seeded 76ers (55-27) on the way to defeating the 4-seeded SuperSonics (47-35) for the title.
“I think back then, the initial series was only three games, and they were heavily favored to lose to Dr. J and the 76’ers, and they won the first game in Philly,” Lofgren said. “And I was alone in this rental house in Garrett Park (Kensington), Maryland, and I kind of freaked out. And after that game, I just felt like – I mean, I was rooting for them, I’m a fan, so whatever denial I had going, I thought they had a chance – but after that win I just said ‘They’re going to move on to the next round.’ And I was inspired to write the song.”
Lofgren penned three versions of the song (his first brush with success as a solo artist), with each revision made to accurately reflect the Bullets most recent accomplishment throughout their miraculous playoff run.
The original recording of Bullets Fever was a story of triumph in its own right. For help, Lofgren sought the assistance of Neil Young’s producer, David Gray, recording the initial track — with Lofgren playing each instrument and singing each vocal himself — in Gray’s Virginia studio.
“I went in there, just by myself, and slowly put together the entire track; played all the instruments, sang all the harmonies and created this song, and the next day, I took about 20 cassettes,” Lofgren said.
The next day, Lofgren grabbed about 20 cassette tapes of his final product, looked up the addresses of every radio station in town, then dropped off a copy (each entitled “Bullets Fever”) to each one, anonymously.
“I just went to the receptionist and said ‘Hey, you want to check this out? It’s about our basketball team. They’re in the playoffs,’ and I left,” he explained.
Defying the odds, the Bullets kept winning. A true Cinderella story.
Lofgren’s “Bullets Fever” was getting airplay too. A ton, actually, with it working its way into heavy rotation on all major D.C. radio stations, more and more the further the Bullets advanced in the playoffs.
The success of his song was more in silence for Logren, though. Because he’d denied himself attribution when distributing the cassettes, him being responsible for “Bullets Fever” remained a mystery.
But all that changed once Nils received one important phone call from someone within the Bullets organization.
“I didn’t leave my name or number with anybody,” Lofgren reiterated.
“Finally somebody tracked me down from within the organization, got a message to me that Abe Pollin wanted to talk to me,” he explained.
What happened next would be a dream come true for any diehard sports fan, one which Logren got to experience first-hand, as he sat in the office of the owner of his favorite basketball team, explaining to him how “Bullets Fever” had come to light.
“He was fascinated,” Lofgren described walking into Pollin’s office with a boombox and a cassette, dressed in his hippy hobo garb. “And didn’t really understand that I played every single part.”
“I’m sitting there with Abe alone,” he said. “He was like ‘Well, who’s the girl singing?’”
“I said, ‘I put down a rhythm track with a machine, and then I played everything, including the drums, and got rid of the machine and created the record,'” Logren recalled their conversation. “‘I’m a big fan.'”
It was like tow giant basketball fans from two different worlds, Lofgren described, convening over their love of the game.
“He’d met many fans, of course, but never one with my skill set,” he said. “And probably never one that was dressed as poorly as me.”
Their conversation, which sounds like it went on for hours, concluded – no surprise to those familiar with Pollin’s history – philanthropically.
“I said, ‘Look, why don’t you print up some 45s, and donate all the proceeds to your Leukemia fund?’ Lofgren said. “Which we did. And it’s kind of a collector’s item, because I think there are only 1,000 prints, and all the money went to his Leukemia foundation.”
The experience wasn’t completely Pro Bono for Nils. He received four season tickets for about a half decade for his efforts. “I used to go with friends all the time. Even though I was on the road, I was based in Maryland, so whenever I could, I’d take a few buddies and we’d go see the Bullets.”
There was one more bonus for this Bullets and basketball fan.
Lofgren was called back to the Capital Centre in 1987, to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the championship, to sing the national anthem ahead of the opening tipoff to a game between the Bullets and 76ers.
After his performance, Lofgren had to lug his heavy equipment — amplifier, cables, pedals, guitar and all — off the court and past the scorers’ table as the game was about to begin.
“Everyone was ignoring me, and I’m dragging this stuff, sweating profusely down past the 76ers bench,” Lofgren remembered. “I’m dragging it down, really focusing on these giant players on these little chairs. Of course, they’re completely ignoring me, understandably, and about five feet up ahead, this giant arm just shoots out and is just hanging in the air.”
“I just don’t know what it is or who it belongs to, and it’s just waiting there. And as I pull up to it, as I simultaneously recognize the face,” he said. “It’s Dr. J.”
“As everyone’s ignoring me, this arm shoots out, and the second I look at him, he looks me right in the eyes and says ‘Hey, good job, Nils’ and shakes my hand,” he recalled.
“I’m a musician, so to me, he was like the Jimi Hendrix of basketball, really.”
A re-mastered version of “Bullets Fever” will be available as part of a 10-disk box set, to include a 133-page book of stories from the road, called “Face The Music” to be released later this summer by Lofgren. You can visit NilsLofgren.com for more info or pre-order here.